Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, a highly influential 13th-century theologian, is credited with advising his contemporaries, “Hold most firmly that our faith is identical with that of the ancients. Deny this, and you dissolve the unity of the Church.” Though typically interpreted as a call for consensus within the Roman Catholic Church, one might view Aquinas’s warning as a pointed critique of certain elements of his own religious practice, though he would hardly be likely to see it that way.
One area where he did not hold fast to the faith and practice of “the ancients” was in his choice of a day to regard as holy. Most professing Roman Catholics and other Christians today keep Sunday as the weekly day of worship, but doing so is a significant departure from those who went before.
When, and on what authority, did that change come about?
Revision as History
Some trace the solidification of Sunday worship to the fourth-century Synod of Laodicea, whose Canon 29 stated 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.” Any who claimed to be followers of Christ yet still kept the seventh-day Sabbath would be considered “anathema”—cursed, excluded, rejected, no longer members of the community—strong punishment for continuing to keep the Sabbath according to the Fourth Commandment. Yet the fact that authorities felt this decree necessary indicates that Sabbath-keeping was still considered appropriate by many followers of Christ more than three centuries after His death.
“Appeals to early Christian practice fall short if they do not include the church’s earliest practice.”
One could also consider the earlier Council of Nicea (325), which disconnected the Jewish Passover from the timing of the by-now-preferred Easter: “All the brethren in the East who have hitherto followed the Jewish practice [of observing Passover on whichever day of the week it falls] will henceforth observe the custom of the Romans and of yourselves and of all of us who from ancient times have kept Easter together with you.”
The “custom of the Romans” was not only to mark the day of Jesus’ resurrection rather than His death, but always to do so on a Sunday. This was because the developing Christian orthodoxy held that He had risen on the first day of the week. Thus the Council of Nicea proposed a uniform manner of calculating on which Sunday their Easter celebration should fall each year.
The pagan origins of Easter are well known; one might therefore ask how ancient was the Romans’ custom. We have clarified elsewhere the timing of Jesus’ resurrection as Sabbath evening, not Sunday morning, and written about the veneration of Sunday as a therefore syncretic mixture of Christian orthodoxy and pagan sun worship. Scripture simply instructs Christ’s followers to “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, emphasis added), not to worship on the day they believe He was raised.
Nonetheless, most churches today assert that “the Lord’s Day takes its significance from the resurrection of Christ,” and on that basis Sunday “soon became the day when the congregations assembled” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).
The popularization of Sunday worship might also be dated to 313, when the Decree of Milan, issued jointly by emperors Constantine I and Licinius, decriminalized many Christian worship practices. Commenting on Constantine’s influence in these years, scholar and Boston University professor emerita Paula Fredriksen notes pointedly that “the type of Christianity Constantine is patronizing is very different from what Paul enunciated. The fact that Constantine’s Christianity understands itself as the only one that’s true to what Paul taught wouldn’t help the historical Paul’s shock in seeing how different Constantine’s Christianity was from his own.” How had it shifted so far?
These councils and decrees all took place hundreds of years after the events described in the New Testament, and significant drift from original intent can occur over such a stretch. Can we turn to anything closer to the time of the apostles themselves?
Early Extrabiblical Sources
Three other documents are commonly quoted to confirm the practice of Sunday worship within the early church. The first is by Ignatius of Antioch, whose Letter to the Magnesians is generally thought to have been written early in the second century.
English translations of the letter speak of “those who were brought up in the ancient order of things [but who] have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death.” This again ties Sunday worship to Easter, whose roots date back, not to the biblical figures and forebears later church fathers claimed to follow, but to various pre-Christian religions.
It’s important to remember, however, that this text merely reflects the translators’ rendering of the original language—a rendering that may well betray theological biases. At issue in this case is the fact that most translations supply the word day (“the Lord’s Day”) on the basis that the context implies it, though day nowhere appears in the Greek text of the Magnesians passage. However, “the noun ‘life—zoen’ is present in the oldest extant Greek manuscript [Codex Mediceo-Laurentianus]; thus ‘Lord’s life’ is the most likely translation” (Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday).
“The forcing of ‘Lord’s day’ into the text [of Ignatius’s letter to the Magnesians] appears as a purely artificial device to support the idea of an early use of the term.”
In addition, the Greek word kata precedes the word widely translated as “the Lord’s Day.” Where used elsewhere in the letter, kata is often translated “according to,” or “after the manner of.” Thus the passage may instead be recommending that a follower of Jesus Christ do as He did, not ritualistically keeping the Sabbath in the way the Jewish religious authorities had come to do, but instead living as He lived, following His manner of life—“living according to the Lord’s life,” or “fashioning their lives after the manner of the Lord’s life.”
This hasn’t escaped the attention of other researchers. In 1849 Sir William Domville, himself an avowed Sunday-keeper, nevertheless noted with regard to the questionable translation of Ignatius’s letter that “there is no phrase or word in the original which corresponds to the phrase ‘the Lord’s day,’ or to the word ‘keeping’ [or ‘living in the observance of’]. . . . To speak of living according to a day is, in fact, to use a phrase without a meaning [whereas] ‘living according to the Lord’s life’ agree[s] with the whole tenor of the context! . . . Thus, ‘living according to the Lord’s life, in which also our life is sprung up.’ Why ‘also’ our life, unless the Lord’s life had been previously mentioned?”
Domville adds, “Still more remarkable is the language of a preceding sentence [in the letter to the Magnesians], ‘for even the most holy prophets lived according to [kata] Christ Jesus.’ What is this but saying in other words living ‘according to the Lord’s life’? that is, according to the pattern He set us. . . .” His point is that the Old Testament prophets, who most certainly observed the seventh-day Sabbath, lived in a manner that would be in keeping with Christ’s ways rather than the ways of the Jewish religious leaders, who added so many rules and restrictions to Sabbath observance that the meaning of the day was essentially lost.
“In referring to ‘the most godly prophets’ who ‘lived in accordance with Jesus Christ,’ Ignatius most likely had in mind the passages from the prophets, such as Isaiah 1:13–17, which indicted the people’s outwardly ritualistic observance of the Sabbath, much as Jesus did with reference to the Pharisaic observance of the Sabbath. . . .”
Another early source commonly cited is the Letter of Barnabas, which says, “We keep the eighth day [Sunday] with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.” Though the letter is often dated to 74 CE, when some of the apostles were still alive, the book’s contents strongly suggest that it was written considerably later. By the early 20th century, commentators could say that “modern critics unanimously deny the genuineness of the letter. When the Epistle was written, St. Barnabas was certainly no longer alive and, even if he had been, he would not have adopted the violent and severe attitude evinced throughout this document” (J. Tixeront, Handbook of Patrology). Even the Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that the letter “must . . . have been written in A.D. 130–131.”
Arguably the earliest extrabiblical source used to validate Sunday worship is known as the Didache, a short work generally dated to the mid-first to early second century. It teaches, “Every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving. . . .” This reference to “Lord’s day” is said to prove that Sunday rather than Sabbath observance was practiced as early as the time of the apostles.
But, as is the case with the Magnesians passage, the Greek word for “day” is not found in this Didache passage. It, too, begins with the word kata, and the context leads one to a different rendering: “[According to the] Lord’s [command, teaching, way,] gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving.”
“I grant that ‘Lord’s day’ eventually came to mean Sunday, but we can’t automatically assume that it had this meaning at first. Another thing we can’t automatically assume is that the author says ‘Lord’s day.’ There is a question about the translation.”
If only there were some definitive way to settle the question of which day followers of Christ should keep today.
Go to the Source
For some clarity, let’s consider how Scripture itself describes the practice of the early New Testament Church. On which day did they worship, and on what did they base that practice?
The biblical account of creation indicates that because God rested from His work, He “blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Genesis 2:3, English Standard Version). When Moses reviewed the requirements placed on the Israelites, he instructed: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you” (Deuteronomy 5:12).
What did Jesus do? Scripture indicates that His habitual practice was to keep the Sabbath, not another day. He regularly taught in the synagogue, “as His custom was” (Luke 4:16), and even described Himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
When Jesus spoke against the religious authorities of His day, He criticized the additional requirements added atop scriptural instructions, not observance of the day itself. He noted that “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4, English Standard Version). Even so, He indicated that because “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, [you should] do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (verses 2–3). Sabbath-keeping was among those things that should still be done, not abandoned or changed just because the Pharisees, by their own traditions, had added nonbiblical conditions and constraints.
Isaiah 58:13–14 indicates that the Sabbath was meant to be a delight, a reason for joy, not for heaviness or feeling weighed down. It can still be so when kept as originally intended. Christ Himself concurred with this perspective, stating that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It was designed to be a benefit to one’s life, not a burden to be endured.
“Early Christian documents . . . all demonstrate that there was a shift away from Sabbath observance. We can’t merely assume, however, that because the church eventually started keeping Sunday, it always kept Sunday, or that it kept Sunday from the first century onward.”
Religious writers have long viewed Paul as the one who removed Christianity from its Jewish foundations. Many modern scholars have begun to reevaluate this bias and reconsider Paul in his thoroughly Jewish context, seeing agreement between his ways and those of Christ, whose lead he followed. In reality, Paul’s long-standing and continuing practice was clearly to keep the Sabbath: “They came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:1–2, emphasis added).
The Lord’s Day?
Many today believe the seventh-day Sabbath to have been replaced, superseded by Sunday observance, on the basis that “the early Church Fathers compared the observance of the Sabbath to the observance of the rite of circumcision, and from that they demonstrated that if the apostles abolished circumcision (Galatians 5:1–6), so also the observance of the Sabbath must have been abolished” (Catholic Answers, “Sabbath or Sunday?”).
The subject of the Galatians passage is clearly circumcision, not Sabbath observance. Neither did Paul and the other apostles make any such comparison in Acts 15. They understood that the physical rite of circumcision was no longer binding on gentile converts, but they made no connection between that practice and the requirement to keep the Sabbath.
This is not, however, an argument from silence: the Sabbath is expressly included in the discussion. When James summed up the matter, he specifically mentioned the Sabbath (verse 21) as the time when non-Israelites who were meeting with Jews in the synagogues (because they were “turning to God,” verse 19) would have learned both what things to observe and what things to avoid. The latter included idolatry, sexual immorality, things strangled, and blood—all of which were aspects of pagan worship and therefore to be turned from in order to turn to the true God. The apostles could easily have addressed a change in Sabbath observance here in Acts 15 if it had been at issue, but it obviously was not a concern; what they had been taught in the synagogues in that regard was still in force.
James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte clarifies: “The evidence is that such gentiles generally conformed to what would be seen by outsiders as a Judaic form of life. They are not meeting on Sunday; they are not worshiping in a church; they know nothing of Easter or Christmas or any of the Christian calendar. They are going to meetings on the Sabbath—the seventh-day Sabbath, Saturday.”
It is illogical to believe that Paul would have taught Jewish and non-Jewish members of the church that they should meet on different days. How could they ever hope to be a unified body if their beliefs and practices weren’t the same, leading them to meet separately from each other each week?
But what of the argument that the Bible indicates a change from Sabbath observance to Sunday worship for the entire early church? The Orthodox Study Bible, for example, notes that “with the Resurrection of Christ, the Sabbath, which was the seventh day, has become the day of rest and preparation for the Eighth Day, or Sunday (see Acts 20:7).”
“That Paul spoke (at great length!) to the assembled believers (Acts 20:7–11) implies nothing about their typical practice, since Paul was a special guest and intended to leave the next day.”
A popular Roman Catholic website, Catholic Answers, in the article cited earlier, likewise claims that “Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Colossians 2:16–17, and Revelation 1:10 indicate that, even during New Testament times, the Sabbath is no longer binding and that Christians are to worship on the Lord’s day, Sunday, instead.” Does the Bible indicate that the New Testament church broke away from the Sabbath and instead kept the first day of the week as “the Lord’s Day”?
Where these scriptures speak of a gathering, they refer to a specific purpose: to break bread, to talk, to prepare a gift of money to be distributed to distant congregations in need. None speaks of formal worship on the first day of the week, nor is the breaking of bread synonymous with the partaking of the Passover bread, which was an annual, not weekly, practice (see Leviticus 23:4–6). Nowhere in the New Testament is there an instruction for Christ’s followers to change the timing or frequency of the Passover celebration. In fact, the term breaking bread was not originally a reference to any specific religious practice. When the early church came together to break bread, they were simply sharing a meal with others of like mind.
But what about Revelation 1:10, where the apostle John, in his introduction to the book, says he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day”? Though most Sunday-keeping commentators put this forward as clear evidence that Jesus’ followers were keeping Sunday before the end of the first century, the scholarly debate is far from over. One point put forward is that there is no plausible reason for John to mention the day of the week on which he had the vision; it has no bearing on the context of the book.
Given the lack of additional scriptural or other support for the claim that the early church was keeping Sunday, another interpretation of this verse is much more likely: John is about to report on what Christ revealed to him in a vision regarding the future—a time referred to by the prophets as “the day of the Lord” (see, for example, Isaiah 13:6; Jeremiah 46:10; Joel 1:15; Obadiah 1:15; Zechariah 14:1). Thus he says, in effect, “I saw a vision, in which I was transported to the day of the Lord.”
Considering the first (or “the eighth”) day superior to the seventh is at best presumptuous and misguided. To abandon the Bible’s instructions and adopt a new day of worship is a baseless and unjustifiable shift if, as Jesus instructed, “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, New International Version).
Thomas Aquinas had one thing right: following correctly the lead of those who have gone before us results in unity of faith and practice. The question to be answered is just who those ancients are. For those who seek to follow the teachings of Christ and the practice of the church He founded, the choice between Sabbath and Sunday observance is quite clear.