Are you familiar with the concept of something being “lost in translation” when two languages are being used? Seldom is everything cut and dried with a single definitive translation. Therefore, one of my favorite methods of Bible study involves studying the original language (Hebrew for Old Testament, Greek for New Testament) to better determine what a verse is saying. Often you can shed much light on a confusing or controversial interpretation of a text when you delve into the original language.
A good example of this concept becomes clear when studying the New Testament phrase “the first day of the week”, a phrase which many people point to as their reason for changing the 4th Commandment day of worship. Because the phrase is used for something so momentous as to claim to be authority for changing a command that God wrote in stone with his own finger, it warrants much study.
The phrase “the first day of the week” occurs eight times in the New Testament, six of which are in the context of the resurrection story. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Mark 16:9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, John 20:19). The other two are Acts 20:7 (“And upon the first of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread…”) and 1 Corinthians 16:2 (“Upon the first of the week let every one of you lay by him in store…”).
In seven of these instances, the word “first” is the Greek word “mia” (Strong’s 3391 – Strong’s being a concordance and word numbering system for Scripture study), a word that occurs in 70 verses in the New Testament, and is almost always translated as “one” (examples: Matthew 5:36: “thou canst not make one hair white or black”, Matthew 17:4: “one for thee and one for Moses and one for Elijah”). It is translated “first” only in these eight verses, which should raise some questions among serious students. Compounding on this, in every instance, the word “week” is the Greek word “sabbaton” (Strong’s 4521), a word that occurs 68 times in the New Testament, and, except these few instances, is always translated as “Sabbath” (examples: Matthew 12:1-12, the word occurs eight times, each times translated as “Sabbath”; Mark 2:28: “The Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath”). None of these instances would make any sense being translated as “week”; clearly the word means the seventh-day Sabbath.
Usually, when the New Testament writers wanted to say “first” they used the Greek word “proton” or “protos” (Strong’s 4412 and 4413). Examples of proton and protos: Matthew 5:24 “first be reconciled to thy brother”, Matthew 6:33 “seek ye first the kingdom of God”, Matthew 19:30 “many that are first shall be last”, etc. The New Testament writers clearly had a word that meant “first” when that is what they intended. They also had more than one Greek word for “day” which appears frequently in the New Testament, but nowhere in this phrase. Clearly, they were not saying “first day”. A more accurate translation for the phrase in question from 3391 4521 (mia sabbaton) would therefore read “one Sabbath” or “one of the Sabbaths”, NOT “first day of the week”.
To understand the significance of this translation problem, it is helpful to understand the Hebrew culture and religious calendar, to understand what “one of the Sabbaths” actually meant to the New Testament writers. In the annual holy day calendar as given in Leviticus 23, there is a holy day that is found by counting seven weeks and one day after the first Sabbath after Passover/Unleavened Bread. Beginning with the day of Firstfruits, seven Sabbaths were counted, and the morrow after the seventh Sabbath was the day of Shauvot (called “Pentecost” in English). The counting would include the first of the Sabbaths, the second of the Sabbaths, and so on, until the seventh of the Sabbaths. Each of these seven Sabbaths could also be called “one of the Sabbaths” (mia sabbaton) of the Shauvot counting period. They refer to Saturday, the seventh day of the week.
A simple test to confirm the true meaning of this phrase is to see if it occurs between Passover (or Unleavened Bread the day after Passover) and Pentecost, to see if it was being used as part of the counting period. The six times it occurs in the resurrection story, it is just after the Passover crucifixion and before the Pentecost of Acts 2:1. In the other two instances you’ll see in Acts 20:6 a reference to the days of Unleavened Bread, and in 20:16 a reference to Pentecost. Clearly, the phrase in verse 7 falls between these two calendar dates. Most likely, a more correct translation of this verse would be that upon the first Sabbath after Passover (or “one of the Sabbaths”), the disciples came together to break bread. There is nothing in the original language to indicate it means anything other than one of the seventh-day Sabbaths. Similarly, in the instance of I Corinthians 16:2, we see a reference to Pentecost just six verses later, putting it also in the context of the Passover/Pentecost timing. The fact is that the phrase curiously translated eight times as “first day of the week” never occurs out of context with this timing.
Yet many people use these eight verses to justify Sabbath-breaking, basing their day of worship on a mistranslation that cannot be supported in any other text in Scripture, and which contradicts sixty other references to Sabbath-keeping in the New Testament. When correctly interpreted, this phrase continues to point to the one true day that God sanctified and made holy and plans to keep with us in the earth made new.