Modern Sunday-keeping Christians often conclude that the apostles authorized or even commanded Gentiles to meet on Sundays instead of Sabbaths.1 This conclusion is rejected by anyone who thinks that Christians should observe the Sabbath day.2 Seventh-day Adventists have proposed ways in which the vast majority of professing Christians could have become deceived about the Sabbath. One authoritative SDA book claimed that the change from Sabbath to Sunday “was introduced at Rome about the middle of the second century.”3
In support of that position, Samuele Bacchiocchi argues that Sunday-keeping was a Roman Catholic innovation that achieved universality because of the authority of the Roman church.4 Anti-Jewish sentiments were strong in Rome, and Gentiles became prominent in the church there. Since Hadrian fought against the Jews, his reign would be a possible candidate for the beginning of Sunday observance. Because of the need that arose to separate Christians from the Jews and their Sabbath, Gentile Christians adopted the venerable day of the Sun, since it provided an adequate time and symbolism to commemorate significant divine events that occurred on that day.5
However, Bacchiocchi’s theory has numerous problems, as noted by Strand, who is also an Adventist.6 Bacchiocchi argues that only a powerful church (i.e., Rome) could effectively switch the day of worship throughout the empire. Against his thesis, however, is the fact that Rome did not have that kind of power in the second century.7 Although Rome could influence some areas of the empire, it would not have been able to change long-standing customs, especially in the East, without any visible evidences of controversy, especially when those customs were based on apostolic practice.8
Another major difficulty with Bacchiocchi’s theory is that Sunday-keeping is documented before the reign of Hadrian and outside of Rome: Ignatius of Antioch was not a Sabbath-keeper and presumably observed Sunday, and the Magnesians and Philadelphians (and probably the other churches to which he wrote) probably agreed with him in this, and Barnabas gives evidence that Alexandrians were observing Sunday early in the second century. In no case is there evidence that the change in day of worship was recent. For Justin, too, “there is significant evidence that Justin may have been an observer of Sunday long before A.D. 155 — and long before he visited Rome.”9 If second-century Rome ever decreed that Christians should observe Sunday (there is no historical evidence for such a decree), it could have been effective only if the majority of churches were already observing Sunday.
Nor can Sabbath-abandonment be explained simply as anti-Jewishness. The early church went to great lengths, against Marcion, to keep the Old Testament Scriptures in their canon. They did not feel at liberty to simply reject the Sabbath. Rather, they re-interpreted it and claimed to be keeping its intent. Also, at certain times in history it would have been to the Christians’ advantage to be seen as a branch of Judaism, since Judaism was an accepted religion and Christianity was not. The complexity of the Christians’ attitude toward Judaism makes it highly unlikely that Rome could have convinced all Christians in all parts of the empire to change their day of worship. Many Christians would have had reasons to resist such a change.
Another element of Bacchiocchi’s theory is that sun-worship, such as Mithraism, influenced Rome to select Sun-day as the new day of worship.10 There is no evidence for such a factor (Tertullian specifically rules it out11), it is historically unlikely, and the selection of Sunday can be explained without resorting to pagan precedents.12 The early church resisted pagan practices. Christians would die rather than do something as simple as call the emperor “Lord.”
The theory of Roman initiation and enforcement is not historically credible.
Other Adventist theories
Strand suggests that weekly Sunday observance grew out of an annual Easter observance. He gives a possible reconstruction for the origin of the Quartodeciman controversy, with some Christians observing Sunday and others a day of the month, both with roots in the Jewish calendar(s).13 He then notes that some early Christians “not only observed both Easter and Pentecost on Sundays but also considered the whole seven-week season between the two holidays to have special significance.”14 He suggests that Christians began meeting on every Sunday in that season, and then eventually to every Sunday every week: “Throughout the Christian world Sunday observance simply arose alongside observance of Saturday.”15
This theory, however, in addition to being entirely speculative, does not explain the universality of Sunday observance. Either we must suppose that this custom began before the Gentile mission did, or that it was so obvious that Gentiles everywhere came to the same conclusion (and if it was that obvious, then it would have begun before the Gentile mission!). This theory does not work for the Quartodeciman Christians, and all evidence is that even the Quartodecimans observed Sunday.16 Strand feels that his theory explains why Sunday is a “resurrection festival,” but no explanation for that is needed; it would be an obvious connection for anyone meeting on a Sunday.
Another Adventist book proposes a dual observance lasting centuries:
By the middle of the [second] century some Christians were voluntarily observing Sunday as a day of worship, not a day of rest. The church of Rome, largely made up of Gentile believers (Rom. 11:13), led in the trend toward Sunday worship. In Rome, the capital of the empire, strong anti-Jewish sentiments arose…. Reacting to these sentiments, the Christians in that city attempted to distinguish themselves from the Jews. They dropped some practices held in common with the Jews and initiated a trend away from the veneration of the Sabbath, moving toward the exclusive observance of the Sunday.
From the second to the fifth centuries, while Sunday was rising in influence, Christians continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath nearly everywhere throughout the Roman Empire. The fifth-century historian Socrates wrote: “Almost all the 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.”17
This theory also has deficiencies and inaccuracies, some of which we have already covered. First, it was in the early second century that some Christians were observing Sunday, and this was in Antioch and Asia Minor as well as at Rome and Alexandria. Rome did not initiate this trend, nor is there evidence that anti-Jewish sentiments motivated them to abandon customs they held in common with the Jews.
Moreover, second-century Christians were not observing two days, but only one. Second-century writers are uniformly negative toward literal Sabbath-keeping. There is no evidence that anyone (other than Ebionites) kept the Sabbath in the second century, as Maxwell concluded (see above). Maxwell also commented on the correct translation of Socrates:
Socrates did not say that the churches of Rome and Alexandria had ceased to observe the Lord’s Supper (the “sacred mysteries”) on the Sabbath, implying that once upon a time they had so observed it. Instead, he said that the churches do not observe the Supper on the Sabbath, leaving the reader to conclude, if he wishes, that the church in these places never did so observe it.18
Socrates said, “Almost all the 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, do not do this.” He was commenting on fourth-century practices,19 with no implications about what had been done in earlier centuries. His comment cannot be used as evidence about the second century, especially if it contradicts all the other evidence we have from second-century documents.
The Adventist book correctly notes that early writers did not cite any biblical command for Sunday worship.20 So why did early Christians choose Sunday? The book suggests two reasons: 1) the resurrection of Christ and 2) “the popularity and influence that the sun worship of the pagan Romans accorded Sunday undoubtedly contributed to its growing acceptance as a day of worship.”21 Although this may have played a role in later centuries, especially after Christianity became legal, it is unlikely to have played a role in the second century, for reasons given above.
Maxwell explains some of the reasons that contributed to Sunday observance:
(1) The extraordinary impact of the Resurrection. (This is the commonest reason given by the Christians themselves.) (2) The Christian desire to honor Christ in a special way. (3) The insistence of Gospel writers (including John in the later part of the century) on stating the day of the week when the Resurrection occurred. (4) The effect of following for some months, or even years, Paul’s request to set aside money for the poor on Sundays.22
The simple fact that early Christians abandoned the Sabbath has dominated this paper, but the reasons they give for abandoning the Sabbath are also of interest. Maxwell (an Adventist) gives an excellent summary of the teachings of the second- and third-century writers about the Sabbath. On page 158, he details five areas of agreement among the church fathers. I will paraphrase them:
- Sabbath eschatology — The Sabbath foreshadows an age of sinlessness and peace beyond this present age.
- Moral typology — Living a godly life every day fulfills the purpose of the Sabbath commandment.23
- The Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments not binding on Christians.
- The Sabbath is not a part of the natural law.
- The patriarchs before Moses did not observe the Sabbath.
Maxwell concludes that second- and early third-century writers had basically the same negative attitudes toward the Sabbath. He then writes,
These writers taught that the new covenant had put an end to the old law — and that now the new spiritual Israel, with its new covenant and its new spiritual law, no longer needed the literal circumcision, literal sacrifices, and literal Sabbath. Barnabas observed that God “has circumcised our hearts.” Justin referred triumphantly to the new spiritual circumcision in Christ. Irenaeus taught that circumcision, sacrifices, and Sabbaths were given of old as signs of better things to come; the new sacrifice, for example, is now a contrite heart. Tertullian, too, had a new spiritual sacrifice and a new spiritual circumcision. Each of these writers also taught that a new spiritual concept of the Sabbath had replaced the old literal one….
This supplanting of the old law with the new, of the literal Sabbath with the spiritual, was a very Christ-centered concept for these four writers. God’s people have inherited the covenant only because Christ through His sufferings inherited it first for us, Barnabas said. For Justin the new, final, and eternal law that has been given to us was “namely Christ” Himself. It was only because Christ gave the law that He could now also be “the end of it,” said Irenaeus. And it is Christ who invalidated “the old” and confirmed “the new,” according to Tertullian. Indeed Christ did this, both Irenaeus and Tertullian said, not so much by annulling the law as by so wonderfully fulfilling it that He extended it far beyond the mere letter. To sum up: The early rejection of the literal Sabbath appears to be traceable to a common hermeneutic of Old and New Testament scriptures.24
Maxwell does not agree with the writers he summarizes, but I do. I also suggest that they, even though they were from various parts of the empire, have a “common hermeneutic” because that same hermeneutic was used in the Gentile mission ever since Acts 15: a mission that did not require Gentiles to keep the laws of Moses, including the Sabbath. It is unlikely that churches throughout the empire would, without controversy or written discussion, develop the same practice unless that practice had been present from the beginning. It is also unlikely that people throughout the empire would give the same reasons for their practice unless those reasons had also been present from the beginning. Their “common hermeneutic” is further evidence of antiquity and, with antiquity comes the implication of apostolic authorization.
1 Historians even suggest that this decision was made before Paul began his travels:
Sunday worship appears, when the evidence becomes available in the second century, as the universal Christian practice outside [Judea]. There is no trace whatever of any controversy [excepting, perhaps, some NT scriptures] as to whether Christians should worship on Sunday…. This universality is most easily explained if Sunday worship was already the Christian custom before the Gentile mission, and spread throughout the expanding Gentile church with the Gentile mission. It is very difficult otherwise to see how such a practice could have been imposed universally and leave no hint of dissent and disagreement….
Paul was not responsible for policy in the whole of the Gentile mission field (note that Barn. 15:9, one of the earliest evidences of Sunday observance, probably comes from Egypt). The conclusion seems irresistable that all of the early missionaries simply exported the practice of the [Judean] churches. (Bauckham, 236)
Jewett (The Lord’s Day) and Rordorf (Sunday) reportedly also consider that Sunday observance originated before Paul.
2 It is theoretically possible that the apostles encouraged Sunday worship meetings in addition to requiring the Sabbath as a rest day. Such a theory would be particularly difficult to reconcile with Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16, and Galatians 4:10, and it would not explain why the Sabbath would be dropped by all Gentile churches throughout the empire without a trace of controversy.
3Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Reviews and Herald, 1957) 166-7, cited by Swartley, 72.
4 Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (FSS) (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1977), 211, and Bacchiocchi in Strand, op. cit., 136).
5 Ibid., 144.
6 Presumably Strand does not argue against Bacchiocchi’s theory because Strand wants to keep Sunday, but because he is convinced by the historical evidence that Bacchiocchi’s reconstruction is unlikely.
7 As evidence that Rome did not have such power, we can note:
- Ignatius does not greet a bishop of Rome.
- Irenaeus disagreed with the bishop of Rome regarding policy toward Quartodecimans.
- Polycarp and Polycrates acted as equals with the bishop of Rome.
- It was only with difficulty and recorded controversy that Rome pressured a change in the date of Easter for one area in Asia Minor.
- Even in later centuries, Rome was unable to force other cities to observe the seventh day as a fast day.
- In the fourth century, when many Eastern Christians began to observe the Sabbath as well as Sunday, Rome was unable or unwilling to stop the practice (Kenneth A. Strand, “From Sabbath to Sunday in the Early Christian Church: A Review of Some Recent Literature. Part II: Samuele Bacchiocchi’s Reconstruction,” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 17 (1979), 96-99. Strand also notes that “Christian influences were still moving largely from East to West rather than vice versa” (Sabbath, 332, n. 22).
8 Bauckham writes:
It therefore seems extremely unlikely that already in the early second century the authority of the Roman see was such that it could impose Sunday worship throughout the church, superseding [supposedly] a universal practical of Sabbath observance handed down from the apostles, without leaving any trace of controversy or resistance in the historical records…. Like all attempts to date the origins of Sunday worship in the second century, [Bacchiocchi’s theory] fails to account for the universality of the custom. Unlike the Sunday Easter and the Sabbath fast, Sunday worship was never, so far as the evidence goes, disputed. (p. 272)
9 Maxwell, 138.
10 Bacchiocchi, FSS, 236-268. He may have abandoned this aspect of this theory, however. In his chapter in Strand’s book, he writes, “The choice of the day of the Sun was not motivated by the desire to venerate the Sun-god on his day, but rather by the fact that such a day provided a fitting symbology” (p. 141).
Strand gives a convincing critique:
Just how likely a source for adoption of Sunday would Mithraism have provided to second-century Christians? Even during that century Mithraism was a rival oriental religion (later to become Christianity’s most dangerous rival and foe). Also, its spread in the Roman world was mainly by military legions…. Would it not be somewhat far-fetched to look to a pagan religion fostered mainly by soldiers in the Roman legions as the source for the Christian day of worship?… Why would Christians who were ready to give up life itself rather than to adopt known pagan practices (e.g., Justin Martyr, who did precisely this) choose an obviously pagan Sunday as their Christian day of worship?” (AUSS 16:90).
11 Apology 16; ANF 3:31.
12 If early Christians wanted to reject the Sabbath and pick some other day of the week, only one day could be found to have biblical significance in connection with Jesus Christ. His day of birth was not known, nor was his baptism, nor the Transfiguration. The only day of the week (other than the Sabbath) mentioned in the Gospels is the first.
13 Strand writes,
It would be natural for [Jewish] Christians to continue a first-fruits celebration. However, they would not keep it as a Jewish festival. Instead, they would keep it in honor of Christ’s resurrection…. Those who had been influenced by the Pharisees would hold their Easter festival on a different day of the week year by year, and those who had been influenced by the Boethusians or by the Essenes would hold their Easter festival on a Sunday every year. (Strand, Sabbath, app. B, 327)
14 Ibid., 327, citing Lawrence T. Geraty, “The Pascha and the Origin of Sunday Observance,” AUSS 3 (1965):85-96.
15 Strand, Sabbath, app. B, 323.
16 “The Quartodeciman controversy had nothing to do with Sabbath observance; the Quartodecimans appear to have observed the weekly Sunday like most other Christians did at the time” (Maxwell and Damsteegt, 96).
17Seventh-day Adventists Believe…: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1988), 259, footnoting as source Justin, Bacchiocchi, and Socrates 5.22.
18 Maxwell, 142.
19 “The Sabbath observance Socrates describes was probably more of a revival than a survival. In any case, it wasn’t full Sabbath observance but only the celebration of the sacred mysteries” (Maxwell, 125). Maxwell and Damsteegt show many fourth-century documents that are favorable to the Sabbath, in sharp contrast to the previous two centuries:
A sudden change is seen when we lay aside second- and third- century documents and start reading references to Sabbath and Sunday in fourth-century documents. At once, for the first time, we discover statements that speak favorably about Sabbath keeping. Especially is the change noticeable in documents from the second half of the fourth century, that is, from around A.D. 360 onwards. (p. 146)
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1999 and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
20Seventh-day Adventists Believe, 259. However, the early writers did cite biblical authority for abandoning literal Sabbath observance — Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16 — as well as arguments about the new covenant superseding Jewish traditions such as the Sabbath.
22 Maxwell, 161C. Maxwell is not arguing for Sunday-keeping, but for honest use of the second- and third-century evidence. He claims that the early church was apostate in this practice, and that the apostasy occurred sooner, and on a wider scale, than previous Adventists admitted. Whether this was apostasy or not must be determined on biblical grounds; all we are discussing here is the historical evidence that Sunday observance began very early and was very widespread. Maxwell gives an excellent summary of Ante-Nicene thought about the Sabbath, as quoted above.
23 Maxwell writes,
Ironically, among writers who spoke harshly against the literal Sabbath, the idea persisted that true Sabbath keeping consisted in living every day like a true Christian. Justin’s insistence on keeping “perpetual” Sabbath (that is, true repentance from sin) and Tertullian’s doctrine of a “spiritual” and “eternal” Sabbath (a life devoted to the deliverance of the soul) are evidences that the concept of Sabbath as embedding something intrinsically good lived on in the second and third centuries. (Maxwell, 145)
24 Ibid., 154-56.