John Paul’s Pseudo-Sabbath

Samuele Bacchiocchi January/February 1999 On May 31, 1998, Pope John Paul II issued a lengthy Pastoral Letter Dies Domini, a passionate plea for a revival of Sunday observance. Though this document has enormous historical significance because it addresses the critical problem of Sunday profanation at the threshold of the Great Jubilee Year (2000), it is flawed, both theologically and politically.

The Creation Sabbath

To begin, the pope goes to great lengths to find the theological foundation of Sunday observance in the Seventh-day Sabbath as first revealed in the Creation account. "In order to grasp fully the meaning of Sunday, therefore," he writes, "we must reread the great story of creation and deepen our understanding of the theology of the 'Sabbath.'" John Paul II then rightly emphasizes the theological development of the Sabbath from the rest of creation (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11) to the rest of redemption (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). He notes that in the Old Testament the Sabbath commandment is linked "not only with God's mysterious 'rest' after the days of creation (cf. Exodus 20:8-11), but also with the salvation which he offers to Israel in the liberation from the slavery of Egypt (cf. Deut 5:12-15). The God who rests on the seventh day, rejoicing in his creation, is the same God who reveals his glory in liberating his children from Pharaoh's oppression."

The problem, however, starts when he argues that Sunday, "the Lord's Day," now fulfills the creative and redemptive functions of the seventh-day Sabbath of Creation. The pope maintains that New Testament Christians "made the first day after the Sabbath a festive day" because they discovered that the creative and redemptive accomplishments celebrated by the Sabbath found their "fullest expression in Christ's Death and Resurrection, though its definitive fulfillment will not come until the Parousia, when Christ returns in glory."

No Evidence

The pope's attempt to make Sunday the legitimate fulfillment of the creative and redemptive meanings of the Sabbath is, however ingenious, void of biblical and historical support. There are, simply, no indications in the Bible that New Testament Christians ever interpreted the day of Christ's resurrection as the fulfillment and "full expression" of the Creation/redemption meanings of the Sabbath. The New Testament, in fact, attributes no liturgical significance whatsoever 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.

Jesus Himself never said a word about making the day of His resurrection 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 no such divine act exists in the Bible for a weekly Sunday memorial of the Resurrection.

The New Testament silence on this matter becomes even more cogent because most of it was written many years after Christ's death and resurrection. If by the latter half of the first century Sunday was viewed as the memorial of the Resurrection, which fulfilled the Creation/redemption functions of the Old Testament Sabbath, why is the New Testament void of any allusions regarding the celebration of the Resurrection on a weekly Sunday? This absence indicates that such developments occurred in the post-apostolic period.

Day of the Sun

From a historical perspective, Sunday is never called "the day of the resurrection" until the fourth century (see, for example, Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on Psalm 91, Patrologia Graeca 23. 1168; Apostolic Constitutions 2. 59. 3). Beginning from the second century, attempts were made to link Sunday with the Creation week, but not to make the day the fulfillment of the creative accomplishments memorialized by the seventh day. Rather, being the day of the sun, Sunday was connected to the first day of the Creation week because on that day the light was created. The creation of the light on the first day provided what appeared to many at that time a suitable justification for observing the day of the sun, the generator of light.

In his Apology to Emperor Antoninus Pius (about A.D. 150), Justin writes that Christians assemble on the day of the sun to commemorate the first day of Creation "on which God, transforming the darkness and prime matter, created the world" (67. 7). Christians, as Cardinal J. Danilou points out, noticed early the coincidence between the creation of light on the first day and the veneration of the sun that took place on the selfsame day (Bible and Liturgy, pp. 253, 255).

The pope says that "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. Genesis 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)."

The linkage between the first day of the week and the creation of the light, however, may not have been as "spontaneous" as suggested by the pope. In fact, in my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday I submit documents and arguments indicating that such linkage most likely occurred in the post-apostolic period, when the necessity arose to justify the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of the day of the sun.

This development began during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117 138). In A.D. 135 Hadrian promulgated a legislation that prohibited categorically the practice of Judaism in general and of Sabbathkeeping in particular. His aim was to liquidate Judaism as a religion at a time when the Jews where experiencing resurgent Messianic expectations that exploded in violent uprising in various parts of the empire, especially Palestine (see From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 178-182).

To avoid the repressive anti-Jewish and anti-Sabbath legislation, most Christians adopted the day of the sun, because it showed 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 Sunday worship, Christians appealed to God's creation of light on the first day and to the resurrection of the Sun of justice, both of which coincided with the day of the sun. Jerome, to cite only one example, explains: "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" (in Die Dominica Paschae homilia, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 78. 550. 1. 52).

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 primarily by virtue of the fact that the creation of the light on the first day provided what many Christians thought was suitable justification for observing the day of the sun.

Indeed, even if the Sabbath had been divinely established to commemorate God's creative and redemptive accomplishments, what right had the church to declare Sunday as its "fulfillment," "full expression," and "extension"? Was the typology of the Sabbath no longer adequate after the Cross to commemorate Creation and redemption? Was not the Paschal mystery fulfilled through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, which occurred respectively on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? Why should Sunday be chosen to celebrate the atoning sacrifice of Christ when His redemptive mission was completed on a Friday afternoon, when the Savior exclaimed "it is finished" (John 19:30)* and then rested in the tomb according to the Sabbath commandment? Doesn't this suggest that both God's creation rest and Christ's redemption rest in the tomb occurred on the Sabbath? How can Sunday be invested with the eschatological meaning of the final restoration rest that awaits the people of God, when the New Testament attaches such a meaning to the Sabbath?

First Day of the Week

The pope also attempts to justify from Scripture Sunday observance based on few New Testament references (1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:7-12; Revelation 1:10) to gatherings on first day of the week. For example, the first-day deposit plan mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 hardly suggests, as the pope says, that "since apostolic times, the Sunday gathering has in fact been for Christians a moment of fraternal sharing with the very poor." The apostle clearly states the purpose of his advice, namely, "so that contributions need not be made when I come" (1 Corinthians 16:2). The plan then proposed has nothing to do with enhancing Sunday worship by the offering of gifts for the poor; instead it was simply to ensure a substantial and efficient collection upon his arrival.

Four characteristics can be identified in Paul's plan. The offering was to be laid aside periodically ("on the first day of every week"), personally ("each of you"), privately ("store it up") and proportionately ("as he may prosper"). Why would Paul advise to lay aside the money privately at home if the church met regularly for worship on Sunday?

Paul's mention of the first day could be motivated more by practical than theological reasons. To wait until the end of the week or of the month to set aside one's contributions or savings is contrary to sound budgetary practices, since by then one finds himself to be with empty pockets and empty hands. On the other hand, if on the first day of the week, before planning any expenditures, one sets aside what he plans to give, the remaining funds will be so distributed as to meet all the basic necessities. The text therefore proposes a valuable weekly plan to ensure a substantial and orderly contribution on behalf of the poor brethren of Jerusalem, but to extract more meaning from the text would distort it.

Another first-day reference used by the pope was the Troas meeting reported in Acts 20:7-11. Yet this clearly indicates a special farewell gathering occasioned by the departure of Paul, and not a regular Sunday worship custom. In fact, the meeting began on the evening of the first day, which, according to Jewish reckoning (days begin with sunset), was our Saturday night, and continued until early Sunday morning when Paul departed. Being a night meeting occasioned by the departure of the apostle at dawn, it is hardly reflective of regular Sundaykeeping.

The claim that "the book of Revelation gives evidence of the practice of calling the first day of the week 'the Lord's Day'(1:10)" cannot be supported by the usage of the phrase in the New Testament or contemporary literature. The first clear designation of Sunday as the "Lord's day" occurs toward the end of the second century in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. This usage cannot be legitimately read back into Revelation 1:10. A major reason is that if Sunday had already received the new appellation "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 the new designation "Lord's day" already existed by the end of the first century, and expressed the meaning and nature of Christian Sunday worship, John would hardly have had reasons to use the Jewish phrase "first day of the week" in his Gospel. Therefore, the fact that the expression "Lord's day" occurs in John's 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)--suggests that the "Lord's day" of Revelation 1:10 can hardly refer to Sunday. (For a discussion of this text, see From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 111-131.)

Summing up, the attempt of the Pastoral Letter to find biblical support for Sunday worship in the New Testament references to the resurrection, the first day farewell night meeting at Troas (Acts 20:7-11), the first-day private deposit plan mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, and the reference to the "Lord's Day" in Revelation 1:10, is not new. The same arguments have been repeatedly used in the past and found wanting. An important fact, often ignored, is that if Paul or any other apostle had attempted to promote the abandonment of the Sabbath, a millenarian institution deeply rooted in the religious consciousness of the people, and the adoption instead of Sunday observance, there would have been considerable opposition on the part of Jewish Christians, as was the case with reference to the circumcision. The absence of any echo of Sabbath/Sunday controversy in the New Testament is a most telling evidence that the introduction of Sunday observance is a post-apostolic phenomenon.

Civil Laws

Whatever the theological weaknesses of the letter, the most disturbing aspect deal in the area of religious freedom and civil legislation.

The Pastoral Letter rightly notes that prior to the Sunday law promulgated by Constantine in A.D. 321, Sunday observance was not protected by civil legislation. In many cases Christians would attend an early morning service, and then spend the rest of Sunday working at their various occupations. Thus the Constantinian Sunday law, as the pope points out, was not "a mere historical circumstance with no special significance for the church," but a providential protection that made it possible for Christians to observe Sunday "without hindrance."

The importance of civil legislation that guarantees Sunday rest is indicated by the fact that "even after the fall of the Empire, the Councils did not cease to insist upon arrangements [civil legislation] regarding Sunday rest." In the light of this historical fact the pope concludes that even "in our own historical context there remains the obligation [of the state] to ensure that everyone can enjoy the freedom, rest and relaxation which human dignity requires, together with the associated religious, family, cultural and interpersonal needs which are difficult to meet if there is no guarantee of at least one day of the week on which people can both rest and celebrate."

The need for civil legislation that guarantees Sunday rest, the Pope points out, was reaffirmed by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), in which he speaks of "Sunday rest as a worker's right which the State must guarantee." The pope believes that Sunday legislation is especially needed today, in view of the physical, social, and ecological problems created by technological and industrial advancements.

"Therefore," the pope concludes, "also in the particular circumstances of our own time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy."

According to the Pastoral Letter, Sunday rest legislation is needed not only to facilitate the religious observance of Sunday, but also to foster social, cultural, and family values. "Through Sunday rest, daily concerns and tasks can find their proper perspective: the material things about which we worry give way to spiritual values; in a moment of encounter and less pressured exchange, we see the true face of the people with whom we live. Even the beauties of nature--too often marred by the desire to exploit, which turns against man himself--can be rediscovered and enjoyed to the full."

Yet to call upon Christians to "strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy," means to ignore that in our pluralistic society there are Christians and Jews who keep the seventh-day Sabbath holy, and Muslims who observe Friday.

If Sundaykeepers expect the State to endorse Sunday as their legislated day of rest and worship, Sabbathkeepers, then, have an equal right to expect the State to endorse Saturday as their legislated day of rest and worship as well. To be fair to the various religious and non-religious groups, the State would then have to pass legislation guaranteeing special days of rest and worship to different people. Such legislation is inconceivable because it would disrupt our socioeconomic structure.

Sunday laws, known as "blue laws," are still on the books of some American states and represent an unpleasant legacy of intolerance. Such laws have proved to be a failure, especially because their hidden intent was religious, namely, to foster Sunday observance. People resent state attempts to force religious practices upon them. This is a fundamental principle of religious freedom in America, the idea that no governmental agency has the right to use its power to coerce religious belief or observance of any kind.

Sunday legislation is superfluous today because the short-working week, with a long weekend of two or even three days, already makes it possible for most people to observe their Sabbath or Sunday. Problems still do exist, especially when an employer is unwilling to accommodate the religious convictions of a worker. The solution to such problems is to be sought not in a Sunday or Saturday law, but rather in such legislation as the pending Religious Freedom in the Workplace Act, which is designed to encourage employers to accommodate the religious convictions of their workers when these do not cause undue hardship to their company.

The pope's call for Sunday rest legislation seems to ignore that Sunday laws have not contributed to resolve the crisis of diminishing church attendance. In most European countries Sunday laws have been in effect for decades. On Sunday, indeed, most of business establishments, gas stations included, are shut down. Have Sunday laws facilitated church attendance? Hardly. In fact, church attendance in Western Europe is considerably lower than in the United States, where enforced Sunday legislation is much rarer than in Europe. In Italy, for instance, it is estimated that 95 percent of the Catholics go to church three times in their lives: when they are hatched, matched, and dispatched.


Whatever the theological weakness of the letter, the pope is right to be concerned about the moral decline in society and, as the head of his flock, about the decline in church attendance. Yet this moral and religious decline comes not from a lack of legislation, but from a lack of moral convictions that compel people to act accordingly. The church should seek to solve the crisis of diminishing church attendance by the internal moral and spiritual renovation of its members, rather than using the strong arm of the law.

If the pope could do that for his church, more and more of his members would be there on Sunday--even if the theological justification for the day is sorely lacking in Scripture and sacred history

Samuele Bacchiocchi is a professor of religion at Andrews University Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and is author of From Sabbath to Sunday (Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1977).

Article Author: Samuele Bacchiocchi