Sunday Laws in the Later Roman Empire
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the fourth and fifth centuries a series of Sunday laws were enacted in the Roman Empire. Whether that was the intent of these laws or not is unknown, but we can know that these laws were used by the Roman Church to point people away from the True Sabbath.
As we have reviewed in previous articles, the first national Sunday law in history was passed by Constantine in 321 AD. Keep in mind that this law did not apply universally to all people in the Roman Empire. Farmers were exempted from it. After researching a little further, we find that Constantine relaxed this Sunday law for special Roman market days (Orelli, Inscriptionum Latinarum, p 140).
The second detail about this special law is that it had no connection to Jesus Christ, Christianity, or the Holy Bible. Constantine was a sun worshiper and his law to honor the sun was simply behavior consistent to this belief system. To learn more about this 321 AD decree, read here: https://sabbathsentinel.org/2016/10/13/constantine-march-321-ad/
One important development that did occur during the reign of Constantine is the interweaving of the Roman Empire and the Roman Church (which we also refer to as the Roman Catholic Church). Constantine used the Roman Church to bring more subjects into obedience to the state. He de facto made the Roman Church an institution of the state. He and other Roman Emperors codified Roman Church practices into Roman law; they even went so far as to regulated some practices. We have some examples below.
In 326 AD, he passed a law that granted the Roman Church special privileges. All other Christian groups were not allowed these privileges and were bound to public service (CT: 16.5.1). He regulated the number of clergy in Christianity (CT: 16.2.6 [326 AD]). Secular judges were even required to enforce the decisions of Christian Bishops (CS: 1 [333 AD]).
In 379 AD, Theodosius became the Eastern Roman Emperor. After hearing the perspectives of different Christian groups, he sided with the Roman Church. All houses of prayer were taken away from other Christian groups and given over to them. In 380 AD, he passed a law forcing that all peoples under his rule follow the Roman Catholic religion.
In 386, Theodosius instituted a Sunday law which was different than those enacted by Constantine. He was the first Emperor to implement a Sunday law and attach Christian meaning to it. Theodosius’ relationship with the Roman Church would pave the way for celebrations of the Roman Church, including Sunday, to be enshrined as established Roman law.
From 386 to 469, there were seven laws enacted that specifically regulated some aspect of Sunday rest or worship (386 by Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius; 389 by Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius; 392 by same rulers; 399 by Arcadius and Honorius; 409 by Emperors Honorius and Theodosius II; 425 by Theodosius II and Valentinian III [see CT title 2, section 8 for these laws]; 469 by Emperor Leo I [Codex Justinius: 3.12.10]).
During these years of the later Roman Empire, Sunday was cemented as the day of rest in the Roman Empire. This affirmed the position of the Roman Church as the preferred religion of the Empire. It diverted people away from the True Sabbath, which is Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
The laws passed from 386 to 469 would have a significant impact in the Eastern Empire and other parts of Europe for centuries to come (in some ways down to our present time).
As a side note, I think it is worth mentioning that the Sabbath was sometimes protected under Roman law. There was one particular law passed to this effect (CT: 2.8.26; either 412 or 409 AD). Jewish people were protected from being disturbed by business, public service, or courts on the Sabbath and Annual Holy Days. However, this law is not repeated. We are not completely sure if this same protection was granted to Christians who held these same practices in common with the Jewish people. However, history records a large number of Sabbatarians in the Roman Empire during this time. Many later kingdoms of Europe did not take a benevolent view towards Jewish people.
Kelly McDonald, Jr. BSA President