Was Sabbath mistranslated as Sunday?

greek-english-sunday-sabbathby Barry Newton

Did Jesus rise from the dead on Saturday or Sunday? Did the early Christians worship on Saturday or Sunday? The answer is significant.

Why is there even any debate on this subject? The answer lies in whether the New Testament Greek phrase most commonly translated “first day of the week” should be translated “one of the Sabbaths,” thus designating a Saturday, not Sunday.

To find resources offering seemingly compelling arguments by cherry picking the evidence on either side of the question is easy. What the objective, inquiring mind desires is an explanation touching upon all of the evidence. Here’s a brief summary.

In Acts 20:7, as in most of the other biblical texts referring to the day of Jesus’ resurrection and the day of Christian worship, the literal phrase “one (mia) of the Sabbaths” appears. The one exception to this convention is Mark 16:9 where the phrase “early on first (protos) of Sabbath” is used.

For starters, since mia is the Greek numeral for one, not the cardinal numeral first (protos), why would anyone translate mia as first?

As it turns out, like the Hebraic “one” (’echad) which could also carry the meaning of first (Exodus 39:10), so too mia was used in both Jewish sources and Greek documents to signify first. For example, the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint reads “on the first (mia) day of the month” (Exodus 40:2). Likewise, Herodotus in 5 B.C. repeatedly used mia to indicate first (Herodotus 4,161).

Even if mia can be translated as first, why translate a phrase referring to the Sabbath as though it were Sunday? The answer lies in understanding Jewish culture.

In both antiquity as well as today, the Jewish designations for the first five days of the week are numbered based upon how many days it has been since the last Sabbath. Hence, “first day” equals Sunday, while second day is Monday, and so forth.

The headings of some of the Psalms in the Septuagint reveal the fullest expression of these Jewish names for the days in the week.

    • Psalm 23 (24 in our English Bibles) – “of the first (mia) of Sabbaths” (Sunday)
    • Psalm 47 (48) – “second of Sabbath” (Monday)
    • Psalm 93 (94) – “fourth of Sabbaths” (Wednesday)
    • Psalm 92 (93) – “For the day before the Sabbath” (Friday)
    • Psalm 91:1 (92:1) – “For the day of the Sabbath” (Saturday)

If this were not clear enough, Matthew 28:1 clearly defines the Greek “first of the Sabbaths” as being, “Now after the Sabbath,” thereby indicating the first day of the week. Hence, Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning after the Sabbath had ended.

When our English Bibles tell us that on the first day of the week Jesus rose from the dead and that it was on what we call Sunday that the early Christians gathered to worship, is this a mistranslation of the Greek?  Not at all. The first of the Sabbath(s) is our Sunday.

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