“Sabbath” or “Week”? When Words Mean More Than One Thing

“Sabbath” or “Week”? When Words Mean More Than One Thing

One of my commenters has asked an excellent question about Matthew 28:1 (and several other verses), centering on the fact that the Greek word σάββατoν (sabbaton, “Sabbath” or “week”), which occurs twice in the verse, is translated differently each time. He observes that the same word (Strong’s reference number 4521) seems to be translated several different ways depending on context, finally asking:

The word σάββασιν,σαββάτων,σαββάτου are all referenced to 4521 sabbath

What do these words by themselves mean?
I believe that the true word of God is the divinely inspired in the original manuscripts form the Hebrew and the Greek and the translated versions in any language are not in any way divinely inspired. And when the translators didn’t understand something they felt they needed to find a way to make it fit and in doing so did a great injustice to the original word so when they seen the sabbath written two times in Matthew 28:1 it did not make sense because in their minds they thought how can the sabbath be on Sunday when the 7th day sabbath was sanctified by God from the beginning, An argument is made that the use of the plural “Sabbaths” as it is found in Matthew 28:1 somehow means “between the Sabbaths,” which then allows a change from “Sabbaths” to “week.” But there are only six days between the Sabbaths. Therefore, “week” and “between the Sabbaths” could not be synonymous. in Luke 18:12 the word in the original is “Sabbath” (singular). Yet the translators dared to translate this also as “week.”
If Matthew was to be changed it could read something like this.
“In the end of Sabbaths at the dawning on toward the first of the Sabbaths came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
to expand on it
“Now that the era of the Old Testament Sabbaths has come to an end inasmuch as Jesus Who was typified by those Sabbaths had finished His work and was now resting from His labors.” The last seventh day Sabbath like all the previous seventh day Sabbaths pointed directly to the cross where Christ alone did all the work that was necessary to save those who believe on Him. Rest on Jesus he has become our new sabbath we can not do any work toward our salvation because he did all the work for us on the cross so we must rest in him.
I don’t know if this is correct so I am asking you thanks.

This question highlights exactly how Strong’s Concordance—a wonderful tool, really—can sometimes give just enough information to be dangerous for a person who doesn’t know the biblical languages. That’s the subject for another post, but suffice it to say that one of the problems of this approach is that words actually never mean anything “by themselves” but are always contextually dependent at least to some extent. Learning to grasp how context (ultimately formalized in grammar) affects various sounds (syllables and words) is what language learning is all about. The very same word can mean quite different things depending on the context in which it’s used. English is loaded with examples of this fact:

Consider the word beat. What does it mean? It depends on the context: it could refer to defeating someone in a contest, a regular rhythm in a song, or abusing a child. Likewise, deck might refer to the floor of a boat or ship, a type of elevated porch or patio, or a set of playing cards. This works the same way in Greek and every other language: words only have meaning in context. Without context, a word is just a resounding gong or clanging symbol. The process of semantic change can make things even more difficult, especially in a language with as long a history as Greek, as the word’s usage comes to be very different from the original “root” meaning of a word.

As it turns out, the word σάββατον is one of those words that, by the first century, had come to have more than one meaning. It originally referred to the Sabbath day itself, the seventh day of the week, which we call “Saturday,” but over time it came to have a second meaning: the week itself, using the word for the final day of the week to denote the week itself (calling the whole thing by the name of one of it’s parts, like calling an older man a “graybeard,” is called synecdoche). As a result, the word usually has its original meaning of “Sabbath,” but depending on the context also meant “week,” as can be seen in 1 Cor 16:2, “On the first day of every σάββατον each one of you is to put aside and save ….” “On the first day of every Sabbath” would be nonsense; the context shows that Paul is using the second meaning of the word here.

The same is true of where it’s translated “week” in Matt 28:1 (and Luke 18:12, etc.). That’s why the translators “dared” to translate σάββατον as “week” in these cases—the context and standard usage of the word indicate that in these cases, that’s what σάββατον meant. As a result, it really isn’t plausible that the passage should read/mean:

“In the end of Sabbaths at the dawning on toward the first of the Sabbaths came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
to expand on it
“Now that the era of the Old Testament Sabbaths has come to an end inasmuch as Jesus Who was typified by those Sabbaths had finished His work and was now resting from His labors.” The last seventh day Sabbath like all the previous seventh day Sabbaths pointed directly to the cross where Christ alone did all the work that was necessary to save those who believe on Him. Rest on Jesus he has become our new sabbath we can not do any work toward our salvation because he did all the work for us on the cross so we must rest in him.

Instead, it should be translated something like this:

“Now, after the Sabbath, *at dawn on* the first [day] of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

*Greek’s idiom is a little different from English here; we tend to say “at dawn on/of the day,” while they said “as it was dawning towards the day.” Both idioms refer to the same thing, so I have rendered it in more understandable English.

I’m all for looking for translation improvements, but this is one place where the translators tend to get things right.

5 Comments
  • Danny
    Posted at 23:03h, 07 November Reply

    In Hebrew faith in the Bible there are two types of sabbath’s. The 7th day sabbath and high sabbath. High sabbath are appointed times, part of festivals and during the passover/ unleavened week there are 2 sabbath’s. First day of the unleavened week and the 7th day sabbath. The problem is due to most don’t read the Tanakh (OT) so don’t understand the festivals when they are stated in the Brit Hadasha (NT).

  • Jd
    Posted at 09:53h, 05 February Reply

    To further illustrate Danny’s point, what passage are you referring to when you suggested that the Sabbath’s was over? I have looked for that passage but have not been able to locate it, additionally, are you not aware that ALL plant and animal, and human life forms are still on G-D’s 7 day cycle? Are you not aware that even the smallest of cells and organisms are on the same cycle? Did some one try to push that theology on all of creation??? I speak rhetorically not out of malice but from a humorous perception that the Sabbath has been changed…. allow me to continue, are you aware that every human being ever born was born under the pattern of the Feasts of THE MOST HIGH? So much so that the development of the fetus from conception to birth is a WITNESS to the feast because every developmental stage of the fetus is in harmony with each of our FATHERS feast…. when HE gave them to the children of ISREAL HE said” These are MY Feasts for you to observe” ……. Hello!!!!! Knock, knock, is anyone home???? Are you forgetting that YESHUA said is is LORD of the Sabbath? This validating the Sabbath, or in the book of Revalation “ Pray that your flight not be on the Sabbath! What do you think? He ( (YESHUA) is making a reference to the future events and again validates the Sabbath. are we so far removed from a proper biblical – cultural perspective that we cannot understand what is going on in scripture? The author of the Book of Mather was from the tribe of Levi…. this means he was a JEW…. like it or not this was written from a Jewish perspective, and was most likely written to Jews……. “ To the JEW first, then to the gentile” ever heard of the Shem Tov ? This is a copy of the book of Mathew in Hebrew that pre-dates the earliest Greek text we have, but let me not stop there? Ever heard of Josephus ? He writes that the book of Mathew was written originally in Hebrew, as does our founding fathers of the Christian faith in a little document called the Papyrus. So, let’s view this text from the correct perspective which would be a Hebrew perspective . In what we referred to as the Old Testament which is actually the Torah there are instructions for the Jews and the Hebrews on how to celebrate and calculate the feast of the Lord you Shuwa Jesus was risen on the first fruit feast and then they were instructed to count seven Sabas for the next feast so what is going on here is that that idea is conveyed he Brakeley but when it is translated the translators we’re not Jewish therefore they did not understand it they didn’t even know what to do with what they were translating , so they translate the word sabbath to mean the Sabbath end to mean a week but that’s not the case what the author of Matthew is doing is counting down the days as prescribed in the Torah to the next festival which we call Pentecost which is the day that the Holy Spirit was given that’s why they were assembled in the upper room they were celebrating a feast of the Lord God .

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 21:51h, 07 February Reply

      Wow, this is a complete mess, including a remarkable number of errors in detail, let alone the big picture.

  • Ben Jiménez
    Posted at 16:46h, 28 August Reply

    Thank you, Jason.
    The thing that is not very clear to me is the construction of the phrase itself? I’ve heard people argue that the word “mia” or “eis” does not mean “first” but “one”. To refer to ordinal numbers the more common word would be “protos.” Do you have any source showing that eis can be translated in an ordinal sense?
    Also, why is the word Sabbath used in the plural? It would seem more appropriate to translate the phrase, “one of the sabbaths,” as in Wallace’s partitive use of the noun (p. 85).
    I agree with you that words and even phrases are contextually dependent. And that’s why I hesitate to translate Matthew 28:1 that way. However I’m still having a hard time understanding why that phrase is consistently translated “the first day of the week.” In all of its occurrences in the NT.
    Thank you. Blessings!

  • rick
    Posted at 21:31h, 30 August Reply

    the sabbath commemorates the physical work that god did. the cross is not the commemorate work of the planet but the work of salvation. get your facts straight. the sabbath says nothing in it about salvation. you cant pull the wool over my eyes. in hebrew language the word sabbath can mean week and week means the sabbath. there has always been the sabbath and will always be. god didnt make the sabbath in the beginning then take it out for the jews now for the future bring it back again for everyone—-please

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