Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sabbath(s) and Sunday (σάββατον)

Acts 20:7 reads, “On the first day of the week (μιᾷ τῶν σαββάτων), when we were gathered together to break bread ….” (ESV).

There is an obvious question for the Greek newbie as to why μία is translated as “first” when we learned it as “one,“ and why σαββάτων is translated as “week” when we learned it as “sabbaths”? Why “first day of the week” and not “one of the sabbaths”?

Part of the key is in the nature of the word σάββατον. It is not as straight forward as one might expect. A quick perusal of BDAG show these options.

1. “the seventh day of the week,” hence, the “Sabbath.” It can be used in the singular but also the plural, and here is the interesting part; in the plural it can refer to multiple days but it can also refer to a single day. Why, you say, would they do that? I have no idea. The attestation given in BDAG is significant and the point can’t really be debated. There is evidently something idiomatic in how the word is used such that a plural can refer to a single day.

2. “Week.” Again, it can be both singular (Lk 18:12; Mk 16:9; 1 Cor 16:2) and plural.

Combined with this is the use of numbers with σάββατον.

  • πρωτη σαββατου, first day of the week (Sunday), Mk 16:9
  • κατα μιαν σαββατου, every Sunday, 1 Cor 16:2
  • μιας σαββατου, Sunday morning, Mk 16:2 (v.l.)

In the plural we see the same thing.

  • μια σαββατων (i.e. ημερα) the first day of the week Mt 28:1 (also Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1; J 20:1, 19; Ac 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2 v.l.)

Most significant is the Didache 8:1, which says that the Judeans fast δευτερα σαββατων και πεμπτη on the second and fifth days of the week (Monday and Thursday).

Also, if you check BDAG on the Greek word for “one” (εις), you will find that it can be a marker for something that is first; hence, it has a wider range of meaning than just “one.”

So what do we make of all this?

1. The Didache passage shows that when numbers are used with σαββατον, it is idiomatic and the numbers are referring to certain days during the week. And so in Acts 21:7 “one of the sabbaths” means “the first day of the week.”

2. It explains why my definition in BBG is “Sabbath, week.” The word has a wider range of meaning than might be expected, and when you see a gloss like this for a Greek word, it should signal that there is something a little different going on.

3. It should cause the Greek newbie to be respectful of the language. The glosses that you are memorizing in the vocabulary sections are only approximations, and even at that they do not cover all the uses of the term. In the first year of Greek, the day’s trouble is sufficient — I’m sure Jesus was thinking of Greek class in Matt 6:34 ;-) — and so simple glosses are adequate; but part of second year Greek is learning to broaden your understanding of words and not to rely solely on your memorized glosses.

4. Especially for the person who is limited to using the language tools, caution is urged. Words are rarely simple; they are usually nuanced and sometimes idiomatic. The fact that every modern translation goes with “first day of the week” shows that here is an idiom at work, and no theological doctrines should be drawn from this usage (other than the fact that the early church saw no conflict in worshiping on the first day of the week and not the last, probably as a reflection of the significance of Jesus’ resurrection on the first day).