The Word: Sabbath and Sunday

Well. I just read the Newsweek article everybody’s apparently talking about. It sounds like a lot of people have been thinking of translation and literary theory these days, even when they’re not listening to Taylor Swift songs. I have many thoughts about the article, but since it’s Wednesday, I thought I’d just have a go at one thing of many the author got wrong, or at least half-wrong, and that’s the distinction between Sabbath and Sunday. Here’s the quote I’ll be trying to clarify, with that one little parentheses explanation being mine:

Things that are today accepted without much thought were adopted or reinforced at (the historical church council of) Nicaea. For example, the Old Testament was clear in declaring that God rested on the seventh day, making it the Sabbath. The seventh day of the week is Saturday, the day of Jewish worship and rest. (Jesus himself invoked the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath.) The word Sunday does not appear in the Bible, either as the Sabbath or anything else. But four years before Nicaea, Constantine declared Sunday as a day of rest in honor of the sun god.

Sabbath is the seventh day of creation, on which the Lord rested from work to enjoy creation. This comes from Genesis. Sabbath begins, according to Jewish custom, on Friday evening at sundown, and ends on Saturday evening. During this time,  practicing Sabbath is to do as God did; to rest from work and to enjoy creation. Jesus did this, as did his disciples.

Now, for Sunday, which is a little more complicated.

Sunday is originally named after the Sun, which was considered a planet in Egyptian astronomy. By the first century Rome had adopted one planetary name for each day of the week, which is where we get Sun-day. But Constantine didn’t change the Sabbath to Sunday, first of all, and he didn’t do it to honor the sun god, secondly.

The Sabbath is still Saturday. That’s true even for Christians, though none of us are very good at keeping it. The reason that we go to church on Sundays is because that is when the gospels tell us Jesus was raised from the dead: on the first day of the week, which would be Sunday. So, Sunday became known as the Lord’s Day, and so the day we gather to worship and remember Jesus at his table is on the day he rose. It is resurrection day.

To tie this in theologically, God rested from work and enjoyed creation on the Sabbath. On the Lord’s Day, we rest from work and enjoy creation in anticipation of the coming resurrection of creation. That is what Sunday is for. In the same way that we are reminded on Sabbath that the world can live without us and our efforts just fine for a day, we remember on Sunday that God’s promises in the resurrection and recreation of all things does not rely on our work, either.

They have very close ties, Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, but they are not the same thing. Sunday doesn’t change what day the Sabbath is; that was never the intention. If you want to pin anything on Constantine, or the Council of Nicaea, more specifically, it’s that it became civil LAW to rest on Sunday. Merchants would be closed, people working in cities would not be required to work, etc. (Farmers, actually, got out of it.) Other than that, they were just echoing what had become the practice of people who were following Jesus at the time. They got together on the first day of the week to remember him, and probably to take communion.

And sure, it was probably a bonus that Christening Sunday as The Lord’s Day had a certain victorious ring to it, a little wag of the finger to the pagans (or, if you think Constantine was happy to play both sides of the fence, which he probably was, a little wink and nod to the pagans). But that isn’t uncommon for almost anything in Christian tradition, or any other religious tradition, for that matter. If you go back far enough, there’s another layer of something. That doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful, or that you can’t change it, necessarily, either.

So. The idea that just because “the word Sunday does not appear in the Bible” it should be considered- what, superfluous? False? I don’t know what the author was getting at there, except to explain that traditions have layers of meaning, which seems like an overly obvious thing to point out. But in any case, hopefully this tiny little history lesson helps with the distinction between Sabbath and Sunday/The Lord’s Day.


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