The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments


Part 2a: The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance

Index | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

Part 1
The Theological Connection Between Sabbath and Sunday
Part 2a
The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance
Part 2b
The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance - Continued
Part 3
Pope John Paul's Call for Sunday Legislation


The second chapter of the Pastoral Letter entitled "Dies Christi—The Day of Christ" focuses on three major, biblical events that allegedly justify Sunday observance: (1) The Resurrection and appearances of Christ which took place on ‘the first day after the Sabbath’ (Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1);26 (2) the religious gatherings that occurred on the first day of the week (cf. 1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7-12);27 and (3) the outpouring of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Resurrection which occurred on a Sunday (Acts 2:2-3).28 We examine these arguments in their respective order.

(1) The Resurrection/Appearances of Christ

The Pope maintains that the earliest Christians "made the first day after the Sabbath a festive day, for that was the day on which the Lord rose from the dead."29 He argues that though Sunday is rooted in the creative and redemptive meaning of the Sabbath, the day finds its full expression in the Resurrection of Christ. "Although the Lord’s Day is rooted in the very work of creation and even more in the mystery of the Biblical [Sabbath] ‘rest’ of God, it is nonetheless to the Resurrection of Christ that we must look in order to understand fully the Lord’s Day."30

Importance Attributed to Resurrection. The Resurrection and Appearance of Christ on the first day of the week constitute, in the Pope’s view, the fundamental biblical justification for the origin of Sunday worship. He summarizes concisely the alleged Biblical evidences in the following paragraph: "According to the common witness of the Gospels, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead took place on ‘the first day after the Sabbath’ (Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). On the same day, the Risen Lord appeared to the two disciples of Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-35) and to the eleven Apostles gathered together (cf. Luke 24:36; John 20:19). A week later—as the Gospel of John recounts (cf. John 20:26)—the disciples were gathered together once again when Jesus appeared to them and made Himself known to Thomas by showing him the signs of His Passion. The day of Pentecost—the first day of the eighth week after the Jewish Passover (cf. Acts 2:1), when the promise made by Jesus to the Apostles after the Resurrection was fulfilled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5)—also fell on a Sunday. This was the day of the first proclamation and the first baptisms: Peter announced to the assembled crowd that Christ was risen and ‘those who received his word were baptized’ (Acts 2:41). This was the epiphany of the Church, revealed as the people into which are gathered in unity, beyond all their differences, the scattered children of God."31

Numerous Catholic and Protestant scholars concur with John Paul in attributing to Christ’s Resurrection and appearances on the first day of the week the fundamental reason for the choice of Sunday by the Apostolic church. In his doctoral dissertation on the origin of Sunday, Corrado Mosna, a Jesuit student at the Pontifical Gregorian University who worked under Vincenzo Monachino, S. J. (the same professor who monitored my dissertation), concludes: "Therefore we can conclude with certainty that the event of the Resurrection has determined the choice of Sunday as the day of worship of the first Christian community."32

The same view is expressed by Cardinal Jean Daniélou: "The Lord’s Day is a purely Christian institution; its origin is to be found solely on the fact of the Resurrection of Christ on the day after the Sabbath."33 In a similar vein, Paul Jewett, a Protestant scholar, writes: "What, it might be asked, specifically motivated the primitive Jewish church to settle upon Sunday as a regular time of assembly? As we have observed before, it must have had something to do with the Resurrection which, according to the uniform witness of the Gospels, occurred on the first day of the week."34

Evaluation of the Resurrection. In spite of its popularity, the alleged role of the Resurrection in the adoption of Sunday observance lacks biblical support. A careful study of all the references to the Resurrection reveals the incomparable importance of the event,35 but it does not provide any indication regarding a special day to commemorate it. In fact, as Harold Riesenfeld notes, "In the accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels, there are no sayings which direct that the great event of Christ’s Resurrection should be commemorated on the particular day of the week on which it occurred."36

Moreover, as the same author observes, "The first day of the week, in the writings of the New Testament, is never called ‘Day of the Resurrection’. This is a term which made its appearance later."37 Its usage first appears in the fourth century. Therefore, "to say that Sunday was observed because Jesus rose on that day," as S. V. McCasland cogently states, "is really a petitio principii [begging the question], for such a celebration might just as well be monthly or annually and still be an observance of that particular day.38

The New Testament attributes no liturgical significance to the day of Christ’s Resurrection simply because the Resurrection was seen as an existential reality experienced by living victoriously by the power of the Risen Savior, and not a liturgical practice associated with Sunday worship.

Had Jesus wanted to memorialize the day of His Resurrection, He would have capitalized on the day of His Resurrection to make such a day the fitting memorial of that event. But none of the utterances of the risen Savior reveal an intent to memorialize the day of His Resurrection by making it the new Christian day of rest and worship. Biblical institutions such as the Sabbath, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper all trace their origin to a divine act that established them. But there is no such divine act for the institution of a weekly Sunday or an annual Easter Sunday memorial of the Resurrection.

The silence of the New Testament on this matter is very important since most of its books were written many years after Christ’s death and Resurrection. If by the latter half of the first century Sunday had come to be viewed as the memorial of the Resurrection which fulfilled the creation/redemption functions of the Old Testament Sabbath, as the Pope claims, we would expect to find in the New Testament some allusions to the religious meaning and observance of the weekly Sunday and/or annual Easter-Sunday.

The total absence of any such allusions indicates that such developments occurred in the post-apostolic period as a result of an interplay of political, social, and religious factors. These I have examined at length in my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday.

No Easter-Sunday in the New Testament. The Pope’s claim that the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection on a weekly Sunday and annual Easter-Sunday "evolved from the early years after the Lord’s Resurrection"39 cannot be substantiated Biblically or historically. There is nearly unanimous scholarly consensus that for at least a century after Jesus’ death, Passover was observed not on Easter-Sunday, as a celebration of the Resurrection, but on the date of Nisan 14 (irrespective of the day of the week) as a celebration of the sufferings, atoning sacrifice, and Resurrection of Christ.

The repudiation of the Jewish reckoning of Passover and the adoption of Easter-Sunday instead is a post-apostolic development which is attributed, as Joachim Jeremias puts it, "to the inclination to break away from Judaism"40 and to avoid, as J. B. Lightfoot explains, "even the semblance of Judaism."41

The introduction and promotion of Easter-Sunday by the Church of Rome in the second century caused the well-known Passover (Quartodeciman) controversy which eventually led Bishop Victor of Rome to excommunicate the Asian Christians (c. A. D. 191) for refusing to adopt Easter-Sunday.42 Indications such as these suffice to show that Christ’s Resurrection was not celebrated on a weekly Sunday and annual Easter-Sunday from the inception of Christianity. The social, political, and religious factors that contributed to the change from Sabbath to Sunday and Passover to Easter-Sunday are discussed at great length in my dissertation.

Evaluation of the Appearances. John Paul attaches particular significance to the appearances of the Risen Lord on the first day of the week to "the two disciples of Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-35) and to the eleven Apostles gathered together (cf. Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19)."43 The fact that He also appeared to the disciples the following Sunday ("eight days later"—John 20:26) to make Himself known to Thomas, and that He fulfilled the promise of outpouring the Holy Spirit on a Sunday (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5) is seen as the beginning of a consistent pattern of Sunday observance.44

The appearances of Christ do not follow any consistent pattern. The mention of Christ’s appearance "eight days later" (John 20:26), supposedly the Sunday following His Resurrection, can hardly suggest a regular pattern of Sunday observance since John himself explains its reason— namely, the absence of Thomas at the previous appearance (John 20:24).

Moreover, on this occasion, John makes no reference to any cultic meal but simply to Christ’s tangible demonstration to Thomas of the reality of his bodily Resurrection (John 20:26-29). The fact that "eight days later" the disciples were again gathered together is not surprising, since we are told that before Pentecost "they were staying" (Acts 1:13) together in the upper room and there they met daily for mutual edification (Acts 1:14; 2:1).

No consistent pattern can be derived from Christ’s appearances to justify the institution of a recurring eucharistic celebration on Sunday. The Lord appeared to individuals and to groups not only on Sunday but at different times, places, and circumstances. He appeared, in fact, to single persons such as Cephas and James (1 Cor 15:5,7), to the twelve (vv. 5, 7), and to a group of five hundred persons (v. 6). The meetings occurred, for instance, while the disciples were gathered within shut doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19, 26), traveling on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35), or fishing on the lake of Galilee (John 21:1-14).

Only with two disciples at Emmaus, Christ "took the bread and blessed; and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 24:30). This last instance may sound like the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but in reality it was an ordinary meal around an ordinary table to which Jesus was invited. Christ accepted the hospitality of the two disciples and sat "at the table with them" (Luke 24:30). According to prevailing custom, the Lord "took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 24:30). This act, as explained by J. Behm, was "simply a customary and necessary part of the preparation for eating together."45

The Witness of Matthew and Mark. Another notable point is that, according to Matthew (28:10) and Mark (16:7), Christ’s appearances occurred not in Jerusalem (as mentioned by Luke and John) but in Galilee. This suggests that, as S. V. McCasland observes, "the appearance may have been as much as ten days later, after the feast of the unleavened bread, as indicated by the closing fragments of the Gospel of Peter. But if the appearance at this late date was on Sunday it would be scarcely possible to account for the observance of Sunday in such an accidental way."46

While it may be difficult to explain the discrepancies in the Gospels’ narratives, the fact remains that both Matthew and Mark make no reference to any meal or meeting of Christ with his disciples on Easter-Sunday. This implies that no particular importance was attributed to the meal Christ shared with his disciples on the Sunday night of his Resurrection.

In the light of the foregoing considerations, we conclude that Christ’s appearances served to reassure the disheartened disciples of the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, but they could hardly have set the pattern for a recurring weekly commemoration of the Resurrection. They occurred at different times, places, and circumstances; and in those instances where Christ ate, He partook of ordinary food (like fish–John 21:13), not to institute a eucharistic Sunday worship but to demonstrate the reality of his bodily Resurrection.

(2) The Day of the Sun and the Creation of Light

John Paul maintains that "the Old Testament vision of the Sabbath" inspired the earliest Christians to link the Resurrection with the first day of creation. He writes: "Christian thought spontaneously linked the Resurrection, which took place on ‘the first day of the week,’ with the first day of that cosmic week (cf. Gen 1:1–2:4) which shapes the creation story of the Book of Genesis: the day of the creation of light (cf. 1:3-5)."47

The linkage between the Resurrection and the creation of light was not as "spontaneously" inspired by "the Old Testament vision of the Sabbath," as the Pope suggests. In my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday, I submit compelling documents indicating that such linkage was inspired by the necessity which arose in the post-apostolic period to justify the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of the Day of the Sun.

Hadrianic Anti-Sabbath Legislation. This development began during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (A. D. 117-138) as a result of the repressive anti-Judaic legislation. In A. D. 135, Hadrian promulgated a legislation that categorically prohibited the practice of Judaism, in general, and of Sabbathkeeping, in particular. The aim of this legislation was to liquidate Judaism as a religion at a time when the Jews were experiencing resurgent Messianic expectations that exploded in violent uprisings in various parts of the empire, especially Palestine.48

To avoid the repressive anti-Jewish and anti-Sabbath legislation, most Christians adopted the Day of the Sun as their new day of worship. This enabled them to show the Roman authorities their differentiations from the Jews and their identification and integration with the customs and cycles of the Roman empire.

To develop a theological justification for worshipping on the Day of the Sun, Christians appealed to God’s creation of light on the first day and to the Resurrection of Christ as the Sun of Justice, since both events coincided with the Day of the Sun. The latter was connected to the first day of the creation-week, because the creation of light on the first day provided what appeared to many a providential biblical justification for observing the Day of the Sun, the generator of light.

Sunday and the Creation of Light. The earliest example of this linkage is found in Justin Martyr’s Apology, addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (about A. D. 150). Justin writes: "Sunday (dies solis) is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead."49 Christians, as Cardinal J. Danièlou points out, noticed early the coincidence between the creation of light on the first day and the veneration of the Sun which took place on the selfsame day.50

Jerome (A. D. 342-420) makes the connection very explicit when he says: "If it is called the Day of the Sun by the pagans, we most willingly acknowledge it as such, since it is on this day that the light of the world appeared and on this day the Sun of Justice has risen."51

These considerations suggest that Christians did not spontaneously come to view the day of Christ’s Resurrection as the fulfillment of the creative and redemptive accomplishments celebrated by the seventh-day Sabbath. The linkage to the creation week was made primarily by virtue of the fact that the creation of the light on the first day provided what to many Christians appeared to be a "biblical" justification for observing the Day of the Sun.

Evangelistic Considerations. The christianization of the Day of the Sun was apparently designed also to facilitate the acceptance of Christianity by pagans who worshipped the Sun-god, especially on his day of the Sun. For them to adopt the Day of the Sun as their Christian day of worship was not a problem since that day already had special religious significance in their pagan religion.

It is noteworthy that the growing popularity of Sun worship led to the advancement of the Day of the Sun from the position of second day of the week (following Saturn-day), to that of first and most important day of the week. The historical sources available indicate that this development occurred in the early part of the second century—that is, at the very time when Christians adopted the Day of the Sun for their weekly worship.52

John Paul acknowledges the evangelistic intent of the adoption of the "day of the Sun." He writes: "Wise pastoral intuition suggested to the Church the christianization of the notion of Sunday as ‘the day of the Sun,’ which was the Roman name for the day and which is retained in some modern languages. This was in order to draw the faithful away from the seduction of cults which worshipped the sun, and to direct the celebration of the day to Christ, humanity's true ‘sun.’"53

Unfortunately, this strategy backfired because Christians were often tempted to revert to the popular veneration of the Sun and other planetary gods. For example, Philaster, Bishop of Brescia (died ca. A. D. 397) condemns as heresy the prevailing belief that "the name of the days of the Sun, of the Moon . . . had been established by God at the creation of the world. . . . The pagans, that is, the Greeks have set up such names and with the names also the notion that mankind depends from the seven stars"54

In a document attributed to Priscillian, a Spanish Bishop of Avila (ca. A.D. 340-385), anathema is pronounced against those Christians who "in their sacred ceremonies, venerate and acknowledge as gods the Sun, Moon . . . and all the heavenly host, which are detestable idols worthy of the Gehenna." 55

The adoption and christianization of the day of the sun, instead of the biblical Sabbath, has not proven to be a "wise pastoral intuition" since it has tempted Christians in the past to revert to pagan worship, and it is tempting Christians today to treat Sunday as a pagan holiday rather than as a Biblical Holy Day.


Chapter 1, Part 1
Chapter 1, Part 2b


Notes to Chapter 1, Part 2a
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

26. Dies Domini, paragraph 20.
27. Dies Domini, paragraph 21.
28. Dies Domini, paragraph 28.
29. Dies Domini, paragraph 18.
30. Dies Domini, paragraph 19.
31. Dies Domini, paragraph 20.
32. Corrado S. Mosna, Storia della Domenica dalle origini fino agli Inizi del V Secolo (Rome, Italy, 1969), p. 44.
33. Jean Daniélou, The Bible and Liturgy (South Bend, Indiana, 1956), p. 242.
34. Paul K. Jewett, The Lord’s Day: A Theological Guide to the Christian Day of Worship (Grand Rapids, 1972), p. 57. Pacifico Massi states categorically: "The Resurrection is the only plausible explanation for the origin of Sunday" (La Domenica nella Storia della Salvezza [Napoli, 1967], p. 43). F. A. Regan affirms: "From the study of the above texts one may reasonably conclude that during the earliest days of the Church there was only one liturgical feast and this feast was the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ" ("Dies Dominica and Dies Solis: The Beginning of the Lord’s Day in Christian Antiquity," Doctoral dissertation, The Catholic University of America [Washington, DC, 1961], p. 191). See also Josef A. Jungmann, The Early Liturgy to the Time of Gregory the Great (South Bend, Indiana, 1959), pp. 19-21; also The Mass of the Roman Rite, Its Origin and Development (New York, 1951), vol. 1, p. 15; Y. B. Tremel, "Du Sabbat au Jour du Seigneur," Lumière et Vie (1962), p. 441.
35. The Resurrection of Christ is presented in the New Testament as the essence of the apostolic proclamation, faith, and hope. See, for example, Acts 1:22; 2:31; 3:75; 4:2,10,33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:33-37; 17:18,32; 24:15,21; 26:8; 1 Cor 15:11-21; Rom 10:9; 1:1-4; 8:31-34; 14:9; 1 Thess 1:9-10.
36. Harold Riesenfeld, "The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day," The Gospel Tradition: Essays by H. Riesenfeld (Oxford, 1970), p. 124.
37. Harold Riesenfeld, "Sabbat et Jour du Seigneur," in A. J. B. Higgins, ed., N.T. Essays: Studies in Memory of T. W. Manson (Manchester, 1959), p. 212. For examples of the use of the phrase "Day of the Resurrection" for Sunday, see, Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on Psalm 91, Patrologia Graeca 23, 1168; Apostolic Constitutions 2, 59, 3.
38. S. V. McCasland, "The Origin of the Lord’s Day," Journal of Biblical Literature 49 (1930), p. 69. Similarly, Paul Cotton affirms: "There is nothing in the idea of the Resurrection that would necessarily produce the observance of Sunday as a Day of Worship" (From Sabbath to Sunday [Bethlehem, PA, 1933], p. 79).
39. Dies Domini, paragraph 19.
40. Joachim Jeremias, "Pasha," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Friedrich, ed., (Grand Rapids, 1968), vol. 5, p. 903, note 64.
41. J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (London, 1885), vol. 2, p. 88.
42. For a discussion of the Passover controversy and its implications for the origin of Sunday observance, see my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday (note 23), pp. 198-207.
43. Dies Domini, paragraph 20.
44. Ibid.
45. Johannes Behm, "Klao," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, ed., (Grand Rapids, 1974), vol. 3, p. 728.
46. S. V. McCasland (note 38), p. 69.
47. Dies Domini, paragraph 24.
48. See From Sabbath to Sunday (note 23), pp. 178-182.
49. Justin Martyr, Apology 67, 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. (Grand Rapids, 1973), vol. 1, p. 186.
50. Jean Daniélou (note 33), pp. 253, 255.
51. Jerome, In die dominica Paschae homilia, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 78, 550, 1, 52.
52. For a discussion of the development of Sun-worship and of the advancement of "the Day of Sun" in ancient Rome, see my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday (note 23), pp. 238-262.
53. Dies Domini, paragraph 27.
54. Philaster, Liber de haeresibus 113, PL 12, 1257.
55. Priscillian, Tractatus undecim, CSEL 18, p.14. See also, Martin of Braga, De correctione rusticorum ed. C. W. Barlow (New York, 1950), p. 189; Augustin, In Psalmos 61, 23, CCL 39, p. 792.

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University