We have long taken special interest in those eight scriptures that speak of the “first day of the week”. We have made the point that if authority for Sunday observance is to be found anywhere in the Bible, it should be in one or more of these texts. There are two things that these verses have in common, and that have generally gone without comment: (1) All of them are at the passover season; (2) in all but one of them, the word translated “week” is the plural of the word sabbaton—elsewhere translated “Sabbath”.
Technically speaking, there is no word for “week” in the Greek New Testament—the only way the concept is expressed is in using the word “Sabbath”. Since the Sabbath is the seventh day, then the very idea of “week” grows from the Sabbath cycle. Although the translation “week” makes sense in some contexts (as in Luke 18:12), it should not be forgotten that the word written was “Sabbath”. In this case it is genitive singular, and although it is awkward in English, it could be rendered “I fast twice of the Sabbath” (not on the Sabbath).
What has always puzzled me about the texts in question is the use of the plural form form “Sabbaths” for a singular concept “week”. The question is not clarified by the fact that there is a singular “Sabbath” which is also translated “week”. How would one express the idea of “weeks”?
Lexical studies tell us simply that the plural “sabbaths” is used of a single sabbath with little explanation. But it seems to me that, idiomatically, the writers of the New Testament made a distinction in the use of the singular and plural. While a translation from a Greek plural to an English singular may read better for a particular text, the distinction is still there. a study of the texts will show that, although the construction may be awkward in English, each text makes perfect sense if plurals are retained.
Why do New Testament writers use the plural when the singular would seem to fit as well? There are at least two possibilities. First, the plural was intended. Matthew 12:1 could be describing, not a particular Sabbath day, but a common occurrence for this time of year. Whenever Jesus and His disciples went through the fields on the Sabbath days, they were accustomed to gather a little to eat as they went.
Second, the writer may be speaking of the Sabbath as an institution as in Matthew 12:11. The Sabbath days (plural) are an institution (singular). Hence the plural in the Greek translates more smoothly into the singular.
It is worth noting that when only one particular Sabbath can be meant, it is singular (see Matthew 24:20). The Sabbath as an institution is spoken of in singular or plural, but particular Sabbaths are usually singular.
All but two of the texts in question refer to the same day—the Sunday after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The fact that they refer to the first day of the week at all is worthy of remark—which is probably why protestants take so much stock in them. These are also the only incidents in the New Testament where a “day of the week” is referred to at all. The word “day” is absent from the Greek in all these cases, and is included in the English as understood by the context.
Why do the writers refer refer to this day as “first of the Sabbaths”, when they could have, and usually did, say “the next day”, or “the day after the Sabbath”.p>
The passages in the gospel accounts can easily be translated by some variant of “the first day of the weeks”. The day was, in fact, the day of the wave sheaf, the first day of a seven week cycle. It was, quite literally, the first day of the seven weeks. In the words of Edersheim, “The ‘feast of unleavened bread’ may be said not to have quite passed till fifty days after its commencement, when it merged in that of Pentecost, or ‘of weeks’….Accordingly the days before Pentecost were always reckoned as the first, second, third, etc., since the presentation of the omer [the wave sheaf]. Thus Maimonedes beautifully observes: ‘Just as one who is expecting the most faithful of his friends is wont to count the days and hours to his arrival, so we also count from the omer of the day of our Exodus from Egypt to that of the giving of the law, which was the object of our exodus….” (Edersheim, “The Temple, Its Ministry and Services in the Time of Jesus Christ”, p.225,226.)
There are two words translated as “first” in the New Testament: protos and mia (from eis). protos is used for the first in a series and is the word used for the “first day of unleavened bread”. mia is the ordinal number “one”, with a slightly different emphasis. It is the word you would use in counting. So, the passage in Matthew 28:1 could read, “as it began to dawn on [day] one of the weeks”.
Evidence of this counting of the days and Sabbaths is found in Luke 6:1, “And it came to pass on the second sabbath after the first, that he went through the corn fields; and his disciples plucked the ears of corn, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands.” This could have been the second of the seven Sabbaths leading to Pentecost.
This becomes especially significant to those who believe that Jesus Christ is the first of the firstfruits. It would imply that Jesus was raised, not on the first day of the week, but on the first day of the weeks leading to Pentecost. (This is compatible with the idea that Jesus rose precisely at sunset—ending the Sabbath and beginning the first day of the weeks).
This is of particular interest relative to 1 Corinthians 16:2, “Upon the first day of the week [weeks] let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.” This letter was written at the Passover season, and the phrase can read, “every first day of the weeks” or “upon day one of the weeks”. The timing of the letter places it during the spring harvest. It was the perfect time to be preparing a shipment of food for Jerusalem famine relief.
The last of the references to be considered is Acts 20:7. The season is once again the time of the spring harvest, and Pentecost is just ahead (verse 16). The passage could be rendered, “And on the first of the Sabbaths”, but it is so close to the phrasing of the four gospels, that we are inclined to use “the first day of the weeks” again. The problem is with the timing. Luke states that they sailed away from PhilippI after the days of unleavened bread, sailed five days, and stayed seven days in Troas before the day in question. With this rendering, this could not have been the day of the wave sheaf offering. However, if the preposition meta is rendered “with”, the passage could read, “We sailed away from Philippi with the days of unleavened bread.” Then there is room for “the first day of the weeks”.
- Matthew 12:1 At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat. [Dative pl. “on the sabbaths”.]
- 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. [Dative sing. “on sabbath”.]
- 5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- 8 For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. [Genitive singular, “of the sabbath”]
- 10 And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- 11 And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- 12 How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths“.]
- Matthew 24:20 But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: [Dative singular, “on sabbath”.]
- Matthew 28:1 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. [Both references, genitive plural, “of sabbaths”. This introduces concept of “week” from the word for sabbath.]
- Mark 1:21 And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught. [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- Mark 2:23 And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- 24 And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- 27 And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: [Accusative singular, “the sabbath”.]
- 28 Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. [Genitive singular, “of the sabbath”.]
- Mark 3:2 And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- 4 And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. [Dative plural, “on the sabbaths”.]
- Mark 6:2 And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? [Genitive singular, “of sabbath”.]
- Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. [Genitive singular, “of the sabbath”.]
- 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. [Genitive plural, “of sabbaths” or “of weeks”.]
- 9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. [Genitive singular, “of sabbath”, or “of week”.]
- Luke 4:16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. [Genitive plural, “on the day of the sabbaths”, some think this was Pentecost.]
- 31 And came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught them on the sabbath days. [Dative plural, “was teaching them on the sabbaths”.]
- Luke 6:1 And it came to pass on the second sabbath after the first, that he went through the corn fields; and his disciples plucked the ears of corn, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands. [Dative singular, “on sabbath”.]
- 2 And certain of the Pharisees said unto them, Why do ye that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath days? [Dative plural, “on the sabbath days”.]
- 5 And he said unto them, That the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. [Genitive singular, “of the sabbath”]
- 6 And it came to pass also on another sabbath, that he entered into the synagogue and taught: and there was a man whose right hand was withered. [Dative singular, “on another sabbath”.]
- 7 And the scribes and Pharisees watched him, whether he would heal on the sabbath day; that they might find an accusation against him. [Dative singular, “on the sabbath”.]
- 9 Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it? [Dative plural, “on the sabbath days”.]
- Luke 13:10 And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. [Dative plural, “on the sabbath days”.]
- 14 And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. [Dative singular, “on the sabbath”. Genitive singular, “on the day of the sabbath”, emphasis here is on “day”.]
- 15 The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? [Dative singular, “on the sabbath”.]
- 16 And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day? [Genitive singular, “on the day of the sabbath”.]
- Luke 14:1 And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him. [Dative singular, “on a sabbath”.]
- 3 And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? [Dative singular, “on the sabbath”.]
- 5 And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? [Genitive singular, “on the day of the sabbath”]
- Luke 18:12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. [Genitive singular, “of the sabbath”.]
- Luke 23:54 And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on. [Nominative singular]
- 56 And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. [Accusative singular.]
- Luke 24:1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. [Genitive plural, “of the sabbaths”]
- John 5:9 And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. [Nominative singular.]
- 10 The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. [Nominative singular.]
- 16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. [Dative singular, “on a sabbath”.]
- 18 Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God. [Accusative singular.]
- John 7:22 Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. [Dative singular, “on sabbath”.]
- 23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? [Dative singular, “on sabbath”.]
- John 9:14 And it was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes. [Nominative singular.]
- 16 Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them. [Accusative singular.]
- John 19:31 The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. [Dative singular, “on the sabbath”. Genitive singular, “that of the sabbath”. Emphasis on “great day”.]
- John 20:1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. [Genitive plural, “of the weeks”.]
- 19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. [Genitive plural, “of the weeks”.]
- Acts 1:12 Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey. [Genitive singular, “of a sabbath”.]
- Acts 13:14 But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. [Genitive plural, “the day of the sabbaths”, or “weeks”.]
- 27 For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. [Acc. singular.]
- 42 And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath. [Acc. singular.]
- 44 And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. [Dative singular, “but on the coming sabbath”.]
- Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. [Acc. singular.]
- Acts 16:13 And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither. [[Genitive plural, “the day of the sabbaths”, or “weeks”.]
- Acts 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, [Accusative plural.]
- Acts 18:4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks. [Acc. singular]
- Acts 20:7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. [Genitive plural, “the first of the sabbaths”, or “weeks”.]
- 1 Corinthians 16:2 Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. [Genitive plural, “the first (day) of the sabbaths”, or “weeks”.]
- Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: [Genitive plural, “of the sabbaths”.]