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Naming the days of the week: Overlooked evidence into early Christian Sabbatarian practice

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Naming the days of the week: Overlooked evidence into early Christian Sabbatarian practice

Kim Papaioannou

Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus

 

From the Creation account through the mighty move­ment of Exodus and the ups and downs of Israel’s history chronicled in the Old Testament, the Sabbath stands out as God’s memorial of creation and redemption and as a unique day of worship and fellowship for God’s people. But, what about the New Testament? Did the apostles and early Christians keep the Sabbath? Or did the death of Jesus on the cross mark the beginning of new realities in relation to Sabbath? The answer to these questions affects the attitude we adopt today toward Sabbath because, as Christians, we endeavor to emulate the faith and practice of the early church.

Three main views may be noted regarding the attitude of early Christians on Sabbath observance. First, Jesus, the apostles, and the early Christians continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, just as it was done in the Old Testament times. Second, a transition from Sabbath to Sunday took place in the early centuries of Christian history, with Sunday gradually taking the place of the seventh-day Sabbath. Third, the concept of Sabbath itself underwent a change, suggesting that with the death of Jesus, Sabbath was abolished alto­gether and now there is no longer any holy day in the weekly cycle and all days are the same.

This study will not attempt a comprehensive answer to all issues involved. Rather, it will focus on one aspect: the names of weekdays in the New Testament and other early Christian literature and how these names inform the above debate.

The New Testament gives us names for three of the days of the week, the first, sixth, and seventh; Sunday, Friday, and Saturday in modern parlance. We will begin with these and explore them in reverse order before looking at the remaining days of the week in other literature.

The seventh day

The New Testament calls the sev­enth day “Sabbath,” Greek sabbaton.1 It translates the Hebrew word shabbat (Sabbath), that in turn comes from the verb shabat, “to cease, desist, rest,”2 a term that denotes the biblical day of rest and worship. Sabbaton appears 68 times in the New Testament, all relating to the seventh day, with the possible exception of Colossians 2:16.3

Biblically speaking, Sabbath is a title, not a name. When we speak of John the Baptist, “John” is the name, and “Baptist” is his title that defines his role.4 When we refer to the apostle Paul, “Paul” is the name and “apostle” his title.5

Likewise when we read, “ ‘The sev­enth day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God’ ” (Exod. 20:10),6 the name of the day is “seventh.” Such usage is in line with the practice of the Hebrews in both biblical times7 and now to name the days using numerals.8 “Sabbath” is a title. As such, “Sabbath” defines the special role of the seventh day as a day of rest and worship.9 While true that eventually it came to be used as a name, biblically and theologically, “Sabbath” is a title.

The title usage is especially evident in the writings of Luke. While other New Testament writers refer to the seventh day simply by the noun “Sabbath,” Luke uses six times the form “day of the Sabbath,” hēmera tdn sabbatdn.10 In biblical Greek, when the nominative, accusative, or dative of the noun “day” (hēmera) is followed by a substantive in the genitive as is the case here, the geni­tive functions adjectivally and defines the head noun “day.”11 For example, the “days of wheat harvest” of Genesis 30:14 are the days in which the harvest takes place. The day of purification of Exodus 29:36 was the day in which certain sacrifices were offered. Likewise, we have the day of “gladness” (Num. 10:10), “atonement” (Lev. 23:27; 25:9), “vow” (Num. 6:5), “plague” (Num. 25:18), and many more.

Likewise, hēmera tdn sabbatdn should be translated as an adjectival genitive of apposition, “the day which is the Sabbath” confirming that Sabbath is used as a title descriptively.12 To define a day by its title when the title was sup­posedly no longer valid makes no sense. The most natural conclusion is that Luke described the seventh day thus because the seventh day, approximately 30 years after the death of Jesus on the cross, was still the Sabbath.

Furthermore, Luke’s “day of the Sabbath” is a relatively rare construction and is used for the first time in the LXX of the fourth commandment. Literally, “remember the day which is the Sabbath to keep it holy.” A similar construction appears in the Deuteronomical reitera­tion of the commandments (Deut. 5:12, 15). Most subsequent usages appear in legal texts where prescriptive and pro­hibitive Sabbath behavior is defined.13 It would be strange indeed for Luke, a Gentile Christian, to use terminology that derives from the LXX and appears almost exclusively in legal contexts, if he considered these legal contexts to be entirely defunct.

Apart from the use of the word Sabbath, the seventh day is twice referred to simply by the numerical des­ignation “seventh day.” Both instances are in Hebrews 4:4.

The sixth day

The New Testament refers directly five times to the sixth day. All are found in the Crucifixion accounts. Two titles are used: paraskeuē (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31)14 and prosabbaton (Mark 15:42).

Paraskeuē means “preparation.”15 Preparation for what? Clearly for the seventh-day Sabbath that follows.16 This is evident in Luke’s use, “It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning” (Luke 23:54). As a preparation day, it was bound up with the keeping of the Sabbath. Nolland comments, “ ‘The day of preparation’ is the day before the sabbath, on which preparations needed to be made so that the sabbath restric­tions could be faithfully observed.”17

The word prosabbaton literally means “the [day] before the Sabbath.”18 It assumes a sense of movement towards the Sabbath. The word only appears in Mark 15:42, but Luke, in his parallel text, likewise highlights the sense of move­ment by stating that it was preparation day and “the Sabbath was beginning” (Luke 23:54). The designation of Friday as both paraskeuē and prosabbaton, therefore, clearly point to the Sabbath as the apex of the week.

The first day

Perhaps the most telling terminol­ogy relates to the “first day of the week.” There are eight references in the New Testament (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).19 The Greek term is mia sabbatdn or variants with similar semantic force. They are all comprised of the numerical adjective “first” followed by the noun “Sabbath.”

English translations unanimously render mia sabbatdn and its variants as “first day of the week”; that is, they translate sabbatdn with the English “week.” But is such a translation correct? The word sabbatdn nowhere refers to the week; it always refers to the Sabbath. The Greek word for week is hebdomas.20

The phrase should instead be trans­lated in any of the three following ways. Bruce translates mia sabbatdn as “first day after the Sabbath.”21 Lenski prefers the translation, “the first day with refer­ence to the Sabbath.”22 A third possibility is “first [day] towards the Sabbath.”23

Whichever of the three translations of mia sabbatdn we opt for, the point is that all three highlight the importance of the Sabbath as the apex of the week.24 Of the three, I prefer the third option, “first [day] towards the Sabbath” on account of the fact that the term prosabbaton noted above as referring to Friday, also indicates direction towards the Sabbath.

Remaining days of the week

We have looked at the New Testament designations for the first, sixth, and seventh days of the week, Sunday, Friday, and Saturday in modern English. What about the remaining ones?

The New Testament does not provide the names for these, but other contem­porary sources do. The second day (Monday) was called deutera sabbatdn; the third (Tuesday), tritē sabbatdn; the fourth (Wednesday), tetartē sabbatdn or tetrad sabbatdn; and the fifth (Thursday), pemptē sabbatdn; “second . . . third . . . fourth . . . fifth . . . [day] towards the Sabbath” respectively.25 These, too, are therefore designated with reference to the Sabbath.

Latin does not have a direct rel­evance to the New Testament text because the New Testament was written in Greek. Nonetheless, Latin was the second most common language after Greek among early Christian writers.

In the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible dating from the fourth century, we find the following names for the days of the week. Sunday is designated prima sabbati,26 or una sabbati,27 both of which carry the meaning “first [day] to/after the Sabbath.” Monday is called secunda sabbati, “second [day] to/ after the Sabbath,”28 and Wednesday quarta sabbati, “fourth [day] to/after the Sabbath.29 Friday is called parasceve,30 a direct transliteration from the Greek word paraskeuē, which, as was noted above, indicates preparation for the Sabbath. Names for the other days of the week are lacking.

In nonbiblical ecclesiastical Latin, the days were likewise grouped around the Sabbath. For example, Sunday was named feria prima.31 Feria designated a “free day,” a day in which individuals, and even slaves, were not required to do any work and on which courts did not meet. Initially a secular Roman concept, in Christian vocabulary it became a refer­ence to a religious holiday or holy day.32

As such, feria prima means the “first [day] after the holy day” (i.e., the first day after Sabbath).33 Monday was called secunda feria, “second [day] after the holy day”; Tueday, tertia feria; Wednesday, quarta feria; Thursday, quinta feria; Friday, sexta feria; namely “third . . . fourth . . . fifth . . . sixth . . . [day] after the holy day.”34

The seventh day was called sab­batum, Sabbath, a loan word from the Hebrew shabbat through the Greek sab­baton. This Latin system of naming the days is still followed by the Portuguese language.

Evaluation

Bringing the evidence together we can create the following table: 

English

NT/Early Christian Greek

Alternative NT Greek

Vulgate Latin

Church Latin

Sunday

1st towards the Sabbath

 

1st to/after the Sabbath

1st after the holy day

Monday

2nd towards the Sabbath

 

2nd to/after the Sabbath

2nd after the holy day

Tuesday

3rd towards the Sabbath

 

 

3rd after the holy day

Wednesday

4th towards the Sabbath

 

4th to/after the Sabbath

4th after the holy day

Thursday

5th towards the Sabbath

 

 

5th after the holy day

Friday

Preparation [for the Sabbath]

Day before Sabbath

Parasceve (Preparation)

6th after the holy day

Saturday

Sabbath

Day of the Sabbath

Sabbath

Sabbath

From the above discussion and table, it is evident that the New Testament (NT) and other early Christian writers, Greek and Latin, uni­formly used a weekday nomenclature that is decidedly Sabbatarian.

They called the seventh day “the Sabbath,” though it supposedly no lon­ger was; the sixth day either “Preparation [for the Sabbath]” or “the day before the Sabbath,” though it supposedly no longer was either;35 and the remaining days of the week, with a designating numeral followed by a reference to the Sabbath, highlighting the Sabbath as the focus of the week, when supposedly there no longer was a Sabbath.

Why did the early Christians use such language? One can speculate that they did it out of habit. Most New Testament writers were Jews and, therefore, would  have been accustomed to the habit of  Jews to designate the week on the basis  of the Sabbath.

But such speculation cannot stand.  First, at least one of the New Testament  writers, Luke, was a Gentile convernot a Jewish Christian. Second, most of the New Testament books, though written by Jews, were addressed to Gentile Christians. As such, the writers could have used language palatable to Gentiles. Third, most other Christian Greek and Latin writers were of Gentile background.

Greeks and Latins already had names for the days of the week, plan­etary names much like modern English.36 So in adopting a different set of names, they were going against their habit, against the usual names used in their societies. 

One could still object that planetary names could give an impression of idola­trous practice because the secular Greeks and Romans who used such names were pagan. But even in this case, Christian writers could have designated the days of the week using numerals, without including any reference to the Sabbath. This is the case in many languages today and was in use among Jews at the time of Jesus and the apostles. After all, Hebrews 4:4 twice refers to the seventh day as “seventh” or “seventh day,”37 while “sixth day” is the most usual Old Testament appellation for Friday.38

But Christian writers deliberately rejected both planetary names and (with the exception of Hebrews 4:4) simple numeric names in favor of a nomencla­ture that is decidedly Sabbatarian.

Why? The only logical conclusion is that the apostles and other early Christian writers used Sabbatarian lan­guage because they were Sabbatarians; that is, they continued to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, just like God’s people had done for millennia before them. To suggest that either the Sabbath was changed from the seventh to the first day of the week or it was abolished altogether goes against the evidence examined above.

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Notes:

1 F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text With Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951), 260.

2 William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 991.

3 See, e.g., Ron du Preez, Judging the Sabbath: Discovering What Can’t Be Found in Colossians 2:16 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2008). Du Preez argues with erudition that the “Sabbaths” of Colossians 2:16 referred to the three major annual feasts of Israel. By contrast, see Kim Papaioannou and Michael Mxolisi Sokupa, “Does Colossians 2:16, 17 Abolish the Sabbath?” Adventist Review, February 23, 2012, for the view that Colossians 2:16 refers to the weekly Sabbath.

4 See F. F. Bruce in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. James Dixon Douglas (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), s.v. “John the Baptist.”

5 See A. F. Walls, ibid., s.v. “Apostle.”

6 All Scripture passages in this article are from the English Standard Version.

7 See Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:3; compare to numeral system in Hebrew.

8 R. K. Harrison, Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew (London: Richard Clay, 1955), 104–108; E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 286–292.

9 John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 3 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 289.

10 Luke 4:16; 13:14, 16; 14:5; Acts 13:14; 16:13. Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible, vol. 31 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 509.

11 Daniel B. Wallace notes that all adjectival genitives are in some way descriptive. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 78, 79.

12 For the uses of the genitive of apposition, see ibid., 95.

13 Exodus 35:3; Leviticus 24:8; Numbers 15:32, 33; 28:9; Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15, 17, 19, 22; Jeremiah 17:21, 22, 24, 27; Ezekiel 46:1, 4, 12.

14 John 19:14 and 42 also use the same terminology but most likely refer to the preparation for the Passover rather than for the Sabbath, though in that instance the preparation for the Sabbath and the Passover coincided (John 19:31).

15 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 1324.

16 Walter Bauer and Frederick Danker, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 771, define it as the day “on which ... everything had to be prepared for the Sabbath.”

17 John Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35c (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993), 1164.

18 Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 1499; Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 723, 724. Stein insightfully observes that Mark is using the Jewish calendar and reckoning of days and explains it to his Greek readers. See also Horst Balz, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, eds. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982-1983), s.v. “paraskeuh.” Balz notes that the term continued into early Christian usage.

19 Some would argue that the “Lord’s Day” of Revelation 1:10 is also a reference to Sunday. This is unlikely because there is no evidence that Sunday was named so at the time John wrote Revelation. Biblically speaking it is a reference either to the seventh-day Sabbath, which in the Bible is called the “Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 20:10), or to the prophetic “Day of the Lord” (e.g., Mal. 4:5; Acts 2:20; 1 Cor. 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10), the day of the appearing of Jesus.

20 See, e.g., Genesis 29:27, 28; Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15, 16; 25:8; Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16:9 (2x), 10, 16; 2 Chronicles 8:13; Daniel 9:24, 27; 10:2, 3; A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 269.

21 Bruce, Acts, 372. Ben Witherington III, though in favor of the translation “first day of the week,” acknowledges that the phrase originally was a reference to the Sabbath. He renders the original meaning of the phrase mia sabbaton as “first day after the sabbath.” Bruce, Act, 606.

22 Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles 15-28 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1944), 824. Lenski notes that “the Jews had no definite names for the days of the week.” This is not completely true because numerals functioned as names. The choice to define the week by the Sabbath was not due to an absence of an alternative naming system but rather an indication of respect for that important institution.

23 See the genitive of destination in Wallace, Greek Grammar, 100, 101. Examples of genitive of destination are Matthew 10:5; Acts 16:17; Romans 8:36; 9:22; Galatians 2:7; Ephesians 2:3, among others.

24 A. T. Lincoln admits the Sabbatarian designation of the week when he states that the phrase mia sabbatou and cognates“reflect the terminology of Gentile Christian churches for Sunday as the first day in the sequence determined by the Sabbath.” “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie, 1982), 398.

25 See LXX Psalms 47:1; 93:1; Josephus, Wars 2.289; Didache 8:1;“Εβδομάδα,”Wikipedia, accessed May 27, 2014, http:// el.wikipedia.org/wiki/Εβδομάδα; Werner Fröhlich, “The Days of the Week in Various Languages,” accessed, May 27, 2014, http:// www.geonames.de/days.html; GDZ, accessed May 27, 2014, http://gdz.sub.uni-goettingen.de/de/dms/load/toc /?PPN=PPN655965645&DMDID=DMDLOG_0001.

26 See Vulgate, Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:9.

27 See Vulgate, Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2.

28 See Vulgate, Psalm 47:1.

29 See Vulgate, Psalm 93:1.

30 See Vulgate, Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31.

31 Faith Wallis, “Chronology and Systems of Dating,” in Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, eds. Frank Anthony Carl Mantello and A. G. Rigg (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1996), 385.

32 See, e.g.,“Feria,”Catholic Encyclopedia, NewAdvent, accessed May 28, 2014, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06043a.htm.

33 In later centuries, the name of the first day of the week was changed from feria prima to dominica or dies dominicus, “day of the Lord,” but this was a later development.

34 Fröhlich, “The Days of the Week,” http://www.geonames.de/days .html.

35 Eduard Lohse points out this discrepancy but fails to explain it. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), s.v. “sabbaton.”

36 There is some uncertainty as to when planetary names became commonplace, but E. G. Richards cites Plutarch, who indicates that planetary names were becoming well known. Mapping Time: The Calendar and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 269.

37 The use of the numeral “seventh” for the seventh day of the week is common in the LXX (Gen. 2:2, 3; Exod. 16:26, 27, 29, 30; 20:10, 11; 23:12; 24:14; 31:15, 17; 34:21; 35:2; Lev. 23:3; Deut. 5:14; 2 Sam. 12:18; and possibly Esther 1:10).

38 Genesis 1:31; 2:2; Exodus 16:5, 22, 29.

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