Have you ever wondered how the vast majority of devout Christians came to observe Sunday as “the Lord’s day” instead of the biblical Sabbath, or Saturday? This is not a theological question, but an historical one. What happened? When and where did it happen? Who started it, and why?
This series of short posts will focus on the first three centuries Christianity and identify key factors in the Sabbath/Sunday controversy. The posts are based on research for “The Seventh Day: Revelations from the Lost Pages of History,” a documentary miniseries hosted by Hal Holbrook and featuring more than fifty historians and theologians. (Information at www.theseventhday.tv)
Let’s look back about nineteen hundred years to when an unknown Christian writer introduced a novel idea about the weekly holy day. The proper day for Christians to observe, he suggested, is not the seventh day, as the Ten Commandments have it. It is the eighth day, the day following the Sabbath—the day we know as Sunday—that should be kept holy.
It seems an irrational arithmetic that allows Sunday to be both the first day and the eighth day of a seven-day weekly cycle. If you throw logic to the wind, however, the message is simple: Sunday is superior to Sabbath (Saturday) just as eight is superior to seven.
This elevation of Sunday – which came to be called “the Lord’s day” – over the Old Testament Sabbath is just one small piece of the history of the Sabbath. Some Christians took it for granted that the church could properly transfer the sacred nature of the Sabbath from one day to another. Whether or not the church has ever had that kind of authority is another matter altogether. That’s a theological issue. Here we are dealing with history.
Marcion was born around 85 AD in the region of Pontus. On our maps that would be the north coast of Turkey, along the Black Sea. Some historians say he was a wealthy ship owner who converted to Christianity as an adult. Others claim that his father was a bishop. In any case, Marcion went to Rome and joined a church, possibly in 135 AD or so. And that’s where our story really begins.
Marcion was an original thinker who developed his own version of Christianity. Whenever he tried to promote his views among church leaders he was rebuffed. He kept pressing, but to no avail. He was excommunicated in 144 AD. Church historians know him as the first great heretic.
He didn’t give up and head home to Sinope. He had gone to Rome in hopes of becoming a man of influence in the established church. Failing that, he started his own church. I don’t mean that he started a congregation there in Rome. No. He started a new denomination – a new religion, really – with only incidental similarities to Christianity. History knows it as Marcionism. He was a fervent missionary, and he established Marcionite churches throughout the Mediterranean world.
Marcionism was a decidedly anti-Semitic religion. Marcion wanted not the slightest tinge of Judaism in it. He rejected the entire Old Testament and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. Luke he accepted, but even there he cut out those verses that referred to Old Testament prophecy. His “bible” included most of Paul’s epistles but nothing from James, John, Jude, or Peter.
According to Marcion, the God of the Old Testament was a demiurge, an inferior god who had created an imperfect, evil world. Since the Sabbath memorialized that creation, it should not be observed. He pushed this point further. He said that since the Jews observe Sabbath with feasting and celebration, his followers should do just the opposite: on the Jewish Sabbath, Christians should fast.
While historians are not in full agreement about whether or not the fasting idea was original with Marcion, it is clear is that Sabbath fasting soon gained traction in the Roman version of Christianity. Sylvester, bishop of Rome in the 4th century, made it official:
“Christians are enjoined to mourn and abstain from food on the Sabbath, not only on ‘account of the burial’ of Christ, but also to show contempt for the Jews, and for their Sabbath feasting.” (S. R. E. Humbert, “Adversus Graecorum calumnias”)
This demonstration of contempt for the Jews was not universally accepted. Where the church of Rome had its way, the Sabbath fast was common. Elsewhere there was strong opposition. Greek “orthodox” Christianity resisted the Roman influence, rejecting the fast and maintaining reverence for the Sabbath for many centuries.
The “feast or fast” controversy is an almost-forgotten chapter in the history of the anti-Sabbath movement. It gives us an insight into what drove the protracted and resolute efforts against the biblical holy day. The controversy would eventually contribute to a schism that would divide the Christian world for a thousand years.
More about that in our next post.
The Sabbath/Sunday debate often devolves into a contest between two equally naïve assumptions – both of which are faulty. Both betray a misreading of the historical data – or, in some cases, a woeful ignorance that the data even exists.
On one hand, there’s the assumption that primitive Christians abandoned the Sabbath in the 1st century, establishing Sunday – “the Lord’s day” – as the weekly day of worship.
On the other side of the argument is the assumption that Christians observed the seventh day as holy until Emperor Constantine changed the Sabbath with his Sunday law of 321 AD
Separating these two views of history is actual data that can be studied, interpreted, and resolved into a picture of what really happened. It’s in the form of documents from the early Christian era. Today, historians value them as authentic windows into the past.
Most people who assume that the Sabbath was abandoned early on are probably unfamiliar with Sozomen, a Christian historian who was born around 400 AD near Gaza in Palestine. He writes, “The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria” (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book 7, Chapter 19)
Socrates Scholasticus is another church historian who wrote in the early part of the fifth century. His observation is similar to Sozomen’s. “For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this. The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebaïs, hold their religious assemblies on the sabbath….” (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 22).
[The works of these two historians are available online at www.newadvent.org, a wonderful site offering a treasure of ancient documents, a complete Catholic Encyclopedia, and other material of particular interest to Roman Catholics.]
The historical data shows that Sabbath observance persisted at least into the fifth century. We’ll look at other evidence in future posts.
What about Constantine and the so-called “change of the Sabbath?” Did he do it? Well, there is no doubt about his Sunday law. But there also no doubt that many Christians were already observing Sunday.
The Epistle of Barnabas was probably written in Alexandria during the first half of the 2nd century. The author is unknown. It includes an extended argument against Jewish practices and targets the Sabbath specifically. Sabbath is replaced by another day.
“Wherefore also we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens.” (Barnabas 15:9) The eighth day idea is found in other anti-Sabbath writings of the era.
In addition to the Epistle of Barnabas we have the work of Justin Martyr as evidence of early Christian Sunday observance. He wrote this in Rome around 150 AD:
“But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” (Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, Chapter 67)
Barnabas and Justin Martyr are not alone as witnesses to Sunday observance among early Christians. We also find plenty of evidence that many believers observed both days. We’ll look into that in a future post.
My point: There’s no need for false assumptions when data is available.
Well then, what about opinions? We all entitled to our own, aren’t we? Sure. But are we entitled to our own facts?
A thoughtful TimeTalk reader has made a welcome contribution to the discussion about Sabbath observance among the first-century Christians. He suggests that the vast majority of early converts were Hellenized Jews who had already “jettisoned” the Sabbath and other aspects of the Jewish lifestyle long before the birth of Christ.
Thus, he reasons, the Sabbath was never an issue for them. They would have no reason to resist the institution of a new day of worship – the first day of the week, our Sunday.
His conclusion seems to be this: With these Hellenized Jews outnumbering more traditional old-line Sabbath-keeping Jewish converts by a wide margin, the Sabbath-to-Sunday change could have happened very quickly and very early in the history of the church.
Let’s address this subject in small bites.
First, WHO WERE THE HELLENIZED JEWS? They were Jews of the Diaspora – Jews whose forefathers had not returned to Judea after the Babylonian Exile. There were communities and colonies of these “dispersed” Jews living throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.
Next, IS IT TRUE that the early Christian church was made up largely of converted Hellenized Jews? Well, that question is up for debate among scholars, and I’m eager to hear more from them. So, without yielding the point, let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that the answer is “yes” and move to our final question.
IS IT TRUE that the Hellenized Christians had abandoned the Jewish lifestyle, including Sabbath observance, before the birth of Christ?
The preponderance of evidence says “No.” It’s clear that many of these Jews felt culture-bound to Jerusalem and its Temple. Jewish men from far and near were “required” to go to Jerusalem every year for the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot [Pentecost], and Sukkot [Tabernacles]. They came to Jerusalem in large numbers. In fact, it was attendance at these festivals that first brought these Hellenized Jews into contact with Christianity.
Had these Hellenized Jews assimilated, blending into the societies and cultures where they had settled? Perhaps some had done so. But large numbers of them maintained their Jewish identity. This statement is supported by the literature of the age.
There were three particular markers of Jewishness: Sabbath, circumcision, and abstaining from pork.
Let’s hear from Juvenal, Roman satirist and contemporary of Emperor Hadrian. This is from his Satire 14.
“Some who have had a father who reveres the SABBATH, worship nothing but the clouds, and the divinity of the heavens, and see no difference between eating SWINE’S FLESH, from which their father abstained, and that of man; and in time they take to CIRCUMCISION…. For all which the father was to blame, who GAVE UP EVERY SEVENTH DAY to idleness, keeping it apart from all the concerns of life.” [EMPHASIS MINE] *
Hadrian himself recognized the persistence of widespread Jewish Sabbathkeeping in his day. After putting down the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE he issued a ban on Sabbath keeping. This would have been a non-issue had the Jews, at large, already ceased the observance.
Marcion, notorious second-century heretic, despised the Jews and their Old Testament God. He taught his followers to fast on the Sabbath to show their spite for the Jews who celebrated on that day.
Based on this and other evidence that could be adduced, I am convinced that Hellenic, or Diaspora, Jews did not, in general, abandon the Sabbath and other Jewish practices before – or after – the birth of Christ. I’m satisfied with the conclusion reached by historian John Barclay, who calls the Sabbath “an anchor-point for Diaspora Jewish identity.” **
**Barclay, John M. G. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora From Alexander to Trajan – 323 Bce to 117 Ce. Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 1996.
There are all kinds of ideas kicking around about why Christians don’t need to keep the Sabbath of the Fourth Commandment. Here’s one of the most popular: “We live under the New Covenant, are saved by grace, and therefore the Ten Commandments are irrelevant.”
Not only are they irrelevant, the argument goes, but the Ten Commandments have expired. They are no longer in force. To prove this point, Colossians 2:13, 14 has been offered into evidence. Here are the verses from the King James Version:
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.”
St. Paul, the writer here, is focusing on FORGIVENESS – and, more specifically, the FORGIVENESS event. Let’s take a closer look.
“Handwriting” refers literally to a written thing, such as a manuscript or document of some sort. Many scholars across denominational lines understand this “handwriting” as a statement of personal debt, like an IOU that you might sign if you borrowed money from me. We could also see it as a record of our sins, our signed confession of guilt.
Paul had good news for the members of the Colossian church: God has blotted out that “handwriting.” That’s good news for me, too. It echoes what God said through the pen of Isaiah in the Old Testament: “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins” (Isaiah 43:25).
The “handwriting,” or written record of our sins, was based on “ordinances” – rules, decrees, laws – that testified to our guilt. Note that it was not the “ordinances” that were blotted out, but the “handwriting” – the IOU, the record of our sins, our signed confession. Paul described the “handwriting” as “contrary to us.”
Paul says that God “took it out of the way.” More literally, He “took it out of the middle.” Paul may have been picturing a trial where the accuser stood in the center of the court and testified. Think of the “handwriting” as that accuser, and you are on trial. God takes that accuser “out of the middle” and the charges against you are dropped.
There was one more point Paul wanted to make: The cross of Christ is at the heart of this FORGIVENESS event. The “handwriting” was nailed there. Jesus took our IOU, our guilt, our signed confession. He accepted our sins as His, and paid for them in full.
Using Colossians 2:13, 14 as an anti-Sabbath text is one of the worst arguments against Sabbath-keeping.
The Ten Commandments were not nailed to the cross. The New Covenant does not make them irrelevant. They have not passed their expiration date.
By the way, did you ever notice how this New Covenant anti-Sabbath argument somehow finds a way to resurrect nine of the Ten Commandments and make them relevant again? Why not the Fourth Commandment?
Let me ask you this: Do you know any sincere believer who really thinks that
serving a false god
or making an idol for worship
or taking the Lord’s name in vain
or dishonoring parents
has a proper place in the life of a Christian? I doubt it.
Most conscientious Christians recognize that the Ten Commandments are still the ultimate standard for right living.
Except for the Sabbath Commandment? Really?