July 3, 321 AD – Constantine’s Second Sunday Law
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
On July 3, 321 AD, Constantine issued his second Sunday law. It gave people freedom from most kinds of legal business. However, proceedings to free slaves was allowed. The copy of this law, which is found in Codex Theodosianus 2.8.1, is as follows:
“Emperor Constantine Augustus to Helpidius. “Just as it appears to Us most unseemly that the Day of the Sun, which is celebrated on account of its own veneration, should be occupied with legal altercations and with noxious controversies of the litigation of contending parties, so it is pleasant and fitting that those acts which are especially desired shall be accomplished on that day. 1. Therefore all men shall have the right to emancipate and to manumit on this festive day*, and the legal formalities thereof are not forbidden” (Pharr, 44).
*The Latin translated as festive day is “die festo.”
In the past, I and others who study this subject have tended to view Constantine’s Sunday laws from the perspective of Church history (to read Constantine’s first Sunday law, CLICK HERE). Upon further review, I have found no Christian meaning in these laws. We also cannot assume that there would be any such meaning intended. He venerated the sun in several ways (which we will discuss later). Moreover, the Roman Church did not have a developed theology about Sunday rest in 321 AD. The first Roman Church Council to discuss Sunday rest does not occur until about 364 (Laodicea). How then should we view these Sunday laws?
At the time these laws were issued, Constantine was Western Roman Emperor. He also held the title pontifex maximus, which carried with it certain responsibilities that impact this subject matter.
The Romans had established religious traditions that spanned many centuries prior to his reign. For instance, the early Roman religion employed a college of priests called pontiffs; the head of it was titled pontifex maximus. Their duties included regulation of the sacred calendar of festivals and announce when they occurred in the year (especially the pontifex maximus).
In the 40s BC, Julius Caesar wielded the title of the pontifex maximus (in addition to having the political titles of Consul and Dictator). Using his religious authority, he made major changes to the calendar. The Empire was established not long afterwards, and Emperors followed his example of taking on the position of pontifex maximus. They held the title until sometime in the 370s/380s AD. Though they did not always follow the pontifical regulations with precision, they often used it properly to change the length of festivals or institute new ones.
Since Constantine held the title pontifex maximus, it means that he would be responsible for making certain decisions to govern the ancient religious traditions of the Roman people. One clear instance of this occurred on December 17, 320. He issued a law which permitted and defined the behavior of the pagan haruspices; it was received on the day after his first Sunday law (March 8, 321; CT: 16.10.1). Tacitus, writing a couple of centuries earlier, mentioned that pontiffs were involved with overseeing the haruspices (Annals, 11.15).
While the pontifical authority is important, religious tradition was also a serious concern to the Romans. Cicero, who lived from approximately 106 to 43 BC, was a major contributor to Roman thought as a statesman and lawyer. In his work On Law, he described special characteristics of the ancient Roman celebrations.
“Next, our provision for holidays and festivals* ordains rest from lawsuits and controversies for free men, and from labour and toil for slaves. Whoever plans the official year ought to arrange that these festivals shall come at the completion of the various labours of the farm…” (idem, 2.12).
*The latin reads: “feriarum festorumque dierum.”
The principles described by Cicero continued to be applied to Roman festivals during the Imperial period. This included the Saturnalia (Dec 17-24) and the Kalends of January (Jan 1-3). To read more about how these Roman religious concepts were applied to these festivals, see the Chapter Appendix at the end of this article.
Constantine’s 321 Sunday laws matched the anticipated patterns for festivals described by Cicero and other Roman authors. The issues of work and agricultural toils were addressed in the first law (March 7). While farmers were not granted rest on the day, their position was discussed to be consistent with other festivals. Many annual festivals related in some way to the harvest cycle. It was logical not to allow farmers off on Sunday since there is not a weekly crop. In the second law, most legal proceedings were suspended and freedom for slaves were addressed (July 3). The Latin word festo was employed in this law.
Another factor to be considered with this topic is the prevalence of sun worship. In the century leading up to Constantine’s reign, the Empire experienced the elevation of sun worship in the entity of Sol Invictus. At times, Sol was the highest object of worship. Aurelian (early 270s) honored Sol with the title ‘lord of the Empire.’ He instituted annual games to the sun that were still celebrated in Constantine’s time (and decades afterwards). By the time Constantine became Western Emperor (312), reverence for Sol Invictus was an imperial heritage (albeit nuanced). He honored Sol on monuments and coins. To learn more about Constantine’s veneration for the sun, CLICK HERE.
When we review the information presented thus far in the article, Constantine’s Sunday laws become better understood. The Christian influence is absent. Instead, Constantine simultaneously merged two Roman ideals; one was older and the other newer.
He utilized the old title pontifex maximus to establish a festival on Sunday. Between the two laws, he discussed the necessary subjects according to ancient custom: labor, agricultural, and courts. At the same time, the focus of the law was the sun or Sol, which was a more recent development. This continued the newer custom.
There are two other examples that exemplify his use of pontifex. In an inscription found in the Balkans region, we learn that Constantine adjusted the ancient Roman nundinae or market day so that it would occur every dies solis instead of every eighth day (Orellius, p 140). This was hardly a move to support any sort of Sabbath-rest on the day. This finding reinforces his pontifical merger of the old and new systems. Later in his life, he utilized pontifical authority to order a temple to be built and a priesthood established for the worship of his family lineage. This continued the Imperial cult which started with Octavian Augustus (Roman Civilization, Selected Readings, pp 579-580).
Constantine’s Sun-day laws were qualitatively different than other Roman celebrations in that they established and regulated a weekly festival. The name Sun-day was a common name for this day of the week among pagans who adhered to the astrological planetary week. Neither of the 321 laws labeled Sunday the first day of the week or the Lord’s day, which would be expected if Roman Church influence were present. Also, there was no mention of congregational gatherings. Dies solis was the second day of the week in the planetary weekly cycle (more on this subject in a future work).
We will briefly discuss how this analysis influences our view of contemporary Christian writers. Starting with Eusebius, Christian writers (especially from the Pro-Roman Church perspective) tried to attach Christian meaning to the 321 Sunday laws. This started with his work the Life of Constantine, which was composed about sixteen years later (idem, 4.18). In it, Eusebius misrepresents the content of the Sunday laws and adds Christian meaning. In his earlier work, Church History, he did not reference them at all. Keep in mind that he was the first Christian-affiliated writer to propose the idea of transferring the Biblical Sabbath to Sunday about 330 AD (Commentary on Psalms 92; Odom, 291-292).
While many Christians who study this subject assume Constantine was influenced by Christians like Eusebius, it was the opposite. Eusebius likely derived his views on Sunday rest at least in part from the 321 Sunday laws rather than the other way around. In other words, he used these laws as an opportunity to further his transference agenda. Nearly 16 years later, He added details to the description of these laws that would fit his viewpoint.
The Emperor never ascribed Christian meaning to these laws. He did not even try to make Sunday an imitation day of the Biblical Sabbath because key elements, such as requiring rest for all people, are absent. The necessary elements from Roman tradition were addressed. Furthermore, Constantine upheld protections for Biblical Sabbath observance (which we have discussed in a prior article – CLICK HERE to read how Constantine protected Sabbath observance). This means he was not involved in the ‘Sabbath transference’ theology of Eusebius.
Eusebius established a precedent which would be followed by future Christian historians (see Sozomen, Church History, 1.8). And so the tone was set for centuries to come. People ascribed meaning to these laws that cannot be derived from the language used in them or the example of the person who enacted them.
After this analysis we are left with the conclusion that Constantine was not inspired by the Bible or any Christian leader to enact Sunday laws. He exercised the authority of the pontifex maximus to establish Sunday as the weekly festival. In doing so, he considered ancient traditions regarding festo. Additionally, he incorporated the newly popularized adoration of Sol. Though the issue of Sunday rest was not settled in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries later, Christian authors used his laws to their advantage to push for Sunday observance as a replacement for the Biblical Sabbath.
By viewing the laws from the viewpoint of Roman history, I think a paradigm is established to interpret them with more historical accuracy.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Constantine’s Sunday law mirrors other ancient Roman celebrations such as Saturnalia and the Kalends of January.
Lucian of Samosata, who lived (125-180 AD), wrote about the celebration of Saturnalia (it started December 17). At times, this celebration was held for just a few days. In later years in was extended for up to seven days. Saturn was the main deity remembered during this time, but others were also extolled. Lucian commented on the freedom from work and business were granted to the people during it.
“To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside… therefore the merry noise on every side, the son and the games; therefore the slave and the free as one…All business, be it public or private is forbidden during the feast days…all men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another…” ((Saturnalia, sections 2, 7; Chronosolon, sections 13-14).
Marcobius wrote about the issue of legal proceedings. It seems that at times lawsuits were barred just on a few days during this seven-day extravaganza (Saturnalia, 1.10.4-5).
Libianus, who lived from 314 to 394 AD, described the widespread celebration of the Kalends of January. Paganism was still strong in the Roman world of that time. This celebration was held from January 1 through 3. He wrote:
“The festival of the Kalends, is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend … A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides … The highroads and footpaths are covered with whole processions of laden men and beasts … As the thousand flowers which burst forth everywhere are the adornment of Spring, so are the thousand presents poured out on all sides, the decorations of the Kalends feast. It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year…. The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, as far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom…” (quoted from Miles, 168–9).
Catholic Encyclopedia 1911: Constantine the Great; Eusebius of Caesarea
Cicero, On Law, 2.12(29). Translated by Clinton Walker Keyes. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1928. pp 406-407.
Eusebius. The Life of Constantine, 4:18. McGiffert, Rev. Arthur Cushman. Schaff and Wace, ed. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Vol. 1: Eusebius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904. p 544.
Lewis, Naphtali and Reinhold, Meyer. Roman Civilization: Selected Readings. Vol 2: The Empire. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia Press. 1990. pp 579-580.
Libanius. Oration 9. Miles, C. 1912. Christmas in ritual and tradition, Christian and Pagan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, pp 168–169.
Lucian of Samasota. Saturnalia, sections 2, 7; Chronosolon, sections 13-14. Translated by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Vol. 4. Oxford, 1905, pp 108-116.
Macrobius. Saturnalia, 1.10.4-5. Translated and edited by Robert A Kaster. Books 1-2. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2011, pp 105-106.
Odom, Robert L. Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity. Review Herald Publishing Association. Washington, DC: 1977. pp 291-292.
Pharr, Clyde, Trans. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton University, 1952. p 44.
Tacitus. The Annals, 11.15. Latin: Holbrooke, Geo. O, ed. London: Macmillan & Co. 1882. p 257. English: The Annals of Tacitus. Translated by George Gilbert Ramsay. London: John Murray, 1909. p 19.
Orellius, Johann Caspar. Inscriptionum Latinarum Selectarum Amplissima Collecto. Romanae Antiquitatis. vol 1. 1828. no 508, p 140.