FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY
THE THEOLOGY OF SUNDAY
by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD
What are the basic theological motivations advanced by the
early Fathers to justify both the choice and the observance of
Sunday? Were they developed out of Biblical-apostolic teachings
or were they elicited by the existing need to silence opposition
coming from Sabbath-keepers? Do the early theological
explanations reflect an organic and positive view of Sunday
observance or theological uncertainty and polemic? These are
questions we shall bear in mind while surveying the theological
reasons adduced by the Fathers to justify Sunday worship. Such an
analysis hopefully will enable us to test the validity of the
conclusions emerging from our study.
The major motives for Sunday observance which appear in the
early patristic literature perhaps can be best grouped around
three basic headings: Resurrection, Creation and Symbology of the
Eighth day. We shall examine them in this order, bearing in mind
that the theological reflections are not static but dynamic,
evolving in the course of time.
In chapter III we already showed that no indication can be
found in the apostolic period of efforts made to institute a
weekly or yearly commemoration of the resurrection on Sunday.
Nevertheless it is a fact that the resurrection did become the
dominant reason for Sunday abservance. Augustine((A.D.354-430)
perhaps provides the most explicit enunciation of the
resurrection as the reason for the origin of Sunday, when he
writes, "The Lord's day was not declared to the Jews but to the
Christians by the resurrection of the Lord and from that
event its festivity had itsorigin." 1 In another epistle the
Bishop of Hippo similarly states that "the Lord's day has been
1 Augustine, "Epistula" 55, 23, 1, CSEL 34, 194.
preferred to the Sabbath by the faith of the resurrection." 2
This concise and explicit recognition of the resurrection as
the CAUSE of the origin of Sunday observance represents the cul-
mination of long theological reflection.
Early in the second century the resurrection is not
presented as the first or the sole motivation for Sunday
observance. Ugnatius, we have found, alludes to Christ's
resurrection in his "Epistle to the Magnesians," when speaking of
the "divine prophets who lived according to Jesus Christ" (8:2).
He says that they "attained a new hope, no longer sabbatizing but
living according to the Lord's life, on [or by] which also our
life rose up through his death" (9:1). The probative value of the
resurrection for Sunday observance is rather negligible in this
text, both because the reference to the resurrection of Christ is
indirect and because we have shown earlier that Ignatius is not
contrasting days but rather ways of life. 3
In the "Epistle of Barnabas" (ca. A.D.135) we found that the
resurrection is mentioned by the author as the second of two
reasons, important but not dominant. The first reason, which we
shall consider subsequently, is eschatological in nature. Sunday,
which he designates as the "eighth day" is the prolongation of
the Sabbath of the end of time and marks, "the beginning of
another world" (15:8).
The second reason is that Sunday is the day "on which Jesus
also (Greek) rose from the dead, and having shown Himself
ascended to heaven" (15:9). The resurrection of Jesus is
presented here as an additional justification, presumably because
it was not yet viewed as the primary reason for Sunday
In Justin Martyr (ca. A.D.150) the situation is strikingly
similar. Like Barnabas he displays a profound antagonism towards
Judaism and the Sabbath. In "I Apology" Justin, like Barnabas,
presents the resurrection as the second of two reasons:
2 Augustine, "Epistula" 36, 12, 14, CSEL 34, 4.
3 The passage is discussed above pp 213f.
4 In Barnabas, the material cause of the origin of Sunday is the
exigency to break with Judaism (see above pp. 218f.) of which the
Sabbath was a chief stronghold. The formal cause, on the other
hand, is the fact that the eighth day represents eschatologically
the beginning of the new world and in the present age it
commemorates the risen Christ. The resurrection is not viewed as
the first cause but as the second of two reasons.
Sunday, indeed, is the day on which we all hold our common
assembly because it is the first day on which God,
transforming the darkness and [prime] matter, created the
world; and our Saviour Jesus Christ arose from the dead on
the same day. 5
For Justin "the primary motivation for the observance of
Sunday," as W. Rordorf admits, "is to commemorate the first day
of the creation of the world and only secondarily, in addition,
the resurrection of Jesus." 6 It is noteworthy that both
Barnabas and Justin who lived at the very time when Sunday
worship was rising, present the resurrection as a secondary
motivation for Sunday-keeping, apparently because initially this
was not yet viewed as the fundamental reason. Nevertheless, the
resurrection of Christ did emerge as the primary reason or the
observance of Sunday. Several liturgical practices were in fact
introduced to honor its memory specifically. The Lord's supper,
for instance, writes Cyprian (d. ca. A.D.258), "though partaken
by Christ in the evening... we celebrate it in the morning on
account of the resurrection of the Lord." 7 Similarly, "fasting
and kneeling in worship on the Lord's day," according to
Tertullian (ca. A.D.160-225), were regarded as "unlawful." 8
Though he gives no explicit reason for these practices, 9
(undoubtedly well understood by his contemporaries) other Fathers
clearly explain that these were designed to aid in remembering
Christ's resurrection. Augustine (A.D.354-430) for instance,
explicitly states that on Sunday "fasting is interrupted and
we pray standing, because it is a sign of the resurrection." 10
5 Justin, "I Apology" 67,5-7, Falls, Justin's Writings, pp.
106-107. These are not the only motivations, since we noticed
that in his polemic with Jews and Jewish Christians Justin argues
for Sunday observance on the basis of the eighth day of the
circumcision and of the eight persons saved from the flood; see
6 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.220.
7 Cyprian, "Epistola" 63, 15, CSEL 3,2,714; Jerome, "Commentarius
in epistola ad Galatos" 4, 10, PL 26, 404-405, extends the symbol
of the resurrection to the daily celebration of the Eucharist as
8 Tertullian, "De corona" 3, 4, ANF 111, p.94.
9 The reason is suggested by Tertullian in his treatise "On
Prayer" 23, ANF III, p,689 where he admonishes to stand for
prayer on "the day of the Lord's Resurrection" and "in the period
of Pentecost" because both festivities were distinguished "by the
same solemnity of exultation."
10 Augustine, "Epistola" 55, 28, CSEL 34, 202; cf. Epistola 36,
2, CSEL 34,32; the same reason is given by Hilary of Poitiers,
"Praefatio in Psalmum 12, PL 9, 239; Basil, "De Spiritu Sanctu"
27, 66, SC p. 236 explains that the standing position during the
Sunday service helps to remember the resurrection. However, he
comments that the origin of the custom is veiled in mystery; cf.
"Apostolic Constitution" 2, 59, ANF VII, p. 423 "We pray thrice
on Sunday standing in memory of Him who arose in three days."
It appears therefore that initially Christ's resurrection
was not felt to be the exclusive or the preponderant
justification for Sunday worship, but it did emerge rather early
as the dominant reason which inspired several liturgical
practices. 11 We need, then, to recognize and evaluate the role
played by other theological motives as well.
The commemoration of the anniversary of the creation of the
world is a justification often adduced by the Fathers for
observing Sunday. We notice above that Justin Martyr in his "I
Apology 67" presents this as the primary reason for the
Christian Sunday gathering: "Sunday, indeed, is the day on which
we hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which
God, transforming darkness and prime matter, created the world."
In our previous discussion of this passage, we concluded
that Justin's allusion to the creation of light on the first day
seems to have been suggested by its analogy with the day of the
Sun. The statement, however, indicates that even the inauguration
of creation on the first day per se was viewed as a valid
justification for the Christian weekly gathering. F.A.Regan
points out that Justin's creation motif found in chapter
sixty-seven is "evolved from the opening lines of chapter
fiftynine where he unfolds the simple account of the original
creation of light and the world." 12 The beginning of creation
on the first day of the week is associated by Justin with the
resurrection of Christ, apparently because both events occurred
on the same day and could be symbolically linked together as
representing the beginning of the old and of the new creation.
11 The fact that in the mind of many Fathers Easter-Sunday and
weekly Sunday were regarded as one basic festival commemorating
at different times the same event of the resurrection (see above
pp.204f.) suggests the possibility that both of these originated
contemporaneously, possibly in the early part of the second
century in Rome (see above pp.198f.).
12 F.A.Regan, "Dies Dominica," p.86.
Justin's effort to establish a nexus between creation and
resurrection was not an isolated attempt. We noticed earlier
the testimonies of Eusebius and Jerome where the two events are
explicitly linked together. 13 Ambrose (ca. A.D.339-397)
Bishop of Milan, also echoes this teaching in a hymn of
praise to Sunday where he says: "On the first day the blessed
Trinity created the world or rather the resurgent Redeemer who
conquered death, liberated us." 14 This link between creation
and resurrection is found even more explicitly in a sermon of
Eusebius of Alexandria(ca. A.D.500):
The holy day of Sunday is the commemoration of the Lord. It
is called Lord's (Greek) because it is the Lord (Greek) of
all days....It was on this day that the Lord established the
foundation of the creation of the world and on the same day
He gave to the world the first-fruits of the resurrection
.... This day is therefore for us the source of all
benefits; the beginning (Greek) of the creation of the
world, the beginning of the resurrection, the beginning of
the week. Since this day contains three beginnings, it
prefigures the principle of the Trinity. 15
Additional patristic testimonies could be cited where the
inauguration of creation on the first day is presented and
defended as a valid justification for the observance of Sunday.
This view raises an important question: Why would Christians
claim that Sunday commemorated creation, when in the Old
Testament and in Jewish thinking this was regarded as an ex-
l3 See above p.262.
14 M.Britt, "The Hymns of the Roman Breviary and Missal," 1948,
p.91; Britt attributes the hymn to Pope Gregory the Great while
J.Danielou to Ambrose ("Bible and Liturgy," p.249).
15 Eusebius of Alexandria, "De die Dominico," PA 86, 416.
16 See, for instance, Gregory of Nazianzus, "Oratio 44 In novam
Dominicam," PG 36, 612: "As the first creation began on the
Lord's Day (this is clearly indicated by the fact that the
Sabbath falls seven days later, being repose from work), so the
second creation began on the same day"; Dionysius of Alexandria,
"Analecta sacra spicilegio solesmensi" 4, ed. J.B.Pitra, 1883, p.
421: "God Himself has instituted Sunday the first day both of
creation and also of resurrection: on the day of creation He
separated light from darkness and on the day of the resurrection
He divided belief from unbelief"; the author known as the
Ambrosiaster, "Liber quaestionum veteris et novi testamenti" 95,
2, CSEL 50, 167, proposes a variation on the same theme: "In fact
the world was created on Sunday and since it fell after creation,
again it was restored on Sunday... In the same day He both
resurrected and created."
clusive prerogative of the Sabbath? That this was well understood
by early Christians is exemplified by the clear differentiation
made between creation and resurrection by those who observed both
Saturday and Sunday. In the "Apostolic Constitutions" (ca A.D.
380), for instance Christians are enjoined to keep the Sabbath
and the Lord's day festival: "The Sabbath on account of creation,
and the Lord's day of the resurrection." 17
Was perhaps the transference of the commemoration of
creation from the Sabbath to Sunday a calculated attempt to
deprive the Sabbath of its theological "raison d'dtre?" Was the
creation motive attributed to Sunday in order to silence
Sabbath-keepers who were defending the superiority of the Sabbath
on account of its commemoration of the completion of creation?
The echo of this controversy reverberates in several testimonies.
In the "Syriac Didascalia" (ca. A.D.250), for instance, the terms
of the dispute are most explicit:
Cease therefore, beloved brethren, you who from among the
people have believed, yet desire still to be tied with
bonds, and say that the Sabbath is prior to the first day of
the week because the Scripture has said: "In six days did
God make all things; and on the seventh day he finished all
his works, and he sanctified it."
We ask you now, which is first, Alaf or Tau? For that (day)
which is the greater is that which is the beginning of the
world, even as the Lord our Saviour said to Moses: "In the
beginning God created the heaven and the earth." 18
17 "Apostolic Constitutions" 8, 33, 1, ANF VII, p.495; cf. ibid.
7, 36, 1, ANF VII, p.474: "O Lord Almighty, Thou has created the
world by Christ, and has appointed the Sabbath in memory thereof,
because that on that day Thou hast made us rest from our works,
for the meditation upon Thy laws"; Ignatius, "Epistle to the
Magnesians 9" (longer version), ANF 1, p.62: "But let every one
keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in the
meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring
the workmanship or the works of creation of God."
18 "Syriac Didascalia" 26, ed. Connolly, p.233; other interesting
arguments are submitted to prove the superiority of Sunday over
the Sabbath. For instance, the author argues that when the first
day Sunday was made, "the seventh day was yet unknown ... Which
is greater, that which had come into being, and existed, or that
which was yet unknown, and of which there was no expectation that
it should come to be?" Another argument is drawn from the
priority enjoyed by the firstborn in the paternal blessings: "Are
your last children blessed, or the firstborn? As the Scripture
also saith: "Jacob shall be blessed among the firstborn"; the
author then argues for the superiority of Sunday by quoting
Barnabas 6:13: "Behold, I make the first things as the last and
the last as the first" and Matthew 20:16: "The last shall be
first, and the first last"; he concludes by referring to the
contention that Sunday as the "ogdoad [i. e. eighth day] ... is
more than the Sabbath" (Connolly, pp.234-236). The variety and
bizarre nature of these arguments is indicative of an ongoing
polemic between Sabbath and Sunday-keepers, as well as of an
effort put forth by both sides to defend the superiority of their
respective day of worship.
The issue of the controversy is precise. Jewish converts,
some at least, were claiming superiority for the seventh-day
Sabbath on the ground that the day symbolized the completion of
creation. Sunday-keepers, on the other hand, refuted such an
argument by arguing that Sunday is superior to the Sabbath
inasmuch as being the first day it commemorates the anniversary
of creation. This reasoning appears again, though in a more
refined theological form, in the treatise "On the Sabbath and
Circumcision," found among the works of Athanasius (ca. A.D.
296-373), but probably spurious. The author, rather than arguing
for the superiority of Sunday by means of the dualism,
anniversary versus completion of creation, presents the two days
as symbols of two successive creations:
The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord's
day was the beginning of the second in which He renewed and
restored the old. In the same way as He prescribed that they
should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end
of the first things, so we honor the Lord's day as being the
memorial of the new creation. Indeed, He did not create
another one, but He renewed the old and completed what He
had begun to do. 19
Sabbath and Sunday are curiously contrasted here as symbols
of the old and new creation. The superiority of Sunday is
established by virtue of the nature of the "second creation which
has no end," contrary to the first creation commemorated by the
Sabbath which "has ended" with Christ. Moreover, since the new
creation "renewed and restored the old one," it incorporated the
Sabbath and its meaning. By this clever, yet artificial,
theological construction, the Sabbath is made a temporary
institution "given to the former people [i.e. the Jews], so that
they would know the end and the beginning of creation." 20
This notion of the Sabbath, as announcer of the end of
19 Athanasius, "De sabbatis et circumcisione" 4, PG 28, 138 BC.
20 Loc. cit.
the first and the beginning of the second creation, is totally
foreign to the Scriptures. To claim, for instance, that God by
resting on the Sabbath "from all His works wishes to say by this
that His works need the completion that He Himself has come to
bring," 21 is to misconstrue the actual meaning of the divine
"otiositas" - rest. In the creation story God's Sabbath rest
symbolizes specifically the completion and perfection of
What caused some Christians to devise such an artificial and
unscriptural doctrine of two successive creations? In the light
of the existing polemic, reported by documents such as the
"Didascalia," it would seem that this clever apologetic argument
was evoked by the necessity to refute the Sabbath-keepers' claim
of the superiority of the Sabbath as memorial of creation. 23
In the ongoing polemic, the symbology of the first day
apparently provided an effective instrument to defend the new day
of worship from the attacks of both pagans and Sabbath keeping
Christians. To the pagans, Christians could explain that on the
day of the Sun they did not venerate the Sun-god but rather they
celebrated the creation of the light and the rise of the Sun of
Righteousness, events which occurred on the first day. To
Sabbath-keepers they could show that the first day is
22 J. Danielou, "Le Dimanche comme huitieme jour," "Le Dimanche,
Lex Orandi" 39, 1965, p.62: "In the Old Testament ... the Seventh
Day is the expression of perfection"; Niels-Erik A.Andreasen,
"The Old Testament Sabbath" SBL Diss. Series 7, 1972, p.196: "We
must remind ourselves that it is not the rest (cessation from
work) which concludes creation, but it is the concluded creation
which occasions both rest and the Sabbath"; on the seventh day as
symbol of totality, completion and perfection, see Nicola
Negretti, I"I Settimo Giorno," Analecta Biblica 55, 1973, pp.
23 Another interesting variation of the creation argument is the
interpretation of the first day, not as the anniversary of the
creation of the world but of the generation of Christ. This idea
appears in Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D.150-ca. 215) for whom
"the seventh-day, by banishing evils, prepares the primordial
day, our true rest." This first day of creation is allegorically
interpreted as "the Word illuminating hidden things," since on
that day "He who is the light was brought forth first of all"
(Stromateis 6,16, GCS 2, 501-502); Eusebius elaborates this
concept by explaining that on the first day only light was
created, since "there was no other creation that would befit the
Word" ("Commentaria in Psalmos," PG 23, 1173-1176). This concept
of the generation of the Word on the first day, which most
Christians today would reject as subordinationism, must be
regarded as another ingenious attempt to devise a viable
theological justification for the observance of Sunday.
superior to the seventh, because the day commemorated the
beginning of creation, the anniversary of the new creation and
the generation of Christ. These were by no means the sole
arguments advanced to justify Sunday observance. The symbology of
the eighth day provided another valuable arsenal of apologetic
techniques to defend the superiority of Sunday over the Sabbath.
These we shall consider now in order to gain additional
information on the motivations for the adoption of Sunday.
The Eighth Day
The speculations on the meaning of the first day have
already made us aware of how important numerical symbolism was
for early Christians. This type of symbolism, alien to modern
thought, provided early Christian preachers and theologians with
practical and yet profound argumentations that captivated much of
the thinking of Christian antiquity. Since the Sabbath was the
seventh day of the Jewish week, Sunday could be considered, as
stated by Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D.329-389), as "the first day
with reference to those that followed and as the eighth day with
regard to those that preceded." 24 The latter designation for
Sunday, as we shall discover, was employed far more frequently
than the former in the Christian literature of the first five
The irrationality of an eighth day in a seven-day week did
not seem to bother the ancients. An explanation is suggested by
the prevailing custom, still common in countries like Italy, to
reckon a week by counting inclusively from any given day to the
same day of the following week. For instance, an Italian will
often set an appointment on a Sunday for the following Sunday not
by saying, "I will meet you a week from today," but rather "oggi
otto-eight days today" since both Sundays are counted. By the
same principle the Romans called their eight-day marked cycle
"nundinum-ninth day." That this method of inclusive reckoning was
used by Christians is indicated by several patristic testimonies.
Tertullian (ca. A.D.160-ca. 225), for instance, writes that
pagans celebrated the same festival only once a year, but
Christians "every eighth day," meaning every Sunday.
24 Gregory of Nazianzus, "Oratio" 44 "In novam Dominicam," PG 36,
612C - 613A.
25 Tertullian, "On Idolatry" 14, ANF III, p. 70; "Syriac
Didascalia" 26, connolly, p.236: "But the Sabbath itself is
counted even unto the Sabbath, and it becomes eight [days]; thus
an ogdoad is [reached], which is more than the Sabbath, even the
first of the week"; it is not clear how the eighth day could be
applied to Sunday, when the number is derived by counting from
Sabbath to Sabbath; see below p.290; Justin, "Dialogue" 41, ANF
I, p.215: "For the first day after the Sabbath, remaining the
first of all the days, is called, however, the eigth, according
to the number of all the days of the cycle"; cf."Dialogue" 138.
To be continued