Did Constantine Change the Sabbath?
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Among the more commonly held beliefs in the Sabbath community is that the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the Sabbath or passed laws prohibiting its observance. Those who hold this view typically claim that it occurred at the Council of Nicea in 325 or as a law passed in 321 AD.
Before we delve into this subject, it is important to understand how proper research is done.
When we undertake a scholarly review of a subject, it is best to start with the primary source material available to us. A primary source is a person or object that records historical facts about the time period being examined. If someone just writes a book or article and claims “Constantine changed the Sabbath” then that claim is only valid if it is supported by primary source evidence. Otherwise, hearsay becomes the basis for fact and no objective truth can be established.
From primary sources, we are able to draw a degree of certainty about events that happened in a specific time period. The more primary sources we have, the greater degree of certainty that can be achieved. When it comes to Constantine and the Sabbath, the primary sources are broken down into three categories: 1) the laws of the time period, 2) preserved writings about the council of Nicea, and 3) contemporary writers who recorded Constantine’s reign.
The primary sources regarding laws passed during the reign of Constantine are chiefly contained in two annals of Roman Law. The first is called the Codex Theodosianus, and it was issued by Theodosius II in 438. The second is the Codex Justinianus, which was issued by Justinian in the 530s. These codices are compilations of Roman laws categorized by subject matter. English versions of them are available (I have access to both). Among the laws issued by Constantine, none prohibit the Sabbath.
The Council of Nicea is the second primary source usually cited in regards to this subject. To view the proceedings of this council in Latin (with some notes in Greek), one must view volume 2 of Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collection edited by Joannes Dominicus Mansi in 1759. It is listed under the title “Sanctum Concilium Nicaenum Primum Generale” starting on page 635. To review details from this council in English, read A history of the Christian Councils from the Original Documents by Charles Joseph Hefele, translated into English by William R Clark, second edition from 1883. The historical background starts on page 231, but the canons (with commentary) are found on pages 375-435. Not a single canon from Nicea referenced the Sabbath.
A third source for Constantine’s reign are the historians who lived in his time period. The historian Eusebius wrote a brief history about Constantine’s life and reign called “The Life of Constantine”. Another man named Lactantius, who was the personal tutor for Constantine’s son Crispus, also recorded some events. Neither primary sources alludes to Constantine banning or curbing Sabbath observance. New evidence from Eusebius’ writings now show that Constantine protected Sabbath observance (see the link at the bottom of this article).
Setting the Record Straight
Let’s set the record straight. Firstly, no one can change the Sabbath. Think about that assertion for a moment. The Sabbath has been and ALWAYS will be Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. No one can change that eternal truth. Secondly, primary sources from the time period indicate that Constantine did not attempt to ban or forbid Sabbath observance. New evidence shows that he protected it! How did confusion arise concerning this subject? There’s misunderstanding about it because Constantine took actions that indirectly affected the Sabbath. Let’s explore this further.
On March 7 321 AD, he approved the “day of the sun” as a rest day for the empire. Translated into English, the first part of this law reads: “All judges, city dwellers, skill workers, and the offices of all should honor the venerable day of the sun and rest. However, those placed in the country freely serve the fields of culture…” (CJ.3.12.2: Imperator Constantinus).
In the Latin manuscript, the phrase translated as “venerable day of the sun” is venerabilis dies solis. Constantine’s decree was based upon his admiration for the celestial body we call the sun. This law appears to only apply to those in urban areas. People in the country were not bound by it. Notice that no worship is mentioned in the law. The decree did not mention God or Jesus Christ. In fact, the day after this Sun-day law, he enacted a law which allowed pagan soothsayers to enter buildings where lightning had struck (CT: 16.10.1). This decree upheld the ancient Roman custom.
On July 3 of the same year, he issued a second law which freed slaves from labor on Sunday and suspended certain legal proceedings. The language is reminiscent of protections granted to other ancient pagan celebrations. Sometime after these Sun-day laws, he ruled that the marketplaces were to be open when the special Roman market days (called nundinae) occurred on Sundays (Dessau, no. 704). Not even the new Sun-day festival was higher than the ancient nundinae tradition.
Many people are not aware that Constantine called for the Council of Nicea to be held. He oversaw its proceedings. During it he pronounced that Christians should not keep Passover like the Jewish people. Instead, he conveyed that people should follow the custom of the Roman Church, who celebrated Passover on Sunday (Euseb. Life of Constantine, 3:17-18, Socrates, Church History, 1:9; Theodoret, Church History, 1:9). The Roman Church used this yearly gathering on Sunday as the reasoning to push Sunday gatherings every week. Despite this decree, significant numbers of Christians still honored Passover in the Biblically prescribed way (see John Chrysostom’s work Eight Homilies Against the Jews). Moreover, Arians had their books burned at Nicea. This was likely the first time a temporal ruler punished someone for a differing belief in the Bible. This dangerous precedent would influence temporal rulers in later centuries.
Lastly, the historian Eusebius wrote that Constantine required all his troops to pray on Sunday (which he called the ‘Lord’s Day’ – Life of Const, bk 4:18-19). We have no corroborating evidence to verify this claim by the writer. Constantine continued to honor others gods decades into his reign and he was not baptized until just before his death. Moreover, Eusebius was an ardent opponent of the Sabbath (Odom, Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity, 292). When put together, these details make it difficult to conclude that Constantine would force anyone to pray to one God on Sunday.
Constantine’s two Sun-day laws created a government-mandated imitation day of rest beside the true Sabbath, which was still being observed. Thus, an entire generation of Christians (in urban areas) grew up honoring the seventh-day Sabbath because of the Bible but also resting on Sunday because it was civil law. In other words, people were socialized to rest on Sunday.
Another important development during his reign was the interweaving of the Roman Empire with the Roman Catholic Church. These events opened the door for more stringent Sunday laws with supposed Christian significance starting with the reign of Theodosius I from 379 to 395 (Click here to read more about this). Despite these influences, most Christians continued to honor the True Sabbath into the 400s AD (Click here to read primary sources on this subject).
We can safely conclude that Constantine did not change the Sabbath or attempt to ban or curb its observance. Some of his decrees and political activity indirectly impacted the Sabbath over a long period of time. He laid the foundation for later Roman Sunday laws supported by the Roman Church. As the Roman Church became more influential in the political realm, they persuaded temporal authorities to war against those who would not conform (especially in the Middle Ages). Thus, Constantine influenced the Sabbath indirectly in ways that developed over centuries and in some ways has lasted down to our modern times.
Kelly McDonald, Jr – BSA President, www.biblesabbath.org