Early Christianity: From Sabbath to Sunday
I recently penned a post for Banned by HWA that was published there under the banner “Quietly Dismissing Herbert Armstrong.” In reviewing some of the commentary which the post provoked, I was struck by how some folks have continued to accept Armstrong’s inaccurate/false narrative surrounding the early history of the Christian Church. According to the Pastor General of the old Worldwide Church of God, the First Century Church universally observed the Sabbath. Moreover, he taught that Emperor Constantine (in cooperation with the Roman Church) changed the day of Christian worship from the Sabbath to Sunday.
The reasoning behind this narrative is almost as interesting and entertaining as the narrative itself. It goes something like this: 1) Scripture clearly records that Christ, his apostles, and the early saints continued to observe the Sabbath; 2) The existence of Constantine’s famous decree recognizing Sunday as a day of rest (and, by implication, worship) throughout the territories of the Roman Empire; and 3) The existence of several statements by Roman Catholics claiming responsibility for changing the Christian day of worship. Admittedly, this reasoning appears reasonable at first glance. However, while I wouldn’t dispute any of the three points which they have employed to generate their narrative, we would be remiss not to point out that these folks have ignored/excluded a whole lot of history to arrive at their conclusions about Sabbath to Sunday observance within the early Church.
It still seems foreign and strange to many Christians, but a consensus has developed over time among Biblical scholars that there were two forms of Christianity extant in the First Century (a Gentile and a Jewish variety). Moreover, the evidence for this, both within the New Testament and among other writings from the period, is pretty compelling. In the New Testament, the account we find there of the Jerusalem Council in the fifteenth chapter of Acts (and in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians) makes plain that there were real differences and tensions between the Jewish and Gentile branches of the Church. Likewise, other early Christian writings like the Didache and some of the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch underscore these differences.
When confronted with the evidence of the Jerusalem Council, many Armstrongites insist that the only issue at stake in those discussions was the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Scripture, however, clearly refutes such a notion. Now, in fairness, it is true that the whole controversy began with the insistence of some Jewish Christians that “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) However, when Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to resolve the matter, we read: “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) In other words, some of the Jewish Christians were insisting that Gentile converts to Christianity had to adopt and abide by the tenets of the Old Covenant outlined in the Torah.
After much discussion of the matter, Peter reminded the assembly that God had prompted him to share the gospel with the Gentiles. (Acts 15:7) A casual reading of this account could easily miss just how important this point was in comprehending the significance of what was happening. Unfortunately, as the first eleven chapters of the book of Acts make plain, the original twelve apostles had not fulfilled Christ’s instructions to take his message to all nations. In short, Peter and the other apostles had focused their evangelistic efforts almost exclusively on their Jewish brethren for the ten or so years following the end of Christ’s earthly ministry. Hence, it should not seem strange or incomprehensible to us that the earliest church was almost entirely Jewish in composition, nature, and ritual. As such, we can see that it was completely natural for these folks to continue to observe rituals that were familiar to them (like circumcision, the Sabbath, the Holy Days, clean and unclean meats, etc.).
It should also be remembered, though, that Gentiles had no such traditions, and that most of them were wholly unfamiliar with Jewish rituals and practices. In the account of the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts, however, Peter points out that God had also chosen to give the Gentiles his Holy Spirit “even as he did unto us.” (Acts 15:8-9) He went on to point out that the insistence of these Jewish Christians that Gentiles adopt Jewish forms did not make sense in light of this fact. “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” he asked. (Acts 15:10) The clear implication being that Christ had fulfilled the requirements of the law on their behalf, because NONE of them (the Jews) had ever been able to do it!
In the account, James agrees with the points that Peter has made. He affirms that it was God who decided to offer salvation to the Gentiles through Christ, and he went on to remind the assembly that this had been prophesied to happen long ago. (Acts 15:13-18) As a consequence of these facts, James concluded: “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” (Acts 15:19-21) Notice that James specifically delineates only four items from the entire Torah which Gentile Christians should be required to observe and goes on to suggest that Moses already has enough adherents among the Jews!
Moreover, once again, the summary of the account makes plain that the assembly was dealing with a much more comprehensive question regarding the relationship of Gentile Christians to the requirements of the Torah than the simple matter of circumcision. The opening to the letter which the assembly sent to the Gentile Christians informing them of their decision makes this plain. We read: “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment…” (Acts 15:24) And the letter’s conclusion makes plain that the assembly has adopted James’ “sentence” regarding their obligations to the requirements of the Torah. We read: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.” (Acts 15:28-29)
Hence, for the author of Acts, the rather substantial question of whether or not Gentile converts would be required to observe the tenets of the Law, was settled amicably and in short order. From Paul’s perspective, however, the question had never been completely and finally resolved – there were still plenty of Jewish Christians out there who believed that their Gentile brethren should be required to follow the same observances which they had followed all of their lives (and which they continued to follow as Christians).
This is made very clear in Paul’s letter to the saints of Galatia. Nevertheless, in comparing Paul’s perspective on what had happened at the Jerusalem Council, it is important to remember the context of Paul’s remarks. In short, Paul was extremely angry that Jewish Christians had had the audacity to contradict his teachings to the Gentiles. He opens the epistle by claiming his incredulity at the thought that any of his Galatian Christian converts would fall for this message (that they were obligated to observe the tenets of the Torah). He wrote: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
Remember, Paul saw himself as the “Apostle of the Gentiles.” (Romans 11:13) Moreover, he believed that the message which he had brought to the Galatians had been given to him via a special revelation from Jesus Christ, and he made clear that he did not appreciate those Jewish Christians invading his territory and imposing their brand of Christianity on his converts! (Galatians 1:8-12) Paul then proceeded to give the Galatians a brief summary of his personal history in the Jewish faith and his interactions with the pillars of the Jewish Church after his conversion to demonstrate that those contacts had not made any significant contributions to his message. (Galatians 1:13-24) Now, of course, those folks had made significant contributions to Paul’s knowledge about Christ and his teachings (the notion that they didn’t is frankly absurd), but we must remember that when he wrote these things Paul was extremely angry with those Jewish Christians who had interfered with his work among the Galatians.
After he had vented some of his anger and frustration, Paul proceeded to give his account of what had transpired at the Jerusalem Council. He wrote that those “who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.” (Galatians 2:6-10)
In this respect, the two accounts (Acts and Galatians) of what happened at the Jerusalem Council are the same: Both accounts suggest that some kind of accommodation between Jewish and Gentile Christians was reached as a consequence of that assembly – to live and let live. In other words, Paul understood that agreement to allow Jewish Christians to continue to observe the tenets of the Mosaic Law and to permit Gentile Christians to ignore them.
For Paul, however, the intrusion of those Jewish Christians among his sheep in Galatia had not only violated the understanding reached at the Jerusalem Council, it had also underscored the flawed premise of the theology of those Jewish Christians. He wrote:
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:16-21)
Thus, as Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles resulted in more and more conversions, we can see that tensions grew between the two branches of the Christian faith. In short, Jewish Christians must have felt the pressure of those greater numbers of Gentile Christians within the Church – that the proportion of Christians observing the tenets of the Mosaic Law continued to shrink. And we have all seen the tensions which America’s changing demographics have produced within our own population – So, it shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine similar group dynamics playing out within the early Church!
Thanks to the writings of the First Century Jewish historian, Josephus, we know that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It would be hard to overestimate the devastating impact which those events would have had on the Jewish portion of the Church. As Jewish Christians continued to observe the tenets of the Mosaic Law and were in the habit of worshipping at the temple and in synagogues, it is highly unlikely that the conquering Romans would have made any distinction between those Christians and their Jewish brethren. In other words, Jewish Christians were scattered and persecuted by the Romans after those events in 70 CE (just like other Jews).
Hence, it is easy to see how Paul’s version of Christianity would have been in the ascendancy for the last thirty years of the First Century. In other words, by the close of that century, the vast majority of Christians were of the Gentile variety (not observing the tenets of the Mosaic Law). However, while it’s easy to imagine those circumstances, there is other evidence extant that the Gentile branch of Christianity had become the dominant variety by the close of this period. In short, there are other Christian writings from this period which support this narrative of what was happening within the Church. Unfortunately, many lay Christians are not only unfamiliar with the contents of these documents – they are completely unaware of the fact that they even exist!
There is a document known as The Didache (a Greek word for teaching or doctrine) which was probably written late in the First Century and was purported to represent the teachings of Christ’s apostles (see earlychristianwritings.com). The Didache opens with a discussion of the way of life in juxtaposition to the way of death, and it expounds upon Christ’s teaching regarding the two great commandments (love for God and neighbor). The document also discusses the early practices of the Christian Church regarding things like baptism, fasting, prayer, and the Eucharist. Moreover, the document’s commentary about the organization of the Church (or rather the lack of discussion of a well-defined structure/hierarchy) makes plain that it came from this primitive era of Christianity. For our present purposes, however, the most important feature of The Didache is its insistence that Christians assemble on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) for fellowship and worship. In other words, the document takes it for granted that this is the proper day for Christian worship – there is no mention of the Sabbath!
Likewise, we have the writings of Ignatius of Antioch from late in the First Century and early in the Second Century to support this historical narrative about the two versions of Christianity. In his epistle to the saints of Philadelphia, Ignatius wrote: “But if anyone preach the Jewish law unto you, listen not to him. For it is better to hearken to Christian doctrine from a man who has been circumcised, than to Judaism from one uncircumcised. But if either of such persons do not speak concerning Jesus Christ, they are in my judgment but as monuments and sepulchers of the dead, upon which are written only the names of men.” (See earlychristianwritings.com) For Ignatius, any Christians who were teaching the saints that they had to observe the Jewish law were clearly heretics.
In his epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius wrote: “Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace.” Later in the same epistle, he wrote: “It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God.” (See earlychristianwritings.com)
Writing sometime in the middle part of the Second Century, Justin Martyr also provided us with evidence of what was happening within the Church during this early period. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr wrote this about Christian worship in his time: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But 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 Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (See earlychristianwritings.com) In other words, by the middle of the Second Century, it was considered standard practice for Christians to gather for fellowship and worship on Sunday!
As we have seen from both the biblical and the historical narrative, the Armstrongite narrative regarding the history of Sabbath to Sunday observance is false. The reality is that the vast majority of Christians had been observing Sunday for hundreds of years by the time that Constantine made his famous decree. In effect, the emperor was merely offering official recognition of what was already the practice of most of his Christian and pagan subjects. Likewise, the observance of Sunday by most Christians was already well-entrenched by the time that the Roman Church had acquired the power to enforce its authority over other Christians. Hence, the narrative that Constantine and/or the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday is shown to be a fiction pure and simple!
**Although I do not wish to convey the impression that I agree with all of the conclusions reached by these biblical scholars, I think that the works of folks like Gerd Ludemann, Bart Ehrman and James Tabor offer some interesting and helpful insights into this period of Christian history (Sorry, I'm not in the habit of name dropping, but scholars do offer some helpful insights for those of us who are truly desirous of understanding this critical period).