Title: A Brief History of Sunday (from the New Testament to the New Creation)
Author: Justo L. Gonzalez
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
No. of Pages: 176
ISBN 13: 978-0-8028-7471-9
Reviewed by Gary McCary for the Association for Mormon Letters
[Editor’s note: McCary is pastor of the Tierrasanta Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus has some expertise in this matter. Latter-day Saints are careful about sabbath keeping, as well. McCary brings some important perspective to this question. JN]
How did Sunday, the first day of the week, eventually become the day of worship in Christianity? Did Jesus foresee it and sanction it? Did it happen during the lifetime of those followers closest to Jesus? Did it happen during the first century following Jesus’ resurrection? If not, then when did it happen? Is it rooted in Scripture? Was the emergence of Sunday worship a sacred and spiritual thing–or did other factors contribute to its rise? And why do millions of Christians today prefer to worship on Saturday, the biblical (and Jewish) Sabbath?
These and other questions are dealt with in Justo Gonzalez’ ambitious (but far too short) new book, “A Brief History of Sunday.” Mr. Gonzalez is a retired professor of historical theology and a United Methodist minister. His book is scholarly without being condescendingly smug. And it is an easy read. But it is far from perfect or exhaustive. He begins with a fine overview of how the days of the week developed in both ancient and Medieval times. The reader will learn that in the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath (or 7th day of the week) had such significance that the rest of the week was counted from that pivotal point (1st day, 2nd day, etc).
Mr. Gonzalez does a fine job of tracing the rise of Sunday observance in Christianity from the early second century, through Constantine, to the papal decrees of the Middle Ages. He makes a cogent point, substantiated with excellent endnotes, that Sunday sacredness for Christians was not really a replacement for the biblical Sabbath, but a theological understanding that a “new” day had been ushered in by Christ–in honor of the resurrection. As such, this new sacred day was not a new “Sabbath” but a whole new celebration, divorced from the Jewish day of rest. Gonzalez makes a clear distinction between how the Jews understood Sabbath and how Christians, particularly by the 4th century, understood Sunday. And though Sunday sacredness was for decades seen as a day of seriousness, with rules attached to its observance, eventually it developed into a day of JOY, whereas, according to Gonzalez, the Sabbath appears to have been understood as a day of OBEDIENCE to God.
Mr. Gonzalez does an all-to-brief job of explaining the changing attitudes toward Sunday with the rise of the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent explosion of home-grown Christian denominations in England and the United States of the 17th through 19th centuries. And his treatment of Sabbatarian Christianity could be more thorough. But Mr. Gonzalez isn’t so much concerned with comparing Sabbath and Sunday, as with explaining the rise of Sunday as a Christian holy day.
Where his book is weakest is in the early sections, where he deals with Scripture. Mr. Gonzalez makes giant leaps of faith, for example, by confidently asserting that “the Lord’s day,” a term mentioned only in , was Sunday; that the disciples huddling in the upper room behind closed doors on the day of Christ’s resurrection was due somehow to their understanding of the first day as “a day of victory” for the Lord, and thus a theological day of victory for all those who believed in him. He suggests that there are “abundant” indications that “from a very early date” (he implies the 1st century) Christians met specifically on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread in memory of Jesus. However there is simply no biblical evidence for this claim. One can forgive Mr. Gonzalez, for as a good Christian he wants to have SOMETHING biblical to hang onto as a possible justification for the eventual rise of Sunday observance.
But as other scholars have shown, the origin of Sunday observance in early Christianity cannot be traced to any act or record earlier than about 125 A.D. This is substantiated by a number of factors, not the least of which was a Christian desire to distance itself from Judaism. Indeed, the tension between Judaism and Christianity was reaching a crescendo in the 2nd century. So an early Christian theological justification for rejecting the Sabbath and replacing it with Sunday, though rooted in Christ’s resurrection, also must be seen in the light of Christian anti-Jewish dynamics at that time. The reasons were as much political as they were theological. A more thorough and exhaustive study of the rise of Sunday in Christianity is Samuele Bacchiocchi’s “From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity” (a book that Gonzalez suggests in his “For Further Reading” section).
With the exception of his theologically questionable treatment of the biblical evidence, Gonzalez’ work is a fair, and at times helpful, contribution to studies of this phenomenon of Christian history. Both Sunday-keepers and Sabbatarians will learn by reading this short book.
Gonzalez, “A Brief History of Sunday (from the New Testament to the New Creation)” (reviewed by Gary McCary)