FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY
by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD
The third crucial New Testament passage widely used to
defend the apostolic origin of Sunday observance is found in the
book of Revelation. John, exiled on the island of Patmos "on
account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Rev.
1:9), writes: "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day--"Greek"
(Rev.1:10). The importance of this text derives from the fact
that, as claimed by R.H.Charles, "this is the first place in
Christian literature where the Lord's day is mentioned." 64 It
is to be observed that the Seer does not use the expression "day
of the Lord--Greek " which is uniformly found in the Septuagint
and the New Testament to translate the Old Testament "yom YHWH,"
but a different phrase, "Lord's day--"Greek" What is the meaning
of this new formula?
The problem is to establish in the light of this text and of
its context, whether John was "caught away by the power of the
Spirit into an ecstasy" 65 on a Sunday "at a time when," as held
by O.Cullmann, "the Christian community was gathered together" 66
to worship, or whether the expression carries a different
meaning. The former represents indeed the prevailing
interpretation.67 Wilfrid Stott, to cite one, in a recent
article concludes that "Revelation 1:10 must be taken as the
first example of the Christian name for the first day of the
week, the day of Christian worship." 68 However at least two
other possible interpretations of the phrase "Lord's day" have
been recognized and defended by other scholars. Recently so have
suggested that the words refer not to the ordinary Sunday but to
Easter-Sunday and that it was at the time of this annual found
celebration of the resurrection that John found himself rapt in
the Spirit. 69 A third interpretation is that the words are the
64 R.H.Charles, "The Revelation of St.John," ICC, 1920, p.23.
For later testimonies to the use of "Lord's day" for Sunday, see
above p.17, fn. 1.
65 This translation is by Isbon T. Beckwith, "The Apocalypse of
John," 1967, p.435.
66 O.Cullmann (fn. 38), p.7; cf. Martin Kiddle, "The Revelation
of St.John," 1940, p.11, who maintains that "in mentioning the
time of his vision, the Lord's day, John is once again quietly
emphasizing a common participation in the Christian life."
67 Cf. E.B.Allo, "L'Apocalypse" 1933, p.11: "The 'Lord's day' is
not the great 'Day of Yahweh' where the Prophet found himself
transported in spirit ... but rather Sunday, the day of the
Resurrection of the Lord"; Henry Barclay Swete, "The Apocalypse
of St.John," 1906, p.13; Isbon T. Beckwith (fn. 65), p.435; E.
Lohmeyer, Die Offenbarung des Johannes, 1953, p.15; T.F.Glasson,
"The Revelation o f John," 1965, p.21; E.A.Dowell, "The Meaning
of the Book of Revelation," 1951, p.31; J. Bonsirven,
"L'Apocalypse," 1951, p.95; D. Mollat, "La liturgia
nell'Apocalisse," "Studi Biblici Pastorali" 2 (1967):136-146.
68 W. Stott, "A Note on the Word KYRIAKH in Rev. 1:10," NTS 13
69 A.Strobel, "Die Passah-Erwartung in Lk 17:20," Zeitschrift fur
die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft" 49 (1958):185, writes that
the expression "Lord's day" in Rev.1:10 "certainly does not
merely mean any ordinary Sunday... but 16 Nisan;" cf. also C. W.
Dugmore (fn. 45), p.279; J. van Goudoever, "Biblical Calendars"
1961/2, pp.169f; and from a different perspective K.A.Strand,
"Another Look at the Lord's Day in the Early Church and Rev.
1:10," NTS 13 (1967):174-181.
equivalent of "the day of the Lord" of the Old Testament,
understood as the eschatological day of Christ's "parousia" and
judgment. 70 In this case the Seer finds himself transported by
the Spirit into the circumstances of that glorious day and from
that vantage point he is shown by prophetic symbols the events
preceding and following Christ's coming. A brief survey of the
evidences marshaled in support of each of these three
interpretations is necessary before drawing any conclusive
statement on the meaning of the word.
The equation of Sunday with the expression "Lord's day" is
based not on internal evidences of the book of Revelation or of
the rest of the New Testament, but basically on three
second-century patristic testimonies, namely, "Didache" 14:1,
Ignatius' "Epistle to the Magnesians" 9:1, and "The Gospel of
Peter" 35; 50. Of the three, however, only in the "Gospel of
Peter" is Sunday unmistakably designated by the technical term
"Lord's--Greek." In two different verses it reads: "Now in the
night in which the Lord's day (Greek) dawned ... there rang out a
loud voice in heaven" (v.35); "Early in the morning of the Lord's
day (Greek) Mary Magdalene ... came to the sepulchre" (v.50,51).
In this apocryphal Gospel, dated in the second half of the second
century, 71 the use of the abbreviated form "Lord's" without the
noun "day--Greek" implies, as L.Vaganay rightly observes, "une
facon courante," 72 that is, a common usage of the term.
70 Fenton J.A. Hort, "The Apocalypse of St.John," 1908, p.15; A.
Deissmann, "Lord's Day," "Encyclopedia Biblica," III, p.2815; J.
B.Lightfoot, "The Apostolic Fathers," 1885, II, p.129; E. W.
Bullinger, "The Apocalypse" 1935, pp.9-14; Philip Carrington,
"The Meaning of the Revelation," 1931, pp.77-78; William
Milligan, "The Book o f Revelation," 1940, p.13; Louis Talbot,
"The Revelation of Jesus Christ," 1960, pp.19-20; John F.
Walvoord, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ," 1966, p.42; Clark's
"Foreign Theological Library," 1851, XXII, p.89; Walter Scott,
"Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ," 1948, p.36; cf.
also the Commentaries of Wetstein, Zullig, Maitland and Todd on
the Apocalypse, in loc. Others incorporate the eschatological
motif in the Sunday worship, cf. A.Feuillet, "L'Apocalypse,"
1962, p.71; O.Cullmann (fn, 66), pp.12-15; W. Stott (fn. 68), p.
71 Cf. Edgar Hennecke, "New Testament Apocrypha," 1969, I, p.
180: "at the latest the second half of the second century, since
Serapion dates this gospel back about a generation at least"; cf.
also P.Gardner-Smith, "The Date of the Gospel of Peter," "Journal
of Theological Studies" 27 (1976):401f.; Johannes Quasten,
"Patrologia," 1967, I, p.108.
72 L. Vaganay, "L'Evangile de Pierre," 1930,2 p.292.
In "Didache" 14:1 and in "The Epistle to the Magnesians"
9:1, as we had occasion to show elsewhere, 73 the adjective
"Lord's--Greek " does not seem to qualify or imply the noun
"day--Greek." In the first instance it expresses the manner of
73 These crucial passages are analyzed in my Italian
dissertation, "Un Esame dei testi biblici e patristici dei primi
quattro secoli allo scopo d'accertare it tempo e le cause del
sorgere delta domenica come Giorno del Signore," Pontificia
University Gregoriana, 1974, pp.99-120; cf. also the fifth
chapter of the dissertation, published under the title, "Anti-
Judaism and the Origin of Sunday," 1975, pp.90-93. The passage of
Ignatius is also examined below, see pp.213-17. The crucial
passage of "Didache" 14:1 translated literally reads: "On (or
according to) the Lord's of the Lord (Greek) come together, break
bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions
that your offering may be pure." The expression "Lord's of the
Lord" is enigmatic and three basic solutions have been proposed
to clarify its meaning (1) J.B.Audet replaces the "Lord's--Greek"
by the word "day--Greek," translating the passage: "On the day of
the Lord come together...." ("La Didache, Instruction des
Apotres," 1958, p.460); (2) C.W.Dugmore argues that "since every
Sunday is the Lord's Day, the Sunday of the Lord can only mean
the Sunday on which he rose from the dead, i. e., Easter-Sunday"
(fn. 45, p.276); (3) Jean Baptiste Thibaut shows persuasively
that "Lord's--Greek" is used as an adjective and not as a
substantive and that the issue is not the time but the manner of
the celebration of the Lord's Supper: "If it was a question of
time, in that case the genius of the Greek language would have
simply required the use of the dative: (Greek) The preposition
(Greek) marks here a relation of conformity. Consequently the
word which is implied and to which the qualifying (Greek)
applies, is not (Greek) (day) but another term which can be
easily supplied, namely the word (Greek) (doctrine) present in
the title of the work....The initial phrase of chapter 14 ...
should be translated literally, 'according to the sovereign
doctrine of the Lord'..." ("La Liturgie Romaine," 1924, pp.
33-34). We subscribe to Thibaut's interpretations for the
following additional reasons: (1) Chapter 14 deals not with the
question of time but with the prerequisites to accede to the
Eucharist, namely confession of sin (14:1) and reconciliation
with fellow beings (14:2); (2) the quotation from Mal.1:10 again
emphasizes not the specific time ("In every place and time"), but
the manner of the sacrifice ("offer me a pure sacrifice" - 14:3);
(3) the "Didache" contains numerous exhortations to act
"according to--Greek" the commandment or doctrine (1:5; 2:1;
4:13; 6:1; 11; 13:6); (4) in view of the fact that the Didachist
wishes to justify his instruction with the authority of the Lord,
(Greek) with the accusative establishes a relation of conformity
and not of time; (5) Didache 14:1 is linked by the conjunction
"and--de" to the previous chapter, which closes with the
exhortation to "give according to the commandment" (13:7). The
repetition of "according to--Greek" could have caused the
omission of the word "commandment" or "doctrine;" (6) the
Didachist exhorts to "be frequently gathered together" (16:2).
This hardly suggests exclusive Sunday gatherings.
celebrating the Lord's Supper, namely "according to the Lord's
doctrine or commandment." In the latter passage Ignatius is not
contrasting days as such, but rather ways of life. The immediate
reference of the Old Testament prophets and the absence of the
substantive "day--Greek" justifies "Lord's life" as a more
plausible translation than "Lord's day." 74 There are, however,
beginning with the latter part of the second century, irrefutable
examples where the expression "Lord's day" or simply "Lord's" is
used as a current designation for Sunaday 75
The crux of the problem is, was Sunday already designated
"Lord's dav" by the end of the first century when Revelation was
written, or did such a name arise at a slightly later period?
That the adjective "Greek" was then known is attested by the
monumental and papyri inscriptions of the imperial period where
it means "imperial." "Lord--Greek " was used for the Emperor, the
noun as a title for him and the adjective for that which
pertained to him. 76 The use of the two terms, as pointed out by
A.Deissmann, shows a marked "parallelism between the language of
Christianity and the official vocabulary of Imperial law." 77
It should be noted, however, that Christians did not transfer
such titles to Christ solely as a reaction to the imperial cult,
since they were fully familiar with the name "Lord--Greek "
through their Greek Old Testament (LXX) where it is used
constantly as the most common name of God.
No indications have been found of the existence of an
imperial "Lord's day" in the pagan enviroment that could serve as
an exact analogy for that of the Christians. Nevertheless it has
been frequently suggested that Christians devised the designation
"Lord's day" in conscious protest to the "Emperor's day--Greek,"
which apparently occurred monthly or perhaps even weekly. 78
The use of the "Emperor's day" is confirmed for Asia Minor, and
this is significant since it is there that the expression "Lord's
day" appears first to have been used. R.H.Charles explains this
74 See below pp.214-16.
75 Examples are given above p.17, fn. 1.
76 Cf. Theodore Racine Torkelson,"An Investigation into the Usage
and Significance of the Greek Adjective KYRIAKOS During the First
Four Centuries of the Christian Era" thesis 1948, pp.29f.; A.
Deissmann (fn. 34), p.358; P.Cotton, "From Sabbath to Sunday,"
77 A.Deissmann (fn. 34), p.357.
78 A.Deissmann (fn. 34), pp.359f.; also "Bible Studies," 19032,
pp.21819; P.Cotton (fn. 76), p.126; E.Lohmeyer, "Die Of
Offenbarung des Johannes," 19532, p.15.
Just as the first day of each month, or a certain day of
each week, was called "Emperor's Day," so it would be
natural for Christians to name the first day of each week,
associated as it was with the Lord's resurrection and the
custom of Christians to meet together for worship on it, as
"Lord's Day." 79
While it is plausible to assume that the worshiping of the
Emperor as "Lord--Greek" induced Christians to apply the term
exclusively to Christ, it is hard to see a connection between the
"Emperor's day" and the Christian's "Lord's day." First because,
as noted by G.Thieme, it cannot be proven "that the Emperor's day
is equivalent with the beginning of the month." 80 Even if this
could be established, the time cycle would still be different.
Secondly, because the two adjectives "Imperial (Greek) and
"Lord's (Greek)" are radically different. As pointedly observed
by W.Rordorf, if a nexus between the two existed "one would at
least have expected that first of all the title (Greek), by
conscious contrast, would also have been applied to Jesus." 81
Moreover even the existence of a recurring "Emperor's day"
could hardly have constituted a sufficient reason to change the
day of worship from Sabbath to Sunday and then to designate the
latter "Lord's day," in contradistinction to the one of the
Emperor. By such an action Christians would have provoked the
resentment of their pagan neighbors, the very thing they were
cautious to avoid. We must conclude therefore that Christians
used this expression not in conscious contrast to the Augustus
day but as an expression of their faith in their "Lord--Greek," a
title deeply rooted in the Old Testament.
The question we still face is to ascertain if the expression
"Lord's day" could have been employed before the end of the first
century as a common denomination for the weekly Sunday. Wilfrid
Stott presents linguistic and theological explanations to defend
this very view. The adjective "Lord's," he notes, was used by the
early Fathers (until A.D.450) to mean "belonging to" or "given
by" Christ. This would imply that the "first day of the week
belonged to the Lord ... and would be the day instituted by
Christ; the day was his gift to the Church." 82
79 R.H.Charles (fn. 64), p.23.
80 G.Thieme, "Die Inschriften yon Neue Testament," 1905, p.15.
81 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.207.
82 Wilfrid Stott (fn. 68), p.73.
Moreover he argues that "the resurrection proclaimed Christ as
Lord" and in Revelation He "is given the title 'King of Kings and
Lord of Lords'" (Rev.19:16). Therefore he concludes:
On the Lord's Day then they would not only be proclaiming
Christ as the one who at the resurrection had been shown as
Lord, but also looking forward to his final triumph at the
parousia. On the Lord's Day there would then not only be the
proclamation 'Jesus is Lord,' but also the triumphant cry
Maranatha, 'Even so, come, Lord Jesus'. 83
Such a positive and comprehensive formulation of a theology
for Sunday (Resurrection-Parousia) indeed deserves admiration.
But does this interpretation reflect the thinking of apostolic
times or of later theological constructions? In our previous
study of the role of the resurrection/ appearances of Christ in
relation to the origin of Sunday, we found no traces of apostolic
allusions to a weekly or annual commemoration of the resurr-
ection. In a later chapter it will be shown that even the
earliest theological motivations that appear in documents such as
those of Barnabas and Justin Martyr lack such an organic view of
Sunday observance. 84 Their explanations are in fact of
differing nature deriving from divergent sources. The
resurrection per se is only timidly mentioned. We cannot
therefore legitimately determine the meaning of the expression
"Lord's day" by leaning on its later usage and explanations. This
is particularly true, as we shall see, in the light of changes
that occurred in the early part of the second century in the
Christian reappraisal of Judaism and its religious observances.
It remains for us to define the meaning of the "Lord's day"
of Revelation 1:10 solely in the light of the text, context, and
the teaching of the New Testament. Assuming that the Seer
intended to specify that on a Sunday he found himself rapt in the
Spirit, would he have designated such a day as "Lord's day"?
Because in the New Testament this day is always called "the first
day of the week," is it not strange that in this one place the
writer would use a different expression to refer to the same day?
More important still, if, as many exegetes maintain, 85 John the
Apostle wrote at approximately the same time
83 Ibid., p.74.
84 See below pp.213f.
85 This position is widely held especially by Catholic exegetes;
see Alfred Wikenhauser, "New Testament Introduction," 1958,
pp.283-290, 319, 547-557.
both the Revelation and the fourth Gospel, then would it not seem
reasonable to expect him to employ the same expression even in
his Gospel, especially when reporting the first-day events of the
resurrection and appearances of Jesus (John 20:1,19,26)?
In the apocryphal "Gospel of Peter," written several decades
later, we notice for instance that the day of the resurrection is
designated not as "first day of the week" but as "Lord's" since
the latter had by then become the term commonly used. If Sunday
had already received the new appelation "Lord's day" by the end
of the first century when both the Gospel of John and the book of
Revelation were written, we would expect this new name for Sunday
to be used consistently in both works, especially since they were
apparently produced by the same author at approximately the same
time and in the same geographical area. If a new term prevails
and is more readily understood, a writer does not confuse his
readers with archaic time designations. Moreover, if the new
denomination already existed and expressed the meaning and nature
of Christian worship, a Christian writer could hardly
legitimately use a Jewish designation instead. Therefore, the
fact that the expression "Lord's day," used in the New Testament
only by John, occurs in his apocalyptic book but not in his
Gospel where the first day is explicitly mentioned in conjunction
with the resurrection (John 20:1) and the appearances of Jesus
(John 20:19,26), weakens the claim that "John by 'dominica dies'
[i.e. Lord's day] (Rev.1:10) wishes to indicate specifically the
day in which the community celebrates together the eucharistic
liturgy." 86 Additional reasons will be submitted below in
connection with the third interpretation.
Others maintain that the "Lord's day" of Revelation 1:10
must be understood as a designation for the annual Easter-Sunday
rather than the weekly Sunday. 17 We shall mention some of the
basic arguments of this thesis.
C.W.Dugmore in a recent study argues that the designation
"Lord's day" as used in the earliest Christian literature denotes
Easter-Sunday rather than the weekly Sunday. He notes that there
is little evidence in "the New Testament and in the literature of
the Sub-apostolic age that Sunday was the
86 C.S.Mosna, "Storia della domenica," p.21.
87 See above fn. 69 for references.
most important day in the Christian week." Moreover, certain
allusions to the "Lord's day" such as found in the "Didache" 14:1
and "Apostolic Constitutions" 7:30, can be taken to refer more
readily to Easter-Sunday. 88 The application of the term "Lord's
day" to the first day of the week would represent, as stated also
by A.Strobel, "a secondary development." 89 This supposedly
occurred "after Sunday had become a regular day of worship among
the Christians and had come to be thought of as a weekly
commemoration of the Resurrection." 90
This thesis of an earlier application of the name "Lord's
day" to Easter day has some merits. We shall later show by using
different sources and reasons that the weekly Sunday worship
apparently did develop in conjunction with the Easter-
88 These points are presented by C.W.Dugmore (fn. 45), pp.
274-278. K.A.Strand (fn. 69), p.177, submits an additional
reference attributed to Irenaeus to support the view of an
earlier application of "Lord's day" to the annual Easter, "from
which a later Christian Sunday drew its basic characteristics."
The passage reads: "This [custom] of not bending the knee upon
Sunday, is a symbol of the resurrection ... it took its rise from
apostolic times, as the blessed Irenaeus, the martyr and bishop
of Lyons, declares in his treatise 'On Easter,' in which he makes
mention of Pentecost also; upon which [feast] we do not bend the
knee, because it is of equal significance with the Lord's day,
for the reason already alleged concerning it" ("Fragments from
the Lost Writings of Irenaeus" 7, in ANF, I, pp.569-570). Strand
concludes that in this reference "there is no doubt that the
'Lord's Day' refers to an annual Easter-Sunday, for the term is
placed in comparison with another annual Sunday, Pentecost-
Sunday" (loc. cit.). Is this conclusion correct? It seems to us
that the comparison here is not between Easter and Pentecost, but
rather between the weekly Sunday and the annual Easter season
(which included Pentecost). What it says is that Christians do
not bend their knees at Easter because the feast "is of equal
significance with the Lord's day [i.e., weekly Sunday], for the
reason already alleged concerning it." What is the reason already
given? "Sunday is a symbol of the resurrection." Tertullian
provides a similar statement: "On Sunday it is unlawful to fast
or to kneel while worshipping. We enjoy the same liberty from
Easter to Pentecost" ("De corona" 3, 4; cf. also Augustine,
"Epistula" 55, 28 CSEL 34, 202, where the resurrection is
explicitly given as reason for the custom). Irenaeus' statement,
therefore, does show the close nexus existing between the two
feasts, but it hardly suggests an earlier application of the term
"Lord's day" to Easter-Sunday. The weakness of Strand's
conclusion from this reference does not invalidate his hypothesis
of an earlier origin of Easter-Sunday. This we shall ourselves
defend as a most plausible explanation; see below pp.198f.
89 A.Strobel (fn. 69), p.185, fn. 104, writes "Greek" as a term
applied to Sunday represents, as it is generally acknowledged, a
90 C.W.Dugmore (fn. 45), p.279.
Sunday festivity, owing to similar causes. 91 It is to be
observed however that such a conclusion can hardly be defended
from "Didache" 14:1 (the work is variously dated between A.D.60
to 150) 92 where the adjective "Lord's--Greek" is related not to
the time but to the manner of the Lord's Supper celebration. Even
granting that it referred to time, the mention of the confession
of sins (14:1), of the reconciliation between brothers (14:2) and
the appeal through the words of Malachi (1 :11) to offer "in
every place and time a pure sacrifice" (14:3) hardly bespeak an
In the "Apostolic Constitutions" 7, 30, 1, which largely
reproduces "Didache" 14, the statement is found, "On the day of
the resurrection of the Lord, that is, the Lord's day, assemble
yourselves together." C.W.Dugmore interprets this "Lord's day" as
a designation of "Easter-Sunday which was still known to
Christians of the third quarter of the fourth century in Syria as
"Greek" [the Lord's]." From this he concludes, "Why should we
doubt that the phrase "Greek" - [on the Lord's day] (Rev.1:10)
of the Jewish-Christian Seer, writing just before the close of
the first century, equally refers to Easter-Sunday?" "93 The
weakness of this conclusion is that it rests on the false
assumption that the "Lord's day" in the cited passage of the
"Apostolic Constitutions" refers exclusively to Easter-Sunday.
This can hardly be proven from the context, where the admonition
to assemble together to offer in every place a pure sacrifice
hints clearly of the weekly Sunday gathering. In an earlier
chapter however Easter-Sunday is designated "Lord's day" (15,
19), 94 but this only goes to show that the same term was used
to denominate both festivities.
91 See below pp. 198f.
92 E.Goodspeed, "The Apostolic Fathers," 1950, p.286, is of the
opinion that the Greek Didache published by Bryennius was
composed soon after A.D.150; Kirsopp Lake, "The Apostolic
Fathers" LCL, 1952, I, p.331, advocates the same date; J.P.Audet
(fn. 73), p.219, places its composition at the time of the
Synoptics between A.D.50 and 70. This date must be regarded as
too early, inasmuch as the complex ecclesiastical ordinances
(such as baptism by infusion) presuppose, as J.Quasten (fn. 71,
pp.40-41) points out, "a period of stabilization of a certain
93 C.W.Dugmore (fn. 45), p.277.
94 "Apostolic Constitutions" 5, 19 admonishes not to break the
Passover fast before the "daybreak of the first day of the week,
which is the Lord's day" (ANF VII, p.447). The same designation
appears again further down in the same chapter: "From the first
Lord's day count forty days, from the Lord's day till the fifth
day of the week, and celebrate the feast of the ascention of the
Lord." Even in these instances the "Lord's day" is hardly used
for Easter day only. The phrase "from the first Lord's day"
implies the subsequent Sundays shared the same appellation.
To be continued