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SUNDAY. The name Sunday is derived from pagan sources. Dividing the calendar into seven-day weeks was the work of Babylonian astrologers. From them the plan went into Egypt, where the days were named for planets, one for the sun. By 250 a.d. this method of reckoning time had become well established throughout the civilized world (Cassius, Hist. of Rome, 37:18). After Christianity had been planted in northern Europe, the Teutonic people substituted the names of their gods for Egyptian titles, so we have Tiwes-day (Tuesday), Woden’s Day (Wednesday) and Thor’s Day (Thursday). But the first day continued to be called Sun’s Day, largely because Emperor Constantine by royal decree in 321 made it Solis Day, day of the sun.

The early Christian writers confirm that the first day was taken as the Christian day of worship, and subsequent history proves that it supplanted the Hebrew Sabbath, even among the converts from Judaism. Justin Martyr, who lived during the second century a.d., wrote of the Lord’s Day services. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch about 110, claimed that the day had supplanted the Jewish Sabbath. The Epistle of Barnabas, written in the second century, likewise supports the view that the Lord’s Day had become the day for stated worship of Christians. The Roman historian Pliny wrote in 112 to Emperor Trajan, telling him how Christians in Bithynia met on a certain day before dawn to sing hymns to Christ as God. The Didache, or “The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles,” gives a command for believers to come together on the Lord’s Day. Undoubtedly Jewish persecution caused Christian Jews to abandon meeting in the synagogues on the Sabbath. Eventually, they met only on the Lord’s Day to worship their Lord.

See also Lord's Day.——JDF

The primitive church in Palestine was almost entirely Jewish and as such continued Sabbath observance; it was a social necessity. In the Diaspora, Jewish Christians continued the practice as long as they preserved their Jewish identity, but Gentile Christians normally did not unless they accepted circumcision under the pressure of Judaizers. To be noted is that Sabbath observance was regarded as a specifically Jewish privilege and hence was not one of the Noachic commandments, the keeping of which was a prerequisite for social relationships between Jews and Gentiles, and so was not demanded by the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:28f.). Paul mentions the Sabbath only once directly (Col. 2:16) and twice obliquely (Rom. 14:5f.; Gal. 4:10), thus showing how little practical importance the question had in his day. The social conditions of many Gentile converts, especially slaves, made Sabbath-keeping impossible, and provided a powerful motivation against its observance.

Most Jewish Christians continued to attend the synagogue until forced out-a process effectively carried through by the birkat ha-minum (about a.d. 90). This made the church's most natural time for the Lord's Supper Saturday evening, i.e., the beginning of Sunday, as seems to be the case in Acts 20:7. When under Trajan these evening gatherings apparently became illegal, the Supper was moved to the early Sunday morning. This move cut the last links with the Sabbath and made the connection with Christ's resurrection as a justification for specifically Sunday worship-something that must have been there from the first-virtually self-evident. The change from a natural tendency to a fixed rule will have been gradual but swift. The Quartodeciman* controversy shows that as late as the end of the second century it was not self-evident to all Christians that Easter had to fall on Sunday. 1 Corinthians 16:2 does not refer to a church gathering. While “the Lord's day” (Rev. 1:10) is probably Sunday (is Revelation from the time of Nero or Domitian?), it is unprovable. Sunday is called “the Lord's day of the Lord” in Didache 14 and “the Lord's day” by Ignatius.* For Justin Martyr* the Sunday service is standard. From then on, the term “the Lord's day” rapidly became the norm. Melito* of Sardis (d. c.190) wrote a thesis on The Lord's Day.

No evidence for the equating of Sabbath and Sunday is found before the end of the third century, but by that time there was an increasing stress on the true, i.e., spiritual, observance of the Sabbath, and it was, at least in theory, observed as a day of worship alongside Sunday. Emperor Constantine in 321 issued an edict requiring “rest on the venerable day of the sun” by the cessation of public works and the closing of the law courts, but agricultural labor was expressly excepted. From then on we find a growing stress on the necessity of Sunday rest, but the reason given is that men should be free to attend worship, not that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath”-a phrase not found until the twelfth century. This stress on worship is the Roman Catholic and Orthodox position today.

The earlier Reformers—e.g., Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, Cranmer, Knox-insisted on the value of Sunday as a day of rest and worship, but refused to regard it as the Christian fulfillment of the Sabbath. In Britain, but not Europe, a rigorist reaction by the Puritans set in. Nicholas Bownde gave it classical expression in 1593 (see bibliography). Scotland adopted Sabbatarian legislation already in 1579; England followed suit after the Puritan triumph in the Civil War, and the legislation was only slightly relaxed under Charles II. Similar laws were enforced in most of the New England states in America. The Evangelical Revival and the growth of middle-class respectability led to a stiffening of these laws in Britain, and to the growth of Sabbatarian groups in Europe where, however, they never exercised much influence.

In Britain, especially in England, the observance of Sunday, both religiously and legally, has been steadily eroded since the mid-nineteenth century. The main influences have been the growth of the large towns; the steady rise of the working class, in large measure alienated from organized religion; the growth of public utilities demanding Sunday work for their functioning; radio and television; and two major world wars. The church is rapidly returning to the position it found itself in during the first two centuries as far as Sunday observance is concerned.

See also Sabbath; Sabbatarianism.

N. Bownde (or Bound), Sabbathum Veteris et Novi Testamenti: or the True Doctrine of the Sabbath (1593; enlarged 1606); J.A. Hessey, Sunday, its Origin, History and Present Obligation (1860); T. Zahn, Geschichte des Sonntags vornehmlich in der alten Kirche (1878); W. Rordorf, Sunday (1968).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See Lord’s DAY.

See also

  • Lord's Day