I recently taught an online course for the Osher Adult Learning Community sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. The course was titled “Judaism and Christianity: How Did the Ways Depart?” It was based on a book titled Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two that included a chapter on the question of how Jews came to observe Saturday as Shabbat, while Christians observe Sunday as “the Lord’s Day.”
Of course, we’d have to begin by exploring how Shabbat came to be observed every 7th day on Saturday. There is some rather solid evidence that Shabbat in the Hebrew Bible began as a full-moon observance. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there are persistent references to “New Moon and Shabbat,” which numerous scholars have understood to mean that Shabbat was a full-moon observance. Indeed, major festivals of the ancient Hebrew and modern Jewish calendars—Passover and Sukkot, for instance—fall on the full moon.
Another interesting piece of evidence for Shabbat originating as a full-moon observance comes from the so-called Babylonian account of creation, Enuma Elish. The principal edition of this tale, discovered in the ruins of the library of the 7th century BCE Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, comes to us in seven clay tablets (more on the number seven below). It tells of the struggle between the deity Marduk, head of the pantheon of the city of Babylon, against the personification of chaotic waters named Tiamat. After defeating Tiamat, Marduk cleaves her body in two, placing half of her as heaven and the other half as earth. He then sets about cosmic and world creation, instituting the religious and political life of Babylon.
In the course of this project we read:
He made the crescent moon, entrusted night (to it)
And designated it the jewel of night to mark out the days
‘Go forth every month without fail in a corona,
At the beginning of the month to glow over the land.
You shine with horns to mark out six days;
On the seventh day, the crown is half.
The fifteenth day shall always be the midpoint, the half of each month.
(From Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia)
The text goes on to describe the relationship between the phases of the moon and sun as part of a thirty-day month that an astronomer could explain. What is important for us is that our translator, Professor Dalley, has a note attached to the words “the fifteenth day.” The note reads: “The word for the fifteenth day of the month, šabattu, is cognate with Sabbath.” In other words, the word for the mid-point of each thirty-day month, that is, the fifteenth of the month, is designated with a Babylonian word that is cognate with Hebrew Shabbat. But note also the specific references to the new moon, the seventh day of the month, the fifteenth day of the month and the thirtieth day of the month, i.e., what appear to be phases of the moon.
It has also been noted that the proof text for Shabbat in the Bible, Genesis 2:1-4, never actually uses the word Shabbat. It refers to the seventh day of creation and the fact that God “ceased” from work, using the root of that word šbt as verbs to indicate God resting, but never using Shabbat as a noun. In the earliest liturgical calendars presented in the Hebrew Bible—for instance, Exodus 23:12 and 34:21—there is a seven-day cycle of work followed by rest on the seventh day, again using the root šbt as a verb indicating cessation, but never as the noun, Shabbat. In these instances, there is no clear indication that there is any fixed timing—a fixed day on which this occurs; it simply occurs every seven days.
It is clear that the ancient Israelites, like their Mesopotamian neighbors, recognized a seven-day week. Indeed, the word for week in Hebrew is šavu’ah, related to the word šev’ah, which means “seven.” It’s already clear from Enuma Elish that the number seven has special significance and, at least from this point of view, it appears to have some connection to the phases of the moon. Within the tradition of ancient Israel, beyond Shabbat, the number seven is ubiquitous. The two full-moon festivals, Passover and Tabernacles (Sukkot) last for seven days. Land lies fallow in the seventh year, and debts are forgiven in the seventh year. The period of time between Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Shavu’ot) is seven Sabbaths of days, i.e. forty-nine days, the word Shabbat becoming a synonym for a week. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the classic Mesopotamian hero tale, six days and seven nights becomes virtually a standard measure of time.
But the Bible never assigns names to the days of the week, only referring to them by number—first, second, third day, etc.—a system used in modern Hebrew to this day. Passages from the New Testament indicate that this system of numbering days was used by first century Jews and was adopted by the early church. The one issue that will arise from these passages involves the distinction between the solar day, beginning with sunrise, and the lunar day, beginning in the evening. The Jewish calendar is lunar, meaning the day begins in the evening with the rising of the moon. It would appear that the New Testament assumes a solar day beginning at sunrise. At the same time, it is clear that the New Testament recognizes the day following Shabbat as the first day of the week. For example, both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke note events surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
So the questions remain: When, how and why Saturday? When, how and why Sunday?
It’s not clear exactly when and where days of the week were given names. There is some suggestion that it may have begun in Babylon, where days of the week were named for gods associated with the sun, the moon and the then recognized moving stars, i.e., planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury. While there is no overt evidence for this, there is an interesting passage in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus writing at the beginning of the second century CE.
Tacitus seems quite familiar with Jews in general and the Jews of Judea in particular. The entire Book V of his Histories is devoted to the suppression of the anti-Roman rebellion in Judea that began in 66 CE and was not finally suppressed until 74 CE with the conquest of the mountain fortress of Masada. In describing the origins of the Jews, Tacitus includes this observation regarding the Jewish observance of the Sabbath:
...it is an observance in honor of Saturn, either from the primitive elements of their faith having been transmitted from the Idaei (Judeans), who are said to have shared the flight of that God, and to have founded the race, or from the circumstance that of the seven stars which rule the destinies of men, Saturn moves in the highest orbit and with the mightiest power, and that many of the heavenly bodies complete their revolutions and courses in multiples of seven (Tacitus, Histories V, 2).
It must be pointed out that the term in rabbinic Hebrew/Aramaic for Saturn is shabbetai, clearly etymologically related to the word Shabbat. In that regard, there is an obscure but perhaps revealing passage from the Talmud, a vast account of rabbinic discussions published sometime in the 6th century CE, but containing material that may go back to the time of the second temple before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE.
The Sages taught: One who sees the sun in the beginning of its cycle, the moon in its might, the planets in their orbit, or the signs of the zodiac aligned in their order recites: Blessed…Author of creation. The Gemara asks: And when is it that the sun is at the beginning of its cycle? Abaye said: Every twenty-eight years when the cycle is complete and returns to its genesis, and the Nisan, vernal, equinox, when the spring days and nights are of equal length, falls within the constellation of Saturn on the night of the third and eve of the fourth day of the week, as then their arrangement returns to be as it was when the constellations were first placed in the heavens (BT Berakhot 59b).
So what is this about? To begin, this passage is from the tractate or section of the Talmud called berakhot, “blessings.” Remember the response of the rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” when asked if there is a blessing for the Tsar? “There is a blessing for everything.” So there is a blessing for this moment, when the celestial bodies return to their original positions when the heavens were first created.
I am no astronomer, but according to nakedeyeplanets.com, the planet Saturn is in opposition to the sun every 378 days. That is, there is a direct line from the sun through the earth to Saturn every 378 days, which means that this celestial phenomenon occurs 13 days later in each successive year (i.e., 378-365). So apparently, everything returns to its original position every 28 years (i.e., 365/13), and this occurs on the evening of day 4 of the week in which the vernal equinox occurs. The point being that this original configuration of the cosmos is focused, in Jewish tradition, on the relative positions of sun, earth and the planet Shabbetai, i.e., Saturn.
Another Roman historian, Dio Cassius, writing at the end of the 2nd century or beginning of the 3rd century CE, describes the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Herod by the Roman senate as king of Judea in 40 BCE. In the struggle to put down an anti-Roman uprising inspired by the Judean leader Antigonus with the support of the Pathians (Persians), Dio Cassius describes this scene as part of the siege of Jerusalem by Mark Antony, ruler of the east under the so-called Second Triumvirate.
The Jews, indeed, had done much injury to the Romans, for the race is very bitter when aroused to anger, but they suffered far more themselves. The first of them to be captured were those who were fighting for the precinct of their god, and then the rest on the day even then called the day of Saturn. And so excessive were they in their devotion to religion that the first set of prisoners, those who had been captured along with the temple, obtained leave from Sosius, when the day of Saturn came round again, and went up into the temple and there performed all the customary rites, together with the rest of the people (Dio Cassius, Roman History, XLIX, 22, 4-5).
In Book 37, chapter 19 of his Roman History Dio Cassius offers two ways of understanding the relationship of the calendar to the movement of the sun, the moon and the five planets. In one rendition, Dio explains how each day and each hour of the day is related to each of these celestial bodies. The first hour of the first day is associated with Saturn, and as one moves through the rotation of each hour, the first hour of the second day is associated with the Sun, etc. The other explanation involves an association of the system of naming the days of the week by the planets with the musical tetrachord, again a subject that is above my pay grade. In any event, Dio notes that Saturn is in the highest orbit, as Tacitus, writing a century earlier, also indicated.
Let us assume, then, that either based on Babylonian astronomy or on the notion that Saturn is in the highest orbit, ancient Jews ultimately came to associate Shabbat with Saturday, i.e., Saturn’s day. Now, what about the Christian Sunday?
We might start with the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, probably written between 55 and 60 CE. Considered his last epistle and a kind of summa of his theology and Christology (understanding the nature of Christ), it becomes apparent that Paul was preaching to a Roman Christian community that consisted of a mix of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. At this early stage of the Christian community—and I would suggest for some several hundred years thereafter—the separation between Judaism and Christianity had not been entirely completed.
Yet, it appears that there was some tension between the two groups, and Paul, throughout his career, was anxious to maintain harmony within the Christian communities that he established. We also understand that Paul was anxious to extend his Christ-centered theology of salvation from sin to Gentiles and taught that this salvation comes through Christ alone and not through adherence to the laws of the Torah. At the same time, it is clear from other Pauline epistles and other New Testament writings that there were significant numbers of Jewish followers of Jesus who insisted that adherence to Torah law remained a requirement. In chapter 14, Paul addresses the issues that arose in this somewhat fractious environment.
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:1-8)
It’s quite clear that Paul is confronting members of his Roman community who continued to insist on the observance of the Shabbat and the Jewish dietary rules, while others, including Paul, did not think them necessary. Indeed, Paul calls the Torah observers “weak in faith” in that they were not convinced that salvation comes only through faith in Christ’s salvific self-sacrifice. But, he says, those who observe a special day, i.e., Shabbat, should do so “in honor of the Lord,” i.e., Christ.
While Paul seems never to have used the expression “Day of the Lord,” there are some hints in the New Testament that Paul recognized Sunday as a special day in the early Church. Writing to his community in Corinth, Paul instructs as follows:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week (mian sabbatone), each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem (I Corinthians 6:1-3).
The Book of Acts, a kind of early Church history written around 90 CE, has this account of a gathering involving the apostle Paul in the Greek town of Troas:
On the first day of the week (mia tone sabbatone), when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day (on the morrow), he continued speaking until midnight (Acts 20:7).
While these passages are a bit obscure, they suggest that the early Church community had the practice of meeting on the first day of the week, i.e., Sunday.
By the middle of the second century the early Church Father Justin Martyr, who penned any number of anti-Jewish and anti-Jewish-Christian screeds, wrote the following:
Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (i.e., Friday, the day before Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn (i.e., Sunday), which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration (The First Apology of Justin, Chapter LXVII).
Here we see Justin adopting the full-on Roman calendar, perhaps ultimately derived from the Babylonians, with the days of the week associated with celestial bodies. Justin opines that if God finished the work of creation on Saturn’s day, i.e., Saturday, that would indicate that the work began on Sunday, the “day of the sun.” He then associates the first day’s creation of light with Christ’s resurrection, thereby justifying the observance of Sunday as, presumably, the “day of the Lord.”
The fifth century church historian Eusebius makes all of this entirely explicit. Commenting on Psalm 91 in which a worshipper declares God’s saving power, Eusebius writes,
The Logos has transferred by the new alliance the celebration of the Sabbath to the rising of the light. In this day of light, first day and true day of the sun, when we gather after the interval of six days, we celebrate the holy and spiritual Sabbaths… All things whatsoever that were prescribed for the Sabbath, we have transferred them to the Lord’s Day, as being more authoritative and more highly regarded and first in rank, and more honorable than the Jewish Sabbath. In fact, it is on this day of the creation of the world that God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.” It is also on this day that the Sun of Justice (i.e., Christ) has risen for our souls (quoted from Lawrence T. Geraty in Hershel Shanks [ed.], Partings: How Judaism and ChristianityBecame Two).
Without going into specific detail, there is ample evidence to suggest that even as late as the fourth century, there were significant communities of what might be called “Jewish Christians,” that is followers of Jesus as the Messiah who continued to follow Jewish religious practices. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis on Cyprus at the time, authored his Panarion, or “Medicine Chest,” a compendium of remedies against various heresies, including that of the Nazoreans and the Ebionitdes, both groups apparently claiming to be Christians while sticking to Jewish practice. Indeed, as noted, Jewish Christians were already something of a sticking point for Paul in the first century. Indeed, I would suggest that for the early Church fathers, these Jewish Christians were even more of a dilemma than the Jews themselves. This is why it was important to separate the observance of “the Lord’s Day” from the Jewish Sabbath. Similar circumstances surrounded the determination of the date for the observance of Easter, but that will have to remain a topic for another essay.