What factors were influencing the early church’s decision to meet on the Lord’s Day? What do the early church fathers have to say about Saturday or Sunday corporate gatherings for worship? Within this series of posts I hope to investigate some of the contextual factors that influenced the early church’s decision for Sunday gathering. I also plan to look at several of the earliest church documents that speak to the sabbath/Lord’s Day issue.
This post will look at two important points of Jewish influence upon the early church’s decision for Lord’s Day worship. In subsequent posts I also will examine the Greco-Roman contextual factors relevant to our study.
With regard to the influence of first-century Judaism upon early Christianity, Rordorf posits: “It is impossible to over emphasize the fundamental kinship between Christianity and Judaism.” This kinship is not surprising given the shared holy text used by both religions. Furthermore, the large conversion of Jews to Christianity undoubtedly shaped the nature of early Christian worship. The nature of Jewish worship patterns, particularly the devotion of the Sabbath to the Lord, found quick reception in the early church. However, before early Christian practices are discussed, the Jewish customs that preceded them must be explained.
Kiddush (or Qiddush)
The Kiddush is a traditional Jewish rite by which the Sabbath and feast days are consecrated to God. Different recitations and responsive readings are read at the start of the Sabbath day (Friday night) and on the morning of the Sabbath. Variations on the rite do exist, but traditionally the Kiddush contains three blessings: first over the wine, the second praising God for the Sabbath, and the third over the bread. Most relevant to this study is the second blessing:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe. By your commandments you sanctified us, took great delight in us, and give us the holy Sabbath as an inheritance, doing so out of love and kindness to be a memorial of the works of your creation. Wherefore this is a day of holy convocations, a memorial of the exodus out of Egypt. You chose and sanctified us above all peoples, and in love and goodness you gave us the holy Sabbath as an inheritance. Blessed are you, O Lord, for making holy the Sabbath.”
I have written more elsewhere on the extent of Jewish influence on early church liturgical practices. For now, seeing the pattern for devout and standardized Sabbath observance in Jewish practice is enough to sense how early Christians, particularly Jewish converts, could feel the need to consecrate one day a week to the Lord.
The ‘Eighth Day’ and Eschatological Sabbath
Several early Christian writers, borrowing from Jewish eschatological interpretive tendencies, came to adopt the notion of the Sabbath as the symbolic ‘eighth day’ which, “held an eschatological meaning: that which lay beyond the seven days or ages of the world’s history.” The eighth day represented an idea “outside the ordinary week and beyond it. If the week stood for ‘time’, then the eighth day would speak of something beyond and outside time.” This day came to be a “sign of salvation and the new creation.” More on this theme will be addressed below.
Additionally, the Old Testament practice of circumcision on the eighth day was interpreted as “a type of the true circumcision by which [Christians] are circumcised from error and wickedness through our Lord Jesus Christ who arose from the dead on the first day of the week. For the first day of the week, which it remains the first of all days, yet is called the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle and still it remains the first.” Rordorf explains the connection:
We find the fathers expressing the opinion that the entire saving event of Easter was, in fact, the new meaning of ‘circumcision on the eighth day’…This bold stroke of typology can have come about only because the weekly Sunday in memory of Easter was already the Church’s day of baptism. Because the newly converted were, in fact, baptized on Sunday, the eighth day, and because they thus received spiritual circumcision, so retrospectively the resurrection of Jesus could also be referred to as a circumcision of mankind on the eighth day.
The themes of an eschatological Sabbath and “eighth day” circumcision will be found in the writings of Justin Martyr, Origen, the Epistle to Barnabas, and others. The interpretive impact of such typological symbolism must be considered when looking at early references to the Sabbath, especially after the middle second century when symbolic interpretation of the Sabbath grew in popularity. Combined with the habitual weekly practice of a Sabbath observance discussed above, the Jewish impact upon weekly worship in the early church was strong. In the next posts I plan to highlight several Greco-Roman influences upon early church liturgical patterns.
About the Author:Jon English Lee
Jon English Lee (M.Div.) is a Ph.D. student in Systematic and Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests include ecclesiology, particularly liturgy and sacraments, and the development of doctrine.
This post is adapted from Jon English Lee, “Second Century Witnesses to the Sabbath and Lord’s Day Debate,” The Churchman, forthcoming 2014. ↩
Rordorf, “Sunday: The Fullness of Christian Liturgical Time,” in Everett Ferguson ed., Worship in the Early Church, 296–303. ↩
While Jewish Sabbath customs seem to be somewhat standardized, some disagreement on the significance of the Sabbath does appear exist in Jewish thought. For example, Lanfranchi explains that, “For some Jewish groups…the Sabbath was a sign of the covenant…On the other side, Philo and Josephus insist on the universal significance of the Sabbath and on its validity for mankind”, (Pierluigi Lanfranchi, “Attitudes to the Sabbath in Three Apostolic Fathers: Didache, Ignatius, and Barnabas,” in Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity, ed. Rieuwerd Buitenwerf, Harm W. Hollander and Johannes Tromp, 245). See also Harold Weiss, A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity. ↩
Lawrence J. Johnson, Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources, 4 vols. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 1:3. For a more in-depth treatment, see: Paul Cotton, From Sabbath to Sunday A Study in Early Christianity, 88. ↩
See Lee, “Second Century Witnesses to the Sabbath Lord’s Day Debate,” The Churchman, forthcoming 2014. ↩
Roger T Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, This Is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday in Its Jewish and Early Church Setting, 118. ↩
ibid, 117. ↩
ibid, 37. ↩