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The First of the Sabbath

by Tim O'Hearn

In some internet circles I am famous (infamous) as one who opposes Sabbatarianism. Some would think that there is nothing that could get me to agree with a Sabbatarian. This article may, therefore, surprise some people. In it I will not present anything dogmatically. I will just point out some possible interpretations of scripture that differ from certain traditions with which many of us grew up. I don’t even claim that these interpretations are the only possible ones. I only claim that we have to be very careful in our teachings, because we often present tradition as truth, when it may not be.

There is a Greek word, sabbaton, that is variously transliterated sabbath or translated as week. Usually it is used in reference to the sabbath, Saturday. Jesus got in trouble for healing on sabbaton. Sometimes he taught in the synagogue on sabbaton (which is not to say he did not teach there during the assemblies on other days). Paul made it a habit when he went to a new city to first teach the Jews on sabbaton. Sabbath is always Saturday, never Sunday. Except perhaps in the phrase sometimes translated “the first day of the week.”

The first day of the week, in Greek, is literally “the first of the sabbath.” The traditional interpretation is that it signifies the first of the seven days that culminate in sabbath. Thus it is not sabbath, but the day after sabbath (which is proper). The problem is that this is the traditional interpretation, not necessarily the intended one.

Almost every time mention is made of “the first of sabbaton,” it is in relation to Pentecost (Shavuos, which falls on June 8 in 2011). It may be that the phrase means the first day counted of the fifty leading to Shavuos.

The only time that sabbaton is almost definitely properly translated week is Luke 18:12, when the Pharisee says “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” It would not make sense to say that he fasted twice on a single sabbath. That is not fasting at all. Thus, a week is the most likely interpretation (as in “twice between the sabbaths”). An alternate possibility, though, is that he is saying that he fasts twice in the period between Passover and Pentecost. The Law required counting seven sabbaths after Passover and celebrating Pentecost on the following (50th) day. Normally this is not known as a time of fasting. So it could be that he is bragging that he fasts twice in the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos.

Two other times, besides the references to Jesus rising on the “first of the sabbaton,” that this phrase is used the meaning is vague. In both of these other instances (Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 16:2) mention is made, within a few verses, of Pentecost. That would almost force an interpretation that these two instances were references to the first Sunday after Passover, and thus the beginning of the period leading up to Pentecost.

If, as can be reasonably argued, these passages refer to the first Sunday after Passover, what does that mean for some of our longstanding traditions? Some use Acts 20:7 to “prove” taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, even though they cannot with certainty establish that “breaking bread” there refers to that celebration. Even assuming that it is a reference to the Lord’s Supper, perhaps this is only “proof” that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right in celebrating that feast only during Passover each year. Others use Acts 16:2 to argue that we should contribute to the treasury of the church (and therefore should assemble) every Sunday. Some even argue that Sunday is the only day on which the church may accept contributions. If, since verse 8 of the same chapter mentions Pentecost, Paul is telling the Corinthians to make the collection on the first day after Passover, so that he can collect it on his way to Judea for Shavuos, this may very well have been a one-time-only collection.

Most Christians assemble on Sunday. Many also do so on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Some also assemble on sabbath. Nothing in the Bible would prevent assembling on any of these days. It would be wrong, though, to say that scripture says we must assemble on any one of these days, or even that the Bible says that the first-century church always or only assembled on Sunday.