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A Brief History: From Sabbath to “Lord’s Day” – Part Two

A Brief History: From Sabbath to “Lord’s Day” – Part Two


The Christian era began during the reign of the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus. At that time the Roman empire tolerated within its borders scores—if not hundreds—of religions and cults.
On its eastern border there was Persia with its Zoroastrianism; far to the northwest was the Druidism of Celtic Britain. There were popular Greek mystery cults. There were diverse forms of nature worship with secret initiations and fertility rights. Some folks had a superstitious attachment to astrology and others worshipped various sun gods.

The Romans themselves admired the religion and culture of Greece. They adopted Greek gods and blended them into their own religions. The result was a mixture of ancestor worship, emperor worship, and sun worship—a religion that included not one god, but many.

The Jews, on the other hand, worshipped only one God. Though surrounded by the images of Greek and Roman deities, they served a God they couldn’t see. They had no icons or images to represent Him. They had no initiations or fertility rites.

Instead they had a day. A day that set them apart. A day without equal in any other religion. A 24-hour period devoted completely to their God. The Jews had the Sabbath.

This series of posts is based on research for “The Seventh Day” documentary, a five-hour miniseries hosted by Hal Holbrook. For more information please visit

A Brief History: From Sabbath to “Lord’s Day” – Part One

A Brief History: From Sabbath to “Lord’s Day” – Part One

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

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.

First Century Christians in Jewish Synagogues? Wake Up and Smell the History!

Is there historical evidence that either Jesus or His disciples established Sunday as the new Sabbath for Christians? No. In fact, history shows just the opposite. In the final years of the 1st century Christians were still worshipping with Jews. On the Sabbath. In the synagogues.

At that time, Christianity was not a legal religion within the Roman Empire. Judaism was. There were no Christian church buildings. It’s clear that Christians attended Sabbath services in the Jewish synagogues.

We know this because of Jewish reaction against the Christians who joined in the synagogue services. Near the end of the 1st century, Jewish rabbis added a “benediction” to prayers that were recited in the synagogues. It is called the “blessing on the heretics,” but it’s actually a curse directed at Christian converts. Watch the video.

Seventh-day Sabbath Survived!

Seventh-day Sabbath Survived!

There is no New Testament authority for establishing Sunday as a holy day for believers. There are only eight references to the first day of the week in the NT, and six of those are part of the resurrection narratives. None of the eight can be reasonably construed as establishing the first day of the week as a replacement for the Sabbath.

But whatever the reason, Sunday eventually became the prominent Christian day of worship, displacing the Sabbath from that role. But this change was a gradual one. The earliest clear evidence is found in two 2nd-century documents: the Epistle of Barnabas (from Alexandria, Egypt), and the writings of Justin Martyr (from Rome.)

But the issue was far from settled in the 2nd century.

For hundreds of years the Sabbath and Sunday (“the Lord’s day”) were both observed. The bishops at the council of Laodicea (mid-4th century) agreed on a change in the Sabbath church services: “The Gospels are to be read on the Sabbath, i.e. Saturday, with the other Scriptures.” (Canon 16)

(Remember, we’re talking about what happened roughly 300 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.)

“Christians must not Judaize [refrain from labor] by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.” (Canon 29)

This shows us that Sabbath observance survived for hundreds of years after the time of Christ. The institutional church, represented by the bishops, wanted to exalt Sunday [the Lord’s day] by dampening the popularity of the Sabbath and the Sabbath rest.

Their efforts were not completely successful, at least outside the church’s two great centers of influence – Rome and Alexandria. Another century and more went by before Socrates Scholasticus wrote:

“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 Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticas, Book V Chapter XXII)

The biblical day of sacred time continued to be observed. The Sabbath survived.