Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Brief History of Sunday

My review of a terrific little book by NT scholar, Justo Gonzalez and an op-ed connecting this to Indiana's Blue Laws (h/t: Matthew Barrett for his review in CT)


It's a short book (150 pages) with 17 short chapters. It's an easy read except for keeping track of the historical Venn Diagram that is Sunday vs. the Sabbath. It's interesting as Church History, but particularly if you're interested in how the Catholic Church evolved or more broadly, how we got "here" with respect to Sunday and the Sabbath.

The book is mostly a survey of the 20 Christian centuries of thought on the topic: Early-on, the research is scattered (not much available), but cleaner (less divergence in thought). From the Reformation forward, there is far more information (thanks to the printing press), but it's far more varied (given the fracturing that accompanied the Reformation).    


Gonzalez opens by noting the cyclical and linear nature of time (p. 1-6). The cyclical leads to the usefulness of keeping track of days and years. But those are too short and too long to organize life's activities-- and so, we developed months and weeks. Weeks have varied from 3-13 days. But the seven-day week and its four-weeks-ish months are generally connected to the four cycles of the moon in the lunar cycle. 

On his way to talking about Sunday in particular, Gonzalez briefly surveys the historical use of weeks. Babylon used four seven-day weeks per typical month-- with the end of each week as special and ill-suited for business. (It was even considered evil.) The seven days of the week were named for the Sun, the Moon, and the five visible planets. Greek calendars were a mess and they adopted Babylonian norms as their empire spread to the east. Rome used an eight-day week with the eighth devoted to market activity. Eventually, Rome accepted the seven-day week-- only fully so, in the time of Constantine-- with the translation of those seven days into Latin. 

The Jewish calendar was always built around a seven-day week, with its Creation-based Sabbath. Of course, months are not simply 28 days, so every system must accommodate this, by adding days to various months. For the Jews: After each seven weeks, an extra day was added, resulting in 50 days (7 * 7 + 1). And after some of these 50's, other days or week were added (including Passover and the Feast of Booths) to get to a 365-day calendar. (The Bible proscribes the same for years-- a Sabbath year every seven years and then a special 50th "Year of Jubilee".)

In Mesopotamian culture, seven was seen as evil-- a day to avoid work (to avoid accidents and harm) and a day of doom and gloom. This is one more area where God purposed to redeem a pagan custom, turning the Sabbath into a day of rest, joy, and celebration. (See also: the redemption of circumcision with Abraham.) That said, Sabbath was not particularly a day of ritual worship, given the distance most people faced from Jerusalem and the Temple. With the fall of Jerusalem, the sacking of the Temple, and exile in Babylon, local gatherings and ritual worship were elevated in usefulness and importance. This resulted in the formation of synagogues for worship and study but not sacrifice.

In Part 1, Gonzalez describes pre-Constantine Christian treatment of Sunday and the Sabbath. The Church was unofficial, often persecuted-- and theologically, especially concerned about its intersection with Judaism. As the Jews had done, early Christians numbered days from the Sabbath and observed the Sabbath from Friday evening into Saturday evening (20). Biblical references are present but sparse. The four Resurrection accounts cite the first day of the week or the first day from the Sabbath (the Greek word is sabbaton)-- i.e., Sunday. (See also: Acts 20:7, I Cor 16:2.) The other term used is "the Lord's Day" (in Rev 1:10, I Cor 11:20; the Greek word is kyriake, related to kyrios which means "Lord"), with its political and theological implications (10). The latter was the most popular phrase in the Early Church (11). 

The Latin-speaking church turned Sunday into Dominus, which relates to the terms used today in the Romance languages. In modern Greek, the days are simply numbered from the Sabbath, except for the Sabbath which retains its Jewish name, sabbato. In Portugese, it's the same except Sunday is domingo. In the other Latin languages, only Sunday and Saturday get special treatment-- Sunday as derived from the Lord's Day; and Saturday as derived from the Sabbath. In Germanic languages (like ours), Sunday is named for the Sun and Saturday is named for Saturn (14-15). Gonzalez depicts a secular competition of sorts (12-13) between Saturday (named after Saturn) and Sunday (named after the Sun-- its worship or at least admiration).

In Chapter 3, Gonzalez notes that the early Christians worshiped with Jews in the synagogues as much as possible-- as is depicted nicely throughout the book of Acts (18). We're not exactly sure how and when they did worship, but the most likely theory is that they would attend worship and gather for a meal to open the "Sabbath" on Friday evening. (See: Acts 20.) This could easily be worked into their work schedules. Christians then would (also or instead) gather pre-dawn on "the Day of the Lord" on Sunday AM (when chores/work were not required) for worship (20-21). With Constantine, the popularization of Christianity, and the force of law, Sunday became the day of rest and the preferred (now, post-dawn) time for worship as well.

As one might imagine, the transition from Christianity as Jewish-ish to Gentile necessarily involved some scheduling tension and theological challenges-- what to do with the Sabbath, when to worship, and so on (20-23). This debate was probably strongest around the time of the Reformation. Not wanting to devolve into works-righteousness, there were concerns about doing too much on the Sabbath, but also in making "not doing work" into a work (86). It was also connected to circumcision (104), with concern that both Sabbath-keeping and circumcision were forms of Judaizing the Christian faith. Much of the debate on the Sabbath centered around what to do with the 4th (or 3rd if you're Catholic or Lutheran) Commandment and how to apply the categories of moral and ceremonial law (93-94).
 
Gonzalez spends a lot of time on the nature of the Sabbath-- in particular, whether it should be a time of celebration or something far more somber (36). It's a spectrum, but to what extent are we celebrating Jesus' victory over evil and death vs. remembering the sacrificial death of Jesus based on our sin and our need for forgiveness? Often, in the early Church, Wednesday and Fridays were for fasting (since those were the days of the betrayal and passion of Jesus), while Saturday was a day of rest and celebration (25). In fact, fasting and kneeling were often prohibited on Saturday (32). They "must not show the anxiety or deference one shows before a master, but rather the confidence and assurance one shows before a father." (35)

Centuries later, this played out from another angle in interpreting Communion. In the East, Communion was a celebration; in the West, it was a somber sacrament. Gonzalez argues that the West's approach derives from the Roman emphasis on Law-- and thus, a focus on our falling short, the Cross, and the need for Christ's sacrificial death (70-72). This also necessarily leads to more concern about post-baptism sins, which eventually led to a penitential system, purgatory, masses for the dead, and indulgences. History also plays a part here: as the Roman Empire was being sacked and death/suffering became a part of daily life, they naturally saw Communion from its more "negative" angle.

Also, with Christianity growing more popular, gathering as a community was not as important. So, there was a tendency to suffuse Communion with meaning, mystery, and miracle (73-75), including a formalized belief in trans-substantiation (made official in 1215). This change in outlook had necessary implications for worship and communion (76-82). Both (especially the latter) became much more sacred, leading to using a bread that would not crumble (wafer vs. bread); only the priest would touch the host (putting it on the lay person's tongue); only the priests would drink the wine (to avoid contaminating the sacred); metal vs. wood chalices (fancier and to get every drop); and fewer and fewer people taking the Eucharist (reducing it to a spectator sport). 

With the legal recognition of Christianity and legally-mandated Sunday "rest", Sunday worship moves to a post-dawn time period (47). (As an aside, if we're really trying to emulate the Early Church, we need to start our Sunday services much earlier!) Another interesting discussion: the role of discipleship in the Early Church and then post-Constantine. Pre-Constantine, the Church added a rigorous, lengthy process of discipleship or catechesis, before baptism. People would go through this process and then get baptized on Easter to celebrate their formal and complete entry into the community of believers/disciples (27). There were separate masses for the catechumens and the "believers" (38). But with Constantine's legalization and popularization of Christianity, catechesis fell by the wayside (41): less perceived need (since most folks were now "Christians"; persecution disappears, etc.) and less ability to deliver it (to so many people, so suddenly). [Rigorous catechesis makes a brief return in the Middle Ages (68-69).]
Until Constantine, there was no expectation of "rest" or devotion to prayer/study on Sunday (39). It would have been difficult culturally and economically. And there was no strong interpretation of an injunction like that, biblically. Remember that Sunday and the Sabbath (when Jewish norms would have encouraged rest) were not the same. Moreover, there was concern about following Jewish norms into legalism or works-righteousness. So, Sabbath rest was debatable and Sunday rest was a non-issue. But with Constantine's edict in 321, the power of the State is used to legislate a rest-ful approach (41, 53). 

Of course, legislation and political economy are always a matter of theory vs. practice. If we're going to legislate rest, the ideal may be prayer (86). But those who don't want to pray (so much) will go elsewhere with their spare time. And so, the reality was a desire to play instead of pray-- something which legislation also sought to regulate (87). 
 
What to do with Constantine more broadly-- his beliefs and motives? Gonzalez argues that Constantine had a huge but still overstated role (44). He was seemingly ambivalent on Christianity vs. Sun worship (45)-- likely for political reasons (13, 45). 

In later chapters, Gonzalez details the various views of the Reformers on community, worship, Sabbath, etc. He devotes chapters 14 and 16 to the Puritans-- and chapter 15 (and other mentions) to 7th Day Adventists. One of the key elements of this debate was the origin of changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday-- and whether it was proscribed by Scripture or church tradition. Catholics had fun with Protestants by arguing that much or all of it was driven by the latter (121).
Gonzalez closes by discussing the spread of Sabbath views through English culture, conquest, etc. (133, 139ff). Because the English were so passionate and influential, Sabbath practices have spread worldwide, but not surprisingly, have ultimately become secularized.

Miscellany

-In Greek and the Romance languages, the term for "Easter" is related to the Passover: Pascha, Pascua, etc. (26) Again, this is not so in the Germanic languages. 

-Because Hebrews promises a new "rest" after the Sabbath, the number 8 was really important to early Christians. Archaeological efforts have revealed the popularity of 8-sided baptistries (30).

-I've often thought about how the wine could precede the bread in a symbolic understanding of Communion. The traditional view is the biblical norm-- and is certainly otherwise legitimate: Christ's body was broken and then his blood was spilled. But in another sense, Christ's blood pays for our sins, so that His body and His life can be lived through me. (In Watchman Nee's formulation, Jesus' blood pays for my sins, but His body and the cross aim to deal with our sin "factories".) In that sense, the blood precedes the body. Interestingly, Gonzalez cites an early-Church example where Christians observed Communion in that order (37).

-The term "basilica" comes from buildings that belonged to the king, basileus (50).

-A great quote from Orosius on the spread of Christianity through the fall of the Roman Empire (67)-- something I'll add to my notes on Habakkuk: "so many people have attained a knowledge of truth that they would never have had without these events, even though it may through our own loss."

-For a strong recent article on the topic of observing the Sabbath, check out Mark Galli in CT.

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