Sabbath and Sunday- What did the Early Christians observe?

Zavi-i Nisa

Galho, the Angami delicacy known to many is a stew. Originally, a vegetable stew, where Ga means vegetables and lho means cooked or cooking. In present times, this delicacy- Galho has been modified in varied ways by people according to their own tastes, yet they still give the name Galho. The interpretation of Sabbath and Sunday observance is no less different from the story of this delicacywhere everyone gives their own interpretation without clearly looking into the biblical, historical and theological background.  A lack of proper knowledge has thrown us into a confusion where the Sabbath law is literally claimed and applied to Sunday, which has somehow distorted both the meaning of Sabbath and Sunday in its real sense and meaning. This is why it is essential to trace back the historical and biblical insights and clear some of these confusions.

Many early Christians understood and wrote about the teachings of Jesus, Apostle Paul and others according to their faith, context and existing tradition. They lived in a time and context when only pieces of writings were available and no definite composed Scripture like we have today in our Bible. Therefore, a biblical, historical and theological understanding of the early Christians will inform us with the tradition of Sabbath and Sunday. This article is only limited to the biblical and theological thought of the early Christians from the first century to mid second century and the later years will be discussed in the following subsequent articles of this series.

The Jewish Sabbath is observed on the seventh day (from the sunset of Friday to the sunset of Saturday). It is a day of rest. While Sunday is the resurrection day of our Lord Jesus Christ and it is observed on the first day of the week. The New Testament contains no specific details about Sabbath observance. It also does not specify in any way that Sunday, is to be regarded as the Sabbath for the Christians. This article will give some insights as to how Sabbath and Sunday were regarded among the early Christians.

Jesus’ claim on the Sabbath

To begin with, in Mark 2:27-28, we find the conflict between Jesus and Pharisees over the observance of Sabbath.  The Pharisees rebuked the disciples of Jesus, in order to bring out the strict adherence of Sabbath. According to the Pharisees in this passage, in exceptional cases, Sabbath may infringe human life as it means ‘rest’. In his reply to the Pharisees, Jesus does not contest the validity of the Sabbath but Jesus affirms the truth in Mark 2:27 “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (NRSV). This means, to Jesus, human and his/her needs are of greater value than the Sabbath. Following, verse 28 is the confession and affirmation of Jesus by the Christian community as the Lord who decides the application of the Sabbath and even surpassing the Sabbath law. In the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Sabbath legalism comes to an end. This story gives the fundamental Christian understanding of the Sabbath. It is about what is greater to the Lord.  Jesus in dealing with the Sabbath affirms a new meaning that supplies universal necessities, to all human. Jesus in interpreting the Sabbath is against any human made regulations for its observance into a day of restraints or any factor that dehumanizes life.

After the ascension of Jesus, the event and teachings of Jesus Christ were narrated and interpreted (both oral and written) by the disciples and the apostles. This laid the foundation for the early Christians’ faith, along with the prevailing cultural values. The early Christian communities were a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile Christians. There were legalistic Jewish Christians who strictly emphasized the biding and the observance of the law as a matter of salvation (Acts 15: 1-2). On the other hand, there were others Jews who did not impose the law on the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:20). Similarly, there were also Gentile Christians who were devout followers to Judaism (Acts 13:43; 17:4, 17) while others regarded themselves as entirely free from the law. With this context in mind, we shall look into Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This letter gives details about Paul’s struggles in fighting against the law-keeping apostles at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:1).  We also clearly find Paul’s understanding towards the law but no direct dealings on the Sabbath. In the church of Galatia, Paul’s opponents were the Jewish Christian missionaries who had strong connection with the Jerusalem authorities. They intruded into the church and disturbed the relationship between Paul and the Galatians (Galatians 5:7; 4:13-15). In order to avoid persecutions by these Jews (Galatians 6:12), some insisted on the adherence of the law and emphasized the practice of circumcision and the cultic calendar.

This is why in Galatians 4: 3, 9-11 Paul confronts those opponents who were imposing a submission to the law and the cultic calendar. Paul’s argument indicates that within early Christian communities there were influential groups that advocated the imposition of law on Gentile Christians. In the text Galatians 4: 8-11, Paul used the Greek verb epistrepho which means ‘to return, turn around or turn back’.  Here, the verb epistrepho indicates the Galatians, in a process of turning back to their former beliefs. This verb epistrepho is also a technical term for religious conversion (1 Thessalonians 1:9, 2 Peter 2:21-22). For Paul, the observance on the law and the Hellenistic influences would be reverting to a pre Christian state. The Galatians may have thought that such observances would have brought them closer to perfection in their Christian lives. But for Paul, whatever leads one away from sole reliance on Christ whether based on good intentions or depraved desires is sub Christian and therefore to be condemned. For Paul, nothing can supersede Christ and this includes practices that undermine the faith in Christ. Paul’s controversies with this legalistic observance of the law as found in Galatians 4:10 (cf. Colossians 2:16) indicates the hold which Sabbath retained at the time. In Paul’s context and time, the law was becoming an impediment to the faith of many Gentile Christians. This problem was also coming from the tension and conflict of cultural identity, beliefs and practices between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. In such a prevailing context, Sabbath could have little significance. This is also attested by Paul’s predominance of the event and gospel of Christ where the observance of the first day of the week is affirmed as the resurrection day (Acts 20: 7, 1 Cor 15: 20) where the resurrection of Christ is celebrated and a new creation of humanity is instituted, to mark that Christians have their lives through him. Paul’s attitude towards the law is not very optimistic. However, this does not mean that Paul rejected the law. Paul himself accepted the law as the revealed word of God (Philippians 3:4-6, Galatians 1:14) but the law was given a secondary place, Christ being first.

Today, putting Christ in the first place or making Christ our priority would definitely reflect transformation both in our personal and social lives. A  Christ centered living would mean worship being a lifestyle and not just on Sunday. It would mean reading and reflecting upon the word of God to become Christ like in our thought, character and actions. Christ being first, would also mean having an inclusive and communitarian attitude towards others of different tribes, religions and ethnicity. It would also mean addressing and doing away with issues of divisions, poverty, conflict, injustice, bribery, corruption etc. Moreover, Christ being first also implies cooperating and participating in healthy community activities that enhances the meaning of life, and being a responsible and conscious minded individual in Christ.

Post-apostolic writings, (a group of writings written after the apostles in the late first and second centuries) to an extent reflected Paul’s argument. Ignatius (c.110 CE), a Church Father and Bishop of Antioch who lived during the time of St. John, in one of his letters wrote, “if we live according to Judaism, we confess that we have not received grace.”  To Ignatius the observance of Sabbath and Sunday is different. Sunday is significant because it is about the historical event and reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is technically the day on which Jesus rose from the dead and our life sprang up through Jesus.  Ignatius strongly argued against the false teachers who wanted to restore the Sabbath by affirming that in the Christian churches the first day of the week is observed as the day of Jesus’ resurrection. This claim became evident around 112 CE, and this celebration was in conscious opposition and against false teachers who wanted to restore the Sabbath.  Interestingly, the Epistle of Barnabas (a letter attributed to Barnabas, the co worker of Paul) understands the creation week as God bringing eschatological rest to this world and bringing into existence a new world. Like Ignatius, Barnabas also affirms that Christian observance of Sunday is not a fulfillment of the Sabbath commandment and excludes Sabbath. These writings attested that Sunday is to do with the resurrection of Christ and do not valid a transference theology of Sabbath to Sunday. History tells us that both Ignatius and Barnabas belong to a context of sharp differentiation between Judaism and Christianity and this is why they rejected Sabbath. Almost all the second century CE writings either gives a metaphorical representation of the Sabbath or rejects the literal interpretation of the Sabbath. In the later second century CE, the controversy of Sunday and Sabbath increasingly became a concern that the church decided to differentiate itself. This arose the need for early Christian writers such as Tertullian and Irenaeus to write and clarify the continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament. This was able to explain how the Sabbath commandment could be given and valued yet not binding on Christians in the literal meaning.

Clement of Alexandria (another Church Father,150 CE-215 CE), gave a sense of transferring the idea of Sabbath rest from the seventh day to the first day of the week. However, this transference was not given from the Jewish Sabbath but he borrowed the idea from somewhere else. Clement explains, Sabbath (seventh day) is not a rest but a cessation.  As a cessation, it is a ‘renunciation of evils’, preparing for the new life of the Christian as God created light on the first day. He further explains God’s Sabbath does not signify rest or inactivity but a contemplation of the completed works which is directly relevant to the eschatological Sabbath of all believers. Clement’s given explanation is reasonable but it did not have an emphasis on Christ and this is why it was not fully accepted. Clement was followed by his disciple Origen. Origen in his writings made some references to Christian observance of the Sabbath. He interpreted Christian ‘Sabbath observance’ as abstaining from all worldly works and being occupied by spiritual works such as attending corporate worship, listening to Scripture readings and to sermons. Origen compared Sunday and Sabbath claiming that Sunday is superior to the Jewish Sabbath. Origen only interpreted the Sabbath observance for Christians. He did not clarify and give a distinct reference whether the Sabbath observance is to be Sunday or not. The debate continued until in 321 CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine established a law requiring a day that was totally free from work on the most honorable day of the Sun (worship of the sun was the religion of the Roman Empire). This gave the official birth to Sunday observance.  In 330 CE Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern Turkey) paving the way for the Roman papacy to take over the Church at Rome. As the papal Church grew in power, Sabbath observance was completely opposed in favor of Sunday. The council of Laodicea (363-364 CE) rejected Sabbath and encouraged the Christians not to rest on the Sabbath but work on that day, and to honor the Lord’s Day i.e., Sunday and resting then as Christians.

The history does not end here, it continues in the later ages ushering stories to the tradition and practice that we follow today. Despite the long discourse one thing is clear in the article i.e., the sole reason for all the biblical, historical and theological discussions among the early Christians is directed towards the ‘Lordship of Christ’. Today, there is confusion and debate regarding Sunday- the confusion of treating Sunday as a holiday and merely contemplating on it as the Resurrection Day of Christ, and the debate of applying the Sabbath laws and undermining the true significance of Sunday. Historically speaking, Sunday and Sabbath are different. Both have their own meaning and significance which we must properly know and interpret carefully. Sabbath as a law and commandment has deeper meanings. It is more than ‘rest’ or ‘no work’. On the other hand, Sunday as the resurrection Day of Jesus Christ which we observe today is the affirmation of our faith and recreation of our being in Christ.


  • Bauckham, Richard J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Post-Apostolic Church.” Pages 252-287 in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day. Edited by D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.
  • Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Translated and Edited by Dietlinede M.Elliott. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.                  
  • Koester, Helmut. Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature of Early
  • Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
  • Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. WBC 41. Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990.
  • McCasland, Vernon. “The Origin of the Lord’s Day.” Journal of Biblical Literature 49.1 (1930): 65-82.
  • Schnelle, Udo. Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology. Translated by M. Eugene Boring. Grand  Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003.

This is the second article of the Sabbath/ Sunday Series, an initiative of Oriental Theological Seminary. The contributor, Zavi-i Nisa is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at OTS.