The earliest Christians were Torah-observant Jews in Jerusalem, who attended Jewish festivals and observed Temple rituals (Acts 2:1; 3:1; 15:5; 21:20). They observed the seventh-day Sabbath, too. However, in the second, third and fourth centuries we find that almost all Christians observed Sunday — sometimes as a Sabbath-like day of worship meetings and rest, sometimes as a day for worship and work, sometimes in addition to the Sabbath and sometimes instead of the Sabbath.
Note: click here for a PDF of this article, which also contains study papers by Thomas Hanson and Ralph Orr.
How did the change in worship day occur? This historical question is of interest to all Christians, but it is especially relevant for those who observe either the seventh day or Sunday as a Sabbath.
This paper examines the written evidence we have for the first and second centuries. It defends this thesis: Although the New Testament does not command a particular day for Christian worship, the earliest records we have show the vast majority of the Christian church rejecting the Sabbath and assembling on Sunday. Reasons for this development will be explored.
The first century
Articles About the Sabbath
To begin our research into first-century Christian worship days, we look first at the New Testament. The Gospels report that Jesus had conflicts with Jewish leaders several times over Sabbath issues. Jesus rejected the restrictive traditions of the elders. He allowed his disciples to pluck grain, he healed, he taught, and he told a man to carry his sleeping mat (Matthew 12:1-12; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-18).1 Jesus noted that priests worked on the Sabbath, that animals could be rescued or taken to water, and circumcisions could be performed (Matthew 12:5-6, 11; Luke 13:15; John 7:22). Jesus claimed to have authority over the Sabbath, to set people free on the Sabbath, and to work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:12; Luke 13:16; John 5:17).
Jesus was born under the law and lived under the old covenant requirements (Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 4:15). Since he did not sin, we conclude that he did not break the Sabbath. His activities broke Pharisaic rules, but not the law of God. Early Christian writers did not claim that Jesus broke the Sabbath.2
The first disciples of Jesus were pious Jews in a Jewish culture. They apparently kept the Sabbath according to contemporary Jewish customs. Luke tells us that some female disciples rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment (Luke 23:56), and that the apostles taught in the temple courts (Acts 3:1; 5:12, 25). Paul customarily preached in synagogues on the Sabbaths (Acts 13:14; 16:13; 17:2; 18:1-11).
However, we are also told that the disciples met daily (Acts 2:46), and that Paul preached daily (Acts 19:9). There is no record that Paul taught his converts to keep the Sabbath. He taught that Christians should not be judged about special days (Colossians 2:16), and he asked the Roman Christians to tolerate differences in worship practices having to do with foods and days (Romans 14:5).3
The New Testament gives us examples of Christians meeting on the first day of the week. The risen Jesus appeared to the disciples on two Sundays (John 20:19, 26), but there is no mention that he gave any command for a weekly commemoration of the resurrection. Paul’s traveling party once stayed seven days at Troas, and met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), but this was an unusual farewell meeting, not necessarily indicative of normal practice. Paul told the Corinthians to set aside an offering on the first day of each week (1 Corinthians 16:2), but this may also have been an exceptional practice rather than a normative one. John had a vision on “the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10), but some debate whether this is a reference to Sunday. Moreover, the verse does not say that this was a day on which Christians were meeting, or should meet.
None of the texts give any command for Christians to meet on or to avoid meeting on any particular day. None of the texts can be used to prove that Christians regularly met on any particular day of the week. Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that some Jewish Christians, especially in Judea, continued to observe the Sabbath. This is shown in three ways:
1) Paul was accused of teaching Diasporan Jews to turn away from Moses (Acts 21:21), which implies that Judean Christians had not turned away from Moses. If Christians taught that the Sabbath should no longer be observed by Jews, the Jewish leaders would have criticized them for leading Jews away from Moses.
2) “Another indirect indication of the survival of Sabbath observance among…Jewish Christians is provided by the curse of the Christians (Birkath-ha-Minin), which the rabbinical authorities introduced (A.D. 80-90) in the daily prayer.”4 This curse was supposedly designed to identify Christians in the synagogues. Anyone who refused to pronounce the curse was suspected of being a Christian. This implies that at least some Jewish Christians were attending synagogues and may have been keeping Jewish customs such as the Sabbath.
3) Ebionites and Nazarenes, groups who claimed descent from the Jerusalem church, were keeping the Sabbath in the fourth century,5 and their observance of Jewish laws goes back at least to the second century6 and probably back to apostolic times.
The above evidence shows that it is unlikely that there was any apostolic authority for requiring a complete transfer of the Sabbath command to Sunday. Early Sunday observers did not claim any such authority.7 The earliest Jewish Christians kept the Sabbath.
However, this conclusion is limited in two ways. First, it does not address Gentiles. Acts 21:21 implies that if Paul had taught Gentiles to ignore the laws of Moses, Jewish believers would not have cared. Acts 21:25 indicates that the Jerusalem decree (Acts 15:29) had already been enough. Was the Sabbath considered to be part of the law of Moses not required for Gentiles? The rabbis did not think that Gentiles had to keep the Sabbath.8 Although most of this rabbinic evidence comes from the fourth century, it likely reflects first-century attitudes as well.
Second, this says nothing about the possibility of a day in addition to the Sabbath. After the Christians heard the Law and the Prophets read in the synagogues, they would want to meet separately to discuss the Christian interpretation of the scriptures they had heard. They would also want to break bread together, encourage one another, and worship Jesus Christ. These Christian meetings could have been held on Saturday evenings, or on Sundays.9 There is no direct evidence for either meeting time, which can be explained by the fact that neither practice would have created controversy. It would be possible to observe both Sabbath and Sunday (as fourth-century churches did).
Bacchiocchi says, “If Paul had been the promoter of Sunday observance, he would have met and answered objections from a Judaizing opposition,”10 but his conclusion is too sweeping. Paul could have (whether he did or not is another question) promoted Sunday observance if it were in addition to rather than a replacement for the Sabbath. And he could have promoted Sunday observance among Gentiles, even to the exclusion of the Sabbath, without objections from orthodox Jews. Moreover, Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10 may be Paul’s answer to Judaizers’ teachings about the Sabbath.
1 These scriptures are addressed in more detail in What Do the Scriptures Say About the Sabbath?
2 “Even Gentile writers of the second and third centuries never cite Jesus as a precedent for breaking the Sabbath commandment” (R.J. Bauckham, “Sabbath and Sunday in the Post-Apostolic Church,” chapter 9 in D.A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), 257. “Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 4:8:2; Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 4:12, are the earliest full discussions of the question of Jesus’ Sabbath conflicts. Both are concerned to argue, against Marcion, that Jesus’ Sabbath healings fulfilled rather than violated the Sabbath laws” (p. 289, n. 51).
3 In Galatians 4:10, Paul warned his gentile converts against observing special days and seasons, apparently meaning Sabbaths and festivals. These scriptures are addressed in more detail in “What Do the Scriptures Say About the Sabbath?” If any first-century document clearly commanded Sabbath observance, the Sunday-observing churches of the second and third centuries would probably not consider it canonical. This is indirect evidence that the New Testament does not command Sabbath observance (cf. Willard M. Swartley, Sabbath, Slavery, War and Women (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1983), 92).
4 Samuele Bacchiocchi, “The Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity,” chap. 7 in Kenneth A. Strand, ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1982), 135.
5 Bacchiocchi writes:
Eusebius…and Epiphanius…inform us that the church of Jerusalem up to the siege of Hadrian (A.D. 135) was composed of, and administered by, converted Jews. Eusebius describes a group of them, known as Ebionites, as being “zealous to insist on the literal observance of the Law.” Epiphanius adds that those Jewish Christians who fled from Jerusalem became known as the sect of the Nazarenes, who “fulfil till now Jewish rites as circumcision, the Sabbath, and others.” The fact that the Nazarenes, who represent “the very direct descendants of the primitive community” of Jerusalem, retained Sabbathkeeping as one of their distinguishing marks for centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem shows persuasively that this was the original day of worship of the Jerusalem church. (ibid.)
Eusebius reports that the Ebionites, in addition to keeping the Sabbath, also kept the Lord’s Day with other Christians: “like us, they celebrated the Lord’s Day as a memorial of the resurrection of the Saviour” (Ecclesiastical History, III 27.5).
6 “They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law…. They practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are…Judaic in their style of life” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies I 26.2 [Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1885, 1987), vol. 1, 352]). Eusebius reports that some of them denied the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus.
7 “It is not very likely that our historical investigation will yield an authority for Sunday worship that the early church itself did not claim” (Bauckham, 233).
8 “The children of Noah…were given seven Laws only, the observance of the Sabbath not being among them” (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:21 [Soncino ed., 23], as quoted in C. Mervyn Maxwell and Gerard Damsteegt, eds., Source Book for the History of Sabbath and Sunday [Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1992], 75).
The Noachian laws are also listed in Midrash Genesis Rabbah 16:6 (Soncino ed., 131), Sanhedrin 56 a, b; and Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2(5) (Soncino ed. 26-7) (ibid., 74). Gentiles could be considered righteous if they observed these laws, which did not include the Sabbath. Nor did they include restrictions about pork. Rabbi Judah could say that there was a time for the “sons of Jacob when unclean beasts were still permitted to them” (Hullin 7:6, as quoted in Maxwell and Damsteegt, 74).
The rabbis did not think that the Sabbath had been given to Gentiles: “Why does it say, ‘The Lord hath given you” (Ex. 16:29)? To you hath he given it [the Sabbath], but not to the heathen. It is in virtue of this that the Sages stated [Sanh. 56b] that if some of the heathen observed the Sabbath, then not only do they not receive any reward [but they are even considered to be transgressing]” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 25:11 [Soncino ed., 314], quoted in Maxwell and Damsteegt, 74).
A non-Jew who observes the Sabbath whilst he is uncircumcised incurs liability for the punishment of death. Why? Because non-Jews were not commanded concerning it…. The Sabbath is a reunion between Israel and God, as it is said, ‘It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel’ (Ex. 31:17); therefore any non-Jew who, being uncircumcised, thrusts himself between them incurs the penalty of death…. The Gentiles have not been commanded to observe the Sabbath. (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:21 [Soncino ed., 23-4], quoted in Maxwell and Damsteegt, 75)
Further evidence of the antiquity of this rabbinic understanding comes from the second-century B.C. book of Jubilees: “The Creator of all blessed it, but he did not sanctify any people or nations
to keep the sabbath thereon with the sole exception of Israel. He granted to them alone that they might eat and drink and keep the sabbath thereon upon the earth” (Jubilees 2:31, James Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, [New York: Doubleday, 1985], vol. 2, 58).
9 Bauckham writes about Jewish Christians in Judea
(and probably many in the Diaspora too) continued to rest on the Sabbath and attend the temple or synagogue services, but they also met (as Bacchiocchi himself points out) as Christians in private houses to hear teaching from the apostles and to break bread together…. Their specifically Christian meetings had to occur at some time, and it is even arguable that precisely because they remained faithful in their attendance at temple and
synagogue services on the Sabbath some other time had to be found for Christian worship. (Bauckham, 237)
10 Bacchiocchi, 132.
Author: Michael Morrison