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

Categories: Biblical Studies, New Testament
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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.

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • 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).

    Reply
    • Agree. I believe this to be the same as the use in acts during Paul’s journeys. Next Sabbath is the omer count of 7 Sabbath to Shavuout/Penticost.

      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 .

    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!

    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

    Reply
  • Hey Jason, thanks for the article. I disagree with you on a few points and would like to discuss here.
    You said “words actually never mean anything “by themselves” but are always contextually dependent at least to some extent.” This just isn’t true. If it were then there wouldn’t be dictionary’s. Dictionary’s define words with no context. So words absolutely do have meanings by themselves. However you are correct that the same word can have different meanings based on the context.

    Now onto the main point of your article, the meaning of ‘sabbaton’. How do we find out the meaning of a Biblical Greek or Hebrew word? For non Greek/Hebrew speakers an option would be a concordance, one like Strong’s. However these are written by men and can have errors. They should not be treated as Gospel. If you just use Strong’s then it is obvious that “week” is an option as a translation. A great idea for an English speaker is to double check Strong’s. This can be done by letting the Bible define itself. Typically going to the first usage of a word in the Bible can lead to a definition. For “sabbath” this would be in Genesis 2:2, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” In this verse alone “seventh day” is said twice. Also twice said is “work” or “finishing the work”. So even without using the translated word, we already have an idea of what the definition of sabbath is. That being it is on the 7th day and is the opposite of “work”. Basically what you are doing is using the English translation except for the word you are trying to define. Then use context to define that word. Once other verses surrounding verse 2 are used, you are able to get an even better definition. Verse 3 uses sabbath again.

    My question to you Jason is, can you use the above method to find a Bible verse that forces a definition of “week”? First start with the Old Testament. If you can’t do it there then in my opinion it isn’t an option as a definition.

    I know you are going to say but but Matt 28:1, but but 1 Cor 16:2. Let me address those a little. You gave an option for a translation of 1 Cor 16:2 of “On the first day of every Sabbath”. You then said this translation is nonsense. I completely agree!! However its nonsense not because of Sabbath/Saturday but because of the word you added. You added the word “day”! The word day is not in the Greek. Actually all verses where this definition of Sabbath debate revolves around (Mat 28:1, Mark 16:2,9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1,9, Acts 20:7, and 1 Cor 16:2) have the word “day” added in most translations. Is there no word for “day” in Greek? Of course there is. It is Strong’s G2250. Why wasn’t this Greek word used in these verses? A better translation would be “On the first Sabbath” or “On one of the Sabbaths”. This probably makes no sense to you.

    What Jd commented was somewhat of a mess but his overall thoughts are quite correct. Let me try to reiterate the last third. In my Christian upbringing, and I think in most all traditional Christian upbringings, the specifics of the Old Testament are largely glossed over. Sure we are taught about Moses and Noah etc but plenty of things are missed. Or we are told we no longer need to do certain things. With this lack of teaching, many things are missed. One of the things that is routinely missed is the appointed times of Yahweh. Lev 23 talks all about these. Verse 15 is very important for this discussion. Here it is in KJV: “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete:”. The point being that God is directing the Israelite’s to count Sabbaths. The first, number one, happens after Passover. When was Jesus crucified? On Passover. So what would the Israelite be referring the next sabbath to be? “On the first Sabbath” or “On one of the Sabbaths”.

    Take a look at all 8 references I listed above. What is the timeline of each of them? When in the year are they taking place? If you look into this you will see that all 8 take place around Passover. So it makes perfect sense that the counting of the sabbaths would be taking place.

    I ask that you look into this. Ask yourself, should I add words to scripture (which assumes the authors left out Greek words)? Should I change the translations of words because the literal doesn’t make sense? Or should I assume that scripture is correct and that when something doesn’t make sense then me, myself, I am missing something? Consider that you might be in error of your own statement “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”.

    Reply
    • Hi Alan, thanks for the comment, though I’m sorry to say that most of it is quite simply wrong and something that only someone who is monolingual and does not understand how languages work could write. As Goethe declared, when it comes to languages, “He who knows only one, knows none.”

      1) Dictionaries do not show that words have meaning out of context. They are simply a record of the various meanings words have had in different contexts. This is why there are different entries for the same word.

      2) Strong’s is a poor tool to do what you’re trying to do and will only help you get yourself in trouble with bad interpretation.

      3) “Sabbath” (שבת) in Hebrew and cognate languages typically means something like “rest,” though it can also mean “end,” “stop,” and sometimes even “die.” In Exod 20:10, the command is to take a sacred “rest” every “seventh day” (יום השביבי). Consequently, counting “sabbath” days becomes the way to count weeks and becomes an idiom for “week” in Hebrew and among Jewish Greek speakers. Note that some days are “special Sabbaths” on which no everyday work is to be done but do not typically fall on the seventh day (such as Yom Kippur or Passover).

      4) Your comments about “adding words” and suggested translation of “On the first Sabbath” for 1 Cor 16:2 are things that simply show you don’t know Greek or how translation works. For one thing, languages not only have different words/sounds for things, they have different grammars and ways they work. You cannot just look up possible definitions for the words in one language and then choose analogous languages in another language; to do so will produce nonsense. For example, in Spanish “tengo” means “I have” and “hambre” means “hunger.” But it would be wrong to translate “tengo hambre” as “I have hunger,” because the English idiom for the same concept is “I am hungry.” Does this mean a person is adding “am” to the sentence or substituting it for “have”? Not at all; it means the idiom is being properly translated from one language to another. Another example: In French, the words “Avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez” mean “to have mustard that goes up your nose.” But translating the phrase that way in English is wrong, as the phrase is an idiom in French that means “to lose your temper” or “become angry.” Or in English, “It’s raining cats and dogs” doesn’t mean cats and dogs are coming out of the sky; to translate that phrase to another language one would need to choose an idiom that expresses that it is raining a great deal.

      In the case of 1 Cor 16:2, Greek is an inflected language, meaning each word has endings that indicate its role in a sentence or clause, and “sabbath” is in the genitive case (similar but not identical to putting the English word “of” in front of another word), meaning it can’t function as you’re suggesting but has to modify another word. In this case, that word is μίαν, which in phrases like this one means “first.” The phrase is also idiomatic, as it starts with κατά, which has a distributive function in this type of clause. So altogether, this phrase means “On the first of each week.” Greek speakers are often economical with their words if the context already shows what the obvious reference is, so “day” is elided but implied in the phrase much like it would be for an English speaker saying, “on the first of each month.” One could be talking about “hour” or “minute” or something else, but it’s such a common turn of phrase that any English speaker knows this means “on the first day of each month.”

      This isn’t a matter of “adding words to scripture” but rather properly translating what’s there. Unfortunately, you’ve fallen into exactly the kind of dangers I was referring to for those who don’t know the languages and try to get by using Strong’s.

      Note: as for Matt 28:1, it actually says “after the sabbaths” (plural), not “after the sabbath,” as Jesus was crucified on a Thursday (the Day of Preparation), which that year was followed by two Sabbath days (Passover and the regular seventh-day Sabbath). Thus the first day of the week came “after the sabbaths.”

      Reply
      • There is something that is more influential in many Christian’s lives than the Word of God. That being ‘tradition’.
        Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
        Point 2 – I am not sure what you mean about me using Strong’s for what I was trying to do. I didn’t use Strong’s. If you are talking about the paragraph where I suggest to let the Bible define itself then again I didn’t use Strong’s there.
        Point 4 – It is not my suggested translation, “On the first Sabbath”. There are many translations that give something similar. Mat 28:1 YLT “And on the eve of the sabbaths, at the dawn, toward the first of the sabbath”. CLV “Now it is the evening of the sabbaths. At the lighting up into one of the sabbaths”. Godbey “And late on the Sabbath-day, on the dawn toward the first of the Sabbaths”. Green’s Literal “But after the sabbaths, at the dawning of the first of the sabbaths.” So do all these translators not know Greek or how translation works?

        One of the things I asked, that you didn’t comment on, was if you can find a verse that has the Hebrew word for sabbath that forces it to mean “week”? A quick search of the Westminster Leningrad Codex showed over 400 uses of שָׁבַת֙ . How many of these mean “week”? What about if the NT is used as well? There is over 60 uses of the multiple variations of σαββατων. If the answer is just the 8 previously mentioned in the NT then wouldn’t that be interesting? Out of well over 400 times in the Bible it only means “week” 8 times. AND all 8 of those times is after the Passover. AND Lev 23 instructs the counting of sabbaths after Passover. Can you comment on this?

        It looks like someone who is monolingual isn’t going to be able to teach the teacher. So I have found another article written by someone who does know Hebrew and Greek and has written about this topic. Can you take a look and see what you think? http://www.torahtimes.org/writings/sabbaton-week-sabbaths/article.html
        Thanks for your time.

        Reply
  • Aimee Williams
    April 12, 2020 5:39 pm

    Thank you for posting comments on this, as I think this is an important discussion.

    For me, just as someone trying to learn Greek and being skeptical of the way that some Greek words are ‘translated’ and some ‘intrepreted’ – I find it confusing and unfortunate that the same Greek word is translated as different English words, even within the same verse. Matthew 28:1, for example, when ‘sabbaton’ is translated as ‘Sabbath’ and ‘week’… we think the Scriptures say one thing, and they’ve been translated as something else. It’s frustrating.

    It’s like how black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, but black Friday has no inherent meaning of itself, it’s only because it’s AFTER the Thursday of Thanksgiving that is has any significance.

    (…and I recall (somewhat fuzzily, it’s been a long time) that Constantine wanted to erase all parts of Judaism out of Christianity, so I can see why the emphasis would have been placed on it being the ‘first day of the week’ instead of the day after the Sabbath, removing the importance of Sabbath and the Jewish calendar from the new Christian religion. )

    Reply

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