Friday, 27 May 2011

From Sabbath to Sunday

When and why did the Jewish believers in Jesus "cross the tracks" from a Sabbath-observant community to Sunday observance?  If you have a Seventh-day Adventist or Armstrong-influenced Church of God background, chances are you've read a lot of historical reconstruction on this issue.  Much of this, if your experience has been anything like mine, has been a cheap mixture of proof texting, wishful thinking, and blunt apologetics.

A generation ago the battle cry went up again when SDA scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi published a dissertation called From Sabbath to Sunday. It was a remarkable accomplishment considering Bacchiocchi carried out his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Shortly thereafter screams of outrage emerged from the evangelical establishment, and Zondervan released a volume, edited by D. A. Carson, with the title From Sabbath to Lord's Day.  More recently Henry Sturcke, a former Worldwide Church of God minister, stirred the embers with his own dissertation, published by Theologischer Verlag Zurich (TVZ) entitled Encountering the Rest of God

As far as I recollect, none of these authors mentioned a possible Mandaean connection.

The Mandaeans are a little-known community that traces its origins back to John the Baptist.  While that claim is sometimes disputed by Christian and Islamic scholars, there's no doubting that the Mandaeans themselves believe it, and that they have long been a feature on the religious landscape in Iraq (though now increasingly forced into diaspora.)

Here's a brief excerpt from the second chapter of the Mandaean Book of John. The words are ascribed to John the Baptist.
I stand by the authority of my father and with the commendation of my creator, The Man. I have built no house in Judea, nor founded a throne in Jerusalem. I have no love for the rosy wreath, nor the company of beautiful women. I have not loved imperfection, nor the cup of the drunkard. I have not loved the food of the body, nor has envy any foothold in me. I have not neglected my vespers, nor left the wondrous Jordan. I have not shirked my baptizing, nor the sealing with the sign of purity.
So far, so gnostic. But then the text states.
I have not forgotten Sunday and its evening has not accused me of neglecting it. (Translation by Robert Price in The Pre-Nicene New Testament.)
An editorial footnote reads; "Sunday is the holy day of the Mandaeans, who follow the Essene custom of bowing to the rising sun each day. Christians came from the same sectarian matrix and seem to have retained Sunday worship, later locating the resurrection of Jesus on that day to give it a uniquely Christian meaning."

It is, to say the least, an intriguing suggestion.


  1. It never seems that simple. We are to walk as Jesus walked. According to Scripture, he kept the Sabbath. He told his disciples to go up and keep the Feast.

    What to do, what to do?!

    It's all so confusing, what with so many agendas about, which have nothing to do with worshiping God the Father or following the example that Jesus set.

    Next, should we go to Roman Catholic Churches and overturn the offering boxes? Wouldn't that be following Jesus example? And how about publicly marching against religious hypocrites as modern day new age Pharisees?

    It's so confusing!

  2. Some may find my own personal Rule #51 useful:

    Never base your spiritual life on a proven false prophet.

  3. Dearest Doug,

    Jesus walked with sandals, should we wear sandals too?

    Dr Z.

  4. Hello Gavin,
    Always open to the suggestion I may have overlooked something, since given the vast amount of material, ancient and modern, that has to be digested to do justice to this topic, the inherent likelihood is that I have.
    At some point in a scholar's career, one has to grapple with the Mandeans, if only to come to terms with Bultmann's commentary on John. I'll admit that I left them aside though when I saw that modern scholars were sceptical of claims that the movement predated Christianity. Of course new manuscript finds could always force that opinion to be revised once more.
    As to the specific claim that Price makes, I was not aware of it, and my first reaction is skeptical. He posits an Essene matrix out of which both the Baptist and Jesus, as well as their movements, arose. I've never been convinced of this, especially with regard to Jesus. By using the verb "retained", Price seems to imply that the Essenes hallowed Sunday, too. Proof? This is not the same as bowing to the east at sunrise every day of the week. Finally, the suggestion is based on the fallacy that if two groups have a similar practice, then there must be a genealogical connection between those groups. This is the kind of thinking practiced in adventist/cog circles in their construction of a history of the "true" church.
    On top of that, I'm not inclined to take a book seriously that compiles 54 heterogeneous writings and labels them "the pre-Nicene New Testament", a title that is at least as agenda-driven as the plethora of evangelical Bible translations flooding the marketplace.
    The one point I'm inclined to agree with -- and this was made over one hundred years ago by Eduard Schwarz -- is that worship on the first day of the week preceded the identification of Sunday as the time of the resurrection.
    To me a sufficient explanation is that it arose as a practical matter, allowing observant Jewish followers of Jesus to gather together with non-observant followers after the Sabbath, on Saturday evening, the "first day of the week" by Jewish reckoning, but apparently not in Mandean reckoning, if I correctly understand the relevant passages in their Book of John, although I'm basing this on a Lidzbarski's German translation, not on an examination of the original text.
    So I'll put this aside in the pile "for further consideration" after I retire.
    Best, Henry

  5. "So far, so gnostic."

    Also, don't forget this salient fact:

    "Constantine never quite gave up the hope of further uniting the empire in the adoration of the one sun god who combined himself in the Father-God of the Christians and the much-worshipped (solar god) Mithras. Significantly, according to the Catholic Encylopedia, Pope Leo the Great (pontiff from 440 to 461) witnessed that, in his day, it was the custom of many "Christians" to stand on the front steps of St. Peter's in Rome "and pay homage to the sun by obeisance and prayers."" - pp. 42, The Pagan Christ, by Tom Harpur. (Emphasis mine.)

    That said, where Harpur and I personally part ways, is that Harpur somehow thinks that embracing the truth about Constantinian "Christianity," does not invalidate said "Christianity" one little bit. Whereas I completely disagree, coming from a Worldwide Church of God background, myself.

  6. This whole topic regarding an apparent shift of worship from a Saturday sabbath to Sunday is addressed quite thoroughly in the book, "Lying for God" available on the website.

    It seems that the SDA / CoG mindset refuses to differentiate between corporate "worship" and "rest."

    The Gentiles were not required to keep OC law, whereas Jewish members did, hence not available for corporate "worship" on sabbaths. The next day would have been, for no other reason, convenient for this purpose.

  7. The sabbatarian mindset insists that:

    1. The early church must have continued keeping the sabbath, and:

    2. The sabbath was a day of communal worship/prayer.

    Dr. Bacchiocchi works from this perspective in his book, and concludes that Christians had universally abandoned sabbath keeping no later than 140 AD and probably even sooner.

    If we remove the sabbatarian bias, and look at what is actually written in Scripture, notably Acts 15, Gentile Christians were not required to keep the law, whereas Jewish Christians continued keeping the law, if for no other reason than it being a cultural norm for them, and a desire not to "rock the boat" with those Jews who did not embrace Christianity and the New Covenant theology that was taking shape.

    So the Jewish Christians kept the sabbath by "resting" on that day, in their dwellings, and the Gentiles did not, and the next day, being conveniently the next day, both parties were available for corporate "worship" together.

    Also, the early church did make a connection between the first day of the week, and the resurrection. Beliefs within the COG groups and the SDA are based on similar weak associations. Regardless, the early church did indeed meet on Sundays for communal worship/prayers, and they did not assign the characteristics of the sabbath to that day. The argument then that claims there was a "change from the sabbath to Sunday" is nothing more than a Red Herring and Straw-Man.

    The old covenant ended. With it went the conditions of that covenant. The new covenant relates no requirement to observe days. One is free, according to Christian Liberty, to esteem a day to God, or not.

  8. "So the Jewish Christians kept the sabbath by "resting" on that day, in their dwellings, and the Gentiles did not, and the next day, being conveniently the next day, both parties were available for corporate "worship" together."

    And the problem with this is what, again? Not that there is one single group to gather for "corporate worship" together, anymore...but I daresay there are a lot of "stay-at-homes" like me, who follows at least the first part of that practice of the early Church.

    When the whole world comes under God's law in His Kingdom, all peoples will keep the Sabbath (and all of the Annual Sabbaths) of the Lord holy.

    Certainly that does not apply to the world, as it is, today. Which is why there's nothing wrong with the above practice that Bill suggests, for the modern remnant Church (wherever that Church is/will be).

    Hard to define who comes under the rubric of "Gentile" though, what with the Northern Kingdom of Israel being dispersed throughout the known world as it is....