Lord's Day Alliance hears Sabbath scholar*

Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, author of "From Sabbath to Sunday," outlines areas of cooperation between Sabbathkeepers and Sundaykeepers.

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is associate professor of church history, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


A major reason for the existence of my church is to lead men and women into a deeper relation ship with the Saviour through rediscovery of the meaning and blessings of Sabbathkeeping. Though we here today may differ on the day on which to rest and worship, we mutually agree on its vital function for the survival of Christianity.

The essence of the Christian life is a relationship with God—a relationship that grows and becomes more intimate especially through the experience of worship and service provided by the Sabbath day. Consequently a proper observance of God's holy day reflects a healthy relationship with God, while disregard for it bespeaks spiritual decline or even death. James P. Wesberry, executive director of the Lord's Day Alliance, states this truth emphatically in his book When Hell Trembles. He says: "The Sabbath ... is heaven's milestone along the highway of time . . . God has never repealed this law and if we disregard it, we will decay spiritually." —Page 33.

Seventh-day Adventists share your conviction that the Sabbath day is a most vital institution for the physical and spiritual renewal of our personal life and of society. In fact, we believe that when the tyranny of things enslaves our lives we need the Sabbath day in order to be liberated to enter into the peace of God for which we were created.

Dr. Wesberry has suggested that I share something of my background; some of the highlights of my experience and research on the Lord's day, which I did at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome; and finally that I outline areas where we can and should cooper ate.


I was born a stone's throw from the Vatican wall and under its shadow I spent the first twenty years of my life. My father, a devout Catholic, was in his early twenties when he met a Waldensian who offered him a Bible to read. As he studied the Word of God, he discovered among other things that the seventh day is the Sabbath established by God at Creation and magnified by Christ during His earthly ministry. Since he could not find any Christian church observing the seventh-day Sabbath, he decided to rest and worship God on this day privately at home. This he did for about a year, until he met an elderly lady who introduced him to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Our family has lived through many trying experiences in order to express our commitment to the Saviour by worshiping on His holy Sabbath. My class mates ridiculed me and called me a Jew for missing school and for refusing to play soccer with them on the Sabbath. Relatives and priests urged me to abandon the "heretical" ideas of my parents. As a result of such frequent confrontations, I began dreaming while I was still a teen-ager that someday, by God's grace, I would investigate the Sabbath/Sunday questions and the meaning of God's holy day for Christians today. As a teen-ager, however, I could never have imagined that one day I would conduct such an investigation in the prestigious Jesuit university. In those days it was unthinkable for a separated brother to be accepted at a Vatican university without first recanting his faith. Therefore, to have seen my book on the origin of Sun day observance rolling off a Vatican press with a Catholic imprimatur, to have been the recipient not only of a gold medal from Pope Paul VI but also of hundreds of letters of appreciation from scholars and religious leaders, and to be invited to share with you some of the highlights of my research all this surpasses anything I dreamed of in my youth.

Experience at the Gregoriana

How did I come to choose the Pontifical Gregorian University for my doctoral studies? Father Rovasio, a Catholic priest whom I met in Ethiopia where I was serving as a Bible teacher, first pro posed the idea to me. One morning in the spring of 1969 I shared with him my plans to return to the United States for further education. Smilingly, Father Rovasio told me: "Sam, you are a Roman, not a Yankee! You should go back to Rome and study at the Gregoriana!" "How can I?" I replied. "Surely the Gregoriana will not accept a heretic like me!" Father Rovasio reassured me that since Vatican II, I was no longer a here tic, but a separated brother and thus I stood a good chance of being accepted. After some initial hesitation I decided to apply. Since the Gregoriana in its 428 years had never received an official application from a non-Catholic, it took about six months to process my application and to grant me special dispensations.

What was it like studying with Catholic priests and professors from all over the world? Being the only layman in the class, I must confess that at first I felt a bit awkward, especially when a class mate would ask to which religious order I belonged. Sometimes jokingly I would reply that I belonged to a new order—the Adventist order. Soon we established warm and cordial relationships.

The climate of cordiality and mutual respect was exemplified especially in the freedom and guidance I received while conducting my doctoral research into the historical genesis of Sunday observance. I recall the day when I asked my adviser, Prof. Vincenzo Monachino, for permission to investigate the genesis of Sunday observance for my doctoral dissertation. At first he was reluctant to grant such permission because he felt the question had been amply investigated in several dissertations. But I persisted, and received his approval. His allowing me to challenge a prevailing thesis must be regarded as an indication of his intellectual stature—a genuine scholar encouraging free inquiry into truth rather than simply defending a popular viewpoint.

Synthesis of my research

My objectives were to establish on the one hand the attitude of Christ and of the apostolic church toward the seventh-day Sabbath and on the other hand to ascertain when, where, and why the change was made from Saturday to Sunday. To ascertain the attitude of the Saviour toward the Sabbath, I examined the Sabbath material of the Gospels. I was impressed by the considerable coverage given to Christ's Sabbath ministry—no less than seven Sabbath healing episodes are reported, besides some significant discourses. This indeed reflects the importance attributed to the Sabbath by the apostolic church.

Christ inaugurated His public ministry on a Sabbath day in the synagogue of Nazareth by applying to Himself the sabbatical passage of Isaiah 61:1, 2. Through the words of Isaiah, Jesus said that He had been "anointed," that is, officially sent, " ' to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives ... to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to pro claim the acceptable year of the Lord' " (Luke 4:18, 19, R.S.V.). Practically all commentators agree that the "accept able year of the Lord" is the sabbatical, or jubilee, year. This was the time when the Sabbath became the liberator of the oppressed of the Hebrew society: the poor could freely gather the produce of the land, the captives were released, the slaves set at liberty. Jesus must have astonished His congregation that Sab bath morning when He affirmed briefly but emphatically: " 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'" (verse 21, R.S.V.). In other words, the promises of liberation that the Sabbath contained and proclaimed, now, Christ said, were finding richer fulfillment in His saving ministry.

In His subsequent Sabbath ministry, Christ substantiated such a claim by making the Sabbath a day of physical and spiritual restoration. Let me cite one example where the Saviour brings out this dual dimension of the Sabbath—the healing of the crippled woman. First, Christ restored her physically, saying, " 'Woman, you are freed from your infirmity' " (chap. 13:12, R.S.V.). He then defended His healing act against the charge of Sabbath-breaking by pointing to the spiritual liberation He had offered: "'Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?'" (verse 16, R.S.V.). For the Saviour the Sabbath was the day of liberation—the day to experience the blessings of physical and spiritual restoration that He provides to our needy souls.

The Sabbath marks not only the inauguration but also the conclusion of Christ's earthly ministry. On that historic Good Friday, as Jesus completed His earthly mission, He said: " 'It is finished'" (John 19:30, R.S.V.), and then He rested on the Sabbath in the tomb. In the light of the cross, then, the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:9) is a time not only to celebrate the completion of creation but also to experience the blessings of salvation. By ceasing from our work on the Sabbath, as Calvin says, "We allow God to work in us" to bring to our lives the rest of His forgiveness and peace. This is basically the meaning of the Sabbath I have found in the New Testament. The Sabbath-keeping of Christ as recorded in the Gospels reveals that in the thinking of the apostolic communities the Saviour had not nullified the Sabbath, but rather clarified its meaning and function.

How then did Sunday originate? Was it by authority of the apostolic church of Jerusalem? Available documents reveal conclusively that the Jerusalem church until the second destruction of the city in A.D. 135, was composed of, and administered by, Jewish converts who were loyal to Old Testament religious traditions such as Sabbathkeeping. Note, for example, existence in Jerusalem of the circumcision party, apparently sup ported by James (Gal. 2:12); the undue concern of the Jerusalem church leaders for ritual defilement and food laws, which even Gentiles were expected to observe (Acts 15:20); and especially the proposal of "James; and all the elders" (Acts 21:18) that Paul should undergo a rite of purification at the temple to prove that he also lived "in observance of the law" (Acts 21:24, R.S.V.).

Later sources confirm the profound commitment of the Jerusalem church to the observance of Old Testament religious customs such as Sabbathkeeping. Epiphanius, a fourth-century Palestinian historian, tells us that descendants of the Jerusalem Christians who migrated north prior to the destruction of the city in A.D. 70, still retained Sabbathkeeping as one of their chief characteristics in his day.

Since Jerusalem does not appear to be the birthplace of Sunday observance, where then did the custom originate, and why? My thesis—which I have constructed with circumstantial but, I believe, impressive evidence—is that Sun day observance arose in the Church of Rome during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-135), at a time when Roman anti-Jewish repressive measures encouraged deliberate differentiation from Jewish customs. Resurgent Messianic expectations among Jews at that time exploded in violent uprising almost everywhere. To subdue the second Jewish, revolt in Palestine engaged Hadrian's best legions for three years (A.D. 132- 135). When Hadrian finally succeeded in crushing the revolt, he adopted the most repressive measures against Jews, prohibiting categorically the practice of the Jewish religion, and especially Sabbath keeping. These repressive measures—particularly felt in the capital city—apparently encouraged the predominantly Gentile membership of the Church of Rome to emphasize their distinction from Judaism by changing the date and manner of observance of the Sabbath and of such characteristic Jewish festivals as Passover. The Sabbath was changed to Sunday and the Passover date was changed from Nisan 14 to Easter Sunday in order to avoid, as Constantine later stated, "all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews."

Why was Sunday chosen as the new day of worship rather than another day? I found a significant reason in the prevailing veneration of the sun cult. The day of the sun—what we call Sunday—initially was the second day of the week in the Roman world, following the day of Saturn. However, as sun cults became dominant in the empire, the day of the sun was advanced from the second day to the first day of the week. Did this development influence Christians who had worshiped the sun prior to becoming Christians to choose the sun's day as their new day of worship? I found significant indirect and direct evidence suggesting this possibility. For instance, the symbology of the day of the sun was frequently used not only to represent Christ in art and literature but also to justify observance of Sunday. Eusebius explains that Christians gather in the "day of light, first day and true day of the sun" because "it is on this day of the creation of the world that God said: 'Let there be light' and it is also on this day that the Sun of Justice has risen for our souls."

The conclusion, then, that emerges from my investigation is that the change from Saturday to Sunday did not occur in the Jerusalem church by apostolic authority to commemorate Christ's resurrection. Rather it occurred in the church of Rome early in the second century as a result of an interplay of political, social, pagan-religious and Christian factors, similar somewhat to those which gave rise to the December 25 observance of Christ's birth.

In the few moments remaining I wish to outline three areas where seventh-day Sabbathkeepers and Sunday observers can and should cooperate.

Areas of cooperation

1. Promotion of protective legislation that will enable all citizens to rest and worship on the day of their choice. I commend the Lord's Day Alliance for defending the rights not only of Sunday observers but also of seventh-day Sab bathkeepers. I am thinking, for instance, of the support that the Lord's Day Alliance has given H.R. 8429—a bill that seeks to protect the right of all who for religious reasons refuse to work on Sunday, Saturday, or some other day. At a time when some chain stores are pushing for a seven-day shopping week, without regard to the religious convictions of their employees, we need to work together to protect the right of all people to rest and worship on their respective holy days.

2. Affirmation of the Sabbath commandment. There is, as you know, a view that denies the binding obligation of the Sabbath for Christians. This view apparently began with Hadrian's anti- Judaic policy. At that time a group of writings "Against the Jews"—Adversos Judeaos—attacked Jewish observances such as Sabbathkeeping. (For a brief survey, see my book From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 178-185.) the "Christian" theology of contempt for the Jews that developed at that time emptied the Sabbath of all significance and reduced it, as argued by Justin Martyr, to a temporary institution, imposed solely on the Jews as a trademark of their wickedness (see From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 225-227).

It is unfortunate that this negative view of the Sabbath has survived to our day, with minor alterations. The January-February, 1979, issue of Biblical Archaeology Review provides an exam ple. Several religious leaders react to my article (Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October, 1978) by writing to the editor such comments as: "The Sabbath is still Saturday, the seventh day. But Christ nailed the law, including 'the sabbath' to the cross (Col. 2:14-16)." Where does the writer get this information? Surely not from Colossians 2:14- 16, since the term "law" (nomos) does not occur once in the whole Epistle. The cheirographon that was nailed to the cross, according to recent studies on the contemporary usage of the word, is not the law of Moses, but a record book of sin (see From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 339-369).

The implications of negating the Sabbath commandment for Christians can be seen in the dissertation of Willy Rordorf, an authority on this subject. Professor Rordorf argues that the Sabbath commandment was "abolished" by Christ and consequently Christians should "refrain as far as possible, from basing the hallowing of Sunday on the Sabbath commandment" (Sunday, p. 298). Basically, his position is that the Jewish Sabbath was a twenty-four-hour day of rest; the Christian Sunday, to the contrary, is an hour of worship. Christians therefore should feel free to engage in any legitimate activity during the rest of the day. This view received support at the October, 1978, meeting of the National Catholic Liturgical Commission.

In fact, the Catholic Church has already authorized moving the Sunday Mass to Saturday night to accommodate those who wish to spend Sunday in uninterrupted recreational activities. Such is the result of explaining away a divine precept such as the Sabbath commandment. God's holy day is reduced to an hour of worship which in turn is moved about to suit our pleasure-oriented society.

What can be done to educate and motivate Christians to observe God's holy day as not merely an hour of worship but as a whole day of rest, worship, fellowship, and service? Can this be done through national legislation that would outlaw all activities not compatible with the spirit of Saturday or Sun day? In our pluralistic and materialistic society we can hardly hope to induce Christians to rest and worship on God's holy day by means of civil legislation. In European countries such as Germany, England, and Italy, where on Sunday practically all industrial and commercial activities are shut down by law, the churches are empty. In Italy church attendance is about 6 percent and throughout most of Western Europe averages 10 percent of the Christian population.

Nor can people be induced to keep the Sabbath by appeals to social, economic, physical, and ecological benefits. Even those persuaded will not be led into an experience of worship, fellowship, and service. It is only when the knowledge of what is good is strengthened by deep theological convictions that a person will be motivated to keep the Sabbath as God intended it to be kept. The Sabbath commandment, pressed on the con science by the Holy Spirit, brings such conviction.

In his inaugural address Dr. Wesberry stated unequivocally that "one of our nation's greatest needs ... is to get back to the fourth commandment and once again 'Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy'... I will do all in my power to put great emphasis on the fourth commandment." Let us all pledge by God's grace to lead our congregations into a renewed understanding and experience of the blessings of the Sabbath. If we do, we soon shall rejoice to see the physical, spiritual, and social life of our people revitalized.

3. Theological reappraisal of the meaning of the Sabbath for contemporary Christians. A third area of cooperation involves redefining the theological meaning and message of the Sabbath in the light of our contemporary situation. The challenge that ministers face in every generation is to identify the needs of people and society and then to show the divine solution to such human needs.

What is a most crucial problem afflicting many lives today? Is it not the problem of restlessness? To work off tensions, people try many expedients: They take vacations, tranquilizers, drugs, and alcohol; they join athletic clubs or meditation groups. At best these provide only temporary relief for inner tensions. True rest is to be found not in magic pills or fabulous places, but in a right relationship with a' Person our Creator and Saviour. As stated by Augustine in the opening paragraph of his Confessions: "Thou has made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee."

Our common task today is to help believers and unbelievers to understand how the Sabbath enables our Saviour to bring peace and rest to our restless lives. I am grateful for the insights I am gaining from religious thinkers of every persuasion. We need to explore together how to make the Sabbath a physical and spiritual renewal experience for ourselves and our people.

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Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is associate professor of church history, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1979

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