Hello Everyone. Here is a new study I have just authored that I’m releasing for the first time. If you find any typos, please let me know. No matter how many times I edit my stuff, I always miss some things. Thanks in advance. Enjoy! Natan
How the Early Church Forsook the Sabbath for Sunday Worship
by Natan Lawrence
Hoshana Rabbah Biblical Discipleship Resources
Purpose of This Study
The study of how the early (post-apostolic) church turned away from a Torah-centric orientation and embraced the theology that is now the skeletal framework of modern mainstream Christianity is a complex and difficult one, since we have to look back 2000 years to review scanty historical data. Different researchers will view the same tiny amount of documentation that remains from that era and arrive at different conclusions. The final analysis is often determined by the theological glasses the scholar is wearing and thus viewing the data from. Those who start with a pro-Torah penchant or even bias versus an anti-Torah bias will likely come to different conclusions.
Suffice it to say, the brief study that follows will in no way do justice to the subject of how the early church turned Sabbath to Sunday. Our goal is merely to introduce the reader to a different point of view than they have commonly heard in the mainstream church. In this study, we will have achieved our goal if we can gently persuade the reader at least to have an open mind, and to prove all things to see if they are true, and, perhaps, they will, at least, consider the idea that some long-held and institutionalized mainstream Christian beliefs may be more fiction than fact.
Christian Tradition With Regard to Sunday
Why the mainstream church embraces Sunday over Sabbath observance can be summarized succinctly as follows:
The celebration of the Lord’s Day [Sunday] in memory of the resurrection of Christ dates undoubtedly from the apostolic age. Nothing short of apostolic precedent can account for [its] universal religious observance in the churches of the second century. There is no dissenting voice. This custom is confirmed by testimonies of the earliest post-apostolic writers, as Barnabas, Ingnatius and Justin Martyr… (History of the Christian Church, vol 2, pp. 201–202, by Philip Schaff).
In his book, Our Father Abraham, Christian scholar Marvin Wilson takes a more moderated approach when discussing the issue of the early church’s switch from Sabbath to Sunday. He admits the existence of tension between the Jews and Gentile believers over adherence to the Torah making a move from Sabbath to Sunday “exceedingly difficult, if not virtually impossible.” Potential Jewish converts to Christianity, he notes, would have been suspect of any faith that would abandon the Torah (law of Moses) or the Jewishness of one’s past (Ibid., pp. 79–80). Unlike some of his more dogmatic scholarly colleagues, Wilson admits that it is not known when the early church began Sunday worship. He seems to concede to some possible allusions to Sunday worship in the New Testament (NT) by citing several of the scriptures that Christians perennially use to “prove” Sunday observance in the primitive (apostolic) church (e.g., Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2), but he’s reluctant to see these as a clear apostolic mandate for a switch from Sabbath to Sunday. He admits that the Acts 20 passage may be a reference to the Saturday evening (Heb. havdallah or Motza’ei-Shabbat) service, which was, in reality, simply an extension of the regular daily Sabbath service into the evening (Ibid., p. 80).
Our approach to analyzing the subject of when Sunday worship began in the Christian church will be somewhat different than the conventional method of sabbatarians to simply refute the arguments Sunday-keepers make in favor of Sunday worship by quoting NT verses that may suggest a Sunday replacement of the Sabbath. This approach, though seemingly a valid one, ignores the proverbial elephant in the room. That “elephant” is the undeniable pro-Torah views and practices of Yeshua and his apostles, which, when considered, makes their changing Sabbath to Sunday observance a highly incongruent if not an impossible proposition without making the Word of Elohim to lie and the apostles to be lying hypocrites.
The Elephant in the Room: The Apostles Were Pro-Torah
Before commencing our trip back in history to discover the origins of Sunday worship, it’s proper for me to disclose my bias. I start from the premise that all the apostles were not only pro-Torah, but were Torah obedient. This is based on many scripture references, a few of which are referenced below (hundreds more could be given!).
- Speaking of Paul, “You yourself also walk orderly and keep the law….” (Acts 21:24)
- Paul states, “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.” (Acts 22:3)
- Paul testifies, “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets.” (Acts 24:14)
- Paul says, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.” (Acts 25:8)
- Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” (Rom 3:31)
- Paul writes, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” (Rom 7:12)
- Paul writes, “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God.” (Rom 7:25)
- Paul writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet, and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom 13:8–10)
- Paul writes, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.” (1 Cor 7:19)
- James writes, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well’; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.” (Jas 2:8–12)
- John writes, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning.” (1 John 2:3–7)
- John writes, “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4)
- John writes, “And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev 12:17)
- John writes, “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” (Rev 14:12)
- John writes, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” (Rev 22:14)
With these verses as a foundation for understanding the pro-Torah position of the apostolic writers, we now want to consider a couple of other facts.
The first one is that the primitive church was primarily Jewish, and was led by the apostles who faithfully adhered to the Torah-law of Moses following the example of Yeshua who practiced and taught its continuance. As the church expanded through the Roman empire and gained Gentile converts, there were some who fell prey to the philosophy of antinomianism (meaning “against the law”) — that salvation by grace freed one from obligation to obey the Torah. Paul strongly refutes this concept several times in the book of Romans (e.g., see Paul’s statement in Rom 3:31, “Do we then make the law void through grace? Certainly, not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”). In addition, some Jews in Jerusalem had come to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching into believing that he was speaking against the law of Moses. This misunderstanding resulted in his being arrested in Jerusalem and eventually being transported to Rome as a Roman prisoner. In reality, Paul died defending the validity of the Torah and a Torah-pursuant lifestyle for believers!
The second fact to consider is that we must place ourselves in the cultural context of the times of the apostles to properly understand the rise of antinomianism. Remember that very few people had copies of the Bible in those days and fewer still could read, so, in such a religious environment, it would have been easy for false concepts to propagate and to gain traction in the minds of a simple, a largely unlearned people-group. Basically, people had to believe what their spiritual leaders told them. Unscrupulous, ignorant, or misguided teachers had the capability to lead many people astray without their being able to corroborate it from the Scriptures. This is the why the Bereans were praised (Acts 17:10–11), because they confirmed the words of their Bible teachers in the Scriptures, and so should we!
With all that we have noted to this point, let’s now consider the likelihood of the apostles introducing Sunday worship into the primitive church.
The Observance of Passover Proof of Sabbath Keeping
The apostolic command to observe Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (1 Cor 5:7–8) is strong evidence that the resurrection of Yeshua was not yet associated with this feast. This is additional proof that the apostolic believers did not celebrate Yeshua’s resurrection on Sunday, which in the second century, became a major justification the church fathers used for replacing Sabbath observance with Sunday (From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 80, by Samuele Bacchiocci).
Bacchiocci notes that Ephiphanius (ca. A.D. 315–405) suggests that until A.D. 315, Christians everywhere observed the Passover on the biblical date of Nisan 14. This would suggest that until that time, many Christians had not felt the necessity to institute a Sunday memorial in honor of the resurrection.
This is why the date of Passover was such a controversial issue in the early church (called “the Quartodeciman Controversy”). Many Christians hung on to Passover observance on the dates that the Torah established and refused to follow the Easter Sunday tradition, which was being introduced into the church starting in the second half of the second century. This controversy was officially settled at the Council of Nicea in the early fourth century in favor of Easter Sunday. Even then, as we shall see later, many Christians still hung on to the Sabbath.
How Likely Is It That The Apostles Introduced Sunday Worship?
In light of the Scriptures, we’ve already considered how Paul and the other apostles evidenced a positive disposition toward the Torah. There’s scriptural evidence that Paul even gave his life defending the Torah’s validity for New Covenant believers. Now let us consider another reality that make the idea of the apostles, and Paul in particular, advocating Sunday over Sabbath observance an untenable one.
In light of the biblical record, it’s counter logical to think that Paul introduced Sunday-observance over Sabbath-keeping, for had he done so, there would have been a great outcry among the other Jewish apostles, from the Jewish Christians, and from the Gentiles who had converted to Christianity out of the synagogue system. Therefore, the Pauline scripture passages the mainstream church has perennially used to abrogate Sabbath-observance (i.e., Col 2:17; Gal 4:10; Rom 14:6) are simply misinterpretations of Paul’s views, which was irrefutably pro-Torah as we have already seen as based on Paul’s written and spoken statements.
The unlikelihood of Paul introducing anti-Sabbatarianism is strengthened by the fact of the uproar that occurred in Jerusalem over Paul’s supposedly teaching against circumcision and other Mosaic customs (Acts 21:21). In reality, the effects of this opposition to Paul’s alleged violation of Torah strictures is what led to his arrest by the Roman authorities, his transport to Rome and his eventual martyrdom. If the Jews reacted so strongly over the slanderous report of his teaching against circumcision, then how much more so if he had been advocating the abrogation of the Sabbath?
Why Is There No Concrete Evidence of Sunday Keeping in Jerusalem?
Sunday became known in early Christianity as “the Lord’s Day” in honor of our Yeshua’s resurrection on the first day of the week. Jerusalem in the first century was the home of the mother church of Christianity and the seat of apostolic authority. It was also the place where Yeshua was crucified and resurrected on the first day. Where better a place to introduce Sunday-observance than here? From Jerusalem, due to the influence of the mother church, Sunday worship could spread across the Roman empire and beyond. Yet we have no record of Sunday observance in Jerusalem during the apostolic era, other than a few obscure biblical passages that indicate that the early Christians were “doing something” on the first day of the week, which could just as well have been a Saturday night gathering (since the biblical day begins at Sundown) after their regular Sabbath services. This hardly proves that these early believers had rejected the Sabbath for Sunday! In fact, the earliest concrete historical references to Sunday observance are from Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt and Rome during the first half of the second century and later, and not before (as we shall discuss below)!
Since our earliest concrete historical references to Sunday observance are from the first half of the second century — several decades after the death of the apostles, then how is it possible that the early believers so quickly changed from Sabbath to Sunday observance? There are several factors that contributed to this, which we will touch on later, but, at this juncture, consider the fact that the biblical record reveals that YHVH’s people maintained Torah-obedience only for short periods of time before turning away from it. This is because it is not in man’s nature to remain true to the word or laws of Elohim! Paul gives the following reason for man’s proclivity to apostatize from Elohim’s revealed truth as embodied in his Torah, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:7–8). We cannot over-stress the importance of this proclivity of the human heart toward rebellion and sin and the effect it has had on the hearts and minds of YHVH’s people down through the ages to this very day!
Now let’s consider the historical realities behind Paul’s statement and the inability of YHVH’s people to maintain faithfulness to his laws.
Factors Causing the Church to Turn Away from Its Hebraic Roots
One can’t help wonder why and how the church leaders of the second century could come to such an opposite view of the Torah as that of Yeshua and the apostles — one which these church fathers passed on down to the mainstream church of today. This seems puzzling, perplexing and an incredulous thing to the logical and inquiring mind. To help answer this question, consider the following:
- Recall YHVH’s people’s sordid history of failing to remain faithful and obedient to his word:
- Adam and Eve quickly turned away from Elohim’s word and fell into sin.
- The Israelites quickly forsook Elohim for golden calf worship even after all the miracles he had performed for them.
- Ancient Israel repeatedly turned from the truth of Elohim into the idolatrous practices of the heathen nations around them.
- The northern kingdom of Israel immediately forsook the worship of YHVH and obedience to the Torah after its split from the Jews of the southern kingdom.
- Many false doctrines and traditions of men had arisen in Judaism by the time of Yeshua, and how many times he countered the Jews over this issue.
- Human nature being what it is and ever the same individually and corporately, why should we expect anything different of the early church after the death of the apostles? The biblical record shows that YHVH’s people seldom remained faithful to him for more than forty years. By that time the next generation seldom maintained the truth of the previous generation. Just look at the history of the kings of Judah.
Consider how many different churches and denominations exist on earth today each with different beliefs and all claiming to follow the same Bible. The one thing that’s consistent about man is that he’s inconsistent — he can’t stay with the same thing for very long. This is because:
- Men are always looking for something new and novel.
- They want to be different than their forefathers. It’s a universal attribute of children to want to rebel or be different from their physical and spiritual parents. Sometimes, it seems that men also want to be different from each other simply for difference’s sake to feel better than the next guy.
- For the most part, very few people want to be too different from the culture around them. It’s easier to go along to get along then to be radically different and have to accept the persecution and ostracization that goes along with being different from the crowd.
Consider also the following points:
- Romans 8:7 tells us that men have a natural rebellious predisposition against the laws and dictates of Elohim going back to the tree of knowledge. Satan is always there to lure man in this direction.
- The mainstream church often uses the writings of Paul to justify disobedience to the commands of Elohim including the Sabbath. Peter tells us that the writings of Paul were (are) difficult to understand and easily twisted (2 Pet 3:16). If Peter struggled to understand Paul, how much more so for those who would come centuries and millennia afterwards?
- Consider the influences on the largely Jewish and pro-Torah primitive church that occurred due to the Gentilization of the church and weak spiritual leadership to combat the pagan influences and anti-Semitism within the empire.
- Consider other external factors that contributed to the early church’s move away from a Torah-centric belief system such as Roman persecution, the Roman “Jewish tax,” social pressure from the pagan cultures that excluded those who were non-conformists from social and economic interaction.
- When it comes to the Sabbath, for example, this is the only one of the ten commandments YHVH told man to remember (Exod 20:8), yet this is the one he has forgotten. The Sabbath is often the first commandment that men throw out, and YHVH predicted this would be the case, which is why he told us to remember it. Moreover, we find YHVH’s last command in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible in Malachi 4:4. It’s a final and prophetic warning from our Creator to “remember the law of Moses….” This is because YHVH in his omniscience knew that his people would forget his Torah including the Sabbath. This is exactly what the early church did after the death of the last apostles! With these warnings plainly spelled out in the Scriptures, why should we think it so strange that the early church forsook the Sabbath so quickly?!
A Cloud of Mystery Hangs Over the Early, Post-Apostolic Church
A number of notable church historians have some interesting comments on the primitive church’s movement away from its Jewish roots. The following quotes are from their writings:
History of Christianity (vol 1) by Kenneth Scott Latourette
The complete story of the spread of Christianity in its first five centuries cannot be told, for we do not possess sufficient date to write it. Especially is our information for the early part of the period provokingly fragmentary.…Our knowledge of many aspects and persons of these centuries, even of those which loomed large in the eyes of their contemporaries and so would be prominently noticed, is notoriously imperfect. (p. 65)
Few of the second and third century apologists devoted much attention to the Jews and Judaism. By the time that they wrote, the separation of the Christian community from Judaism was almost complete and Christians were drawn primarily from paganism. (p. 83)
History of the Christian Church (Philip Schaff)
The first half of second century is comparatively veiled in obscurity, although considerable light has been shed over it by recent discoveries and investigations. After the death of John only a few witnesses remain to testify of the wonders of the apostolic days and their apostolic days, and their writings are few in number, short in compass and partly of doubtful origins…. (vol. 2, p. 12)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon)
The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enables us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church. (vol 1. p. 382)
Ecclesiastical History (Eusebius c. 260 to c. 341)
Eusebius records that the apostolic church remained like a pure and uncorrupted virgin, but that “when the sacred choir of apostles became extinct and the generation of those who had been privileged to hear their inspired wisdom had passed away, then, also the combinations of impious error arose by the fraud and delusions of false teachers. These also, as there was none of the apostles left, hence fourth attempted without shame to preach their false doctrines against the gospel of truth” (Book 3, ch. 32).
According to Eusebius, from the time of Yeshua’s ascension there was a succession of fifteen bishops presiding over Jerusalem upon until the time of the consisted of faithful Hebrews who continued from the time of the apostles until the Third Jewish Revolt of A.D. 132 –136 in “the knowledge of Christ pure and unadulterated” (Book 4, ch. 5).
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon)
The first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews; and the congregation over which they presided united the law of Moses with the doctrine of Christ. It was natural that the primitive tradition of a church which was founded only forty days after the death of Christ, and was governed almost as many years under the immediate inspection of his apostle, should be received as the standard of orthodoxy. The distant churches very frequently appealed to the authority of their venerable Parent, and relieved her distress by a liberal contribution of alms, but when numerous and opulent societies were established in the great cities of the empire, in Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome, the reverence which Jerusalem had inspired to all the Christians, afterwards called the Nazarenes, who had laid the foundations of the church, soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes that from all the various religions of polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ: and the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had rejected the intolerable weight of Mosaic ceremonies, at length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited fro their own practice (vol. 1, p. 389).
Gibbon goes on to explain that the Christians who fled the destruction of Jerusalem for refuge in Pella beyond the Jordan remained there in obscurity and solitude for another 60 years (to A.D. 130). In A.D. 135, the Romans defeated the Jews again and banished them from Jerusalem and imposed severe penalty if not death upon any who would dare to approach its precincts. He then writes,
The Nazarenes had only one way left to escape the common proscription, and the force of truth was on this occasion assisted by the influence of temporal advantages. They elected Marcus for their bishop, a prelate of the race of Gentiles, and most probably a native of either Italy or some of the Latin provinces. At his persuasion the most considerable part of the congregation renounced the Mosaic law, in the practice of which they had persevered above a century. By this sacrifice, of their habits and prejudices they purchased a free admission into the colony Hadrian, and more firmly cemented their union with the Catholic church. When the name and honours of the church of Jerusalem had been restored to Mount Sion, the crimes of heresy and schism were imputed to the obscure remnant of the Nazarenes which refused to accompany their Latin bishop. The name Nazarenes was deemed too honourable for these Christian Jews, and they soon received, from the supposed poverty of their understand, as well as of their condition, the contemptuous epithet of Ebionites. In few years after the return of the church of Jerusalem, it became a matter of doubt and controversy whether a man who sincerely acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but who still continued to observe the law of Moses, cold possibly hope for salvation (ibid. pp. 389–391).
The Historical Record on Sabbath to Sunday
In his History of the Church, Kenneth Scott Latourette states that although in the second century the chief day for celebrating the eucharist was Sunday, for centuries, even among the Gentile Christians, Sabbath observance continued (p. 198). If, as commonly taught by modern theologians, the apostles changed the Sabbath to Sunday, then why would these Gentile Christians still be keeping the Sabbath for centuries afterwards? As we shall discover below, the historical evidence points to the fact that the early church, starting in the second century, began the transition from Sabbath to Sunday within Christianity, and not the apostles. This transition, in fact, took several hundred years.
Some proponents of a Sunday over Sabbath observance originating in the late apostolic era or early post-apostolic era will point for support to the Didache (or the Teach of the Twelve Apostles), which is dated by scholars to have been written in the late first century to the early second century. In chapter fourteen of this brief work, we find the following quotation as it appears in most English translations of this Greek work,
But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. (Roberts-Donaldson English translation, emphasis added)
The problem with using the Didache as proof of early Sunday worship is that the word day doesn’t appear in the original Greek. It has been added by the translators. Some scholars have alternatively translated this verse as (keeping to the original syntax and words as closely as possible) in the following manner:
According to ‘the Lord’s things’ of [the] Lord: gather break bread and give thanks, confessing out the failings of you, so that pure the sacrifice of you be. (Funk/Bihlmeyer, 1924)
With such a glaring omission as the word day in the original Greek, how is it possible to use this document as definitive proof of Sunday worship?
Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, which, after the Didache (depending on the date of this work’s origination), is the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament to come down to us (written ca. A.D. 95). Though it speaks of the resurrection (chs. 24–27), it makes no mention of either taking communion on Sunday or celebrating it as a day of worship. This is telling especially in view of the fact that Clement advocates observance of the biblical festivals in chapter 40 of the same epistle. Again, he makes no mention of Sunday replacing the Sabbath. If it had, then why no mention of it?
On the other hand, a few decades after Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, Ignatius, Barnabas and Justin not only write disparagingly about the biblical feasts and Sabbath, but also make “the first timid references to the resurrection, which is presented as an added or secondary reason for Sunday worship” (Bacchiocchi, p. 5 cp. pp. 213–233). The writings of these three second century church fathers constitute the major part of what we know about the church’s separation from the Hebrew roots of the Christian faith including the institution of the Sabbath. Based on the evidence presented in their writings, it can be safely said that they contributed greatly to the church’s abandonment of all forms of “Judaizing” including the Sabbath as well as the other biblical feasts.
Ignatius (A.D. 30 to ca. 115) who was the bishop of the church in Antioch (located in ancient Syria) not far from the land of Israel spoke disparagingly against so-called “Jewish law” stating that those who follow the Torah “have not received grace” (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 8). He goes on to show preference to those who are “no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day…” (Ibid. ch. 9), which can be understood as a reference to Sunday observance. Later in the same chapter, he says, “Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner…but after the spiritual manner.” Making further negative aspersions toward the validity of Sabbath observance, he goes on to say, “After the observing of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection day, the queen and chief of all the days…” He then makes reference to “the eighth day,” which is an early second century euphemism for Sunday (Ibid.).
To put an exclamation point on his position against Torah-obedience including observance of the Sabbath, he concludes with a warning against living a Jewish lifestyle or “Judaizing.” Says he, “It is absurd to speak of Jesus Christ with the tongue, and to cherish in the mind a Judaism which has now come to an end. For where there is Christianity there cannot be Judaism (Ibid. ch. 10).
In this epistle, Ignatius lumps Sabbath observance in with the Jewish law and Judaizing, while casting all in a negative light. At the same time, he directs the constituents of his territory toward Sunday observance.
The pontifications of Ignatius’ in his epistles paint a clear picture. Christianity must advance at the expense of Judaism and everything associated with it including the Sabbath and the rest of the law of Moses. At the same, his strong denunciations of “Judaizing” imply that there was a strong tendency toward Torah-observance including Sabbath-keeping within his ecclesiastical territory. Why else would he have to so forcefully denounce Sabbath and Torah observance? Therefore, we can only conclude that not everyone in his area of jurisdiction had yet broken from Sabbath-observance — at least during Ignatius’ lifetime until A.D. ca. 115 when he died.
The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. A.D. 130 according to the Catholic Encyclopedia), which was written by someone usurping the name of the Barnabas of the Book of Acts but who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, is the next manuscript to consider regarding Christian church’s transition of the Sabbath to Sunday. The author of this epistle adds his denunciations of the Jews to that of Ignatius referring to them as “wretched” (The Epistle of Barnabas, ch. 16). He erroneously states that YHVH broke his covenant with the Israelites at the golden calf incident never to renew it again afterwards. Because they lost their relationship with the God of the Bible, the author surmises, this left the Christians in line to pick up the baton that Israel dropped some 1600 years earlier (Ibid. ch. 4).
The author casts the Jews in a negative light along with the Sabbath and biblical feasts, which the author insinuates YHVH hates when he mischaracterizes Isaiah’s denunciation of Israel’s paganized biblical sabbaths (Ibid. chs. 4 and 15). The author then accuses Elohim of hating his own Sabbath and feasts, which the “eighth day” (i.e., Sunday worship over the Sabbath) now supposedly replaces in accordance with YHVH’s good wishes. He goes on to encourage his readers to “keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day on which Jesus rose again from the dead” (Ibid. ch. 15).
Thus, in The Epistle of Barnabas we have the first explicit encouragement of Sunday-keeping. The concept of the eighth day is not a biblical one, but a man-made doctrine the chief aim of which is to invalidate those so-called (nasty and bothersome) “Jewish laws” (never mind the fact that those laws originated from YHVH himself and were given to man for his blessing and benefit), and replace them with man-made traditions.
From The Epistle of Barnabas it becomes evident that even by ca. A.D. 130, Sabbath-keeping was still extant in the early Christian church and was, at least, a nettlesome Jewish thorn in the side of some of the Jew-hating early church fathers. If it were not, then why did these early church authors spend so much energy debunking the Sabbath?
Next let’s look at the teaching of Justin Martyr (A.D. 100 to 165) who lived and taught in Rome. Justin viewed the Mosaic law including the sabbaths as a temporary injunction that YHVH placed on the Jewish people because of their sins and hardness of heart (Trypho, chs. 18, 23). He writes,“there is no more need of them now” (Ibid. ch. 23). He bases his argument on the false assumption that since these laws didn’t pre-exist Moses, they were temporary and applicable only to the Jewish people, and are no longer incumbent upon Christians.
Evidently, when Justin wrote his First Apology (A.D. 155), Sunday observance had taken hold in the Roman capital for he writes in his work, “And on the day called Sunday [or the day of the sun], all who live in the cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets [no mention is made of the Torah] are read…” [Ibid., ch. 67]. Later in the same chapter he adds, “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 on the same day rose from the dead.”
In view of Justin’s hatred for the Jews and their laws, and bearing in mind that the Romans already venerated the day of the Sun, Justin’s explicit and repeated reference to the day of the sun represents a calculated effort to draw the Christians closer to the Roman customs than to those of the Jews (Bacchiocci, p. 230).
Justin carries forth the theme of the eighth — one which had obviously taken hold in the minds of some of the early church fathers — as justification for cessation of Sabbath observance — when he attributes a higher philosophical significance to the former over the latter (Trypho, ch. 23). That there were still Christians who observed the law of Moses including the Sabbath toward the middle of the second century is evident in Justin’s debate with his fictitious Jewish counterpart whom he calls Trypho.
In chapter 47 he refers to those who keep the Sabbath or observe other such ceremonies, and writes of those who compel the Gentiles who believe in Christ to live in all respects according to the law of Moses. Justin goes on to refers to Torah-obedience as “weak-mindedness.”
In summary, the anti-Sabbath writings of Ignatius, Barnabas and Justin by noting the anti-Judaic sentiments in their respective communities (Antioch, Alexandria and Rome), which “augmented by social tensions and theological convictions, created the necessity of avoiding any semblance of Judaism” including observance of the biblical feasts and Sabbath (Bacchiocci, p. 233).
Ignatius condemns the “judaizing” of some Christians and particularly their “sabbatizing” or observance of the Sabbath according to the manner of the Jews. He is thus encouraging the separating from Jewish practices thus encouraging the adoption of Sunday worship in order to force a clearer distinction from the Jews (Ibid.).
Barnabas carries the anti-Jewish theological sentiments to the next level in his outright attempts to neutralize Jewish customs including the Sabbath. As Bacchiocci points out, “he empties the Sabbath of its significance and obligation for the present age in order to present the eighth day as its legitimate continuation and replacement” (Ibid.).
Finally, Justin confirms the existence of deep anti-Judaic sentiments in the Roman capital, which seems to have influenced him to reduce the Sabbath to “the very sign of reprobation of the Jewish people…. The adoption of a new day of worship appears to have been motivated by the necessity to evidence a clear distinction from the Jews” (Ibid. pp. 233–234).
The Dynamics of the Transition from Sabbath to Sunday
So far we have shown how the apostolic church was Sabbath keeping and that the apostles in no way proffered any notion of abandoning the Sabbath for Sunday. Little by little, due to the Gentilization of the church, the rise of anti-Semitism in the Roman empire, the persecution of the Jews by the Romans and any religious sect that appeared to be Jewish (i.e. Sabbath-keeping Christians), the imposition of Roman taxes on Jews or Jewish look-alikes, the early church fathers began to distance themselves from anything that appeared Jewish including the law of Moses and Jewish lifestyle. In this, the Sabbath would have been a target at which to take aim.
Moreover, because of the Roman government’s persecution of the Jews in Rome, the Roman authorities overshot the Jews and hit the Christians who initially resembled an offshoot of Judaism. Out of self-preservation, the Christian leaders in Rome began to discourage Sabbath worship. This we can see from the writings of Justin Martyr toward the middle of the second century. Marcion (A.D. 85 – 160) a popular heretic, who was also an inhabitant of Rome and a Jew hater with no love for the Torah, imposed upon his followers an injunction to fast on the Sabbath in order to discourage Sabbath observance according to the early church historian Epiphanius (A.D. 310 – 403) and by Hypolytus writing in Rome between A.D. 202–234 (Bacchiocci, pp. 187, 191). This practice to discourage Sabbath keeping among Christians was introduced into the church in Rome at about the same time. This practice was part of the forced transition of Christians from Sabbath to Sunday and not only involved fasting on the Sabbath, but also the prohibition of conducting religious assemblies (Ibid., p 196). This bit of history reveals an important fact. Sabbath keeping in the mid-second and even well into the fourth centuries was so prevalent in the Christian church that strong measures had to be enacted to discourage it. The historical record about the church’s change from Sabbath to Sunday doesn’t square with the modern mainstream church’s assertion that Sunday observance originated in the apostolic era! Not only did Sunday observance not originate in the apostolic era, but the historical record shows that it continued well into the fourth century among many Christians in various parts of the Roman Empire.
The Roman church’s custom of fasting on the Sabbath wasn’t universally accepted throughout all Christendom. There was even opposition to it in Rome, but despite this, it spread to other western communities (Bacchiocci, p. 192). By the fourth century, Pope Sylvester (A.D. 314–335) was defending the Sabbath fast on the theological grounds that Christians needed to prepare for a joyous Sunday observance of Christ’s resurrection by experiencing the sorrow of his death and burial on Friday and Saturday. Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau (in present-day Austria, ca. A.D. 304) emphasizes the same function of the Sabbath (Ibid., p. 195). What’s more, Pope Innocent I (A.D. 402–417) in a famous letter to Decentius the text of which was incorporated into Canon Law establishes as church tradition the taking of sacraments on either Friday or Saturday.
Finally, two fifth century historians, namely Sozomen (ca. A.D. 440) and Socrates (ca. A.D. 439) confirm Innocent I’s decretal. Socrates writes that “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” (Ibid., p. 196).
Summary and Conclusion
Again, these historical facts prove that Sabbath observance in the Christian church, though fasting was occurring thereon, was still in existence well into the fifth century — about 350 years after the death of the last apostle!
As Bacchiocci points out, “In light of the cumulative evidence, it appears that the Church in Rome played a key role in early Christianity’s emptying the Sabbath of its theological-liturgical significance and in urging the abandonment of its observance. The injunction to fast on the Sabbath, accompanied by the prohibition to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and to hold religious meetings on this day, represents definite measures taken by the Church of Rome, on the one hand, to wean Christians away from the veneration of the Sabbath, and, on the other hand, to enhance Sunday worship exclusively. The reason for such an intransigent attitude toward Jewish institutions such as Sabbath-keeping can be found in the need for radical differentiation from Judaism which was particularly felt in the early part of the second century” (Ibid., pp. 197–198). Bacchiocci goes on to note that this need for differentiation within the Christian community from Judaism was brought on by fiscal, military, political and literary attacks and measures of the Romans against the Jews thus encouraging the Christians to sever their ties with the latter. This was particularly true, Bacchiocci asserts, in Rome where most Christian converts were of pagan extraction and experienced an earlier need to differentiate themselves from the Jews than those Christians in the East. The change of date and manner of observance of such Jewish festivals as the Sabbath and Passover would help to clarify to the Roman authorities their distinction from Judaism (Ibid., p. 198).