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Book Review: A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation

Growing up Seventh-day Adventist, I always found it strange that the majority of Christians worship on Sunday. Though I attended Adventist schools from kindergarten through university and we often discussed the importance and “rightness” of Saturday as the proper day of worship, the why behind Sunday worship and the how it came to be were never addressed. I remember asking the questions, but the abrupt, “well other Christians are just WRONG” and the more toxic (and inaccurate), “it’s the Catholics' fault,” weren’t helpful to my understanding. Over the years, I’ve heard references to Constantine’s role in Sunday worship, but it all seemed a bit muddy.

So I was intrigued when I came across Justo L. González’s latest book, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017). González is a retired professor of historical theology and a United Methodist minister who has published over one hundred books, according to the back cover blurb. Intrigued and now confident in the author’s expertise, I dived in.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, other than the hope of a more thorough understanding of how the Christian day of worship transitioned from Saturday to Sunday. What I was not expecting, however, was the author to give a nod to his Seventh-day Adventist friends in the second sentence of his introduction:

When I first told my friends that I was considering writing a history of Sunday, the most common reactions were what I expected. . . . Some of my Seventh-day Adventist friends began sending me books on the Sabbath and pointing me to other materials on the subject (viii).  

I had to smile at the very Adventist reaction of making sure a preeminent scholar is outfitted with the proper research materials. To González’s credit, he seems to have not only used the materials provided by these helpful friends but also proceeds to speak quite respectfully of Adventists and other Saturday worshippers throughout the remainder of his book.

Proving Saturday worship “correct” is not, however, the point of this book. Neither though is this a calling to arms for Sunday worship. González succeeds in doing exactly what his title implies he will: providing a concise account of how Sunday worship came to be. His neutral and academic tone simply lays out the facts as they are and provides a solid primer for anyone looking, as I was, to understand the history behind the Christian day(s) of worship.

One cannot understand worshiping on either the seventh or first day of the week without first understanding how our modern calendars came to be, and so González starts by explaining how the “seven-day week as we now know it seems to have originated among the ancient Semitic and Mesopotamian peoples” (2).  Before that, there were the three-day weeks of the Basques, an eight-day week favored by the Romans, the ten-day weeks of the Chinese and Egyptians, and even a thirteen-day week belonging to the Aztecs. I certainly do not envy the Aztecs this lengthy week, unless their weekend consisted of five of those days, which I’m guessing it didn’t.

It was in 321 CE when Constantine officially abandoned the eight-day week of the Romans in favor of the seven-day week we still use, named after “the days of the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn” (3).

González concedes that there is much debate about “the origin of the Hebrew calendar and its relationship with other calendars, particularly in Mesopotamia. But there is no doubt that it, like most other calendars in the Middle East, was based on the number seven and its multiples” (4). The Hebrew people were not the only ones for whom the number seven held significance:

[The number seven] was seen as evil throughout the vast region from Canaan to Mesopotamia—to the point that even in the twenty-first century some people living in that area still consider the number seven unlucky, and some will not even pronounce its name. Since the seventh day was evil, one was expected to abstain from all labor or any other activity that might lead to harm or accidents. Among the ancient peoples of the entire region the reason for resting on the seventh day was not a religious observance, and the day itself was not joyful. Thus what Israel did was to adopt the calendrical system of the nations surrounding it, but then change its nature in accordance to Israel’s faith, with the result that the seventh day, originally one of doom and gloom, became a day of joy and celebration (5).  

González then moves on to a discussion on pre-Constantinian Christianity, stating there is no doubt that early Christians gathered to worship with Jews on the Sabbath “for as long as they were allowed to do so” (19). Early Christians also established a separate custom of gathering to break bread in the evening of the same day, which according to Jewish custom, would be considered the next day (Sunday) because it was after sunset (20). González states that Sunday became known as “the day of the Lord”—a term that first appears in Revelation 1:10—and that this was a day “when the church would gather in worship to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus” (10).

Meeting together in the evening may have been convenient for the early Jewish Christians, González reasons, but unfortunately for the increasing number of Gentile converts, this was difficult because many “were economically dependent—as slaves, wives, clients, or employees—on people who had no reason to give them special treatment on a particular day of the week.” Therefore, “it would be more feasible to gather, not in the evening when there were still chores to be attended, but very early in the morning, before dawn brought the usual and inescapable tasks and obligations” (21). This caused a shift from breaking bread after sunset on the seventh day to doing so on the morning of the first day of the week.

Sabbath, therefore, was still held as a day of reverent observance and rest, while Sunday, “the Lord’s day,” became a day of celebration of Jesus and the salvation story:

The interpolation shows that, at least as late as the fourth century, some or perhaps even most Christian observed the Sabbath, and then the Lord’s day on the following day. In other words, the Lord’s day, celebrated on the first day of the week, was not a substitution for the Sabbath, but a separate celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (23).

In keeping with the title of his work, González then takes the reader on a brief history of Constantine’s role in Christianity. During the fourth century, Christians experienced a quick transition from persecution to toleration to support by the state. An “explosion of Christian literature” followed suit as did significant changes to Sunday, which became an official day of rest under Constantine’s rule (41).

González notes that Constantine’s legislation was “purposively ambiguous” and most likely an attempt to please both Christians and his other constituents who also held Sunday in high regard because they worshiped the Unconquered Sun or Sol invictus. Up until the decree was issued,

Christians did not relate Sunday observances with the commandment to rest on the Sabbath. Sunday was not a day of rest. It could not be for Christians who were not masters of their own time. Now that Sunday became a day of rest, civil laws had to determine what work was lawful on that day. This was soon followed by ecclesiastical laws, also determining which activities were allowed on Sunday, and which were forbidden. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that Sunday was now connected with Sabbath rest and with the commandment ordering it (45).

Despite this change, many Christians still continued to regard the seventh day as special (57) while others began to fear that any form of Sabbath observance would lead Christians back to Judaism (58).

By the Middle Ages, a great deal of legislation had come into play regarding what activities were appropriate for the Lord’s day and which were not. These laws moved Sunday away from the celebration and rejoicing in Jesus’ sacrifice that early Christians had intended toward a day of rest structured around legislation that bore an uncanny resemblance to the original rabbinical laws regarding the Sabbath. This further solidified the idea of the Lord’s day replacing the Sabbath instead of acting as a companion to it (86).

Medieval theologians faced a dilemma, however. On the one hand, the commandment establishing the seventh day as a day of rest seemed clear; on the other hand, Sunday worship was firmly rooted and sanctioned by both church and state. To solve this issue, Thomas Aquinas and others decided that “the commandment to rest is a moral law, and must be obeyed by all Christians. But all the various details as to how and when Sabbath is to be kept are ceremonial matters prefiguring Christ, and therefore are not to be continued once what they signified and promised has already come” (94). This allowed the church to declare Sunday the appropriate day of worship and rest.

During the Reformation, there was a small resurgence of seventh-day Sabbath-worshippers which Martin Luther vehemently opposed in an open letter in 1538 titled "Against the Sabbatarians (104). Those who insisted on worshiping on Sabbath considered it “not a matter of choice, but of divine commandment” (113). They were met with mixed reaction. While Luther called them “a foolish group,” and John Calvin was largely dismissive (109), Martin Bucer, a reformer in Strasbourg, petitioned the local government to make Sunday worship mandatory (106). He was unsuccessful. The flurry against Sabbath-keepers was due, at least in part, to the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, to which Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic Church all contributed.

González also points the reader to the role language played in transitioning Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. While Greek and the various romance languages had preserved Saturday as sabbatum and Sunday as dominica in one form or another,

In English, the name of the seventh day of the week had no connection with the Sabbath. For those who were interested in such matters, it was the day of Saturn, and for the people at large it was simply ‘Saturday.’ It was thus quite easy to begin referring to the first day of the week, traditionally called ‘Sunday,’ as the ‘Sabbath.’ One could well say that this is the final stage of the much earlier claim that the Lord’s day – the dominica – had come to take the place of the Jewish Sabbath. Now even its name had been taken over by Sunday! (118)

A brief history of Sunday would not be complete without a brief discussion on those who have continued throughout Christianity’s history to worship on Saturday. Thus, González devotes a chapter to examining these individuals and groups, from the seventeenth century Anglican John Traske who was punished for his seventh-day religious observance all the way through to the creation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the nineteenth century and its current presence as “the largest representative of Seventh-Day Sabbatarianism” (131).

After completing González’s 150 page work, I was surprised by just how much information he was able to pack into such a tiny tome. As a non-theologian, I appreciated the accessibility with which he approached the topic, and though the bulk of the information was brand new for me—and I found myself highlighting every other paragraph for future reference—González’s conversational writing style made the book easily digestible. I suspect theologians will also appreciate the book as a highly condensed primer on a complex topic.

Readers of different faiths will obviously open A Brief History of Sunday with their own preconceived notions, but I think all will close the book on its final chapter with their convictions still intact. Sabbath-keepers will gain a fuller appreciation for the Sabbath and the steadfastness with which believers throughout the centuries have held on to the importance of the seventh day. I would imagine Sunday-keepers will be inspired by the ways in which Sunday worship has evolved over the course of Christian history.

What I most appreciated was learning that early Christians meant Sunday to be a complement to the Sabbath. So inspired by Jesus, who many of them had known in the flesh, they honored Him with a day of rest followed by a day of celebration each week. There is something lovely and quite moving in that idea. May we all honor Him as passionately as those early Christians with rest and with celebration within our communities and beyond. 

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor at SpectrumMagazine.org.

Image Credit: www.eerdmans.com

 

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