Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire (Part 2 of 2)

Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire (Part 2 of 2)

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

Last week, we reviewed the first five Sunday laws proclaimed in the Roman Empire (CLICK HERE to read part 1 of this series). They were issued from 321 to as late as 373. Two in 321, one at an unknown date, and two more between 368-373. The last two were regional. There would not be another one (that we know of) until 386 AD.

From 386 to 425, eleven laws were enacted that governed some sort of Sunday observance (including the annual observance of Pascha on Sunday). The sudden increase in Sunday laws during this time reflects the continued unification of the Roman Empire and Roman Church. Before we can review these laws, there is some necessary background information for us to review.

Theodosius became Emperor in 379. He heard the religious perspectives of various Christian groups and sided with the Roman Church. He was determined to make the Empire uniform in its view of God. The next year, he issued a decree to force subjects of the Empire to become Roman Catholic. We have an excerpt of this law below:

“To the residents of Constantinople: It is our will that all the peoples whom the government of our clemency rules shall follow that religion which a pious belief from Peter to the present declares the holy Peter delivered to the Romans, and which it is evident the Pontiff Damascus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, follow; that is, that according to the apostolic discipline and evangelical doctrine we believe in the deity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit of equal majesty in a holy trinity. Those who follow this law we command shall be comprised under the name of Catholic Christians; but others, indeed, we require, as insane and raving, to bear the infamy of heretical teaching…” (CT: 16.1.2 [quoted from Ayers, pp 367-368]).

Notice that the issue of Sabbath and Sunday was never addressed in this law. As reviewed in the January-February 2020 issue of The Sabbath Sentinel, most Christians still kept the Sabbath at that time. The biggest issue which separated Roman Catholic Christians from others was the Trinity; this involved an ongoing argument at that time concerning the nature of God.

Keep in mind that people did not instantly comply with this decree. Laws in the ancient world took time to implement; it does not necessarily follow that people obeyed. Non-Trinitarian groups continued for many centuries inside and outside of the Roman Empire. Decrees such as these reflect Imperial views.

The laws of Theodosius’ reign, such as the one above, appear draconian. However, they were not always enforced. Sozomen, a fourth century Christian historian, said that Theodosius did not enforce the terrible punishments prescribed in his laws (Church history, 7.12). Instead, he wanted to intimidate people into changing their religious views so that there would be greater uniformity. Later in this same work, Sozomen mentioned that most Christians in his time kept the Sabbath (ibid, 7.19). As discussed in the May-June edition of The Sabbath Sentinel, Roman law protected Sabbath observance.

Theodosius completed the merger of the Roman Church and State which began years before under Constantine. This facilitated a series of Sunday laws with Christian meaning to be enacted during his reign; the first one dates to the year 386.

“The same Augustuses (Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius Augustuses) to Principius, Praetorian Prefect. On the Day of the Sun (Sunday), which our ancestors rightly called the Lord’s Day*, the prosecution of all litigation and actions shall entirely cease. No person shall demand payment of either a public or private debt. There shall be no cognizance of any contention, even before arbitrators, whether these arbitrators be demanded in court of voluntarily chosen. If any person should turn aside from the inspiration and ritual of holy religion, he shall be adjudged not only infamous but also sacrilegious” (CT: 11.7.13; Nov. 3, 386) (Pharr, p 300).

*The underlying Latin translated as “our ancestors rightly called the Lord’s Day” is quem dominicam rite dixere maiores (Haenel, 1071). By that time, dominicam had come to be known as ‘Lord’s Day’. Rite means a duty according to religious observance. Dixere means called or said and maiores means ancestors or forefathers. The use of the term maiores does not indicate length of time.

Notice that these Emperors attributed the usage of the term ‘Lord’s Day’ to their forefathers, not God or the Bible. It was common for Roman Catholic writers to do the same (see Eusebius, Exposition on Psalm 93 in Odom, p 292). This is the first Roman law where Sunday is called ‘The Lord’s Day’, and the first one to ascribe direct Christian meaning to Sunday. It reiterated some of the details from Constantine’s law on July 3, 321 (CT: 2.8.1 – CLICK HERE to read last week’s article).

This law was repeated as CT: 2.8.18 and 8.8.3 in the same month and year (Nov. 386); it was later repeated in the Code of Justinian (CJ: 3.12.6). Just three years later, another law will better demonstrate the one result of the Roman State/Church union.

“Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius Augustuses to Albinus, Prefect of the City. We order all days to be court days. It shall be lawful for only those days to remain as holidays which throughout two months a very indulgent year has recognized as a respite from toil for the mitigation of summer heat and for the harvesting of the autumn crops. 1. We also set aside the kalends of January (January 1) as a customary rest day. 2. To the aforementioned days We add the natal days of the greatest cities, Rome (April 21) and Constantinople (May 11),* to which the law ought to defer, since it also was born of them.** 3. We count the same category the holy Paschal days (Latin: sacros quoque paschae dies), of which seven follow Easter; likewise the Days of the Sun*** which revolve upon themselves at regular intervals. 4. It is necessary for Our anniversaries also to be held in equal reverence, that is, both the day which brought forth the auspicious beginning of Our life and the day which produced the beginning of Our imperial power.  – August 7, 389 (CT: 2.8.19; Pharr, p 44; Latin: Haenel, p 210).

*This law provides us with an overview of the holidays allowed by the merger of Roman Church and Roman State. In it, we can see a mix of the older pagan holidays, such as the summer/autumn rest days, January 1, the founding of Rome and Constantinople, Sun-day, and the Imperial birthdays/anniversaries with newer Roman Catholic days, such as the Paschal days.

**The term ‘Easter’ or an equivalent term was not used at this time. The Latin word used in the sentence is Paschae, which means Passover. The Roman Catholic Church celebrated it on a Sunday. Sunday was not called the Lord’s Day, but dies solis.

A controversy that arose during this time was whether contests in the Circuses should be allowed on the birthdays of the Emperors, even if their birthdays occurred on Sunday. The Circus Maximus was dedicated to the sun; horse races often occurred there (See Tertullian, De Spectaculis, 7-8).

“The same Augustuses to Proculus, Perfect of the City. Contests in the circuses shall be prohibited on the festal Days of the Sun [Latin: Festis solis diebus], except on the birthdays of Our Clemency, in order that no concourse of people to the spectacles may divert men from the reverend mysteries of the Christian law*” – April 17, 392 (CT: 2.8.20; English: Pharr, p 44; Latin: Haenel, p 211).

*This decree contains a clear reference to Christian law (Latin: Christianae legis). During the reign of Theodosius, the term ‘Christian’ was defined as Roman Catholic (see CT: 16.1.2 above). The law allows us to see that the birthdays of the Imperial reign were considered more important than Sunday rest. Just seven years later, another law affirmed this ruling (CT: 2.8.23). However, just ten years later, the Imperial attitude towards this subject changed.

“Emperors Honorius and Theodosius (II) Augustuses to Jovius, Praetorian Prefect. On the Lord’s Day, which is commonly called the Day of the Sun, We permit absolutely no amusements to be produced, even if by chance as the ends of the years return upon themselves the day should be the anniversary of the day when the beginning of Our reign shone forth, or if it should be the day to which are assigned the solemn rites that are due to the birthday” – April 1, 409 (CT: 2.8.25; Pharr, p 45).

In this law, no amusements or spectacles were allowed to be produced on Sunday even if the anniversaries of the Emperors’ reigns fall on Sunday or their birthdays. This shows us that the concept of Sunday rest had even greater weight than it did years before.

Other Sunday laws were adopted which governed human behavior. In 425, the first Roman law was promulgated that labeled Sunday the first day of the week. It also commanded people to worship on certain days each year, including Sunday, the birthday of Christ, Epiphany, Roman Passover, and Pentecost (CT: 15.5.5). More rules governing Sunday observance were enacted in 469 (CJ: 3.12.9); this last Roman law imposed harsher penalties for violations of Sunday rest.

Conclusion about Sabbath and Sunday Laws
Sabbath laws in the Roman Empire protected the existing practice of Sabbath observance for the Jewish people (and by extension Christians). It was not imposed on other people. Furthermore, there was no need for a body of laws to define what keeping the Sabbath really meant – the Bible already provided this instruction.

Conversely, Sunday laws in the Roman Empire were imposed on everyone else. If anything, these laws refute the notion that Sunday observance/rest was an entrenched, established, and developed practice in the fourth century. If the greatest portion of Christians in the Roman world were already keeping ‘Sunday’, then why were rules for its observance constantly adjusted over a hundred-year period and subsequently imposed on others? Because it was not universally observed by Christians.

The whole concept of Sunday as a rest day for Christian gathering is not found in the New Testament. These Roman Sunday laws are proof that it took time to develop the idea of what it really meant to keep Sunday – was it a day of leisure, rest, celebration, or all the above? The Roman church developed this concept partly using Roman law (Catholic Encyclopedia: Canon Law). The Sabbath continued to be observed by most Christians in the East for centuries in the future.

To read more about this subject, download our free booklet Sabbath and Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire by clicking HERE

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President –

Sources Cited:

Catholic Encyclopedia. Article: Canon Law.

Codex Justinian. English. Blume, Fred. Ed. Bruce W. Frier. The Codex Justinian. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press. 2016. pp 645-647.

Codex Theodosianus. English. Translated by Joseph Cullen Ayers. A Source Book For Ancient Church History. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.  pp 367-368.

Codex Theodosianus. English. Translated by Clyde Pharr. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton University, 1952. pp 44, 45, 209, 229-230, 300, 432, 433.

Codex Theodosianus. Latin. Edited by Gustavus Haenel. Novellae Constitutiones Imperatorum Theodosii II., Valentinianii III., Maximi, Severi, Anthemii. Ad XLII Librorum Manuscriptorum Et Priorum Editionum Fidem Recognovit Et Annotatione Critica Instuxit. Lipsiensis, 1841-1842. Vol 2: pp 210, 211. Vol 3: p 1071.

Odom, Robert L. Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association. 1977. p 292.

Sozomen. Church History, 7.12, 18-19. Translated by Chester D. Hartranft. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second series, Vol. 2. Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Co., 1890. p 383.

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