Q. Why don’t Latter-day Saints celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday like they did in the Bible?
A. (by Marc Schindler) In fact, as Jews themselves, Jesus and his disciples followers did observe the Jewish Sabbath. We know this from biblical references to both Jesus and His apostles teaching in synagogues. For instance, in Luke 4:17-23 we read that Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath.
But even as far back as Jesus’s ministry, He started deliberately but subtly challenging much of the rigidity of contemporary Sabbath law (see, for instance, the story of Jesus and the disciples plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath in Matthew 12:1-13). After His ascension, when the disciples went out to preach the Gospel, Gentile converts were not required to observe the Sabbath, although most Jewish converts continued to. This is highlighted in the famous vision shown to Peter, as recorded in Acts 10, where he is told by the Lord not to require Sabbath observation by Gentile converts.
So how did the day get changed from Saturday (the seventh day) to Sunday (the first day) amongst early Christians? In Acts 20:7 we read of a gathering of Saints in Asia Minor on Sunday; that it was a religious service is revealed by the fact that Paul preached during the meeting. Sunday was picked because it was the day of Jesus’s resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 and Revelation 1:10). Sunday became known as the Lord’s Day.
Most modern Christians, including Latter-day Saints, now follow a practice whereby Sunday, the first day of the week, is observed as the Lord’s Day. Technically speaking, this day isn’t the Sabbath, which is the seventh day; this is a distinction we rarely make today, but shouldn’t forget.
The reason we observe Sunday is because of an early decision by Christians to differentiate themselves from Jews by choosing the day on which the Lord was resurrected to celebrate their weekly religious ceremonies. Acts was written in Greek and the phrase that’s translated as “first day of the week” is “mia ton Sabbaton.”
This can be confusing. Is the Greek word “Sabbaton” “Sabbath” or “week?” Well, it’s both–it was borrowed from the Hebrew “Shabbat” because Greek didn’t have a word corresponding either to a holy day (in the sense of a weekly day of worship) or even for week, so “Sabbaton” came to mean both “week” and “the Lord’s Day” (the seventh day of the week, or Sunday). The Greco-Roman world used a totally different way of dividing up time.1 As is the case with other words that Christians in those days borrowed from secular Greek, “Sabbaton” took on a unique, special usage within Christian communities. As another example, “basilica” is a word we associate with church buildings today, but to non-Christian Greeks it merely meant a royal palace, or government building. Consider, as well, the modern usage of LDS words like “endowment,” “celestial,” “stake,” etc.2 They have special meaning within our community, but entirely different meanings to those outside the community.
The phrase in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “the first day of the week,” is translated from the Greek phrase “mian sabbaton;” literally “[on the] first Sabbath.” This term “first Sabbath” is an obvious clue that we’re dealing with just such a borrowed usage. (Otherwise why have a first Sabbath?) We encounter much the same wording in Acts 20:7 and Mark 16:9.
As already mentioned, the way the word is used, it can mean “week,” not just “Sabbath” in the Jewish sense. After all, Greek convert Christians didn’t just borrow the concept of a holy day. Before that would make sense to them, they had to borrow something even more revolutionary — the very idea of a week, which was totally new to the Greeks. So to distinguish “the Lord’s day,” the term “first of the Sabbath” was used.
In fact, we have the rare good luck to see both days distinguished rather nicely in one verse, in Matthew 28:1, which in the KJV reads, “in the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.” [this, incidentally, is what establishes the fact that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday morning]. What’s interesting is that it’s the same Greek phrase that’s used here in both parts of the verse: “in the end of the Sabbath [“Ophe de sabbaton,” or “now late on Sabbath” (Saturday)] in 28:1a, and in 28:1b, “eis mian sabbatton,” or “toward the-first-day of-the-week” (Sunday morning) but later translators had to use different terms (“week” and “Sabbath”) in the target languages (like English) to avoid ambiguity.
There are two so-called pseudepigraphal works allegedly written by Barnabas, Paul’s missionary companion, in which the use of “Sabbath” refers to the Lord’s Day (the first day of the week) and to a “week.” From the Acts of Barnabas:
And when I remained for three Sabbaths in entreaty and prayer on my knees, I was unable to prevail upon him about myself; for his great grievance against me was on account of my keeping several parchments in Pamphylia. And when it came to pass that they finished teaching in Antioch, on the first of the week…3
Similar references are found in a similar work called the Epistle of Barnabas, probably written around 100-150 A.D. So it would appear that the practice of Sunday as the Lord’s Day was certainly well established by the middle of the second century A.D. at the latest.
Another fascinating quote comes from an early document called the Constitutions [Teachings] of the Twelve Apostles: “Peter and Paul do make the following constitutions. Let the slaves work five days; but on the Sabbath-day and the Lord’s day let them have leisure to go to church for instruction in piety. We have said that the Sabbath is on account of the creation, and the Lord’s day of the resurrection.”4 Here we see the two meanings explained in the same reference. (And perhaps perfect for posting on modern-day office/cubicle walls!)
Other references are found in very early non-canonical works such as Ignatius’s Magnesians 9:1, Justin Martyr’s Apology 57, and others. As well, the Didache was a work that was considered canonical by some early Church Fathers, and which was probably written around 90 A.D. It has numerous references to the first day as being the Lord’s Day and meant to be the Christian counterpart to the Jewish Sabbath. One such example is, “But on the Lord’s day, after that ye have assembled together, break bread and give thanks, having in addition confessed your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure.”5
As Latter-day Saints we have modern revelation to rely on, which is, of course, for us the one sure sign. (See D&C 59:12, “But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.”) But it’s also gratifying to see external evidence that yet another original principle of Christianity is a vital part of the Restored Gospel in these latter days.
1 The Greco-Roman world used a division of months that was different than seven-day weeks. Rather, it was divided into three portions according to the phase of the moon. The Calends covered the period from the full moon, through the waning moon, and until the sighting of the next new moon; the Nones covered the period from the new moon until the first quarter moon (so was much shorter than the Calends). And thanks to Shakespeare’s famous scene from Julius Caesar (“Beware the Ides of March”) the Ides are the best-known period, covering the very short period of the full moon. Days were referred to as, for instance, Nones I, Nones II, and so on.
2 For more examples, see Marc A. Schindler, “‘Latter-day’ English,” Verbatim: the Language Quarterly, XXIII/2 (Summer 1996).
3 The Acts of Barnabas; see http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0817.htm
4 Constitutions of the Twelve Apostles VIII:33; see http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-07/anf07-49.htm#P6996_2348693
5 Didache 14:1; see http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/St.Pachomius/Liturgical/didache.html. “Didache” is pronounced dee-DAHK-eh and means “of the Twelve [Apostles]”