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I noticed that the Greek phrase τῇ μιᾷ τῶν σαββάτων in Acts 20:7 is often translated “the first day of the week.” However, I assert that it could also mean “the first Sabbath” because the noun σάββατον can be translated “week” or “Sabbath.”

(By the way, the Greek word for “day” is not in the Greek text but has been assumed by translators.)

So, which of the translation is correct, and why?

7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. NASB, 1996

Ζʹ Ἐν δὲ τῇ μιᾷ τῶν σαββάτων συνηγμένων ἡμῶν κλάσαι ἄρτον, ὁ Παῦλος διελέγετο αὐτοῖς μέλλων ἐξιέναι τῇ ἐπαύριον, παρέτεινέν τε τὸν λόγον μέχρι μεσονυκτίου. NA28

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    For a recent academic discussion of the words for "sabbath" and "week" in Hebrew, Greek, and other languages, see this lecture. – fdb May 12 '17 at 11:04
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    You guys are killing me. How am I suppose to understand what you are talking about if you speak in Chinese... I mean Greek ;-) This level of discussion is definitely higher than expected and that's a good thing. I love this network and I have a high esteem for everyone of you who are sharing your knowledge on your personal time to help others to understand the Word of God. Thank you again to y'all. – TruthSeeker May 15 '17 at 15:33
  • The question is correct in pointing out the plausibility of the "First of the Weeks" ... in reference to Pentecost. Regardless, the fact remains that textually, it was both the first day of the week, and the first week of Pentecost. Then again, there is a whole different debate on when the weeks start, so ... there is that. Though, the way that Acts unravels kind of shows what the Christians - at that time - believed, (if you do the maths). I also researched this and found very inconsistent ways that σαββάτων is used. So, I just go with "Both". Why not? – elika kohen Apr 18 '18 at 18:14
7

It cannot mean “the first Sabbath” because the lemma σάββατον is a noun declined in the neuter gender, while the cardinal number μία (an adjective) is declined in the feminine gender. In Greek grammar, an adjective must agree in case, gender, and number with the noun it modifies.

If we are to suppose that τῇ μιᾷ τῶν σαββάτων is to be translated as “the first [Sabbath] of the Sabbaths,” with the supplied ellipsis “Sabbath,” then the cardinal number should be declined in the neuter gender in agreement with supplied ellipsis τῷ σαββάτῳ, as in τῷ σαββάτῳ τῷ ἑνὶ τῶν σαββάτων—“the first Sabbath of the Sabbaths.”

The fact that the cardinal number is μία, declined in the feminine gender, suggests that the supplied ellipsis should be ἡμέρᾳ (“day”), as in “the first [day] of the week,” since ἡμέρᾳ is also declined in the feminine gender.

In English, it is also common to use such ellipses when numbering days. For example, in the phrase “It is the first of the month,” the word “day” is omitted because it is assumed to be understood by the reader.

Unlike Hebrew, English actually has unique names for the days of the week, such as Monday, Tuesday, etc., which of course are derived from the names of astronomical phenomena (e.g., Sunday, Monday) or gods (e.g., Thursday, Saturday). Therefore, it is unnecessary in English to refer to days of the week by number.1 On the other hand, it is typical to do so in Hebrew.

For example, the following chart displays how the days of the week were numbered in the Talmud:

Hebrew Day Numbering in the Talmud

It is noteworthy that בשבא and בשבתא/בשבת are equated in such phrases as חד בשבא and חד בשבתא, both evidently meaning “the first day of the week.”

In addition to the aforementioned phrases, there also exists the phrases כל השבת and באמצע שבת, meaning “the whole week”2 and “in the middle of the week,”3 respectively.

The Greek Septuagint, written a few centuries prior to the Christian advent, has the phrase τῆς μιᾶς σαββάτων in Psa. 24:1, a psalm that was historically sung on the first day of the week by Levites in the Temple, as testified by Jewish writings.4

John Phillips, p. 180

This is impartial evidence identifying τῆς μιᾶς σαββάτων with the first day of the week, as Collins notes,5

...because we have good evidence that Jewish Greek used μία for the first day of the week, in the expression ἡ μία [ἡμέρα] τῶν σαββάτων “the first [day] of the week.” For example, in the LXX inscription to Ps 24 (lxx Ps 23.1), we find:

ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυιδ τῆς μιᾶς σαββάτων
A psalm for/of David, of the first day of the week.


In addition to the preceding arguments against the translation “the first [Sabbath] of the Sabbaths,” a few points could benefit from clarification.

It is argued by some that σάββατον should never be translated as “week,” for the author would have used ἑβδομάς instead. Both in the Old and New Testament, there are instances where the author is clearly referring to a “week” rather than “Sabbath” using the word σάββατον (or a declension thereof).

  • Luke 18:12: νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου (“I fast twice a week”)

Regarding this verse, Francis D. Nichol wrote,6

Nichol, p. 237–238

In addition, there are the following verses in the Greek Septuagint:

  • Psa. 24:1: τῆς μιᾶς σαββάτων (“the first day of the week”)
  • Psa. 94:1: τετράδι σαββάτων (“the fourth day of the week”)

Historical sources testify that both of these psalms were sung in the Temple by the Levites on their respective day of the week.

Furthermore, in Lev. 23:15, it states, שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה—“and seven שַׁבָּתוֹת shall be complete.” Some translate שַׁבָּתוֹת as “Sabbaths,” as though the Israelites had to count seven complete Sabbaths, but consider the following remarks from Carl Friedrich Keil,7

That שַׁבָּתוֹת (ver. 15) signifies weeks, like שָׁבֻעֹת in Deut. xvi. 9, and τὰ σάββατα in the Gospels (e.g. Matt. xxviii. 1), is evident from the predicate תְּמִימֹת, “complete,” which would be quite unsuitable if Sabbath-days were intended, as a long period might be reckoned by half weeks instead of whole, but certainly not by half Sabbath-days.


References

Collins, C. John. “The Refrain of Genesis 1: A Critical Review of Its Rendering in the English Bible.” Technical Papers for the Bible Translator. Vol. 60, No. 3, July 2009.

Keil, Carl Friedrich. Commentary on the Old Testament. 1900. Reprint. Trans. Martin, James. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Nichol, Francis D. Answers to Objections: An Examination of the Major Objections Raised Against the Teachings of Seventh-Day Adventists. Fort Oglethorpe: TEACH Services, 2014.

Phillips, John. Exploring Psalms: An Expository Commentary, Volume One. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988.

Footnotes

1 Thus, it is typical to say, “Today is Wednesday” rather than “Today is the fourth of the week.”
2 Chul. 26b; Meg. 30a; Men. 65a; Nazir 5a; Yoma 46a
3 Taʿan. 29b, 30a, etc.
4 See Phillips, p. 180; also, cp. Babylonian Talmud, Seder Moʿed, Tractate Rosh ha-Shana, Chapter 4, Folio 31a, Gemara (English translation)
5 p. 124–125
6 p. 237–238
7 p. 442

1

The answer should take into consideration the command under Leviticus 23:15 that the Hebrews were to count 7 sabbaths after the feast of unleavened bread to get to the 7th sabbath and 49th day, and thereafter the 50th day which was Pentecost. So, having the text read as "the first of the Sabbaths" which Young's Literal Translation does at John 20:1 is consistent with the Interlinear Greek "te mia ton Sabbaton" or "the first of the Sabbaths" at Acts 20:7.

The Hebrews were counting the first sabbath after the calendar feast day of unleavened bread, and it would have meant the first of the seven regular sabbaths counted to Pentecost. We may have a real problem with the English translation of Sabbaton as "week".

  • You make an excellent point. This is relevant to the Gospel "mia ton Sabbaton" but unfortunately not in Acts 20. The reason is verse 6 states the days of Unleavened Bread had passed before Paul reached Troas. – Revelation Lad May 14 '17 at 14:36
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I'm studying Greek, and thought I'd throw my 2 cents into this discussion. I've included some good references as well.

Matthew 28:1 Now after the Sabbath[s], as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. (1)

Bill Mounce Ph.D. (2) is a well respected scholar on biblical Greek (Koine Greek), and his text books are used at many seminaries, which doesn’t mean he is correct, but he’s not your average guy. According to Bill Mounce Ph.D. σαββάτων can be translated as singular or plural (3), and depends on context, so without expanding this discussion into the potential greater meaning of the verse and the text in general, a person is not going to discover the answer.

To understand if the word σαββάτων is plural or singular, you have to have an understanding of the Jewish culture at the time, and that there were biblical feasts which were also Sabbaths (days of rest). Chuck Missler Ph.D (4) and Scott Ashley (5) have done a lot of work on this topic, and are one of many good resources in order to understand the Sabbath(s) and their relevance to the Bible (past, present, and future significance).

I’d recommend obtaining three good sources, that can argue their stance on both sides of this topic, so that you can obtain a good idea on which side has the strongest stance based upon what the Bible says and teaches, not based on a specific tradition or perhaps a mistranslation/misunderstanding of the text.

Hope this helps!

Peter

Ref#1– NKJV: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+28%3A1&version=NKJV

Ref#2 – Bill's Bio: https://www.billmounce.com/personal

Ref#3 – σαββάτων: https://www.billmounce.com/monday-with-mounce/sabbaths-and-sunday-%CF%83%CE%AC%CE%B2%CE%B2%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%BF%CE%BD

Ref#4 – Chuck Missler Ph.D document: http://www.khouse.org/articles/2000/214/

Ref#4 – Scott Ashley https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/jesus-wasnt-crucified-on-friday-or-resurrected-on-sunday-how-long-was-jesus-in-the

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Many good and valid points are made here concerning Acts 20:7 and the question of the rendering and translation of μια των σαββατων in this verse.

Most of those outside of theological academics refer to Strongs definitions to make determinations on translations from the original Greek and today's English. That being said, this passage is widely used to "prove" that early Christians were meeting regularly on the first day of the week, (Sunday, as known to us today) so there is much resistance to making this passage say anything other than that. This can be seen in the intelligent rhetoric found here.

There are far more reaching issues at work here but the common question concerning this passage simply comes down to the individual's purpose in questioning the translation. Without question, valid points have been brought forward by those involved in this discussion. But, again, the issue here is word for word translation, i.e., ancient wording to modern English.

I believe there will always be disagreement as to translation and infinite meaning of this passage. I have studied this passage for more than forty years and have drawn my own conclusions as to the use of σαββατων in this passage. My conclusion leans away from translating this as "Upon the first (day) of the week".

In stating this I must also clarify my position on the reckoning of a day in the passage. It would be far more likely that the writer here would be using the common Jewish sundown to sundown designation of a twenty four hour day. This alone adds a wide variable to the "first day of the week" rendering in the passage.

I will not get into a more lengthy statement on this passage as the above rhetoric is sufficient for that but will conclude with a simple statement. Ones opinion and teaching on this passage are going to be directly effected by what they're attempting to prove or disprove within the context of the passage.

Lastly, the writer never inserted this passage to make a statement about Sunday observance. This passage is in prelude to a miracle that Paul does at this evening meeting and nothing more.

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    You need to back up the assertions that you make with references in order for your answer to be considered a good answer. You should re-write this answer in three or four separate paragraphs, each with a main sentence and dependent sentences. Try starting out by outlining the points that you want to make and giving each point a separate paragraph. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Feb 10 '18 at 16:30
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This phrase 'mia ton sabbaton' translates as 'one from the Sabbath' and is equivalent to 'the first day of the week. It is an ablative use of the genitive case. The word 'sabbaton' is never translated week in the Septuagint, as the Greek has a word for 'week' which is hebdomas. This phrase is nothing to do with the count to Pentecost, as 'hebdomas' is used there in the Septuagint. QUOTE: - In the Septuagint it occurs at least 11 times, given below with the KJV translation: (Exodus 35:3) "upon the Sabbath day" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Leviticus 24:8) "Every Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Numbers 15:32) "upon the Sabbath day" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Numbers 28:9) "on the Sabbath day" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Jeremiah 17:21) "on the Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Jeremiah 17:22) "on the Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Jeremiah 17:24) "on the Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Jeremiah 17:27) "on the Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Ezekiel 46:1) "on the Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Ezekiel 46:4) "in the Sabbath day" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. (Ezekiel 46:12) "on the Sabbath" τῶν σαββάτων = Sabbath. It also occurs once in the Septuagint (Numbers 15:33) where it is not translated in the KJV. - END QUOTE.

See a full scriptural study here. https://www.logosapostolic.org/bible_study/452-sabbaton.htm

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Background

The Sabbath (singular) is Jewish, not Greek:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God... (Exodus 20:8-10) [ESV throughout]

The ancient Greeks did not have the concept of a week and thus there is no word for 'week' or for any of the days of the week in classical Greek. [The Etymology of "Sabbath"]

  • "Sabbath" refers to a singular day which comes at the end not the beginning. It does not refer to the entire 7-day period. It is a singular day of rest following six days of work.
  • Using Sabbath to identify the "beginning of the week" is contrary to the meaning of a point in time which comes after working six days.

The plural form of the word should not materially alter the meaning of the singular.

From a practical perspective, any phrase with “Sabbath” or “Sabbaths” is devoid of meaning unless the Sabbath is observed. If the day was “the beginning of the week,” then it is a day known only after the Sabbath was observed. Whether the singular or plural word is used, the Sabbath had to be recognized (by observing the Jewish calendar). Thus, “the beginning of the week” is unlikely since the context is placed with references to the Jewish calendar:

but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread… (Acts 20:6)

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 20:16)

The implication of recording travels referencing the Jewish calendar through the territories of Macedonia and Asia (where this calendar is not used) is those days were known and observed. If these dates were not observed, what purpose other than to confuse the reader (Theophilus) is served by recording them? More reasonable is to recognize they are included because these times continued to be observed.

This does not directly answer the question about the meaning of "Sabbaths" but a passage which includes “days of Unleavened Bread” and to be “in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost” presents a challenge for an understanding which implies the Sabbath was not observed. If Paul continued to follow the annual calendar, as the passage suggests, so too he would follow the weekly (as stated elsewhere in Acts). Logically this is the point the passage intends to convey.

Translation Inconsistencies

There are related questions on this site about the plural Sabbaths: What are the many Sabbaths referred to in scripture? and Colossians 2:16 speaks of holy days, festivals or weekly sabbaths? and Sabbath, Sabbaths or week? Matthew 28:1

The three obvious literal meanings of the plural of Sabbath are:

  • More than one weekly Sabbath
  • The counting of Sabbaths after the Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16)
  • Periods of time with both an annual day of rest and a weekly Sabbath

These are not possible in Troas but it is important to understand Sabbaths as plural is meaningful and could be consistently rendered as such. Both the singular Sabbath and plural Sabbaths are used in the New Testament. However, neither is rendered consistently. Using the King James Version, here is a chart of how the singular and plural of Sabbath are translated: enter image description here The plural form is sometimes a week and sometimes a singular Sabbath and it is never called Sabbaths. Also inconsistent is the singular which is rendered as “week” in three places.

Luke uses the plural σαββάτων three times in Acts:

but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day (ἡμέρᾳ τῶν σαββάτων) they went into the synagogue and sat down. (Acts 13:14)

And on the Sabbath day (ἡμέρᾳ τῶν σαββάτων) we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. (Acts 16:13)

On the first day of the week (Ἐν δὲ μια των σαββατων), when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)

The first two are always placed on the Sabbath Day. Acts 20:7 is placed after the Sabbath despite describing an event which is taking place during the evening (earlier in the 24-hour Sabbath rest).

Ἐν δὲ μια των σαββατων

The phrase in Acts is nearly identical to the one Luke uses in the Resurrection narrative:

τῇ δὲ μια των σαββατων (Luke 24:1)

Ἐν δὲ μια των σαββατων (Acts 20:7)

The use of the definite article in the Gospel follows the importance of the day: it is the first of the Sabbaths marking the counting to the Feast of Weeks. For Christians it is also the first of the Sabbaths in the New Covenant (as discussed in Gina's answer).

The definite article is not used in Acts since the Feast of Unleavened Bread was past. Instead Luke begins the phrase with ἐν. The preposition ἐν denotes a "fixed position in time place or state." Literally it means what is taking place is "in the first of the Sabbaths” not after the Sabbath(s).

Given the other "Sabbaths" in Acts (13:14 and 16:13) the reasonable assumption is Paul and others observed the Sabbath, which traditionally begins at sunset with a prayer service followed by a meal. If the events are placed on the Sabbath and σαββατων is rendered as singular (as it is everywhere else in Acts), the passage would read:

In the first of the Sabbath, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.

What is described is the typical beginning of the Sabbath; Paul and the others gather after sunset to break bread. Where Acts 13:14 and 16:13 describe events occurring in the synagogue during the daytime, towards the end of the Sabbath, Acts 20:7 describes events occurring in a house during the evening which is the start, or first part of the Sabbath. If σαββατων was treated as it is everywhere else in Acts, the events would be placed at the start ("the first") of the Sabbath.

The “Sabbaths” in Troas

Troas (20:7), Antioch in Psidia (13:14), and Philippi (16:13) demonstrate there is another way to understand the plural “Sabbaths."

Luke describes a Sabbath which begins at sunset, following the Jewish custom. However, they are not in Judea where the entire Jewish community stopped working at sunset. They are in Troas, a Roman colony in Asia. If days were reckoned by Greek or Roman custom, either from midnight or from sunrise, then some in Troas would not conclude their six days of work until after sunset. In this case, the “first” of the Sabbaths comes at sunset on Friday. It is “first” as it is followed by those who start their Sabbath at midnight or sunrise on Saturday.

In any city which the beginning of a day is not reckoned at sunset, there will always be more than one “beginning” to the Sabbath, if there are visitors like Paul or others who choose to begin their Sabbath at sunset (according to Jewish or Biblical tradition) while others must adhere to a civil or legal calendar and continue to work until midnight or sunrise.1

The phrase “μια των σαββατων” describes the practical reality of differing customs in the Gentile world. This is no different than the contemporary situation where some Christians observe the weekly Sabbath beginning on sunset Friday while others in the same city wait until Saturday evening, midnight, or Sunday morning. In this situation the actions of those who start before the others may be described as beginning "on the first of the Sabbaths."

The plural Sabbaths is the correct word to describe the situation because, in practice, when the city is considered as a whole, there are multiple beginnings to the singular (weekly) Sabbath. The plural nature refers to the different times a Sabbath may start. Moreover, an itinerant teacher who sought to deliver the opening prayer on the Sabbath would begin in one household at sunset before going to another at midnight or sunrise.

Finally, most translations add "day" as an implied ellipsis. This is done because the Sabbath is seen strictly as a means to measure time. However, in practice, observing the Sabbath is about rest, being refreshed, gathering for holy convocations and meals. Based on the purpose of the Sabbath the better ellipsis would be “κοινωνία" (fellowship). Then the phrase would be: “On the first κοινωνία (fellowship) of the Sabbaths, when we were gathered together to break bread…”

In this case, Luke omitted the implied "κοινωνία" to avoid confusion with the practice of communion (κοινωνία) with "the breaking of bread." In other words, on the first of the Sabbaths Paul and other gathered for fellowship, which was done with communion and the breaking of bread. The emphasis is on the first of multiple fellowships on the Sabbath.

Sabbaths in Acts

Contrary to traditional interpretation, Luke's use of the plural Sabbaths throughout Acts is purposeful to show an understanding of the challenge a "Jewish Christian" like Paul faced in observing the Sabbath while traveling in the Gentile world: enter image description here

Notice despite when the Sabbath begins, all share the same period of daylight (ἡμέρᾳ ὁ σαββάτων). What Luke is saying in Acts 20:7 is Paul conducted a "Sabbath service" as was the custom of the Jewish people, except they did not go to the synagogue to pray collectively, they met in the upper chamber of a house (20:8). Also Paul did not go to another house because his teaching continued past midnight nor did not go to the synagogue in the daytime as he did in Antioch of Psidia or to (another) place of prayer as in Philippi.


1. Luke is describing an actual event. He is recording history. He is not commenting on whether the Sabbath should begin at sunset. He is simply stating sunset is when Paul gathered with others for fellowship.

  • Unfortunately this answer does not taken into consideration the fact that this same exact phrase μια των σαββατων is used in John 20:1 & John 20:19 to refer to the "first day of the week" (cf. Matt 28:1 where μιαν σαββατων is also used for the "first day of the week"). – Bʀɪᴀɴ May 12 '17 at 19:15
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    Sorry, but -1. You quote the first part of Matt 28:1 where you say "Now after the Sabbath [Sabbaths]..." but you do not quote the rest of the verse, which is the part that undermines the arguments you try to make in your next paragraphs. You also still don't take into account John 20:1 & John 20:19, both of which can't be taken any other way than "first of the week," as in "first day of the week" due to phrasing and most importantly context, where it is clear that the Sabbath had passed and it was the next day. [continued...] – Bʀɪᴀɴ May 13 '17 at 21:40
  • This is why translations such as the NKJV & NASB include day in italics, because day is implied. Additionally, your arguments that 'Sabbath' and 'week' are inconsistently translated, giving examples such as Luke 4:16, Acts 13:14 & Acts 16:13, are not valid because these verses do not contain an ordinal number like Acts 20:7 does, or like the portion of Matt 28:1 that you did not quote does (or, for that matter, like John 20:1 & John 20:19 do). – Bʀɪᴀɴ May 13 '17 at 21:41
  • I just wanted to add that English also has certain words that are always spelled in a plural form even if referring to a singular item, or almost always used in a plural form even though a singular form exists. Some examples include: pants, scissors, & glasses. See this Oxford Dictionary blog post about pluralia tantum (plural only). – Bʀɪᴀɴ May 14 '17 at 13:00
  • See also this wiktionary page that I happened to stumble upon that has a few examples from ancient Greek of pluralia tantum. My point being that you cannot use the argument that a word must always be translated as a plural if it is spelled in a plural form. – Bʀɪᴀɴ May 14 '17 at 13:01

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