The Da Vinci Code, Constantine and Christians

 
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Truth mixed with error is dangerous, especially if you’re using it to establish belief. And it’s what Robert McIver sees in the best-selling Da Vinci Code.

The combination of murder, mysterious clues, narrow escapes, and the revelation of a worldwide conspiracy have made Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code an extraordinary bestseller. The conspiracy, it claims, dates back to Emperor Constantine (313-337 AD). According to the character Teabing in the book, one of the things Constantine did to make Christianity more acceptable to pagans was to change the day upon which Christians worshipped: “Christianity honoured the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun.” 1

How true is this? Did Constantine really change the day on which Christians worshipped?
That a change to the day of worship has taken place is clear. Jesus and His first disciples were all Jews, and thus worshipped regularly on the Sabbath. As it says in Luke 4:16: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day” (RSV). According to this text, Jesus was in the habit of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. And this continued to be the practice of His earliest followers, even after His death and resurrection. Paul, for example, regularly attended synagogue worship on the Sabbath to argue for his convictions that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 13:14, 42-44; 16:13; 18:4).

Furthermore, there is no mention of Christians worshipping on Sunday in the New Testament, even though some might be tempted to read the passages of Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Revelation 1:10 in this way.

The meeting described as taking place on the evening of the first day of the week in Acts 20:7, actually took place Saturday night, not Sunday, as the seventh day in Jewish reckoning was considered to finish with the sunset.

The instruction in 1 Corinthians 16:2 to set aside a free-will offering on the first day of the week (Sunday) was given because that is the day that businessmen worked out their earnings for the previous week (they totalled their books), and Paul wished them to be systematic in their giving. This business activity was totally unsuited to a day of worship.

The only doubtful text in this respect is, in fact, Revelation 1:10, where the apostle John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (emphasis added). Later Christian writers used the term “the Lord’s day” of Sunday, but it could be debated whether this is what John meant. After all, in Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28 and Luke 6:5, Jesus says of Himself that “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” One could argue that it is the Sabbath that is the Lord’s day, not Sunday.

Nevertheless, Revelation is probably the last, or one of the last books of the NT, to be written, and it might reflect the beginnings of a practice that continued until past the time of Constantine, that of meeting for worship on both the Sabbath and Sunday.

This practice of meeting for worship on two days is documented from soon after the time of Constantine by the historian Sozomen [ca 440 AD]: “The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assembled together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria” (Ecclesiastical History VII: 19). Compare the comment of Socrates Scholasticus (ca 439 AD) in (Ecclesiastical History V 22): “Almost all churches throughout the world celebrate sacred mysteries of the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians at Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, do not do this.” 2

How soon the practice of worshipping on two days of the week grew up in Christianity is uncertain. What is significant, though, is that for some reason Christians at Rome worshipped on only one day, that of Sunday. Nobody really knows the reason for this, but it has been suggested that as Jews were sometimes asked to leave Rome by one emperor or another (for example, Claudius, cf Acts 18:2), the Gentile Christians in Rome distinguished themselves from their Jewish fellow Christians by ceasing to observe Sabbath, and that they did this quite early.

Whatever the reason, the practice was for Christians in Rome to worship only on the Sabbath. Here is where Constantine does play a part, although a small one. Constantine’s great significance for Christianity is that he was the first Emperor of Rome who claimed to be Christian. Prior to his time it was not uncommon for sporadic persecution to break out when Christianity came to the attention of the Roman authorities. So a Christian emperor was seen as a very positive thing by the Christians of the day.

From time to time, Constantine did things that he and many Christians thought were positive for Christianity. For example, Constantine passed a number of laws that gave Christians the legal right to worship.

In one of them, a law promulgated March 7, 321, he commanded: “Let all judges and townspeople and occupations of all trades rest of the venerable day of the Sun; nevertheless, let those who are situated in the rural districts freely and with full liberty attend to the cultivation of the fields, because it frequently happens that no other day may be so fitting for ploughing grain and trenching vineyards, let at the time the advantage of the moment granted by the provision of heaven be lost. Given on the Nones of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls, each of them for the second time.” 3

Constantine later moved his government operations to Constantinople (prior to his time known as Byzantium, and today known as Istanbul), but he was based in Rome at the time he was making these laws. No doubt he took his lead from the Christians in Rome when he nominated Sunday as the day on which Christians were allowed to abstain from work so that they could attend worship services.

But did he change the day of worship, as claimed by Teabing in The Da Vinci Code? Not really. The change had already taken place in Rome, and while Constantine’s laws probably assisted in the spread of Sunday worship at the expense of worship on the Sabbath, his laws did little more than enforce a trend already in place.

Nor are the kind of claims that used to be found in Catholic catechisms prior to Vatican II true. For example, The Catechism Simply Explained, by Canon Cafferata says: The Jews’ Sabbath Day was Saturday; we Christians keep Sunday holy. The Church, by the power our Lord gave her, changed the observance of Saturday to Sunday.

“A word about Sunday. God said, ‘Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath Day.’ The Sabbath was Saturday, not Sunday; why, then, do we keep Sunday holy instead of Saturday? The Church altered the observance of the Sabbath to the observance of Sunday in commemoration of our Lord having risen form the dead on Easter Sunday, and of the Holy Ghost having descended upon the apostles on Whit Sunday.

Protestants who say that they go by the Bible and the Bible only, and that they do not believe anything that is not in the Bible, must be rather puzzled by the keeping of Sunday when God distinctly said, ‘Keep holy the Sabbath Day.’ The word Sunday does not come anywhere in the Bible, so, without knowing it, they are obeying the authority of the Catholic Church.” 4

Like the statement that Constantine changed the day of worship, this statement has an element of truth, but doesn’t give the full picture. The whole process of the change of the day of worship was a gradual one that took place in the various parts of the Christian world at different times, and for various reasons.

While the church at Rome may have influenced Constantine to settle on Sunday as the proper day of worship, and while his laws probably accelerated the process of moving from worshipping on both Saturday and Sunday to worshipping only on Sunday in the western half of the Christian church, the process does not appear to have been at the command either of the emperor or the bishop of Rome.

To sum up, then, the character Teabing’s claim that Constantine changed the day of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday is not really true. Constantine certainly played a part in this process, but a minor one. Constantine’s laws did not immediately change the practice of the church, although they did give an added impulse to Sunday observance. The observance of Sunday gradually predominated. Today, with some notable exceptions, such as Seventh-day Adventists [publishers of Signs of the Times] and Seventh-day Baptists, most churches worship on Sunday.

1. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi, London, 2003, pages 314, 315.
2. In Samuele Bacchiocchi’s, From Sabbath to Sunday, Pontifical Gregorian Press, Rome, 1977, pages 196, 197.
3. Robert L Odom, Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity, Review & Herald, Washington, DC, 1977, page 209.
4. Canon Cafferata, The Catechism Simply Explained, Burns and Oates, London, 1947, page 89.