Roman repressive measures following the first and second Jewish revolts spurred Christian change to Sunday worship.
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 Church.”1
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 question.
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 week.”4
The earliest explicit references to the observance of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath are by Barnabas (ca. 135 A.D.) and Justin (ca. 150 A.D.).5 Both writers do mention the resurrection as a basis for Sunday observance but only as the second of two reasons, important but not predominant. 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 characteristics.13 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 castigated.
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 oblivion,15 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 11:13).16 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 Rome.
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 Fathers,29 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 risen.”37 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.
By Samuele Bacchiocchi