Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ignatius, the Sabbath, and the Lord's Day

I needed to create a sample of "church historical precedents" for seminary classes.  This isn't as polished as I'd like, but time has run out...
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Introduction
Ignatius of Antioch was bishop of the city of Antioch mentioned in Acts 13:1. It was located in the uppermost part of Palestine in Syria, where modern day Turkey suddenly juts out to the west. Around the year AD107 (González, 41), Ignatius was tried and condemned to death by Roman authorities in Antioch. He left behind seven letters to various churches and individuals, written on the course of his journey from Antioch to Rome, where he was presumably martyred.

In his letter to the Romans, he urges the church there not to try to rescue him from death (Ign. Rom. 4.1), perhaps by bribery or some other means. There he also tells us that he is being escorted by “wild beasts” or “leopards” (5.1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:32). In transit, he also writes the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Trallia, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.

Judaizing Gentile Believers
The evidence of the New Testament is very clear that a significant number of believers in the early church insisted a male Gentile must be circumcised and convert to Judaism in order to be saved and fully become a Christ-follower (cf. Brown and Meier, 2004, p. 2-3). For example, while Paul may have considered these “Judaizing” individuals in Galatia to be “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4), they clearly did not view themselves this way (cf. Acts 15:1-5). His opponents were believers, perhaps even missionaries like him (cf. Dunn, 1993, pp. 9-11).

It would be inappropriate to think of such individuals only in terms of Jewish believers in Christ. Even Galatians never specifies whether Paul’s opponents are Jewish or Gentile, although it perhaps makes most sense to think of them as natural born Jews (cf. Gal. 6:13). The writings of Ignatius probably imply that some Gentiles advocated following the Jewish particulars of the Law even into the second century.

In Philadelphians 6.1, Ignatius says, “But if anyone interpret Judaism to you do not listen to him; for it is better to hear Christianity from the circumcised than Judaism from the uncircumcised.” On the one hand, the most natural way of taking this comment is that those who are pushing certain “Jewish” practices are uncircumcised (so also Robinson, 2009, 122). We are then left to debate exactly what it might mean to “interpret Judaism.” We can at least make an argument that Ignatius’ comments relate as much to the situation in his home city of Antioch as it does to something he might know about the city of Philadelphia.

His letter to the Magnesians has a similar comment. “Be not led astray by strange doctrines or by old fables which are profitless. For if we are living until now according to Judaism, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1). In Magnesians 10.3, Ignatius even goes so far as to say that “it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.” Clearly there must have been Christians in Ignatius’ day who strongly advocated the importance of keeping elements of Jewish practice while probably falling just short of advocating circumcision.

The Lord’s Day not the Sabbath
The most concrete reference Ignatius makes to such a Jewish practice is in Magnesians 9.1: “If then they who walked in ancient customs came to a new hope, no longer living for the Sabbath, but for the Lord’s Day, on which also our life sprang up through him and his death.” Groups like the Seventh Day Adventists who believe Christians should still observe the Sabbath on Saturday tend to reinterpret this passage (e.g., Bacciochi, 1977, p. 213-23; Thiel, 2010). For example, Bob Thiel suggests that kyriakē refers to the Lord’s “way” rather than to the Lord’s day.

Such attempts however are clearly motivated by prior theological commitments rather than from the most natural reading of the text (e.g., Schoedel, 1985, pp. 123 n.3). On the one hand, it is true that a verb sabbatizo is used rather than the noun for Sabbath (e.g., Thiel, 2010). However, the cumulative case that it refers to observance of the Jewish Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is strong.

First, we have the background context of Philadelphians 6 and the immediate literary context of Magnesians 8 pointing us toward interpreting sabbatizo in relation to a specifically Jewish practice. Second, it is fairly clear from Revelation 1:10 that the kyriakē is a day, not a way. John of Revelation is in the Spirit on a particular day. It thus makes sense that to sabbatizo is to do something different from living according to the kyriakē, a different day. Finally, the allusion to the resurrection, “on which also our life sprang up through him and his death” (9.1), confirms a reference to Sunday, since it is clear in all the gospels that Jesus rose on the first day of the week (e.g., Matt. 28:1).

Conclusion
We conclude that tension continued to exist over whether Christians should observe the Jewish Sabbath or not into the second century AD. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, not only opposes observance of the Jewish Sabbath, but his language is very pejorative toward such individuals, who apparently were Gentile rather than Jewish believers in his context. His language treats them as marginal within the church. Further, Ignatius does not reinterpret the Sabbath as Sunday. He dispenses with it entirely as a Jewish practice. In this regard, Ignatius seems to be in strong continuity with both Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16.

Works Cited and Bibliography
Bacciocchi, Samuele. (1977). From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity. Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University.

Brown, Raymond and Meier, John. (2004). Antioch and Rome: Cradles of New Testament Christianity. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist.

Carson, D. A., ed. (1982). From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Dunn, James D. G. (1993). The Epistle to the Galatians. London: A & C Black.

González, Justo. (2009). The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. Peabody: MA: Prince.

Robinson, Thomas A. (2009). Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Schoedel, William R. (1985). Ignatius of Antioch. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Thiel, Bob. (retrieved October 26, 2010). “The Didache, Ignatius, and the Sabbath,” http://www.cogwriter.com/ignatius.htm.

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