FROM THE BOOK "SABBATH TO SUNDAY"
by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD
The Day of the Sun - the Origin of Sunday
The association between the Christian Sunday and the pagan
veneration of the Sun is not explicit before the time of Eusebius
(ca. A.D.260-340). Though Christ is often referred by earlier
Fathers as "True Light" and "Sun of Justice," 83 no deliberate
attempt was made for to Eusebius to justify Sunday observance by
means of symbology of the day of the sun. On the other hand
Eusebius several times refers explicitly to the motifs of the
light, of the sun and of the day of the Sun, to explain the
substitution of the Christian Sunday for the Jewish Sabbath.
For example, in his Commentary on Psalm 91 he writes:
The Logos has transferred by the New Alliance the
celebration of the Sabbath to the rising of the light. He
has given us a type of the true rest in the saving day of
the Lord, the first day of light ... In this day of light,
first day and true day of the sun, when we gather after the
interval of six days, we celebrate the holy and spiritual
Sabbaths ... All things whatsoever that were prescribed for
the Sabbath, we have transferred them to the Lord's day, as
being more authoritative and more highly regarded and first
in rank, and more honorable than the Jewish Sabbath. In
fact, it is on this day of the creation of the world that
God said: "Let there be light and there was light." It is
also on this day that the Sun of Justice has risen for our
82 Joseph A. Jungmann (fn. 76), p.151.
83 See above fn. 63.
84 Eusebius, "Commentaria in Psalmos" 91, PG 23, 1169-1172; cf.
below fn. 112.
Eusebius' two basic reasons for the observance of Sunday,
namely, the commemoration of the creation of light and of the
resurrection of the Sun of Justice, 85 are reiterated almost
verbatim by Jerome (ca. A.D.342-420), when he explains: "If it is
called day by the pagans, we most willingly acknowledge it as
such, since it is on this day that the light o f the world has
appeared and on this day the Sun of Justice has risen." 86
In a sermon attributed to Maximus of Turin (d. ca. A.D.
400-423) we find an extreme development. The very designation
"day of the Sun" is viewed as a proleptic announcement of the
resurrection of Christ:
We hold the day of the Lord to be venerable and solemn,
because on it the Savior, like the rising sun conquered the
darkness of the underworld and gleamed in the glory of the
resurrection. This is why the same day was called day of the
Sun by the pagans, because the Sun of Justice once risen
would have illuminated it. 87
These and similar texts where the meaning of and the
motivation for Sunday observance are explicitly interrelated to
the symbology of the day of the Sun, come to us from a later
period when Sunday was already well established. Since these
statements represent later admissions, can they be legitimately
utilized to ascertain the influence of the day of the Sun on the
origin of Sunday observance? We shall answer this ques-
85 Note that Justin Martyr, long before Eusebius, alludes to the
same two motivations (though not so explicitly) in his "I Apology
67," see above p.230 and below p.265.
86 Jerome, "In die dominica Paschae homilia" CCL 78, 550, 1, 52;
the same in Augustine, "Contra Faustum" 18,5; in "Sermo" 226, PL
38, 1099, Augustine explains that Sunday is the day of light
because on the first day of creation "God said, 'Let there be
light! And there was light. And God separated the light from
darkness. And God called the light day and the darkness night"
87 Maximus of Turin, "Homilia" 61, PL 57, 371; Gaudentius, Bishop
of Brescia (ca. A.D.400), "Sermo 9, De evangelica lectione" 2, PL
20, 916 and "De Exodo sermo" 1, PL 20, 845, explains that the
Lord's day became first in relationship to the Sabbath, because
on that day the Sun of righteousness has appeared, dispelling the
darkness of the Jews, melting the ice of the pagans and restoring
the world to its primordial order; Eusebius, "Life of
Constantine" 4, 18, NPNF 2nd, 1, p.544, explicitly states: "The
Savior's day which derives its name from light and from the sun";
cf. Hilary of Po"Expositio in Psalmos" 67, 34, PG 27, 303;
Ambrose, "Hexaemeron" 4,2,7; and "Epistula" 44, PL 16, 1138.
tion by raising another, namely, is it not possible, as remarked
by F.H.Colson, that "what the Christians of a later epoch wrote
may well have been said and thought by them of the earlier, even
if it was not written"? 88
Let us not forget that prior to the Edict of Milan (A.D.
313) Christians were an illegal minority forced to defend their
beliefs and practices from pagan accusations and influences. Ter-
tullian, we noticed, though he speaks of the day of the Sun which
both Christians and pagans celebrated, avoids using the
sun-symbology to justify the Christian Sunday seemingly for two
reasons: firstly because that would have supported the pagan
accusation that Christians were Sun-worshipers (a charge he
strongly resented); secondly, because he was cognizant of the
influence which pagan festivals still had on the Christians. 89
In his treatise "On Idolatry," for instance, he exclaims:
"How wicked to celebrate them [i.e. pagan feasts] among
Therefore, any attempt to associate the day of the Sun with
the Christian Sunday, at a time when the latter was still a young
institution, could have been readily misinterpreted by Christians
still susceptible to pagan influences. Besides, this would have
sanctioned existing pagan accusations. A century later, however,
when Sunday observance became well established, the Fathers, at
least some, did not hesitate to designate the Christian Sun as
"the true day of the Sun." 91
This denomination should not be regarded as "a new
apologetic technique," but rather an explicit admission of what
had been an implicit recognition. 92
Is it possible that even the Biblical notion of the sun and
of light predisposed Christians favorably toward the day and the
symbolism of the sun? It is a fact that there existed in Judaism
and in primitive Christianity a rich and long-standing
88 F.H.Colson (fn. 20), p.94.
89 See above fns. 48, 58 and 60.
90 Tertullian, "On Idolatry" 14, ANF III, p.70; Martin of Braga,
"De correctione rusticorum," ed. C.W.Barlow, 1950, p.189,
forcefully rebukes Christians, saying: "What madness it is
therefore, that one who has been baptized in the faith of Christ
should not worship on the Lord's day, the day on which Christ
rose from the dead, but says rather that he worships the day of
Jupiter and Mercury ... These have no day but were adulterers and
magicians ... and died in evil."
91 We found this to be true also in the case of Christmas. Only
later were Christians willing to explicitly admit the borrowing
of a pagan festival; see above fn. 72.
92 This point is well made by F.A.Regan, "Dies Dominica," p.157.
tradition which viewed the Deity as the True Light and the Sun of
Righteousness. 93 Malachi, for example, predicted that "the Sun
of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings" (4:2). 94
Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, announced the coming
of Christ, saying "the sunrising (Greek) from on high has visited
us, to give light to them that sit in darkness" (Luke 1:78-79).
John, both in his Gospel and in Revelation, repeatedly describes
Christ as "the light of men," "the light shining in darkness," 95
"the true light," 96 "a burning and shining lamp." 97 Even
Christ defined Himself as "the light of the world" 98 and urged
His followers to "believe in the light" in order "to become sons
of light." 99 The book of Revelation closes with the assurance
that in the new earth there will be no need of the sun because
"God will be their light." 100
The existence of two distinct traditions, one
Judaeo-Christian which associated the Deity with the Light and
the Sun, and the other pagan which venerated the Sun, especially
on Sun-day, could well have produced an amalgamation of ideas
within the Christian community. This process could have predis-
osed those Christians who had previously venerated the Sun and
who now needed to differentiate themselves from the Jewish
Sabbath, to adopt the day of the Sun for their weekly worship,
sine its symbology well exprpessed existing Christian views. Such
considerations were possibly encouraged by the valoriza-
93 For instance, Justin Martyr, "Dialogue" 121, ANF 1, p.260,
associates Christ with the Sun on the basis of Scriptural texts:
"The word of His truth and wisdom is more ardent and more
light-giving than the rays of the sun ... Hence also the
Scripture said, 'His name shall rise above the sun.' And again
Zechariah says, 'His name is the East.'"
94 Psalm 84:11 applies the title sun to God Himself: "For the
Lord God is a sun and a shield"; Psalm 72:17, alluding to the
Messiah, says "May his name endure forever, his fame continue as
long as the sun"; cf. Isaiah 9:2; 60:1-3, 19-20; Zechariah 3:8.
95 John 1:4-5.
96 John 1:9.
97 John 5:35.
98 John 8:12; cf. 9:4-5.
99 John 12:34.
100 Rev.22:4. In the inaugural vision John describes Christ's
face "like the sun shining in full strength" (Rev.1:16). Note
also that when Christ was transfigured before Peter, James and
John, it is said: "his face shone like the sun, and his garments
became white as light" (Matt.17:2). See F.A.Regan, "Die
Dominica," pp.157-163 for further texts and discussion.
tion in the Roman society of the day of the Sun in place of the
prededing day of Saturn. 101
It should be clearly stated, however, that by adopting the
day of the Sun, Christians did not intend to sanction and/or to
encourage the worship of the pagan "Sol invictus" (an insinua-
tion that Tertullian emphatically repudiates), 102 but rather to
commemorate on that day such divine acts as the creation of light
and the resurrection of the Sun of Righteousness. Both events,
they noticed, not only occurred on the day of the Sun, but could
also be effectively proclaimed through the rich symbology of the
Eusebius well exemplifies this in the passage we cited
earlier, where referring to the day of the Sun he writes, "It is
on this day of the creation of the world that God said. 'Let
there be light and there was light.' It is also on this day that
the Sun of Justice has risen for our souls." 103
In associating the creation of light and the resurrection of
Christ with the day of the Sun, Eusebius was expressing
explicitly what had been implicitly understood by many Christians
for a long time. We notice, for instance, that almost two
centuries earlier, Justin Martyr placed in juxtaposition the
creation of light and the resurrection of Christ with the day of
the Sum. 104 Why? Presumably because all three (creation of
light, resurrection of Christ and the day of the Sun) shared a
common denominator, namely, association with the Sun-Light of the
How did Christ's resurrection come to be associated with
sunrising? Apparently because, as we noted earlier, there existed
a Judaeo-Christian tradition which described the Deity by means
of the symbolism of the sun. Justin in his "Dialogue with Trypho"
cites several Old Testament passages to prove that Christ is
"more ardent and more light-giving than the rays of the sun." 105
This theme was undoubtedly encouraged by pre-
101 E. Lohse, "Greek" TDNT VII, p.29, fn. 228, admits this
possibility: "A contributory factor was undoubtedly the fact that
from the first century B.C., the seven-day week named after the
planets had been increasingly adopted in the Hellenistic-Roman
world. The day of Saturn was generally regarded as an unlucky
day, while Sunday which followed it was a particularly good day."
102 See above fn. 58.
103 Eusebius, "Commentaria in Psalmos" 91, PG 23, 1169-1172.
104 Justin, "I Apology" 67; the passage is quoted and discussed
105 Justin, "Dialogue" 121, see fn. 93.
vailing solar beliefs which Christians found to supply an
effective symbology to proclaim the Christian message. Melito of
Sardis (d. ca. A.D.190), for example, utilizes the common belief
of the daily baptism of the sun and stars in the ocean and of
their daily rising to disperse darkness, 106 to explain the
baptism and resurrection of Christ:
If the sun washes itself with the stars and the moon in the
ocean, why should not Christ have washed himself in the
Jordan? He, the king of the heavens and the chief of
creation, the Sun of the orient, who appeared both to the
dead in Hades and to the mortals in the world! He, the only
Sun who rose from heaven. 107
An earlier indication of the viewing of Christ's
resurrection as the rising of the sun, is provided by Ignatius
(ca.A.D.110) in his "Epistle to the Magnesians." Referring to
what we have concluded to be the Lord's life, he adds, "on [or
by] which also our life arose through him and his death" (9:1).
It has been noted that the Bishop here "uses a verb which is
regularly applied to the rising of the heavenly bodies [Greek]
and not that which is commonly used of the resurrection from the
dead [Greek]." 108 Should we regard this as purely coincidental?
B.Botte replies emphatically that "it is impossible." He then
raises a significant question: "If the resurrection of Christ is
presented by the image of a rising star, is it rash to think that
S.Ignatius intended to allude discreetly to the designation of
the day of the sun which had been given to Sunday?" 109
To conclude that Ignatius was referring to the day of the
Sun when he employed the verb commonly used for sunrising to
describe the resurrection is hazardous. The subject of the
immediate context, as we noticed, is the prophets who obviously
did not observe the day of the Sun. The fact however that
106 Macrobius, "Saturnal" 1, 9,9 speaks of the sun as "opening
the day in the orient and closing it in the occident"; Juvenal,
"Satirae" 14,280: "Herculeus heard the roaring sun in the bottom
of the sea" and "The sun roars when it rises as when a red hot
iron is immersed in water."
107 Melito of Sardis, "Fragment" VIIIb, 4, SC 123, p.233; Zeno of
Verona frequently uses solar metaphors to explain Christian
teachings. He compares the baptism of the neophytes to immersion
of the sun in the ocean and the rising of the sun to the immortal
glory promised to the believers (Liber II, 46, PL 11, 503A and
108 F.H.Colson (fn. 20), p.92.
109 B.Botte (fn. 41), p.21.
Ignatius views the resurrection of Christ as the sunrising,
suggests the possibility of an early amalgamation of ideas. In
other words, since Sunday was the day of the Sun and since
Christ's resurrection was viewed as the rising of the "Sun of
Justice," it would only take a short step for Christians to
associate the two. In fact, in their search for a day of worship
distinct from that of the Jews, Christians could well have viewed
the day of the Sun as a providential and valid substitution. Its
symbology fittingly coincided with two divine acts which occurred
on that day: the first creation of light and the rising of "the
Sun of the second creation." F.H.Colson rightly points out that
this coincidence could well have been regarded as
a proof that in this pagan institution the Divine Spirit had
been preparing the world for something better. In fact, the
devout convert might well rejoice to be able to put a
Christian construction on what had been a treasured
association of his pagan past. 110
These feelings we noticed are explicitly expressed at a
later date. Maximus of Turin views the pagan day of the Sun as
the prefiguration of the "Sun of Justice" who "once risen would
have illuminated it." 111 Eusebius similarly clearly states that
"the Savior's day ... derives its name from light, and from the
sun." 112 It is true that such bold admissions are not found in
earlier sources, but the earlier unwillingness of the Fathers to
acknowledge explicitly the adoption of the day of the Sun and/or
of its symbology can be satisfactorily explained, as we said
above, by the existing necessity to safeguard a recently
introduced institution. Today, for instance, Christians generally
do not fear to admit that their Christmas celebration (date,
lights, trees, gifts, etc.) derives from the pagan festivity of
the "Natalis Solis Invicti." Why? Undoubtedly because such an
admission would hardly tempt any Christian to commemorate the
birth of the Sun-god rather than that of Christ. For early
Christian converts from paganism however, the situation was
altogether different. Any explicit acknowledgment that pagan
dates and symbols had been borrowed to commemorate Christ's birth
and resurrection could readily have encouraged many Christians to
relapse (as actually happened) into their recently abandoned
110 F.H.Colson (fn. 20), p.93.
111 Maximus of Turin, "Homilia" 61, PL 57, 371.
112 Eusebius, "Life of Constantine" 4, 18, NPNF 2nd, I, p.544.
pagan practices. It was therefore this danger of "paganizing" a
recently "Christianized" pagan festivity that led the Fathers,
initially at least, to avoid, as a precautionary measure,
establishing an explicit interdependence between the Christian
Sunday and the pagan day of the Sun.
In this chapter we have found that all the necessary ing-
redients for the day of the Sun to influence the origin of Sunday
observance were already present when the latter made its
Various Sun-cults were predominant in ancient Rome by the
early part of the second century. That these attracted the
imagination and interest of Christian converts from paganism, we
found evidenced by the development of the theme of Christ-
the-Sun, and by the adoption of the eastward orientation for
prayer and of the date of the 25th of December. The existence of
a rich Biblical tradition which associated the deity with the Sun
and Light seemingly facilitated, if it did not encourage such an
amalgamation of ideas.
The valorization of the day of the Sun over that of Saturn,
as a result of the diffusion of the Sun-cults, possibly oriented
Christians (who desired to differentiate themselves from the
Sabbath of the Jews) toward such a day. 113 This choice how
ever, it must be stated again, was not motivated by their desire
to venerate the Sun-god on his day, but rather by the fact that
its symbology could fittingly commemorate two important events of
the history of salvation - creation and resurrection "it is on
this day that the Light of the World has appeared and on this day
that the Sun of Justice has risen." 114 Moreover,
113 Several scholars support this conclusion: Franz Cumont (fn.
53), p.163, affirms: "The preeminence assigned to the "dies
solis" also certainly contributed to the general recognition of
Sunday as a holiday"; P.Cotton (fn. 72), p.130, similarly notes:
"It cannot be denied that the pagan use of Sun-day has had an
appreciable effect upon Christianity in bringing the Christian
Sun-day into preeminence in the Church as the sole day of
worship"; cf. F.H.Colson (fn. 20), p. VI; O.Cullman (fn. 75)
acknowledges the association between the resurrection and the day
of the Sun by the middle of the second century - "From the middle
of the second century the term 'Sunday' occurs for the former
'Lord's Day' This means that the Christians' thought about the
redemptive act of the resurrection of Christ ... had already
become associated with the symbolism of the sun." Cullmann,
however, fails to prove that the designation "Lord's day" is
prior to that of "Sunday."
114 Jerome, "In die dominica Paschae homilia," CCL 78, 550, 1,
the day of the Sun enabled Christians to explain also the
Biblical mysteries to the pagan world by means of an effective
symbology that was very familiar to them.
Our investigation into the origin of Sunday observance has
so far focused on two maior contributory factors.
The first, anti-Judaism, which appears to have caused a
widespread devaluation and repudiation of the Sabbath, thereby
creating the exigency of a new day of worship.
The second, the development of Sun-cults with the consequent
enhancement of the day of the Sun over that of Saturn a
contingency which apparently oriented Christians toward such a
day, since it provided an adequate symbolism to commemorate
significant divine acts. However, no adequate consideration has
yet been given to the theological motivations or Sunday
observance presented in the early Christian literature. Since
these provide additional insights into this complex question of
the origin of Sunday we shall now direct our attention to them
before drawing a final conclusion.
To be continued