Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity
Dr. David W. T. Brattston
There are strongly-held differences as to whether God wishes Saturday or Sunday to be the main weekly day of Christian assembling and worship. As with many religious issues, both sides appeal to the Bible; then, when arguments based on it fail to convince, they look to the practice of the earliest Christians. For instance, some adherents of a seventh-day Saturday Sabbath allege as fact that Sunday did not become the chief day of the Christian week until the time of the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century AD, when he changed it from Saturday to win over non-Christian sun worshippers.
Consulting early Christian practices and customs is a good idea because they record how Christians lived their faith when the unwritten teachings and Bible interpretations of Christ and the apostles were still fresh in Christian memory, and reveal the consensus of Christian conviction on various matters before they become issues in dispute. These sources also witnessed ways of doing things passed down through overlapping generations.
The present article therefore distils the five hundred (more or less) Christian writings that have come down to us since before the mass apostasy of AD 249-251, in order to determine which day(s) the first heirs of the gospel observed and what kinds of activities God endorses for the main day(s) of the Christian week.
As in the religious world today, there were differences of outlook even in Christian antiquity as to which day(s) was to be observed, how they were to be observed, whether the Old Testament rules for the Sabbath were still binding, whether Sunday replaced the Saturday Sabbath, and which genres of activities Christians should pursue and which not on the chief day(s) of the week. The present article explores all these issues and will note where there was agreement and where different early Christians practiced different behaviors.
Unity in Essentials
The earliest Christian literature, well before Constantine, is unanimous that the main day of the week for early Christians to gather and worship was not the seventh-day Sabbath, but Sunday, which they sometimes called “the first day” or “the eighth day” or “the Lord’s Day”. We have inklings of this already in apostolic times: (1) in Acts 20.7 Christians at Troas celebrated Holy Communion and listened to a sermon “upon the first day of the week”, and (2) in 1 Corinthians 16.2 we are exhorted: “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”. In opposition to Sabbath-keeping and other Jewish practices, the Letter of Barnabas 15.8f speaking from a Christian viewpoint sometime between AD 70 and 132, records that:
Further, He says to them, "Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure." Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when He had manifested Himself, He ascended into the heavens.
Abundant evidence of Sunday as the day of Christian communal worship comes from the middle of the second century. The most replete is in a description of a typical Christian weekly worship service in Justin’s First Apology 67:
on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings…. 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 was a Christian teacher at Rome who was martyred for the Faith around AD 165.
Present-day Sabbatarians deny that “the Lord’s day” in Revelation 1.10 indicates Sunday observance, and allege that it was the common term only for the time preceding the Second Coming. However, in The Letter of the Apostles 17, Jesus Himself is depicted as calling the eighth day “the Lord’s day”. Originating in Asia Minor or Egypt in the middle of the second century, this Letter purports to be the revelation of Christ to the apostles. Although we may doubt that this Letter is inspired or scripture or even apostolic, it does witness to an early date for Christians observing Sunday and describing it as “the Lord’s Day”. From the eastern Mediterranean, sometime between AD 180 and 200, The Acts of Peter begins: “On the first day of the week, that is, on the Lord's day, a multitude gathered together, and they brought unto Peter many sick that he might heal them.” (Coptic Fragment).
Tertullian probably wrote On Idolatry in his earlier, “catholic” period, when he was a member of the mainline or “Great Church”, between AD 198 and the 220s. In Chapter 14, after noting of Christians that “by us, to whom Sabbaths are strange” and mentioning “the Lord’s day”, Tertullian wrote that it was already well-known by pagans that Christians “have a festive day every eighth day”. Tertullian had been a prominent lawyer in the City of Rome before converting and being ordained in Tunisia, where he became the founder of Latin Christian literature.
Compiled in Syria, The Didascalia is a long comprehensive manual for church practice from the first three decades of the third century. In contrast to Jewish Sabbath customs, the first paragraph of Chapter 21 notes that “on Sundays” Christians rejoice and make good cheer, and in the last paragraph exhorts that all Christians should make good cheer “on the first day of the week”.
Bardesan was a Christian scholar who was prominent at the Syrian court before AD 223. He described the unity of Christian behavior and ethics throughout the world. One example he cited was that Christians everywhere assemble on the first day of the week.
While Tertullian wrote more about Christian topics in the Latin language than anyone before Augustine two centuries later, Origen wrote more on them than anyone in any language until Martin Luther thirteen centuries later, after the invention of printing. Origen was the foremost Bible scholar, teacher and preacher of the first half of the third century. Until 230 his work centered in Egypt, thereafter in Palestine. Usually half or more of the citations and quotations in my 230± writings on early Christian behavior and practices come from Origen, due to the larger mass of his writings that have survived. However, the present pamphlet makes relatively little use of him because of the great number of other authors that wrote about the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. His sole contribution as to which is the main weekly day of Christian worship is in Homilies on Isaiah 5.2 (between AD 239 and 242). The best translation is that Christians celebrate the resurrection of the Lord every Sunday, not only once a year or on Saturday.
Thus it is plain that the chief day of the Christian week, even before the middle of the third century, was Sunday. This is evidenced by contemporaneous literature from Troas, Corinth, Egypt, Syria, Rome, Tunisia, and Palestine. There is no extant record of it being on Saturday. In fact, Tertullian’s Apologeticum 16 makes a direct and unmistakable contrast, using the names of the days: “we devote Sun-day to rejoicing, from a far different reason than Sun-worship, we have some resemblance to those of you who devote the day of Saturn to ease and luxury, though they too go far away from Jewish ways”.
The Lord’s Day a Postponed Sabbath?
Was this new Lord’s Day merely a one-day adjournment of the old seventh-day Sabbath, for which rest is still mandated? Not according to Barnabas 15, the Acts of Peter, or Tertullian’s On Idolatry 14, although Tertullian is not clear in his other treatises. It certainly was not for Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, who was martyred around AD 107. His Letter to the Magnesian Christians 9.1 mentions as common ground between him and them that life in Christ implies “no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in observance of the Lord’s Day”. Here we see a bishop, writing less than a decade after the death of the last apostle and who doubtless worked with some apostles, distinguishing between the Jewish Sabbath and the first day of the week as that of Christian worship.
Justin’s debate with a Jew uncovers a treasure trove of information about the differences between the two peoples of God in the second century, both from the Christian and from the Jewish point of view. Trypho the Jew faulted Christians of his era because they did not keep the Sabbath, festivals, circumcision, or other Old Testament ordinances (Dialogue with Trypho 10: “you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments.”). Justin conceded that Christians do not practice circumcision or ritual washings, and even heat water on the seventh day (10: “"Is there any other matter, my friends, in which we are blamed, than this, that we live not after the law, and are not circumcised in the flesh as your forefathers were, and do not observe sabbaths as you do?”; 29: “Be not offended at, or reproach us with, the bodily uncircumcision with which God has created us; and think it not strange that we drink hot water on the Sabbaths.”) The last-mentioned is still forbidden under Jewish law. Remember that circumcision was one of the crucial differences between the two religions in the Lukan Acts and Paul’s letters.
Abounding in statements elaborating differences between Christians and Jews, the Didascalia, in whole and in part, is clear that the first day of the week and the Sabbath are not the same.
In the 240s, Origen appeared to have been of the conviction that Sunday is a kind of Sabbath. Homilies on Numbers 23.4 favors observing a day of rest—or more precisely, a day of abstinence from worldly activities and temporal affairs—so that Christians will have the leisure to apply themselves more completely to spiritual exercises, such as attending church and listening to the Bible readings and the sermon—activities that other authors describe as usual for the Lord’s Day, or first day of the week. Moreover, Origen taught that the Sabbath is but a shadow or symbol of good things to come, as did other ancient Christian writers, e.g. Didascalia 26 and Paul in Colossians 2.16f: “16Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
More clearly, in AD 249 or 250, Origen preached that a distinctive mark of Christians is that they do observe the Sabbath, but not by resting from the enjoyments of everyday life but only from indulging in sin (Homilies on Joshua 2.1).
The Sabbath Abolished?
With three dissenting voices, Christian authors before the mass apostasy of AD 249-251 believed that Jesus abolished the Sabbath completely. According to The Acts of Peter 1 (Vercelli manuscript) in the late second century, Christian in the City of Rome “had in mind also how that Paul had oftentimes contended with the doctors of the Jews and confuted them, saying: Christ, upon whom your fathers laid hands, abolished their sabbaths and fasts and holy-days and circumcision, and the doctrines of men and the rest of the traditions he did abolish.”
The same is implied in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 10. In the late second century or early third century, the Letter to Diognetus 4.1 characterized as “utterly ridiculous”, “unworthy of notice” and “superstition” the Jewish concerns for sabbaths and circumcision. Some scholars attribute this Letter to a former tutor of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). The Didascalia 26 speaks of Christ “fulfilling” the Sabbath, which therefore need no longer be observed.
In his catholic period, Tertullian’s Answer to the Jews 2.10 taught that the Sabbath and circumcision were not valid for all time and all peoples, but were confined to Jews under the Law of Moses and were abolished for the Christian (the present) dispensation. Chapter 4.1 is more bold: “the Sabbath is demonstrated to have been temporary” and opines that any references to it in Christian Scriptures denotes the permanent rest at the end of time, a common belief among early Christian writers. In the 220s Origen wrote that all Christians believe that neither circumcision nor Sabbath rest nor animal sacrifices in the Bible are to be understood literally nor practiced since the time of Jesus (De Principiis 2.7.2.). In Homilies on Genesis 5.5 Origen dismissively preached that “there is nothing great” in observing circumcision and the Sabbath. The Didascalia 26 also denied that the Saturday Sabbath has any validity or binding force outside the period from Moses to Jesus, and ridiculed the custom of being idle one whole day in seven.
Although obscure, there was support for the belief that Sabbath obligations continue for Christians, in a highly modified way that probably applied to weekdays as well. In his Letter to Flora in the middle of the second century, the Gnostic Ptolemy discussed the various components of divine law and said that God wants us to keep the Sabbath by refraining from doing evil, and to fast in the sense of abstaining from sin (5.12). God has not so much abolished the Sabbath, wrote Ptolemy, as transformed it. He added that even Christians (or his sect of them) observe “the external practice of fasting” providing it is done for the proper motives (5.13), but mentioned no similar provision for abstaining from work on the Sabbath. Another Gnostic book, the famous Gospel of Thomas 27, in the second half of the second century or earlier also inculcated “fasting as to the world” and “keeping the Sabbath as Sabbath”, but is unclear as to whether this fasting is only from sin and as to whether this Sabbath is on the first or seventh day of the week. There is no context to help tease out a clearer meaning or how this Sabbath is to be kept, because the Gospel of Thomas consists only of random short isolated sayings unconnected to those next to them.
Marcion held doctrines similar to the Gnostics, the most important of which was that there is one god of the Old Testament and a totally different god of Jesus and the New Testament. The two deities are in conflict with each other and require different kinds of behaviors from people. One argument Marcion employed in support of this doctrine was that the god of the Old Testament commands Sabbath observance while that of the New does not. Here we have an enemy of mainstream Christianity seizing on a difference as well-established. To prove that there is only one deity, Tertullian’s Against Marcion defended the continuity of the Bible and its God. As for the Sabbath, Tertullian said that Christ did not rescind, annul or destroy it, although confining its prohibitions to human works for one’s own benefit as distinct from work he would permit for healing, restoring, and other “divine” work. He defended the Sabbath as “a day which is to be free from gloom rather than from work” (4.12).
As he gradually drifted away from mainstream Christianity, Tertullian moved more and more towards the rigors of Sabbath-keeping, as can be expected from the general strictness of the cult he later joined. His early Answer to the Jews 4 speaks of the Sabbath, like circumcision, as having been a merely temporary provision, binding only in the Mosaic age, and is not nor should not be devoted to the resting that Moses had commanded: “we Christians understand that we still more ought to observe a sabbath from all ‘servile work’ always, and not only every seventh day, but through all time.” Almost as early, his On Idolatry 14 states that to Christians “Sabbaths are strange”.
“Christ did not at all rescind the Sabbath” and “He did not utterly destroy it” asserts his later Against Marcion 4.12, which denies that Jesus annulled it, although Tertullian still maintained the proper way of observing it to be different from that in pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism. For instance, Tertullian wrote that it is to be “free from gloom rather than free from work”. Yet On Fasting 15 unmistakably indicated that the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are two separate days of the week, on neither of which may Christians fast. However, this does not necessitate all sabbath-keeping, for On Fasting deals only with various forms and rules of fasting. Discussion as to which is the day of public worship would be off-topic.
About AD 233 Origen preached that the gospel allowed “work on the Sabbath, except work for profit” on the same principle that it permits “food, unless it is spoiled” (Homilies on Luke: Rauer’s Fragment 107). One of the marks of Christians, said Origen (as mentioned above), was that they observe the Sabbath, not in the sense of resting from everyday life, but resting from sin (Homilies on Joshua 2.1).
Some authors actually prohibited Sabbath-keeping. Justin wrote that it was not the practice of the Great Church—the majority, mainstream Christians—to be circumcised or to observe the Sabbath or other Jewish institutions, but added that they were practiced by sectarians who warped the true faith. He considered it a sin for them to try to persuade other Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath (Dialogue with Trypho 47). In a less ecumenical age than our own, Tertullian forbade any attendance of Christians at pagan or Jewish festivities or observing their holidays. Keep the eighth day, he said, but not the Sabbath--which he described as alien to Christians (On Idolatry 14).
Commenting about the Sabbath, Didascalia 26 proclaims: “every day is the Lord’s, for the Scripture says ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein.’” In his defense of the Faith against pagan taunts, Origen in the late 240s replied:
we ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days, as for example, the Lord’s day, the Preparation, the Passover, or Pentecost. I have to answer, that to the perfect Christian, who is ever in his thoughts, words, and deeds serving his natural Lord, God the Word, all days are the Lord’s, and he is always keeping the Lord’s day.” (Against Celsus 8.22)
Was “the Preparation” the new Christian name for the old Jewish Sabbath? In Homilies on Exodus 7.5 Origen indicated that it was Friday, the sixth day, that Christians called “the Day of Preparation” while the Sabbath is the seventh day, which he clearly distinguished from the Lord’s Day. In the AD 190s, Origen’s predecessor as the dean of the world’s most prominent educational institution, wrote that the seventh day is to be a day of rest or “abstraction from ills—preparing for the Primal Day” (Clement of Alexandria Stromata 6.16). The context is ambiguous as to whether this Primal Day is the Lord’s Day that follows every Sabbath or the era of our reward at the end of time.
The Sabbath Commandment was Unimportant
Before the devastating epidemic and mass apostasy of A.D. 249 to 251, Christians regarded the Fourth Commandment as unimportant, and perhaps no longer binding under the New Covenant. This is the injunction in the Ten Commandments to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. When Christians in this foundational period recited or summarized the Ten or gave examples of its contents, they always, always, omitted the Fourth one.
Sometimes early Christians partially enumerated the Ten Commandments as still binding, sometimes as good rules of conduct evident from nature in human beings, sometimes as binding only on Jews, and sometimes as proof of what a wise and beneficent lawgiver God is. Although in some instances the Christians were quoting from memory, the omission of the Sabbath also occurs in works that originated only in writing, with the author possessing the luxury of suspending his activity to research a point or ascertain the exact wording of Scripture. Whether the form was originally oral or written, early Christian sources consistently omitted the Sabbath when summarizing or giving examples of God’s law.
How many Commandments were recited, and which ones, varied from author to author and book to book. Most of them included the prohibitions against murder, theft and adultery. These are the only ones cited by Bishop Hippolytus in his early-third century Refutation of All Heresies 5.15. Idolatry is also included in Romans 2.21-22, and in Paedagogus 3.12 by Clement of Alexandria, and in Theophilus’ To Autolycus 5.15. Theophilus was bishop of Antioch in the third quarter of the second century. Theophilus and Romans 13.9 detail the commandment against coveting also. False witness was included in the list as forbidden, and honoring one’s mother and father as mandatory, by Bishop Irenaeus in France (Against Heresies 4.12.5; AD 180s; the teacher of Hippolytus), Clement of Alexandria, by Theophilus, and in Origen’s On First Principles 4.19 and Commentary on Romans 2.9.1, all of which originated in writing. Origen’s other mentions are in Commentary on Romans 9.31.1 in writing, and Homilies on Numbers 11.1.8 in oral preaching. All speakers and writers, from Jesus to Origen, omitted the Sabbath commandment as part of Christian law.
The only exception, a Christian listing or summary that included the Sabbath, was Tertullian’s On Modesty 5. This was in a violent attack against the orthodox, mainstream, church after he had joined a narrow, rigorous, sect.
Jesus Himself was notorious to the scribes and Pharisees for what they considered nonchalance about the Sabbath. His attitude is illustrated in Matthew 19.18-19, Mark 10.19 and Luke 18.20. Mark and Luke record Christ as beginning with “Thou knowest the commandments” and enumerating murder, theft, adultery, honor to parents, and false witness. Like the Apostle Paul, and His other followers for two centuries, Jesus omitted the Sabbath. Thus, even “the Lord of the Sabbath” considered it as not immediate in mind when listing the Ten, or not correctly applied by the Pharisees and other Jews.
Luke’s Acts of the Apostles 13 and 16
In support of their position that the Saturday Sabbath, rather than Sunday, was the main day of Christian assembly and worship until the fourth century, sabbatarians cite the 13th, 16th, and 18th chapters of the Lukan Acts, which narrate that the Apostle Paul and his companions attended synagogue and preached on Sabbaths. When asked to preach again in Acts 13.42 and 44, they did not do so the next day (Sunday) but on the following Sabbath. The sabbatarian interpretation goes that Christian preaching, and therefore the main Christian community assembly to hear the word of God and worship, was on the Sabbath, not Sunday.
The relevant verses quoted for this position are:
Acts 13:14: they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and sat down.
Acts 13:42And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. 44And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God.
Acts 16: 12And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days. 13And on the Sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.
Acts 18: 4And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.
However, a more plausible interpretation is that the apostolic company went to the synagogue on the Sabbath because it was when they would have the largest audience. The Saturday Sabbath was and is the main day for Jews to assemble and listen to readings from the Law of Moses and the prophets (Acts 13:15; 15:21). In this they were joined by “God-fearers”, who were Gentiles that were attracted by Jewish (and later Christian) ethics and belief in a single deity, but were not ready to formally convert to Judaism, for this required circumcision. Do not forget that visitors at synagogue were often requested to preach on the readings (Acts 13:15), which provided a splendid opportunity for evangelization uncommon elsewhere or on other days of the week. Paul and company attended for this extraneous reason, not out of any Christian obligation to worship on that day or among Jews. Remember also that in predominantly Gentile milieus Paul preached in the marketplace also, and at a sort of Hyde Park for discussion of metaphysical subjects (Acts 17:16-21), yet sabbatarians do not oblige anyone to preach in these venues today.
It is also to be observed that, in Canada at least, the main television series that advances this sabbatarian argument ( Tomorrow’s World) is broadcast on Sunday, not Saturday.
So far, we have established that the Sabbath (Saturday) and the Lord’s Day (Sunday) are different in concept from each other in the Christian week. Christian literature before the mass apostasy of AD 249-251 reveals that—despite the unity of ancient sources on this issue—they differed as to how the two days are to be observed, with each having its own behavioral precepts as to what believers should on the respective days.
Among Christian authors before the middle of the third century there was a variety of attitudes on how to keep the Sabbath or Lord’s Day, sometimes both. Activities mandatory or encouraged for Sunday, the Lord’s Day, were: attending church (Acts 20.7-11; Justin 1 Apology 67, Bardesan, Didascalia 13), as also Chapter 14.1 of the Didache, a church manual written when many apostles were alive, and probably before the Gospel of Matthew. The entire fourteenth chapter is instructive and informative:
Chapter 14. But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: "In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations."
Except for Didascalia 13, the same sources contemplated that Holy Communion would be held there every Sunday. Acts 20, Justin 1 Apology 67, and Didascalia 13 included listening to the Bible readings and sermons there. The Didache 14 would add the confession of sins before Communion. Paul and Justin recorded contributing to the relief of less fortunate Christians as a regular Sunday activity (1 Corinthians 16.2, 1 Apology 67). Christians should be joyful on the Lord’s Day, according to Barnabas 15.9, Tertullian Apologeticum 16 (as distinct from the observance of Saturn-day, “we devote Sun-day to rejoicing”), and Didascalia 21. Curiously, Didascalia 21 exhorts to both fear and trembling and also good cheer on the same day. Uncharacteristically short of words, Origen had nothing to say about Christian duties for Sunday except to celebrate the Resurrection (Homilies on Isaiah 5.2), and wanted believers to strive at (1) self-control of the body on the Lord’s Day, and (2) “abstaining from the pleasures of this life which lead astray so many” (Against Celsus 8.22).
The Didascalia was against idleness on the Lord’s Day, and also idolatry, attendance at pagan assemblies, the theatre, fairs and festivals for idols, as well as absenting oneself from a Christian assembly and using worldly business as an excuse for not attending it (13), levity, telling jokes, singing pagan songs, afflicting oneself, and (again) pagan assemblies (21).
There was general agreement that the Lord’s Day is a day for worship, not an unstructured holiday for recreation and doing whatever one liked.
Barnabas 15.7 states that the Sabbath is observed by sanctifying oneself, purity of heart, and “properly resting”, which only beg the question. More particularized are Ptolemy Letter to Flora 5.12, which mandates resting from sin, and Clement Stromata 6.16, which prescribes resting from “abstraction of ills” in preparation for the Lord’s Day the next day. Tertullian would permit religious functions, healing, preserving, saving life, doing good, gentleness, mercy, and working for the benefit of any soul (Against Marcion 4.12). Origen would have Christians attend church each Sabbath, listen to the Bible readings and sermon there, meditate on heavenly things and on the Day of Judgment, and other spiritual exercises (Homilies on Numbers 23.4.1), abstain from the work of sin (Homilies on Joshua 2.1). He would permit working, but not for profit (Homilies on Luke Rauer’s Fragment 107).
Origen’s lack of particulars for Sunday observance and his contrasting abundance of details for the Sabbath lead me to the speculation either that he considered or treated the Lord’s Day like a Sabbath, or that he meant “Sunday” when he said “the Sabbath”. For instance, he prescribed attendance at church and listening to the Scripture readings and sermon for Saturday (Homilies on Numbers 23.4.1) but he made no such provision for Sunday, which six authors before him indicated was the main weekly day of Christian assemblies for public worship, and he himself had stated was the day Christians commemorate Jesus’ resurrection.
For almost two years I puzzled over the anamoly of Origen contradicting all other authors before AD 251 and his own Homilies on Isaiah. The best I could do for the first publication of this piece was to ask readers to email me if they had the answer (The Churchman vol. 126 no. 1 Spring 2012). Over a year later, I remembered that we do not possess the original texts of Homilies on Numbers or Homilies on Joshua in pristine form but only in Latin translations dating from the turn of the fifth century by a churchman named Rufinus. He translated many of Origen’s writings and is noted for condensing, interpolating into, and “correcting” them, in his belief that he was updating them, highlighting their accord with the doctrine of the church in his day, and deleting or altering what he believed were insertions or corruptions by heretics during the intervening century and a half, or more. Thus, the exact wording of the two sets of homilies better represent the conditions of the late fourth and early fifth century than the first half of the third.
Every Day is the Lord’s
In practice, the distinction in early Christian times was not as broad as in our secularized world today. Compiled in 217, Hippolytus’ The Apostolic Tradition 35.1f assumes that local congregations hold services—especially Bible study, instruction and prayer—every morning of the week in order to equip Christians to withstand the trials of the day. A bishop in central Italy and once a rival bishop of Rome, Hippolytus produced this book not as exhibiting his original ideas but to codify existing church practice as it had descended from the apostles. Good Christians attended these services every day of the week (36.1), thus rendering weekends less of a contrast than in our culture. Remember also from Origen that Christians also observed Fridays, called “the Preparation”.
With the ambiguous exception of Origen, all Christian writers that commented about weekends prior to the middle of the third century agreed that Christians are to hold our main assemblies and celebration on Sunday, the first day of the week. They were divided about the seventh-day Sabbath, with a variety of opinions and practices for Saturday. Contrary to an unwarranted assumption in modern times, keeping both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are not mutually exclusive in concept, nor does the chief day on which public worship is held necessarily have to on the day of rest. Equating the two is purely jumping to a conclusion not shared by the first practitioners of the gospel. The author(s) of The Didascalia certainly envisioned, even commanded, that secular work be performed on the day for public worship. Chapter 13, titled “An Instruction to the People to be Constant in Assembling in the Church”, mandated “whenever you are not in the Church, devote yourselves to your work; so that in all the conduct of your life you may either be occupied in the things of the Lord or engaged upon your work, and may never be idle.” It also forbids using a heavy workload as an excuse for not attending church, which indicates that it accepted that Christians work on this day. Although it is true that Sunday did not become a day of mandatory rest until Christianity was co-opted into the state apparatus in the fourth century, it is also true that it—and not the Saturday Sabbath—was the chief day of Christian gathering, worship, and Holy Communion from apostolic times.
Except for Tertullian’s later, heretical, writings, there was a liberal or tolerant attitude as to the separation and respective modes of observing (or not observing) the Sabbath and Lord’s Day. In discussing differences in practice arising from matters of principle between groups within a congregation, Romans 14.5f in the middle of the first century dismissed the matter as indifferent: “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.” In Galatians 4.9 to 11 Paul expressed alarm that local Christians were reverting to their previous Judaic observances, from which he said Christ had liberated them. Paul negatively criticized these believers because “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years” (v. 10), which Paul considered contrary to the pure gospel. Colossians 2.16 witnesses to a mechanism for enforcing this indifferentist principle: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days”.
Sources of Information
It is not enough to flatly state that early Christians held their main public worship on Saturday or only on Sunday. The onus is on the proponents of one view or another to quote or cite early sources, just as this article does for ancient Sunday as the day of worship. In Christianity today, too many people allege that an apostolic or other early state of affairs had existed, without substantiation from original contemporary sources. All teaching and practice must be affirmatively proved from the best evidence available. Otherwise, any sort of statement can be made about anything, and that which can prove anything proves nothing.
Nor is a nineteenth- or twentieth-century Bible commentary or declaration an admissible source of evidence. Because long-lost documents from ancient Christian times are being discovered every two decades or so, we in the twenty-first century know more about the earliest period than did the near-modern commentators. Not even fourth- and fifth-century church historians are reliable when they tender opinions on earlier Christian practices unless they actually excerpt from the documents written during the period under discussion.
Nor is it enough to extract many “suggestions” from different places in Scripture that tangentially touch on a practice, and then lay supposed implication upon supposed implication, when there is clear evidence in contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous Christian writings. The best possible information is obtained when ancient authors are writing specifically on the topic of Christian weekly worship rather than brushing against it when discussing an unrelated topic
Much has been written, and is still being written, on the authority by which the Sabbath was changed to Sunday, as many authors imagine to be the case. Such modern-day writers assume, without evidence from the Bible or earliest church, that the main day for the Christian public assembly and worship is the same as the Sabbath, which they assert was the situation before the fourth century.
Proponents for Saturday public worship overmuch rely on statements pronounced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the topic of the church of the first three centuries. One problem here is that many important Christian documents dating from before AD 249-251 were not discovered until late in the nineteenth century, and some not until the twentieth. Because these resources were not available until to them, such statements have been superseded by those in the late twentieth or twenty-first centuries, such as those which this pamphlet uses.
Sabbatarian authors rely heavily on Roman Catholic propagandists such as James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921), Archbishop of Baltimore. The thrust of such Roman Catholic literature is that there is no scriptural warrant for the transfer of the Sabbath to the first day of the week but is valid and binding only because Jesus gave the Roman Church wide-reaching authority to alter Biblical precepts and to introduce or change doctrines and practices in addition to the Bible, or even in contradiction of it. It was the Roman Church, wrote the proponents of the papacy, that changed the day to the practice now followed by most Protestants (indeed, most Christians). The papal argument ran that if Protestants accept one Roman innovation, they are logically compelled to accept them all, and thus yield to the pope in all other matters, abandoning their doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Stated alternatively, Gibbons and his confreres asserted that if a Protestant accepts the practice of the Church of Rome when it altered one of the Ten Commandments, s/he must accept all Roman beliefs and practices.
There are three fallacies in the Sabbatarian reliance on such Roman Catholic literature. First, it assumes that the Roman Church has always been incorrect in every detail; whatever Rome does is automatically bad. A more reasonable sentiment is that religious truth is not an indivisible whole, and that the pope in sometimes correct when other Christians share a practice. Second, such Sabbatarian literature uses scare tactics dating from a time when popery was regarded as a malign conspiracy bent on destroying human rights, patriotism, and common decency. The Christian is duty-bound, implied the Sabbatarians, to oppose and be unlike Rome in as many ways as possible, even when this entailed discarding the practices of the early Christians. Third, such Roman Catholic literature is best described as “triumphalist”. It was not written as a balanced presentation of uncontroverted history, but as propaganda to win Protestants into full formal membership in the papal church through arguments built on logical consistency; it was directed to Protestants who did not know the reasons for their beliefs and practices and lacked the resources to learn about.
The Roman Catholic contentions were themselves flawed. First of all, there was no pope or bishop of Rome until the middle of the second century. The New Testament envisions congregations being led by more than one official, synonymously termed “bishops”, “elders” or “presbyters”. It was not until the beginning of the second century that one of them began to be set apart, and designated as the sole “bishop” separate from the committee of elders. This change did not occur everywhere at once. Starting in Syria, it spread westward only gradually, and did not reach the City of Rome until mid-century. Even The First Letter of Clement, written in the City on church government in the second half of the first century, knew only committees of elders/presbyters. Second, whether led by a single bishop or a committee, it was technologically and organizationally impossible for the church of the City to enforce innovations or compliance over the whole of Christendom, even though confined as it was mostly to the Mediterranean world. Communications were too sporadic and undeveloped. Any long journey was time-consuming and hazardous; that of Saint Paul in Acts 27 and 28 was not unusual. Travel was even more dangerous when the church was persecuted, with any papal emissaries, had they existed, being stopped or killed en route.
Third, uncontroverted contemporaneous facts indicate that the early centuries knew nothing of the present Roman Catholic system of religious governance and supremacy. Bishop Irenaeus of France and most bishops in western Turkey felt free to argue with the bishop of the City in the late second century, and the eastern bishops steadfastly continued for centuries a practice objectionable to the pope of Rome. A similar controversy raged in the AD 250s between the pope on the one side and bishops in Turkey and a large host of north African bishops on the other. These incidents would have been inconceivable if it were part of early Christian belief that the papacy divinely held authority to make modifications within the Faith, let alone alter Biblical commands such as a seventh-day Sabbath.
Fourth, evidence of Sunday observance was too widespread and is attested far too early to have been enacted by the bishop of Rome. Even if we dismiss Justin Martyr as a witness because he wrote in the City when it had a solo bishop, there remain the attestations in Troas, Corinth, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and also in Tunisia by Tertullian, who opposed papal claims to oversight over the worldwide church.
While there was scope for individual liberty or variations among believers as to exact details of how the Saturday Sabbath and Sunday Lord’s Day are to be observed, the best available sources were unanimous that the Old Testament Sabbath and the Christian Lord’s Day are not the same, and that the Lord’s Day rather than the seventh-day Sabbath is the approved day for Christians to assemble and worship as a church.
copyright Canada 2013 David W. T. Brattston, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
An earlier version of this booklet was published in the Spring 2012 issue (vol. 126 no. 1) of The Churchman, Watford, England.