by W.E.Straw

Originally Published by
Review and Herald Publishing Association 1939


1 Did Gentile Converts Keep the Sabbath?
2 What Was Done Away by Christ?
3 Sunday in the Early Church
4 The Lord's Day
5 Gnosticism
6 Sunday at Alexandria in the Second Century
7 Sunday in Asia in the Second Century
8 Events and Changes in the Second Century
9 Sunday in the Third Century
10 Sunday in the Fourth Century
11 Pagan and Christian Rituals
12 Heathen Customs and the Church
13 How Sunday Came Into the Church
Appendix -The Epistles of Ignatius
Footnotes & References


FOR a great many centuries Sunday has been considered a day of rest by the Christian nations of the world. And today this idea is not only held by Christian nations, but is penetrating beyond them into the great heathen countries as well. Of course the day is not thought of in the same way by all these people. Some think of it as a day set apart by Jesus and the disciples for religious service and worship, while others think of it only as a convenient time for rest and recreation. But all these people recognize It either consciously or unconsciously-as a day different in some way from the other six days of the week.

Whence the origin of this special day? The history of this we shall endeavor to trace. To some, this may seem a simple task and a matter that is already well settled; yet it is not so easy as it might seem at first. If we had some definite and direct statement from Jesus or the disciples concerning its origin and importance, our task would be very much easier. But since we have no such statement, and must, therefore, rely upon inferences and indirect statements and possibilities, it can readily be seen that the task is not an easy one. The great mass of mankind take it for granted that our day of rest had its origin with Jesus or His disciples, and that in some way they set a special stamp of approval upon it. This attitude is very similar to that taken toward most other things of life. Our activities are based more upon custom and precedent than upon reason and evidence. Many of our religious icons are based upon opinions held by our forefathers. We have accepted them because our relatives and associates have done so before us, and not because they are based upon evidence that we ourselves have acquired. Did Sunday keeping begin with Jesus and His disciples as some tell us, or did it not? The only way we can find out is to go back and consider the evidence.

If Christ and His disciples did not command Sunday keeping, the problem is to find out when Sunday did begin to be observed regularly as a day of worship. Our source material in this field is somewhat limited, and this increases our problem. I have proceeded by dealing with each period separately, beginning with the apostles, and then following on through their immediate successors. We must recognize that custom and practice change with time. For this reason we should keep the different periods separated, and study carefully what actually took place at each step of the way. I have, therefore, considered the statements of each of the Fathers in the light of the times and circumstances in which he lived. This will give the reader an opportunity to learn for himself just what occurred during the first few centuries.

These findings are the result of several years of research in the literature of the early centuries of the Christian Era. The historical facts and the conclusion have been submitted to and approved by the history department of one of the leading American universities.

1. Did Gentile Converts Keep the Sabbath?

THE Christian church was born in the land of the Jews, with a Jewish outlook upon life, and with a background of Jewish opinions. All the first disciples were of Jewish extrac6on, with Palestinian Jewish ideas. In the early days of the church, these disciples labored among only their own people, and consequently gained converts from only that race. Dr. Philip Schaff says, “The Jewish converts at first very naturally adhered as closely as possible to the sacred traditions of their fathers. They could not believe that the religion of the Old Testament, revealed by God Himself, should pass away.” [1]

Early Christians Jewish

While the early Christians saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah, and recognized that type had met antitype, and that the use of Jewish sacrificial offerings and ceremonies had ceased; yet, apart from this, they recognized and observed the other Jewish rituals. In fact, since they were the ones who saw and acknowledged Jesus as the long-looked-for Messiah and the antitype of the Scriptures, they considered themselves the true Jews, and the lawful successors of Abraham and the prophets.

Maintained Jewish Customs

The Jewish narrowness and exclusiveness continued for years after Jesus had left them. Their orthodoxy to Jewish notions was clearly shown ten years after the crucifixion in their attitude toward Peter when he preached the gospel to certain Gentiles in Caesarea. The record reads: “The apostles and brethren that were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, Thou went in to men uncircumcised, and did eat with them.” Acts 11:I-3.

Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert, in writing about this, says, “The disciples of Jerusalem are represented as contending with Peter because he had gone in to men uncircumcised and had eaten with them. . . . They did not admit the right of any Jew to cease observing the Jewish law, and to disregard the prohibition against eating with the uncircumcised. The latter step was not taken even at the council some years later, and we certainly cannot suppose that it was taken at this time.' [2] Surely the disciples in this day were not observing Sunday, a Gentile day, when there was such bitterness against even preaching the gospel to them. No. At that time the Christians still followed much of the ritual of the Jews. They kept the Sabbath, observed the feasts, and practiced circumcision.

Opposed Preaching to Gentiles

Peter explained the circumstances under which he associated with the Gentiles at Caesarea, and those men at Jerusalem finally seemed to assent to the work he had done under these special, peculiar conditions. But as soon as they heard that others had been preaching the gospel to the Grecians at Antioch, they immediately sent Barnabas up there to look into matters. The Scripture reads, “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spoke unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the band of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.” Acts 21:19-22.

Barnabas, being a good man and full of the Holy Ghost, repented at what he saw, and “exhorted them all [both Jews and Gentiles], that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” Acts 11:22. Then Barnabas immediately me t to find Saul, who was then at home, to get him to assist in the work at Antioch. This seems to be the beginning of a broadened vision of the work-that it really should include the Gentiles.

Dissension Among Members

But some of the brethren of Judea were now rather skeptical about the work of Barnabas himself, and came down to Antioch to investigate. Evidently Barnabas and Saul had not the necessity of requiring circumcision of converts from among the Gentiles. But the men from Judea believed it to he necessary. The record says, “Certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Acts 15:1. This brought a clash, for Paul contended with them, and the result was that a council was called at Jerusalem to consider whether circumcision should be required of the new converts from among the Gentiles.

This is the first recorded break from Jewish practices, twenty years after the church had been established. It was decided at this council that it was not necessary for converts k~ the Gentiles to be circumcised. The decision was as follows: “James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me.... My sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.” Acts 15:13-21.

Meaning of the Jerusalem Council

Philip Schaff, the church historian, says, “It was a decree of emancipation of the Gentile disciples from circumcision and the bondage of the ceremonial law.... Hereafter the Judaizing doctrine of the necessity of circumcision for salvation was a heresy, a false gospel.... It imposed upon the Gentile Christians abstinence from meat offered to idols, from blood, and from things strangled (as fowls and other animals caught in a snare). The last two points amount to the same thing. These three restrictions had a good foundation in the Jewish abhorrence of idolatry.” [3] And George T. Purves, another church historian, says, “Its motive was to prevent offense to the Jews who dwelt in every city, and the simplest explanation is that these four things were prohibited because they were the Gentile customs which were most abhorrent in Jewish eyes.” [4]

Although this council decided that it was not necessary for the Gentiles to practice circumcision, yet converts from the Jews still did. As Doctor Schaff says, “The status of the Jewish Christians was no subject of controversy, and hence the decree is silent about them. They were expected to continue in their ancestral traditions and customs as far as they were at all consistent with loyalty to Christ.” [5] As the Sabbath was not a question of controversy at this time, it was understood that all, both Jews and Gentiles, would continue its observance. In fact, these same people who decided that circumcision was not required of the Gentile converts, understood that they would continue the observance of the Sabbath. They said they did not need to write more because they met every Sabbath and heard the writings of Moses read, which gave them further instruction regarding their duties. Acts 15:21. If they understood that Sabbath observance and ceremonial practices were on the same basis, why did they make a difference between them here?

The document that was sent to them begins, “The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.” Acts 15:23. This epistle [6] was to the Gentiles-not the Jews-who were meeting every Sabbath day and listening to the reading of Moses. It was taken to them by Paul and Barnabas and two men from Jerusalem. When these men got there with these decrees for the Gentile Christians to follow, they observed the Sabbath every place they went, whether there were synagogues in which they could meet or not. The record is, “As they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem.” “And on the Sabbath we went out of the city by a riverside, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spoke unto the women which resorted thither.” Acts 16:4,13.

Paul's Custom of Sabbath. Observance

This shows that Paul and the other apostles at that time considered that the Sabbath was on a different basis from circumcision and Jewish ritual. Otherwise Paul would have protested against it, just as he did against circumcision. But instead of that, when he came with the decrees from the council at Jerusalem, notifying the Christian Gentiles of their deliverance from circumcision and the ritual of the Jews, wherever he went he set the example by observing the Sabbath. When he came to Thessalonica, he, “as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures.” Acts 17:2. This states that it was Paul's manner, or custom, to do that. Then, when he went to Corinth, “he reasoned in the synagogues every Sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.” Acts 18:4.

When Paul was at Jerusalem the last time, the Jews brought him to trial before the Roman governor. At this trial they naturally sought for everything they could find to bring against him-his doctrines as well as his conduct. He was accused of being “a mover of sedition among all the Jews” and “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” Acts 26:4-6. These were the Jews who found so much fault with Jesus because He did not keep the Sabbath in a manner pleasing to them, and who complained because His disciples picked a few heads of grain as they were passing through a field on the Sabbath, thus, they claimed, desecrating the day.

Paul Loyal to Jewish Customs

Now if Paul at the time of this trial had abandoned the observance of the Sabbath altogether, the Jews surely would -have had just ground, from the Jewish viewpoint, for accusing him of heresy, which they were then trying to do. But all through it there is never a word from them about keeping the Sabbath. Rather, we hear Paul say, “My manner of life from my youth . . . know all the Jews; . . . that after the most straightest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers.” Acts 26:4-6. “Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple. . . . have I offended anything at all.” Acts 25:8. And when he got to Rome he called the Jews together and said, “I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers.” Acts 26:17.

Now Paul could never have said that if he had abandoned altogether one of the most sacred observances of the Jews the Sabbath. In fact it was while Paul was trying to demonstrate his loyalty to Jewish customs that he was taken prisoner in the temple.

When he got to Jerusalem and met the brethren there, they said to him, “Thou sees, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: and they are informed of thee, that thou teaches all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. . . . Do therefore this that we say to thee.... and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walks orderly, and keeps the law.” Acts 21:20-24. Paul then proceeded to do just what these brethren asked, in order to prove that he walked orderly and kept the law. We conclude from this that no change in the day of worship could have been made or recognized by Paul.

“Weizsacker justly remarks: 'The primitive Christians held fast to the faith and polity of their nation. They had no desire to be renegades, nor was it possible to regard them as such. . . . The Christians did not lay themselves open to the charge of violating the law. They assumed no aggressive attitude. That they appeared before the local courts as well as before the Sanhedrin, the supreme national council, tallies with the fact that, on the whole, they remained Jews. “ [7]

2. What Was Done Away by Christ?

The conclusions we have reached bring us into conflict with the opinions some have had, and also with the interpretations commonly placed on certain texts. For instance, many have supposed that Galatians 4: 10, 11, and Colossians 2:16 repudiate Sabbath keeping. We will take up the reference in Galatians first. It reads, “You observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.”

Paul a Sabbath Observer

Does Paul mean to reprove those Galatians for observing the Sabbath? Let us see. This letter was written not later than 58 AD., or six years after the Jerusalem council. Right after this council we find Paul making his second missionary tour, delivering in every place the decrees which set the Gentiles free from ceremonial bondage, and at the same time setting an example of Sabbath observance. It was on this trip that he passed through Galatia and raised up the churches to whom he is writing in this text. Among other things he reproved them for departing from the teaching he had brought them at the time of his first visit, and adds, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Gal. 1:8. Thus it is evident that Paul had not changed his doctrine or his practices.

What Paul Warned Against

Scholars in this field recognize that James and the church at Jerusalem never gave up Sabbath keeping so long as Jerusalem stood. When Paul was there at least two years after he wrote the epistle to the Galatians, he proceeded to show that he was in accord with his brethren in Jerusalem, as is recorded in Acts 21:20-24. Even after that, when he was at Rome, he said, “I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers.” Acts 28:17.

Therefore, Paul was not condemning the Galatians for doing the same as did he. About what, then, was he warning the Galatians? It was not that it was wrong to observe the Sabbath, for he was doing that himself. It was not that it was wrong to perform the act of circumcision, for after the Jerusalem council he had Timothy circumcised. Acts 16:1 What was it then?

In this same letter he said, “In Jesus Christ neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision.- Gal. 5:6. It made no difference whether a man went through the form as such, or not. But it did make a difference if a man did that for salvation. What had they been taught? “Certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren and said, Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Acts 15:1. That was the contention-whether it was necessary for salvation. Paul wrote and warned them about keeping days and months and times and years, and being circumcised as a means of salvation. He told them that if they could be saved by that means, they did not need Christ or a savior.

“Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.... Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; you are fallen from grace.” Gal. 5:2-4. “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” Gal. 2:16.

It seems probable that the Galatian church was influenced by the early Jewish Gnosticism. The warning of Paul indicates that. The early Gnostics were Jewish converts who held to their old rituals and accepted certain Oriental ideas. It is possible that these days and months and times and years about which Paul warns them indicate an Oriental trend similar to that at the Colossian church. Dr. Shirley Jackson Case, in his book, 'Evolution of Early Christianity,” says: “The result of this admiration for the heavens was a disposition to deify not only all the heavenly bodies, but also the elements-fire, air, water, and earthas well as the phenomena of time-seasons, months, weeks, days, hours.” [1] If this influence was present in Galatia, it would explain Paul's attitude.

Colossians Not to Be Judged

The reference in Colossians reads: ---Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days.--- Col. 2:16. What does he mean? How can a man keep another from judging him? Does Paul mean that they were to keep all those feasts so well that no one would be able to judge them, or to find fault with the way they did it? If he meant judging in the ordinary sense, we would have to draw this conclusion.

Chrysostom comments upon Colossians 2:16 as follows: “He said not, 'Do not then observe them,' but, 'Let no man judge you.' . . . He argues with these persons, almost stopping their mouths, and saying, you ought not to judge.--- This church Father of the fourth century certainly did not believe that this text abolished the Sabbath.

A False Philosophy

In his letter to the Colossians Paul is not warning them simply about the danger of depending upon ritual for salvation, as in the Galatian letter, but against a strange set of doctrines that tended to overthrow the teaching of the gospel. This sixteenth verse is the conclusion of an argument which Paul had used to show that Jesus had paid the price of man's salvation, and had completely obliterated every trace of the document of debt, and had set him free. Then he adds, “And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words: . . . beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Col. 2:4-8. Clearly this was a warning against a philosophy that tended to lead away from Christ. Those who were doing that in the first century were Gnostics who held to the ritual of the Jews, but denied the divinity of Christ, and claimed to be Christians. This seems to be the people to whom Paul refers here.

He says, “Let no man judge [krineto] you.” This word is translated in 1 Corinthians 7:37 as “decree.” If we should translate it that way here, it would read, Let no man make decrees for you to follow concerning meat and drink, etc. It was a warning to the Colossians about false teachers who were making decrees for men to follow which were leading them away from Christ. He says, “Let no man beguile you of your reward. . . . Why as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances . . . after the commandments and doctrines of men?” Col. 2:18-22. This was a warning against men who were denying the merits of Christ in the salvation of man. These men were relying upon ritual rather than upon Christ.


But even more than that, these Alexandrian Jewish Gnostics denied the divinity of Christ. Mr. E. de Pressense says, “The system of Simon Magus, which belongs to the same date, is strongly impregnated with elements borrowed from the pantheism of the East. It appears to us, then, probable that the heretics of Colosse and of Ephesus brought together in hybrid union Jewish and pagan ideas. . . . Against such false and vain speculations the apostle sets the grand and powerful doctrine of Christianity, that between God and the world there is but one mediator, the Eternal Son, who is the express image of the Divine Person, 'by whom and for whom were all things created.' He points to the cross triumphing over all the malignant powers with which false science sought to fill up the gulf between earth and heaven. “ [2]

These people were steeped with Platonic philosophy, and believed that matter itself was evil. They believed that God did not and could not have any contact with it except through a retinue of angels and inferior beings. Thus they believed ,that Jesus was only a man born into the world like other men, and that hence there was in Him no salvation. Now that philosophy repudiated every principle for which Paul stood, and for which he had given his life. That is why he writes, “Let no man beguile you of your reward,” which he believed they would lose if they accepted and followed the decrees of these Jewish Gnostics.

Distinction Between Jewish Feasts and the Sabbath

In both the Galatian and the Colossian letters a series of feast days and holy seasons are mentioned, which were a part of the ceremonies of the Jews, the first and last days of each feast being designated a Sabbath. Paul evidently put these feasts on the same basis as circumcision, and considered them Jewish, and not applicable to Gentile believers. However, his attitude toward the weekly Sabbath was entirely different. Of course we may think of it as being just as ritualistic as the other ceremonies. But that does not prove that Paul thought of it in that way. He continued to observe the Sabbath and to sanction it among the Gentiles after he had taken a decided stand against Gentile Christians' following Jewish ritual.

I have yet to find a writer in the early church who quotes Paul as teaching that the decalogue, or any part of it, was abrogated. We do find, however, among the church Fathers a sentiment that the decalogue was still binding, and that it was the ritualistic law that was nullified.

Irenaeus writes, “God at the first, indeed, warning them by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning He had implanted in mankind, that is, by means of the decalogue (which, if anyone does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them.” [3]

In the “Apostolic Constitutions” we read, “He that was the Lawgiver became Himself the fulfilling of the law; not taking away the law of nature, but abrogating those additional laws that were afterwards introduced. “ [4]

Socrates, the historian of the fifth century, writes, “They have not taken into consideration the fact that when Judaism was changed into Christianity, the obligation to observe the Mosaic law and the ceremonial types ceased. And the proof of the matter is plain; for no law of Christ permits Christians to imitate the Jews. On the contrary, the apostle expressly forbids it; not only rejecting circumcision, but also deprecating contention about festival days.” [5] Then in this same book a little farther on, he says, “Almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries [the Lord's supper] on the Sabbath of every week." Id. Therefore, these early Fathers did not believe that the decalogue, or any part of it, was done away with.

3. Sunday in the Early Church

While the apostle Paul lived, he and his associates observed the Sabbath. The question naturally arises as to the origin of the observance of Sunday and what the attitude was toward it. When did Christians begin to observe it? The first definite mention by the Christians of Sunday, or “He tou heliou hemera,” the day of the sun, as a day of worship, was made by Justin Martyr about the year 150 AD. Before that time Sunday, among the Jews and early Christians, was called the first day of the week.

First Day References

The first day of the week is first mentioned in the New Testament in connection with the resurrection of Christ on that day. The references are Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24: 1; and John 20: 1. As these are only simple references to the fact of the resurrection of Christ, we can get no argument for Sunday observance from them. A further reference is made in John 20:19, where the apostle records the meeting of Jesus and His disciples. But this still gives no clue as to any importance being then attached to the day by the disciples, for they were at the place where they “abode” (Acts 1:13), or in their lodging place in Jerusalem; and that “for fear of the Jews.” This would indicate that there was so much excitement among the Jews because of the report that Jesus had risen, that the disciples did not dare leave their place of abode for fear of being mobbed. Further, there could have been no possibility of their assembling there to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, for at that time they did not believe He had risen. Mark 16:9-13. So the Gospels furnish no light whatsoever on the question of Sunday observance.

There is a reference to the first day of the week in 1 Corinthians 16:2. The words are, “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gathering when I come.”. This verse seems to refer to a business procedure rather than to a religious service. They were asked to lay aside a gift for the destitute Christians in Judea according as God had prospered them. The way in which they were to find out how God had prospered them was to balance their accounts for the preceding week; then, according to their income, they were to lay aside a gift. The Encyclopedia Biblica says of this text, “It must not be overlooked, however, that the contribution of each one is to be laid up 'by him' (par houto), i.e., in his own home not in an assembly for worship.” [1]

Chrysostom's Comment

Chrysostom, in his homily, comments upon it: Paul “said not, 'Let him bring it into the church,' lest they might feel ashamed because of the smallness of the sum; but 'having by gradual additions swelled his contribution, let him then produce it, when I am come; but for the present lay it up,' said he, ,at home, and make thine house a church; thy little box a treasury. [2] This text, then, proves nothing about Sunday observance, for they could balance their accounts at home on one day as well as on another.

At the same time this text might imply that the Corinthians were observing the Sabbath with Jewish strictness, and had been having some difficulty in getting their accounts of the week balanced and ready for the Sabbath before the sun sank behind the hills on Friday night. And it might be that Paul advised that this work be postponed until after the Sabbath. Then, before the work of the new week was begun, they could balance the account of the previous week and lay aside a gift.

The only other clear reference to the first day of the week in the New Testament during the life of Paul, is found in Acts 20:7. Further, this is the only place in the New Testament where a religious service is mentioned as being held on the first day of the week. In order to ascertain the significance of this meeting, a number of things must be taken into consideration. What does this service indicate? The record reads, “Upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight!' This tells of a night meeting that continued until the breaking of the day, in the midst of which a young man fell out of the window and was restored by Paul. Since this was a night meeting on the first day of the week, Jewish reckoning, it would occur on what we now call Saturday night, for their day began at sunset. Conybeare and Howson say of it, “The labors. of the early days of the week that were spent at Troas are not related to us, but concerning the last day we have a narrative. . . . It was the evening which succeeded the Jewish Sabbath.” [3] If this is right, it was not strictly a Sunday service. And there is no direct evidence outside of this text that at this time it was the practice of the church to come together for a special meeting of breaking of bread on Sunday.

The Breaking of Bread

The only other New Testament record concerning a time for breaking bread is in Acts 2:46, where it is stated that they did it daily. Professor Mc Giffert says, “There can be little doubt that throughout the period with which we are dealing the disciples came together in larger or smaller companies, whether for the breaking of bread or for mutual edification, as often as they could, and that they did not confine their religious meetings to stated days and times.'' [4] If at Troas they were still following that practice, the meetings of the other days were not mentioned. Then probably this one would have been spoken of, not because of the day, but because it was one that continued all night and Paul did not expect to see them again (Acts 20:25), and because of the restoration of the young man who fell out of the window.

Early Church Customs

So far as actual customs in the church were concerned, they varied. Some were still having the Lord's supper daily, while others had it only on certain occasions. I give the statements of some of the early Fathers, showing that there was no uniformity in the practice of the believers over a period of some four hundred years.

In reply to an inquiry, Jerome wrote, “You ask me whether you ought to fast on the Sabbath and to receive the Eucharist [Lord's supper] daily, according to the custom-as currently reported-of the churches of Rome and Spain. . . . As regards the holy Eucharist you may receive it at all times without qualm of conscience or disapproval from me.` [5]

Basil of Pontus wrote, “It is good and beneficial to communicate ... four times a week, on the Lord's day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath. . . . At Alexandria and in Egypt each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion at his own house, and participates in it when he likes.”' [6]

The historian Sozomen said, “There are several cities and villages in Egypt where, contrary to the usage established elsewhere, the people meet together on Sabbath evenings, and, although they have dined previously, partake of the mysteries [the Lord's supper].” [7]

John Cassius wrote, “Wherefore, except vespers and nocturnes, there are no public services among them in the (lay except on Saturday and Sunday, when they meet together at the third hour for the purpose of holy communion.” [8]

Justin Martyr says, “On the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read. . . . Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers.” [9]

The “Didache” reads, “And on the sacred day of the Lord come together and break bread and give thanks.” [10]

Socrates informs us that “almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries [the Lord's supper] on the Sabbath of every week.” [11]

Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, in a letter to the emperor Trajan in regard to the Christians, said, “They met on a certain stated day before it was light . . . to eat a common and harmless meal.” [12]

We have all this testimony regarding the love feasts and communion services in the church. Some had them daily, some four times a week, some only twice; and Justin Martyr says that in Alexandria they had them on Sunday, while Socrates, the historian of the fourth century, says almost all the churches had them on the Sabbath. But we can hardly conclude from these references that the first day was set apart for the celebration of the Lord's supper in Paul's time, for the first statement that mentions any definite day for communion was about one hundred years after the meeting at Troas.

No Proof for the Troas Meeting

The statements of Pliny and Justin Martyr are often quoted to prove that this was a weekly meeting at Troas. But what does this involve? Pliny wrote his letter sixty years after this Troas meeting. And it was a whole generation later that Justin Martyr made his statement. So simply from the standpoint of time there were plenty of opportunities, after the meeting at Troas, for changes to take place in the celebration of the Lord's supper.

Then there is another point that should be taken into consideration. The greatest changes in the Christian ritual were made, not during the lifetime of Paul, but later. While Paul lived, the temple still stood at Jerusalem, and that city remained the center and headquarters of the Christian church. As Doctor Schaff says, “The congregation of Jerusalem became the mother church of Jewish Christianity, and thus of all Christendom.” [13] At that time everything was carried on under Jewish influence and with a Jewish perspective. To this place Christians came from all parts of the country to celebrate the great feasts of the Jews. And from this center missionaries were sent out into the mission field. The disciples who still resided there continued to practice many of the rituals of the Jews, and to impose them upon others as far as possible. This influence is revealed in the experience that Paul had with them at the time of his last visit when they said to him, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law.” Acts 21:20. So long as Jerusalem stood and remained the center of the Christian church, it was impossible to depart very far from Jewish practice.

Changes at the Fall of Jerusalem

But after Paul's death Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews and the Christians were scattered.

Professor Harnack says, “Before long the relation of Jewish Christians to their kinsmen the Jews also took a turn for the worse-that is, so far as actual relations existed between them at all. It seems to have been the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple which provoked the final crisis, and led to a complete breach between the two parties. No Christian, even supposing he was a zealous Jewish Christian, could look upon the catastrophe which befell the Jewish state, with its capital and sanctuary, as anything else than the just punishment of the nation for having crucified the Messiah. Strictly speaking, he ceased from that moment to be a Jew; for a Jew who accepted the downfall of his state and temple as a divine dispensation, thereby committed national suicide.” [14]

Jerusalem was no longer the center of Christian activity, and it lost its influence upon the church. As Doctor Schaff says, “At last the victory was won. The terrible persecution under Nero, and the still more terrible destruction of Jerusalem, buried the circumcision controversy in the Christian church.” [15]

Robert Rainy says, “From the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus it must have been difficult for Jewish Christians, even for those who clung most to the law, to maintain friendly relations with official or devout Judaism; and after the war of Bar Cocheba it became, as a rule, impossible. No Christian could support the movement of that warlike messiah. Christians were henceforth denounced by Jews as apostates; and a formal curse directed against them became a tradition of Jewish worship. Authoritative Judaism, of the schools and of the synagogues, finally shut its doors against all kinds of Christians. . . . As regards the Christian church, the effect of these events was to fuse the believers from the circumcision and those from among the Gentiles still more completely into one community!' [16]

Then those Christians who had lived at Jerusalem under the Jewish influence got out where they could see things from another angle. They were no longer so anxious to please the Jews, for the Jewish power had been broken, and they had given up the hope that the Jews would someday accept Christ as a body. As time went on, a larger per cent of the converts were from the Gentiles, and more and more of a Gentile influence was brought in. All these things go to show that the probabilities are much stronger that changes in Christian practice took place after the destruction of Jerusalem rather than before that time. But when Jerusalem was destroyed, Paul was dead. So nothing in Paul's writing should be construed to imply Sunday observance by him.

Now we have given all the texts in the New Testament regarding the possible observance of Sunday so long as Paul lived, and there seems to be no substantial, reliable evidence concerning its observance at that time. And, unfortunately, for this period there is no other historical evidence. Pliny and Justin Martyr wrote too long after this time to have any bearing on the question. And Pliny says that they had meetings on a certain day, not necessarily on Sunday. Consequently, with all this before us, it seems that we must look for the substitution of Sunday for the Sabbath as a day of rest in the Christian church, after the death of Paul, rather than before it.

4. The Lord's Day

THE only scripture written after the destruction of Jerusalem that anyone has ever pretended to use to substantiate Sunday observance is Revelation 1:10, in which John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day.” It is then assumed that because Sunday has been designated “the Lord's day,” by some in later times, John must have alluded to it in that way. This is an unwarranted conclusion. The book of Revelation does not tell us which day was meant, and such men as Augustine, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria lived too long afterward for us to find out from them what John meant. What is the evidence that at the time John lived this day had received the special title, “Lord's day”?

John and the First Day

We are not sure just when the book of Revelation was written. In early times, and during the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the consensus of opinion was that it was at the time of the persecution of the emperor Domitian, 96 AD. Although scholars are not fully agreed as to the date of its composition, they are fairly well agreed that the book was written before either the Gospel or the Epistles of John.

Now if there had come in by this time a special, peculiar significance attached to Sunday, and it was then designated ',the Lord's day,” of course John himself, if he so used that term in Revelation, in his later writings would also thus have designated the day. But the same John in his later writings [1] calls Sunday simply “the first day of the week,” just as do all the other New Testament writers. Is it possible that this day had now taken on this added significance with an altogether new title, so different from what the other New Testament writers understood, and John himself does not mention it? In his writings John was always very careful to explain any expression or practice which he thought was not familiar to his readers much more so than any other of the New Testament writers. Notice the following: “And John also was baptizing in Aenion, . . . for John was not yet cast into prison.” John 3:23, 24. “Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spoke of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray Him, being one of the twelve.” John 6:70, 71. “Nicodemus said unto them (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them).” John 7:50. You may go on through the entire book, and you will find it a special characteristic of John to explain any point which he felt might not be clear . [2] But here on this important question there is not a word. Why? Further, Polycarp, an associate of the apostle John, apparently knew nothing about Sunday as the Lord's day. And Irenaeus, an associate and companion of Polycarp, mentions nothing about this in his writings.

Barnabas, Justin Martyr, and the First Day

Then there is another strange thing about this situation. If Sunday was known as the “Lord's day” during the last of the first and the early part of the second century, how can we explain the fact that the two strongest advocates of Sunday observance in the second century, Barnabas and Justin Martyr -in fact, the only ones thus far discovered, who denounced Sabbath observance and urged the observance of Sunday in that period-never referred to it as the Lord's day? Although they were trying to find a reason for observing Sunday, yet they always referred to it simply as the first day, or the eighth day; and in one instance Justin used the heathen expression, “he tou heliou hemera,” the day of the sun, in referring to it. If Sunday was then known as “the Lord's day,” and these men were urging the observance of it, why did they not use that title, and cite the apostle John as their example? All this seems to indicate that these men and their associates knew nothing about Sunday as the Lord's day.

The Lord's Day Defined

The only day which the Bible has ever mentioned as being the Lord's day is the seventh day of the week. The expression found in Isaiah 58:13, “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day,” refers to the seventh day. But did John refer to it thus in Revelation 1:10? There is an apocryphal book that claims to be giving the events that took place in the life of the apostle John, the same John who associated with Jesus and spoke of the Lord's day in Revelation 1: 10. In this book, “The Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John,” the author definitely calls the seventh day “the Lord's day.” He wrote, “On the seventh day, it being the Lord's day, he said to them: 'Now it is time for me also to partake of food.' “ [3] Of course we know nothing about the author of this book, but the fact that the above statement was included therein at least shows that there were people living in those days who did not believe that John referred to Sunday in his statement in Revelation. This is a book that was in existence in the early church, for it is mentioned by such men as Eusebius the historian, Epiphanius, Photius, Augustine, and others. Of course, it is a fact that later in the church Sunday was called the Lord's day. But the fact that it is so called in the third and fourth centuries, does not prove that John called it that.

Dionysius and the Lord's Day

We shall now give all the historical references that can be found which deal with the question of the Lord's day in the first two centuries. We have already discussed Revelation 1: 10 and the statement found in the “Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John.” These indicate that it was the seventh day that was referred to as the Lord's day.

The next reference is found in the letter of Dionysius to the church at Rome, probably written about the first part of the second century and quoted by Eusebius. It reads, “We have passed the Lord's holy day, in which we have read your epistle. From it whenever we read it we shall always be able to draw advice, as also from the former epistle, which was written to us through Clement.” [4] They read the letter on the Lord's day. But what day was that? The letter does not say. Dionysius lived at the same time as the author of “The Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John,” or earlier, the probabilities favoring an earlier period. But so far, the only day that we have found called the “Lord's day” is the seventh day. And as there is no historical evidence to the contrary, we may conclude that Dionysius here referred to that same day.

The “Didache”

The other reference is found in the “Didache,” a book probably written during the second century, but just when or by whom we do not know. The statement reads, “On the sacred day of the Lord come together, and break bread, and give thanks.” [5]

This reference gives us no clue as to what day is referred to. And since we do not know the author of the book, or when it was written, it is hard to decide. Still, on the basis of its anti-Jewish sentiment and its similarity to the book of Barnabas, it may be that it refers to the first day of the week. If so, it must have been written the latter part of the century, because both Barnabas and Justin Martyr, who lived earlier in the century, and who were both advocates of Sunday observance, did not seem to know anything about the first day's being called the Lord's day. They referred to it simply as the first day, the sun's day, or the eighth day.

First Sunday Lord's Day Reference

The first authentic statement so far discovered in which the first day of the week is called the Lord's day is from Clement of Alexandria at the very close of the second century. [6] He says, “The Lord's day Plato prophetically speaks of in the tenth book of the Republic, in these words, 'And when seven days have passed to each of them in the meadow, on the eighth day they set out and arrive in four days.' “ [7]

These are all the authenticated references there are to the Lord's day in the first two centuries after Christ. The first positive reference that we can rely upon is from Clement of Alexandria. But he gets his authority from the writings of Plato, the great Greek philosopher, and he writes one hundred years after John wrote the book of Revelation. A great many changes could have taken place during that time, and, as a matter of fact, many changes did take place.

Changes in the Second Century

Think of what has taken place in the churches and in religious thinking since the beginning of the last one-hundred year period. At that time Darwin had not developed his theory of natural selection, which has transformed the thinking of the world, and brought about the antagonism between the Modernists and the Fundamentalists. If men of a hundred years ago could come from their graves today and visit their own beloved churches, they would think they were in another world. But just as great and radical changes were taking place in the early church in the second century. That was the time when Christianity was having its struggle with Gnosticism.

We began that century with the associates of John calling the seventh day the Lord's day, and ended the century with the first day of the week being called the Lord's day; hence the solution of this problem must be in this century. Our task is carefully to study the history of this period to see what was taking place.