Matthew Parris

The question that just won’t go away: is Sunday this week or next week?

The question that just won’t go away: is Sunday this week or next week?

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Very occasionally in the life of a nation comes the need for a short period of dictatorship. Not for major reform: democracy can easily manage historic change. No, it’s the little things which dictators do so well. General Franco, for example, rationalised Spanish spelling. In the sorting out of obstinate silliness, democrats lose heart and autocrats alone can stay the course. Any populist can sweep away major injustice, but only a dictator can standardise plugs or bring back the proper use of the letter ‘z’. To remove the minor anomalies of life, decree absolute can be the only way.

When I become Lord Protector of England, my first administration will ban polystyrene cups, stop people with doctorates calling themselves doctors, and treat as a national emergency the growing misuse of the apostrophe. But first in my short but golden period of office will come a final settlement of the vexed question of Sunday. Does our day of rest start the week or end it?

A couple of weeks ago, drafting a column for the Scottish Sunday Post, I included, after the words ‘Tony Blair will next week...’, a note to my commissioning editor asking him to impose whichever was his newspaper’s style for a Sunday paper’s morrow: ‘this’ or ‘next’ week. I received a note in reply: ‘Being Presbyterian, we take the view that from Sunday on is this week, from Saturday back is last week’.

I replied ‘Genesis ii 2.’ (‘And He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.’)

The editor replied: ‘Matthew xix 30.’ (‘But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’)

I remained unconvinced. My editor brought the correspondence to an end magnificently: ‘John xi 35.’ I looked this up. ‘Jesus wept.’

I got the point but the implication behind his remarks had stirred my curiosity. He plainly thought that calling Sunday the first day of the week was a sign of Christian piety. I had always assumed the opposite: that since Sunday is the Christian day of rest, then to Christians it must end the week as it did for the Creator. I thought this business of starting the week with Sunday was evidence of our modern ignorance of scripture.

Research among friends and colleagues proved me wrong. My editor’s use of ‘Presbyterian’ was apt. The practice is old-fashioned. All my respondents agreed that starting the week with Sunday was rather fastidious, strait-laced — almost quaint. My researches continued. And now I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked it. Here follows what could be the definitive analysis of the problem about Sundays.

For making a seven-day week a unit in the measurement of time, responsibility may be attributed to the Moon. For the ruling that human beings should take a day of rest once a week at the end of the week, responsibility lies with God. We have His commandment on a tablet of stone: ‘Remember the Sabbath .’

The instruction was really only to His Chosen People, the Jews, but it caught on, and is the earliest known example of employment law. Had it come down to us from Brussels as an EU working-time directive, many Spectator readers would think the prohibition a typical piece of Euro folly and describe Sunday closing as ‘political correctness gone mad’. But as the idea came down from Mount Sinai, the injunction gets an emphatic thumbs-up from traditionalists. The nanny state may be anathema but the nanny God is fine.

That after every six days we should rest for the seventh and call it Holy does not, however, settle the question of which day. Seven day-names recur in a set order but where we place the end-stop is perfectly arbitrary. It could be Wednesday, in which case Tuesday and Wednesday become the weekend. Only if you think you know on which day precisely the world began will one particular day out of the seven be the ‘right’ beginning (or end) of your week.

Strict Creationists do think they know. To the Creationist, time is anchored in Creation, beginning six days before the first Sabbath. ‘Sabbath’ is the anglicised version of the Hebrew word for ‘rest’.

So my editor was right. For the Creationist, Saturday being the Sabbath, the new week must start on Sunday. The Bible confirms this. Matthew xxviii 1: ‘In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.’ Dozens of New Testament references suggest the same convention. The early Palestinian Church followed it.

So why did Christianity depart from the convention? Why did we not designate Saturday as our Day of Rest, and Friday and Saturday as our weekend?

As so often, St Paul seems to be the problem. In his arbitrary way, Paul started talking as though the Early Christian Holy Day had been switched from the Sabbath to the following day. He did not say why, but we can be pretty sure he was not relying on anything Christ said, or he would have cited Him. It is a fair assumption that Jesus, a good Jew, observed Saturday as His Holy Day. Paul was vague, however. The first text explicitly to mention Sunday worship is Justin’s First Apology, c. ad 150.

It seems that Christians, along with the Romans, had made a shrewd compromise with paganism. An edict of the Emperor Constantine declares, ‘Let all judges, inhabitants of the cities, and artificers, rest on the venerable Sunday.’ Constantine was accommodating the different interests in the Empire. Just as he confirmed Christmas as occurring on the midwinter ‘rebirth of the sun’, he also gave a nod to the pagan special interest lobbies who wanted ‘Sun day’ (which was sacred to Sol Invictus, chief pagan god) to be the special day in the Empire. Christians could fudge the issue by saying that they were honouring the day that Christ rose from the dead.

Thus the day of rest became what Christians had to acknowledge as the first day of the week. In adhering strictly to the Creationist calendar, which insists that the Sabbath was when God rested, while yielding to the pagan/Roman fudge in favour of a Sunday holiday, the Church ended up with its Holy Day 24 hours out of synch with common sense, which suggests that rest comes more naturally at the end than at the beginning of a week. A less literal interpretation would say that the spirit of the Commandment is that we should rest and pray after six days, never mind what we call them. On that view, Christians could declare Sunday to be their Sabbath.

But, then again, if I were editor of the Sunday Post I would rather tell my readers about this week than next. It sounds more now. Thus do the needs of a Scottish Sunday tabloid and the concerns of the Early Church concur.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.