Why is the Sabbath on Saturday in Jewish tradition and on Sunday in Christian tradition?

Thank you to The Rev. Dr. Loren M. Scribner

How the Sabbath Became the Lord’s Day?

How did the Jewish Sabbath become the Christian Lord’s Day?  Perhaps the most common response is similar to the answer composed by the 17th century theologians who composed the Westminster Shorter Catechism: From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath (7.059).  According to this view the Sabbath day of rest, required by God in the Ten Commandments, is now required, by God, to be celebrated on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as the Westminster divines perceived it to be.  Contemporary scholarship has demonstrated that the earliest followers of the Jewish Jesus remained faithful Jews.  As the Seventh-Day Adventist scholar, Dr. Bacchiocchi has shown:  The analysis of the ample Sabbath materialof the Gospels has revealed, first of all, the high esteem in which the Sabbath was held both in Jewishcircles and in primitive Christianity. We have shown that the Gospels testify that for the earliest Christians, Christ did not, as some contend, “push into the background” or “simply annul”  the Sabbathcommandment to pave the way for a new day of worship, but rather He enriched its meaning and functionby fulfilling its Messianic typology.

In other words, the Jewish Jesus, and his Jewish followers, continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath, even as they continued to observe kosher regulations and attendance at the synagogue and temple.  James the Brother of Jesus, known as the “Bishop of Bishops” was known for his loyalty to traditional Jewish customs.  So, even though early members of the Jesus Movement probably held the first day of the week in special esteem because of the resurrection, they still observed the Jewish Sabbath of rest in faithfulness to the 3rd (or 4th) commandment.  And while the author of Revelation in 1:10 reported that “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day,” there is no indication at all that this day had replaced the Sabbath.  Historian Dr. Willy Rordorf claims that “right down to the fourth century the idea of rest played absolutely no part in the Christian Sunday.”  Hence, the Sunday Lord’s Day did not immediately replace the Jewish Sabbath.

It is more likely that various political, historical, cultural, and polemical factors contributed to the gradual transition from Sabbath to Sunday, and that this transition occurred in the Gentile, rather than Jewish, centers of the Roman Empire. The following factors seem especially pertinent to this transition:

(1)      The influence of the resurrection taking place on the first day of the week.  Christians, even Jewish Christians, probably observed Sunday as a day of prayer and worship very early in the life of the church even if it was not seen as replacing the Sabbath day.

(2)      Pervasive Roman religious practices may have influenced Gentile Christians to identify with Sunday as a holy day.  The increasing preeminence of the Solar deity over the other planetary gods in the second century Roman Empire gave “Sun-day” a major status.

Constantine I, on 3 March 321, decreed that On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.  Constantine’s decree may have simply reflected his devotion to sun worship, though it may also have served him politically in his appeal to the Christians, who already met for worship on Sunday, and whose favor he was courting.  Thus, it was relatively natural to combine the day of resurrection with the Sabbath commandment as a day of rest.

While Tertullian strongly refuted the pagan charge that the Christians were Sun-worshipers, he also chidedthe Christians for celebrating pagan festivals within their own communities.  Evidently those early Gentile Christians were not immune to the popular veneration of the Sun and other astrological deities.  Culture is a powerful influence.

(3)      However, perhaps the most powerful motivation for the transition from Sabbath to Sunday was the bitter polemics tearing apart Judaism and Christianity.

In his Epistle to the Magnesians at the beginning of the 2nd century, Ignatius wrote, It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.  Ignatius advised against “observing Sabbaths” and encouraged them to fashion their lives after the Lord’s day.

Justin, a 2nd century philosopher and Christian martyr, of Greek culture and extraction, explained that the Sabbath was but a “temporary” ordinance deriving from Moses, enjoined to the Jews on account of theirunfaithfulness for a time, precisely until the coming of Christ.

And Eusebius, the 4th century church bishop and historian, claimed that Constantine’s edict was decreed to avoid implicit association with the Jews.  Eusebius reports that Constantine stated:  “Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd: for we have received from our Saviour a different way.”

So, if Jews worshipped on the Sabbath, then Christians would worship on Sunday, the eight day, the day of the new creation.  And that hostility, that supersessionist theology that Christianity has replaced Judaism in the eyes of God was pretty much summed up in the Westminster Shorter Catechism and expresses the common explanation  even today about how the Sabbath became the Lord’s Day.