Have you ever wondered what really happened to the Sabbath—and why the vast majority of devout Christians observe Sunday as "the Lord's day" instead? If so, we hope you'll find this website interesting and helpful. It's based on research for The Seventh Day: Revelations from the Lost Pages of History, a TV series hosted by Hal Holbrook and featuring more than fifty historians and theologians.
About nineteen hundred years ago an unknown Christian writer introduced a novel idea about the weekly holy day—the Sabbath. The proper day for Christians to observe, he suggested, is not the seventh day, as the Ten Commandments have it. It is the eighth day, the day following the Sabbath—the day we know as Sunday—that should be kept holy.
It seems an irrational arithmetic that allows Sunday to be both the first day and the eighth day of a seven-day weekly cycle. If you throw logic to the wind, however, the message is simple: Sunday is superior to Sabbath (Saturday) just as eight is superior to seven.
This elevation of Sunday – which came to be called "the Lord's day" – over the Old Testament Sabbath is just one small piece of the history of the Sabbath. Some Christians took it for granted that the church could properly transfer the sacred nature of the Sabbath from one day to another. Whether or not the church has ever had that kind of authority is another matter altogether. That's a theological issue. Here we are dealing with history.
If you have questions or comments about the historical information offered here, feel free to contact us.
The Christian era began during the reign of the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus. At that time the Roman empire tolerated within its borders scores—if not hundreds—of religions and cults.
On its eastern border there was Persia with its Zoroastrianism; far to the northwest was the Druidism of Celtic Britain. There were popular Greek mystery cults. There were diverse forms of nature worship with secret initiations and fertility rights. Some folks had a superstitious attachment to astrology and others worshipped various sun gods.
The Romans themselves admired the religion and culture of Greece. They adopted Greek gods and blended them into their own religions. The result was a mixture of ancestor worship, emperor worship, and sun worship—a religion that included not one god, but many.
The Jews, on the other hand, worshipped only one God. Though surrounded by the images of Greek and Roman deities, they served a God they couldn’t see. They had no icons or images to represent Him. They had no initiations or fertility rites.
Instead they had a day. A day that set them apart. A day without equal in any other religion. A 24-hour period devoted completely to their God. The Jews had the Sabbath.
"Then he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath'" (Mark 2:27 NIV).
According to the Old Testament, God originally established the Sabbath as the celebration of His creative work and as a day of freedom from labor. Israel's miraculous escape from Egypt added another aspect to the Sabbath: the celebration of deliverance from bondage.
Ironically, by the time of Jesus the Sabbath had evolved from a day of freedom to a day of bondage to stringent, exacting rules and regulations. Some of the religious leaders taught that Israel was made for the Sabbath so that the Lord would have someone on earth to keep the Sabbath.
When Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for man, He was teaching a radical, disturbing concept.
A survey of the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John reveal that Jesus repeatedly challenged those traditional customs by targeting the "mortal danger" rule.
This rule provided an exception to the normal Sabbath restrictions in life-or-death cases. You could use extreme measures to save someone whose life was in danger. But in the case of a chronically ill person, efforts to heal him or her must wait for another day.
"So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him" (John 5:16 NIV).
Jesus defied the Sabbath rules of His day by performing miracles of healing. These miracles were a direct challenge to the rabbinical restrictions.
Here is a list of Jesus' Sabbath miracles of healing. Note that none of the people He healed qualified for the "mortal danger" exception:
The man with a demon (Mark 1:21-26)
Peter's mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39)
The man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:9-13)
The bent-over woman (Luke 13:10-16)
The man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-5)
The crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:5-9)
The man born blind (John 9:1-14)
"The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28 NIV).
When He healed people on the Sabbath, Jesus showed the true spirit of the holy day. He kept the Sabbath according to the ancient Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament.
By claiming that He was the “Lord of the Sabbath” Jesus challenged the authority of the Jewish priests and rabbis. This challenge eventually led to His infamous trial and death on the cross.
It's important to notice that the Sabbath controversy in Jesus' day was not about which day of the week to observe as a day of rest and worship. That issue never came up. The questions that Jesus addressed were NOT about WHEN to keep the Sabbath, but HOW to keep it.
"The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee...went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment" (Luke 23:55-56 NIV)
We begin to get an idea about early Christian attitudes toward the Sabbath from the reports given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There we learn that after His crucifixion Jesus was laid in a tomb without the customary preparation.
Because His followers observed the Sabbath, which for them began at sunset Friday. Their plan was to return to the tomb with spices and perfumes after the Sabbath day.
Apparently, Jesus had given no instruction to His followers about canceling the Sabbath or transferring its sacred nature to another day.
Matthew: 60-70 AD
Mark: 55-70 AD
Luke: 55-61 AD
John: 90 AD >
These are some conservative dates for the writing of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some liberal scholars prefer much later dates.
While there is uncertainty over exactly when these gospel narratives were written, it is clear that at the time of their writing the Sabbath was still part of Christian practice.
None of these New Testament books contains even the slightest suggestion that the first day of the week—the day we call Sunday—had replaced the seventh day as the Christian Sabbath.
For a look at the Sabbath practice of St. Paul see Acts 13:14-16, Acts 13:42-44, and Acts 18:1-4, 11.
There are only eight references to the first day of the week in the New Testament, and none of them contains any evidence that the significance of the Sabbath was ever transferred from one day to another. (See Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2.)
"At first the Roman state did not distinguish between Jews and Christians. In fact, we may be sure that the Romans simply saw Christians as a group of Jews, or a group within the Jewish community. So when the Jews were expelled from Rome in the time of Claudius, we may be sure the expulsion included both Jews as well as Christians.” Shaye D. Cohen, Ph.D., Brown University
According to Suetonius, a Roman historian who wrote during the second century, this expulsion of the Jews from Rome took place in 49 AD. It seems that there was a significant population of Jews in Rome. Unrest and riots within that community prompted the emperor Claudius to banish all Jews from the city.
Christians living within the Jewish community were forced to leave as well. To Claudius and the other Romans, they looked like Jews. In one way, this close identity with the Jews was an advantage for Christians: Judaism was still a legal religion within the empire, while Christianity itself had no legal standing. On the other hand, when the Jews fell out of favor with the Romans, the Christians suffered the same fate.
"Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath" (Matthew 24:20 NIV).
"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel...then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." Matthew 24:16 (NIV).
These words of Jesus are widely understood as a prediction of the Roman siege of Jerusalem that ended with the destruction of the city and its temple in 70 AD. By urging His followers to pray that their escape from the city not take place in winter or on the Sabbath Jesus foresees that Sabbath observance will continue long past His own crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven.
The Roman attack on Jerusalem was the decisive battle in a war brought on by a Jewish rebellion that began in 66 AD. Christians, who would have been identified by the Romans as Jews—and thus as enemies—would suffer the same fate as the Jews.
Some historians, including Eusebius, an important fourth-century Christian apologist, report that the Christians of Jerusalem escaped to the town of Pella, in the hilly region east of the Jordan River in modern-day Jordan.
"May the apostates have no hope. May the dominion of wickedness be speedily uprooted in our days." (The Blessing on the Heretics)
After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the synagogue became the new center of Jewish religious life. Christians commonly worshiped alongside their Jewish brothers. This troubled some synagogue leaders, who wanted unity and uniformity within their congregations. In order to identify and expel the nonconformists they added a new element to the prayers or blessings known as the Eighteen Benedictions that were part of the synagogue service.
Any man in attendance could be called upon to recite these benedictions, but a Christian man would certainly not call down this curse upon himself. He would have to omit or attempt to alter his recitation of this "blessing" and, by doing so, identify himself as a "heretic." Then the congregation could expel him for cause.
The Blessing on the Heretics is evidence of Christian Sabbath observance seven decades after the crucifixion of Christ.
Some people suppose that only Jewish converts to Christianity kept the Sabbath while Gentile converts did not. If this were the case, however, we would expect some evidence of tension and debate over the issue. But there is simply no clear historical data suggesting that such a debate existed until well after the end of the first century.
During the early decades of the second century AD the tension between Jews and Christians continued. Christians realized that it was becoming more and more of a disadvantage to be classed with the Jews. A new Jewish rebellion did not help matters any.
In 114, Trajan, the Roman emperor, launched a war against Parthia, a rival empire in the east. While Trajan's forces pushed toward the Persian Gulf, certain Jews decided to take advantage of Trajan's preoccupation with the Parthians.
Known as the Diaspora Revolt, this uprising included the large Jewish communities in Cyrene (north Africa), Egypt, and Cyprus. Ancient historians, including Dio Cassius and Eusebius, recount the atrocities committed by Jews against both Romans and Greeks.
Eventually, Trajan withdrew some of his legions from the east, and they quickly suppressed the revolt. The defeated Jews only succeeded in arousing heightened hostility against themselves. Christian writers of that era clearly express anti-Jewish views.
"In the early church literature Christians are really desperate to separate from Judaism and to distinguish themselves."
Burton L. Visotzky, Ph.D.
Jewish Theological Seminary
"As a result there is the appearance of a great deal of anti-judaism or anti-Semitism. Some of it is invective—nasty comments about Jews. Some of it is pushing away from what they saw as Old Testament religion."
The anti-Semitism to which Dr. Visotzky refers was a reflection of official Roman attitudes toward the Jews. Hadrian, the emperor who succeeded Trajan, is probably best known to us for the wall he ordered to be built across the north of England. You can still see portions of Hadrian's wall today.
But he had other building projects, one of which was the construction of a new city—Aelia Capitolina—on the ruins of Jerusalem. He decreed that Jews would never be allowed to enter this city. Some Jews, incensed at this banishment, joined in another uprising, the Bar Kochba Revolt. It was quashed in 135 AD.
Hadrian issued more anti-Jewish decrees, outlawing circumcision, study of the Torah, and observance of the Sabbath. Is it any wonder that Christians wanted to break their close identity with Judaism?
Evidence suggests that Christians in the Egyptian city of Alexandria were the first to replace the Old Testament Sabbath with Sunday worship. This may have begun as early as 115-120 AD. This information comes to us from the Epistle of Barnabas, arguably the oldest written documentation of Christians observing the first day of the week instead of the seventh day.
Although this epistle bears the name of Barnabas it was certainly not written by the Barnabas who appears in the New Testament book of Acts. It was probably written by someone in Alexandria, a city well known as a melting pot of religious ideas and classical philosophy.
The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas tends to interpret the Old Testament in a symbolic or metaphorical way. He condemns Judaism in general and the Sabbath in particular. He claims that he and his fellow believers are observing the eighth day of the week, the day after the Sabbath—obviously Sunday.
The Barnabas letter is the first evidence of Sunday being promoted as the Christian day of worship. But to find the real heart of the pro-Sunday movement we have to shift our focus from Alexandria westward to the heart of the Roman empire.
"Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly." Justin Martyr – c. 150 AD
This is the second oldest documented evidence of early Christian Sunday observance. Justin Martyr was a pagan convert to Christianity who died for his faith in Rome about 165 AD. There is a definite anti-Jewish flavor to his work. He wrote that God had imposed the Sabbath on the Jews because of their unrighteousness.
As the theological justification for observing the first day of week instead of the Sabbath, Justin Martyr wrote: "...it is the first day on which God...made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead."
Linking the first day to the beginning of Creation makes for a startling paradox. The Sabbath of the Ten Commandments was specifically a celebration of the completion of Creation.
By isolating the weekly holy day from its biblical roots, church leaders cut off the day of rest and worship from its biblical roots and its source of spiritual meaning.
Christianity was not the only religion that was gaining popularity within the Roman Empire. Various forms of sun worship were also attracting adherents, among whom were the emperors themselves.
Mithraism was especially popular in the military, because it was exclusively for men and promoted brotherhood and fellowship. It had a hierarchical structure where men could advance from grade to grade, just like in an army.
Other forms of sun worship were also in vogue. When Nero commissioned a gigantic statue in his own honor, it featured a likeness of the emperor's head in sun-god fashion. Known as the Colossus of Nero, it stood 37 meters high. Future emperors would alter the features and dedicate it to the "unconquerable sun."
Aurelian, emperor from 270-275 AD, established a state religion that included worship of the emperor and the sun, Sol Invictus. Diocletian, whose reign began in 284 AD, was also a devotee of the sun god.
"On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed." The Edict of Constantine — 321 AD.
Constantine was, like Aurelian and Diocletian before him, a worshiper of the sun. He was also the first Emperor to profess belief in Christianity. Historians debate whether or not his conversion was genuine, since he maintained his pagan superstitions throughout much of his reign.
It seems that Constantine’s personal religion was a mixture of Mithraic sun worship and Christianity. According to his Christian biographer, Eusebius, he taught all his armies to zealously honor the Lord’s day—Sunday—referring to it as “the day of light and of the sun.” This was distinctly pagan terminology.
For Christians today it may seem ironic that the first Sunday law—the famous Edict of Constantine—uses the language of sun worshipers rather than Christian expressions. The first day of the week is exalted as “the venerable day of the sun.” There is no mention of Christ or of celebrating His resurrection. That first Sunday law had no Christian flavor whatsoever.
"The Gospels are to be read on the Sabbath [i.e. Saturday], with the other Scriptures." (Synod of Laodicea, Canon 16).
This particular decision of the bishops who gathered at Laodicea is remarkable because it tells us that Christians continued to worship on the seventh-day Sabbath long after 321 AD, when Constantine issued his Sunday law.
Here is canon 29 of that same synod: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”
The synod recognized that many Christians were still observing the Sabbath by judaizing—that is, by refraining from labor as the Jews did. The bishops condemned the practice and urged church members to do their resting on Sunday instead.
The mere fact that the bishops at Laodicea felt it necessary to address this issue is additional proof that more than 300 years after Christ, many Christians still observed the Sabbath according to the fourth commandment.
“For 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.” Socrates Scholasticus – 5th Century AD.
Christians were still observing the seventh-day Sabbath clear down in the second half of the fourth century! The evidence of church documents and the testimony of contemporary historians lead to that unmistakable conclusion.
The seventh-day Sabbath of the Ten Commandments survived, in spite of theological arguments, anti-Jewish prejudice, and the decree of an emperor.
Historical sources reveal that the first-century Christians did not shift the day of worship from the seventh day of the week to the first day. The replacement of the Sabbath with Sunday did not take place until sometime during the first half of the second century, and then only in certain places. This change seems to have been driven by anti-Semitism and the need for Christians to distinguish themselves as separate from Jews.