Sunday, the Sabbath, and ps.Athanasius’ De Sabbatis et Circumcisione

The church does not celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, but rather on Sunday, as we all know.  Those interested in why this is so collect patristic testimonia and among these are some attributed to Athanasius, from a work entitled On the Sabbaths and Circumcision.  For instance this website and this tell us:

345 AD. Athanasius: “The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord’s day was the beginning of the second, in which he renewed and restored the old in the same way as he prescribed that they should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end of the first things, so we honor the Lord’s day as being the memorial of the new creation” (On Sabbath and Circumcision 3).   

Much the most interesting link supplied by my correspondent was Sabbatum Redivivum: Daniel Cawdrey and Herbert Palmer.  This discusses a 1651 work Sabbatum Redivivum: or The Christian Sabbath Vindicated.[1], where he quotes Athanasius:

‘The Lord transferred the Sabbath to the Lord’s day.’11 (=Athanasius, Homily de Semente, cited in Sabbatum, p. 476. [In fact referencing a “Hist. of Sab. part 2. p.8]])

‘God did not primarily give the Sabbath that man should idly rest upon it; for if he had so intended it, he would never have commanded the Levites to kill and offer sacrifices. For if rest or idleness do sanctify it, manifests that work defiles.’ And again, ‘The Sabbath doth not signify rest, but the knowledge of the Creator; Therefore the Sabbath was given for knowledge sake, not for idleness, so that knowledge was more necessary than rest.’12 (= Athanasius, On Sabbath and Circumcision, cited in Sabbatum, p. 19. [Second part, p.19, in fact])

A search of the online copy for Athanasius quickly brings these up.  The authors quote the Greek also in the margin, as we see.  But it looks very much as if they are requoting from someone else, possibly Bellarmine (and maybe translating?)

Both works quoted are in fact dubia or spuria, and are listed as such in the great 18th century Benedictine edition of the works of Athanasius, conveniently reprinted by Migne as the Patrologia Graeca volume 28.  De sabbatis et circumcisione may be found on columns 133-141, preceded by a note on the doubtfulness of the text; then there follows a note on the doubtful character of de semente, and then the text.

De sabbatis et circumcisione is listed in the CPG as 2244.  9 manuscripts are listed in the Pinakes database, and no doubt more exist.  The CPG editor notes its status, but adds that Karl Holl argued for its authenticity in Studien uber das Schrifttum und die Theologie des Athanasius, Freiburg i. Br., 1899, p.102 ff. (I was unable to locate this online).  Richard Bauckham mentions the work in his Collected Essays II (2017) p.425 here, but advises that Willy Rordorf in Sabbat et Dimanche dans l’Eglise ancienne (1972) p.91 n.1 thinks otherwise.

De semente is CPG 2245, equally spurious, and the text is in PG 28, 143-168.  The CPG indicates the existence of a study of the tradition, and a discussion of its authenticity by no less than Marcel Richard.  UPDATE: There is in fact a text and German translation of this work accessible online here.[2]  Some have seen this work as by Marcellus of Ancyra (see comment below).

The quotation from De semente is indeed to be found in that work, in the opening words of chapter 1:

at Dominus diem Sabbati transtulit in Dominicam: neque nos auctoritate nostra Sabbatum vilipendimus; sed propheta est, qui illud rejicit ac dicit, [then Isaiah 1:13].

The quotations from De sabbatis et circumcisione are also there, but rather condensed.  The first is in col.135, part of chapter 2:

Non enim otii praecipue causa, hominibus Sabbatum Deus dedit, qui ait… [bible quotes].  Si enim cura illi esset de otiositate, non praecipisset Levitis proponere, offere, mactare.

The second one is condensed more straightforwardly from the start of chapter 3.

3.  Nequaquam igitur Sabbatum otium designat, sed tum cognitionem Conditoris, tum cessationem a figure huius creationis… [more bible quotes].  Cognitionis ergo et non otii causa datum est Sabbatum: ita ut sit cognitio magis necessaria quam otium.

I’ve chosen to give the Latin rather than the Greek, in case those looking at this should want to locate the passages in the PG more easily, and perhaps experiment with some Latin translation tools.

Considering the references to these texts down the centuries – since 1651!! – it is odd to find no trace of an English translation or either work.  I might commission one of  the first, as it is short.

  1. [1]Daniel Cawdrey and Herbert Palmer, Sabbatum Redivivum: or The Christian Sabbath Vindicated, London: Printed by Thomas Maxey for Samuel Gellibrand and Thomas Underhill in Paul’s Church-yard, 1651/2.  Online here
  2. [2]Annette von Stockhausen, “Die pseud-athanasianische Homilia de semente. Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung”, in: Von Arius zum Athanasianum. Studien zur Edition der »Athanasius Werke«. Berlin: De Gruyter (2010) p. 157-203. (Series: Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur v. 164).  Online here.  How wonderful to have this!

5 thoughts on “Sunday, the Sabbath, and ps.Athanasius’ De Sabbatis et Circumcisione

  1. Interestingly it seems that De Semente has been identified by some as one of the lost works of Marcellus of Ancyra. See Everett Ferguson, “Doctrines of God and Christ in the Early Church”, 1993. p.107 n.58

  2. Thank you – this is very interesting!

    Thomas Slater’s 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia article, “Sunday”, lists Antoine Villien’s Histoire des commandements de l’Église first among his sources. There are a couple scans of an English translation in the Internet Archive:

    https://archive.org/details/historycommandme05villuoft

    Chapters II and III give chronological overviews with lots of citations (translated, and often quoted in Latin or Greek in the footnotes) – though a quick browse did not find (ps-)Athanasius among them.

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