How We Lost the Sabbath

Ted Noel

Since it must be clear by now that Jesus kept the Sabbath, the apostles kept the Sabbath, and the early church kept the Sabbath, what happened? How, without anything remotely approximating a divine command, did the common day of observance get changed from Sabbath to Sunday? I will attempt to briefly summarize the history of the change. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive review. Anyone wishing to pursue the issue in greater depth is referred to the books by Bacchiocchi and Odom.

The first hint of change did occur during the lifetime of some of the apostles. The first Jewish revolt (66-70AD) led to a change in the way the Jews were treated by the Romans. It began with a decision by the priests to quit offering prayers for the benefit of the Emperor. Cestius Gallius, the Roman governor of Syria, marched to Jerusalem to put down this insurrection. The church, heeding Jesus’ warning (Matthew 24:15-20) left the city when Gallius inexplicably withdrew. The revolt continued, and in 70AD, the Roman army under Titus destroyed the city with massive loss of life, but without loss to the church.

After this exodus, the Jerusalem church continued in the surrounding country, particularly in the Nazarene sect. When Christians returned to Jerusalem, Jewish priests incorporated into the liturgical prayers of the synagogue a curse (the Birkath-ha-Minim , ca. 80AD) which made it impossible for any Nazarene to attend the synagogue on Sabbath without either cursing themselves or revealing themselves to the Jews for punishment. There would be no purpose for this curse if Christians were not keeping Sabbath.

Over the next few years, numerous repressive legal changes were instituted against the Jews due to Jewish uprisings in many Roman territories. These included:

  • Vespasian (69-79AD) abolished the Sanhedrin and the office of High Priest.
  • Vespasian also established a discriminatory tax on Jews (the fiscus judaicus)
  • Domitian (81-96AD) and Hadrian (117-138AD) increased this tax.

The second Jewish revolt (132-135AD) was crushed by Hadrian, who then prohibited the practice of the Jewish religion throughout the Roman Empire. He specifically outlawed Sabbath observance, on pain of death. This put Christians in a tough position. Their weekly Sabbath was cause for execution. This was no lightweight concern. Something had to be done. The church in Rome began the work. It should be noted that there was one other motivation at work: hatred of the Jews.

In 64AD, Rome burned. Nero blamed the Christians, and ignored the Jews. This certainly could not have set well. A smoldering hatred of the Jews, probably present all along, burned brighter. The church in Rome, essentially without any Jewish tradition (Romans 11:13) had little difficulty setting off down a different path from the eastern churches which had strong Jewish traditions. As it became dominant, the hatred showed more clearly in its patristic writing.

The early post-apostolic fathers carried on the faith and the Sabbath. The earliest writing we have, from Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (98-117AD), admonishes the believers to stop “sabbatizing but liv(e) according to the Lord’s life.” The context of his statement makes it clear that he is condemning the legalistic prescriptions of how to observe the Sabbath, exhorting the believers to make it a day of holy celebration. Ignatius also makes direct reference to “Judaizing” in reference to these prescriptions.

About 135AD, during the persecution of Hadrian, the church found itself needing a way to look different from Jews, and a way to avoid the death penalty for Sabbath-keeping. The most obvious change would be to drop the Sabbath. But what justification could be given?

The Epistle of Barnabas (approx. 130-138AD) is the first writing which clearly identifies Sunday observance. Barnabas (a pseudonym for the unknown author) defames the Jews as a people and allegorizes Jewish doctrine to destroy its meaning. He describes Jews as “wretched men” who were “abandoned by God.” Then he states that “I will make the beginning of an eighth day, that is, the beginning of another world.” His first argument for this new day of observance is that God cannot stand the Jewish “new moons and Sabbaths”, and so makes a new one. Almost parenthetically he throws in the resurrection as a secondary motivation for Sunday observance. This is a pattern seen commonly in early patristic writing.

Just to show that Barnabas was not the only early writer to use this logic, let us look at Justin Martyr, in his “I Apology” (ca. 148AD), quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day [after the Jewish sabbath, but also the first day] when God, separating matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.”

Why pick Sunday? In theory, it would be possible to pick Thursday, since that was the day of the Last Supper, Friday for the crucifixion, Sabbath (OOPS!) since He rested in the grave, or Sunday for the resurrection. In fact, none of these reasons was sufficient to pick a day. The Gnostic technique of allegorical interpretation of scripture gave a solution. As Barnabas says, the “eighth day” should be observed. The reasons were (loosely):

  • Jesus is the Light
  • On the first day of creation (commemorated with the next Sunday, the eighth day), God made light
  • Jesus is the “Sun of Justice” and “Sun of Righteousness”

Conveniently, Sunday was also the day the pagans of the Roman Empire observed. The cult of the Invincible Sun (sol invictus) was in fact the dominant religion. They believed that the sun is God. Since Christians believed that God is the Sun (of Justice and Righteousness), the “Sun is God/God is Sun” juxtaposition conveniently made Christians both familiar in appearance to the general public (unlike the Jews) and made pagans easy converts since they could carry on with many of their familiar customs.

At the same time, another controversy between the Roman and eastern sections of the church was brewing. From early apostolic days (probably) the church was observing the pascha on the Jewish Passover. This was a memorial of the crucifixion which we now know as the “Passion”. The Jewish calendar put the Passover on Nisan 14 (Nisan was the first month of the Jewish calendar.) This made good sense, since Christ was crucified on Passover. Those who observed this day were known a “Quartodecimans” from the Latin for fourteen. At about the same time as Sunday observance began to be promoted, a move was afoot to move the pascha to Sunday, in honor of the resurrection. This also makes sense, since the resurrection did take place on Sunday. We should note that there is no scripture for or against either practice, since there is no command to observe the resurrection.

Motivated by the same need for differentiation from and hatred of the Jews, the Roman church pushed for the pascha to be moved to Sunday. This battle became so bitter that, in the latter part of the second century, Victor, Bishop of Rome, excommunicated the entire eastern church for maintaining the quartodeciman position.

Moving the pascha to Sunday failed to solve the problem completely. Once in seven years, the Passover and the pascha would both fall on Sunday. Scholars of the Roman church attempted to crack the riddle of the Jewish calendar without success, since it was based on the time of the barley harvest in Palestine. Eventually, they adopted a calendation for the pascha which was based on the vernal equinox, a pagan holiday, so that there would be total independence of the Jews. This still left a one in seven chance of having the two holidays coincide, so rules were adopted which pushed the pascha back one week any time it would coincide with Passover. This timing has been preserved in the odd way we figure the date for Easter (the modern term for the pascha.)

As can be readily seen, driven by the church in Rome, Christians began slowly to differentiate themselves from Jews. Other measures were taken to reinforce this process. Fasting was imposed on Sabbath as a means of making it a detestable day. The process of polemicizing the issue continued to pound home the themes of God’s shame on the Jews and the eighth day observation. The theology of the eighth day solidified around the creation week and 2 Peter 3:8

8 But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

This allowed them to make the seven days of creation into seven thousand years of earth’s history. The seventh day would be the millennium of Revelation 20, and the “eighth day” would usher in the new earth. This eschatological view allowed them to twist the scripture into saying that we should observe the eighth day. Soon every text which included the number eight was used to support the view, including the fact that there were eight people on the ark!

This debate continued full force until the fourth century. Three events finally closed the issue until the seventeenth century. In 321, Constantine issued the first of several Sunday laws. In 325, the Council of Nicaea and in 336, the Council of Laodicea settled both the quartodeciman and Sunday observance issues in favor of the position taken by the church of Rome. These were incorporated into Canon Law in the “Codex Iuris Canonici” under the authority of canon 1246 (again quoted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
“The conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.”

We should note that this usurpation of authority has no scriptural basis in fact, and is simply a bold assertion of power, which is contrary to the Bible.

In the seventeenth century, a branch of the Baptist church in England rediscovered the Sabbath. These Seventh Day Baptists established their first church in the new world in 1671. The Second Adventists were founded in the 1830’s, anticipating the end of the world in 1844 as a result of a misinterpretation of the 2,300 “evenings and mornings” of Daniel 8:14. Shortly after this failed to take place, the Adventists, who were observing Sunday, were introduced to the Sabbath. Within a few years, the Second Adventists became the Seventh-day Adventists and are now the predominant sabbatarian church in the world. In the twentieth century, others have come to the Sabbath, including the Seventh-day Church of God.

5 thoughts on “How We Lost the Sabbath”

  1. Why wouldn’t I want to write on it when the world observes Sunday, not the Sabbath? It was a logical part of the story! We had the Sabbath. Now the Sabbath is largely forgotten or derided. Something happened. So I filled in that part. Most of the research was done by Samuele Bacchiocchi.


  2. Dear Robert,

    Thank you for catching the mistake. Part of the problem is that’s a old essay I haven’t looked at in a long time. Since then I’ve learned a lot. BTW, as far as the sacrifice goes, it’s correct. But Paul also says in 1 Cor 15 that the resurrection “is of first importance.” I’ll have to revise it.


  3. An excellent article in most respects, however your statement “As an aside, we should note the resurrection is irrelevant to salvation. Christ’s death on the cross provided the required sacrifice, not his resurrection” is only half true. While Christ’s death provided the penalty of blood required to pay for our sins, Paul makes it quite clear the the resurrection from the dead, and Christ’s resurrection in particular, is central to our salvation. 1 Cor 15:13-14 says “If there is no resurrection then Christ is not risen, and if Christ is not risen our preaching is empty as is your faith.” Furthermore it says in verse 17 of the same chapter “If Christ is not risen your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” The resurrection of Christ, and those who are his, and will be “made alive” at the seventh and final trumpet (verse 52 of the same chapter, also see Rev 11:15-19), is in fact a central doctrine of our faith, is very relevant to salvation, for it is THE proof that our reward as faithful servants is sure.

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