Was Sunday Observance adopted from Paganism?

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The myth that Sunday was formerly a pagan day of worship of the sun adopted by the church, is a proverbial horse that has been ridden to death. Even worse, this ghostly horse has taken on a life of its own and has moved beyond the religious fringes where it was initially stabled.

The basic idea is this: Sunday was the established day of rest, the weekly holiday in the ancient pagan world. On this day each week, the Romans, Greeks, and other pagans, gathered in temples to worship their pagan gods, particularly the Sun-god—hence the term Sun-day.

This misinformation has been repeated so much that it’s time we threw it in the dustbin for the falsehood that it is.

In two previous articles (one/two), I’ve examined the erroneous claims made by Seventh Day Adventists regarding the Jewish sabbath and the Lord’s day from historical and biblical perspectives.

Now, I still intend to refute the tortuous, incoherent and intellectually suicidal connections they (and other religious groups adhering to the Jewish sabbath) forge between Sunday as a day of worship and ancient Greek or Roman Paganism.

1. Those making this claim of “Sunday stolen from the pagans” usually fail to back it up with historical sources. They will quote virtually anyone but a reputable historian – and by this, I mean someone whose credentials are in History and has published academic works in that field.

If you scan through SDA materials, you will observe the curious absence of citation of primary sources to corroborate their assertion of Sunday being a pagan day. Instead, they conveniently declare this information to be historical “fact” and quickly move on to their next rhetoric.

But on the odd occasion that a source is cited, it’s usually Arthur Weigall’s 1928 work “The Paganism in Our Christianity,” in which he states that the church made Sunday sacred “largely because it was the weekly festival of the sun; for it was a definite Christian policy to take over the pagan festivals endeared to the people by tradition, and to give them a Christian significance” (p. 136).

Aside from the fact that this man had cultic agenda (he was a Unitarian), SDA writers who cite him don’t disclose to their readers that he also declared:

  • The virgin birth is of pagan origin (p. 44)
  •  Jesus’ miracles are of pagan origin (p. 58)
  • Jesus didn’t really die (p. 93)
  • The Jewish Sabbath is of pagan origin (p. 136)

It’s clear that Weigall’s work is a sword that cuts three ways. If it proves Sunday to be a pagan day, it must also prove Saturday to be a pagan day, and if either assertion is to be accepted as valid, then Christianity as a whole would have to be rejected as pagan! Certainly, this is not a source a believer would want to appeal to.

2. A competent study of history and ancient Greek and Roman religions shows that neither the Romans nor the Greeks ever had a regular weekly day of rest from secular work.

Neither did they have a regular weekly festival day. They didn’t have a regular day of the week on which they gathered for pagan worship. These are facts of history.

Dudley M. Canright, a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor, researched these facts early in the 20th century. He sincerely believed Sunday worship came from paganism—since this teaching had been passed on to him. But when he began to look into the subject more fully, he came to a different conclusion.

It was at his time (c. 1913-1914) that he contacted four Greek and Roman history scholars with ten questions that he submitted to them separately. These scholars were:

F. N. Pryce of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum.

R. Rathborn of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

George F. Moore, Professor of Ancient Roman and Greek History, Harvard University in Cambridge.

Prof. W. H. Westerman of the University of Wisconsin.

D. M. Canright reminds us that: “All four of these specialists in ancient history agree in answering these questions though neither one knew that they had been submitted to the others yet all four exactly agree in every particular, though widely scattered … Such a unanimous agreement would settle any question in a court of law.”

These findings were published in his work, The Lord’s Day From Neither Catholics or Pagans. I reproduce here only two of the historians’ answers:

From the world renowned British Museum in London, England, Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Sir: I am commanded by the Assistant Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities to reply as follows to your questions on the ancient week:

Q. 1. Did the pagan Romans and Greeks ever have any regular weekly day of rest from secular work?
Ans. No.

Q. 2. Did they have any regular weekly festival day?
Ans. No.

Q. 3. Did they have any regular weekly day when they assembled for pagan worship?
Ans. No.

Q. 4. Did they have any special day of the week when individuals went to the temples to pray or make offerings?

Ans. No; both for Greeks and Romans the month was the unit and not the week. The Greek calendar varied in different states but the month was generally divided into three periods of ten days. The Romans reckoned from three fixed points in the month, the Kalend or first, the Nones fifth or seventh, the Ides thirteenth or fifteenth. These subdivisions in themselves had no religious significance.

Also in the Roman calendars were nundinal, or market days, at periods of eight days, or, as the Romans reckoned time. On these days farm work, etc., stopped and citizens flocked into the town markets. To some extent this may be a regular stoppage of secular work.; but it had no religious significance, except that it was considered an evil omen when the nundinal coincided with other festival days, e. g., the: Nones. The nundinal period seems derived from a blundering reminiscence of a quarter of a lunar period, and there seems no connection with the later seven days’ week (see below).

Q. 5. As Sunday was sacred to the Sun, Monday to the Moon, Saturday to Saturn, etc., were those supposed deities worshipped on their own particular days more than on any other days?

Ans. No; the old worship of the gods was disappearing when the seven-day week came about. The significance of the deities’ names was astrological, not religious, e.g., if a person were born on Monday, the moon would influence his horoscope, but the moon was never an object of common worship.

Q. 6. When was our week of seven days first introduced into the Roman calendar?

Ans. There are traces in the literature of the late republic (first cent. B.C.) that the Romans used the week of seven days for astrological purposes, in connection with the many Eastern superstitions of the period. It was probably the third century, A.D. before the seven day week came into common use.

Q. 7. From whom did the Romans learn the week of seven days?

Ans. From the Jews, alternately the Assyrians and Babylonians; the names were probably fixed by the Hellenistic Greeks.

Q. 8. Did the pagan Greeks ever adopt in common life, or in their calendar, the week of seven days?
Ans. No.

Q. 9. Did Apollo, the Sun god, either among the Romans or Greeks, have any special day on which he was worshipped with prayers or offerings more than on any other day?

Ans. There were certain set festivals at various temples; these were annual, not weekly.

Q. 10. Did the pagan reverence for Sunday have anything to do in influencing Christians to select that day as their rest day?

Ans. No; it can hardly be said that there was any special reverence for Sunday in pagan times (see answer to No. 5).

I am, sir,
Your obedient servant,
F. N. PRYCE.

3. The following was the response from George Moore, Professor of Ancient Roman and Greek History, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dear Sir:

There are two seven-day weeks: the Jewish week, with a Sabbath on the seventh day; and the Astrological week, with days named after the sun, moon, and five planets, in our order determined by the theories of astrology, but without any day of rest

The Astrological week first appears in Greek and Latin writings about the beginning of the Christian era … It had no use in ordinary life. Abstinence from labor on the seventh day, or on one day in seven, is a distinctively Jewish institution.

The edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) closing the courts on Sunday and prohibiting some kinds of labor on that day, is the first recognition of a seven-day week in Roman law. The ancient Romans had a market day every eight days, when the peasants came to town to market, but it was in no sense a day of rest.

In the old Roman calendar there were many days when the courts were closed and other public and private business was not done. They had also many festivals on which the people left their ordinary occupation to take part in the celebrations, but these have no periodicity like that of the week

The planetary week in which the days were named from their regents, Saturday, Sunday, etc., was an invention of the astrologers, probably in the second century, B.C., and has no relation to religion or influence upon it. Saturn, for example, was not worshipped on Saturday, nor Jupiter on Thursday. The festivals of the several gods were never weekly festivals, nor did they occur on days fixed by other divisions of the month, say the tenth day …

Private persons went to the temples when they had occasion to offer prayers or sacrifices or to make vows, etc. There were no stated days for such visits-though some days were in some temples luckier than others, and there was nothing like a stated day for the assembling of a worshipping congregation except the festivals of the local calendar.

Very truly yours,
George F. Moore.

4. One of the most detailed works on ancient Roman religion that I’ve read is, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic by Warde W. Fowler (The Project Gutenberg, e-book released in 2009).

In it, Fowler describes Roman festivals in detail but says nothing about a weekly day of worship. This would have been a strange omission if Sunday had been “a venerable day of the sun” observed by pagans in Rome. Instead, the work shows that their festivals were seasonal or monthly.

The Roman annual calendar started on March 1; April was regarded as the month of opening or unfolding vegetation; May was the month of growing and June, the month of ripening and perfecting.

The Roman calendar at the time of Christ was divided into months, not weeks; they didn’t use our modern calendar. Therefore, the idea that the Romans specially worshipped the sun on Sunday, the moon on Monday or Frigg on Friday is a hoax.

5. The Encylopedia Britannica, article “Week” says: “For a time the Romans used a period of eight days in civil practice, but in AD 321 Emperor Constantine established the seven-day week in the Roman calendar and designated Sunday as the first day of the week.”

The Encylopedia Americana on the same topic says, “The Romans and Greeks …were not acquainted with the week till a late period. The Romans had, however, for civil uses, as the arrangement of market days, a cycle of eight days, the ninth being the recurring one, instead of the eighth as with us.”

In other words, the edict of Constantine in 321 A.D. was the first time in Roman law that Sunday was set aside as a holiday. It simply means before then it wasn’t recognized as a pagan holiday of the Empire. Before Constantine, the Roman Empire had eight days in a week (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, then 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.), but he made it into seven (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 then 1, 2, 3, 4 etc)

Assuming the Roman or Greek festivals were observed weekly, this calendar eliminates the possibility of pagans holding a feast for the same deity on the same day of the week, let alone being adopted by the church. Ralph E. Woodrow aptly pointed this out:

“Now this should be carefully noticed. IF pagans gathered on the first day of the week to worship Apollo, Mithra, or some other Sun-god, this would not correspond, week after week, to what we call Sunday. For example: Suppose our calendar had eight days in a week (instead of seven), and we met for Christian worship at seven day intervals. This would require a change of day each week!

“If we met the first week on Saturday, seven days later we would meet on Friday. Seven days later we would meet on Thursday. Seven days later we would meet on Wednesday, etc. There is simply no way that the first day—of an eight-day cycle—will consistently correspond with the first day of a seven-day cycle. This cries out in a loud voice, then, that the pagan Romans did not observe what we call Sunday as a weekly sacred day!” (Did Sunday Worship Come from Paganism? Palm Springs, CA., February 1999, p. 3).

It’s one thing for a denomination to say, “We meet for worship on Saturdays because we believe the New Testament does not really impose any particular day on believers, but gives us freedom to choose our own day of gathering for worship in church” – which is biblically fair. And I personally respect such sincere differences.

But it becomes a totally different ball game when a sect dogmatically says, “Sunday observance came from paganism! It originated from the worship of the Sun god in Rome and it won out because church leaders rebelled against God’s law. Sunday means ‘day of the sun,’ so if you go to a church on a Sunday, you are worshipping the sun god – Satan, and God told us through a 19th century visionary that Sunday worshippers will receive the mark of the Beast!”

This is a rhetoric laden with gross misinformation, falsehoods, fanaticism, poisoning the well, and religious mind control.

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