The argument for a later dating of the Lord’s Day celebrations on Sunday in Christian worship communities

By: Edwin Weber - Nov. 1, 2021


Historical, ritual, and liturgical studies around the genesis of Christian worship have always been plagued by the limitations of the sources. Most liturgical historians have been satisfied to take later particulars of the worship practices of Christians, which are well sourced, and extrapolate this back on early sources. But what if we dropped these assumptions, based upon where ritual practice arrived, and instead focused on applying strict historical principles on the study of liturgical practice? Such is the premise of Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson in The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011) which covers the early development of weekly and seasonal celebrations in the early church. In chapter 1 “The Lord’s day in the Apostolic age?” Bradshaw and Johnson (B&J) untangle the assumptions made by previous generations of liturgical scholars, introduce new ideas born out of contemporary scholarship, and lay out historically sound ground for understanding the transition of Christian celebrations from a Saturday Sabbath to a Sunday Lord’s Day. Their principal claim is that this transition took place later than previously assumed and originates not with Jewish Christian observations of the resurrection but with gentile Christian eschatological celebrations of the coming parousia.

The chapter starts with a compelling warning against “reading one’s own preconceptions into this particular subject” and an acknowledgement of the lack of “very firm evidence for what the earliest Christian practices might have been.”[1] This has been perhaps the largest challenge in understanding Christian worship in this early stage as too many scholars have taken lack of evidence as an opportunity to superimpose a host of dubious historical claims often predicated on personal belief. B&J take a strict historical approach, taking nothing for granted in the source material. This includes not assuming that early references to “the Lord’s Day” are necessarily references to Sunday worship practices, or that early isolated references to Sunday worship practices mean a pattern of worship on the first day of the week. Rather, they present the full body of evidence, summarize and evaluate scholarship, and draw their own conclusions.

Three biblical texts may imply Sunday gatherings but in each case B&J point out ambiguity. 1 Corinthians 16:2 implies a gathering of offerings on Sunday but does not explicitly mention worship. Acts 20:7-12 tells a story of a Sunday gathering where Paul spoke late into the night which may suggest some communities regularly met on Sunday, but Acts does not explicitly say that and the community might have gathered that night because Paul was set to leave the next day. A third text, Revelation 1:10 provides the final possible scriptural reference to Sunday worship. Here, John sets the setting for his vision, occurring when he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” which some have taken to mean Sunday, but this could be in reference to the prophetic eschatological Day of the Lord, apt for the apocalyptic vision that follows. In short, the Biblical witness to worship of a Sunday Lord’s Day is ambiguous at best.

Nonbiblical sources of this period offer further insight into the question. The Didache indicates aspects of worship on the Lord’s Day but does not explicitly say Sunday.[2] Most scholars have taken this to mean Sunday but B&J are insistent we not assume that without a reference to what day of the week the Lord’s Day was celebrated.

In another early source, Pliny the Younger refers to Christians worshiping on a fixed day, however he does not specify the day of the week.[3] Moreover, the letter refers to Christians gathering more than once on the same day. If this was on Sunday, this would be the only reference to two gatherings on the first day of the week. However, two gatherings for Saturday Sabbath celebrations, one for study and one for a shared meal, does have evidence.[4]

In Pliny’s account, we see further issues arise with whether this particular community used Jewish or Roman reckoning of time. If this community did use the Jewish keeping of the day, this could mean that the first gathering referenced by Pliny could have been a Saturday and the second one Sunday by the Christian community, both on the same day by his Roman timekeeping. While the matter of reckoning of time will still prove a challenge in examining the question of the when the Lord’s Day on the first day of the week became common practice, B&J argue that Christian communities continued to use Jewish timekeeping for their liturgical celebrations as evidenced by their use of the Jewish names for the days of the week among themselves.[5]

The next key source raised by B&J is the Epistle of Barnabas. Previously this work has been overlooked by liturgical scholars searching for the origins of Sunday worship practices due to consensus of a later dating of the work. However, more contemporary scholarship on the matter suggests that Barnabas could reasonably be dated to 96-98 CE.[6] B&J point out that if so this would be the earliest reference to the Lord’s Day on the first day of the week.[7] This confirms adoption of worship among Christians on Sunday at least by the late first century CE, generally later than previously assumed. Yet, by the earlier dating of Barnabas, B&J have been able to consider an earlier adoption of a Sunday Lord’s Day which otherwise would only be able to be conclusively dated to the early second century.

B&J’s examination of Barnabas challenge commonly held assumptions not only about the origins of Sunday worship but also the nature of such celebrations. Some contemporary scholars argue for an early adoption of worship on Sunday originating in Palestine as memorials of Sunday resurrection appearances of Jesus.[8] B&J cite both Xavier Léon-Dufour and Harald Riesenfeld in their rejection of this position. Léon-Dufour argues that Christian meal gatherings started first and stories about resurrection appearances later were incorporated.[9] Riesenfeld further notes that there is no expectation anywhere that the church remember the resurrection on the day of the week it occurred.[10] Barnabas first evokes eschatological images for Sunday celebrations: “the eighth day which is the beginning of another world” and only afterwards adds “also we keep the eighth day... in which also Jesus rose from the dead.”[11]

Thus, B&J argue that the primary shift from a Saturday Sabbath to a Sunday Lord’s Day occurred due to an emphasis on the eschatological quality seen in “eighth day” celebrations. Yet this change cannot be discussed without also considering broader shifts in the Christian movement, in particular as it distinguished itself from its Jewish roots. Barnabas, Justin Martyr, and Ignatius of Antioch all bear witness to the controversy of the late first and early second centuries between Jewish Christian communities’ observance of a Saturday Sabbath and gentile Christian communities’ observance of a Sunday Lord’s Day. Certainly the conflict was quite acute gauging by these writings.[12]

Understanding how different communities, of Jewish or gentile Christians and mixed communities, embodied the earliest Sabbath observations can elucidate the transition to Sunday celebrations of later development. William Horberry argues that during the first century the principal Jewish celebratory meal was held on Friday evening before Sunset.[13] B&J argue that this is almost certainly the meal originally celebrated as the eucharistic assembly for the first generation of Jewish Christians and it is likely that gentile Christians joined them.[14] B&J make an unsupported claim that it is possible some gentile Christians could have gathered on Saturday after sunset for eucharistic celebrations apart from their Jewish Christian neighbors. These celebrations would have had the added benefit of, by Jewish reckoning, being held on the first day of the week, possible precursors to later Sunday worship practices.

Thus, the best evidence suggests that Jewish Christians (and gentile Christians with them in mixed communities) observed the eucharist Friday before sunset, then regathered the next morning for Bible study as part of Jewish Sabbath practices, and that perhaps gentile Christans separately gathered for eucharistic celebrations on Saturday evening after sunset. B&J argue this was likely the case even in purely gentile communities who likely wanted to take advantage of the Roman recognition of Jews and their special religious privileges without which their gatherings could have been suppressed.[15] The transfer of the eucharistic assembly to Sunday morning could have only happened once even the Saturday shared meal was abandoned altogether in favor of the ritualized meal on Sunday. Later sources, especially Tertullian and Cyprian, confirm this occurred at least by the mid third century.[16]

B&J conclude that the movement away from a Saturday Sabbath was primarily focused on eliminating the day of rest aspect of the observation and when it took place, not actually changing the nature or quality of the worship itself. This movement from Sabbath to Lord’s Day celebrations is emphasized in the Epistle of Barnabas, likely the earliest definitive reference to a Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day (c. 96-98 CE), rooted in an eschatological celebration. The origins of the Sunday observation of the Lord’s Day are later than previously assumed, not as memorials of resurrection appearances but as eschatological celebrations in anticipation of the coming parousia. B&J’s choice to remain diligent to the discipline of historical evaluation breaks down conventionally held assumptions, resulting in a far more intriguing vision of early Christian worship practice, more diverse and accommodating than commonly perceived. Scholars of early Christian history, especially liturgical scholars, can greatly benefit from this approach advocated by Bradshaw and Johnson.

Bibliography

Bradshaw, Paul F. and Maxwell E. Johnson. “The Lord’s day in the Apostolic age?” in The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011.

Dugmore, C. W. “Lord’s Day and Easter.” Neotestamentica et Patristica, Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 6 (1962): 272–281.

Léon-Dufour, Xavier. Sharing the Eucharistic Bread. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.

Llewelyn, S. R. “The Use of Sunday for Meetings of Believers in the New Testament.” Novum Testamentum, 3 (2001): 205-223.

Paget, James Carleton. The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background. Tübingen: Mohr, 1994.

Riesenfeld, Harald. “The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in Judaism, the Preaching of Jesus and Early Christianity.” In The Gospel Tradition, 111–137. Oxford: Blackwell 1970.

Rordorf, Willy. Der Sonntag Geschichte des Ruhe- und Gottesdiensttages in ältesten Christentum. Zurich: Zwingli Verlag, 1962.

Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd edition. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

William Horbury, “Cena Pura and Lord’s Supper.” in The Beginnings of Christianity, 219–265. Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor editors. Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2005.

Young, Norman H. “‘The Use of Sunday for Meetings of Believers in the New Testament’: A Response,” Novum Testamentum, 2 (2003): 111-122.


[1] Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, “The Lord’s day in the Apostolic age?” in The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011).

[2]  Didache 14:1.

[3]  Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.

[4] C. W. Dugmore, “Lord’s Day and Easter,” Neotestamentica et Patristica, Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 6 (1962): 270.

[5] Bradshaw and Johnson, “The Lord’s Day,” in The Origins of Feasts. For additional commentary on the reckoning of time and underlying scholarship cf. Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd edition (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 14–16; S. R. Llewelyn, “The Use of Sunday for Meetings of Believers in the New Testament,” Novum Testamentum, 3 (2001): 213-219; and Willy Rordorf, Der Sonntag Geschichte des Ruhe- und Gottesdiensttages in ältesten Christentum (Zurich: Zwingli Verlag, 1962), 39-41.

[6]  James Carleton Paget, The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background (Tübingen: Mohr, 1994), 9–27.

[7] Epistle of Barnabas 15:7-9.

[8] Cf. Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (Naperville: Allenson 1953), 15-16; and Rordorf, Der Sonntag, 215ff.

[9] Xavier Léon-Dufour, Sharing the Eucharistic Bread (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 39–40.

[10] Harald Riesenfeld, “The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in Judaism, the Preaching of Jesus and Early Christianity” in The Gospel Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell 1970), 111–137.

[11] Barnabas 15:8-9.

[12] Cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67.3; Dialogue with Trypho 41.4, 138.1; Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians 4.1; Smyrnaeans 7.1, 8.2; and Magnesians 9.1.

[13] William Horbury, “Cena Pura and Lord’s Supper” in The Beginnings of Christianity, Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor editors, (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2005), 219–265.

[14] Norman H. Young, “‘The Use of Sunday for Meetings of Believers in the New Testament’: A Response,” Novum Testamentum, 2 (2003): 117.

[15] Cf. Pliny, Letters 10.96.

[16] Tertullian, De corona 3; De idolatria 14; and Cyprian, Epistles 62.16.4.





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