Here is a summary of the entry in the Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gringrich (BDAG) Lexicon:
σάββατον, ου, τό (שַׁבָּת) dat. pl. σάββασιν (Meleager [I]: Anth. Pal. 5. 160; 1 Macc 2:38; Jos. Vi. 279, Ant. 16,163; Just., D. 27, 5:29, 3) always in NT except that a v1. at Mt 12:1 and 12 acc. to codex B has σαββάτοις (so usu. LXX [Thackery 35]; Jos., Bell. I, 146, Ant. 3, 294. See W-S. §8, 12;B-D-F §52; Mlt-H. 128; MBlack, BRigaux Festschr. '70, 60f. -- the word is found in Plut. et. al; pap, LXX; En 10:17; Philo, Joseph.)
❶ the seventh day of the week in Israel's calendar, marked by rest from work and by special religious ceremonies, sabbath
ⓐ singular (τὸ) σάββατον
ⓑ plural -α. of more than one Sabbath
β. ...for a single Sabbath day
❷ a period of seven days, week
BDAG recognizes the plural is sometimes used for more than one Sabbath and sometimes used for a single Sabbath. It cites Matthew 12:1, 5, 10-12 as examples where Sabbath is written as plural but should be understood as singular. This is the reason translations render the plural as singular.
This may be a correct approach, but when both singular and plural are used together one should recognize a writer does not intend their audience to understand exactly the same meaning for both; otherwise, they would have written the word the same.
Matthew 12 has a number of plural and singular uses. All but one plural was used in the context of an example of a physical activity on the Sabbath. When the plural is considered in the light of the example, a consistent meaning is available which sheds light on a decision to use the plural in place of the singular.
Matthew 12:1-2 - The Charge of Unlawful Actions
The passage begins with the only use of the plural not connected to an example given by Jesus:
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath (σάββασιν-plural). His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath (σαββάτῳ-singular).” (ESV)
Matthew wrote τοῖς σάββασιν literally "on Sabbaths." While there is no example here, there is reference to locations (grainfields) and actions by the disciples (pluck and eat). Therefore, Matthew has constructed the opening such that actual events take the place of an example.
The disciples behavior brings an accusation from the Pharisees. If this opening picture is carefully considered, there is a question about the timing of this accusation. Since the disciples went through grainfields (plural), either the Pharisees ignored the first infraction(s), or were unaware of them. Given the nature of the Pharisees, it is unlikely they would have observed the disciples acting unlawfully and remained silent. Therefore, they were unaware of the earlier actions. In this way, Matthew has subtlety informed the reader of something the Pharisees did not know: this wasn't the first time the disciples did these things.
However, because the plural Sabbaths was used to describe the setting, a second picture is possible. The repeated behavior occurred on more than one Sabbath:
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on Sabbaths. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
Unless the Pharisees saw all the violations and finally "had enough" they did not see the first (or second) time this was done. Given what we know about the Pharisees, the later explanation is more reasonable. So understanding the plural as written also fits Matthew's description of the events.
Arguably, the difference is minor and treating the plural as singular as BDAG states does not alter the meaning. Yet within the context of the entire passage, a plural reading functions as a proleptic device demonstrating Jesus and His disciples practiced observing the Sabbath.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on Sabbaths (v. 1)...He went on from there and entered their synagogue. (v. 9)
The Law which prohibits work also requires a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:3). While the disputes about Law and healing occurred on one Sabbath, beginning with the plural implies that Jesus and His disciples went to the synagogue on the Sabbaths. That is, what Matthew describes is Jesus and His disciples traveling through the grainfields to reach the synagogue on more than one Sabbath.
In this case, the plural Sabbaths also adds an element of irony to the Pharisees claim ...your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath. The reader who understands Sabbaths as plural knows Jesus and the disciples made a practice to do what the law requires.
Matthew 12:3-8 - The Response From Jesus
In His response, Jesus uses the plural with an example which requires multiple days:
3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath (σάββασιν-plural) the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Matthew 12)
The phrase τοῖς σάββασιν in verse 5 is identical to verse 1. The plural in the context of priests working in the Temple is open to two interpretations:
- He is speaking only of the weekly Sabbaths. In this case, contrary to the Law which prohibits work on the seventh day, the priests work in the Temple.
- He is speaking of any day on which work is prohibited including the seven annual days.
2In this case, contrary to the Levitical Law which prohibits work, the priests work in the Temple.
There are reasons why the second understanding is preferred. First, priests work in the Temple every day of the year; they violate any Law which prohibits work. Next, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and they consider the annual day of Nisan 15 to be the Sabbath:
...the word sabbath also designated any holy day on which work was prohibited, no matter on which day of the week it occurred (Lev. 23:24, 32, 39). The majority opinion, held by the Pharisees, was that the sabbath in question was Nisan 15, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That day was to be "a holy convocation" (Lev. 23:7) on which no work was performed.
Finally, the culmination of Jesus' response is a statement of His identify and a rebuke of the Pharisees:
6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12)
The Pharisees would not overlook any violation of a prohibition of working, so understanding Sabbath as any day on which work is prohibited magnifies Jesus: He has authority over all days on which work is prohibited. Moreover, if the disciples acted on more than one Sabbath, then Jesus' failure to stop them indicates approval. That is, the Lord of the Sabbath allowed them to pluck and eat grain without reproval. Jesus allowed them to do them same thing on another Sabbath as they traveled to the synagogue for the holy convocation.
Matthew 12:9-14 - Healing on the Sabbath
9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath (σάββασιν-pulral)?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath (σάββασιν-pulral), will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (σάββασιν-pulral).” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
In each place the phrase is τοῖς σάββασιν. Understanding the plural to mean more than one Sabbath makes sense and fits the example. However, if the the plural is intended to describe a singular day, then it cannot be limited to just a weekly Sabbath: the example applies to any day on which work is prohibited. Therefore, if it is true the plural use should be understood as singular, then it follows Jesus used the plural to ensure His opponents understood His example was meant to apply to any day work was prohibited, and, τοῖς σάββασιν in this example means any day on which work is prohibited.
The phrase τοῖς σάββασιν literally "on Sabbaths" can be interpreted three ways:
- Narrowly to mean a weekly Sabbath
- Literally to mean more than one Sabbath
- Legally to mean any day on which work is prohibited
The narrow reading of the plurals as "Sabbath" does makes sense. At the same time this "smoothing" of the actual text simplifies the passage and obscures an important aspect present in the original. Namely, Jesus and His disciples followed the Law which requires a holy convocation. It also overly simplifies the Pharisaic approach to the Law. First, it ignores what is known about the Pharisees. Second, given all the Gospel has to say about the Pharisees, it is inconceivable they would be unconcerned over working on other days where the Law prohibited work.
Matthew use in the context of the Pharisees confronting Jesus about disciples picking and eating grain most likely uses #2. Jesus' use in the context of healing the man's hand means #3.
Matthew is writing to the Jewish people; he chose to open the passage by using Jesus' words "τοῖς σάββασιν," a phrase which the Pharisees would take to mean any day on which work was prohibited. The entire passage has been crafted to demonstrate:
- Jesus and His disciples obeyed the proscribed action of attending a holy convocation on the Sabbaths.
- Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and so has authority over every day which the Law prohibits work.
1. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 909-910
2. Leviticus 23 identifies seven specific days of a month on which work is prohibited: Nisan 15, Nisan 21, Shavout, Tishrie 1, Tishrie 10, Tishrie 15, and Tishrei 22. In some years these monthly days would fall on a weekly Sabbath. In most, they will fall on a day other than a weekly Sabbath. Since the priests work in the Temple on these days, they violate the Law.
3. Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal, The Feasts of the LORD, Thomas Nelson Inc, 1977, p. 76. Likewise Josephus: "But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month, they first partake of the fruits of the earth, for before that day they do not touch them, (Antiquities of the Jews 3.10.5).