Old Testament Laws: Sabbath and Sunday – A New Hypothesis

My reconstruction

I agree with the reasons Maxwell has given, but I wish to add one: Jewish Christians had a practical need for meeting times that did not conflict with synagogue observance, as mentioned earlier.

The second-century writers show that the vast majority of Christians met on Sunday and did not keep the Sabbath. They give no clues that would suggest that Sunday was a recent innovation. This suggests that Sunday observance began in the first century. The widespread nature of Sunday observance also argues for its antiquity. The second-century church did not have the organization or communication that might enable them to mandate a particular day of worship without generating disagreement and controversy. Therefore it is likely that Sunday observance began before or during the early stages of the Gentile mission.1

It is possible that Sunday observance began in Jerusalem. Thousands of law-observant Jews came into the church. They attended temple and synagogue functions, yet they also wished to have more private meetings for believers only. They wished to discuss Scriptures, share meals, pray and sing Christian hymns. Initially, they met daily (Acts 2:46). Sabbath restrictions, however, might have made it difficult to prepare meals and gather large groups on Saturday evenings.

Sundays would provide opportunities for large Christian gatherings. Scriptures that had been read in synagogues the previous day would be discussed, especially if they had messianic significance. These discussions would be particularly interesting. Sermons would be given; Christians would celebrate Jesus as the Messiah. As Christianity spread to Jewish communities in Antioch, Alexandria and Rome, similar situations would foster the development of post-Sabbath Christian meetings.

When Gentiles began to be added to the church, they were God-fearing Gentiles who attended synagogue readings and would also need an after-Sabbath meeting time for Christian worship. Eventually Gentiles from pagan backgrounds were also added, e.g., in Alexandria, Ephesus and Rome. These converts were not in the habit of attending synagogue, but they would nevertheless meet with the others after the Sabbath.

Thus there were two groups of Christians: those who kept Sabbath and also met after the Sabbath, and those who ignored the Sabbath and met only after the Sabbath. This dual development would have been common throughout the empire, since Jews lived in many cities, and evangelists preached to the Jews first. But the need for dual worship meetings would have ceased in most cities as Gentiles became the large majority. Anti-Jewish sentiment could have accelerated this development.

The custom of after-Sabbath meetings would have been spread by traveling evangelists, and the tradition would have been maintained even in areas without Sabbath meetings. Even in areas with synagogues, meeting on the Sabbath would become less important, since synagogue readings had to be interpreted, and the interpretations were given in the after-Sabbath meeting. The desire for attendance at the synagogue would become further reduced when Christian groups obtained their own copies of the Scriptures.

The Acts 15 conference had already concluded that Gentile converts did not need to keep the law of Moses and, judging by rabbinic writings, uncircumcised Gentiles were not expected to keep the Sabbath. Paul, writing to a church that contained both Jews and Gentiles, downplayed the significance of days (Romans 14:5). He explained that the Sabbath (like sacrifices) had typological significance and was not a matter for judging Christians (Colossians 2:16). And he criticized any observance of any days that were part of a legalistic obligations (Galatians 4:10). The writer of Hebrews explained that the Sabbath typologically prefigured the eschatological rest, and it is that latter rest that Christians should strive to enter (Hebrews 4:1-10). These NT scriptures indicate that questions about worship days did arise in the first century, and that they were resolved at an early stage in church history.

This hypothetical reconstruction explains how an initially Sabbath-keeping Jewish group could become a Sunday‑keeping Gentile group within a generation, and it explains how this could have been done throughout the empire simultaneously with a minimum of controversy: It was part of Christianity from the beginning.2


1 I am open to the possibility that Sunday observance began independently in Antioch and Alexandria. Similar factors operated in both locations, including the need for post-synagogue meetings and the association of the first day with Christ’s resurrection, permitting parallel development. However, as Christianity spread to more areas, the chances for independent development of the same practice become slimmer.

2 A Sabbath-keeper could agree with most of this reconstruction. The Sabbath-keeper could agree that Christians needed after-Sabbath meetings, and that this need existed from the very start. It would not be wrong to meet for worship on Sundays in addition to keeping the Sabbath. However, the Sabbath-keeper would disagree with the significance of the NT scriptures cited above, and the Sabbath-keeper would say that it was wrong for believers to eventually abandon the Sabbath and keep only Sunday. Whether this was apostasy is answered not by church history but by Scripture.


Bacchiocchi, Samuele. From Sabbath to Sunday Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1977.

———. “The Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity,” chap. 7 in Kenneth A. Strand, ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History, 132-150.

Bauckham, Richard J. “The Lord’s Day,” chap. 8 in D.A. Carson, 221-250.

———. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Post-Apostolic Church,” chap. 9 in D.A. Carson, 251-298.

Carson, D.A., ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982.

Charlesworth, James, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Cross, F.L., and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford, 1983.

Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Joseph Smith, trans. Ancient Christian Writers vol. 16. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1952.

Maxwell, C. Mervyn. “Early Sabbath-Sunday History,” in Maxwell and Damsteegt, 136-161F.

———, and Gerard Damsteegt, eds., Source Book for the History of Sabbath and Sunday. Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1992.

Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1885, 1987.

Robinson, James, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1957.

Seventh-day Adventists Believe…: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines. Seventh-day Adventists Believe…: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1988.

Strand, Kenneth A. “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 17 (1979): 85-104.

———. “The Sabbath and Sunday From the Second Through Fifth Centuries.” App. B in Strand, The Sabbath in Scripture and History, 323-332.

———, ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1982.

Swartley, Willard M. Sabbath, Slavery, War and Women. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1983.

Vyhmeister, Werner K. “The Sabbath in Asia,” chap. 8 in Strand, The Sabbath in Scripture and History, 151-168.

Author: Michael Morrison


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