FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY
by Dr.Sammuele Bacchiocchi PhD
SUN-WORSHIP AND THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY
The choice of Sunday as the new day of Christian worship
cannot be explained solely on the ground of negative anti-Judaic
motivations. For instance, Christians could have achieved the
same objective by adopting Friday as a memorial of Christ's
passion. We might say that anti-Judaism created the necessity for
substituting a new day of worship for the Sabbath, but it did not
determine the specific choice Sunday. The reasons for the latter
must be found elsewhere.
Several significant studies have suggested that Christians
may have derived "a psychological orientation" toward Sunday from
the sectarian solar calendar used by Qumranites and similar
groups, where the annual omer day and day of Pentecost always
fell on Sunday.1 Though allowance must be made for such a
possibility, we are at a loss to find any explicit patristic
reference associating Easter-Sunday or weekly Sunday with this
sectarian solar calendar. 2 Moreover, if our thesis is correct
that Sunday observance originated in Rome by the beginning of the
second century, rather than in Jerusalem in the
1 See above p.119 fn.88.
2 J.V.Goudoever, "Biblical Calendars," 1959, pp.161-162, argues
for the influence on early Christianity of the old calendar of
Enoch and Jubilees, by referring to Anatolius (d. ca. A.D.282),
Bishop of Laodicea. The Bishop defends the celebration of the
Quartodeciman Passover after the vernal equinox by appealing to
Jewish authorities such as Philo, Josephus and "the teaching of
the Book of Enoch" (cited by Eusebius, HE 7, 32, 14-20). Note
however that Anatolius is not defending Easter-Sunday but the
Quartodeciman Passover. Moreover to justify the celebration of
the latter after the vernal equinox, the Bishop does not cite
only the Book of Enoch but also several Jewish writers such as
Philo, Josephus, Musaeus, Agathobuli who "explaining questions in
regard to the Exodus, say that all alike should sacrifice the
passover offerings after the vernal equinox, in the middle of the
first month" (Eusebius, HE 7, 32, 17). The fact that some of the
writers mentioned were not representatives of sectarian Judaism,
suggests that the insistence on the celebration of Passover after
the vernal equinox was common to both sectarian and normative
apostolic period, it seems most unlikely that Christians of pagan
background would have derived the date for their annual and/or
weekly Sunday festivities from a Jewish sectarian liturgical
calendar, especially at a time when new festivals were introduced
to evidence separation from Judaism.
The influence of Sun-worship with its "Sun-day," provides a
more plausible explanation, for the Christian choice of Sunday.
The chief objection against this possibility is of chronological
nature. W. Rordorf, for instance, argues that:
We can consider the possibility that the origin of the
Christian observance of Sunday was influenced by some
sun-cult only if a "day of the sun" existed before the
Christian observance of Sunday, that is to say if we can
prove the existence of the seven-day planetary week in
pre-Christian times. 3
He maintains however that "since the earliest evidence for
the existence of the planetary week [i.e. our present week, named
after seven planets] is to be dated toward the end of the first
century A.D.," at a time when "the Christians observance of
Sunday was a practice of long standing," any influence of Sun-
worship on the origin of Sunday is to be categorically excluded.
There is no question that the existence of the planetary
week with its Sun-day--"dies solis" is crucial for determining
any influence of Sun-worship on the Christian adoption of Sun
day observance, inasmuch as the Sun before the existence of a
weekly "Sun-day" was venerate "every" morning. 5 It is not
3 W. Rordorf, "Sunday," p.181; C.S.Mosna, "Storia della
domenica," p.33, shares the same view: "To be able to speak of
influence [of Sunworship] on Sunday, one should demonstrate that
the day dedicated to the Sun already existed in the earliest
times of the Christian community as a fixed day that recurred
regularly every week, and that it corresponded exactly to the day
after the Sabbath. For this, one should demonstrate the existence
of the planetary week before Sunday."
4 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.37; note Rordorf's categorical statement
"If the question is raised whether the origins of the Christian
observance of Sunday are in any way connected with the Sunday
observance of the Mithras cult, it must be answered with a
definite No" (loc. cit.). Regarding Sun-worship in India, Persia,
Syria and in the Greek and Roman world, see F.J.Dolger, "Sol
Salutis," 19252, pp.20f., 38f.; for Palestine see
"Realencyklopddie fur protestantische Theologie and Kirche," 1863
3, S.V. "Sonne, bei den Hebraem," by W. Baudissin; "Lexikon fur
Theologie and Kirche," 1964, S.V. "Sonne," by H. Baumann; F. J.
Hollis, "The Sun-cult and the Temple at Jerusalem," Myth and
Ritual, 1933, pp.87-110; that the Sun-cult was widespread before
Josiah's reform is well established by passages such as 2 King
23:11, "[Josiah] removed the horses that the kings of Judah had
dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the Lord
... and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire"; cf. also
Ezek.8:16 and Wisdom 16:28: "To make it known that we must rise
before the sun to give thee thanks and must pray to thee at the
dawning of the light." Philo, "De vita contemplativa" 3,27,
reports that the Therapeutae prayed at sunrise, seeking for
indispensable however that the planetary week should have
originated in pre-Christian times, if Sunday-keeping was
introduced in the early part of the second century. In fact, if
it can be proved that the planetary week was in existence in the
Greco-Roman world already in the first century of our era and
that the Sun was venerated at that time on Sunday, then the
possibility exists that Christians - especially new pagan
converts - in their search for a new day of worship to
differentiate themselves from the Jews could have been favorably
predisposed toward the day of the Sun. The existence of a rich
Biblical tradition that associated God and Christ with the power
and splendor of the Sun could well have facilitated an
amalgamation of ideas. To verify the validity of this hypothesis
we shall briefly consider the following factors:
(1) Sun-worship and the planetary week prior to A.D.150.
(2) The reflexes of Sun-worship in Christianity.
(3) The day of the Sun and the origin of Sunday.
Sun-Worship and the Planetary Week Prior to A.D.150
Was Sun-worship known and practiced in ancient Rome in the
first century A.D., and if so, to what extent? Gaston H.
Halsberghe, in his recent monograph "The Cult of Sol Invictus"
(part of the series on "Oriental Religions in the Roman Empire"
edited by the living authority on the subject, M.J.Vermaseren),
presents persuasive texts and arguments indicating that
Sun-worship was "one of the oldest components of the Roman
religion." 6 According to his well-founded conclusions, the
Sun-cult in ancient Rome experienced two phases. Until the end of
the first century A.D., the Romans practiced what he calls an
"autochthonous [i.e. native or indigenous] Sun-cult," but
"starting in the second century A.D.,
6 Gaston H. Halsberghe, "The Cult of Sol Invictus," 1972, p.26.
This thesis was proposed earlier by A. von Domaszewski,
"Abhandlungen zur Romischen Religion," 1909, p.173.
the Eastern Sun-worship began to influence Rome and the rest of
the Empire." 7 A sampling of evidences will suffice to make us
aware of its existence and importance.
A calendar of the time of Augustus (the "Fasti" of
Philocalus dated before 27 B.C.) beside the date of August 9th
reads: "Soli indigiti in colle Quirinali - to the native Sun on
Quirinal hill." 8 Scholarly opinion differs on the interpretation
of the phrase "native Sun-Sol indiges" which occurs in few
ancient Roman texts, inasmuch as the Romans could well have
designated the Sun as their national god, though in actuality it
was an imported deity. 9 However, even granting that "Sol
indiges" was not really indigenous to the Romans, the fact
remains that it was regarded as a Roman god.
After the conquest of Egypt (31 B.C.) Augustus sent two
obelisks to Rome and had them "dedicated to the Sun - "Soli donum
dedit" 10 in the Circus Maximus and in Mars Field to
7 Gaston H. Halsberghe (fn. 6), pp.27 and 35.
8 "Fasti of Philocalus," CIL I, 2, 324 or "Fasti of Amiternum,"
CIL IX, 4192. F. Altheim, "Italien and Rom," 1941, II, pp. 24-25,
provides abundant evidences that "Sol Indiges" was worshipped in
Rome as early as the fourth century B.C. In the oldest calendar
the Sun-god is associated with Jupiter. Marcus Terentius Varro
(116-ca. 26 B.C.) "De re rustica" 1,1,5, reports that the Sun and
the Moon were usually invoked immediately after Jupiter and
Tellus. Tacitus (ca. A.D.55-120) mentions that in the Circus
there was an old temple dedicated to the Sun (Annales 15,74, 1;
9 G. Wissowa, "Religion and kultus der Rommer," 19122, pp.315f.
argues that the expression "indigiti-native" could only have
designated the Suncult as native when the Eastern Sun-cults
10 CIL VI, 701; A. Piganiol, "Histoire de Rome," 19544, p.229,
holds that Augustus favored the worship of the Sun and "gave
priority to the gods of light"; Halsberghe (fn. 6), p.30, is of
the opinion that Augustus did not intend to import to Rome the
Egyptian solar god, but rather to give credit for the victory to
the ancient Roman Sol: "No single deity of the Roman pantheon
could more rightfully claim this glorious victory than the
ancient Roman Sol, since it was achieved through his special
intervention and protection. The two obelisks which were symbols
of the Sun god in Egypt, constitute additional support for this
interpretation." Anthony, before Augustus, portrayed the Sun god
on his coins and after marrying Cleopatra he renamed the two sons
of the queen as Helios and Selene (cf. A. Piganiol, op. cit., p.
239; H. Cohen, "Description historique des monnaies frappees sous
l'empire romain," I, p.44, fn. 73; W.W.Tarn, "The Cambridge
Ancient History," 2nd ed., X, p.68; cf. Dio Cassius, "Historia"
49,41 and 50,2,5,25. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) shows the high esteem
that cultured Romans had for Sun worship when he describes the
Sun as "the lord, chief, and ruler of the other lights, the mind
and guiding principle, of such magnitude that he reveals and
fills all things with his light" ("De republica" 6,17, LCL, p.
thank the same god for the victory. Tertullian reports that in
his time (ca. A.D.150-230) "the huge Obelisk" in the circus was
still "set up in public to the Sun," and that the circus "was
chiefly consecrated to the Sun." 11
Several altars of the first century A.D. have been found
dedicated to "the Sun and the Moon-Solis et Lunae." 12 Nero (A.D.
54-68) attributed to the Sun the merit for the discovery of the
plot against him and erected the famous "Colossus Neronis at the
highest point of the velia, representing the Sun, with the
features of Nero and with seven long rays around his head." 13
Hadrian (A.D.117-138), who identified himself with the Sun in his
coins, according to Elius Spartianus (ca. A.D.300) "dedicated to
the Sun" the Colossus Neronis after removing the features of
Nero. 14 Tacitus (ca. A.D.55-120) also reports that Vespasian's
(A.D.69-79) third legion "according to the Syrian custom, greeted
the rising sun." 15
Halsberghe maintains that from the beginning of the second
century the Eastern cult of "Sol Invictus-Invincible Sun"
penetrated in Rome in two different fashions: privately, through
the cult of "Sol Invictus Mithra" and publicly through that of
"Sol Invictus Elagabal." 16 While we disagree with the author on
the date of the diffusion of Mithraism, since there are
significant indications that it had reached Rome already in the
first century A.D., 17 the differentiation between the two cults
11 Tertullian, "De spectaculis" 8, ANF III, p.83; Tacitus (fn. 8)
confirms the existence of the temple dedicated to the Sun in the
12 Cf. CIL I, 327; XIV, 4089; V, 3917; VI, 3719; these texts are
discussed by Halsberghe (fn. 6), p.33.
13 H. Mattingly, "Coins of the Roman Empire in the British
Museum," 1940 I, pp.134 and 171; cf. Tacitus, "Annales" 15,74.
14 Elius Spartianus, "Hadrianus" 19, LCL "Scriptores Historiae
Augustae" I, p.61; cf. A. Piganiol (fn.10), pp.288,332-333,
explains that Hadrian associated himself with the Sun "whose
image appears on the last coins"; cf. H. Cohen (fn. 10), II, p.
38, n. 187,188.
15 Tacitus, "Historiae" 3,24.
16 Gaston H. Halsberghe (fn. 6), p.35; cf. A. von Domaszewski
(fn. 6), p.173.
17 According to Plutarch (A.D.46-125), "Vita Pompeii" 24, Mithra
was introduced into Rome by the Cilician pirates taken captives
by Pompey in 67 B.C. Papinius Statius (d. ca. A.D.96) in a verse
of the "Thebaid" speaks of "Mithra, that beneath the rocky
Persean cave strains at the reluctant-following horns" (Thebaid
I, 718-720, LCL I, p.393). Turchi NicoLa "Religione di Roma
Antica, 1939, p. 273: "The Mithraic religion was made known
through the pirates ... but its influence was particularly felt
beginning with the first century after Christ"; the same view is
expressed by Franz Cumont, "The Mysteries of Mithra," 1956, p.
37; "Textes et Monuments," 1896-1899, I, p.338: "The propagation
of the two religions [i.e., Mithraism and Christianity] was
approximately contemporaneous"; cf. "Enciclopedia Cattolica,"
1952, S.V. "Mithra e Mithraismo," by M. J. Vermaseren: "Mithra
entered Rome (67 B.C.) with the prisoners of Cilicia ... Its
diffusion increased under the Flavii and even more under the
Antoninii and Severii."
suasively demonstrated. Mithraism primarily was a private cult,
though it numbered among its adherents magistrates and emperors.
"Sol Invictus Elagabal," on the other hand, was a popular cult
with grandiose temples and during the rule of the young Emperor
Elagabalus (A.D.218-222) was made the official cult of the whole
These diversified forms of Sun-worship, resulting from the
penetration of Eastern Sun-cults, substantiate Halsberghe's
conclusion that "from the early part of the second century A.D.
the cult of "Sol Invictus" was dominant in Rome and in other
parts of the Empire." 18 The identification and worship of the
Emperor as Sun-god, encouraged by the Eastern theology of the
"King-Sun," and by political considerations, undoubtedly
contributed to the diffusion of a public Sun-cult.
Since the expansion of the Sun-cult is contemporaneous with
the origin of Sunday, is it possible that the former influenced
the latter? A causal relationship between the two is conceivable
only if the planetary week with its "dies solis-day of the Sun"
already existed in the first century A.D. in the Greco-Roman
world. Only in this case the predominant Sun-cult could have
enhanced the day of the Sun and consequently influenced
Christians to adopt it for their weekly worship after
reinterpreting its symbolism in the light of the Christian
Scholarly opinion differs on the question of the origin of
the planetary week. Some view it as a pagan interpretation of the
Jewish week while others regard it as a strict pagan
astrological invention. 20 D. Waterhouse argues persuasively in
18 Gaston H. Halsberghe (fn. 6), p.44.
19 This point is well expressed by Franz Cumont, "The Mysteries
of Mithra," 1956, p.101.
20 E. Schurer, "Die siebentagige Woche im Gebrauch der
christlichen Kirche der ersten Jahrhunderte," "Zeitschrift fur
die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft" 6 (1905): 18f., advocates
that the planetary week developed independently of the Jewish
week, primarily as a result of belief in the seven planets. W.
Rordorf, "Sunday," p.33, argues persuasively "that the planetary
week as a whole developed in association with the Jewish week."
The diffusion of the Jewish Sabbath in the Greco-Roman world
would have attracted astrological belief in the evil influence of
the planet Saturn. Subsequently the other planets were attached
to the remaining days of the week. F. H. Colson, "The Week,"
1926, p.42, maintains that the planetary week is not "a pagan
interpretation of the Jewish week" since the order of the planets
is not the real one, but an astrological invention developed by
the belief that each individual hour of the day was under the
control of a planet. This explanation is given by Dio Cassius
(ca. A.D.220) in his "Historia" 37,18-19. Distributing the 168
hours of the week to each of the planets according to their
scientific order, the first hour of Saturday stands under the
protection of Saturn, who assumes the control over the day. The
first hour of the second day falls to the Sun, the first hour of
the third day to the Moon and so forth. In other words, the
planet which controlled the first hour became the protector of
the day, dedicated to it. The same explanation is found in the
chronographer of A.D.354 (Chronica minora: Monumenta Germaniae
Hist., auctores antiquissimi, IX, 1892); F. Boll, "Hebdomas,"
"Pauly-Wissowa" VII 2, col. 2556f. gives detailed proof that the
planetary week did not originate in Babylon.
favor of an amalgamation of Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian and
Jewish ingredients. 21 For the puropse of our research the
"time" of its penetration is more important than the causes of
The existence and common use of the planetary week already
in the first century A.D. are well attested by several tes-
timonies. In the present study we need refer only to few of
them. Roman historian Dio Cassius, who wrote his "Roman History"
between A.D.200-220, reports that Jerusalem was captured both by
Pompey in 63 B.C. and by Gaius Sosius in 37 B.C. "on the day even
then called the day of Saturn." 22 That the praxis of naming the
days of the week after the planetary deities was already in use
before Christ is further corroborated by the contemporary
references of Horace (ca. 35 B.C.) to "dies
21 S.D.Waterhouse, "The Introduction of the Planetary Week into
the West," "The Sabbath in Scripture and History" (to be
published by Review and Herald): "Thus it came about that the
ingredients for the planetary week were brought together; the
concept of planetary gods being taken from the Babylonians, the
mathematics having been supplied by the Greeks, and the dekans or
hours, adopted from the Egyptians. Alexandria, possessing a
large, indigenous, and influential Jewish population, was well
suited for bringing in a final ingredient, that of the Hebrew
22 Dio Cassius, "Historia" 49,22, LCL 5, p.389; cf. "Historia"
37,16 and 37,17; Josephus, "Wars of the Jews" 1,7,3 and
"Antiquities of the Jews" 14, 4, confirms Dio Cassius' account,
saying that the Romans succeeded in capturing the city because
they understood that Jews on the Sabbath only acted defensively.
Jovis--Thursday" 23 and of Tibullus (ca. B.C.29-30) to "dies
Saturni-Saturday." 24 Dio Cassius himself speaks of the
planetary week as "prevailing everywhere" in his time to the
extent that among the Romans it was "already an ancestral
Two Sabine calendars found in central Italy in 1795 and a
third one which came to light at Cimitele, near Nola in southern
Italy, in 1956 (all three dated no later than the time of
Tiberius (A.D.1437), 26 present in the right column the eight
23 Horace, "Satirae" 2,3,288-290, LCL p.177, represents a
superstitious mother as making this vow: "'O Jupiter, who givest
and takest away sore affliction,' cries the mother of a child
that for five long months has been ill abed, 'if the quartan
chills leave my child, then on the morning of the day on which
thou appointest a fast, he shall stand naked in the Tiber.'" The
translator H.R.Fairelough explains: "This would be dies Jovis
[the day of Jupiter], corresponding to our Thursday" (loc. cit.);
cf. J. Hastings' "Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics," 1928,
S.V. "Sunday"; Ovid (43 B.C. - A.D.18) refers several times to
the seven-day week: "You may begin on the day ... less fit for
business, whereon returns the seventh-day feast that the Syrian
of Palestine observe" ("Ars Amatoria" 1, 413-416; cf. 1,75-80;
"Remedia Amoris" 217-220).
24 In one of his poems, Tibullus explains what excuses he could
have found for staying in Rome with his beloved Delia: "Either
birds or words of evil omen were my pretexts or that the sacred
day of Saturn had held one back" (Carmina 1,3,15-18). The day of
Saturn was regarded as an unlucky day (dies nefastus) for
undertaking important business. Sextus Propertius, a contemporary
of Tibullus, speaks, for instance, of "the sign of Saturn that
brings woe to one and to all" (Elegies 4,1,81-86).
25 Dio Cassius, "Historia" 37,18, LCL p.130: "The dedication of
the days to the seven stars which are called planets was
established by Egyptians, and it spread also to all men not so
very long ago, to state it briefly how it began. At any rate the
ancient Greeks knew it in no way, as it appears to me at least.
But since it also prevails everywhere among all the others and
the Romans themselves ... is already to them an ancestral
custom." W.Rordorf, "Sunday," pp.27 and 37, takes Dio Cassius'
statement that the planetary week had come into use "not so very
long ago," to mean that it did not exist before "the end of the
first century A.D." This conclusion, however, is invalidated
first by Dio's own comment that the planetary week was prevailing
everywhere and that the Romans regarded it as an ancestral custom
(a new time cycle does not become widespread and ancestral
overnight); secondly, by Dio's mention that already back in 37
B.C., when Jerusalem was captured by Sosius and Herod the Great,
the Sabbath "even then was called day of Saturn" ("Historia"
49,22). Moreover note that Dio makes the Greeks, not the Romans,
the "terminus ante quem" the planetary week was unknown. We would
therefore agree with C.S.Mosna that "the planetary week must have
originated already in the first century B.C." ("Storia della
26 The Sabine calendars have been dated by T. Mommsen between 19
B.C. and A.D.14, see CIL 1/2, 220; this date is supported by
Attilio Degrassi, "Un Nuovo frammento di calendario Romano e la
settimana planetaria dei sette giorni," "Atti del Terzo Congresso
Internationale de Epigra f is Greca e Latina," Rome, 1957, p.
103; the article is included by the author in his "Scritti vari
di antichita," 1962, pp.681-691; Degrassi is of the opinion that
even the newly found calendar of Nola "is not later than the time
of Tiberius" (p.101).
A to H of the eight-day Roman "nundinum" market week and in the
left column the seven letters from A to G, representing the
seven-day planetary week. 27 In addition to these calendars
should be considered also several so-called "indices nundinarii"
(some of them dated in the early empire). 28 These give the name
of the towns and the corresponding days of the planetary week
(which always starts with Saturday - dies Saturni) on which the
market was to be held. In the light of these and other
indications, the archeologist Attilio Degrassi at the Third
International Congress of Greek and Roman Epigraphy (1957)
I wish to insist on my conviction that this planetary week
... did not become known and commonly used, as generally
believed, only in the first half of the first century A.D.,
but already in the first years o f the Augustan era [27
B.C.A.D.14] ... This is a conclusion that appears inevitable
after the discovery of the calendar of Nola. 29
27 That the letters from A to G stand for the seven days of the
planetary week, as stated by A. Degrassi (fn. 26), p.99, "has
been recognized long ago." This is proven by the fact that they
occur "for the whole year in the manuscript Philocalian Calendar
of A.D.354" (loc. cit.). Herbert Thurston explains the Sabine
calendars, saying: "when the Oriental seven-day period, or week,
was introduced, in the time of Augustus, the first seven letters
of the alphabet were employed in the same way as done for the
nundinae, to indicate the days of this new division of time. In
fact, fragmentary calendars on marble still survive in which both
a cycle of eight letters - A to H - indicating nundinae, and a
cycle of seven letters - A to G - indicating weeks, are used side
by side (see "Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum," 2nd ed., I, 220.
The same peculiarity occurs in the Philocalian Calendar of A.D.
356, ibid., p.256). This device was imitated by the Christians,
and in their calendars the days of the year from 1 January to 31
December were marked with a continuous recurring cycle of seven
letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G" ("The Catholic Encyclopedia," 1911,
S.V. "Dominical Letter").
28 A. Degrassi (fn. 26) pp.103-104; cf. CIL 12, 218; one has been
found in Pompeii and therefore it is prior to A.D.79, CIL IV,
8863; these calendars are also reproduced by A. Degrassi in his
recent edition of "Inscriptiones Italiae," 1963, XIII, ns. 49,
29 A. Degrassi (fn. 26), p.104, (emphasis supplied).
Subsequent indications of the widespread use of the planet-
ary week in the first century AD. are impressive. A brief listing
of them will suffice for our purpose. A stone calendar found in
Puteoli (dated first century A.D.) contains the date and name of
three planetary days; "[ Mercu]ri--[Wednesday], Jovis
-[Thursday], Veneris-[Friday]" 30 Apollonius of Tyana, a
renowned wonder-worker, according to his biographer Philostratus
(ca. A.D.170-245) in a trip he took to India between A.D.40-60,
received from Iarchas, an Indian sage, seven rings each named
after the "seven stars" and he wore them "in turn on the day of
the week which bore its name." 31
Petronius, a Roman satirist (died ca. A.D.66) in his novel
"The Banquet of Trimalchio" describes a stick calendar which
Trimalchio had affixed on the doorpost with the number of the
days on the side and "the likeness of the seven stars" on the
other side. A knob was inserted in the respective holes to
indicate the date and the day. 32 Sextus Julius Frontinus (ca.
A.D.35-103), a Roman soldier and writer, in his work "The
Stratagems," referring to the fall of Jerusalem of A.D.70, writes
that Vespasian "attacked the Jews on the day of Saturn, on which
it is forbidden for them to do anything serious and defeated
In Pompeii and Herculaneum there have been uncovered not
only two series of mural pictures of the seven planetary gods in
an excellent state of preservation 34 but also numerous
wall-inscriptions and graffiti either listing explicitly the
planetary gods of the week or giving the planetary name of the
day of a particular date. 35 A two-line mural inscription for
30 CIL X, part I, 199 (No. 1605).
31 Philostratus, "Life o f Apollonius of Tyana" 3, 41, LCL I, pp.
32 Petronius, "Satyricon" 30, LCL, p.45.
33 Frontinus, "Strategemata" 2, 1, 17, LCL, p.98; Dio Cassius'
account is strikingly similar: "Thus was Jerusalem destroyed on
the very day of Saturn, the day which even now the Jews reverence
most" (Historia 65, 7, LCL, p.271.
34 For a good reproduction of the Pompeiian painting of the
planetary gods see Erasmo Pistolesi, "Real Museo Borbonico,"
1836, VII, pp.116-130, plate 27; cf. "Le Pitture Antiche
d'Ercolano," "Real Accademia de Archeo logia," III, pp.257-263;
H. Roux Aine, "Herculanum et Pompei: recueil general des
peintures, bronzes, mosaiques," 1862, pp. 106-109; cf. J.
Hastings, "Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics," 1928, S.V.
35 CIL I, part 1, 342; CIL IV, part 2, 515, no. 4182; at
Herculaneum was found inscribed in Greek upon a wall a list
entitled "Day of the Gods" followed by the names of the seven
planetary deities in the genitive form, CIL IV, part 2, 582, no.
5202; cf. CIL IV, 712, no. 6779; see E. Schurer (fn. 20), pp.
27f.; R. L. Odom, "Sunday in Roman Paganism", 1944, pp.88-94.
reads: "the 9th day before the Kalends of June [May 24] the
Emperor . . . it was the day of the Sun." 36 Such evidence
erases all doubt of the widespread use of the planetary week
before A.D.79, the date of the destruction of Pompeii by the
eruption of Mt.Vesuvius.
A pictorial calendar found on the wall of the ruins of the
baths of Titus (A.D.79-81) deserves mention on account of its
originality. In a square frame there appear in the upper row the
pictures of the seven planetary gods. In the center are the
twelve signs of the zodiac representing the months and on the two
sides appear the numbers of the days, on the right the days I to
XV, and the left, the days XVI to XXX. Beside each of these there
are holes where knobs were inserted to indicate the month, the
number of the day and the protecting planetary god. Its location
in such a public building is indicative of its popular use.
Plutarch (ca. A.D.46 - after 119) the celebrated Greek
biographer, in a treatise entitled "Symposia," written in
question-and-answer form between A.D.100-125, poses the question:
"Why are not the days which have the names of the planets
arranged according to the order of the planets but the contrary?"
38 Unfortunately, only the title of this dialogue has been
preserved. However, the question per se implies not only that the
planetary week was commonly used by the end of the first century,
but also that apparently by then most people could not even
account for the differences between the current astronomical
order of the planets and that of the planetary week. 39
Numerous testimonies could be cited in support of the wide
use of the planetary week in subsequent centuries, but these
36 CIL IV, part 2, 717, no. 6338.
37 Attilio Degrassi, "Inscriptiones Italiae," 1963, XIII, pp.
308-309, plate 56; Troianus Marulli, "Sopra un'antica cappella
cristiana, scoperta di fresco in Roma nelle terme di Tito," 1813;
I. A. Guattani, "Memorie enciclope diche per il 1816, pp. 153f.
table 22; Antonius De Romanis, "Le Antiche camere esquiline,"
1822, pp.21, 59f.
38 "Plutarch's Complete Works," III, p.230.
39 According to the geocentric system of astronomy of that
period, the order of the planets was as follows: Saturn
(farthest), Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, and Moon
(nearest). In the planetary week, however, the days are named
after the planets in this sequence: Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars,
Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus; for a discussion, see R. L. Odom
(fn. 35), pp.11-17.
would be too late to be relevant to our research. 40 The above
brief listing of evidence shows conclusively that the planetary
week was known and used in ancient Rome at least since the
beginning of our Christian era. 41
The enhancement of the day of the Sun.
The contemporaneous existence of Sun worship and of the
planetary week suggests the possibility that with the development
of the former, the day dedicated to the Sun took on greater
importance. 42 This is corroborated by the process whereby the
primacy and prestige of the day of Saturn was transferred to that
of the Sun. In fact, initially the day of the Sun "had nothing to
distinguish it from the other days" 43 since it was the second
day of the week following Saturn-day which was the first. In
time, however, the day of the Sun came to occupy the first and
"most venerable" position.
The process which led to the enhancement of Sun-day at
40 R.L.Odom (fn.35), pp.54-124, surveys the evidences for the
planetary week till the third century A.D.
41 This conclusion is shared by several scholars; see F. H.
Colson (fn. 20), p.36: "Reviewing the evidence discussed above,
we see that the planetary week was known in some sense in the
Empire as early as the destruction of Pompeii and most people
will think a century earlier"; B. Botte, "Les Denominations du
dimanche dans la tradition chretienne," "Le Dimanche," Lex Orandi
39, 1965, p.16: "When Tibullus wrote his 'Elegy,' the use of the
planetary week had already entered the customs. But, considering,
on the one hand, the absence of any allusion prior to this date
and, on the other hand, the abundance of indications beginning
from the second century, we clearly see that the change took
place toward the beginning of the Christian era"; cf. H. Dumaine,
"Dimanche," DACL IV, 911.
42 F.H. Colson (fn. 41), p.75, rightly notes: "A religion in
which the supreme object of adoration was so closely connected if
not identified with the Sun, could hardly fail to pay special
reverence to what even non-Mithraists hailed as the Sun's-day."
43 W. Rordorf, "Sunday," p.35; note that initially the day of the
Sun was the second day of the planetary week, following the day
of Saturn which was first. This is clearly proved, for instance,
by several stone calendars (so-called indices nundinarii) where
the days of the week are given horizontally, starting with the
day of Saturn; see above fn. 28. In a mural inscription found in
Herculaneum the "Days of the Gods" are given in capital Greek
letters, starting with "kronou [of Saturn], Heliou [of Sun] ..."
(CIL IV, part 2, 582, no. 5202). A similar list was found in
Pompeii written in Latin and beginning with "Saturni [of Saturn]"
(CIL IV, part 2, 712, no. 6779). W. Rordorf, "Sunday," p.35,
rightly stresses this point: "It must, however, be emphasized
straight away that in the planetary week Sunday always occupied
only the second place in the sequence of days."
the expense of Saturn-day is difficult to trace because of the
lack of explicit information regarding what religious customs, if
any, were associated with either day. This may be due, partly at
least, to the Roman concept of religion as being social,
political and external. Religion was viewed, as V. Monachino
explains, "as a contract between the State and the gods" rather
than as a personal devotion expressed by participation in weekly
worship services. 44 The significant official religious
ceremonies were attended primarily by aristocrats and dignitaries
who displayed their religiosity merely by fulfilling external
This is not to belittle the preference the day of the Sun
received for social and religious purposes. Constantine in his
two constitutions of March 3 and July 3 A.D.321, by describing
the day of the Sun as "venerable-venerabilis" and as "famous for
its veneration--veneratione sui celebrem," 45 shows, as aptly
noted by Arthur Weigall, "that he was thinking of it as a
traditional sun-festival." 46 The veneration of the Sun,
however, seemingly did not require pagans to participate on
Sunday in special public Sun-worship services. 47 This matter is
illuminated by a statement of Tertullian found in his apology "To
the Pagans" (written in A.D.197). Replying to the taunt that
Christians were Sun-worshiper because "they prayed toward the
east" and "made Sunday, a day of festivity," he writes:
44 V. Monachino, "De persecutionibus in imperio Romano saec. I-IV
et de polemica pagano-christiana saec." II-III, Gregorian
University, 1962, p,147.
45 The text of the first law of March 3, 321 is found in "Codex
Justinianus" 111,12,3 and that of July 3, 321, in "Codex
Theodosianus" 11,8,1. Considering the fact that the necessity to
legislate on a social custom such as a day of rest, arises when
this endangers public welfare (as suggested by the exception made
for farmers), it is plausible to suppose that the veneration of
the day of the Sun was already a well-rooted tradition.
46 Arthur Weigall, "The Paganism in Our Christianity," 1928, p.
47 According to Eusebius, "The Life of Constantine" 4,18 and 20,
Constantine recommended that Christians, including the soldiers,
"attend the services of the Church of God." For the pagan
soldiers the Emperor prescribed a generic prayer to be recited on
Sunday in an open field. (cf. Sozomen, HE 1, 8,12). This imperial
injunction cannot be taken as an example of traditional pagan
Sunday worship, since the motivation of the legislation is
clearly Christian: "in memory ... of what the Saviour of mankind
is recorded to have achieved" (NPNF 2nd, 1, p.544). Moreover it
should be noted that the Constantinian law did not prohibit
agricultural or private activities but only public. This shows
that even at the time of Constantine the pagan observance of
Sunday was quite different from the Jewish keeping of the
What then? Do you do less than this? Do not many among you,
with an affectation of sometimes worshiping the heavenly
bodies likewise, move your lips in the direction of the
sunrise? It is you, at all events, who have even admitted
the sun into the calendar of the week; and you have selected
its day [Sunday] in preference of the preceding day
[Saturday] as the most suitable in the week for either an
entire abstinence from bath, or for its postponement until
the evening, or for taking rest and for banqueting. 48
This statement provides significant information: (1) it
indicates that at that time both Christians and pagans shared the
custom of praying toward the east and of spending Sunday as a
feast day; (2) it suggests that the Romans not only had adopted
the planetary week, but had also already selected Sunday in the
place of Saturn-day as their day of rest and feasting; (3) it
mentions the nature of the pagan Sunday-keeping, that is, a
social festival marked primarily by abstention from bathing,
idleness and banqueting.
When did the day of the Sun come to acquire such a festal
character in ancient Rome? No certain indications are available
to pinpoint the time. Pliny the Elder (died A.D.79) in his
Natural History writes that "in the midst of these planetary gods
moves the Sun, whose magnitude and power are the greatest . . .
he is glorious and preeminent, all-seeing and all-hearing." 49
Several "Mithraea" or sanctuaries of the pagan Sungod Mithra
have been found where the Sun occupies a dominant place in the
sequence of the planetary gods. In the "Mithraea" of the Seven
Portals and of the Seven Spheres (both excavated at Ostia, the
ancient port city of Rome) 50 as well as in the
48 Tertullian, "Ad Nationes" 1, 13, ANF III, p.123. W. Rordorf,
"Sunday," p.37, argues that Tertullian does not allude to the day
of the Sun but to that of Saturn, since he later speaks of Jewish
customs such as the Sabbath which pagans had adopted.
Unfortunately Rordorf fails to recognize that Tertullian responds
to the charge that Christians are Sunworshipers, first, by making
the pagans themselves guilty of having adopted the day and the
veneration of the Sun; and secondly, by showing them how they had
deviated from their tradition by adopting even Jewish customs
such as the Sabbath. For an analysis of the passage, see my
Italian dissertation, pp.446-449; F.A.Regan, "Dies Dominica," p.
35, recognizes that Tertullian refers to Sunday.
49 Pliny the Elder, "Naturalis historia" 2, 4, LCL, p.177.
50 Samuel Laechli, "Mithraism in Ostia," 1967, p.11,13,14,38-45,
72-73. The "Mithraeum" of the Seven Doors is dated A.D.160-170
while that of the Seven Spheres is dated late in the second
century. In the former, the Sun's "door" is the tallest and
widest; in the letter, the Sun's sphere is presumably the last;
see Leroy A. Campbell, "Mithraic Iconography and Ideology," 1968,
pp.300-307, figs. 19 and 20.
Bononia relief," the Sun occupies either the first or the last or
the highest place among the planetary gods. The Epicurean Celsus
(ca. A.D.140-180) similarly describes the famous Mithraic ladder
of the seven gates to be ascended by regenerated souls by
starting with Saturn and ending with the dominant Sun. 52 This
pre-eminence assigned to the "dies Solis"--Sunday, as F. Cumont
notes, "certainly contributed to the general recognition of
Sunday as a holiday." 53
That the day of the Sun enjoyed preeminence already by the
middle of the second century is clearly indicated by the famous
astrologer Vettius Valens. In his "Anthology" composed between
A.D.154 and 174; 54 in explaining how to find the day of the
week of any given birth date he explicitly states: "And this is
the sequence of the planetary stars in relation to the days
51 On the Bononia relief the planetary gods are placed on the
face of the tauroctone arch and they run counter clockwise from
Luna (Monday) at the right, followed by Mars (Tursday) and so on,
closing with Sol (Sunday) at the left; see F. Cumont, "Textes et
Monuments," 1886-1889, II, p.261 and I, p.119; cf. L. A. Campbell
(fn. 50), p.342.
52 In Origen, "Contra Celsum" 6,21-22. Celsus lists the planets
in the reverse order (Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars,
Moon, Sun) enabling the Sun to occupy a significant seventh
position. Note that though the arrangement of the gods of the
week-days may vary in Mithraic iconography, the sequential order
of the planetary deities is not disrupted and the Sun usually
occupies a preeminent position. Priscillian (ca. A.D.370)
provides a slightly different list but always with the Sun at the
top (Tractatus 1,15). In the Brigetio relief, however, the
planetary gods follow the regular sequence of the planetary week
from Saturn to Venus; see L. A. Campbell (fn. 50) plate XXXIII.
53 F. Cumont, "Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and
Romans," 1912, p.163; Cumont also comments: "Each day of the
week, the Planet to which the day was sacred was invoked in a
fixed spot in the crypt; and Sunday, over, which the Sun
presided, was especially holy" ("The Mysteries of Mithra," 1956,
p.167); cf. Textes (fn. 51) I, p.119: "The dies Solis was
evidently the most sacred of the week for the faithful of Mithra
and, like the Christians, they had to keep holy Sunday and not
the Sabbath" (cf. also p.325). A statement from Isidore of
Seville (ca. A.D.560-636) best summarizes the priority Sun
worship accorded to the day of the Sun: "The gods have arranged
the days of the week, whose names the Romans dedicated to certain
stars. The first day they called day of the Sun because it is the
ruler of all stars" ("Etymologiae" 5, 30 PL 82, 216).
54 The date is established by Otto Neugebauer and Henry B. Van
Hoesen, "Greek Horoscopes," 1959, p.177.
of the week: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn. 55
The preeminence of Sunday is also implied in Justin Martyr's
threefold reference to it in his I "Apology" 67. Why in his brief
exposition of the Christian worship did he mention three times
"the day of the Sun"? Why did he present the creation of light on
the first day as the first reason for the Christian Sunday
gathering? Apparently because the day was venerated by the
Romans. By associating Christian worship with both the day and
the symbolism of the pagan Sun, Justin, as we suggested earlier,
aimed at gaining from the Emperor a favorable appraisal of
Though not sufficiently explicit to establish the exact time
when the day of the Sun emerged as the first and most important
day of the week, these few indications do reveal however that it
occurred in concomitance with the development of Sun-worship
which became widespread beginning from the early part of the
If the day of the Sun, enhanced by the prevailing Sun-cult,
did supplant the day of Saturn in the Roman world by the
beginning of the second century, one may ask, did Christians, as
well expressed by B. Botte, "adapt the day of the Sun to the
Christian Sunday as they adapted the natalis invicti [December
25] making it the symbol of the birth of Christ Sun of
righteousness"?" In other words, could not the Christian adoption
of Sunday observance in place of the Sabbath be contemporaneous
and related to the emergence of the day of the Sun over that of
Saturn in the Roman world? We shall attempt to answer this
question first by briefly considering some general reflexes of
the Sun-cult in Christian thought and practice and then by
focusing on the specific influence of the pagan day of the Sun on
the Christian adoption of that day.
55 Vettius Valens, "Anthologiarum" 5, 10, ed. G. Kroll, p.26.
Robert L. Odom, "Vettius Valens and the Planetary Week," AUSS 3
(1965): 110-137 provides a penetrating analysis of the
calendations used by Vettius Valens and shows convincingly that
"Vettius Valens, who undoubtedly was a pagan, used the week of
seven days, [and] reckoned the seven-day week as beginning with
the day of the Sun (Sunday) and ending with 'the sabbatical day'
(Sabbath day)" (p.134); H. Dumaine "Dimanche" DACL IV, 912
defends the same view on the basis of different evidences; cf. W.
H. Roscher, "Planeten," "Allgemeines Lexikon der griech. and rom.
Mythologie," 1909, col. 2538.
56 B. Botte (fn. 41), p.21.
To be continued