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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 12: Sabbath-Keeping After the Apostles (3) - Easter Sunday and Sabbath Fasting
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CHAPTER 12: Sabbath-keeping after the apostles (3) - Easter Sunday and Sabbath fasting

12.1       Introduction

In addition to the developments outlined in the previous chapters, there were two other measures instigated by the church in Rome which came to have a significant impact on Sabbath-keeping. One measure was the transfer of the annual Pascha (Easter) from the Sabbath to Sunday. The other was the turning of the Sabbath into a day of fasting.

12.2       Changing the annual Pascha (Easter) to Sunday

History indicates that the post-apostolic church instituted an annual Pascha[1] (later called “Easter”) in the second century.[2] The Greek church historian, Socrates of Constantinople (born AD 380), wrote that it most likely evolved from local practice and acknowledged that neither Jesus nor the apostles instructed believers to observe this feast.[3] The churches in Asia Minor observed the annual Pascha on the fourteenth day of the first month (the date of the Jewish Passover), regardless of which day of the week it fell on, while the church in Rome observed it on the following Sunday.

In AD 196, Victor, Bishop of Rome attempted to impose the custom in Rome on all the churches. However, the churches in Asia Minor refused to comply, and it led him to issue letters of excommunication and to urge the other bishops to sever links. During the course of the struggle, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons attempted to mediate by reminding Victor about his predecessor, Sixtus (circa AD 116–126), who observed the annual Pascha on Sunday while tolerating those who did not. This reveals that the origin of Easter Sunday can be traced back at least to the time of Sixtus and to Rome. Victor’s strategy failed to change the practice of the eastern churches, and it was not until AD 325 that a more uniform approach was agreed, at least in principle. 

In AD 325, Emperor Constantine convened the First Council of Nicaea in Bithynia. It was attended by two to three hundred bishops from different parts of the Roman empire. The council agreed for all the churches to observe Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (21 March). The church historian, Eusebius Pamphilus, documents these words of Constantine in his letter to the churches following the meeting:

When the question arose concerning the most holy day of Easter, it was decreed by common consent to be expedient, that this festival should be celebrated on the same day by all, in every place…And truly, in the first place, it seemed to every one a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity, who, polluted wretches! having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds…Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews. We have received another method from the Saviour. 

      The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus

Constantine presented the case for Easter Sunday in two ways. Firstly, he argued the need for a uniform approach, and secondly, he said that Christians should avoid emulating the Jews. In making the latter point, he was echoing the popular view of many Christians before (and after) him. 

12.3       Fasting on the Sabbath

By the end of the second century, the church in Rome had established a practice of fasting on Fridays and Sabbath days. By the time of the Spanish Council of Elvira (circa AD 300), the Sabbath fast had become a custom in the west. In contrast, Sunday was a feast day on which the church celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.        

In fact, the Sabbath fast was yet another practice that went against the teaching of God:

And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.’ ”

      Leviticus 23:1–3

The Sabbath was meant to be a feast, a day of joyful celebration, but the post-apostolic church turned it into a gloomy fast day and justified this move by arguing the need to mourn the death of Jesus. Pope Innocent I (AD 401–417), for example, said, “The Sabbath should be observed as a fast day, because on the Sabbath the Lord was laid in the tomb and the disciples fasted.”[4] Pope Sylvester (AD 314–335) had earlier gone as far as to say that fasting on the Sabbath demonstrated contempt for the Jews and their feasting: “If every Sunday is to be observed joyfully by the Christians on account of the resurrection, then every Sabbath on account of the burial is to be regarded in execration of the Jews.”[5]

12.4       Conclusion

In conclusion, the church in Rome introduced and promoted two practices to elevate the status of the Lord’s Day. One was the celebration of the annual Pascha (Easter) on Sunday; the other was the Sabbath fast. Both were part of the church’s on-going strategy to steer Christians away from the allegedly Jewish Sabbath, and to establish Sunday as the official Christian holiday. 


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      “Passover”.

[2]      Pamphilus, Eusebius, Ecclesiatical History, bk 4, chp 14, trans. C.F. Cruse (Baker Book House, 1994).

[3]      Socrates and Sozomenus: Ecclesiastical Histories, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886).

[4]      Liber Pontificalis [The Book of the Popes], Innocent I, chp 87.

[5]      Humbert, S.R.E, Adversus Graecorum Calumnias 6, PL 143, 937. Source: Bacchiocchi, S., From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity (Rome: The Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1977).

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