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Millgram on Paul and Sabbath

Here is an excerpt from an out-of-print book by Abraham Millgram entitled Sabbath: The Day of Delight (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society: 1965 orig. 1947). In it, Millgram has a chapter that discusses how the Sabbath was moved by Christians to Sunday. This discussion has some very perceptive analysis on Paul. He attributes this change in Christianity to the loss of power of the early Jewish Christian founders to the divergent movement which Paul started.

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"There is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread" (Flavius Josephus, Contra Apionem, 2.40).

AS LONG as the Jew remained segregated in the Ghetto or the Pale, he was not concerned with the fact that his Christian neighbor observed the first day of the week as his official day of rest and worship. But as soon as the Jew was emancipated and was permitted to become part of the political and economic life of his country, he discovered that the Jewish week was out of step with the economic and social order which were patterned after the Christian tradition. Sabbath observance became a serious obstacle in the way of earning a livelihood. Many a Jew tried to observe the Sabbath, despite the enormous disadvantage such observance imposed upon him, only to succumb to the inexorable economic forces. The few who succeeded are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule.

The problem of the Christian Sunday has therefore become a matter of vital concern to every Jew who is troubled by the general decline of Sabbath observance. One frequently hears the question: Why did the Christians abandon the Sabbath? How could the Christians accept the authority of the Bible, and more particularly the Ten Commandments, and at the same time reject the one commandment which

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is introduced by the admonition, "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy"?

To answer these questions the Jew must search not so much in theology as in history, for the change from the Sabbath to Sunday was the result of a long historical process which is tied up with the formative years of Christianity.

This process coincided with the drift of early Christianity from a messianic movement among the Jews to a religion of the Gentiles. When Christianity was predominantly Jewish, the Sabbath was the official Christian day of rest and worship.

When Christianity finally became predominantly Gentile the Sabbath was abandoned and Sunday became the official day of rest and worship. This change wasn't sudden. It was a slow process of more than three centuries duration.

An examination of the gradual transition from the sabbath to Sunday must begin with the realization. that the

"disciples of Jesus the Nazarene were a conventicle within the synagogue, rather than a sect .... They were pious and observant Jews, who worshipped in the temple and in the synagogue like others . . . and in their observance of the Law conformed to tradition as expounded by the Scribes and Pharisees." (George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (Cambridge, 1927) Vol. 1 at 90.)

They kept the Sabbath, deviating only in a few unimportant details, and these slight deviations were not so much distinctive of the early Christians as they were of the Galilean Jews who were somewhat lax in the observance of some rituals. This observance is reflected in the admonition ascribed to Jesus,

"Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:19.)

Even the oft-quoted statement ascribed to Jesus that the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath [Mark 2:27] can be matched by the rabbinic teaching that "the Sabbath is committed to you, not you to the Sabbath."

The early Christians, however, differed from the Jews

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in that they used to assemble for prayer separately, both every day and more particularly on Sunday mornings. The first day of the week was especially singled out for these prayer meetings because of the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the grave on a Sunday. Furthermore, they needed something distinctively their own, for in addition to being Jews they also believed in Jesus. These weekly prayer meetings effectively served this need. They also began to call the first day of the week the Lord's Day, i.e., the day when their Lord, Jesus, rose from the grave. This arrangement of strictly observing the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship as prescribed by the Bible and by Jewish tradition and then also gathering for prayer on the first day of the week continued as long as Jewish influence remained supreme.

The predominance of Jewish influence, however, was successfully challenged by one of the new converts to Christianity. Paul, at first a persecutor of the Christians, became the most zealous missionary, carrying the new gospel primarily to the Gentiles. Since the Sabbath with its many restrictions was a burden to those who were not trained in Jewish life, and since it was objectionable to many Gentiles who considered it, along with circumcision, as a national characteristic of the Jews, Paul abolished the Sabbath and thus opened the road of conversion to the multitude of Gentiles.

This radical step was in line with his avowed policy of expediency, as he himself admits, "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."  He rationalized his daring action on theological grounds - namely, that the law was abolished by the death and resurrection of Jesus. [See Romans 7:1-7.] Since Paul found the Sabbath objectionable, he did not institute a Christian Sabbath. He merely destroyed the Hebrew Sabbath and thus paved the way for the pagan influence which later turned Sunday into a Christian sacred

[Page 366] day. Its immediate effect was to make the Lord's Day stand out as the significant, Christian day of the week.

This radical break with Judaism did not go unchallenged. The Jewish Christians, known as the Ebionites, rejected the Epistles of Paul and even called him an apostate. They continued the original practice of observing the, Sabbath and of assembling for prayer on the Lord's Day. (Origen, Contra Celsum 2.1; Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses. 1.262.)

The opposition of the Ebionites, however, was ineffective because Jewish predominance in Christianity was gone. Not only were the Jewish Christians by now a small minority, but their prestige was further diminished by the crushing defeat which the Jews suffered at the hands of the Romans. The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. spelled the end of decisive Jewish influence on Christianity and the corresponding rise of Gentile influence.

Just as the Jews brought their traditions, including the Sabbath, into early Christianity, so did the Gentiles now bring into Christianity their own traditions, among them , the, sacredness of the 'Day of the Sun. The pagans were accustomed to regard Sunday as a sacred day because sunworship was the central feature of many cults of that period.

This was especially true of Mithraism, which was sufficiently widespread to become an official religion of the Roman Empire. The Gentiles who were converted to Christianity therefore infused into the Lord's Day the characteristics of the pagan Sunday. The Lord's Day ceased to be a mere day of prayer. It became a sacred day, thus assuming some of the characteristics of the Sabbath.

The process of completely eliminating the Sabbath and of replacing it with a sacred Sunday was furthered by the second Jewish revolt against Rome in the second century.

The Hadrianic persecutions which followed the crushing defeat of the Jews proscribed Judaism on pain of death. It therefore became expedient for the Christians not to

[Page 367] be suspected of Judaism. Since the Sabbath was one of the outstanding characterristics of Jewish life, its observance exposed one to grave dangers. It was then that the Sabbath began to disappear completely from among the Christians.

We begin to hear Christians denouncing Sabbath observance as Judaizing and begin to refer to the Lord's Day by the pagan name of Sunday.

The final steps that led to the transformation of the simple Christian prayer meeting on the first day of the week to be legalized "Sunday Sabbath" were not taken until the fourth century. In the year 321 C.E., the Emperor Constantine issued the following decree:

"Let all the judges and town-people; and the occupations of all trades, rest on the venerable day of the sun; but let those who are situated in the country freely and at full liberty attend to the business of agriculture, because it often happens that no other da is so fit for sowing corn and planting vines, lest the critical moment being let slip, men should lose the commodities granted by the providence of Heaven."

Although this decree affected only the markets and the courts, it nevertheless consummated the process that had begun during the days of Paul. With the decree of Constantine Sunday was officially legalized as the Christian sacred day of rest. Later decrees, especially that of the Council of Laodicea, further defined the nature of the Christian' Sun- 'day: but added little of consequence. Neither did the curious notion that Jesus transferred the Sabbath to the Lord's Day in any way affect the situation. Early Christianity had run its course of development. Changes, if any, could now be made only through the medium of the Church and the Church was slow to change.  With the coming of the Reformation the Bible again became an open book, at least to many of the Protestants. Upon readIng the Bible some people discovered discrepancies

[Page 368]  between the Sabbath of the Bible and the Sunday of the Christians. This discovery led to the Sabbatarian movements which resulted in the Puritan Sunday and the American blue laws. The Sabbatarians officially made Sunday into a Sabbath, and insisted that it should be observed as prescribed in the Bible. Since the Bible prohibits "all manner of work," the Puritan Sunday exceeded the Hebrew Sabbath in its restrictions. An example of the rigors imposed by the Puritan Sunday is the list of some of the laws contained in the oft-quoted code of Connecticut:

No one shall run on the Sabbath day, or walk in his garden, or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting.

No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair or shave, on the Sabbath day. No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day. The Sabbath shall begin at sunset Saturday.

If any man shall kiss his wife, or wife her husband on the Lord's day the party in fault shall be punished at the discretion of the court of magistrates. (William Logan Fisher, History of the Institution of the Sabbath Day (Philadelphia, 1846) at 37-38.)

The Sabbatarians not only prescribed the exact manner of observing the "Sunday Sabbath" for themselves, but they insisted that it was the duty of the government to protect their sacred day from desecration. Blue laws were therefore written into the statutes of most of the states, forcing everybody to abstain from work on Sunday irrespective of religious conviction.

Another by-product of the Reformation was the appearance of a different type of Sabbatarian who not only wanted to observe the Sabbath laws, but insisted that they be observed on the seventh day, as prescribed in the Bible and as practiced by Jesus and his disciples. Some of these seventh-day observers, known as the Seventh-day Baptists,

[Page 369] were found among the followers of Oliver Cromwell. They held to the doctrines of the Calvinistic Baptists, but observed the seventh day as the Sabbath. Some of these Seventh-day Baptists migrated to America and in 1761 they established in Rhode Island their first American church.

More important and more vigorous is the younger sect, known as the Seventh-day Adventists. They came into existence about one hundred years ago when many Christians, on the basis of esoteric calculations, expected the return of Jesus in 1844. When that year passed without the advent of Jesus, one group, later known as the Seventh-day Adventists, established itself as a distinct Christian fundamentalist sect. They adhere to the belief that the coming of Jesus is imminent and that everyone should prepare himself for his advent. One of the methods of this preparation is the acceptance of the true Sabbath as the day of rest and worship. The adherents of this doctrine have been very zealous for their cause. They claim that they contribute to their church per capita "ten times as much as the Protestant average in America." Their zeal is matched by their uncompromising stand on Sabbath observance. An official statement recently issued by the Autumn Council of the General Assembly contains, among many items, the following principles regarding Sabbath observance:

We counsel the ministry to even greater carefulness in admitting to membership in the church of God such as hold positions where it seems to them necessary to work on the Sabbath day, even though such work be minimized and made as light as possible. While it is not possible to lay down rules that will cover every case and all conditions, we warn against the tendency to let down the bars and admit and retain as members any who are unwilling to take a decided stand for the Sabbath of the

[Page 370] Lord. Our members should not enter into entangling business alliances or perform on the Sabbath government or community service which compromises sacred principles. The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord.  In it we are not to do that which is forbidden by the law of God.

How can anyone think that he is observing the Sabbath as God would have it observed when he is working on that day? How can a Seventh-day Adventist attend school on that day, or prepare lessons, or write examinations, or attend public exhibitions or games? How can he listen to secular radio programs or dramas, or go to social gatherings or picnics, or habitually neglect divine service? How can he engage in or plan business ventures, read secular literature, do odd jobs around the house, go shopping, spend an undue amount of time in physical rest, go pleasure riding for selfish purposes, or do any of the many things forbidden both by God and by the enlightened conscience of the Christian? The answer, of course, must be that true Christians can do none of these things.

Despite the steady increase in the ranks of the Seventh-day Adventists, Christianity is permanently committed to Sunday as the Christian day of worship and rest. The Sabbath remains, as it has always been, distinctive of Judaism, "an everlasting covenant," "a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever."