Bacchiocchi’s Argument from Silence

Seventh-Day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi states the following in his debate with Sunday-keeper John Lewis:

“If, as you seem to assume Paul was the pioneer and promoter of Sundaykeeping, why is it that there is no echo of any controversy between Paul and the Jerusalem brethren over his abandonment of the Sabbath? As you know there was plenty of controversy over circumcision but not over the Sabbath. Why?” (see here).

Bacchiocchi uses this argument a lot. In The Sabbath and the New Testament, he says:

“…if the Gentiles were instructed by the [Jerusalem] Council to abstain from ritual acts such as eating food offered to idols, in order not to offend Jewish Christians, they could hardly have been instructed to ignore Sabbathkeeping which would have been even a greater offense to Jewish Christians. It is only the fact that Gentile Christians were already observing the Sabbath that made it unnecessary for the Jerusalem Council even to discuss it” (see here).

I have two problems with this argument:

1. Maybe Sabbath-keeping actually was controversial in the first-century church. The Jerusalem conference discussed whether or not Gentile Christians had to receive circumcision and observe the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). The Sabbath is part of the law of Moses. Therefore, the Sabbath was a topic of discussion, at least indirectly.

That’s a problem I have with many Sabbatarian treatments of the Jerusalem conference: they view circumcision in isolation, as if the debate focused on whether or not Gentiles needed to undergo a painful surgical procedure. But circumcision meant much more than that in first-century Judaism. As Paul says in Galatians 5:3: “Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law” (NRSV). Circumcision meant conversion to Judaism, which obligated a person to obey the entire Mosaic Torah (including the Sabbath) in order to please God. That’s why Peter asks in Acts 15:10: “Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”

2. Who says Jewish-Christians would’ve been offended had the church exempted Gentiles from Sabbath-keeping? Bacchiocchi acknowledges that Palestinian Judaism itself did that! He states:

“Palestinian (Hebrew) Judaism reduced the Sabbath to an exclusive Jewish ordinance linked to the origin of Israel as a nation at the time of Moses. As stated in the Book of Jubilees, ‘He [God] allowed no other people or peoples to keep the Sabbath on this day, except Israel only; to it alone he granted to eat and drink and keep the Sabbath on it’ (2:31)” (see here).

The requirements that the Jerusalem conference imposed on Gentiles resemble some of the Noachide laws for non-Jews. According to a prominent rabbinic tradition, Gentiles only have to observe seven rules to enter the good afterlife, including a ban on idolatry, adultery, and the consumption of blood (see here). Similarly, the Jerusalem conference exhorted Gentiles to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29).

I agree with Bacchiocchi that one aim of the Jerusalem conference was to ensure that Gentile believers didn’t offend their Jewish brethren. If a Gentile ate food that was offered to an idol, a Jewish-Christian might conclude he was worshipping that god (Exodus 34:15; I Corinthians 10:20-21; Revelation 2:14). Jews also thought Gentiles shouldn’t eat blood (Genesis 9:4). The Jerusalem conference was telling Gentiles not to transgress the basic standards that Jews maintained for non-Israelites.

Obviously, there were universal standards that everyone could agree on, such as “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal.” The Jerusalem conference saw no need to state those prohibitions explicitly. But there were some areas in which Gentiles thought something was acceptable, whereas Jews did not. Gentiles were used to eating food offered to idols, to participating in ritual fornication, and to eating meat that hadn’t been properly slaughtered. Jews viewed these activities as reprehensible, even for Gentiles. Consequently, the Jerusalem conference told Gentiles not to engage in them.

But Palestinian Judaism didn’t require Gentiles to keep the Sabbath, so why would the Jerusalem conference have told them to take on Sabbath observance to avoid offending the Jewish-Christians? In this case, I think Bacchiocchi is wrestling with a problem that doesn’t exist.

I realize I’ve criticized the argument from silence in the past, but, if the Jerusalem conference had wanted Gentiles to observe the Sabbath, wouldn’t it have told them to do so? I can understand why it didn’t mention some obvious universal rules (e.g., don’t lie, don’t kill), but the Sabbath is not in that category. Gentiles didn’t think Gentiles had to keep the Sabbath. Palestinian Jews didn’t think Gentiles had to keep the Sabbath. If the church thought they needed to do so, wouldn’t it have clarified the matter?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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