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Excerpt: 'Sunday A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl'



Origins to Around AD 800

Trying to find the origins of Sunday, the biblical scholar Eugene Laverdière once observed, is like trying to find the source of a great river. The delta at the end, and the long channel flowing into the delta, are easily recognizable. Yet the farther one moves upstream toward the source of the river, the trickier the going: tributaries multiply, lead astray, or go underground. And when finally located, the humble source may bear so little resemblance to the massive amounts of water downstream that one will surely wonder what the beginning can possibly have to do with the end.

But if the orgins of Sunday are vague, and thus regularly debated, a few things seem clear enough.


It is fairly clear, for instance, that "Sun Day" emerged in the ancient Middle East, as part of a seven–day planetary week. Many early civilizations calculated a solar year at roughly 360 days (it's actually closer to 365.2422) and a lunar month at 29 (a modern mean figure is 29.5306). But these civilizations showed infinite variety and imagination in subdividing years and months into more manageable weeks and days: around the ancient world, weeks lasted anywhere from five to sixteen days, while days were parceled into myriad arrangements of hours. That parts of the ancient Middle East and then the Roman Empire settled on a seven–day week, with each day twenty–four hours long and named for a planet, was hardly inevitable.

One early step toward such a week was taken in Babylonia, where by 600 BC observers had identified and carefully tracked seven heavenly planets, or "wanderers," moving about the Earth. This was done largely for astrological purposes: each planet was believed to be governed by a god or goddess who exerted influence upon earthly events according to that planet's position at a given moment—hence the need to track not only where the planets moved but when.

Yet the idea of organizing a seven-day week around the planets did not come from the Babylonians themselves, who preferred lunar months. Rather, it came from the later Greek or "Hellenistic" world, which included the great centers of learning at Alexandria, Egypt, during the second century BC. Wishing to measure even more precisely the influences of the seven planets upon the Earth, Hellenistic observers laid down the basic features of a new week. First, they fixed the number of days in the earthly week at seven, to match the number of planets, with each day under the influence of a particular planet. Second, they fixed the order of distance from Earth of all planets: Saturn was farthest, then Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. (*) Third, they fixed the order of days in the week: Saturn Day was the first day, Sun Day the second, then Moon Day, Mars Day (Tuesday), Mercury Day (Wednesday), Jupiter Day (Thursday), and Venus Day (Friday). And fourth, they fixed the number of hours in a day at twenty–four, as each such hour signified the length of time that a particular planet's influence held sway. (*) In short, everything about this seven–day planetary week was meant to link the heavens to Earth.

So far, there was nothing that made Sun Day, the second day, or for that matter any other day, stand out; although the planets possessed different qualities and were honored with distinct rituals, all planetary days were basically equal in stature. The idea that one day in the week was superior to others came from another ancient seven–day system: that of the Jews.


It is not entirely settled which week is older: planetary or Jewish. But it is certainly clear that the Jews had a seven–day week of their own and were largely responsible for the custom of singling out one day of the week for special attention.

For the Jews, this extraordinary day was the seventh, which ideally was to be devoted solely to their God. They showed this devotion by coming together to worship him, by resting from ordinary labors, and by engaging in other rituals reserved for that day—helping to explain the day's name, "Sabbath," the root meaning of which is "to cease," as in ceasing from the everyday. The Jewish week and its all–important Sabbath may have emerged as early as the reigns of David and Solomon near 1000 BC, but it was certainly present around the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Some scholars suggest that Jewish enthusiasm for a seven–day week and especially its seventh day rubbed off on the Babylonians, who likewise developed a taste for the number, as in their seven planets or their special taboos every seven days. Still more scholars, however, believe that the Jewish preference for seven was the result of forced contact with the Babylonians. Thus, with their temple destroyed and their people scattered across Babylon, exiled Jews developed sacred time (the Sabbath) to compensate for the loss of sacred space (the temple), but they measured that time under Babylonian influence.

These are just some of the chicken–and–egg problems involved in searching for the origins of the Jewish and planetary weeks, which are never likely to be settled from remaining historical evidence. For many believers in the Judeo–Christian tradition, such evidence has hardly mattered anyway: in their minds, the Jewish week came directly from God at creation, when He labored six days and rested on the seventh, setting the pattern for mortals as well. But all long–standing calendar systems—and there have been many around the globe—seem divine, eternal, natural, and self–evident to those who follow them centuries later. What can be said from historical evidence is that the Jews were observing a seven–day week organized around their Sabbath from at least the sixth century BC, and that the Jewish custom of treating the Sabbath in exceptional fashion would eventually have a big impact on the planetary Sun Day too.

It can also be said that the Jewish week, unlike many weeks around the world, was not meant to be shoehorned into nature's cycles: in other words, the seven–day Jewish week did not multiply neatly into a 29–day lunar month or a 365–day solar year, but was an artifical number deliberately imposed by the Jewish God as a sign of his superiority to nature and its pagan gods. (*) The Jewish week therefore stood outside of nature, on purpose, unlike the planetary week. That the Jewish total of seven days happened to equal nature's total of seven planets mattered little to the Jews: except for the Sabbath and the day before the Sabbath, called the Day of Preparation, days of the Jewish week were numbered, not named, and had nothing to do with planets. Moreover, while days and gods of the planetary week were, as noted above, more or less equal, the Jewish week derived virtually all of its meaning from a single day devoted entirely to their single God.

Although the Jewish week wanted nothing to do with any planetary week, two seven–day systems born in the eastern Mediterranean could hardly avoid bumping into and influencing one another. Yet whatever the degree of their mutual influence, by the first century AD they were clearly both exerting influence upon timekeeping in the new Roman Empire. The Roman calendar had long featured numerous annual festivals and an eight–day market cycle, but it had no tradition of a weekly commemoration of a particular day. During the first century AD, this changed, as Rome adopted a seven–day week of its own, shaped by Jewish, planetary, and native Roman traditions. In fact, scholars believe that if the Jews and the Hellenistic Greeks should be given credit for inventing a seven–day week, then the Romans deserve credit for popularizing it—as well as for popularizing the notion that one day of the week outshone the others.

Jewish influence on the Roman week was apparent by the mid–first century, when a growing number of Roman pagans began observing a weekly rest day. Their initial choice seems to have been Saturn Day (Saturday), first day of the planetary week, which fell on the same day as the Sabbath, seventh day of the Jewish week. Jewish influence on society, trade, and traffic had been widening around the eastern Mediterranean for three centuries, so that by this time gentiles too found it convenient to adopt Jewish rhythms of work and rest. This is suggested by the Jewish historian Josephus, who proudly noted that the Jewish custom of refraining from work on every seventh day had spread to all peoples of the eastern Roman Empire. Perhaps because of this, by at least AD 100 Romans too regarded Saturn Day no longer as the first day of their week but as the seventh. Naturally this caused every other planetary day to shift in Rome as well—including Sun Day, which became the new first day. Hence Jewish and Roman weeks were now aligned: the Jewish Sabbath and Roman Saturn Day were both the seventh day, and the Jewish first day was equal to the Roman first day, or Sun Day.

Like the Jewish week, the old planetary week also exerted influence on the new Roman week, most obviously in the naming of Rome's seven days. Moreover, Romans divided their days into the twenty–four hours of the old astrologers, if with a Roman wrinkle: while planetary (and Jewish) days began and ended at sunset, the Romans continued their custom of beginning and ending days at midnight.

Hence by the end of the first century AD, the Roman week, the week that would come to dominate the Western world, was nearly complete: each day was named after a planet, Sun Day was the first day and Saturn Day the last, one day stood somewhat above others in prestige, and days ended and began at midnight. Only one element of this now–familiar week was missing, and that began to emerge early in the second century: namely, the rise of the first day as the most important day of the week. This came about thanks to devotees both of the newly prominent Roman Sun god, who still called the first day Sun Day, and of the new Jewish offshoot known as Christianity, who began calling the first day the Lord's Day.


The early Christian portion of the long–flowing Sunday river is perhaps murkier than any other. Scholars can quite happily agree on Sun Day's origins in the ancient planetary week, on the changes to that week made by Romans, and on the ultimate preeminence of Sun Day among both Roman pagans and Christians. But they have never been able to agree on this: just exactly when, where, and why did the "Lord's Day" first emerge among Roman Christians? (*) Was it in Jerusalem or elsewhere? Was it the work of the apostles or later church leaders? And most of all, was it meant to replace the Jewish Sabbath, to accommodate the pagan Sun Day, or to establish something entirely new and uniquely Christian? In other words, just exactly what kind of a day was it?

Based on the little evidence that has survived, no one can say for sure. Key documents are few: a handful of New Testament texts (particularly Acts 20:7, I Corinthians 16:2, and Revelation 1:10) and a dozen other sources from the first and second centuries. They are also vague: in Acts 20 was Paul preaching on the first day by accident or custom? Did the Corinthian Christians distribute alms on the first day coincidentally or deliberately? And does the term "Lord's Day" in Revelation refer to the weekly first day, to the annual Easter celebration, or to something else altogether? These difficulties are compounded by another: scholars have tended to read the sources according to their own theological preferences. Such preferences are not necessarily undesirable or wrong, but they make it tricky to find consensus on the beginnings of the Christian Lord's Day.

Readers may find all the intricate details elsewhere. It will do here to divide the vast body of competing interpretations into three manageable, perhaps oversimplified groups, in no particular order.

The New Lord's Day. Jesus' apostles established the Lord's Day (probably in Jerusalem, perhaps elsewhere) as a weekly commemoration of Christ's resurrection on the first day. It was thus a day uniquely Christian, with no connection to the pagan Sun Day or the Jewish Sabbath of the fourth commandment—Christ himself had abolished the Sabbath and every other aspect of what later Christians would call "ceremonial" law, and Paul had reminded Christians to be no respecters of days. Moreover, while the Sabbath was observed through both worship and rest, the Lord's Day required only worship; rest was a useless ceremony. Besides, the first day was a regular workday for Romans: Christians met together that day as work allowed, either early or late.

The Transferred Sabbath. Jesus' apostles transferred the Sabbath in new and perfected form to the Lord's Day—on the authority of the fourth commandment. Hence, the Lord's Day was the true Sabbath. For although Christians were to abandon ceremonial Jewish law, the Ten Commandments were not the least bit ceremonial but instead wholly moral, not to mention universal, a perfect summary of God's will for all people in all times. The fourth commandment therefore remained as binding as the other nine. Christ never intended to abolish the Sabbath, but to give it new meaning in a new day: the old version commemorated the Creation, the new Christ's resurrection.

One Day in Seven. Whether established by Jesus' apostles or later leaders, the first day was chosen as the day for worship on the authority of the new Christian church, not the fourth commandment. The "spiritual" element of the Fourth Commandment (keep it holy) did still obligate believers to worship together weekly, but the "ceremonial" element (which day?) made no difference. The church eventually settled upon the first day as the Lord's Day because of its connection to Christ's resurrection, but also because it was convenient: it immediately followed the Jewish Sabbath, which many early Christians still observed, and it was the same day that many pagan neighbors worshiped.

It's possible that one of these three basic views of how the new Lord's Day came about is wholly correct. Yet because there is some historical evidence for each, and so many ways to read the evidence, it is unlikely that the superiority of one will ever be proved to the satisfaction of all. Protestants who emphasize New Testament above Old prefer the first view. Protestants and more radical groups who regard the Old and New Testaments as basically equal prefer the second. Catholics, Seventh–Day Adventists, and Protestants who stress Christian freedom from Mosaic Law prefer the third. Some others, such as those who follow the Calvinist tradition, prefer parts of the second and third views. And there is a final obstacle to achieving consensus: early Christian worship was hardly uniform around the ancient Mediterranean, so that even if one of the views above might have been true in one time and place, it may not have been true in another.

These difficulties are formidable, but they need not bog us down. For there is at least one basic point of agreement among almost all scholars that will move the story along: by at least AD 150, and perhaps sooner, most Christians were observing the first day as the Lord's Day by coming together to worship. This alone suggests the day's new importance for Christians.

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