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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 13: Sabbath-Keeping After the Apostles (4) - The Influence of Sun Worship
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CHAPTER 13: Sabbath-keeping after the apostles (4) - The influence of sun worship

13.1       Introduction

A key rationale put forward by the post-apostolic church for Sunday observance was the need to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. However, one may question why they did not choose another day for weekly observance—such as Friday, for example, to commemorate Jesus’ death. This has led to a view that there was another factor influencing the adoption of Sunday specifically—namely, sun worship.

13.2       The veneration of the sun

In many ancient civilizations, including Persia, India, Syria, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome, the sun was an object of veneration and worship. For the Romans, the solar deity was known variously as Sol, Sol Indiges (the “Native Sun” or the “Invoked Sun”) and later, Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). Interestingly, when Constantine established the seven-day week in AD 321, he designated Sunday as the first day.[1]

The original Sol, or Sol Indiges, had a shrine on the Quirinal and an annual sacrifice dedicated to him on 9 August, and another shrine in the Circus Maximus. Although the cult appears to have been native, the Roman poets equated him with the Greek sun god Helios.

The worship of Sol assumed an entirely different character with the later importation of various sun cults from Syria. The Roman emperor Elagabalus (reigned AD 218–222) built a temple to him as Sol Invictus on the Palatine and attempted to make his worship the principal religion at Rome. The emperor Aurelian (reigned 270–275) later re-established the worship and erected a magnificent temple to Sol in the Campus Agrippae. The worship of Sol as special protector of the emperors and of the empire remained the chief imperial cult until it was replaced by Christianity.

            “Sol”, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2009

At the end of the first century BC, the Roman legions that returned from the east brought back the cult of Mithras.

[T]he worship of Mithra, the Iranian god of the sun, justice, contract, and war in pre-Zoroastrian Iran. Known as Mithras in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, this deity was honoured as the patron of loyalty to the emperor.                                                                        

“Mithraism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2009

As Mithras was also a sun god, the cult became assimilated into that of Sol Invictus, such that the two became indistinguishable. 

13.3       The adoption of Sunday by the post-apostolic church

The writer, Samuele Bacchiocchi, puts forward the following theory on how the Sabbath came to be replaced by Sunday worship:

The valorization of the day of the Sun over that of Saturn, as a result of the diffusion of the Sun-cults, possibly oriented Christians (who desired to differentiate themselves from the Sabbath of the Jews) toward such a day. This choice however, it must be stated again, was not motivated by their desire to venerate the Sun-god on his day, but rather by the fact that its symbology could fittingly commemorate two important events of the history of salvation—creation and resurrection…Moreover, the day of the Sun enabled Christians to explain also the Biblical mysteries to the pagan world by means of an effective symbology that was very familiar to them.

             Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, 1977

In short, he argues that Christians in the post-apostolic era were motivated by a number of factors: the wish to distance themselves from Jewish practices; a desire to commemorate God’s act of creation and the Lord’s resurrection; and the need to explain the Christian faith through the convenient symbolism of the sun.

Significantly, from the second century, the early church fathers began linking the symbolism of the sun to God and to Jesus Christ through their writings:

Theophilus of Antioch (second century):

For the sun is a type of God, and the moon of man. And as the sun far surpasses the moon in power and glory, so far does God surpass man. And as the sun remains ever full, never becoming less, so does God always abide perfect, being full of all power, and understanding, and wisdom, and immortality, and all good.

            Theophilus to Autolycus, bk 2, chp 15

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215):

Awake, He says, you that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light (Eph 5:14)—Christ, the Sun of the Resurrection, He who was born before the morning star, and with His beams bestows life.                               

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, chp 9

Cyprian of Carthage (circa AD 200–258):

For since Christ is the true sun and the true day, as the worldly sun and worldly day depart, when we pray and ask that light may return to us again, we pray for the advent of Christ, which shall give us the grace of everlasting light.                                                                                                          

Treatise of Cyprian, 4, chp 35

Jerome of Stridonium (circa AD 347–420):

If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we most willingly acknowledge it as such, since it is on this day that the light of the world appeared and on this day the Sun of Justice has risen.

            Jerome, In die dominica Paschae homilia,
            Corpus Christianorum Series Latina
78, 550, 1, 52.

Furthermore, from the evidence of Tertullian (circa AD 160–220), we learn that the church even developed a practice of praying towards the east:

Others, with greater regard to good manners, it must be confessed, suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east, or because we make Sunday a day of festivity.                                   

Tertullian, Ad Nationes, bk 1, chp 13

13.4       The origin of Christmas

Around the fourth century, 25 December came to be associated with the birth of Christ. A popular theory is that it was the result of the Christianizing of the dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”), a Roman festival celebrating the end of winter and the resurgence of the sun.[2] Once the date was widely accepted, Christian writers began linking the birth of the sun with the birth of the Son of God.[3]

One argument is that the establishment of Christmas was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to draw pagans into the Christian faith by allowing converts to keep their winter celebration, on condition that they accepted its new significance.

Although the Gospels describe Jesus’ birth in detail, they never mention the date, so historians do not know on what date he was born. The Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 as the day for the Feast of the Nativity in order to give Christian meaning to existing pagan rituals. For example, the Church replaced festivities honoring the birth of Mithra, the [Persian] god of light, with festivities to commemorate the birth of Jesus, whom the Bible calls the light of the world. The Catholic Church hoped to draw pagans into its religion by allowing them to continue their revelry while simultaneously honoring the birthday of Jesus.

                             “Christmas”, MSN Encarta

13.5       Conclusion

In summary, it appears that one key reason why the post-apostolic church adopted Sunday as its main day of worship was to differentiate the Christian faith from the Jewish one. By linking the symbolism of the day to Jesus Christ, it was able to rationalize and justify the new practice. Sunday observance also had the benefit of establishing common ground between Christians and pagans within the Roman empire. In light of the growing hostility facing the Christians, one could conclude that this was a matter of simple expediency.


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      “Week”, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved September 16, 2009, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

[2]      “Christmas”, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved September 04, 2009, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

[3]      Ibid.

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