Old Testament Laws: Sabbath and Sunday in the Early Second Century

Early second century

Our earliest evidence from the second century comes from the letter of Pliny to Trajan, describing the practice of Christians: “They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light.”1 It is interesting that the Christians met before sunrise (perhaps to avoid persecution and to allow work during daylight hours), but unfortunately Pliny does not tell us which day the Christians met on, or even whether it was weekly.

More substantial evidence is given by Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, in letters he wrote c. 115. He warned Christians to reject those who “preach the Jewish law.”2 Similarly, “If we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace…. It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize.”3

More specifically about the Sabbath, Ignatius praised some who were “no longer observing the Sabbath.”4 Clearly, Ignatius did not observe the Sabbath. It is debated, however, whom he is praising. In the previous section, he was talking about the Old Testament prophets, but it does not seem likely that he would accuse them of abandoning the Sabbath, even though some patristic writers cited the prophets’ criticisms of Sabbath-keeping (e.g., Isaiah1:13). More likely, he is praising Jewish Christians who had given up the Sabbath — “those who were brought up in the ancient order of things.”5 This does not mean that all Jewish Christians had abandoned the Sabbath, but some had, and Ignatius was praising them to the Magnesian Christians. The lack of extensive argumentation indicates that the Magnesians, like Ignatius, did not observe the Sabbath, but that Judaizers existed who advocated the Sabbath.

Furthermore, Ignatius praised some people for “living in the observance of the Lord’s Day.”6 The meaning here is debated, since “day” is not in the Greek, and a textual variant exists. Space does not permit a detailed discussion,7 but Ignatius’ attitude toward the Sabbath makes it likely that he was observing a different day, in a different way.

Our next evidence comes from the Epistle of Barnabas, which was probably written from Alexandria, perhaps as early as A.D. 708 or as late as 132.9 He writes against Jewish sacrifices, fasts, circumcision and other laws. Those laws were types prefiguring Christ. He gives a figurative meaning for unclean meat laws, and then a figurative meaning for the Sabbath: “Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, ‘He finished in six days.’ This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with him a thousand years.”10

Barnabas cites Isaiah 1:13-14 as criticism of the Sabbath, concluding, “Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world.”11 He also mentions our present inability to keep any day holy by being “pure in heart,” concluding that we will be unable to keep the Sabbath holy until the eschatological new world, after we have been made completely holy.

In this passage, Barnabas does these four things, which will be repeated by later authors: 1) He interprets the Sabbath in terms of moral holiness, not rest, 2) He associates the Sabbath with the eschatological age, 3) He associates the new age with the eighth day — which he then associates with the eighth day of the week: “Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.”12 4) He associates the Christian day of worship with the resurrection of Jesus.

Barnabas, with antagonism against Jewish laws, transferred the Sabbath command entirely into the future and, since the future age was called not only the seventh but also the eighth, could view Sunday-keeping as likewise picturing the future. Thus first-day observance was only indirectly related to Sabbath observance.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr gives us evidence from yet another location: Rome, c. 150. His comments probably reflect Christian custom in other cities, too, such as Ephesus, where he lived for a while.13

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…. 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 our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.14

Justin is clear: It was the widespread practice of Christians to observe Sunday.15 “Perhaps there were some Gentile Christians who kept the Sabbath…but if so, they found no spokesman whose writings survive.”16 Maxwell concludes:

Many Christians were already honoring Sunday near the beginning of the second century…. Evidence is very strong…that many if not most Christians had given up the Sabbath as early as A.D. 130…. Just as Sunday observance came into practice by early in the second century, so among Gentile Christians Sabbath observance went out of practice by early in the second century.17

But this was not a replacement for the Sabbath:

Sunday was observed only as a day for worship, not as a Sabbath on which to refrain from work…. Sunday was not at first celebrated as a ‘Sabbath.’… It was not observed in obedience to the fourth commandment…. Sunday was regarded by Christians generally not as a day of rest or holiness but as a day of joy.18

Justin gives a lengthy explanation of his understanding of the Sabbath in his debate with the Jewish teacher Trypho, who explained the Jewish way to be accepted by God:

First be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law; and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God…. To keep the Sabbath, to be circumcised, to observe months, and to be washed if you touch anything prohibited by Moses, or after sexual intercourse.19

Trypho criticized the Christians:

You, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from other nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths and do not have the rite of circumcision…. Yet you expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments. Have you not read, that that soul shall be cut off from his people who shall not have been circumcised on the eighth day?20

And Justin replied that Christians were indeed obedient to God, even when obedience was extremely painful:

We too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you,—namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. For if we patiently endure all things contrived against us by wicked men…even as the new Lawgiver commanded us: how is it, Trypho, that we would not observe those rites which do not harm us,—I speak of fleshly circumcision, and Sabbaths and feasts?21

Justin explained the reason Christians ignored the Jewish laws:

We live not after the law, and are not circumcised in the flesh as your forefathers were, and do not observe sabbaths as you do…. An eternal and final law — namely, Christ — has been given to us…. He is the new law, and the new covenant…. The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose you are pious, not discerning why this has been commanded you…. If there is any perjured person or a thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent; then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God.22

In Justin’s view, the Sabbath command was an admonition to morality, and Christians, by behaving morally on every day, were in perpetual obedience to the purpose of the Sabbath.

Justin repeatedly said that the patriarchs Abel, Enoch, Lot, Noah and Melchizedek, “though they kept no Sabbaths, were pleasing to God…. For if there was no need of circumcision before Abraham, or of the observance of Sabbaths, of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses; no more need is there of them now.”23 Justin argued that, since Sabbaths and sacrifices and feasts began with Moses, then they ended with Christ, who was the new covenant.24

Not only do Gentiles not have to keep the Sabbath, Justin concluded that “the just men who are descended from Jacob” do not have too, either.25 Trypho asked, Could a Christian keep the Sabbath if he wished to? Justin knew of some Jewish Christians who kept the Sabbath and replied, Yes, as long as he doesn’t try to force other Christians to keep the law of Moses.26

Justin explained some typology between Old Testament rituals and Christian significance. Among these were a connection between circumcision and Sunday:

The command of circumcision, again bidding [them] always circumcise the children on the eighth day, was a type of the true circumcision, by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath, our Lord Jesus Christ. For the first day after the Sabbath, remaining the first of all the days, is called, however, the eighth.27


1 Pliny, Letters, 10.96, Loeb 2:401-407, quoted in Maxwell and Damsteegt, 58.

2 To the Philadelpians 6:1; ANF 1:82. The Ante-Nicene Fathers prints two versions of Ignatius’ letters. I have quoted the shorter version. The longer version was apparently created in the fourth century.

3 To the Magnesians 8, 10; ANF 1:62-3.

4 To the Magnesians 9; ANF 1:62.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 R.J. Bauckham argues that “day” was not in the Greek text because kuriakē had already become a technical term for a day. He cautiously favors a reference to Sunday. Although kuriakē could have been a reference to Easter, it is not likely that a technical term would switch without notice from an annual festival to a weekly one, and kuriakē is clearly used for Sunday not many years after Ignatius. (“The Lord’s Day,” chap. 8 in Carson, op. cit., 228-231).

8 “Barnabas, Epistle of,” in F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1983), 134.

9 Maxwell and Damsteegt, 60, and ANF 1:135.

10 Epistle of Barnabas 15; ANF 1:146.

11 Ibid.; ANF 1:147.

12 Ibid.

13 His “assertion that all Christians meet on Sunday should be understood as coming from a man who had traveled widely and who was attempting to speak to the government on behalf of all Christians” (Maxwell and Damsteegt, 64); cf. ANF 1:160. Justin’s evidence agrees with Ignatius of Antioch and Barnabas of Alexandria, showing that Sunday observance was practiced throughout the Roman Empire.

14 Justin, First Apology, 67; ANF 1:186.

15 Additional evidence of the near-universality of Sunday comes from:

  • Aristides of Athens (c. 160), who criticized Jewish Sabbaths (Bauckham, 267, citing Apol. 14).
  • Theophilus, bishop of Antioch (c. 180), when quoting the Ten Commandments, omitted the Sabbath in Apology to Autolycus 3.9 (ANF 2:114).
  • The Didache 14 (c. 180) instructed Christians to meet and offer the Eucharist “on the Lord’s Day of the Lord” (Maxwell and Damsteegt, 108, and Bauckham, 228.
  • The Epistle to Diognetus (late second century?) criticizes Jews’ “superstitions about sabbaths” and other practices (Bauckham, 267)
  • Hegesippus, a Judean-born Jew, traveled through many cities on his way to Rome (c. 180) and “found the same doctrine among them all” (Eusebius, Church History 4.19-22; Maxwell and Damsteegt, 85).
  • Clement of Alexandria (c. 190) equated the Lord’s day and the eighth day in Miscellanies 5:14 (ANF 2:469).

16 Bauckham, 269. Some might argue that pro-Sabbath documents would have been destroyed by the later church. But numerous pro-Sabbath documents survive from the fourth century. There is no evidence that the church tried to suppress the evidence.

17 Maxwell, op. cit., 136, 142. He writes:

What do we mean by “Sabbath keeping”?…. A person must set aside the entire day as sacred from sundown to sundown, refraining from all secular work…. If we demand evidence for this kind of true Sabbath-keeping…. we have to say categorically that there is no evidence for any of it in the literature which has survived from the second and third centuries. This is not to say that no Christians anywhere did in fact keep the Sabbath…. we believe indeed that some did. It is to say, however, that we have no documentary evidence that any did so. (pp. 153-4)

18 Ibid., 137, 139. Strand writes, “Sunday was not considered a substitute for the Sabbath…. When the Christian weekly Sunday first emerged, it continued to be a day of work, although it included a worship service” (op. cit., 324, 330). As further evidence that Sunday was not a replacement for the Sabbath, Bauckham notes, “Few second-century writers compare and contrast the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday. Derogatory discussions of the Jewish Sabbath do not usually refer to the Christian Sunday. If Sunday were a recent substitute for the Jewish Sabbath, we should expect far more discussion of the superiority of Sunday to the Sabbath” (op. cit., 271). Bauckham cites evidence from Tertullian, Jerome and others that Sunday was not considered a rest day (p. 286).

19 Justin, Dialogue With Trypho 8, 46; ANF 1:198-9, 217. It is interesting that Trypho specified that one must be circumcised before keeping the Sabbath and other laws (cf. Ac 15:5). The prominence of new moons is also interesting (cf. Col 2:16).

20 Ibid., 10; ANF 1:199.

21 Ibid. 18; ANF 1:203.

22 Ibid., 10-12; ANF 1:199-200.

23 Ibid., 19, 23; ANF 1:204, 206. In section 46 (ANF 1:218), Trypho agreed that the patriarchs did not keep the Sabbath; this harmonizes with the rabbinic views in note 9.

24 Ibid., 43; ANF 1:216.

25 Ibid., 26; ANF 1:207.

26 Ibid., 47; ANF 1:218.

27 Ibid., 41; ANF 1:215. Justin’s argument seems to presuppose that Trypho knew that Christians observed the eighth day, i.e., Sunday.

Author: Michael Morrison, 1999, 2014


Help us provide more content like this by giving today