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Ancient history

How Did Early Christians Observe the Sabbath?

Early Christians debated between worshiping on Saturday or Sunday.

The exact ways in which Christians have observed the Sabbath Day or the Lord’s Day have varied, even after the time of the New Testament. There are also specific reasons why Sabbath observance has been tied to both Saturday and Sunday. In this interview, Jason R. Combs discusses how ancient Christians observed the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day.


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Read more about Sabbath observance in Sacred Time: The Sabbath as a Perpetual Covenant.


Table of Contents


Why did you write a chapter for Sacred Time?

I imagine that Gaye Strathearn thought of me for writing this chapter on the history of ancient Christians’ engagement with the concept of the Sabbath, because of my work on the book, Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints—Strathearn also has a chapter in that book— and because I had already published a couple of academic articles on the subject of ancient Christians and the Jewish Sabbath.

It would actually be many centuries before the idea gained ground.


What’s the difference between the Sabbath Day and the Lord’s Day?

Many Christians today, including Latter-day Saints, often use these terms interchangeably: Sabbath Day and the Lord’s Day. Originally, however, the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week (Saturday), the day of rest celebrated by Jews.

What Christians began calling the “Lord’s day” was the day of the Lord’s resurrection, the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead: Sunday.

In the ancient period, Christians distinguished between the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and Christian worship on the Lord’s day (Sunday). Although, it is a little more complicated than that because some ancient Christians also worshipped with Jews on the Sabbath.


Who was Justin Martyr?

Justin Martyr was a convert to Christianity in the early second century (died ca. 165AD). In one of his writings, he describes himself converting from the philosophy of Stoicism to that of the Peripatetics and Pythagoreans before turning to the philosophy of Plato, and finally to Christianity.

In that time, some saw philosophy and what we would call “religion” as the same; for instance, the Jewish historian, Josephus describes the sects of Judaism as philosophies.[i] As a Christian, Justin wrote several works that can today provide us with insights into Christian life and beliefs of his time.

Learn more about Justin Martyr in this Theology Academy video. Jason Combs says that Martyr and other early Christians didn’t think it was necessary to rest on the Sabbath.

Why did Justin Martyr believe that Christians should rest on Sunday?

Because no one did. It would actually be many centuries after Justin Martyr before the idea of applying Jewish Sabbath-day regulations to Sunday gained ground—most prominently among the English and Scottish beginning the 16th and 17th centuries.


What about Saturday?

That’s more complicated. One common Gentile criticism of Jews around the time of Justin Martyr was that Jews were lazy. The Roman poet Juvenal and the Roman historian Tacitus both criticize Jews for laziness. Their evidence? “It’s their fathers who are to blame, taking every seventh day as a day of laziness and separate from ordinary life,” Juvenal wrote.[ii] The Jewish Sabbath, the entire concept of taking a day off from work, was seen as evidence that Jews were lazy.

It seems that Justin Martyr bought into this stereotype. He believed that Jews had misinterpreted the purpose of the Sabbath. They had thought that the purpose of the Sabbath was to rest from work, but Justin insisted that the real purpose of the Sabbath was to help Jews come to know God.

As evidence for his interpretation of the Sabbath, Justin paraphrases something like Ezekiel 20:20 (NRSV)—“hallow my sabbaths… that you may know that I the LORD am your God” (see also Exodus 31:13 and Ezekiel 20:12).

For Justin, the primary purpose of the Sabbath was knowledge of God. But, for Justin, Jews failed to understand that and instead focused on resting on the Sabbath.

John’s experience as a Christian was very different from that of Justin Martyr.

Now, you may be wondering, how did Justin Martyr deal with those passages in the Old Testament that proclaim people should in fact rest on the Sabbath? For instance, one of the ten commandments includes this injunction: “the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10; NRSV).

As a Christian, Justin Martyr also accepted the Old Testament as scripture. So, how did he deal with passages like this one that talk about resting on the Sabbath? Well, he agreed with them.

But, again, he believed that Jews had misinterpreted the sort of work or deeds the commandment addressed. Justin insisted that the Sabbath is indeed a day of rest. But rather than a rest from physical labor, it should be a rest from sinful deeds!

And, Justin continued, since the Sabbath is a rest from sin, Christians should celebrate that kind of rest everyday: “the New Law demands that you observe a perpetual Sabbath,” Justin wrote.[iii]


What did Justin Martyr say were the reasons for worshiping on the Lord’s Day?

Justin Martyr was not against the idea of having one day a week set apart for worshipping the Lord. He simply insisted that the day was no longer the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) but had become the Lord’s day (Sunday).

In the Ten Commandments, the command to observe a Sabbath day concluded with this explanation: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20:11; NRSV).

The explanation Exodus had given for the Sabbath was that it recalls the creation of the world (contrast Deuteronomy 5:12–15).

Justin employs this same logic to explain the significance of the new holy day, the Lord’s day (Sunday): “And it is on Sunday that we all make assembly in common, since it is the first day, on which God changed darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our savior rose from the dead on the same day.”[iv]

Notice that Justin starts with the creation of the world, emphasizing that the first day, the beginning of creation, was on a Sunday. He then argues that the beginning of creation (Sunday) is more holy than the end of creation (Saturday, the Sabbath) because Jesus Christ was resurrected on that same day (Sunday).


Who was John Chrysostom?

John Chrysostom (AD 347–407) was a Christian who lived a couple centuries after Justin Martyr. Born into a wealthy family in Syrian Antioch, he received the best education available and eventually earned the epithet “golden-mouthed” (chrysostomos in Greek) for his rhetorical eloquence.

Baptized in his early twenties, John became increasingly devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Although he inherited significant wealth, he gave it away and became a monk.

In the years that followed, he would take on other leadership positions in the Church—never losing his desire to help the poor.

Finally, in AD 398, he was invited to become the Bishop of Constantinople, one of the wealthiest cities in the Empire, where he regularly preached against the wealthy and powerful from the pulpit of the Great Church (Magna Ecclesia), which would later become Hagia Sophia.


What changed between Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom?

A lot had changed about the status of Christians between the time of Justin Martyr (early to mid-second century) and John Chrysostom (late-fourth century).

When John was born, Christianity had already been one of the official religions of the Roman Empire for decades—ever since the Edict of Milan (AD 313) issued by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great.

The ancient meetings would seem quite familiar to us today.

And during John’s lifetime, when he was about thirty-three years old, the Roman emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire (February 27, 380). Also, in AD 321, Constantine had declared the Lord’s day, Sunday, an empire-wide day of rest.

So, John’s experience as a Christian was very different from that of Justin Martyr.


To what extent did Emperor Constantine influence which day of the week Christians worshiped on?

Constantine declared the Lord’s day (Sunday) an empire-wide day of rest in AD 321. It is also worth noting that Constantine declared that the Jewish Sabbath day (Saturday) should be similarly honored.

According to Eusebius, a Christian historian from the time of Constantine:

[Constantine] decreed that all those under Roman government should rest on the days named after the Savior, and similarly that they should honor the days of the Sabbath. . . . The Day of Salvation then, which also bears the names of Light-Day and Sun-Day, he taught all the military to revere devoutly. To those who shared the divinely given faith [Christianity] he allowed free time to attend unhindered the church of God, on the assumption that with all impediments removed they would join in the prayers.[v]

A statue of Constantine the Great in York, England. Constantine played a key role in the evolution of the Sabbath Day, according to BYU scholar Jason Combs.

So, Constantine did not resolve the dispute among some Christians regarding which day of the week should be honored as a holy day. Some Christians continued to worship on both days, even attending synagogues with Jews on Saturday before attending Church on Sunday.

Other Christians argued that it was not proper for Christians to attend Synagogue or celebrate the Sabbath (Saturday). For instance, a Synod in Laodicea (ca. AD 360), declared: “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring the Lord’s day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians.”[vi]

John Chrysostom also preached against Christians who observed the Jewish Sabbath: “If any of you, whether you are here present or not, shall … rush off to the synagogue . . . or share in the Sabbath, or observe any other Jewish ritual great or small, I call heaven and earth as my witnesses that I am guiltless of the blood of all of you.”[vii]


What were early Christian worship services like?

Early Christian worship services were somewhat different in the time of Justin Martyr than in the time of John Chrysostom. By the second century (Justin’s time), church services had developed some standard features. According to Justin Martyr, Christians gathered together on Sunday, read from what we call the Gospels and the Old Testament, and prayed together.

The person presiding over the meeting, gave a sermon; then, the one presiding would pray over the bread and watered-down wine, and everyone present would eat and drink. Afterward, the deacons would take the bread and wine to any Christians who were not present.

By the time of John Chrysostom, church services had become more elaborate—perhaps, in part, to allow more opportunities for Christians to participate.

Deacons and deaconesses guided people to their seats. There were planned readings from both Old Testament and New Testament with assigned readers, sermons by more than one person, singing led by another person with the congregation joining in, prayers over the congregations, and the administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Before the Sacrament, those who had not been baptized were dismissed.

And, after the bread and wine were blessed:

The bishop was the first to partake of the bread and wine, followed by the male elders (presbyters/priests), deacons, readers, singers, and ascetics. Then the women officers, deaconesses, celibate-women, and widows, in that order, proceeded to partake with their heads covered. Finally, all the baptized children and the remainder of the congregation, baptized men and women, came forward to receive the bread and wine. As each person stepped forward, the bishop said, “The body of Christ,” and the person who received the bread said, “Amen.” Then the deacon offered the cup of wine, saying, “The blood of Christ, the cup of life,” and the person who received it would say, “Amen.”[viii]

Summary of Apostolic Constitutions 8.13

How do Latter-day Saint sacrament meetings compare to early Christian worship meetings?

Modern Latter-day Saint sacrament meetings are both similar to and different from early Christian worship meetings. As Latter-day Saints, we incorporate a lot of the same features into our Sacrament Meetings.

Although our meetings are not as elaborate at the fourth or fifth-century Christian meetings described above, they are certainly more organized than the first or early-second century Christian meetings. The role of the Bishop in presiding over the meeting is something that we start to see evidence for in the early second century (I’m thinking the letters of Ignatius).

Certainly the format and much of the content of the ancient meetings would seem quite familiar to us today: hymns, talks or sermons, readings from scripture (although, in our Church today, we tend only to incorporate scriptures into our talks/sermons, rather than reading them separately), and the administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

As Latter-day Saints, we have adopted the words of blessing over the Sacrament from the Book of Mormon rather than from the Bible and Christian tradition, so the prayer of thanksgiving offered over the Sacrament in the ancient Roman world would likely seem unfamiliar to us.


In what types of spaces did early Christian worship?

In the second century, Christians did not yet have Church buildings and so they regularly met in a location they rented, such as a tavern or hotel, or even in a Christian’s small apartment.

At best, they might meet in a larger home of a local, wealthy Christian.

By the time of John Chrysostom, however, Christians regularly built basilicas devoted for Christian worship. The architecture of these buildings was adapted from common basilicas that were already part of non-Christian public space and typically found in Roman forums.

The Christian versions of these buildings, however, typically adopted imagery from the Jewish Temple. For more on this, see Matthew J. Grey’s chapter, “Sacred Spaces and Places of Worship: From House Churches to Monumental Basilicas” in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints!


What are you working on these days?

Well, I spend most my time teaching, but my immediate research work is focused on completing a years-long book project that began as my doctoral dissertation on dreams and visions in early Christian history.

When I’m not working on that, I’ve begun some initial research on a new project for Latter-day Saints: a book on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

And I should also mention that Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints is now in its third printing and should be available wherever you buy your books.


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About the interview participant

Jason Robert Combs is an assistant professor of Ancient Scripture and affiliate faculty of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University. His areas of expertise include New Testament, Second Temple Judaism, History of Christianity (1st–4th centuries CE), and New Testament Apocrypha.


Further Reading

Latter-day Saint Sabbath Resources

  • “Sabbath and Sunday in Ancient Christianity: Second through Sixth Centuries” in Sacred Time: The Sabbath as a Perpetual Covenant (BYU RSC)
  • Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints (Maxwell Institute)
  • The Changing Forms of the Latter-day Saint Sacrament (Interpreter)
  • Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (Oxford Academic)

Sources

[i].          http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

[ii].         Juvenal, Satires 14.105–6; translation from Susanna Morton Braund, ed., Juvenal and Persius, Loeb Classical Library 91 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[iii].        Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 12.3; translation from Thomas B. Falls and Thomas P. Halton, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003). Another translation can be found online, here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0128.htm

[iv].        Justin Martyr, First Apology 67.8; translation from Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, eds., Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Another translation can be found online, here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm

[v].         Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.18; translation modified from Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, Eusebius, Life of Constantine: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), 159. You can read an online translation as well, but it is not as good: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/25024.htm

[vi].        Canon 29, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 14, trans. Henry R. Percival (Oxford: Parker and Co.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 148 — Online you can find it here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3806.htm

[vii].       John Chrysostom, Against Judaizing Christians 1.8.1. If you’re interested in reading the whole sermon online, you can find it here: https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/chrysostom_adversus_judaeos_01_homily1.htm

[viii].      Summary of Apostolic Constitutions 8.13 from Jason R. Combs, “Sabbath and Sunday in Ancient Christianity: Second through Sixth Centuries” in Sacred Time: The Sabbath as a Perpetual Covenant, ed. Gaye Strathearn (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2023), 137–138.

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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