Ancient written evidence suggests that some Christians in Alexandria, Egypt may have abandoned the seventh-day Sabbath as early as 120 A.D.
This evidence is found in a writing called The Epistle of Barnabas, which was a letter falsely attributed to the Barnabas who evangelized alongside Paul.
The letter was composed around 120 A.D. by someone living in Alexandria whose tendency was to advance a metaphorical, embellished interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures as opposed to a literal interpretation. (1)
In the letter, the pseudo-Barnabas claims that he and his followers are observing the “eighth day of the week,” the day after the Sabbath, obviously Sunday. The writer condemns Judaism and everything associated with it, including observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.
The Barnabas letter is the earliest example we have of Sunday being promoted as a Christian day of worship.
It is in ancient Rome that we find another written reference to early Christian Sunday-keeping. It comes from Justin Martyr, a convert who came to be considered one of the movement’s early intellectuals, sometimes referred to as the “church fathers.” (2) Justin wrote, in The First Apology of Justin, which is dated around 155-157 A.D., these words:
“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 Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (3)
Notice that in his justification for the change, Justin pointed backward to creation week. Without acknowledging the seventh day, however, Justin reverted to the first day of creation week, reasoning that it was on that day when God began making the world.
Secondly, Justin noted – incorrectly, we believe – that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday, when actually Jesus was resurrected in the late afternoon before sunset at the end of the seventh-day Sabbath, as the first day of the week, or Sunday, was “drawing on.” Remember that the days were counted by the Jews from sunset to sunset.
Counting back precisely three days and nights from late afternoon at the end of the weekly Sabbath, when we believe Jesus rose from the tomb, will confirm that Jesus was actually crucified and entombed on a Wednesday, which in that particular year was the “Day of Preparation” for the Passover of the Jews. The Gospel accounts uniformly report that Jesus breathed his last sometime around three in the afternoon on the day of his crucifixion. John’s Gospel reports that the Jewish authorities were anxious to get Jesus’ body entombed before sunset, because the following day – Thursday, we believe – was a special or High Day Sabbath, the first day of the Feast of Passover or Feast of Unleavened Bread. After having been entombed for three nights and three days, Jesus’ body was raised to life again, and when the women visited the tomb early in the morning on Sunday, they found the tomb empty. While none of the Gospel accounts give the exact time of Jesus’ resurrection, all agree that it occurred sometime before the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb early on that Sunday morning, hours after the Sabbath had ended.
Each of Justin Martyr’s points of explanation as to why he and other Christians in Rome in the middle of the second century were meeting to worship on Sunday rather than on the Sabbath are clearly meant to be justifications for a change that had begun to take place within the Christian movement, a shift from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week.
Of course, these two early references to Sunday-keeping do not mean that the Christian movement as a whole had substituted Sunday for the Sabbath as their day of worship. Far from it. Large numbers of Christians, perhaps still the majority of Christians at that time, continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath; but the groundwork for change was being laid, and what began in increments would over time become the norm throughout most “orthodox” Christian communities.
The term “orthodox” correctly signifies that as Christianity grew it became organized. Decisions were made along the way by men who had become leaders within the movement. Those decisions, made and voted upon during various leadership gatherings, or Church Councils, became declarations as to what “doctrines” – that is, beliefs – and practices were deemed acceptable within “orthodox” Christianity.
From the idea that Christ’s Church is “universal,” that is, “catholic” – from the Latin term meaning “universal” – came the development of the Catholic Church. As the Catholic Church developed, so did the church’s policy of what would be acceptable in terms of official beliefs and practices.
One should bear in mind that throughout the history of Christianity there have always been believers who remained faithful in observing God’s seventh-day Sabbath. However, as evidenced throughout the Christian movement today, Christians who continue to honor God’s original seventh-day Sabbath are a relatively small minority.
How did it come to pass that the majority of Christians, from as early as the sixth century A.D. until today, have abandoned the seventh-day Sabbath and replaced it with Sunday?
Three main factors were influential in causing the abandonment of God’s seventh-day Sabbath by the Catholic Church.
First – as we mentioned previously – Christians, having initially been ostracized by the Jews from the synagogue fellowships, and in light of the deteriorated standing of Judaism within the Roman Empire, felt it both desirable and expedient to establish a clear and separate identity apart from Judaism.
In addition, as time passed, the composition of the Christian movement as a whole became overwhelmingly Gentile, and an anti-Judaism sentiment even began to grow with the movement.
Since perhaps the primary identifying element of Judaism was its adherence to God’s seventh-day Sabbath as a holy day, one of rest on which no work was done, choosing a different day on which to worship made perfect sense as an easy way to distinguish Christians from Jews.
That brings us to the second factor – the reluctance or unwillingness of many Gentile converts to let go of pagan practices of one form or another.
Of the plethora of pagan gods and practices common to the times, perhaps the most compelling was the worship of the sun, a practice which was common to many cultures and which became prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, including its adoption by many Romans themselves, and their Emperors.
Sunday was, coincidentally, the day of the sun; and as we have seen, by the time of Justin Martyr in the mid-second century, Sunday had already become an attractive replacement for Sabbath in Rome.
The Roman Empire had begun on or about 31 B.C., when Octavian defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and came back to Rome to rule as the first Caesar, Caesar Augustus.
At that time, he shipped back to Rome two great obelisks. One he set up in the circus maximus and dedicated to the sun god. Inscribed on it was a declaration, saying “Caesar Augustus dedicates this as a gift to the sun…because Egypt has been conquered.” (4)
The notorious Emperor Nero later commissioned a sculptor to create a statue nearly 115 feet tall, (5) topped with the likeness of his own head in the style of the sun god. (6)
When Vespasian later built his great amphitheater – which we call today the colosseum – he took that enormous colossus statue of Nero, changed the features on the face to his own, and again dedicated it to the sun god. (7)
Sun worship continued through a succession of emperors and was popular among Roman soldiers, who often would pray at sunrise, facing the east. The Latin term “Sol Invictus,” meaning “the invincible sun,” was popularized. (8)
Aurelian, who was emperor from 270-275 A.D., established a state religion that included the worship of both the emperor and Sol Invictus, the invincible sun. He tried to unify all religions under the sun god. (9)
Diocletian, who came to power in 284 A.D., was also devoted to the sun god. He maintained Aurelian’s principle of a state religion and even declared himself to be a god. Eventually, he ordered the persecution of Christians for refusing to worship him. (10)
Even the Roman Emperor Constantine, who professed to having been converted to Christianity, was a worshipper of the sun; and it seems that Constantine’s personal religion was really a mixture of sun worship and Christianity. According to his Christian biographer, Eusebius, he taught all his armies to zealously honor the Lord’s Day – Sunday – referring to is as “the day of light and of the sun.” (11)
Historians debate whether or not Constantine’s conversion was genuine, since he maintained his pagan superstitions throughout much of his reign and consented to baptism only as he lay on his deathbed.
Nevertheless, his reign did mark a dramatic turning point in the history of Christianity. In 313 A.D., with the agreement of his co-emperor Licinius, he effectively legalized the Christian religion. (12)
In 321 A.D., Constantine promulgated the first law requiring people to celebrate Sunday and to rest on that day. However, the law had no Christian flavor at all. It stated in part, “On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits.” (13)
Although Constantine promoted Christianity and built many Christian churches, he closed very few pagan temples, and from the year 354 A.D., about 17 years after Constantine’s death, we have a Roman Calendar which shows four separate festivals each year to the sun god. (14)
What emerged from Constantine’s reign was a different kind of church and a different kind of state. In fact, the two were so blended together it was hard to see where one ended and the other began.
Yet through it all, many Christians continued to honor God’s seventh-day Sabbath. In a Church Council at Laodicea in the middle of the fourth century, leaders declared that “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring 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.” (15)
What did the council mean by Judaizers? Judaizers were those Christians who, like the Jews, did not work on Sabbath. Church leaders wanted everyone to work on Sabbath and to refrain from work on the first day of the week, which they now called “The Lord’s Day.” This, of course, was consistent with the Sunday Law enacted by the Emperor Constantine.
Obviously, among those churches represented at the Council of Laodicea, the sentiment was to replace the Sabbath with Sunday – the Lord’s Day.
However, many Christians were still observing the seventh-day Sabbath as far forward as the fifth century A.D., when Socrates wrote in Socrates Scholasticus: “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.”
Succeeding centuries saw the Sabbath at the heart of controversy between popes and patriarchs. The weekly day of rest and worship became a test of church authority and a sign of submission to the sovereignty of a new kind of religious government. It became a major cause of the great rift that divided the Christian church for 900 years.
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(1) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 6. There is no unanimity among scholars as to the date when the Epistle of Barnabas was written. There is wide agreement that it was written before the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 A.D.). In our script we have used 120 AD as a compromise between the earlier and later dates suggested by the experts. Many advocates of an early date for Sunday observance in Asia Minor cite the Epistle to the Magnesians in support of their view. Written around A.D. 115 by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, this epistle encourages Christian readers to renounce Jewish Sabbath customs. In chapter eight the bishop refers to the Old Testament prophets whose hope in the coming Messiah raised their Sabbath observance above the legalistic, perfunctory forms that were common among the Jews. In chapter nine he writes of those prophets that they were “no longer sabbatizing, but living according to the Lord’s life.” This is the way the earliest available Greek manuscript reads. Many translators have rendered the text this way: “no longer sabbatizing, but living according to the Lord’s day,” replacing “life” with “day.” The Greek word for “day” does not occur in the original. In addition, the context makes it clear that Ignatius is not referring to a “Lord’s day” as a replacement for the Sabbath. He is talking about the manner, not the time, of Sabbath observance. The fact that he addresses the issue of Jewish-style sabbatizing confirms that his Christian readers in the early second century were observing the Sabbath, albeit in a legalistic rather than a spiritual way. (For this explanation we are indebted to Kenneth A. Strand, “The ‘Lord’s Day’ in the Second Century” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, Kenneth A. Strand, editor (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982), p.p. 348-9.)
(2) Ibid. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 7. “Justin Martyr, Saint.” Encyclopaedia Britannica from Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocid=9044213> [Accessed March 24, 2005].
(3) Ibid. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 7. Justin Martyr. “The First Apology of Justin.” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, chap. 67. From Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <http://www.ccel.org/fathers/ANF-01/just/justinapology1.html#Section67> [Accessed March 29, 2005].
(4) Ibid. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 8.
(5) Ibid. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 8. “Colossus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica from Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.highbeam.com/library/doc3asp?DOCID=1G1:71558214&num=2&ctrllnfo=Round9j%3AProd%3ASR%3AResult&ao=> [Accessed March 29, 2005].
(6) Ibid. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 8. Sheldon Nodelman, “The Emperor Vanishes.” Art in America, March 3, 2001. From Highbeam Research <http://www.highbeam.com/library/doc3.asp?DOCID=1G1:71558214&num=2&ctrllnfo=Round9j%3AProd%3ASR%3AResult&ao=> [Accessed March 29, 2005].
(7) Ibid. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 8.
(8), (9), (10). Ibid.
(11) Ibid. Eusebius Pamphilus. “Life of Constantine,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. I, p. 545. From Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/npnf201/htm/iv.vi.iv.xvii.htm [Accessed November 21, 2005].
(12) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript. Part 2. Chapter 9.
(14) Ibid. Church council at Laodicea. Canon 29.
(15) Ibid. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 5.22