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The Story of Sunday

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

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The Hebrew Sabbath of Judaism

Sabbath was the day of rest and prayer observed by the Jews from the sunset on Friday to the sunset on Saturday. The day was counted this way because of the story of genesis- “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Genesis 1:5). The word Sabbath meant, abstain or desist. As no Jew worked on the day of the Sabbath, it was believed that God provided them with food for that day- the divine ‘manna’, the bread from heaven. There will be a Sabbath morning service in the Jewish synagogue where a part of the Torah, the holy book of the Jews, is read. This was on Saturday.

Sabbath and Sunday

When people began to flock to Christianity abandoning the Jewish and Pagan religions, a question arose about whether to observe Sabbath or not. A shift happened so that Sabbath changed to Sunday in Rome during the rule of Hadrian, from 117 CE to 138 CE. Roman Christians were eager to differentiate their religious practices from that of the Jews and Judaism. The Sabbath observation by the Jews was simultaneously banned by Hadrian. The argument for Christianity to embrace it probably was that it was on the eighth day of the week that Jesus Christ was resurrected. Sunday was also a holy day for the pagan religion, as they worshipped the sun, and this religion also was in much prevalence those days. This factor also might have prompted the new Christians to adopt this day as a holy day.

The Sun Cult

The Sun cult of Mithraism was a pagan cult of Iran where Mithra or the sun was the supreme god. Mithraism reached Rome in 100 CE. The Romans already knew about the planetary week as early as 14 CE. Ancient Greece had different calendars for different state provinces. Athens at a time had 3 calendars, based on politics, agriculture, and festivals. Later on after Alexander’s unifying conquests, Greece adopted a more rational calendar system- based on Mesopotamian and Syrian calendar systems. Romans in ancient times had an eight-day week. The eighth day was for shopping when markets would be alive with rural people bringing in the produce. By the time of Julius Caesar, that is by 45 BCE, the seven-day week was the norm in many neighbouring regions. During the time of Augustus, the seven-day week and eight-day week both were in use. It was only in 321 CE that Rome abandoned the eight-day week and adopted the seven-day week. This proclamation was officially made by the Emperor, Constantine.


Many calendars in the Middle East had seven numbers of seven-day weeks and the fiftieth day was observed as a festival day. Seven of such 50 days comprised a year which had 350 days but another week was added to it as a festival week and also after the fourth week, a single day was added additionally. Thus the total number of days in a year would be 365. This calendar was called the pentecontad calendar. The festival week after the fourth pentacontad marked Passover celebration, in honour of the freedom that the children of Israel gained from the oppressive rule of Egypt. People from Canaan to Mesopotamia believed that the seventh day was the day of evil. This was why the day was set aside for Sabbatical, a day to keep away from fruitful labour, a day of rest. With the dispersion of the Jews across Persia and Rome after the fall of Jerusalem and their expulsion from Babylonia, the day of the Sabbath gained more significance as there were no more temples to worship for the Jewish diaspora and the symbolic value of the seventh day increased.


Sol Invictus

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Pagan Beliefs and Christianity

When Christianity grew roots, paganism was very much in practice as a religious sect. This was why even after becoming Christians, many continued to worship pagan gods and followed pagan rituals. There is mention in the Bible that Peter, Paul, and John, the disciples of Jesus Christ, went to Jewish temples when they went to Jerusalem. Between the Monotheism of the Jews and the Polytheism of the pagans, Christianity was required to tread carefully so that it can attract people entrenched in both, and also differentiate itself from them. The declaration, Alleluia, itself is a Hebrew word. Worshipping Jesus Christ as the light of the world contained cultural shades of the pagan sun worship. Christianity also was compelled to adopt the pagan tradition of feasts as its attempts to ban them proved to be ineffective. The metaphors of light and fire were as abundantly used in early Christian literature including hymns as they were present in the pagan and Judaic religious texts.


Sunday in Christianity

The revelation of John 1:10 mentioned for the first time in Christian literature, the name, Lord’s Day, for Sunday, the first day of the week. The Latin church by then was calling the first day of the week Dominica. During this period, there were still many pagan worshippers who were politically and socially powerful. They used to worship the Unvanquished Sun, Sol Invictus. For example, the Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus who ruled between 2 CE and 3 CE was a sun worshipper. Even Constantine Chorus, the father of Emperor Constantine, worshipped the sun. Constantine had a kind of mixed-faith- he believed in the sun god as well as in Christianity and he took baptism only upon his death bed. In the First Apology by Justin Martyr, where he explains Christianity and argues for it before the then Roman Emperor, Justin says that there is a difference between sun worship and the Christian observance of Sunday. He further elaborates that both had different reasons behind them. In memory of Jesus and his disciples together celebrating Passover, Christians used to break the bread in the early days of Christianity and they used to do this at least once a week. This began to be done on Sundays. Theologically Sunday is the day of the new creation as it marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Basil the Great wrote in his Treatise on the Holy Spirit,

“Sunday seems to be an image of the age to come… This day foreshadows the state which is to follow the present age: a day without sunset, nightfall or successor, an age which does not grow old or come to an end.”

Ancient Church Sunday Mass

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Naming of Days

The naming of the days after heavenly bodies is believed to have originated in Babylon. In history for the first time, Romans named the days after the seven heavenly bodies that they could see with their naked eyes- sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. Still, Romans did not have the concept of a Sabbatical day. (Wednesday had a different origin- this day was named after Woden, the Anglo-Saxon king of the Gods and in Saxon, Wednesday was spelt as Wodnesdaeg).


The Christian leaders initially tried to change this naming practice. They succeeded in Greece where the days were renamed rather bland- The Lord’s day, the second day, the third day, and so on. Despite all these efforts, other than a few exceptions, the naming of the days after the heavenly bodies stuck to the civilisational narrative. During the reformation, the naming of the days by the Catholic Church and the special status given to Sunday was questioned by the Protestants. Protestants saw traces of paganism in this practice but their arguments also did not stand the test of time.


Sunday in Non-Christian Societies

For non-Christian societies, Sunday has always been part of the weekend and not the beginning of a new week; the week begins on Monday. Practically for Christian societies even, the week now begins on Monday. The US Law Dictionary, written by John Bouvier, still states that Sunday is the first day of the week. The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) now defines Monday as the first day of the week. In American society, there has been a special place for Sunday wear as compared to the clothes people wore on other days. In the Virginian plantations, on Sundays, the plantation owners permitted the slaves to have some special dish for their children- “a little molasses from the ‘big house’”. America has a special reverence for Sundays which lingers on.


Sunday Lore

In Britain, a centuries-old children’s rhyme states that a child born on Sunday would be “fair and wise and good and gay.” The rhyme goes like this,


Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Saturday’s child works hard for its living,

And a child that’s born on the Sabbath day

Is fair and wise and good and gay.


References

A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, Justo L. Gonzales, 2017.

Sabbath, britannica.com

Origin of Day Names, almanac.com

The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms that Made Us Who We Are, David M. Henkin, 2021.

Treatise on the Holy Spirit, St. Basil.

From Profane to Divine: The Hegemonic Appropriation of Pagan Imagery into Eastern Christian Hymnody, Jordan Lippert, 2012.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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