How It Came About: From Saturday to Sunday by Samuele Bacchiocchi


How It Came About: From Saturday to Sunday

Roman repressive measures following the first and second Jewish revolts spurred
Christian change to Sunday worship

 By Samuele Bacchiocchi


Scholars have long debated how the first day of the
week—Sunday—came to be adopted by a majority of Christians as the day of rest
and worship in place of the Biblically-prescribed, seventh-day Sabbath. (In
Hebrew, the seventh day is called Shabbat from which the English word Sabbath
is derived).

The classic explanation, as stated by Thomas Aquinas, is
that "the observance of the Lord's day took the place of the observance of the
Sabbath not by virtue of the [Biblical] precept but by the institution of the
In other words, the adoption of Sunday observance has been traditionally
attributed to ecclesiastical authority rather than to Biblical or apostolic
precepts. This has been the position of most historians who have studied the

Recently, however, some scholars have argued that Sunday
observance has a Biblical or apostolic origin. According to these scholars,
from the inception of the Church, the Apostles themselves chose the first day
of the week in place of the seventh day in order to commemorate the
resurrection or Easter appearance of Jesus three days after his crucifixion.2

My own assessment of the sources is that this thesis is
wrong—on two counts. First, the change from Saturday to Sunday occurred sometime
after 135 A.D. Second, the change originated in Rome, not Jerusalem.

The view that the apostolic Jerusalem Church pioneered
Sunday worship rests on two incorrect assumptions. The first incorrect
assumption is that because the resurrection and appearance of Jesus occurred in
Jerusalem on Sunday, the Apostles instituted Sunday worship to commemorate
these events by the distinctive Christian liturgy. The second incorrect
assumption is that the Apostles were encouraged by the fact that the earliest
Christians in Jerusalem "no longer felt at home in the Jewish Sabbath service."3

The earliest documentary sources refute both these
assumptions. Nothing in the New Testament prescribes or even suggests the
commemoration of Jesus' resurrection on Sunday. In fact, Sunday is consistently
denominated not as the "Day of the Resurrection", but as the "first day of the

The earliest explicit references to the observance of Sunday
as the Christian Sabbath are by Barnabas (ca. 135 A.D.) and Justin (ca. 150
Both writers do mention the resurrection as a basis for Sunday observance but
only as the second of two reasons, important but not predominant.a
These references hardly confirm the contention that the origin of Sunday, as
sometimes claimed, "is to be found solely in the fact of the Resurrection of
Christ on the day after the Sabbath."6

If the early Jerusalem Church had pioneered and promoted
Sunday observance, we would expect to find that the primitive Christian
community in Jerusalem broke away almost immediately from Jewish religious
traditions and services. Those who argue for an apostolic origin of Sunday
observance make precisely this contention. But the opposite is the case. The
book of Acts as well as several Judeo-Christian documents7
persuasively demonstrate that both the ethnic composition and the theological
orientation of the Jerusalem Church were profoundly Jewish. Luke's
characterization of the Jerusalem Church as "zealous for the Law" (Acts
21:20), is an accurate description.

The attachment of the Jerusalem Church to the Mosaic Law is
reflected in some of the decisions of the so-called Jerusalem Council held
about 40–50 A.D. (See Acts
15). The exemption from circumcision is there granted only "to the brethren
who are of the Gentiles" (Acts
15:23). No concession is made for Jewish-Christians, who must continue to
circumcise their children. Moreover, of the four provisions made applicable by
the Jerusalem Council to Gentiles, one is moral (abstention from "unchastity")
but three are ceremonial (even Gentile Christians are ordered to abstain "from
contact with idols and from [eating] what has been strangled and from [eating]
blood" (Acts
15:20). This concern of the Jerusalem Council for ritual defilement and
Jewish food laws reflects its continued attachment to Jewish ceremonial law and
its commands. It would be unthinkable that this Church at this early time would
change the Sabbath to Sunday.

James' statement at the Jerusalem Council in support of his
proposal that concessions be made to Gentile Christians is also significant:
"For generations past Moses has had spokesmen in every city; he is read every
Sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts
15:21). All interpreters recognize that both in his proposal and in its
justification, James reaffirms the binding nature of the Mosaic Law which was
customarily taught every Sabbath (Saturday) in the synagogue.

Paul's last visit to Jerusalem (58–60 A.D.) provides further
insight. The Apostle was informed by James and the elders that thousands of
converted Jews were "all zealous for the Law" (Acts
21:20); Paul was then pressured by the same leaders to prove that he also
"live[d] in observance of the Law" (Acts
21:24) by undergoing a rite of purification at the Temple. In the light of
this deep commitment to the observance of the Law, it is hardly conceivable
that the Jerusalem Church would have abrogated one of its chief
precepts—Sabbath-keeping—and pioneered Sunday worship instead.8

Evidence such as this has led some scholars to argue for the
Palestinian origin of Sunday observance at a slightly later time—after the
Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.9
The flight of the Christians from Jerusalem to Pella10
as well as the psychological impact of the destruction of the Temple weaned
Palestinian Christians away from Jewish observances such as Sabbath-keeping, it
is argued.

Both Eusebius and Epiphanius inform us, however, that the
Jerusalem Church after 70 A.D. and until Hadrian's siege of Jerusalem in 135
A.D. was composed of and administered by converted Jews, characterized as
"zealous to insist on the literal observance of the Law."11
The orthodox Palestinian Jewish-Christian sect of the Nazarenes, who most
scholars regard as "the very direct descendants of the primitive community"12
of Jerusalem, retained Sabbath-keeping on Saturday until the fourth century. Indeed,
Saturday Sabbath-keeping was regarded as one of this Church's distinguishing
This implies that Saturday Sabbath observance was not only the traditional
custom of the Jerusalem Church, but also of Palestinian Jewish-Christians long
after 70 A.D.

This conclusion is corroborated by the "Curse of the
Christians" (Birkath-ha-Minim), a prayer introduced by the Palestinian
rabbinical authorities (80–90 A.D.) as an effective bar to clandestine
Jewish-Christian participation in Jewish synagogue services. Participation by
Jewish-Christians in Saturday synagogue service would hardly be a concern to
the rabbinical authorities if Palestinian Christians had adopted Sunday as
their Sabbath.

Of all the Christian Churches, the Jerusalem Church was both
ethnically and theologically the closest and most loyal to Jewish religious
traditions, and thus the least likely to change the day of the Sabbath.

After 135 A.D., radical changes occurred in the Jewish
world. In that year, the Roman Emperor Hadrian crushed the Second Jewish Revolt
which had been unsuccessfully led by Bar-Kokhba. Jerusalem became a Roman
colony from which Jews (and Jewish Christians) were excluded. Hadrian renamed
the city Aelia Capitolina. He prohibited the practice of the Jewish religion
throughout the Empire. Sabbath observance was especially condemned.b
A whole body of Adversos Judaeos ("Against the Jews") literature began to appear.
Following the Roman lead, Christians developed a "Christian" theology of
separation from and contempt for the Jews.14
Characteristic Jewish customs such as circumcision and Sabbath-keeping were

Sunday observance could well have been introduced at this
time as an attempt to emphasize to the Roman authorities the Christian
distinction from Judaism.

New religious festivals such as Sunday-keeping could be
adopted and enforced only by a church that had severed its ties with Judaism.
As we have seen, this excludes the Jerusalem Church prior to 135 A.D. After 135
A.D. the Jerusalem Church lost its religious prestige and went almost into
so it could hardly have been the source of so important a change.

The most likely church for the source of this change is the
Church of Rome. Here can be found the social, religious and political
conditions which permitted and encouraged the abandonment of Saturday as the
Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday worship instead.

Contrary to most eastern churches, the Church of Rome was
predominantly composed of Gentile converts. Paul in his Epistle to this Church
explicitly affirms: "I am speaking to you Gentiles" (Romans
The predominant Gentile membership apparently contributed to an early Christian
differentiation from the Jews in Rome. In 64 A.D., for instance, Nero placed
the charge of arson exclusively on Christians, thus distinguishing them from
the Jews.c

Beginning with the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66
A.D.), various repressive measures—military, political and fiscal—were imposed
upon the Jews, especially as their resurgent nationalism resulted in violent
uprisings in many places outside of Palestine. Militarily, Vespasian and Titus
crushed the First Jewish Revolt; and Hadrian, the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135
A.D.). Politically, Vespasian (69–79 A.D.) abolished the Sanhedrin and the
office of the High Priest; later Hadrian outlawed the practice of Judaism
altogether (ca. 135 A.D.). Fiscally, the Jews were subjected to a
discriminatory tax (the fiscus judaicus) which was introduced by Vespasian and
increased first by Domitian (81–96 A.D.) and later by Hadrian.

That these repressive measures were intensely experienced in
Rome is indicated by the contemptuous anti-Jewish literary comments of such
writers as Seneca (d. 65 A.D.), Persius (34–62 A.D.), Petronius (ca. 66 A.D.),
Quintillian (ca. 35–100 A.D.), Martial (ca. 40–104 A.D.), Plutarch (ca. 46–119
A.D.), Juvenal (125 A.D.) and Tacitus (ca. 55–120 A.D.), all of whom lived in
Rome most of their professional lives. They revile the Jews racially and
culturally, deriding Sabbath-keeping and circumcision as examples of Judaism's
degrading superstitions.

The mounting hostility of the Roman populace against the
Jews forced Titus, though "unwillingly" (invitus), to ask the Jewess Berenice,
sister of Herod the Younger, whom he wanted to marry, to leave Rome. These
circumstances as well as the conflict between Jews and Christians, apparently encouraged
not only the production of a whole body of anti-Jewish literature in which a
"Christian" theology of contempt for the Jews was developed, but also the
repudiation of characteristic Jewish customs such as Sabbath-keeping.

The Church of Rome adopted concrete measures to wean
Christians away from Sabbath veneration in order to enhance Sunday worship
exclusively. Justin Martyr, for instance, writing in the mid-second century,
reduces the observance of the Sabbath to a temporary Mosaic ordinance which God
imposed exclusively on the Jews as "a mark to single them out for punishment
they so well deserve for their infidelities."17

This kind of negative reinterpretation of the Sabbath led
Christians to transform their Saturday Sabbath observance from a day of
feasting, joy and religious celebration into a day of fasting—with no
eucharistic celebration or religious assemblies permitted.18
The Saturday fast served not only to express sorrow for Christ's death, but
also, as emphatically stated by Pope Sylvester (314–335 A.D.), to show
"contempt for the Jews" (exsecratione Judaeorum) and for their Sabbath
"feasting" (destructione ciborum).19
The sadness and hunger resulting from the fast would enable Christians to avoid
"appearing to observe the Sabbath with the Jews"20
and would encourage them to enter more eagerly and joyfully into the observance
of Sunday.

Because the basic function of the Christian Saturday fast
was to discourage the observance of this day as a Sabbath and to enhance Sunday
worship, it seems likely that the Saturday fast and Sunday worship both
originated contemporaneously and at the same place. There is no question that
the Saturday fast was introduced by the Church of Rome.

Moreover, the weekly Saturday fast developed as an extension
or counterpart of the annual Holy-Saturday of Easter season, when all
Christians fasted.21
The Easter fast, like the Saturday-Sabbath fast, was designed to express not
only sorrow for Christ's death but also contempt for those whom Christians
considered its perpetrators, namely the Jews.22
Moreover, since the weekly and the annual Saturday fasts, as well as the weekly
Sunday observance and Easter-Sunday, are frequently presented by the Church
Fathers as interrelated in their meaning and function,23
presumably all these practices originated at the same time as part of the
Easter-Sunday celebration. It is important, therefore, to ascertain the time,
place, and causes of the origin of Easter-Sunday, since this could well mark
the genesis of Sunday observance as well.

In his account of the Easter controversy, Eusebius describes
Bishop Victor of Rome (189–199 A.D.)24
as the champion of the Easter-Sunday custom, and Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus,
as the defender of the Quartodeciman tradition. Quartodeciman means 14 and
refers to the date the feast is observed according to the Jewish calendar, that
is, the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, when Jews observe Passover.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (from ca. 178 A.D.), intervened as
peacemaker in the controversy. He urged Bishop Victor to emulate his
predecessors, namely "Anicetus and Pius and Hyginus and Telesphoros and Sixtus"
who though they celebrated Easter on Sunday, nevertheless were at peace with
those who observed it on the 14th of Nisan.25
The fact that Irenaeus mentions Bishop Sixtus (ca. 116–126 A.D.) as the first
bishop who did not observe the Quartodeciman Passover suggests the possibility
that the feast began to be celebrated in Rome on Sunday at about that time. The
innovation could well have been motivated by the desire to avoid Hadrian's
repressive measures against Judaism. This hypothesis is indirectly supported by
Epiphanius' statement that the Easter controversy "arose after the time of the exodus
of the bishops of the circumcision" from Jerusalem.26
This exodus occurred after Hadrian crushed the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 A.D.
Since Sixtus (ca. 116–126 A.D.) was Bishop of Rome only a few years earlier, he
could well have been the initiator of Easter Sunday. Some time must be allowed
before a new custom becomes sufficiently widespread to provoke a controversy.

While the exact date of the origin of Easter Sunday may be a
subject of dispute, there seems to be a consensus of scholarly opinion that it
was in Rome that the new custom was introduced for avoiding "even the semblance
of Judaism."27
Constantine, in his letter to the Christian bishops at the Council of Nicaea
(325 A.D.) exemplifies the marked anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of
the Quartodeciman Passover. He writes:

We ought not therefore to have anything in common with the
Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way ... [I]n unanimously adopting this
mode [i.e. Eastern Sunday] we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves
from the detestable company of the Jews.28

The letter of the Council of Nicaea represents the
culmination of a controversy initiated two centuries earlier which centered in

The same anti-Judaic motivations which caused the
replacement of the Jewish Quartodeciman Passover with Easter Sunday also
accounts for the contemporaneous substitution of Sabbath-keeping with Sunday
worship. This argument is supported not only by the fact that the Jewish
Sabbath shared the same anti-Judaic condemnation as the Jewish Quartodeciman
Passover, but also by the close nexus between the observance of Easter
Saturday-Sunday (a fast followed by a day of joy) and that of its weekly
counterpart (the Saturday fast followed by Sunday worship). The basic unity
between these Easter and weekly observances is explicitly affirmed by the
and further suggests a common origin in the Church of Rome at the same time and
owing to similar causes.

Moreover, only in Rome was there the "preeminent authority"
(potentior principalitas)30,
exercised by the Bishop of Rome, capable at that time of influencing the
majority of Christians to adopt new religious observances. Thus, it seems clear
that Sunday observance originated in Rome in the early part of the second
century (but after 135 A.D.) for the reasons I have outlined.

While these social, political, and religious conditions
explain why a new day of worship was substituted for the Saturday Sabbath, they
do not explain why Sunday rather than Friday (the day of Christ's passion) or
another day was chosen. The influence of sun worship with its "Sun-day"
provides the most plausible explanation.

The cult of Sol Invictus—the Invincible Sun—as shown by
Gaston H. Halsberghe, became "dominant in Rome and in other parts of the Empire
from the early part of the second century A.D."31.

We know that the Roman sun-cults otherwise influenced Christian
thought and liturgy. The Church Fathers frequently condemn Christian veneration
of the sun.32
In early Christian art and literature, the sun is often used as a symbol to
represent Christ.33
The orientation of early Christian Churches was changed; instead of facing
Jerusalem like synagogues, churches were oriented to the East.34
The dies natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the Invincible Sun) was chosen
as the Christian Christmas.

A second century change in the Roman calendar also suggests
the influence of Sun worship on the Christian choice of Sunday as the new
Sabbath. The seven day week was first adopted by the Roman Empire in the first
century A.D. At that time the days of the week were named after the planets (as
they still are). Saturn's day (Saturday) was originally the first day of the
week. The Sun's day (Sunday) was originally the second day of the week. Under
the influence of Sun worship, however, a change occurred in the second century:
The Sun's day (Sunday)35
became the first day of the week, the most honored position. (Each of the other
days was advanced one day, and Saturn's day thereby became the seventh day of
the week.) This development probably influenced Roman Christians with a pagan
background to adopt and adapt the Sun's day for their Christian worship. This
would serve to emphasize to non-Christian Romans the Christian similarity to
familiar Roman practice and the dissimilarity to Jewish custom. All of this
supports—if only indirectly—the suggestion that Sunday was chosen for Christian
worship because it was the Sun's day.

A more direct indication is provided by the use of the sun
as a symbol to justify Sunday observance. The motifs of light and of the sun
are frequently invoked by the Church Fathers to develop a theological
justification for Sunday worship. God's creation of light on the first day and
the resurrection of the Sun of Justice which occurred on the same day coincided
with the day of the sun.36
Jerome, to cite only one example, explains: "If it is called the day of the sun
by the pagans, we most willingly acknowledge it as such, since it is on this
day that the light of the world appeared and on this day the Sun of Justice has
The day of the Sun, then, may well have been viewed by Christians familiar with
its veneration, as a providential and valid substitution for the seventh day
sabbath, since the substitution could well explain Biblical mysteries to the
pagan mind by means of effective and familiar symbols.












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