From Sabbath to Sunday?

The key to pinpointing the moment of the resurrection lies in knowing when the day formally begins in a Jewish community

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "He Is Not Here". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

When did the resurrection of the Messiah happen? Gospel readers ordinarily imagine the resurrection occurring at dawn on the first day of the week.

Mark, Luke, and John make it clear that the women discovered the empty tomb at dawn. When Peter and John ran to investigate, the sun had already risen. According to the tradition Matthew records in his gospel, it seems to have begun at havdalah time, just after the Sabbath ended on Saturday night.

Matthew 28:1 indicates that the big event happened “after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week.” This translation makes it sound as if Matthew is describing something that occurred at dawn on Sunday morning. The Greek text, however, can mean “as Saturday night began to dawn,” that is, as the Sabbath ended and the first day of the week began. It’s a Semitic idiom that means the end of the Sabbath. It does not mean Sunday morning. It’s Saturday night.

For English translators, who think in Western terms, the day starts at sunrise. They translate Matthew 28:1 accordingly. Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation of the gospel offers a more Semitic rendering: “After Motza’ei Shabbat, as it brightened to the first day of the week.” By Jewish reckoning, the first day of the week comes at the twilight dusk of Saturday night. In Judaism, Saturday night is the time for performing the traditional havdalah ritual, which concludes the Sabbath by separating holy time from common time.

The empty tomb was not discovered until Sunday morning, but the resurrection more probably occurred on Saturday, albeit Saturday night, after the Sabbath. A memory of the Saturday-night resurrection endures in liturgical churches that celebrate the resurrection of Christ at midnight Saturday night before Easter.

Many scholars believe that the early disciples of Yeshua originally honored and commemorated the hour of Yeshua’s resurrection by gathering on the first day of the week, on Saturday nights, at the end of the Sabbath.

The early disciples did have a special reverence for the first day of the week. According to the Talmud, the Nazarenes in the Apostolic Era revered the first day of the week as a day on which one should not undertake a fast. The Jewish people commemorated the days on which miracles, great deliverances, and good things happened by forbidding fasting on the anniversaries of those occasions. Apparently, the disciples of Yeshua avoided fasting on the first day of the week every week. Beyond that, there is no indication that they engaged in any special Sunday observances.

Nevertheless, they may have honored the first day of the week on Saturday nights as a weekly remembrance of the resurrection of the Master. For example, the story in Acts 20:7-11 depicts a believing community gathered on a Saturday night, after the Sabbath, sharing a common meal. They seem to have gathered on Saturday night after dark, after the Sabbath when the “first day of the week” began. At least as early as the Talmudic Era, Jews gathered on Saturday night for a special meal to bid farewell to the Sabbath.

Gathering on Saturday night rather than on the Sabbath enabled the early disciples to prepare food, carry provisions, light lamps, handle money, distribute charity, and discuss community concerns unencumbered by Sabbath restrictions. In places where the believers still attended and participated in the local synagogue services, the smaller, after-Sabbath gatherings allowed them to fellowship, pray, and learn in a private environment with other disciples.

When the Greek Gospel of Matthew began to circulate, Gentile Christians unfamiliar with the Jewish idiom misunderstood Matthew 28:1 to refer to Sunday morning. As they began to abandon Sabbath observance, they began using the first day of the week as a substitute day of worship. They referred to the first day of the week as “the Lord’s Day.” Initially, they did not treat it as a Sabbath. Early-second-century Christians met on Sunday mornings for prayers before dawn and then went off to their respective occupations. After the workday, they gathered again for a shared meal.

By the middle of the second century, assemblies of Christians hosted Sunday morning services that followed the basic conventions of a synagogue service: a reading of the Scriptures, a teaching, a prayer service, and a shared meal. By the mid-second century, Justin Martyr explained, “Sunday is the day on which we conduct our assembly because it is the first day, the day on which God transformed darkness and created the world, and on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.”

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