Sabbath and Law in the Apostolic Constitutions

In my latest reading of By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism, Erwin Goodenough referred to W. Bousset’s treatment of the Apostolic Constitutions, as well as interacted with the Apostolic Constitutions himself.  The Apostolic Constitutions was a fourth century Christian document, whose provenance was probably Syria (see here).  The argument of Bousset and Goodenough is that there are parts of the Apostolic Constitutions that were Hellenistic Jewish but that have Christian interpolations.  In this post, I will talk about the Sabbath and the Mosaic law in the Apostolic Constitutions.

1.  Regarding the Sabbath, Goodenough quotes Apostolic Constitutions VII.36.  I found a translation of the Apostolic Constitutions on the New Advent site (see here), and that’s what I will be quoting in this post.  According to Bousset, the Hellenistic Jewish part of VII.36 exalts the Sabbath as a time for people to reflect upon creation, God’s laws, and God’s blessings, as well as to desist from words of anger.  It also refers to God bringing “our fathers” out of Egypt.  But a later Christian hand inserted stuff that says that God created the world by Christ and that affirms that the Lord’s Day is superior to the Sabbath. 

Armstrongite scholar Bob Thiel, in his article here, refers to other parts of the Apostolic Constitutions that mention the Sabbath.  I will post those parts here and comment on them.

One passage is Apostolic Constitutions VII.23, which states:

“But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth days of the week. But do you either fast the entire five days, or on the fourth day of the week, and on the day of the Preparation, because on the fourth day the condemnation went out against the Lord, Judas then promising to betray Him for money; and you must fast on the day of the Preparation, because on that day the Lord suffered the death of the cross under Pontius Pilate. But keep the Sabbath, and the Lord’s day festival; because the former is the memorial of the creation, and the latter of the resurrection. But there is one only Sabbath to be observed by you in the whole year, which is that of our Lord’s burial, on which men ought to keep a fast, but not a festival. For inasmuch as the Creator was then under the earth, the sorrow for Him is more forcible than the joy for the creation; for the Creator is more honourable by nature and dignity than His own creatures.”

This passage exhorts Christians to observe the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, and I do not think that it is a Hellenistic Jewish passage that has Christian interpolations.  The passage with which Bousset interacts, Apostolic Constitutions VII.36, looks like a Jewish document with blocks of Christian material inserted into it—-you can actually separate out the Christian parts, and it would make sense as a Jewish document.  But Apostolic Constitutions VII.23 looks Christian from beginning to end.  At the same time, there does appear to be tension within Apostolic Constitutions VII.23, and I wonder if that could be due to different Christian hands behind the passage.  Apostolic Constitutions VII.23 tells Christians to observe the Sabbath as a memorial of creation, then it says that Christians should only observe one Sabbath in the entire year—-the fast that commemorates Jesus’ burial.

The other passage that Thiel cites is Apostolic Constitutions VIII.33:

“I Peter and Paul do make the following constitutions. Let the slaves work five days; but on the Sabbath day and the Lord’s day let them have leisure to go to church for instruction in piety. We have said that the Sabbath is on account of the creation, and the Lord’s day of the resurrection. Let slaves rest from their work all the great week, and that which follows it— for the one in memory of the passion, and the other of the resurrection; and there is need they should be instructed who it is that suffered and rose again, and who it is permitted Him to suffer, and raised Him again. Let them have rest from their work on the Ascension, because it was the conclusion of the dispensation by Christ. Let them rest at Pentecost, because of the coming of the Holy Spirit, which was given to those that believed in Christ. Let them rest on the festival of His birth, because on it the unexpected favour was granted to men, that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, should be born of the Virgin Mary, for the salvation of the world. Let them rest on the festival of Epiphany, because on it a manifestation took place of the divinity of Christ, for the Father bore testimony to Him at the baptism; and the Paraclete, in the form of a dove, pointed out to the bystanders Him to whom testimony was borne. Let them rest on the days of the apostles: for they were appointed your teachers to bring you to Christ, and made you worthy of the Spirit. Let them rest on the day of the first martyr Stephen, and of the other holy martyrs who preferred Christ to their own life.”

This passage also appears to be Christian from beginning to end.  It says that slaves should rest on the Sabbath as a day to commemorate creation and Christ’s passion, as well as on other days (i.e., the Lord’s Day, the Ascension, Pentecost, and Epiphany).

2.  Regarding the Mosaic law, Goodenough refers to Apostolic Constitutions VIII.12.6-27.  According to Goodenough (and perhaps Bousset), the Jewish Hellenistic part is saying that God gave the natural law to the patriarchs, and that was sufficient for them, but God later gave the Mosaic law to ordinary people , as a supplement to the natural law, and this, along with Israel’s possession of the Promised Land, seems to have solved the problems of creation.  Goodenough states that a Christian hymn or prayer regards the law as inadequate, which was why Christ had to come, and yet he notes that there is no heavy-handed Christian interpolation in VIII.12.6-27, which has a couple of “through Christ”s, and affirms that the logos whom Abraham saw was Jesus.

I’m curious as to the audience of the Apostolic Constitutions.  Syria, the document’s provenance, has been believed by many scholars to have been the provenance of the Gospel of Matthew, which is deemed a Jewish-Christian Gospel.  Even John Meier, who believes that a Gentile wrote Matthew, holds that the Gospel of Matthew comes from a church that was Jewish-Christian in its early days and retained Jewish-Christian traditions (see here).  Could that be why the Apostolic Constitutions is open to Jewish customs?

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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