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Acts 20:7: Did they really meet on a Sunday?

(To discuss this blog post, please go here)

Acts 20:7a (ESV): On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…

There has been a lot of debate over the years regarding this verse (as well as Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1), as most English Bible translations would have us think that “The first day of the week” or “Sunday” is mentioned at least 5 times in the New Testament/Renewed Covenant. But are they correct?

Most Christians would take this at face value and say “Yes, of course it refers to Sunday, as Sunday is the new Sabbath day,” however most Messianics would say that “No, this is actually a corrupted translation of the Greek, and it actually refers to a Sabbath day, not to a Sunday.”

Let’s first deal with the Christian interpretation of this verse.

Whilst it could be true (we haven’t decided just yet) that this is referring to a Sunday, I’m afraid I must ask one question: where does it say that they had changed the Sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday? Whilst they may have “gathered together to break bread” on the “first day of the week”, meeting together on a Sabbath day wasn’t actually part of the 10 Commandments. All it says is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it set-apart. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahuweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahuweh made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahuweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it set-apart.” (Exodus 20:8-11) There is no instruction here to “gather together” on the Sabbath day – just that one is to cease from their public business (“work”) on the Sabbath day, keeping it set-apart (“special”) compared to the other days during the week. So, even if they did gather together on a Sunday (in this one, solitary place in the NT/RC), it is hardly changing the day we’re supposed to rest on.

Leviticus 23:3 does refer to the Sabbath day as a “qodesh miqra’” which is translated as a “set-apart convocation” or “special called together assembly”, but then are we to think that each and every time people are “gathered together” in the New Testament or in the Tanakh that they were engaging in a Sabbath day on a different day of the week? No, because people can gather together whenever they want. And this here in Acts 20 is probably one of these times. We’ll find out as we continue on.

Even if the translation of Acts 20:7 may be correct (again, we’ve not even looked at the Greek yet), the interpretation of the verse is far off track, with far too much eisegesis (“reading one’s own opinion into the text”) compared to exegesis (“getting one’s opinion out of the text”) going on.

So, even though the Christian interpretation of the verse is far out there, are the Messianics correct in stating that it refers to “the Sabbath”, preferably the first Sabbath day during the 7 weeks leading up to Pentecost, and not to a Sunday?

Unfortunately, they’re not correct either. Mainly because the word they would like to translate as “Sabbath”, is actually in its genitive, plural, form – σαββατων – and so is the definite article (“the”) before it – των. Therefore, the word, if we were to transliterate it into a plural form to coincide with the plurality of the Greek, we would have to transliterate it as “Sabbaths” not just “Sabbath.” If the definite article before it, and the Greek transliteration of Shabbat, were to be in their singular form, we would actually see του σαββατου, not των σαββατων.

So, not only is the Christian interpretation wrong, the Messianics translation is also wrong as well.

Even though the Christian interpretation is wrong, and the Messianics translation wrong too, is perhaps the Christian translation correct, and the Messianics interpretation correct?

Well actually, the answer is “yes” and “no”, to both questions. The Christian translation is almost correct, and the Messianic interpretation is also almost correct, but neither is complete.

Let’s have a look at the Greek:

τη μια των σαββατων (Acts 20:7, Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1)

Here it is translated, with the Greek words in brackets:

On the (τη) one (μια) of the (των) Sabbaths (σαββατων)

Ignoring the definite articles (don’t really need to look at them to be honest), we should concentrate on exactly what μια and σαββατων are referring to.

Firstly is μια. μια is the adjective, dative, singular, feminine form of the Greek number εις, meaning “one”. It does however have numerous other meanings: first, chief, main, singular, only, merely, alone, someone, anyone, certain person, unique, unitary, unanimous, one of two or many, once for all, and same.

As you can see, there are many choices to choose when translating just this one verse in the NT/RC.

So, I really can’t find fault with the translation of “first” by the Christians who created the ESV “translation”. That is a satisfactory choice as a translation of μια.

Nevertheless, where on earth did they get the word “day” from? It’s not there in the Greek, so why have the ESV “translators” put it in?

I could blame it on “Christian tradition” and their attempt to turn this into some sort of justification for their interpretation above, but then that wouldn’t be correct.

There are actually quite a few clues we can look at in the NT/RC regarding this, none more apparent than in Matthew 26:17a.

The usual translation is as follows: Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread….

But the Greek is as follows: Now, (δε) on the (τη) first (πρωτη) of (των) Unleavened (αζυμων).

As you can see, the word “day” is missing from the Greek text, and so is the word “bread”. However, how is one to make sense of this verse, if the word “day” is not included? “Now, on the first of Unleavened” really isn’t very good English. The word “day” has to be included for us English speakers, but for the Greeks, one doesn’t have to be as explicit as we English speakers do. Everything has to be spelled out for us in order to make sense out of our sentences. “On the first of Unleavened” could only mean to the Greek reader, the starting day of the festival of Unleavened Bread (αζυμων being the Greek word used to designate the festival of Unleavened Bread).

This coincides with τη μια των σαββατων, because not only is πρωτη in Matthew 26:17a the adjective, dative, singular, feminine form of the Greek πρωτος, a word not dissimilar in meaning to the Greek εις/one (εις being a numeral, πρωτος an adjective), coinciding with μια being the adjective, dative, singular, feminine form of the Greek εις, but the fact that αζυμων is the genitive, plural, neuter form of the Greek αξυμος, coinciding with σαββατων which is the genitive, plural, neuter form of the Greek σαββατον. The only difference between Acts 20:7 and Matthew 26:17 is what’s used to indicate the word “first”, and what’s being talked about. This means that “day” can be implied when it is to make sense in English.

If we look at the parallel passage to Matthew 26:17 in Mark 14:12, we see the following: And (και) on the (τη) first (πρωτη) day (ημερα) of (των) Unleavened (αζυμων).

As you can see, this is nigh-on identical with Matthew 26:17, but Mark has used the conjunction και instead of δε (a very common difference between Matthew and Mark on parallel passages and stories – there’s a reason they’re called “The Synoptics”, along with Luke), and has also included the Greek ημερα, meaning day. Both have omitted the word “bread”. Mark is being more explicit than Matthew, but the meaning of both verses is the same: On the first day of Unleavened Bread. Just because one has omitted the extra noun (ημερα/day), it doesn’t mean they’re talking of a different event.

So, whilst “day” isn’t contained in Acts 20:7, the word can be implied or meant, even if the author doesn’t explicitly use it. However Luke is writing in Greek and not English, so expecting English word usage and grammar to be incumbent in the Greek is quite silly. Greek is not English, and English is not Greek – whilst we may have many loanwords from Greek in the English language, they hardly follow the Greek spelling of the word, and we certainly don’t follow their syntax and grammar.

There’s a reason why those who only look at the root of words from a Greek-English Interlinear shouldn’t attempt to translate Greek – you’re not going to get even a remotely accurate translation of the meaning across. There’s a lot more to translation than people realise.

Now, there is therefore a discussion on what is meant by the plural form of σαββατων/Sabbaths here in Acts 20:7, as well as in Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1 and John 20:1. Not surprisingly, we should look to the Torah to find our answer.

After the Sabbath during the festival of Unleavened Bread, what does Yahuweh tell the Yisra’elites? Leviticus 23:15-16: You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to Yahuweh.

In the Hebrew, what word is used for “weeks”? That’s right – שבת/shabbath. And in what form? Again plural. The usage of the Greek σαββατων, sabbath in its plural form, is a Hebraism meaning “weeks”, σαββατων being a transliteration, rather than a translation of the Hebrew שבת (to translate שבת into Greek would be ημερα της καταπαυσεως – a day of rest).

Further proof of this is the fact that the Greek phrase that we’ve been discussing – τη μια των σαββατων – only ever appears between the feasts of Unleavened bread, and of Pentecost, after the seventh-day Sabbath. It appears in Matthew 28:1, the day after the Sabbath in the week of Unleavened Bread, which is also true for Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1. And in Acts, it appears between the feast of Unleavened Bread (Acts 20:6 (the word translated as “after” should actually be translated “together with”)) and Pentecost (Acts 20:16).

There can therefore only be one conclusion as to what the meaning of τη μια των σαββατων is – the first day/day one of weeks (or even “Sabbaths”), “weeks” being a Hebraic reference to Pentecost. Therefore, “One of Weeks” can only refer to the first day of the 50 days that lead up to the feast of Pentecost. And as Yahuweh tells us in Leviticus 23:15-16, the “first day leading up to Pentecost” is the “day after the Sabbath” from “the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering” – the feast of Firstfruits, which always, according to Scripture, falls on the day after the weekly Sabbath day.

A Sunday.

So they’re both wrong, and they’re both about 1/3rd right – The only logical translation is “the One/First of Weeks/Sabbaths”, which is a reference to the feast of Firstfruits, as it is the “first day of Sabbaths/Weeks,” which just happens to fall the day after the seventh-day Sabbath – a Sunday.

The followers in Acts 20:7 weren’t gathering together because it was a Sunday, or because they had changed the Sabbath day to another day – they were gathering because they were following Scriptures command to gather in an assembly on the Feast of Firstfruits, which just happens to always fall on a Sunday.

(To discuss this blog post, please go here)

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This entry was posted on Saturday, January 8th, 2011 at 2:20 am and is filed under blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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