Chapter 2: The Life Situation of the Apostolic Church

Twentieth-century biblical studies have demonstrated the inadequacy of the proof-text method of handling the Bible. It is not difficult to arrange a group of texts to support a particular kind of Sabbatarianism, nor is it difficult to assemble other texts to support non-Sabbatarianism.

The entire Bible is written in a certain historical context, and what is written is conditioned by that context. It is most unsatisfactory to approach the Bible as though God had revealed Himself in abstract propositions which could be understood apart from the historical situation in which the words were spoken. For example, Paul said, "If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all" (Galatians 5:2). We do not apply this text indiscriminately today. Its true meaning can only be understood against the background of the actual life situation in the churches of Galatia. Of course, thoughtful Bible students have always practiced the historico-grammatical method of Bible study to some extent. But recent gains in the biblical sciences have highlighted the danger of superimposing own concerns and our Western though forms on what was written in a cultural context and a historical situation far removed from us.

In the last fifty years, society witnessed breathtaking technological progress. This has been virtually been matched by increase in knowledge about the background of the Bible. Details of the social, economic and political situation in first century A.D. help us gain a better understanding of the many New Testament passages. Documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have given us a more accurate picture of the religious background of the New Testament. Archaeological expeditions unearthed inscriptions, documents and other artifacts which have helped clarify the historical picture of apostolic era. New Light has been thrown old traditions. Archaic arguments have been deposed as either false or inadequate.

Recent biblical research has revealed great diversity which existed in the primitive church. Ever since Eusebius wrote the first major history of the Christian church, there has been a tendency to idealize the primitive church. We have imagined it had a monolithic government and a uniform pattern of worship. But it is now known that such uniformity did not begin until the second century. The primitive church was a charity community (in the proper sense) and as an eschatological community it was more unstructured than we have generally thought. People came to Christianity from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. They developed different patterns of worship as well as different theological emphases. There was, of course, a profound unifying principle in the Christian movement, but this must not blind us to the great diversity and even tensions which existed among such groups as the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians.

Efforts to return to the ideal pattern of worship in the early church are misguided, because there was no uniform pattern. Even if we could discover a first-century norm, we could not assume that the twentieth-century church must conform to that norm. How can we say that the church in any century must be restrained some tidy system of worship which never changes from century to century? The Christian church is a dynamic, charismatic, pilgrim community which is given great freedom to adjust its institutions and its mode of worship to suits its historical and cultural context. There are, of course, bounds to any legitimate freedom, but those bounds are not as restrictive as we have tended to make them.

The Hebrew-Speaking Jewish Christians

The first Christians and their leaders were all Hebrew (or Aramaic-) speaking Jews. When they became followers of Jesus, they did not think of themselves as anything but Jews. In fact, they believed that they were the true eschatological remnant of Israel. They certainly did not regard themselves as apostate from their Jewish heritage, nor did they repudiate it. And they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, not its negation.

The first Christians were anxious to prove to their Jewish brothers that they were good Jews. Apparently they were somewhat successful, because Luke records that they enjoyed "the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:47). James the Just, the Lord's brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church, had a reputation for great piety among the Jews. Many of them considered his murder about A.D. 62 a crime which invited God's judgment on the nation.

These Jewish Christians (Nazarenes, as they were called in Palestine) did nothing to offend the ancient customs. They continued to attend Jewish synagogues, worshipped at the temple, paid the temple tax and circumcised their children. Even Paul had Timothy circumcised to avoid being a stumbling block among his people. They kept the Sabbath like other pious Jews and obeyed the Levitical food laws. Some years after Pentecost, Peter was able to declare that he had never eaten any "unclean" food (Acts 10:14). Paul described Ananias, at whose hands he was baptized, as "a devout observer of the law" who was "highly respected by all the Jews" living in Damascus (Acts 22:12). As a prisoner in Rome, Paul declared to the leaders of the Jews living there, "I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors" (Acts 28:17). It is clear that Paul had no objections to the Jewish Christians continuing their inherited way of life. Says F.F. Bruce of Paul:

In Jewish company he would naturally observe the Jewish food laws, from common courtesy, not to speak of Christian charity, nor would he outrage Jewish sentiment by violating the sanctity of holy days. (1)

On Paul's last visit to Jerusalem, James and the elders of the church said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20).

We can therefore lay to rest the old argument over whether the primitive Jerusalem Christians changed the day of worship and abandoned the ancient Sabbath. Says a Baptist writer, Robert A. Morey:

That the early Christian Jews could change the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day and not get involved in a controversy with the Jews or Judaizers is so foolish as to be self-refuting. (2)

It would be difficult to find one good Bible dictionary or one competent scholar in early church history who does not acknowledge that the first Christians-the Hebrew-speaking believers -- continued their observance of the Sabbath. The following statements are typical:

Jesus' disciples appeared to be much less radical in their attitude to the law and sacred tradition than he himself had been. Their leaders attended the temple services and conducted themselves in general as observant Jews, enjoying popular good will. (3)

They accepted Jewish institutions and presented themselves as the Israel of the latter days. (4)

As Jewish Christians still sacrificed in the temple (Mt. 5:23) and paid the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27), so they kept the Sabbath holy in obedience to the Law. (5)

So far as we can tell the earliest Christians in Palestine maintained the traditions of Jewish worship virtually unchanged ... And they continued to observe the law and the "tradition of the elders" (including the sabbath) with faithfulness. (6)

They apparently continued to observe the law without question, not interpreting their traditions of Jesus' words and actions in a manner hostile to the law. (7)

Judaism has always observed the sabbath upon the seventh day of the week, Saturday. This was the practice likewise of the early Jewish Christians. (8)

The early Christians kept the 7th day as a Sabbath, much after the fashion of other Jews. (9)

Adventist scholar, Sammule Bacchiocchi, is therefore quite correct when he argues that Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Sunday observance. (10) There was no grounds for continuing the argument over whether or not these first Christians pioneered the observance of a new day of worship.

The Greek-Speaking Christians

The Greek-speaking Jews were called Hellenists (Acts 6:1). They differed from the Hebrew-speaking Jews not only in language but also in culture. They were less conservative and more relaxed in their attitudes toward Jewish customs. They more readily adopted Greek culture and were regarded as less than ideal Jews by their more conservative brothers.

A division arose between the Hebrew and Hellenist Christians. Scholars generally think the issue involved more than the care of widows recorded in Act 6. It really involved the development of two different strands of primitive Christianity. While a few scholars think that some have exaggerated the divisions between these two groups (and exaggeration always remains a possibility), there is general agreement on their existence.

At a time when even the apostles were still attending the daily services at the temple, Stephen (a Hellenist Christian) began contending that the coming of Jesus profoundly changed the status of the temple and the Mosaic law. The Jewish authorities accused him of speaking against the temple and the law. There was some truth in their charge. Since Roman law gave the Jews authority to execute those who desecrated the temple, Stephen was stoned according to Jewish law. Dunn and others suggest that his trial Stephen was probably deserted by the Hebrew Christians, including the leaders of the church.(11) Did they think that Stephen's imprudence had brought him to unnecessary disaster and might needlessly precipitate the hostility of the Jewish authorities against the church?

Persecution did break out against the Jerusalem church, but it was principally directed against the Hellenists. How else could the apostles have remained unmolested in Jerusalem? (Acts 8:1) The Hebrew Christians were tolerated in Palestine, except for a brief period of persecution by Herod a few years later. James even enjoyed the popular acclaim of being "James the Just". The expulsion of the Hellenists from Jerusalem had two significant results. First, it meant that the Jerusalem Church was purged of its more liberal element and remained a church of Hebrew Christians. This had an important influence on subsequent events. Second, it meant that the foremost missionaries of the Christian movement were Hellenists. This was providential. The Hebrew Christians would not have taken the daring steps of their more liberal brethren. In baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip, a Hellenist, clearly disregarded the law (Acts 8:26-39; Deuteronomy 23:1). But the major missionary breakthrough took place at Antioch. Here the Hellenists were astonishingly successful in preaching the message of Jesus not only to the Jews of the Dispersion and the God fearing Gentiles, (12) who met with them in their synagogues, but to the pagan Gentiles as well (Acts 11:19-30).

The Gentile Christians

The first Christians were reluctant to venture beyond the borders of Judaism. The mother church at Jerusalem thought of herself as a fulfilled form of Judaism. News of large scale accessions to the faith from among Gentiles made them apprehensive about maintaining the standards of their own heritage.

Making Gentile proselytes was no problem, because the Pharisees themselves were keen proselytizers. But when a Gentile became a proselyte of the Jewish faith, we was required to be circumcised, to undergo a ceremonial bath ("proselyte baptism"), to offer a sacrifice, to keep the Sabbath and to observe Jewish food laws. If those engaged in the missionary enterprise at Antioch were bringing the Gentiles "all the way into the truth", no questions would have been asked. The Jews could not have accused the Jesus party of relaxing the standards. But how could the church defend itself if Gentiles were accepted into the fellowship of Jews without performing what had always been expected of proselytes? How could the church claim to be the true Israelite remnant of the last days if its members did not become Jews?

Not surprisingly, and influential group in the Jerusalem church insisted that the Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Why should not the Gentiles also conform to the same standards as the first Christians? How could the tolerate one part of the church adhering to the Jewish legal system while another part disregarded it?

But Paul was one of those Antioch "rebels" who saw otherwise. The church at Antioch enjoyed a liberty that he was prepared to defend with great stubbornness. One of his companions was the Greek convert, Titus. When some Jewish Christians insisted that Titus be circumcised, Paul refused to acceded to their demands (Galatians 2:3-5).

Thus, the battle over circumcision and the law was joined. The Jerusalem conference, recorded in Acts 15, was called to find a way through the impasse. This conference is vital to the Sabbatarian argument. Sabbatarians say that the silence of the conference on the Sabbath question proves there was no argument on this matter, and therefore all sides must have agreed to keep the Sabbath. They reason that if the proposition that circumcision was no longer binding cause such an uproar, would not the proposition that the Sabbath was no longer binding have caused an even greater uproar? Since there was no uproar over the Sabbath, they assume that all were united in keeping it.

There is a fatal flaw in this "argument from silence". To the Jew (whether Christian or not) circumcision stood for subjection to the law. As Paul said, "Circumcision has value if you observe the law" (Romans 2:25). When a proselyte was circumcised, it was a token that he had accepted the yoke of Jewish law. He became "obligated to obey the whole law" (Galatians 5:3). That is why so many New Testament passages place circumcision and subjection to the law in apposition (e.g., "the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." -- Acts 15:5; cf. Acts 21:21). Therefore the real issue of the Jerusalem Conference was whether Gentile believers should be subject to the law.

It is also a fallacy to suppose that the issue at the Jerusalem conference merely involved the fate of ritual aspects of the law. Among other things, the conference made a ruling regarding sexual immorality (Acts 15:20) -- hardly a ceremonial matter! The New Testament nowhere tells us what parts of the law of Moses should be considered ritual and what parts should be considered moral. We may make such a distinction, and such a distinction may well be theologically correct, but we must not read our own categories of thought, however correct themselves, back into the New Testament. The Jerusalem conference dealt with the law as a complete legal corpus.

The conference was therefore concerned with the entire ministration of Jewish law, including the Sabbath and food laws given under the old covenant. The real issue debated at the Jerusalem conference was whether Gentile believers must be subject to the law and live as Jews. The outcome was freedom for the Gentiles in this matter. The compromise measure adopted was obviously aimed at facilitating amicable fellowship (especially table fellowship) between Jewish and Gentile believers. The Gentiles were asked to abstain from meat offered to idols, from strangled animals, from blood, and from sexual immorality. They were not burdened with anything else. (Acts 15:28-29)

The conference was a great victory for Paul and the progressive party, even though in some respects it was a compromise. Paul himself did not carry out the stipulation about food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8) nor does he mention the Jerusalem accord in any of his letters. So Jewish Christians were obviously unhappy at the way Paul was prosecuting his mission to the Gentiles. They infiltrated his churches and urged the yoke of Jewish law upon his converts.

We must ask the Saturday Sabbatarian for evidence Paul imposed the Sabbath on the Gentile churches. And we must ask the Sunday Sabbatarian for the evidence that the great apostle to the Gentiles substituted one form of Sabbatarianism for another. We suggest the following historical evidence is damaging to the Sabbatarian thesis:

  1. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He raised up many churches and wrote them letters of instruction. He preached full gospel (Romans 15:19) and declared the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) Where is the evidence that he urged any kind of Sabbatarianism on the Gentiles?

    The "argument from silence" might favor Sabbatarianism if the Pauline letters were addressed to Jewish Christians. It could then be said that silence proves the Sabbath was taken for granted and was therefore not an issue. But Paul's letters were addressed to Gentile Christians who had no background in Sabbath-keeping. If these young Gentile churches were new Sabbath-keepers, as the Sabbatarian must assume, how strange that they needed no instruction, warning or encouragement from Paul on this matter! They certainly needed reproof and instruction on nearly every other important matter.

  2. When Paul speaks of "sin", he generally means sin as a ruling power. But when he speaks of "sins", Paul generally gives them their proper names -- e.g., sexual immorality, jealousy, drunkenness, and selfish ambition. In many of his letters he lists sins which will keep those who commit them out of the kingdom. In Galatians 5 he mentions fifteen sins (Galatians 5:19-21; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; Ephesians 5:5-7). As a faithful pastor, Paul names those sins which grieve God. He does not leave the young churches guessing, for he says such sins are obvious (Galatians 5:19). Why is Sabbath-breaking -- a great sin according to Puritan tradition -- conspicuously absent from every Pauline list of sins? How strange it would be for the Gentile converts to fall into every kind of sin except this one!

  3. In the first century A.D., slavery was an institution throughout the Roman World. It is clear from the New Testament that there were Christian slaves in the Pauline churches. They had no forty-hour work week in those days. Saturday was not a public holiday, nor was Sunday a holiday for the slaves. If Paul's converts were Sabbatarian, they would have had continual problems over Sabbath privileges. If Paul was a Sabbatarian evangelist, why did his converts (especially the slaves) gave no evidence of any Sabbath conflicts?

    Historical research has given us a rather accurate account of the reasons why early Christians were persecuted in the Roman world. Both Christian and non-Christian authorities left records of the between Christians and society. There are even records that the Jews were despised by the Gentiles because of the Sabbath. Yet there is no evidence that the Gentile Christians suffered any hardship or persecution because of the Sabbath.

    The stubborn facts of early church history, therefore, give us no indication that Paul urged Sabbatarianism on the Gentile churches.

The Tragedy of the Jewish Church and the New Judaism at Rome

We have already seen that with the departure of the Hellenists, the Jerusalem church was predominately composed of Hebrew Christians. They were much less radical in their attitude to the law and Jewish customs than Jesus himself had been. (14) With the passing of time, they increasingly regressed towards Jewish legalism, undoubtedly in part because of pressure from their Jewish environment (15).

Tension always seemed to exist between the apostle Paul and the Jerusalem church. John J. Gunther persuasively argues that most of Paul's theological opponents came from the Jerusalem church. (16) Bengt Holmberg suggests that the Jerusalem Christians visited the Gentile churches in order "to correct possible mistakes and complement some vital points that had been neglected in the teachings of Paul". Theirs was a "concerted move to instill Palestinian piety and Palestinian orthodoxy." (17)

The wiser leadership among the Jewish Christians was willing to abide by the agreement of the Jerusalem conference. But they were clearly unhappy with the wide spread reports that Paul was teaching the Jews of the Dispersion to become lax in their devotion to the law (Acts 21:21).

In first-generation Christianity the Jerusalem church had a position of great authority in the Christian movement. But the march of events quickly change that situation. As many Hebrew Christians had feared, Gentile believers soon vastly outnumbered Jewish believers. Furthermore, the Jerusalem church and its leaders fled to Pella in A.D. 66 to escape the predicted catastrophe on Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This meant that the Jerusalem church had to function as a church in exile. The events from A.D. 70 to A.D. 135 resulted in the complete dispersion of the Jewish people from Palestine and broke the stranglehold which the Jerusalem church had on burgeoning Christianity.

After A.D. 70 the Jews became increasingly hostile toward their fellow Jews who believed in Jesus. They began to expel them from the synagogues. But not only were the Jewish Christians rejected by their own people; they were increasingly distrusted by Gentile Christians. At first the Gentile Christians, following instruction of Paul in Romans 14, tolerated their reverence of Jewish institutions and ways. But because Jewish Christians often urged their Jewish heritage on Gentile believers, tension developed between these two branches of the church. Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch a few years after the apostolic period (A.D. 98-117), was unhappy with the influence of Jewish Christians in Asia Minor. (18) By the middle of the second century Justin Martyr said that he knew Jews who believed in Christ and kept the law without insisting that all Christians should do likewise, yet he knew other Jewish Christians who urged obedience to the law on Gentile believers. Justin Martyr felt that Jewish Christians were free to keep the Sabbath, but he admitted that there were Christians not willing to be tolerant. (19)

The picture emerges of Jewish Christianity which, having lost its influence on the predominately Gentile church, became increasingly isolated. It lost vital contact with Gentile Christianity, so that Gentile Christianity was largely cut off from its Jerusalem roots. This has been a tragedy for both branches of the church.

By the time of Irenaeus (in the late second century) Jewish Christianity was regarded as real heresy. (20) Some Jewish Christians were called Ebionites ("the poor ones"), while others were called Nazarenes. They kept the Sabbath and persevered in a Jewish way of life. They were generally vegetarian. Some even refused to eat e...[text unclear] Their hero was James; their archenemy was Paul.

The most serious heresy of the Ebionites was failure to confess Christ's full divinity. Furthermore, although they believed Jesus was sinless, they taught that he possessed sinful human nature like the rest of mankind (21). Yet it is a remarkable fact that the heretical Ebionites traced their lineage back to the original Jewish Christians and claim to be their true successors. James Dunn makes these illuminating comments on the relationship between the Ebionites and the first Christians:

Indeed on the basis of this evidence, heretical Jewish Christianity of the later centuries could quite properly claim to be the true heir of earliest Christianity more than any other expression of Christianity.

However, that is only one side of the picture; to leave such a claim unchallenged would give a false impression. For there are two other important differences between Ebionism and earliest Christianity. The first we might call the difference in tone. The faith and practice of the primitive Jerusalem community was not something thought out, clearly crystallized in debate; it was simply the first stage in the development from a form of Jewish messianism to Christianity proper, from Jewish faith with some peculiarities to a distinctively Christian faith. Consequently an important difference between the two forms of Jewish Christianity does emerge: the practice and beliefs of the primitive Jerusalem community were marked by development and transition, there was nothing fixed and final, everything was fluid; whereas Ebionism is a self conscious faith held in opposition to other expressions of Christian faith (notably Paul), thought out and clearly articulated. A link can certainly be traced between the two, a continuity of tradition; but Ebionism has hardened and petrified a tradition that initially fluid and developing.

The second difference follows from the first -- a difference in time. The primitive Jerusalem faith and practice was the first tentative attempt to express the newness of belief in Jesus as Messiah, risen and coming again--to express it, that is, in at totally Jewish environment. Ebionism came to expression in quite different circumstances -- when Christianity had expanded right out of Judaism, had become predominately Gentile -- and, most importantly, after at least several crucial debates and controversies on the relationship of the new faith and the Judaism which cradled it in its infancy. In other words, we might justifiably conclude that Ebionism was rejected because in a developing situation where Christianity had to develop and change, it did not!

Here then is an interesting definition of heresy. Heretical Jewish Christianity could claim a direct line of continuity with the most primitive form of Christianity. It could certainly claim to be more in accord with the most primitive faith than Paul, say. If the earliest church is the norm of orthodoxy, then Ebionism measures up pretty well; if primitiveness means purity, then Ebionism can claim to have a purer faith than almost any other. But Ebionism was rejected -- why? Because its faith did not develop as Christianity developed. It clung to an expression of Christian faith which was acceptable at the beginning of Christianity in a context of Judaism. In the wider environment of the second and third centuries, with formative documents of Christianity already written, the simple Jewish messianism was no longer adequate. In short, heretical Jewish Christianity was a form of stunted, underdeveloped Christianity, rigid and unfitted to be the mouthpiece of the gospel in a new age. (22)

When the Jerusalem church ceased to exercise significant influence in the universal church, the vacuum was filled by the church of Rome. The factors which favored Rome's assuming the role of the Jerusalem church seemed to be as follows:

  1. Rome was a second Jerusalem center. As many Jews lived there (about 50,000) as in Jerusalem.
  2. Rome was the center of the Roman world.
  3. Rome had one of the largest Christian communities anywhere in the world.
  4. Peter and Paul had labored in Rome and had been martyred there.

Early in the second century Rome revealed a tendency not only to advise but to dictate to her sister churches. It was not long before she began issuing decrees on which days Christians should fast and on which days of the yearly and weekly calendar Christians should celebrate Christ's redemptive acts. This is well documented Samuele Bacchiocchi's thesis, From Sabbath to Sunday. A new kind of legalism began to rear its head quite early in the second century. It was the substitution of one form of Judaism for another. In the final outworking of history Rome became as Judaistic in principle as the original Judaism from which Christianity had separated.


(1) F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 346-47.

(2) Robert A. Morey, "Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?" Baptist Reformation Review 8, no. (1979): 15.

(3) Bruce, Paul p. 64.

(4) Joseph R. Tyson, A Study of Early Christianity, p. 278.

(5) Gerhard Friedrich, ed.,, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 127.

(6) James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 127.

(7) Ibid., p. 238.

(8) J. Morgenstern, art. "Sabbath", in George Arthur Butrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4:135.

(9) John Richard Sampey. Article: "Sabbath", in James Orr, gen. ed, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4:2631.

(10) See Samule Bacchiocchi. From Sabbath to Sunday.

(11) See Dunn. Unity and Diversity.

(12) God fearing Gentiles were sympathetic to Jewish religion but were not full proselytes.

(13) Among some Gentiles it was a custom to mix blood with drinking water.

(14) See Bruce. Paul, p. 64.

(15) See Martin Hengel. Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, pp. 73, 80, 122.

(16) See John J. Gunther, St. Paul's Opponents and Their Background.

(17) Bengt Holmberg. Paul and Power, pp. 4-5.

(18) See Ignatius. The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:59-65. See also Bacchiocchi. From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 213; Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, p. 342.

(19) See Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew, in Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:218. See also Dunn. Unity and Diversity, p. 240; Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 22.

(20) See Chadwick. The Early Church, p. 23. See Dunn. Unity and Diversity, pp. 240-245.

(21) See ibid. See also Gunther. Paul's Opponents, pp. 90, 104-105; Danielou. The Theology of Jewish Christianity, pp. 55-63.

(22) Dunn. Unity and Diversity, pp. 244-245.

Home | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14
Top of Page Seventh-day Adventist Church