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Christian holy days

The weekly Sabbath: is it
to be Saturday or Sunday?

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Why and when the weekly Sabbath was moved

The only interval during which Christianity was unified ocurred between the execution of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) circa 30 CE, and the arrival of Paul in Judea near the end of that decade. The Jewish Christian movement was under the leadership of James -- the brother of Jesus, Peter and other disciples. They sacrificed in the Temple and observed the Laws of Moses, including Sabbath observance on Saturdays.

Until the late 4th century CE, when Christianity was made the official religion of Rome, Christians lived in a predominately Pagan world. There was a mosaic of Pagan religions in the Roman Empire:

bulletThe long established, official religion of the Roman Empire was Pagan. It involved worship of -- or at least nominal sacrifices to -- a pantheon of Roman deities, both Gods and Goddesses.
bulletA strong competitor to Christianity in those days was a third religion: Mithraism. This faith involved the worship of a Persian God Mithra, and was popular among the Roman civil service and military.
bulletThere were many other smaller religions, including the Pagan religions of Greece and Egypt, and the mystery religions.

The Roman religion and Mithraism reserved Sunday as their day of religious observance. Many Christians were probably tempted to follow suit.

The Christians were also motivated to change the Sabbath day as a method of distancing themselves from the Jews. Two reasons were:

bulletThe Government intermittently persecuted the Jews at this time; it was safer for Christianity to be considered as a separate religion rather than as a sect of Judaism.
bulletRelations between the Jews and Christians was hostile at this time. The early Christian church had suffered much persecution from the Jews.

In 321 CE, while he was a Pagan sun-worshiper, the Emperor Constantine declared that Sunday was to be a day of rest throughout the Roman Empire:

"On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for gain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost."

The Church Council of Laodicea circa 364 CE ordered that religious observances were to be conducted on Sunday, not Saturday. Sunday became the new Sabbath. They ruled: "Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day." There are many indicators in the historical record that some Christians ignored the Church's ruling. Sabbath observance was noted in Wales as late as 1115 CE. Francis Xavier was concerned about Sabbath worship in Goa, India in 1560 CE; he called for the Inquisition to set up an office there to stamp out what he called "Jewish wickedness". A Catholic Provincial Council suppressed the practice in Norway in 1435 CE.

Texts used to support a Sunday Sabbath

There are 8 references in the Christian Scriptures to the "first day of the week", as Sunday was referred to in those days.

bulletFive of them refer to events during Resurrection Morning -- the day when the tomb where Jesus was laid was found to be empty. The other three are:
bulletJohn 20:19 describes events on what we would call Sunday evening. The disciples were gathered together. Some have speculated that this might have been the first Sunday worship service. Others suggest that the text seems to imply that they were gathered together for their own protection, out of fear of attack by "the Jews."
bulletActs 20:7: Paul is described as preaching on a Sunday evening. It was evening, because the passage refers to lamps being lit. Some Christians promote this text as demonstrating that Paul held a religious service on a Sunday. Others suggest that he gave the teaching on what he would call Sunday evening but we would call Saturday evening; the first day of the week started at sundown on Saturday in 1st century CE Palestine. If Paul considered Sunday to be the Sabbath then he would not have set out on foot to Assos on Sunday morning.
bullet1 Corinthians 16:2: Paul instructs the Christians at Corinth that each of them is to lay aside some money every Sunday that would later be collected for the Christians at Jerusalem. Some interpreters believe that this might refer to a collection of money at a Sunday religious service. Others suggest that the text implies that the money was to be laid aside by each believer separately and privately, and to be saved up by each person independently.

Two texts have been cited as support for moving the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday:

bulletColossians 2:16-17: Paul writes: "...do no let anyone judge you...with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ" (NIV). Some people interpret the reference to "Sabbath" in this passage as authorizing Christians to celebrate (or not celebrate) the weekly Sabbath in any way that they wish. Others suggest that the "Sabbath" in this passage apparently refers to the Ceremonial Sabbaths, not the Weekly Sabbaths. The verse in Colossians duplicates the text of Ezekiel 45:17 which reads: "...at the festivals, the New Moons and the Sabbaths - at all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel."
bulletRomans 14:5: Paul writes: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." Some people interpret this passage as allowing Christians to either recognize or ignore the Sabbath, - or perhaps to select any day as the Sabbath. But others suggest from a reading of the subsequent verses that Paul is discussing fasting here, not religious observance. They would suggest that verse 1 of this chapter indicates that the passage relates to "disputable" matters (such as when or if to fast); the day of the Sabbath was not a disputable matter; it was a commandment from God. The phrase "considering every day alike" might means that every day from Sunday to Friday were treated the same, as in the passage describing the collection of manna in Exodus 16:4

There appears to be no consensus on whether Jesus, his disciples, or apostles celebrated the Lord's Day on Sunday. There seems to be no internal evidence that would justify the Christian church changing the day from that commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).  However, in later centuries, moving from Saturday to Sunday certainly was beneficial if for no other reason than to improve the security of Christians by distancing Christianity from Judaism in the eyes of the government.

Has the Calendar been Changed?

The Jewish people have observed this date for many millennia without interruption. When the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1582 CE, ten days were deleted in order to bring the calendar in synchronism with the seasons. But the sequence of the days remained the same. Thus, 1582-OCT-4 (a Thursday) was followed by 1582-OCT-15 (a Friday), and the Sabbath of 1582-OCT-16 happened exactly 7 days after the previous Sabbath of SEP-29.

bulletMost conservative theologians believe that God created the world in 6 days and rested on the seventh. But there is no evidence that Adam and Eve actually celebrated the Sabbath. The first instruction from God to the Jewish people to observe the Sabbath appears in Exodus 16:27, when the Jewish people were wandering in the desert after having escaped from Egyptian captivity. God provided manna as a food source every day, except for the seventh day. A double portion was supplied on the 6th day, Friday, so that the people would not have to work, collecting manna on the Sabbath.   The second  command from God is seen in Exodus 23:12. Both passages were written by Moses circa 1491 BCE. Presumably, the Sabbath has been observed without interruption ever since that date.
bulletLiberal theologians generally believe that the creation stories in Genesis are fables, picked up from Pagan religions in the neighborhood of Palestine. The earth, its life forms and the rest of the universe evolved over a period of billions of years. The story of the creation of the Sabbath in Genesis 2:2-3 was written by the "J" author(s) circa 950 BCE. Exodus 16:27 was probably written by the "P" authors circa 539 BCE . Exodus 23:12 was also written by "J" using a fragment of an ancient ritual code that perhaps dated from the 14th-13th century BCE. There is thus no reason to believe that there was a seventh day of creation or that there was any continuous celebration of the Sabbath until the 10th century BCE. It is probable that some Jewish official made an arbitrary selection of the day for the first Sabbath about 3 millennia ago. There is no record in the Bible showing who did this or when he did it. So, the present Jewish Sabbath observance can be traced back, through the discontinuity of 1582 CE into ancient times to an arbitrary choice of day by person or persons unknown.

Who are the Sabbath-keepers?

The main Sabbatarian faith groups (religious groups that currently worship on Saturday) are:

bulletBranch Davidians (Students of the Seven Seals)
bulletChurch of God (7th Day)
bulletHouse of God, a national Hebrew Pentecostal group.
bulletHouse of Yahweh
bulletJudaism
bulletThe Process - Church of the Final Judgment
bulletSeventh Day Adventists, including dozens of breakaway sects
bulletSeventh Day Baptists

The Worldwide Church of God once observed the Sabbath on Saturday. However, after the death of founder Herbert W. Armstrong the practice was abandoned. A schism occurred, and most of the membership left, forming new faith groups. 7

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Bible Sabbath Association at: http://www.biblesabbath.org
  2. Extensive background material on the Saturday Sabbath is at the "Present Truth" home page: http://www.present-truth.org
  3. Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; translated into English by Philip Schaff in "History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, P. 380, New York, NY, (1884)
  4. Quotations of the legitimacy of Saturday worship from many sources, including statements by leaders of ten denominations. can be seen at: http://www.anet-dfw.com/
  5. The Seventh Day Baptists have an essay on the Sabbath at: http://www.seventhdaybaptist.org/
  6. SabbathTruth is a website devoted to a discussion of the Sabbath -- its history, prophecy and purpose. See: http://www.sabbathtruth.com/
  7. Many faith groups who split from the Worldwide Church of God are listed at: http://www.cogwriter.com/

Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-AUG-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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