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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.

Moonlit Easter

Moonlit Easter

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD the Christian world was divided over the Easter question. Should the celebration be tied to Passover? That meant that it could come on any day of the week. Easter/Passover would be on the 14th of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar.

The idea of cutting Easter loose from the Jewish calendar gained popularity. Looking back at that era, we can understand why.

For one thing, a small group of Jewish functionaries controlled the calendar. That must have irked some Gentile Christians. Worse, the Jewish calendar was subject to the occasional insertion of “leap months” to keep the yearly cycle of religious festivals in synch with the seasons. (More about that some other time.)

Political and social conditions may have played a role in the Easter debate. The Bar Kochba revolt (132 to 135) backfired on Palestinian Jews, and Emperor Hadrian expelled them from Jerusalem. Jewish Christians were swept out with the rest. Bad PR for the Jews reflected on the Christians, who were seen by some Roman authorities as an offshoot Jewish sect. Add the fact that Christians faced persecution that came and went at the whim of emperors. The unpopularity of Jews motivated Christians to distance themselves from all things Jewish.

It was during this same period that Christians in some parts of the Roman Empire shifted their day of worship from the Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday. (Another fascinating chapter of history that is beyond the scope of this post.) There was strong support for the idea of assigning Easter to the new weekly holy day.

If the full moon coincided with Sunday, Easter would be delayed by one week. This last stipulation decreased the chance of Easter falling on the same day as Passover.

Why was it important that there was always a big moon at Easter? To provide light for night-walking pilgrims on their way to the holy shrines in Jerusalem.