Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi
Retired Professor of Theology,
Chapter 6 of forthcoming book
A most popular belief shared in common by Catholics and Protestants is Sunday
sacredness. In both religious traditions Sunday is regarded as the
"Lord's Day," established by Christ and the Apostles to commemorate
The traditional view of Sunday sacredness is being challenged today by
the alarming decline in Sunday observance, In Italy, where I come from, it is
estimated that only 5% of Catholics attend Mass regularly on Sunday. About 95%
of Catholics go to church three times in their lives: when they are hatched,
matched, and dispatched.
The situation is essentially the same in most Western countries where church
attendance runs below the 10% of the Christian population. The strikingly low
church attendance is seen by church leaders as a threat to the survivals not
only of their churches but also of Christianity itself. After all the essence
of Christianity is a relationship with God and if Christians ignore the Lord
on the day which they view as the Lord's Day, chances are that they will
ignore the Lord every day of the week.
President Abraham Lincoln eloquently expressed the vital function of the
Sabbath for the survival of Christianity in a speech delivered on November 13,
1862. There he emphasized : "As we keep or break the Sabbath day,
we nobly save or meanly loose the last and the best hope by which mankind
arises."1 Obviously, for Abraham Lincoln, the Sabbath meant Sunday.
But this does not detract from the fact that one of American's outstanding
presidents recognized in the principle of Sabbathkeeping the best hope to
renew and elevate human beings.
Keenly aware of the implications of the crisis of Sunday observance for the
future of Christianity, church leaders and scholars are re-examining the
history and theology of Sunday in an effort to promote more effectively Sunday
Popes' Passionate Pleas
for a Revival of Sunday Observance
In their homilies and official pronouncements, both Pope John Paul II and
Benedict XVI, have made passionate pleas for a revival of Sunday observance.
For example, on May 31, 1998, Pope John Paul II promulgated a lengthy Pastoral
Letter, Dies Domini-The Lord's Day, where he addresses the crisis of
Sunday observance. He laments that the "strikingly low" attendance
to the Sunday Mass indicates that "faith is weak" and
"diminishing."2 He predicts that if this trend is not
reversed it can threaten the future of the Catholic Church in the third
millennium. He states: "The Lord's Day has structured the history of the
Church through two thousand years: how could we think that it will not
continue to shape the future?"3
Benedict XVI has expressed the same concern in his homilies and pastoral
letters. For example, on the occasion of the 43rd anniversary of the
promulgation of the Second Vatican Council constitution on the sacred liturgy,
called "Sacrosanctum Concilium," Benedict XVI wrote a
pastoral letter to Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He said: "For the
first Christians, participation in the Sunday celebrations was the natural
expression of their belonging to Christ, of communion with his Mystical Body,
in the joyful expectation of his glorious return. This belonging was expressed
heroically in what happened to the martyrs of Abitene, who faced death
exclaiming, 'Sine dominico non possumus,' without gathering together on
Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, we cannot live."4
The Pope continues saying: "How much more necessary it is today to
reaffirm the sacredness of the Lord's Day and the need to take part in Sunday
Mass! The cultural context in which we live, often marked by religious
indifference and secularism that blot out the horizon of the transcendent,
must not let us forget that the People of God, born from 'Christ's
Passover-Sunday,' should return to it as to an inexhaustible source, in
order to understand better and better the features of their own identity and
the reasons for their existence."5
Sunday Sacredness Derives
from its Apostolic Origin
The present "religious indifference and secularism," manifested
in the alarming neglect of Sunday observance, has convinced Benedict XVI that
it is imperative "to reaffirm the sacredness of the Lord's Day," by
returning to its "inexhaustible source" to be found in its
Benedict XVI states this belief with amazing clarity later on in the
same pastoral letter to Cardinal Francis Arinze, saying: "Sunday was not
chosen by the Christian community but by the Apostles, and indeed by Christ
himself, who on that day, "the first day of the week," rose and
appeared to the disciples (cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16: 9; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1,19; Acts
20:7; I Cor 16: 2), and appeared to them again "eight days later" (Jn
20:26)."6 Did Christ establish Sunday by resurrecting on that Day? This
important question will be examined below in part 3 of this chapter.
John Paul II expresses the same conviction in his Pastoral Letter Dies
Domini-The Lord's Day, that the solution to the crisis of Sunday
observance must be found in recovering of the "biblical" foundations
of Sunday observance in order to keep the day holy. He wrote that today it is
"more necessary than ever to recover the deep doctrinal foundations
underlying the Church's precept, so that the abiding value of Sunday in the
Christian life will be clear to all the faithful."6
The doctrinal foundations of Sunday observance are sought in its alleged
"biblical" origin. This belief has led a host of Catholic and
Protestant scholars in recent years to re-examine the origin of Sunday, in the
hope of proving its biblical origin, authority and experience.7
A major question addressed in recent doctoral dissertations, books, and
articles, is the relationship between the Sabbath and Sunday. Simply stated
the question is, Did Sunday begin as the continuation of the Sabbath, thus
inheriting the sacredness of the Sabbath? Or, Did Sunday begin as a new
institution, radically different from the Sabbath, established by the church
to celebrate Christ's resurrection by means of the Lord's Supper celebration?
To find an answer to this and other related questions, I spent five years at
the Pontifical University in Rome, investigating for my doctoral dissertation
how the change came about from Sabbath to Sunday in early Christianity.
The findings of my investigation are presented in my book From Sabbath to
Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in
Early Christianity, published in 1977 by the Pontifical Gregorian
University press. This chapter represents a brief summary of the highlights of
Objectives of this Chapter
This chapter examines the popular belief of Sunday sacredness from a biblical
and historical perspective. Attention will be given to the major biblical and
historical arguments commonly used to defend the apostolic origin of Sunday
The chapter divides in six major parts in accordance to the basic outline of
my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday. This means that each part
of this chapter represents a summary of the fuller discussion found in a
chapter of my dissertation. The seven parts of this chapter are:
1) The Theological Connection between Sabbath and Sunday
2) Jesus and the Origin of Sunday
3) The Resurrection and
the Origin of Sunday
4) First Day Gatherings and the Origin of Sunday
5) The Jerusalem Church and the Origin of Sunday
6) The Church of Rome and the Origin of Sunday
7) Sun worship and the Origin of Sunday
THE THEOLOGICAL CONNECTION
SABBATH AND SUNDAY
There are two major views today regarding the historical origin of Sunday and
its relationship to the biblical Sabbath. The older, traditional view, which
can be traced back to early Christianity, maintains that there is a radical
discontinuity between the Sabbath and Sunday. Consequently Sunday is not the
Sabbath. The two days differ in their origin, meaning, and experience.8
The more recent view, which is articulated by Pope John Paul II himself in his
Pastoral Letter Dies Domini-The Lord's Day, maintains that Sunday began
as the embodiment and "full expression" of the Sabbath. Consequently
the day is to be observed as a biblical imperative, rooted in the Sabbath
Traditional View: Sunday
was Established by the Catholic Church
According to the traditional view, which has been held by the Catholic Church
and accepted by those Protestant denominations which follow the Lutheran
tradition, the Sabbath was a temporary Mosaic institution given to the Jews,
abrogated by Christ, and consequently no longer binding upon Christians today.
Christians adopted Sunday observance, not as the continuation of the biblical
Sabbath, but as a new institution established to celebrate Christ's
resurrection by means of the Lord's Supper celebration.
This explanation virtually has been regarded as an established fact by
Catholic the?ologians and historians. Thomas of Aquinas, for instance, makes
this unambiguous statement: "In the New Law the observance of the Lord's
day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath not by virtue of the
precept [Sabbath commandment] but by the institution of the Church and the
custom of Christian people."10
In his dissertation presented to the Catho?lic University of America, Vincent
J. Kelly similarly affirms: "Some theologians have held that God likewise
directly determined the Sunday as the day of worship in the New Law, that He
Himself has explicitly substituted the Sunday for the Sabbath. But this theory
is now entirely abandoned. It is now commonly held that God simply gave His
Church the power to set aside whatever day or days she would deem suit?able as
Holy Days. The Church chose Sunday, the first day of the week, and in the
course of time added other days, as holy days."11
Even the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) emphasizes the
discontinuity between Sabbath and Sunday observance: "Sunday is expressly
distinguished from the Sabbath which it follows chronologically every week;
for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the Sabbath."12
Recent View: Sunday is
the Continuation and "Full Expression" of the Sabbath
Recently there have been both Catholic and Protestant scholars who have argued
for an apostolic origin of Sunday observance. According to these scholars, the
Apostles themselves chose the first day of the week as the new Christian
Sabbath at the very beginning of Christianity in order to commemorate Christ's
This view is defended at great length by Pope John Paul II in his Pastoral
Letter, Dies Domini-The Lord's Day, which was promulgated on May
31, 1998. In this lengthy document (over 40 pages) the Pope makes a passionate
plea for a revival of Sunday observance by appealing to the moral imperative
of the Sabbath commandment. For the Pope Sunday is to be observed, not merely
as an institution established by the Catholic Church, but primarily as a moral
imperative of the Decalogue. The reason is that Sunday allegedly originated as
the embodiment and "full expression" of the Sabbath and consequently
should be observed as the biblical Sabbath.13
John Paul departs from the traditional Catholic position presumably because he
wishes to challenge Christians to respect Sunday, not merely as an institution
of the Catholic Church, but as a divine command. Furthermore, by rooting
Sundaykeeping in the Sabbath commandment, the Pope offers the strongest moral
reasons for urging Christians "to ensure that civil legislation respects
their duty to keep Sunday holy."14
The attempts made by the Pope and other Church leaders to ground Sunday
observance on the Sabbath commandment, raises this important question:
"If Christians are expected to observe Sunday as the Biblical Sabbath,
why should not they observe the Sabbath in the first place?" What was
wrong with the biblical Sabbath that needed to be changed to Sunday? To apply
the Sabbath Commandment to the observance of the first day of the week,
Sunday, can be confusing to say the least, because the Fourth Commandment
enjoins the observance of the seventh day, not of the first day. This
confusion may explain why many Christians do not take the observance of Sunday
John Paul speaks eloquently of the theological development of the Sabbath from
the rest of creation (Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11) to the rest of redemption (Deut
5:12-15). He notes that in the Old Testament the Sabbath commandment is
linked "not only with God's mysterious 'rest' after the days of creation
(cf. Ex 20:8-11), but also with the salvation which he offers to Israel in the
liberation from the slavery of Egypt (cf. Deut 5:12-15). The God who rests on
the seventh day, rejoicing in His creation, is the same God who reveals his
glory in liberating his children from Pharaoh's oppression."15
Being a memorial of creation and redemption, "the 'Sabbath' has therefore
been interpreted evocatively as a determining element in the kind of 'sacred
architecture' of time which marks biblical revelation. It recalls that the
universe and history belong to God; and without constant awareness of that
truth, man cannot serve in the world as a co-worker of the Creator."16
Sunday as the Embodiment
of the Sabbath
In the light of these profound theological insights into the Sabbath as being
a kind of "sacred architecture" of time that marks the unfolding of
God's creative and redemptive activity, and as the defining expression of our
relationship with God, one wonders how does the Pope succeed in developing a
theological justification for Sunday observance? He does this by making
Sunday the embodiment and full expression of the biblical Sabbath.
For example, John Paul without hesitation applies to Sunday God's
blessing and sanctification of the Sabbath at creation. "Sunday is the
day of rest because it is the day 'blessed' by God and 'made holy' by him, set
apart from the other days to be, among them, 'the Lord's Day.'"17
More importantly, the Pope makes Sunday the "full expression" of the
Sabbath by arguing that Sunday, as the Lord's Day, fulfills the creative and
redemptive functions of the Sabbath. These two functions, the Pope claims,
"reveal the meaning of the 'Lord's Day' within a single theological
vision which fuses creation and salvation."18
The Pope maintains that New Testament Christians "made the first
day after the Sabbath a festive day" because they discovered that the
creative and redemptive accomplishments celebrated by the Sabbath, found their
"fullest expression in Christ's Death and Resurrection, though its
definitive fulfillment will not come until the Parousia, when Christ returns
The Pope's attempt to make Sunday the "extension and full
expression" of the creative and redemptive meanings of the Sabbath is
very ingenious, but it lacks biblical and historical support. There are no
indications in the New Testament that Christians ever interpreted Sunday to be
the embodiment of the creative and redemptive meanings of the Sabbath. From a
biblical and historical perspective, Sunday is not the Sabbath because the two
days differ in authority, meaning, and experience.
Difference in Authority
The difference in authority lies in the fact that while Sabbathkeeping rests
upon an explicit biblical command (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11; Mark 2:27-28; Heb
4:9), Sundaykeeping derives from an interplay of social, political, pagan, and
religious factors. I have examined these factors at length in my
dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday. The lack of a biblical authority
for Sundaykeeping may well be a major contributing factor to the crisis of
Sunday observance that John Paul rightly laments.
The vast majority of Christians, especially in the Western world, view their
Sunday as a holiday to seek personal pleasure and profit rather than a
holy day to seek divine presence and peace. I submit that a major contributing
factor to the secularization of Sunday is the prevailing perception that there
is no divine, biblical command to keep Sunday as a holy day.
The lack of a biblical conviction that Sunday should be observed as the holy
Sabbath day may well explain why most Christians see nothing wrong in devoting
their Sunday time to themselves rather than to the Lord. If there was a
strong theological conviction that the principle of Sundaykeeping was divinely
established at creation and later "inscribed" in the Decalogue, as
the Pope attempts to prove, then Christians would feel compelled to act
Difference in Meaning
John Paul recognizes the need to make Sundaykeeping a moral imperative and he
tries to accomplish this by rooting the day in the Sabbath commandment itself.
But this cannot be done because Sunday is not the Sabbath. The two days have a
different meaning and function. While in Scripture the Sabbath memorializes
God's perfect creation, complete redemption, and final restoration, Sunday is
justified in the earliest Patristic literature as the commemoration of the
creation of light on the first day of the week, the cosmic-eschatological
symbol of the new eternal world typified by the eighth day, and the memorial
of Christ's Sunday Resurrection.23
None of the historical meanings attributed to Sunday require per se the
observance of the day by resting and worshipping the Lord. For example,
nowhere does Scripture suggest that the creation of light on the first day
ought to be celebrated through a weekly Sunday rest and worship. Even the
Resurrection event, as we shall see, does not require per se a weekly or
annual Sunday celebration.
The attempt to transfer to Sunday the biblical authority and meaning of the
Sabbath is doomed to fail because it is impossible to retain the same
authority, meaning, and experience when the date of a festival is changed.
For example, if a person or an organization should succeed in changing the
date of the Declaration of Independence from the 4th July to the 5th of
September, the new date could hardly be viewed as the legitimate celebration
of Independence Day.
Similarly, if the festival of the Sabbath is changed from the seventh to the
first day, the latter can hardly memorialize the divine acts of creation,
redemption, and final restoration which are linked to the typology of the
Sabbath. To invest Sunday with the theological meaning and function of the
Sabbath means to adulterate a divine institution by making a holy day out of
what God created to be a working day.
Difference in Experience
The difference between Sabbath and Sunday is also one of experience. While
Sundaykeeping began and has remained largely the hour of worship,
Sabbathkeeping is presented in Scriptures as twenty-four hours
consecrated to God. In spite of the efforts made by Constantine, church
councils, and the Puritans to make Sunday into a total day of rest and
worship, the historical reality is that Sunday observance has been equated
with church attendance. John Paul II acknowledges this historical
reality in chapter 3 of the Pastoral Letter entitled "The Day
of the Church. The Eucharistic Assembly: The Heart of Sunday." The
thrust of the chapter is that the heart of Sunday observance is the
participation in the Mass. He cites the new Catechism of the Catholic
Church, which says: "The Sunday celebration of the Lord's Day
and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church's life."21
The end of Sunday church services marks for most Christians also the
termination of Sundaykeeping. After church, they go in good conscience to the
shopping mall, a ball game, a dance hall, a theater, etc. It came as a
surprise for me to discover that even in the "Bible Belt" many shops
open for business as soon as the church services are over. The message is
clear. The rest of Sunday is business as usual.
Sunday Hour of Worship
Versus Sabbath Day of Rest and Worship
The recognition of this historical reality has led Christopher Kiesling, a
distinguished Catholic Liturgist, to argue for the abandonment of the notion
of Sunday as a day of rest and for the retention of Sunday as the hour of
worship.21 His reasoning is that since Sunday has never been a day of
total rest and worship, there is no hope to make it so today when most people
want holidays, not holy days.
By contrast, celebrating the Sabbath means not merely attending church
services but consecrating its twenty-four hours to the Lord. The Sabbath
commandment does not say, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy by
attending church services." What the commandment requires is to work six
days and rest on the seventh day unto the Lord (Ex 20:8-10). This means that
the essence of Sabbathkeeping is the consecration of time. The act
of resting unto the Lord makes all the Sabbath activities, whether they be
formal worship or informal fellowship and recreation, an act of worship
because all of them spring out of a heart which has decided to honor God.
The act of resting on the Sabbath unto the Lord becomes the means through
which the believer enters into God's rest (Heb 4:10) by experiencing more
fully and freely the awareness of God's presence, peace, and rest. This unique
experience of Sabbathkeeping is foreign to Sundaykeeping because the essence
of the latter is not the consecration of time but rather church attendance,
especially the partaking of the eucharist.
In the light of the foregoing considerations, we conclude that the Pope's
attempt to make Sunday the theological and existential embodiment of the
Sabbath is doomed to fail, because the two days differ radically in their
authority, meaning, and experience.
THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
A popular view defended recently by several scholars is that Christ paved the
way for the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday keeping
instead, by His messianic claims and His provocative method of Sabbath
keeping, which caused considerable controversy with the religious leaders of
A noteworthy example of this view is the symposium From Sabbath to the
Lord's Day (1982), produced by seven British/American scholars and
sponsored by the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research in Cambridge,
England. This symposium is generally regarded as the most scholarly defence of
Sundaykeeping in our time. The authors maintain that Christ transcended the
Sabbath law by His messianic claims. He acted against the prevailing Sabbath
traditions in order to provide His followers with the freedom to reinterpret
the Sabbath and to choose a new day of worship, better suited to express their
new Christian faith.
The fundamental problem with this view is that it grossly misinterpret the
intent of Christ's controversial Sabbath activities and teachings, which were
clearly designed, not to nullify, but to clarify the divine
intent of the Fourth Commandment. Christ acted deliberately against prevailing
misconceptions of the Sabbath, not to terminate its observance, but to restore
the day to God's intended purpose.
It should be noted that whenever accused of Sabbath breaking, Christ refuted
such charge of Sabbath breaking by appealing to the Scriptures: "Have you
not read . . ." (Matt 12:3-5). Christ never conceded to have broken the
Sabbath commandment. On the contrary He defended Himself and His
disciples from the charge of Sabbath breaking by appealing to the Scriptures.
The intent of Christ's provocative Sabbath teachings and activities was not to
pave the way for the abandonment of the Sabbath and adoption of Sunday
keeping, but rather to show the true meaning and function of the Sabbath,
namely, a day "to do good" (Matt 12:8), "to save life"
(Mark 3:4), to loose people from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:16),
and to show "mercy" rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7).
By showing these vital functions of the Sabbath, Christ proved that "The
Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Our
Lord's choice of words in this text is significant. The verb "made-ginomai"
alludes to the original "making" of the Sabbath and the word
"man-anthropos" suggests its human function. Thus to
establish the human and universal value of the Sabbath, Christ reverts to its
very origin, right after the creation of man. Why? Because for the
Lord the law of the beginning stands supreme.
This memorable affirmation alone suffices to refute the claim that Christ
paved the way for the abandonment of the Sabbath and adoption of Sunday,
because He established the permanent validity of he Sabbath by appealing to
its original creation when God determined its intended function for the
well-being of mankind.
The Sabbath and the
Savior in Luke
To appreciate more fully the relationship between the Savior and the Sabbath,
it is necessary to study the Sabbath material found in all the Gospels and in
Hebrews. Since this is not possible within the limited scope of this chapter,
we will briefly focus only on the Sabbath in Luke and in Hebrews. The complete
study is found in chapter 4 "The Savior and the Sabbath" of my book
The Sabbath Under Crossfire.
Luke opens his account of Christ's ministry by describing Him as as an
habitual observer of the Sabbath: "On the Sabbath day he went into the
synagogue as was his custom" (Luke 4:16;NIV). Apparently Luke intended to
set Christ before his readers as a model of Sabbathkeeping, because he speaks
of Christ's customary Sabbathkeeping in the immediate context of His
upbringing in Nazareth ("where he had been brought up"-v. 16). This
suggests that the allusion is especially to the custom of Sabbath observance
during Christ's youth.
The word "Sabbath" occurs in Luke's Gospel 21 times and 8 times in
Acts.22 That is approximately twice as often as in any of
the other three Gospels. This surely suggests that Luke attaches
significance to the Sabbath. In fact, Luke not only begins but also closes the
account of Christ's earthly ministry on a Sabbath by mentioning that His
entombment took place on "the day of Preparation and the Sabbath was
beginning" (Luke 23:54). A number of scholars recognize in this
text Luke's concern to show that the Christian community observed the
Lastly, Luke expands his brief account of Christ's burial by stating
emphatically that the women "rested on the sabbath in obedience to the
commandment" (Luke 23:56b-NIV). Why does Luke present not only Christ but
also His followers as habitual Sabbathkeepers? The answer is that Luke
intended to set before his readers Christ as "a model of reverence for
the Sabbath."24 Such a model discredits Benedict XVI's claim
tht "Sunday was not chosen by the Christian community but by the
Apostles, and indeed by Christ himself."
The Sabbath in Hebrews
The discussion of the Sabbath in Hebrews is crucial to our study because it
shows the understanding and experience of the Sabbath by the New Testament
church. The relationship between the Sabbath and the Savior is established by
the author of Hebrews by linking together Genesis 2:2 with Psalm 95:7,11.
By means of these two texts the writer of Hebrews explains that the Sabbath
rest offered at creation (Heb 4:4) was not exhausted when the Israelites under
Joshua found a resting place in Canaan, since God offered again His rest
"long afterwards" through David (Heb 4:7; cf. Ps 95:7).
Consequently, God's promised Sabbath rest still awaited a fuller realization
which has dawned with the coming of Christ (Heb 4:9). It is by believing in
Jesus Christ that God's people can at last experience ("enter"-Heb
4:3,10,11) the "good news" of God's rest promised on the
"seventh day" of creation (Heb 4:4).
Obsolete or Remaining?
Does Hebrews teach that the Sabbath, like the temple and its services, lived
out its function with the coming of Christ? Or did the Sabbath acquire fresh
meaning and function with His coming? Let us now look at what Hebrews
has to say on this point.
There is no question that the author clearly teaches that Christ's coming has
brought about a decisive discontinuity with the sacrificial system of the Old
Covenant. In chapters 7 to 10, the writer of Hebrews explains at great length
how Christ's atoning sacrifice and subsequent heavenly ministry have replaced
com?pletely the typological ("copy and shadow"-Heb 8 :5) function of
the levitical priesthood and its Temple. These services Christ
"abolished" (Heb 10:9). Thus they are "obsolete" and
"ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13).
But, does the writer of Hebrews place the Sabbath in the same category,
viewing it as one of the "obsolete" Old Covenant institu?tions? This
is indeed the conclusion drawn by people like Benedict XVI, who are eager to
trace the origin of Sunday to Christ Himself, but a careful study of the
passage proves otherwise.
The "sabbatismos-Sabbath rest" is explicitly and emphatically
presented, not as being "obsolete" like the Temple and its services,
but as being a divine benefit that still "remains" (Heb 4:9). The
verb "remains-apoleipetai" is a present passive tense which
literally translated means "has been left behind." Thus, literally
translated, Hebrews 4:9 reads as follows: "So then a Sabbath-keeping has
been left behind for the people of God."
Professor Andrew Lincoln, one of the contributors to the scholarly symposium
From Sabbath to the Lord's Day, has established that the term
sabbatismos was used both by pagans and Christians as a technical term for
Sabbathkeeping. Examples can be found in the writings of Plutarch,
Justin, Epiphanius, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the Martyrdom of Peter
and Paul.25 Lincoln found that in each of the above instances "the term
denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath. This usage corresponds
to the Septuagint usage of the cognate verb sabbatizo (cf. Ex 16:23;
Lev 23:32; 26:34f.; 2 Chron 36:21) which also has reference to Sabbath
observance. Thus the writer to the Hebrews is saying that since the time of
Joshua an observance of Sabbath rest has been outstanding."26
The fact that according to Hebrews 4:9, the observance of Sabbath
"remains" for believers in Christ, compellingly discredit Benedict
XVI's claim that the first Christians showed their belonging to Christ by
The Meaning of the
Is the author of Hebrews merely encouraging his readers to interrupt their
secular activities on the Sabbath? Considering the concern of the writer
to counteract the tendency of his readers to adopt Jewish liturgical customs
as a means to gain access to God, he could hardly have emphasized solely the
physical "cessation" aspect of Sabbathkeeping. This aspect
yields only a negative idea of rest, one which would only serve to encourage
existing Judaizing tendencies. Obviously then, the author attributes a
deeper meaning to the resting on the Sabbath.
This deeper meaning can be seen in the antithesis the author makes between
those who failed to enter into God's rest because of "unbelief-apeitheias"
(4:6, 11)-that is, faithlessness which results in disobedience-and those who
enter it by "faith-pistei" (4:2, 3), that is, faithfulness
that results in obedience.
The act of resting on the Sabbath for the author of Hebrews is not merely a
routine ritual (cf. "sacrifice"-Matt 12:7), but rather a
faith-response to God. Such a response entails not the hardening of
one's heart (4:7) but the making of oneself available to "hear his
voice" (4:7). It means experiencing God's salvation rest not by
works but by faith, not by doing but by being saved through faith (4:2, 3,
11). On the Sabbath, as John Calvin aptly expresses it, believers are
"to cease from their work to allow God to work in them."27 This
expanded interpretation of Sabbathkeeping in the light of the Christ event,
negates any attempt to make Sunday the continuation of the Sabbath, thus
inheriting the sacredness of the Sabbath.
AND THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
The most popular argument used to defend the apostolic origin of Sunday, is
Christ's Resurrection and Appearances on the first day of the week. In view of
its popularity and importance, careful consideration must be given to this
In his Pastoral Letter Dies Domini-The Lord's Day, John Paul II affirms
that the earliest Christians "made the first day after the Sabbath a
festive day, for that was the day on which the Lord rose from the
dead."28 He argues that though Sunday is rooted in the creative and
redemptive meaning of the Sabbath, the day finds its full expression in the
Resurrection of Christ. "Although the Lord's Day is rooted in the very
work of creation and even more in the mystery of the Biblical [Sabbath] 'rest'
of God, it is nonetheless to the Resurrection of Christ that we must look in
order to understand fully the Lord's Day."29
Attributed to Resurrection
Numerous scholars argue that the Resurrection and Appearance of Christ on the
first day of the week constitute the fundamental biblical justification for
the origin of Sunday worship.30 Since John Paul II offers a concise summary of
this argument, I will respond primarily to his comments.
In his Pastoral Letter John Paul II writes: "According to the common
witness of the Gospels, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead took
place on 'the first day after the Sabbath' (Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1; John
20:1). On the same day, the Risen Lord appeared to the two disciples of Emmaus
(cf. Luke 24:13-35) and to the eleven Apostles gathered together (cf. Luke
24:36; John 20:19). A week later-as the Gospel of John recounts (cf. John
20:26)-the disciples were gathered together once again when Jesus appeared to
them and made Himself known to Thomas by showing him the signs of His Passion.
The day of Pentecost-the first day of the eighth week after the Jewish
Passover (cf. Acts 2:1), when the promise made by Jesus to the Apostles after
the Resurrection was fulfilled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke
24:49; Acts 1:4-5)-also fell on a Sunday. This was the day of the first
proclamation and the first baptisms: Peter announced to the assembled crowd
that Christ was risen and 'those who received his word were baptized' (Acts
2:41). This was the epiphany of the Church, revealed as the people into which
are gathered in unity, beyond all their differences, the scattered children of
Numerous Catholic and Protestant scholars concur with John Paul in attributing
to Christ's Resurrection and appearances on the first day of the week the
fundamental reason for the choice of Sunday by the Apostolic church. In his
doctoral dissertation on the origin of Sunday, Corrado Mosna, a Jesuit student
at the Pontifical Gregorian University who worked under Vincenzo Monachino, S.
J. (the same professor who monitored my dissertation), concludes:
"Therefore we can con?clude with certainty that the event of the
Resurrection has de?termined the choice of Sunday as the day of worship of the
first Christian community."32
The same view is expressed by Cardinal Jean Daniélou: "The Lord's Day is
a purely Christian institution; its origin is to be found solely on the fact
of the Resurrection of Christ on the day after the Sabbath."33 In a
similar vein, Paul Jewett, a Protestant scholar, writes: "What, it might
be asked, specifically motivated the primitive Jewish church to settle upon
Sunday as a regular time of assembly? As we have observed before, it must have
had something to do with the Resurrection which, according to the uniform
witness of the Gospels, occurred on the first day of the week."34
In spite of its popularity, the alleged role of the Resurrection in the
adoption of Sunday observance lacks both biblical and historical support. A
careful study of all the references to the Resurrection reveals the
incom?parable importance of the event,35 but it does not provide any
indication regarding a special day to commem?orate it.
Harold Riesenfeld notes, "In the accounts of the Resurrection in the
Gospels, there are no sayings which direct that the great event of Christ's
Resurrection should be commemorated on the particular day of the week on which
it occurred."36 Therefore, "to say that Sunday was ob?served
because Jesus rose on that day," as S. V. McCasland cogently states,
"is really a petitio principii [begging the question], for such a
celebra?tion might just as well be monthly or annually and still be an
observance of that particular day.37
Let me briefly mention seven major reasons which discredit the alleged role of
Christ's Resurrection in the adoption of Sunday observance.
(1 ) No Command of Christ
or of the Apostles
There is no commandment of Christ or of the
apostles regarding a weekly-Sunday or annual Easter-Sunday celebration of
Christ's resurrection. We have commands in the New Testament regarding baptism
(Matt 28:19-20), the Lord's Supper (Mark 14:24-25; 1 Cor 11:23-26) and
foot-washing (John 13:14-15), but we find no commands or even suggestions to
commemorate Christ's Resurrection on a weekly Sunday or annual Easter-Sunday.
(2) Christ Made no
Attempt to Establish a Memorial of His Resurrection
Had Jesus wanted to memorialize the day of His Resurrection, the ideal time to
institute such a memorial would have been the actual day of His Resurrection.
Important divine institutions like the Sabbath, baptism, Lord's Supper, all
trace their origin to a divine act which marked their beginning. But on
the day of His Resurrection Christ performed no act to institute a memorial of
His Resurrection. He did not tell the women and the disciples:
"Come apart and celebrate My Resurrection?" Instead He told
the women "Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee" (Matt 28:10)
and to the disciples "Go . . . make disciples . . . baptizing them"
(Matt 28:19). None of the utterances of the risen Savior reveal an
intent to memorialize His resurrection by making Sunday the new day of rest
The silence of the New Testament on this matter is very important since most
of its books were written many years after Christ's death and Resurrection. If
by the latter half of the first century Sunday had come to be viewed as the
memorial of the Resurrection which fulfilled the creation/redemption functions
of the Old Testament Sabbath, as the Pope claims, we would expect to find in
the New Testament some allusions to the religious meaning and observance of
the weekly Sunday and/or annual Easter-Sunday.
The total absence of any such allusions indicates that such developments
occurred in the post-apostolic period as a result of an interplay of
political, social, and religious factors, which I have examined at length in
my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday.
(3) There is no Easter-Sunday
in the New Testament
The Pope's claim that the celebration of Christ's Resurrection on a weekly
Sunday and annual Easter-Sunday "evolved from the early years after the
Lord's Resurrection"38 is negated by the absence of Easter-Sunday in the
New Testament. It is a known fact that for at least a century after Jesus'
death, Passover was observed not on Easter-Sunday, as a celebration of the
Resurrection, but on the date of Nisan 14 (irrespective of the day of the
week) as a celebration of the sufferings, atoning sacrifice, and Resurrection
The repudiation of the biblical reckoning of Passover and the adoption of
Easter-Sunday instead, is a post-apostolic development which is attributed, as
Joachim Jeremias puts it, "to the inclination to break away from
Judaism"39 and to avoid, as J. B. Lightfoot explains, "even the
semblance of Judaism."40
The introduction and promotion of Easter-Sunday by the Church of Rome in the
second century caused the well-known Passover (Quartodeciman) controversy
which eventually led Bishop Victor of Rome to excommunicate the Asian
Christians (about A. D. 191) for refusing to adopt Easter-Sunday.41
Indications such as these suffice to show that Christ's Resurrection was not
celebrated on a weekly Sunday and annual Easter-Sunday from the inception of
Christianity. The social, political, and religious factors that contributed to
the change from Sabbath to Sunday and Passover to Easter-Sunday are discussed
at length in my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday.
(4) Sunday is Never
Called "Day of the Resurrection"
Sunday is never called in the New Testament as "Day of the
Resurrection." It is consistently called "First day of the
week." The references to Sunday as day of the resurrection first
appear in the early part of the fourth century.42 By that time Sunday
had become associated with the resurrection and consequently was referred to
as "Day of the Resurrection." But this development occurred several
centuries after the beginning of Christianity.
(5) The Lord's Supper was
not Celebrated on Sunday in Honor of the Resurrection
In his dissertation on Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship
in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church, Willy Rordorf argues
that Sunday became the Lord's Day because that was the day in which the
Lord's Supper was celebrated. This view is accepted by many, but it lacks
biblical and historical support.
Historically we know that Christians could not celebrate the Lord's Supper on
a regular basis on Sunday evening, because such gatherings were prohibited by
the Roman hetariae law-a law that outlawed all types of communal
fellowship meals held in the evening.43 The Roman government was afraid that
such evening gatherings could become an occasion for political plotting.
To avoid the search of the Roman police, Christian changed the time and place
of the Lord's Supper celebration. Eventually, they moved the service from the
evening to the morning.44 This explains why Paul is very specific on the
manner of celebrating the Lord's Supper, but he is indefinite on the
question of the time of the assembly. Note that four times he
repeats the same phrase: "When you come together" (1 Cor 11:18, 20,
33, 34). The phrase implies indefinite time, most likely because there was no
set day for the celebration of the Lord's Supper
(6) The Lord's Supper
Commemorates Christ's Sacrifice, not His Resurrection
Many Christians today view their Lord's Supper as the core of Sunday worship
in honor of Christ's resurrection. But, as we have seen, in the Apostolic
Church the Lord's Supper was not celebrated on Sunday, and was not connected
with the Resurrection. Paul, for instance, who claims to transmit what
"he received from the Lord" (1 Cor 11:23), explicitly states that
the rite commemorated not Christ's resurrection, but His sacrifice and
Second Coming ("You proclaim the Lord's death till he comes" (1
(7) The Resurrection is
not the Dominant Reason for Sundaykeeping in Earliest Documents
The earliest explicit references to Sundaykeeping are found in the writings of
Barnabas (about 135 A.D.) and Justin Martyr (about 150 A.D.). Both
writers do mention the resurrection as a basis for Sunday observance but only
as the second of two reasons, important but not predominant.
Barnabas' first theological motivation for Sunday keeping is eschatological,
namely, that Sunday as "the eight day" represents "the
beginning of another world."45 Justin's first reason for the Christians'
Sunday assembly is the inauguration of creation: "because it is the first
day on which God, transforming the darkness and prime matter, created the
The seven reasons given above suffice to discredit the claim that Christ's
resurrection on the first day of the week caused the abandonment of the
Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday. The truth is that initially the
resurrection was celebrated existentially rather than liturgically,
that is, by a victorious Christian living rather than by a special day of
FIRST DAY RELIGIOUS MEETINGS
AND THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
To support the claim that Sunday is a biblical institution that was observed
by the Apostolic church, appeal is commonly made to the following three
Bible texts: (1) 1 Corinthians 16:2, (2) Acts 20:7-12, and (3) Revelation
1:10. These passages are examined at great length in my dissertation.47 In
this context I limit myself to a few basic observations.
1 Corinthians 16:2:
Christian Sunday Gatherings?
The first-day fund-rasing plan recommended by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 is
commonly cited to prove that Christians came together for worship on Sunday
during apostolic times. For example, John Paul II affirms that "ever
since Apostolic times, the Sunday gathering has in fact been for Christians a
moment of fraternal sharing with the poor. 'On the first day of the week, each
of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn' (1 Cor 16:2), says
Saint Paul in referring to the collection organized for the poor churches of
John Paul II sees in the first-day fund-raising plan recommended by Paul in
this text a clear indication that the Christian Church gathered for worship on
that day. This view is shared by numerous Catholic and Protestant scholars.49
For example, in his dissertation Corrado Mosna argues that since Paul
designates the "offering" in 2 Corinthians 9 :12 as "service-leiturgia,"
the collection [of 1 Corinthians 16:2] must have been linked with the Sunday
worship service of the Christian assembly."50
The various attempts to extrapolate from Paul's fund-raising plan a regular
pattern of Sunday observance reveal inventiveness and originality, but they
rest on construed arguments and not on the actual information the text
provides. Observe, first of all, that there is nothing in the text to suggests
public assemblies inasmuch as the setting aside of funds was to be done
"by himself-par'heauto." The phrase suggests that the
collection was to be done individually and in private.
If the Christian community was worshiping together on Sunday, it appears
paradoxical that Paul should recommend laying aside at home one's gift.
Why should Christians deposit their offering at home on Sunday if on such a
day they were gathering for worship? Should not the money have been brought to
the Sunday service?
Purpose of the
The purpose of the first-day fund-raising plan is clearly stated by the
Apostle: "So that con?tributions need not be made when I come" (1
Cor 16:2). The plan then is proposed not to enhance Sunday worship by the
offering of gifts, but to ensure a substantial and efficient collec?tion upon
his arrival. Four characteristics can be identified in the plan. The offering
was to be laid aside periodically ("on the first day of every
week"-v. 2), personally ("each of you"-v. 2),
privately ("by himself in store"-v. 2), and proportionately
("as he may prosper"-v. 2).
To the same community on another occasion, Paul thought it necessary to send
brethren to "arrange in advance for the gift . . . promised, so that it
may be ready not as an exaction but as a willing gift" (2 Cor 9:5). The
Apostle desired to avoid embarrassing both to the givers and to the collectors
when finding that they "were not ready" (2 Cor 9:4) for the
offering. To avoid such problems in this instance, he recommends both a
time-the first day of the week-and a place-one's home.
Paul's mention of the first day could be motivated more by practical than
theological reasons. To wait until the end of the week or of the month to set
aside one's contributions or savings is contrary to sound budgetary practices,
since by then one finds empty pockets and empty hands. On the other
hand, if, on the first day of the week before planning any expenditures,
believers set aside what they plan to give, the remaining funds will be so
distributed as to meet all the basic necessities. The text, therefore,
proposes a valuable weekly plan to ensure a substantial and orderly
contribution on behalf of the poor brethren of Jerusalem-to extract more
meaning from the text would distort it.
Acts 20:7-11: First-Day Troas
Fundamental importance is attributed to Acts
20:7-11 inas?much as it contains the only explicit New Testament reference to
a Christian gathering conducted "on the first day of the week . . .
to break bread" (Acts 20:7). John Paul II assumes that the meeting
was a customary Sunday assembly "upon which the faithful of Troas were
gathered 'for the breaking of the bread [that is, the Eucharistic
Numerous scholars share the Pope's view. F. F. Bruce, for example, affirms
that this statement "is the earliest unambiguous evidence we have for the
Christian practice of gathering together for worship on that day."52
Paul Jewett similarly declares that "here is the earliest clear
witness to Christian assembly for purposes of worship on the first day of the
week."53 State?ments like these could be multi?plied.
These categorical conclusions rest mostly on the assumption that verse 7
represents "a fixed formula" which describes the habitual time
("On the first day of the week") and the nature ("to break
bread") of the primitive Christian worship. Since, however, the
meeting occurred in the evening and "the breaking of the bread" took
place after midnight (vv. 7, 11) and Paul left the believers at dawn, we need
to ask: Was the time and nature of the Troas' gathering ordinary or
extraordinary, oc?casioned perhaps by the departure of the Apostle?
Special Farewell Gathering.
The context clearly indicates that it was a special farewell gathering
occasioned by the departure of Paul, and not a regular Sunday-worship custom.
The meeting began on the evening of the first day, which, according to Jewish
reckoning, was our Saturday night, and continued until early Sunday morning
when Paul departed. Being a night meeting occasioned by the departure of the
Apostle at dawn, it is hardly reflective of regular Sundaykeeping.
Paul would have observed with the believers only the night of Sunday and
traveled during the day time. This was not allowed on the Sabbath and would
not have set the best example of Sundaykeeping either. The passage suggests,
as noted by F. J. Foakes-Jackson, that "Paul and his friends could not,
as good Jews, start on a journey on a Sabbath; they did so as soon after it as
was possible (verse 12) at dawn on the 'first day'-the Sabbath having ended at
The Breaking of the Bread.
The expression "to break bread-klasai
arton" de?serves closer attention. What does it actually mean in the
con?text of the passage? Does it mean that the Christians came together
for a fellowship meal or to celebrate the Lord's Supper? It should be
noted that the breaking of bread was simply a customary and necessary part of
the preparation for eating together. The act of breaking in pieces a loaf of
bread by the host marked the opening action of a meal. In most European
cultures, the same function is fulfilled by the host wishing "Buon
appetito-Good Appetite" to the guest. This ritual gives permission to all
to begin eating.
In the post-apostolic literature, the expression "break?ing of
bread" is used as a technical designation for the Lord's Supper.
But this is not the common meaning or usage in the New Testament. In fact, the
verb "to break-klao" followed by the noun "bread-artos"
oc?curs fifteen times in the New Testament. Nine times it refers to
Christ's act of breaking bread when feeding the multitude, when partaking of
the Last Supper, and when eating with His disciples after His Resurrection
(Matt 14:19; 15:36; 26:26; Mark 8:6; 9:19; 14:22; Luke 22:19; 24:30; 24:35);
twice it describes Paul's com?mencing and partaking of a meal (Acts 20:11;
27:35); twice it describes the actual breaking of the bread of the
Lord's Supper (1 Cor 10:16; 11:24); and twice it is used as a general
reference to the disciples' or believers' "break?ing bread" together
(Acts 2:46; 20:7).
In none of these instances is the Lord's Supper explicitly or technically
designated as "the breaking of bread." Furthermore, the breaking of
bread was followed by a meal "having eaten-geusamenos" (v.
11). The same verb is used by Luke in three other instances with the explicit
meaning of satis?fying hunger (Acts 10:10; 23:14; Luke 14:24). Undoubtedly,
Paul was hungry after his prolonged speech and needed some food before he
could continue his exhortation and start his journey.
However, if Paul partook of the Lord's Supper to?gether with a regular meal,
he would have acted contrary to his recent instruction to the Corinthians to
whom he strongly recommended satisfying their hunger by eating at home before
gathering to celebrate the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:2, 22, 34).
The New Testament, as noted earlier, does not offer any indication regarding a
fixed day for the celebration of the Lord's Supper. While Paul recommends to
the Corinthian believers a specific day on which to privately set aside their
offerings, concerning the celebration of the Lord's Supper he repeatedly says
in the same epistle and to the same people, "When you come together"
(1 Cor 11:18, 20, 33, 34), implying indeterminate times and days.
The simplest way to explain the passage is that Luke mentions the day of the
meeting not because it was Sunday, but most likely because (1) Paul was
"ready to depart" (Acts 20:7), (2) the extraordinary miracle of
Eutychus occurred that night, and (3) the time reference provides an
additional, significant, chronological reference to describe the unfolding of
"The Lord's Day"
The third crucial New Testament passage used to defend the apostolic origin of
Sunday observance is found in the book of Revelation. John, exiled on
the "island of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of
Jesus" (Rev 1 :9), writes: "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day-en
te kuriake hemera" (Rev 1:10).
John Paul II claims that this text "gives evidence of the practice of
calling the first day of the week 'the Lord's Day' (Rev 1:10). This
would now be a characteristic distinguishing Christians from the world around
them. . . . And when Christians spoke of the 'Lord's Day,' they did so giving
to this term the full sense of the Easter proclamation: 'Jesus Christ is Lord'
(Phil 2:11; cf. Acts 2:36; 1 Cor 12:3)."55
The implication of the Pope's statement is that New Testament Christians not
only called Sunday "The Lord's Day," but also expressed through such
designation their faith in their Risen Savior. Numerous scholars share the
same view. For example, Corrado Mosna emphatically writes: "By the phrase
'Lord's Day' (Rev 1:10), John wishes to indicate specifically the day in which
the community celebrates together the eucharistic liturgy."56 The phrase
"eucharistic liturgy" is used by Catholics to describe the Lord's
Supper celebration in honor of the Risen Lord.
A detailed analysis of this text would take us beyond the limited scope of
this chapter. In my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday I
devoted twenty pages (pp. 111 to 131) to an examination of this verse.
For the purpose of this chapter, I submit only two basic observations.
First, the equation of Sunday with the expression "Lord's day" is
not based on internal evidences of the book of Revelation or of the rest of
the New Testament, but on three second-century patristic testimonies, namely,
Didache 14:1, Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1, and the
apocryphal The Gospel of Peter 35; 50. Of the three, however,
only in the Gospel of Peter, written toward the end of the second
century, is Sunday unmistakably designated by the technical term "Lord's-kuriake."
In two different verses it reads: "Now in the night in which the Lord's
day (He kuriake) dawned . . . there rang out a loud voice in
heaven" (v. 35); "Early in the morning of the Lord's day (tes
kuriakes) Mary Magdalene . . . came to the sepulchre" (v. 50, 51).
It is noteworthy that while in the genuine Gospels, Mary Magdalene and the
other women went to the sepulchre "early on the first day of the
week" (Mark 16:2; cf. Matt 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), in the apocryphal
Gospel of Peter it says that they went "early in the morning of the
Lord's day." The use of the new designation "Lord's Day"
instead of "first day of the week" clearly indicates that by the end
of the second century Christians referred to Sunday as "the Lord's
The latter usage, however, cannot be legitimately read back into Revelation
1:10. A major reason is that if Sunday had already received the new
appellation "Lord's day" by the end of the first century, when both
the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation were written, we would expect
this new name for Sunday to be used consistently in both works, especially
since they were apparently produced by the same author at approximately the
same time and in the same geographical area.
If the new designation "Lord's day" already existed by the end of
the first century, and expressed the meaning and nature of Christian Sunday
worship, John would not have had reasons to use the Jewish phrase "first
day of the week" in his Gospel. Therefore, the fact that the expression
"Lord's day" occurs in John's apocalyptic book but not in his
Gospel-where the first day is explicitly mentioned in conjunction with the
Resurrection (John 20:1) and the appearances of Jesus (John 20:19,
26)-suggests that the "Lord's day" of Revelation 1:10 can hardly
refer to Sunday.
No Easter Sunday Observance in
A second important consideration that discredits the Pope's claim that Sunday
was called "Lord's Day" in the "sense of the Easter
proclamation" is the fact that the book of Revelation is addressed to the
seven churches of Asia Minor who did not observe Easter-Sunday. Instead, they
observed Passover by the biblical date of Nisan 14. Polycrates, Bishop
of the province of Asia Minor, convened a council of the church leaders of
Asia Minor (about A. D. 191) to discuss the summon received from Bishop Victor
of Rome to adopt Easter-Sunday. The unanimous decision of the Asian
bishops was to reject Easter-Sunday and to retain the Biblical dating of
In the light of these facts, it would be paradoxical if the Apostle John, who,
according to Polycrates, kept Passover by the fixed date of Nisan 14 and
who wrote to Christians in Asia Minor who like him did not observe
Easter-Sunday, would have used the phrase "Lord's Day" to express
his Easter faith in the Risen Lord. Cardinal Jean Daniélou, a respected
Catholic scholar, timidly acknowledges this fact when he writes: "In the
Apocalypse (1:10), when Easter takes place on the 14 Nisan, the word [Lord's
Day] does not perhaps mean Sunday."58
The only day that John knew as the "Lord's Day" by the end of the
first century when he wrote the book of Revelation, is the Sabbath. This is
the only day of which Christ proclaims Himself to be "Lord-kupios."
"For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath" (Matt 12:8).
Eschatological Day of the
The immediate context that precedes and follows Revelation 1:10 contains
unmistakable references to the eschatological day of the Lord. This suggests
the possibility that the "Lord's Day" on which John was transported
in vision could have been a Sabbath day in which he saw the great day of
Christ's coming. What greater vision could have given courage to the aged
Apostle in exile for his witness to Christ! Moreover, the Sabbath
is closely linked eschatologically to the Second Advent. The meeting of
the invisible Lord in time on the weekly Sabbath is a prelude to the meeting
of the visible Lord in space on the final day of His coming.
Summing up, the attempts to find biblical support for Sunday worship in the
New Testament references to the Resurrection (Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John
20:1), the first-day farewell night meeting at Troas (Acts 20:7-11), the
first-day private deposit plan mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, and
the reference to the "Lord's Day" in Revelation 1:10, must be viewed
as well meaning, but devoid of biblical support.
THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
Closely related to the role of the alleged role of the Resurrection, is the
popular view that the Jerusalem Church pioneered the abandonment of the
Sabbath and adoption of Sunday. I devoted chapter 5 "Jerusalem and the
Origin of Sunday" of my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday to a
close analysis of this view. My investigation shows that this popular view
rests on three major faulty assumptions.
Sunday Began in Jerusalem because Christ Arose There
The first faulty assumption is that Jerusalem must be the birthplace of Sunday
keeping, because that is the place where Jesus arose on the first day of the
week. It is alleged that immediately after Christ's resurrection, the Apostles
"no longer felt at home in the Jewish Sabbath service."59 and
consequently they proceeded to honor Christ's Resurrection in a distinctive
Christian day, Sunday, and in a Christian place, the Church.
This assumption lacks biblical and historical support, because in the
Apostolic Church the Resurrection was seen as an existential reality
experienced by living victoriously by the power of the Risen Savior, and not a
liturgical practice associated with Sunday worship. We noted earlier that
nothing in the New Testament prescribes or even suggests the commemoration of
Jesus' resurrection on Sunday. The very name "Day of the
Resurrection" does not appear in Christian literature until early in the
If the primitive Jerusalem Church had pioneered and promoted Sunday keeping
because they no longer felt at home with Jewish Sabbath keeping, we would
expect to find in such a church an immediate break away from Jewish religious
traditions and services. But the opposite is the case.
Both the book of Acts as well as several Judeo-Christian documents clearly
reveal that the ethnic composition and the theological orientation of the
Jerusalem Church were profoundly Jewish. Luke's characterization of the
Jerusalem Church as "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20), is an
accurate description which hardly allows for the abandonment of a chief
precept of the law, namely, the Sabbath.
Only the Jerusalem Church
had the Authority to Change the Sabbath to Sunday
The second faulty assumption is that only the Jerusalem Church, which was the
Mother Church of Christendom, commanded sufficient authority and respect to
persuade all the Christian churches scattered through the Roman empire to
change their weekly day of worship from Sabbath to Sunday. Less
influential churches could have never accomplished this change.
The problem with this assumption is the failure to recognize that he Jerusalem
Church did have the authority, but not the desire to change the
Sabbath to Sunday, simply because it was composed almost exclusively of Jewish
Christians who were zealous in the observance of the law in general and of the
Sabbath in particular.
Attachment to the Law. The attachment of the
Jerusalem Church to the Mosaic Law is reflected in some of the decisions of
the first Jerusalem Council held about 49-50 A.D. (See Acts 15). The
exemption from circumcision is there granted only "to brethen who
are of the Gentiles" (Acts 15:23). No concession is made for
Jewish-Christians, who must continue to circumcise their children.
Moreover, of the four provisions made applicable by the Jerusalem Council to
Gentiles, one is moral (abstention from "unchastity") but
three are ceremonial (even Gentile Christians are ordered to abstain
"from contact with idols and from [eating] what has been strangled and
from [eating] blood" (Acts 15:20). This concern of the Jerusalem
Council for ritual defilement and Jewish food laws reflects its continued
attachment to Jewish ceremonial law and its commands. It would be
unthinkable that this Church at this early time would change the Sabbath to
James' statement at the Jerusalem Council in support of his proposal to exempt
Gentiles from circumcision but not from Mosaic laws in general, is also
significant: "For generations past Moses has had spokesmen in every city;
he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts 15:21). Most
interpreters recognize that both in his proposal and in its justification,
James reaffirms the binding nature of the Mosaic Law which was customarily
taught every Sabbath in the synagogue.
Paul's Last Visit to Jerusalem. Further insight is provided by Paul's last
visit to Jerusalem. The Apostle was informed by James and the elders
that thousand of converted Jews were "all zealous for the Law"
(Acts 21:20). The same leaders then pressured Paul to prove to the people that
he also "lived in observance of the law" (Acts 21-24), by undergoing
a rite of purification at the Temple. In the light of this deep
commitment to the observance of the Law, it is hardly conceivable that the
Jerusalem Church would have abrogated one of its chief precepts-Sabbath
keeping-and pioneered Sunday worship instead.
Paul Learned Sunday Observance from Apostolic Leaders
The third assumption is that Paul learned about Sunday observance from the
apostolic leaders of the Jerusalem church and taught it to his Gentile
converts. The reason given for this assumption is that Paul could hardly
have pioneered the abandonment of the Sabbath and adoption of Sunday, without
stirring up the opposition of the Jewish brethren.
The absence of any echo of controversy is taken to mean that Paul accepted
Sunday observance as taught him by the Jewish brethren, and promoted this
practice among the Gentile churches which he established.
In his book on The Lord's Day, Paul Jewett affirms, for example,
"If Paul had introduced Sunday worship among the Gentiles, it seems
likely that Jewish opposition would have accused his temerity in setting aside
the law of the Sabbath, as was the case with reference to the rite of
circumcision (Acts 21:21)."60 The absence of such opposition is
interpreted by Jewett and others as indicating that Paul accepted and promoted
Sunday observance as taught him by the Jewish brethren.
This assumption is correct in maintaining that Paul could not have pioneered
Sunday observance without stirring up the opposition of the Jewish brethren,
but it is incorrect in assuming that the Jewish Brethren taught Paul Sunday
The truth is that Jewish Christians were deeply committed to the observance of
the law in general and of the Sabbath in particular. The absence of any
controversy between Paul and the Jewish brethren rather indicates that the
Sabbath never became an issue in the Apostolic Church because it was
faithfully observed by all Christians.
On the basis of the above considerations, we conclude that the Jerusalem
Church could hardly have changed the Sabbath to Sunday, because of all the
Christian Churches, it was both ethnically and theologically the closest and
most loyal to Jewish religious traditions.
THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
birthplace of Sunday observance must be sought in an influential Gentile
Church, with no significant Jewish roots. In the course of my investigation I
found cumulative evidences pointing to the Church of Rome as the most likely
birthplace of Sunday observance. There we find the social, religious and
political conditions which permitted and encouraged the abandonment of
Sabbathkeeping and the adoption of Sunday worship instead.
sake of brevity and clarity I will mention only seven major indications
pointing to the church of Rome as the birthplace of Sunday observance.
(1) Predominance of Gentile Converts.
first place, the Church of Rome was composed predominantly of Gentile
converts. Paul in his Epistle to the Roman Church explicitly affirms:
"I am speaking to you Gentiles" (Romans 11:13). This
means that while the Jerusalem Church was made up almost exclusively of Jewish
Christians who were deeply committed to their religious traditions, like
Sabbath keeping, the Church of Rome consisted mostly of Gentile converts who
were influenced by such pagan practices as Sun Worship with its Sun Day.61
(2) Early Differentiation from the Jews
predominant Gentile membership apparently contributed to an early Christian
differentiation from the Jews in Rome. This is indicated by the fact
that in A.D. 64, Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome, though
the Jewish district of Trastevere had not been touched by the fire.62
This fact suggests that by A. D. 64 Christians in Rome were no longer
perceived to be a Jewish sect by the Roman authorities, but a different
religious movement. Most likely the reason is that by that time Christians in
Rome no longer participated in the worship service of the synagogue, as they
still did in Palestine.
(3) The Preeminence of the Bishop of Rome
important consideration is the "preeminent authority"
exercised by the Bishop of Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D.
70. Being the Bishop of the capital city of the Roman empire, the Bishop of
Rome took over the leadership of the Christian communities at large. His
leadership is acknowledged, for example, by Ignatius, Polycarp, Ireneaus, all
of whom lived in the second century.63
Tangible proofs of the leadership of the Bishop of Rome are his leadership
role of the Bishop of Rome in pioneering and promoting the change from Sabbath
feasting to Sabbath fasting, as well as the change from Passover to Easter
Sunday. He was the only one who commanded sufficient authority to influence
the majority of Christians to adopt new religious observances, such as weekly
Sunday and annual Easter Sunday
(4) Repressive Anti-Jewish Measures
appreciate why the Bishop of Rome would pioneer the abandonment of the Sabbath
and the adoption of Sunday, it is important to consider a fourth important
factor, namely, the fiscal, military, political and religious repressive
measures imposed by the Romans upon the Jews, beginning with the First Jewish
Revolt against Rome in A. D. 66 and culminating with the Second Jewish Revolt
in A. D. 135. These measures, which were introduced by the Roman government to
punish the Jews on account of their violent uprisings in various places of the
Empire, were especially felt in the city of Rome, which had a large Jewish
the Jews were subjected to a discriminatory tax (the fiscus judaicus)
which was introduced by Vespasian and increased first by Domitian ( A.D.
81-96) and later by Hadrian. This meant that the Jews had to pay a penalty tax
simply for being Jews. Militarily, Vespasian and Titus crushed the First
Jewish Revolt (A. D. 66-70) and Hadrian, the Second Jewish Revolt (A.D.
132-135). Religiously, Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) abolished the Sanhedrin and the
office of the High Priest.64 These repressive measures against the Jews were
intensely felt in Rome, which had a large Jewish population.
(5) Anti-Jewish Propaganda
significant factor is the anti-Jewish propaganda by a host of Roman authors
who began reviling the Jews racially and culturally, deriding especially
Sabbathkeeping and circumcision as examples of Judaism's degrading
superstitions. These authors especially derided Sabbathkeeping as an example
of Jewish laziness. Contemptuous anti-Jewish literary comments can be found in
the writings of Seneca (d. A.D. 65 ), Persius (A.D. 34-62), Petronius (ca.
A.D. 66), Quintillian (ca. A.D. 35-100), Martial (ca. A.D. 40-104), Plutarch
(ca. A.D. 46-119), Juvenal ( A. D. 125) and Tacitus (ca. A.D. 55-120), all of
whom lived in Rome most of their professional lives.
(ca. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65) a new wave of literary anti-Semitism surged in the
sixties, undoubtedly reflecting the new mood of the time against the Jews.
This fervent stoic railed against the customs of this "accursed race-sceleratissime
gentis," and especially their Sabbath-keeping: "By introducing
one day of rest in every seven, they lose in idleness almost a seventh of
their life, and by failing to act in times of urgency they often suffer
(6) Hadrian's Anti-Sabbath Legislation
and most decisive factor which influenced the change of the day of worship
from Sabbath to Sunday, is the anti-Jewish and anti-Sabbath legislation
promulgated by the Emperor Hadrian in A. D. 135. This repressive anti-Jewish
legislation was promulgated by Hadrian after three years of bloody fighting
(A. D. 132-135) to crush the Jewish revolt, known as the Barkokeba revolt. His
Roman legions suffered many casualties.
When the Emperor finally captured Jerusalem, he decided to deal with the
Jewish problem in a radical way. He slaughtered thousands of Jews, and took
thousand of them as slaves to Rome. He made Jerusalem into a Roman colony,
calling it Aelia Capitolina. He forbade Jews and Jewish Christians from
ever entering the city. More important still for our investigation, Hadrian
outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in general and of Sabbathkeeping
in particular throughout the empire.66
critical time, for the sake of expediency many Christians followed the lead of
the Bishop of Rome in changing the time and manner of observance of two
institutions associated with Judaism, namely the Sabbath and Passover. The
Sabbath was changed to Sunday and Passover to Easter Sunday in order to avoid
even the semblance of Judaism.
(7) Christian Theology of Contempt for the Jews
understand what contributed to these historical changes, we need to mention a
seventh important factor, namely, the development of a Christian theology of
contempt for the Jews. This is what happened. When the Jewish religion in
general and the Sabbath in particular were outlawed by Roman government and
derided by Roman writers, a whole body of Adversus Judaeos
("Against all Jews") Christian literature began to appear. Following
the lead of Roman writers, Christians authors developed a
"Christian" theology of separation from and contempt toward the
Jews. Characteristic Jewish customs such as circumcision and Sabbathkeeping
were proclaimed to be signs of Jewish depravity.67
condemnation of Sabbathkeeping as a sign of Jewish wickedness, contributed to
the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday observance, in order
to clarify to the Roman authorities the Christian separation from Judaism and
identification with Roman paganism.
Measures Taken by the Church of
appreciate how the Church of Rome went about to wean Christians away from
Sabbathkeeping and to encourage Sunday worship instead, we shall mention
briefly the theological, social and liturgical measures taken by the Church of
Theologically, the Sabbath was reduced from a creational institution
established by God for mankind, to a Mosaic institution given exclusively to
the Jews as a trademark of their depravity. Justin Martyr writing from Rome by
the middle of the second century, argues in his Dialogue with Trypho,
that the observance of the Sabbath was a temporary Mosaic ordinance which God
imposed exclusively on the Jews as "a mark to single them out for
punishment they so well deserve for their infidelities."68
It is hard
to comprehend how a church leaders like Justin, who became a martyr for the
Christian faith, could reject the biblical meaning of the Sabbath as a sign of
covenant commitment to God (Ex 31:16,17; Ez 20:12,20), and reduce it instead
to a sign of Jewish depravity. What is even harder to accept is the absence of
scholarly condemnations for such absurd and embarrassing theology of contempt
for the Jews-a theology which blatantly misinterprets biblical institutions
like the Sabbath, in order to give biblical sanction to the political and
social repression of the Jews.
lesson of history is that the need to be politically correct by
supporting popular immoral policies such as the extermination of Jews, Moslems
and heretics, or the perpetration of slavery, has caused some church leaders
and theologians to become biblically incorrect. They fabricated
unbiblical theologies which would sanction popular immoral practices. It is
impossible to estimate the damage done by these theologies of expediency to
our society and Christianity at large.
the negative reinterpretation of the Sabbath as a sign of Jewish wickedness
led the Church of Rome to transform Sabbath observance from a day of feasting
and joy into a day of fasting and sadness. The purpose of the Sabbath fast was
not to enhance the spiritual observance of the Sabbath. Rather, as
emphatically stated in the papal decretal of Pope Sylvester (A. D. 314-335),
the Sabbath fasting was designed to show "contempt for the Jews" (exacratione
Judaeorum) and for their Sabbath "feasting" (destructione
ciborum).69 The sadness and hunger resulting from the fast would enable
Christians to avoid "appearing to observe the Sabbath with the Jews"
and would encourage them to enter more eagerly and joyfully into the
observance of Sunday.
Liturgically, the Bishop of Rome decreed that no religious assemblies and
eucharistic celebrations were to be held on Saturday. For example, Pope
Innocent I ( A. D. 402-417) declared that "as the tradition of the Church
maintains, in these two days [Friday and Saturday] one should not absolutely
celebrate the sacraments."70
contemporary church historians, Socrates and Sozomen, confirm Innocent I's
decretal. For example, Sozomen (about A. D. 440) tells us that while "the
people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the
Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, such custom is never
observed at Rome and Alexandria."71
Summing up, the historical evidences mentioned above indicate that the Church
of Rome used theological, social, and liturgical measures to empty the Sabbath
of any religious significance, and to promote Sunday observance instead. .
SUN WORSHIP AND
THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
political, and religious conditions mentioned above, explain why the Sabbath
was changed to Sunday, but, they do not explain why Sunday rather than another
day, such as Friday (the day of Christ's passion) was chosen.
Sun Worship and Sunday
influence of sun worship with its "Sun-day" provides the most
plausible explanation. The cult of Sol Invictus-the Invincible Sun-as
shown by Gaston H. Halsberghe in his dissertation, became "dominant in
Rome and in other parts of the Empire from the early part of the second
century A.D."72 The Invincible Sun-god became the chief god of the
Roman Pantheon and was worshipped especially on the Dies Solis, that
is, "the Day of the Sun," known in our calendar as
indirect and direct evidences on the influence of Sun-worship on the origin of
Sunday. Indirectly, people who had worshipped the Sun-god in their pagan
days, brought with them into the church various pagan practices. The existence
of the problem is evidenced by the frequent rebukes by Church leaders to those
Christians who venerated the Sun-god, especially on the Day of the Sun.73
The sun is
often used as a symbol to represent Christ.74 The earliest pictorial
representation of Christ (dated about A. D. 240), which was discovered under
the confession of St. Peter's Basilica excavated during a 1953-1957, is a
mosaic that portrays Christ as the Sun God riding the quadriga sun-chariot.75
Sunrise also became the orientation for prayer and for Christian
churches. The dies natalis solis Invicti, the birthday of the
Invincible Sun, which the Romans celebrated on December 25, was adopted by the
Christians to celebrate Christ's birth.76
direct indication is provided by the use of the sun symbology to justify
the actual observance of Sunday. The motifs of light and of the sun are
frequently invoked by the Church Fathers to develop a theological
justification for Sunday worship. God's creation of light on the first
day and the resurrection of the Sun of Justice which occurred on the same day
coincided with the day of the sun.
example, in his Commentary on Psalm 91, Eusebius (263-339) writes:
"The Logos has transferred by the New Alliance the celebration of the
Sabbath to the rising of the light. He has given us a type of the true
rest in the saving day of the Lord, the first day of light. ... In this day
of light, first day and true day of the sun, when we gather after the
interval of six days, we celebrate the holy and spiritual Sabbaths . . . All
things whatsoever that were prescribed for the Sabbath, we have transferred
them to the Lord's day, as being more authoritative and more highly regarded
and first in rank, and more honorable than the Jewish Sabbath. In fact, it is
on this day of the creation of the world that God said: 'Let there be light
and there was light.' It is also on this day that the Sun of Justice has
risen for our souls."77
This statement from Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and regarded as the
father of church history, is significant for two reasons. First, because it
places the responsibility for the change from the Sabbath to Sunday upon the
church: "All things whatsoever that were prescribed for the Sabbath,
we have transferred them to the Lord's day. Second, because it
appeals to the creation of the light on the first day of the week to justify
the observance of Sunday observance.
On a similar vein Jerome (342-420), the translator of the Latin Vulgate,
explains: "If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we
most willingly acknowledge it as such, since it is on this day that the
light of the world appeared and on this day the Sun of Justice has
conclusion of this investigation conducted over a period of five years at the
Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome is as follows: The change from Sabbath
to Sunday came about, not by the authority of Christ or the Apostles, but as a
result of an interplay of social, political, pagan, and religious factors.
influenced the abandonment the observance of the Sabbath at a time when the
Jewish religion in general and Sabbathkeeping in particular were outlawed in
the Roman empire. Sun-worship influenced the adoption of Sunday observance to
show differentiations from the Jews and identification with the customs and
cycles of the Roman empire.
from Sabbath to Sunday was not simply one of names or numbers, but of
authority, meaning and experience. It was a change from a divinely
established Holy Day to enable believers to experience more freely and
more fully the awareness of divine presence and peace in our lives, into an
ecclesiastical Feast Day which has become an occasion to seek for
personal pleasure and profit.
historical change has greatly affected the quality of Christian living of
countless people who throughout the centuries have been deprived of the
physical, moral and spiritual renewal the Sabbath is designed to
provide. The change has also contributed to the alarming decline in
church attendance which is threatening the survival of mainline churches is
numerous Western countries.
At a time
when concerted efforts are made by popes, church leaders, and scholars,
to promote Sunday sacredness on the basis of its alleged apostolic origin, it
is imperative to help Christians understand that Sunday observance is a
post-apostolic development that lacks biblical authority, meaning and
As we live
today in a tension-filled, rushing, and restless culture, our lives cry
out for the release, renewal and realignment that awaits God's people on His
Holy Sabbath Day.
observance in this cosmic age can well be for modern Christians the fitting
expression of a cosmic faith, a faith which embraces and unites creation,
redemption and final restoration; the past, the present and the future; man,
nature and God; this world and the world to come; a faith that recognizes
God's dominion over the whole creation and over human life by consecrating to
Him a portion of time; a faith that fulfills the believer's true destiny in
time and eternity; a faith that would treat the Lord's day as God's holy
day rather than as a holiday.
Due to the
unusual length of this essay, I decided to leave out the 8 pages of endnotes.
Saturday, the 7th day of the week, is still God's weekly Sabbath and if you
want God's blessings, understand why you have been duped into a Sunday sabbath
and get back to rest and worship on the proper day, Saturday.
See also sabbath issue and sabbath
which day and sabbathfredcoulter