Refuting the “Pagan Origins of the Lord’s Day” Myth Part 3: On the power of Rome, Constantine, and Councils

In the previous installments of this series we have systematically disproved the most integral elements of the Seventh Day Sabbatarian myth that the Christian tradition of gathering for worship on Sunday is rooted in pagan practice. In Part 1, we established that no weekly pagan observance was held on Sunday in honor of a pagan deity in either Rome or Greece. In Part 2, we clarified the following: historically, the term “catholic” refers merely to the early Christian church and is not synonymous with the entity which later became known as the “Roman Catholic Church”; the Christian practice of gathering for worship on Sunday was a well established tradition long before the 300’s (the alleged rise of the Roman Catholic Church); this practice was not confined to the geographical area of Rome; this practice was not considered a “replacement Sabbath”; it was overwhelmingly adopted due to early Christians’ reverence of Jesus’ resurrection; and finally, that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim that they “changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday” is based on their own brand of revisionist history and not historically supportable.

One may logically wonder what is even left to dispute since the Seventh Day Sabbatarians’ required foundational claims have been effectively dismissed as fallacious. However, there are three subjects left which must be addressed: the alleged unopposed power of Rome, Constantine, and the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Laodicea (364 AD). The vast majority of Seventh Day Sabbatarian “evidence” comes in the form of excerpted quotes, edicts, and canons from selected decrees and councils which are strategically placed within their publications to construct an erroneous historical context.

Did Rome Have the Authority to Establish Sunday Worship Throughout Christendom?

Perusal of Seventh Day Sabbatarian literature of all stripes leaves one with the clear impression that Rome had complete, unopposed authority over all of Christendom from an extremely early date. Essentially, this belief can only be sustained if one has little to no knowledge of the structure of the early church. An excellent resource on this topic is David Guzik’s second lecture in his Early Church History series, The Spread of the Gospel and the Apologists.

Guzik explains that the early church leaders did not see themselves as apostles, but heirs to the apostles, so the focus was placed on the office of bishop which is a new testament office. Guzik defines the authority of the office of bishop as, “leader of the Christians in a particular city and its immediate region.” He continues, “He had oversight over the many congregations of Christians in that area.” The office of bishop did increase in power over time due to a variety of factors, but Guzik notes that “this was a trend encouraged by the apostolic fathers, including Ignatius of Antioch (110-117 AD).” The four cities that rose to prominence were Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria which did result in the bishops of these cities acquiring more authority than other bishops of less prominent cities.

Guzik notes that “this naturally led to competition between the prominent patriarchal bishops” and is indeed the manner by which there came to be a “Pope” much later down the road. How much later down the road? According to the Biblicalcyclopedia entry for “papacy,” “The first pope, in the real sense of the word, was Leo I (440-461).” However, the rest of the article attests to the fact that even at this point the struggle for supremacy was far from over. Eventually, the bishop of Rome did emerge as the leading figure of the church in the west. This is an evolution elaborated upon in Guzik’s fifth lecture, The Christian Empire: The Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy for those interested in pursuing that topic.

For our discussion, the pertinent question is: Was the bishop of Rome capable of exerting his authority over the other three prominent bishops (of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) with regard to Christian practice during the early time periods required by the Seventh Day Sabbatarian theory. The clear historical answer is no. One of the best examples to demonstrate this is the Quartodeciman Controversy which took place in three stages over a period of 170 years swirling around the debate concerning the appropriate date the resurrection should be celebrated and when the fast would end. Ironically, many pagan origin conspiracy theorists erroneously bill this debate as an Easter vs Passover disagreement. For more on that, you can check out my article: So You Think Easter is Pagan Part 2: The Constantine Conspiracy.

In take one of the controversy, Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna) came to visit Anicetus (bishop of Rome) in 155 AD to convince Anicetus to follow his tradition of observing Passover on Nisan 14 rather than on the Sunday following Nisan 14, but neither bishop could convince the other. They ended up agreeing to disagree and took the Lord’s Supper together. In take two of the controversy circa 195 AD, Victor (the bishop of Rome) tried to excommunicate Polycrates (bishop of Ephesus) for observing Passover on Nisan 14 rather than the Sunday after Nisan 14. Irenaeus (Polycarp’s disciple) agreed that Sunday should be kept, however, he and several other bishops opposed Victor’s attempt to excommunicate Polycrates citing the peaceful example set by Polycarp and Anicetus in 155. Polycrates was ultimately not excommunicated. This shows that even at the end of the 2nd century, the bishop of Rome did not have the power to make mandates on the church as a whole and the other bishops both opposed and defied him without consequence. Both Polycarp and Polycrates acted as equals to the bishop of Rome.

As D.M. Canright writes in his no nonsense manner, “Specially mark this fact: The observance and sanctity of the Lord’s Day was fully established throughout all the great Eastern Churches long before the Roman Papacy could rule even in the West, much less in the East.”

Seventh Day Sabbatarians have no problem identifying who they believe is responsible for what they claim is the “replacing” of the seventh day Sabbath with Sunday- Rome and the Papacy. However, the when is not so clearly established. Are any of the suggested occasions plausible? Let’s take a look at the options.

Constantine’s 321 AD Edict

Constantine, Roman Emperor 306-337 AD

Here I will provide an example of how Seventh Day Sabbatarian groups commonly surround quotes with their “revised” context in order to lend credibility to a narrative where none exists. The following is a citation of Constantine’s 321 AD edict found in United Church of God, an International Association’s article, Was the Saturday Sabbath Changed to Sunday:

The article states, “Constantine the Great, a worshipper of the pagan Roman sun god Sol Invictus, famously converted to Christianity at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312… Several years later, he dictated the following edict which established a national day of rest on Sunday, the holy day of Sol Invictus.”

Here the article inserts the edict from the source Codex Justinianis lib. 3, tit. 12, 3:

On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls each of them for the second time [A.D. 321]”

The UCG article bookends this citation with the following assertion, “With this edict, Constantine effectively combined pagan worship practices from the Roman sun god he worshiped with aspects of his new-found Christianity. This pattern is replicated throughout early Roman Catholic History.”

Encased in such a sinister context, the content of the edict is easily assigned meaning that is wholly foreign to its author’s intent. The goal of presenting the edict in this way is to insinuate that the language used in the edict corroborates their two foundational claims: 1) that Sunday was an established weekly pagan observance in honor of the sun god in Rome; 2) that with this edict, Constantine exercised his authority to require Christians to change the day of their Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Reading the edict with these two presuppositions in mind leads one to view the edict as directed toward Christians with the intent of requiring them by law to worship on what the pagans referred to as “the venerable day of the Sun.”

The problem with this is that we have already revealed that both of those presuppositions are patently false. First, there was no such weekly pagan observance to the sun deity to co-opt in Rome, rather it was annual. One may not commandeer (no matter how much power one wields) a pagan observance that does not exist. Second, the overwhelming testimony of early church history (dating back to even the 1st century) is that the tradition of Christian worship on Sunday was already well established throughout Christendom by the time of the issuance of this edict – not merely in Rome. Canright highlights the absurdity of assigning this edict as the origin of widespread Christian worship on Sunday by noting the limited scope of its authority, “This law applied only to the Roman Empire. At that date there were numerous Christian Churches outside of the Roman jurisdiction, all keeping Sunday…This law in no way could affect them.”

In light of these truths, the Seventh Day Sabbatarian assertions are nonsensical. Why would Constantine issue an edict requiring Christians to cease work on Sunday when this had already been their tradition for generations? The logical question becomes: To whom was this edict directed if not Christians? Clearly there was a group of people in Rome who were working on Sunday. The use of pagan language in the edict itself describing Sunday as “the venerable day of the Sun” identifies the group to whom it was directed- pagans! Constantine’s edict then becomes further evidence of what all Roman historians already attest: that Roman pagans were not already setting aside this “day of the Sun” as any type of weekly holy day in which they abstained from work.

Canright writes, “Christians needed no law to compel them to keep the day, for they all kept it already as a Christian duty. But the pagans kept no weekly day. Hence the law was directed to them, and, of course, used pagan terms for that day, ‘the day of the sun.’ That is the manifest explanation of why the pagan name was used.” Were the edict directed at Christians and intended to become an alternative Sabbath certainly the language of the edict would reflect that. But it doesn’t. It is obvious that Constantine did not intend Sunday as any type of replacement Sabbath as defined by a Sabbatarian. The word “Sabbath” is noticeably absent and farmers were explicitly given the freedom to work on that day as they pleased.

It should also be mentioned that although the edict declared Sunday a civil day of rest within the cities, it did not force pagans outside the city to conform to Christian tradition. Canright cites the significance notable and well-respected early church historian Philip Schaff places on the clause within the edict giving those “in the country” the freedom to work their fields on the civilly designated day of rest, “He expressly exempted the country districts where paganism still prevailed.” Canright elaborates, “This is true, and it shows that the pagans did not keep Sunday nor did they wish to. Hence, where they were greatly in the majority, they were exempted from obeying this law. But in the cities where Christians largely were, there secular business had to cease. This law was made to protect Christians and the Christian’s day, not pagans nor a pagan day.”

But, Weren’t Early Christians Who Chose to Gather for Worship on Saturday Persecuted?

This is another instance of a claim which is repeated ad nauseum by Seventh Day Sabbatarians with absolutely no source citation as corroboration. The argument is that most early Christians wanted to gather on Saturday and believed this is what Scripture teaches, but were forced to abandon this belief practically en masse and gather on Sunday instead due to persecution. Essentially, “Sunday worship” survived predominately as tradition due to these circumstances.

Admittedly, I find this an interesting path of reasoning due to the fact that, historically, Christianity as a whole both thrives and spreads particularly in times of grievous persecution. That being said, after sifting through mountains of Seventh Day Sabbatarian literature I finally found one source which provided a single citation to corroborate the claim. The source cited as “proof” was Constantine’s 315 AD decree, Concerning Jews, Heaven Worshippers, and Samaritans from Fordham University’s Jewish History Sourcebook which reads as follows:

We wish to make it known to the Jews and their elders and their patriarchs that if, after the enactment of this law, any one of them dares to attack with stones or some other manifestation of anger another who has fled their dangerous sect and attached himself to the worship of God [Christianity], he must speedily be given to the flames and burn~ together with all his accomplices. Moreover, if any one of the population should join their abominable sect and attend their meetings, he will bear with them the deserved penalties.”

This decree does not do anything to bolster the Seventh Day Sabbatarian case for the following reasons:

  1. This law was instituted in 315 AD, 6 years prior to Constantine’s alleged institution of Sunday observance and it actually says nothing about Sunday observance at all. It would be truly confusing to assert that Constantine had instituted a persecution of individuals for breaking a law that he had yet to decree.
  2. If the law was enforced as it is written, it certainly doesn’t constitute persecution. It does however assign a harsh, capital punishment for Jews who attack via stoning, etc, individuals who have converted to Christianity.
  3. All other laws documented on this Fordham University site which DO constitute persecution were instituted by Roman Emperors that came well after Constantine.

In order to corroborate their claim, Seventh Day Sabbatarians would need a citation of Saturday keeping Christians being persecuted prior to this date since the tradition of gathering on Sunday was well established long before Constantine even existed. Do they have evidence of that? If so, I have never seen it provided.

On the flip side of the coin, do we have any historical evidence that the small number of Christians who chose to gather for worship on Saturday instead of Sunday were not persecuted by the church? As a matter of fact we do. Justin Martyr discusses these very individuals in his Dialogue with Trypho 47 (dated between 155 and 167 AD). Trypho asks Martyr if individuals who recognize Jesus as the Messiah, yet choose to keep the law of Moses (including the seventh day Sabbath) will still be saved. The following is an excerpt from Martyr’s response:

But if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses, from which they expect some virtue, but which we believe were appointed by reason of the hardness of the people’s hearts, along with their hope in this Christ, and [wish to perform] the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety, yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren. But if, Trypho,’ I continued, ‘some of your race, who say they believe in this Christ, compel those Gentiles who believe in this Christ to live in all respects according to the law given by Moses, or choose not to associate so intimately with them, I in like manner do not approve of them. But I believe that even those, who have been persuaded by them to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved.” (emphasis mine)

Martyr doesn’t mince words- there is no ambiguity. While he clearly disagrees with those who choose to keep the Sabbath as a requirement, as long as these individuals do not harass other Christians by telling them they are required to hold the same belief, he considers them his “kinsmen and brethren.” Furthermore, even with regards to those who do harass (or as Paul would say “judaize”) other Christians, Martyr still believes they are “saved” even though he avoids association with them. Disagreement does not equal persecution by any stretch of the imagination.

How About Ecumenical Councils?

Frankly, any Seventh Day Sabbatarian effort to pinpoint an alleged forceful institution of a “replacement” Sabbath on Sunday on any ecumenical council is an exercise in futility no matter what quotation is cited. Why? Because the very first ecumenical council was the Council of Nicea which did not occur until 325 AD. Since we are quite nearly guilty of beating the proverbial dead horse when it comes to providing evidence that the Christian tradition of worship on Sunday was, by this point, extremely old news we will only mention two councils very briefly.

The Council of Nicea 325 AD

“16th-century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea” via Wikipedia

This council is the subject of quite a number of conspiracy theories, the vast majority of which are beyond the scope of this article. Canright cites the allegation relating to our topic as leveled by an editorial in the Advent Review and Herald, February 26, 1914:

“I find that three hundred and twenty-five years after Christianity was born, a council of human beings, called the Council of Nice, convened by a human being named Constantine the Great, instituted the first day Sabbath to displace the seventh day Sabbath.” The editor endorses this language thus: “The position which the writer of the letter takes is impregnable and the arguments unanswerable.”

As it turns out, the position is neither “impregnable” nor the arguments “unanswerable.” The entire purpose for the council and prime debate to be settled was the relationship of the Father and the Son. Specifically, whether or not Jesus Christ is a created being or true God. Amid the secondary disputes presented at Nicea, the subject of worship on Sunday was not even broached. However, James R. White mentions that “Twenty canons were presented dealing with various disciplinary issues within the church.” It is here that Seventh Day Sabbatarians attempt to lodge a foot in the door. However, the only one that even remotely touches our topic is the twentieth canon which reads:

Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.”

This canon bypasses the subject of the propriety of gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day entirely (and during Pentecost) and discusses instead whether or not individuals should kneel or stand while praying. Paul Pavao provides these comments on the 20th canon, “In De Corona (ch. 3) Tertullian, around A.D. 200, says that the practice of praying while standing on Sunday and between Passover and Pentecost was a long-standing tradition. So this tradition predates Nicea by around two centuries, at least. The reason for this is that the first day of the week and Passover were days to celebrate the resurrection. Since they were days of celebration, kneeling and fasting were forbidden. Tertullian seems to think those traditions were observed everywhere…The observance of the Lord’s day and the avoidance of fasting and kneeling on the first day of the week is a very ancient tradition.”

Canright cites the following historical facts (including sources) regarding the Council of Nicea which further damage the Seventh Day Sabbatarian case:

This world-renowned council was held at Nice in Grecian territory near Constantinople, A.D. 325. It was the first general council of the Christian Church. Dean Stanley, in his ‘History of the Eastern Church,’ devotes one hundred pages to this council. On page 99 he says it was Eastern, held in the center of the Eastern Church. Its decrees were accepted by all Christendom ‘as a final settlement of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity’ (page 102). It was a democratic assembly; no Pope ruled over it (page 107). In calling the council, the Bishop of Rome was not consulted, nor did he or any bishop from Italy attend. Only two presbyters came to represent Rome and only five or six bishops from all the West. There were three hundred and eighteen bishops present. All these were from the Eastern Greek Churches, except the six as above. It was emphatically an Eastern Greek council, held in Greek territory, and conducted in the Greek language. The ‘Encyclopedia Britannica,’ Article ‘Nice,’ says: “The West was but feebly represented. Two presbyters as deputies of the Roman Bishop, Sylvester, were present. Thus an immense majority of the Synod hailed from the East.” (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, the 6th Nicene canon refutes the Seventh Day Sabbatarian assertion of an ultimately authoritative Rome:

Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.”

On this canon James R. White writes, “This canon is significant because it demonstrates that at this time there was no concept of a single universal head of the church with jurisdiction over everyone else. While later Roman bishops would claim such authority, resulting in the development of the papacy, at this time no Christian looked to one individual, or church, as the final authority.”

Once again referring to the “persecution” element of the discussion, let’s briefly make a note of just who these bishops voting at Nicea were. James R. White writes:

When it (the Council of Nicea) began on June 19, 325, the fires of persecution had barely cooled. The Roman Empire had been unsuccessful in its attempt to wipe out the Christian faith. Fourteen years had elapsed since the final persecutions under the Emperor Galerius had ended. Many of the men who made up the Council of Nicea bore in their bodies the scars of persecution. They had been willing to suffer for the name of Christ.”

So we have bishops, many of whom had been willing to die and had indeed submitted to torture rather than betray their faith, voting on the issues at the Council of Nicea. Does it make sense that these same men would vote to compromise the church by enforcing a foreign tradition rooted in paganism fourteen years after they were willing to die for their principles? No.

Canright aptly summarizes, “This, it will be seen, simply recognizes the Lord’s Day as a well-known Christian day of worship familiar to all that great Eastern council. There was no discussion over it, no opposition to it. Here were eighteen hundred bishops and clergy nearly all from the Eastern Churches. Did any one of them object that they kept the Sabbath instead of the Lord’s Day? No, not a hint of it. All were agreed on the day. And this was over a hundred years before the Papacy was born and only four years after Constantine’s Sunday law of A.D. 321.”

The Council of Laodicea 364 AD

If it were not far too little, far too late, the twenty-ninth canon of the Council of Laodicea might give us pause:

“Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”

Why is this no help for the Seventh Day Sabbatarian case? Canright cites multiple reasons:

Laodicea is not Rome. It is situated in Asia Minor over 1,000 miles east of Rome. It was in Asia, not in Europe. It was an Eastern, not a Western town, an Oriental, not a Latin city…It was a Greek, not a Roman city…The Pope of Rome did not attend this council at Laodicea, A.D. 364…nor did he send a legate or a delegate or any one to represent him. In fact, neither the Roman Church nor the Pope had anything to do with the council in any way, shape, or manner. It was held without even their knowledge or consent… I have searched through a number of cyclopedias and church histories and can find no mention at all of the council at Laodicea in most of them, and only a few lines in any…Rev. W. Armstrong, a scholar of Canton, Pa., says: ‘This council is not even mentioned by Mosheim, Milner, Euter, Reeves, Socrates, Sozomen, nor by four other historians on my table.’ McClintock and Strong’s ‘Cyclopedia’ says of this council: ‘Thirty-two bishops were present from different provinces in Asia.’ All bishops of the Eastern Church, not one from the Roman Church!…Now think of it: this little local council of thirty-two bishops revolutionizes the whole world on the keeping of the Sabbath immediately without opposition!”

Conclusion

We have clearly established that Rome most certainly did not have the authority to forcibly “change” the day upon which the vast majority of Christendom worshiped at the early date Seventh Day Sabbatarian theories require. Nor can the institution of this tradition be traced to Constantine’s 321 AD edict. Even less logic can be detected in attempting to declare subsequent ecumenical councils as the culprit which were not Roman but Greek, and not even attended by a Roman bishop (pope). Canright states in his forthright fashion that one may “As well claim that Russia established our Fourth of July.” I find this comparison particularly relevant in light of our current political climate.

Seventh Day Sabbatarians may choose to esteem Saturday rather than Sunday. They may not, however, vilify those who choose to esteem Sunday by ascribing fallacious and historically unsupportable pagan origin to the tradition. A tradition that is well attested universally by Christians in all geographical areas, from the very earliest documentation, citing the very same reasons, without controversy or written record of debate.

As the Apostle Paul writes by divine inspiration in Romans 14:5-12:

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. […] 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

To that, I reply with a hearty, Amen!

 

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