Old Testament Laws: Sabbath and Sunday in the Writings of Irenaeus

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the last half of the second century, also gives us lengthy comments on the Sabbath, and his views probably reflect those of Asia Minor, since that is where he was from. He had also been in Rome and may have been influenced by Justin Martyr. Irenaeus, commenting on the grainfield incident (Matthew 12), notes that Jesus did not break the Sabbath, but Irenaeus gives a rationale that applies to Christians, too:

The Lord…did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest…justifying His disciples by the words of the law, and pointing out that it was lawful for the priests to act freely [Mt 12:5]. For David had been appointed a priest by God, although Saul still persecuted him. For all the righteous possess the sacerdotal rank. And all the apostles of the Lord are priests.1

The implication is that, since all believers are priests, and priests are free to work on the Sabbath serving God, then Christians are free to work on the Sabbath. Regardless of the validity of Justin’s reasoning, it is evident that he did not believe that Christians had to keep the Sabbath. Just as circumcision was symbolic, he says, the Sabbath command was, too, typifying both morality and eschatology:

The Sabbaths taught that we should continue day by day in God’s service…ministering continually to our faith, and persevering in it, and abstaining from all avarice, and not acquiring or possessing treasures upon earth. Moreover, the Sabbath of God, that is, the kingdom, was, as it were, indicated by created things; in which [kingdom], the man who shall have persevered in serving God shall, in a state of rest, partake of God’s table.2

Irenaeus, like Justin, said that the patriarchs before Moses did not keep the Sabbath.3 But he also said that they kept the Decalogue and that Christians also had to!4 This discrepancy can be explained in two ways. Bauckham suggests that Irenaeus used the term “Decalogue” loosely, as synonymous with the natural law, as suggested in Another possibility, which I prefer, is that Irenaeus considered a moral person to be de facto keeping the Sabbath command, as suggested in 4.16.1 and in another work: “Nor will he be commanded to leave idle one day of rest, who is constantly keeping sabbath, that is, giving homage to God in the temple of God, which is man’s body, and at all times doing the works of justice.”6

As another item of evidence probably from the second century, let us consider the Gospel of Thomas 27: “If you do not fast as regards the world, you will not find the kingdom. If you do not observe the Sabbath as a Sabbath, you will not see the father.”7 The meaning here is debatable, since Gnostics often gave words unusual meanings. Everything needed an “interpretation.”8 This can be seen in Thomas 27. Fasting “as regards the world” does not mean ordinary fasting, but avoiding worldly sins. Similarly, it was not sufficient to say, “observe the Sabbath.” The words “as a Sabbath” may suggest an esoteric meaning, such as cessation of sin.9

Tertullian wrote in both the second century and in the third. Space does not permit a detailed evaluation of his works, nor is it necessary, since he agrees completely with Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin and Irenaeus. He rejected the literal Sabbath,10 said that the Patriarchs did not observe it,11 interpreted it in terms of morals12 and worshipped on Sunday.13 He gives yet more evidence that second-century Christians had abandoned the Sabbath and observed Sunday as the day for Christian worship.

The Lord’s day

Almost all second-century Christians observed Sunday as a day of worship (not a day of required rest), rather than the Sabbath.14 No matter what the original reason(s) may have been for meeting on the first day of the week, Christians could have easily seen a biblical significance to that day: It was the day on which the risen Lord appeared to the disciples.15 Of all the days of the week, only the first and the seventh were ever considered, and Sunday was quickly understood as the day for Christian worship.

Although a few Christians observed the Sabbath, Sunday was more distinctively Christian. It became the day on which believers worshiped the Lord, and the day became known in the second century as “the Lord’s day [kuriakē hēmera].”16 The term was so well known that the word for “day” became unnecessary — if a Christian wrote about the kuriakē, readers would understand that Sunday was meant. This term therefore gives additional evidence that Sunday was the Christian day of worship in the second century.17 Let us survey the evidence for this term.

In the late first century, John used kuriakē hēmera in Revelation 1:10, but the meaning there is debated. In the early second century, Ignatius used kuriakē alone, and textual variants cause the meaning to be debatable.18 The Gospel of Peter 35 and 50 (middle second century) used kuriakē to designate the day of Jesus’ resurrection.19 Eusebius reports that Dionysius of Corinth (c. 170) wrote, “Today we have kept the Lord’s holy day [kuriakē hagia hēmera], on which we have read your letter.”20 The Acts of Peter (last half of the second century) “clearly identifies dies dominica (‘the Lord’s Day’) with ‘the next day after the Sabbath,’ and the Acts of Paul [also last half of the second century] represents the apostle as praying ‘on the sabbath as the Lord’s Day [kuriakē alone] drew near’”21 — both clearly referring to Sunday. Didache 14, which may date from the second half of the second century, referred to “the Lord’s [day] of the Lord [kuriakē de kuriou].”22

Clement of Alexandria (c. 190) also gives clear evidence that kuriakē meant the eighth day, Sunday,23 and he spoke of “keeping” the Lord’s day.24 He quoted a Valentinian Gnostic who equated the kuriakē with the ogdoad, the eighth heaven.25 “The same identification of kuriakē, the eighth day, with the ogdoad, the eighth heaven, is found in the antignostic Epistula Apostolorum [also second century].”26

In summary, evidence for the use of “Lord’s day” is clear for the latter half of the second century, but it is less clear for the first half. The terminology, however, is a secondary issue. The actual day observed by Christians is clear: Throughout the second century, all written evidence shows Christians rejecting the literal Sabbath and observing Sunday as the day for Christian worship.27 Even in the early second century, Sunday-keeping was the norm throughout Christendom (except for Jewish sects) — with no trace of controversy or any evidence that the custom was a recent innovation. The church that began as a Sabbath-keeping group became a Sunday-keeping group that rejected literal Sabbath-keeping.


1 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.8.2-3; ANF 1:471.

2 Ibid., 4.16.1; ANF 1:481. He called the future kingdom “the seventh day…the true Sabbath of the righteous” in 5.33.2 (ANF 1:562).

3 Ibid., 4.16.2; ANF 1:481.

4 “If any one does not observe [the Decalogue], he has no salvation” (4.15.1; ANF 1:479). “The righteous fathers had the meaning of the Decalogue written in their hearts and souls, that is, they loved the God who made them, and did no injury to their neighbor. There was therefore no occasion that they should be cautioned by prohibitory mandates, because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves” (4.16.3; ANF 1:481).

5 “Extant example of early Christian paraenesis based on the Decalogue show that it was used with considerable selectiveness and flexibility, and normally with reference only to the second table…. The Decalogue is a less precise term than we expect it to be. It may be that Irenaeus and Ptolemaeus were so used to the flexible and selective use of the Decalogue in Christian paraenesis that the term suggested to them not so much ten individual commandments to be mentally listed, but simply the moral law” (Bauckham, 267-9).

6 Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 96 (Joseph Smith, trans. Ancient Christian Writers [Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1952], vol. 16, 105). This passage in Proof of the Apostolic Preaching illustrates Irenaeus’ understanding of the law:

He does not wish those who are to be redeemed to be brought again under the Mosaic legislation — for the law has been fulfilled by Christ — but to go free in newness by the Word, through faith and love towards the Son of God…. We have no need of the law as pedagogue…. For no more shall the law say: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” to him who has not even conceived the desire of another man’s wife; or “thou shalt not kill,” to him who has put away from himself all anger and enmity…. Nor will it demand tithes of him who has vowed to God all his possessions, and who leaves father and mother and all his kindred, and follows the Word of God. Nor will he be commanded to leave idle one day of rest, who is constantly keeping sabbath, that is giving homage to God in the temple of God, which is man’s body, and at all times doing the works of justice. (89, 95-96; ACW 16:103, 105)

The point is that if people do not lust, they do not need a command about adultery because they are already obeying it. Likewise, in Irenaeus’ thought, if people are always acting justly, they do not need a command about the Sabbath, because they are always obeying it.

7 James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 129.

8 Thomas 1; Robinson, 126.

9 “The metaphorical sense of the logion in its surviving version depends entirely on the words ton kosmou [as regards the world]…. By means of this emendation an originally literal requirement to keep the Jewish Sabbath has become a metaphorical command to keep some form of spiritual Sabbath” (Bauckham, 265).

10 Apology 21; ANF 3:36 and Against Marcion 1:20; 5.19; ANF 3:285, 471.

11 An Answer to the Jews 2; ANF 3:153.

12 An Answer to the Jews 4; ANF 3:155.

13 Apology 16; ANF 3:31; and On Idolatry 14; ANF 3:70.

14 The Ebionites and Nazarenes were the primary exceptions. But they were heterodox — they rejected Jesus’ virgin birth and the apostle Paul, and they required circumcision and other laws of Moses. The New Testament shows the early church fighting on two broad fronts: libertine antinomianism on one side and legalistic Judaizing on the other. In the second century, these groups are represented by Gnostics on the libertine side, and Ebionites on the Judaistic side. The Ebionites were spiritual, if not genetic, descendants of the Pharisee Christians who wanted Gentile believers to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). The Sunday-keeping majority cannot be called libertine. If anything, they tended to be strict.

15 Bauckham writes: “Whether the choice of Sunday was originally a matter of mere convenience or whether it was initially chosen as the day of the Resurrection, there can be no doubt that it was soon associated with the Resurrection, and only this can really account for the fact that worship on Sunday acquired normative status throughout the Christian world” (p. 240).

16 The genitive form, “day of the Lord [hēmera tou kuriou],” could not be used because it already had a different technical meaning in the Septuagint (cf. Bauckham, 225).

17 “Another evidence of the early observance of Sunday is the fact that Christians frequently referred to it as the Lord’s day during the second century…. The designation ‘eighth day’ was very popular among Christians in the second and third centuries; however, the most common Christian term for Sunday was ‘Lord’s day.’ The term ‘Lord’s day’ was in wide use by the end of the second century and may also have been in use near the beginning of it” (Maxwell, 139).

18 Neither Barnabas nor Justin use the term Lord’s day, “but they use instead the designations ‘eighth day’ and ‘Sunday’ for the first day of the week…. Their specific Sunday statements are in [apologetic] contexts that would preclude their use of this term even if they were acquainted with it” (Strand, 347).

19 Bauckham, as with other texts, is cautious: “It is clear that kuriakē is already an accepted technical term and refers to a day, but the nature of the context makes impossible a final decision between Sunday and Easter” (229). Irenaeus may have used kuriakē in fragment 7, but it may not be his word, and it may refer to Easter (“Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus” 7, ANF 1:569-70; Strand, 346-7).

20 Bauckham is again cautious: “A reference to weekly Sunday worship seems very probable but not certain” (p. 229, citing Eusebius’ History 4.23.11).

21 Bauckham, 229, citing Act. Verc. 29.

22 Maxwell, 106-8, and Bauckham, 227-8.

23 Miscellanies 5:14; ANF 2:469.

24 Ibid., 7:12; ANF 2:545.

25 Exc. ex Theod. 63:1, quoted in Bauckham, 230; Irenaeus mentioned the Gnostic ogdoad in Against Heresies 1.5.3 (ANF 1:323). It is difficult to interpret their numerology: “The eighth may possibly turn out to be properly the seventh, and the seventh manifestly the sixth, and the latter properly the Sabbath, and the seventh a day of work” (Miscellanies 6:16; ANF 2:512).

Clement explained the “rest” of the Fourth Commandment as “abstraction from ills” and as impassibility in preparation for the eschaton (ibid.). In this, he agreed with his Gnostic opponents. Epiphanius said that the Valentinian Ptolemaeus taught that Jesus rejected the literal Sabbath and that Ptolemaeus interpreted the Sabbath as commanding “us to be idle with reference to evil actions’“ (Bauckham, 265-6, citing Epiphanius, Pan. 33:3:5:1-13). Clement also used a similar interpretation for the Lord’s day: “He…keeps the Lord’s day when he abandons an evil disposition” (Miscellanies 7:12; ANF 2:545).

26 Bauckham, 274. On 223, Bauckham cites Epistula Apostolorum 18. He also cites “Melito of Sardis, ap. Eusebius HE 4:23:12,” but I could not find this in an English translation of Eusebius 4:23:12, nor did Bauckham discuss this text in his chapter.

27 Bauckham writes:

All second-century references to the Sabbath commandment either endorse the metaphorical interpretation or reject the literal interpretation as Judaistic or do both…. For all these writers the literal commandment to rest one day in seven was a temporary ordinance for Israel alone. The Christian fulfills the commandment by devoting all his time to God…. No writer of the period betrays any thought of its being a provision for needed physical rest (pp. 269, 266).

A Seventh-day Adventist agrees with this historical assessment:

It is unhistorical to say that the early fathers were “silent” about the Sabbath. They were not silent about it, and what they had to say was hostile to literal Sabbath keeping…. A careful analysis of the four most noteworthy authors who dealt with the Sabbath in the second and early third centuries, Barnabas, Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, reveals a great unanimity of attitude toward the literal Sabbath. To a man, they opposed it. This is very significant, partly because Barnabas and Justin represented Christian attitudes as early as the 130s, and partly because these four writers encircled the Mediterranean basin: Barnabas in Alexandria, Justin first in Asia and then in Rome, Irenaeus first in Asia and then in Gaul, Tertullian for a while in Rome and then in Carthage (Maxwell, 154-7).

Author: Michael Morrison


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