When we come to the phrase 'first day of the week', in our western thinking, we automatically think Sunday. If we are going to come to the truth, we must ask, what did it mean in the first century, to first century readers? This would actually depend on whether you were Jewish or Roman. Both had their own understanding of what was called the first day of the week, and they were different from each other.
First Day of the Week, Roman Style.
There is strong evidence that in the first century, Sunday was not the first day of the week in the Roman calendar. Now that should give you cause for pause.
Samuel Bacchiocchi, in his article "How It Came About: From Saturday to Sunday," published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, investigates how the observance of Sunday by the Western Church came about. He says,
"The seven-day week was first adopted by the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. At that time the days of the week were named after the planets (as they still are). Saturn's day (Saturday) was originally the first day of the week. The Sun's day (Sunday) was originally the second day of the week. Under the influence of Sun worship, however, a change occurred in the second century: The Sun's day (Sunday) became the first day of the week, the most honored position."1
From another source, we read:
"The names of the days are in some cases derived from Teutonic deities or, such as in Romance languages, from Roman deities. The early Romans, around the first century, used Saturday as the first day of the week. As the worshipping of the Sun increased, the Sun's day (Sunday) advanced from position of the second day to the first day of the week (and Saturday became the seventh day)."2
Again, another witness says,
"The early Romans, who developed and made popular the Julian calendar, used Saturday as the first day of the week. As the worshipping of the Sun increased, the Sun's day (Sunday) advanced from position of the second day to the first day of the week (and Saturday became the seventh day). It was not until Christianity took hold throughout Europe that most calendars marked Sunday as the first day of the week."3
This fixing of Saturn as the first in the seven-day week came to the Romans through the Egyptians.
We also have the witness of the Roman historian, Dio Cassius, who writes about two theories of how the Romans came to the order of the planetary week. The first was based upon a musical system, he refers to as the "principle of the tetrachord." The second, which appears to be the most widely accepted, is based on the primacy of the planets in relation to the counting from the first hour of the day.
"1 This is one of the explanations given; the other is as follows. If you begin at the first hour to count the hours of the day and of the night, assigning the first to Saturn, the next to Jupiter, the third to Mars, the fourth to the Sun, the fifth to Venus, the sixth to Mercury, and the seventh to the Moon, 2 according to the order of the cycles which the Egyptians observe, and if you repeat the process, you will find that the first hour of the following day comes to the Sun. 3 And if you carry on the operation throughout the next twenty-four hours in the same manner as with the others, you will dedicate the first hour of the third day to the Moon, and if you proceed similarly through the rest, each day will receive its appropriate god. This, then, is the tradition."4
This fact that the first day of the week in the Roman calendar during the first century was Saturn's day seems to be well noted, but for reasons that should be obvious, is preferably ignored.
It appears an accepted fact that the Romans did not begin to use the seven-day week until some time in the mid-first century. Even when it did begin to come into use, there is a question as to how widespread its use would have been. When the calendar was introduced, Saturn's Day was fixed as the first day of the Roman week and was considered as a day of rest, of sorts. It is postulated that this Roman first day and the Jewish seventh day, the Sabbath, coincided with each other.
In other words, the Roman first day of the week, Saturn's day and the Jewish seventh day, the Sabbath, fell on the same 24-hour period, roughly.
The change of Saturn from the first day of the Roman week to the seventh day, was primarily advanced by the popularity of the Sun cult, Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun). The Sun's Day became more prominent as the cult of Sol Invictus and its messianic representative, Mithras, became more popular. Hence, Sunday began to move to the first day of the week slot, pushing Saturn's Day (Saturday) back into the seventh day slot. Saturn's Day and the Jewish Sabbath still retained their calendar relationship, hence, by sometime in the second century, it was becoming well established that Saturn's Day was the seventh day and the Sun's Day was the first day, in the Roman calendar.
This being the case, the whole argument for Sunday being the first day of the week on which the early first century Church worshipped and of a Sunday morning resurrection begins to unravel.
So what we have here is forcing an interpretation upon first century documents (the New Testament), based upon a calendar that didn't even exist at the time. The Jewish weekly calendar knew nothing of a first day of the week called Sunday and neither did the Roman. The changing of the first day's position in the Roman weekly calendar, did not begin to occur until perhaps very late in the first century and in the early second century for sure. Although in practice, the Sun's Day took the honored place of the first day of the week, it was not official until the Emperor Constantine's decree in A.D. 321.
First Day of the Week in the New Testament
This phrase, first day of the week, as it is found in the New Covenant writings, is the Greek, mia sabbaton (except for Mark 16:9. This is another issue altogether, which we will address). This phrase literally means, 'one sabbath or first sabbath.' It doesn't make much sense by itself, until we realize it is what is called, a hebraism. You may ask, a what? A hebraism. This simply means that it is a Greek term used to convey a Hebrew idea.
OK, so what is the Hebrew idea? It is the Hebrew phrase, echad shabbat. This means, first of Sabbath, or more correctly, the first in a Sabbath's cycle.
In the Jewish weekly calendar, the Sabbath was the only day of the week that had an actual name. Every other day was counted in relation to the Sabbath. The first day of the Jewish week, was known as the first in a Sabbath's cycle, the second day, second day in a Sabbath's cycle, and so on. If we understand, which we must, that the Jewish day began at sunset, the 'echad Shabbat' (or Greek, mia sabbaton) would begin at sunset, as the weekly Sabbath was coming to a close.
Edersheim points this out in his Temple book,
The day was computed from sunset to sunset, or rather to the appearance of the first three stars with which a new day commenced.
[Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple-Its Ministry and Services. p.111]
In our present calendar, Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday, and closes at sunset on Saturday. The first day of the week would begin at sunset on Saturday. It should also be noted here, that the days before and after the Sabbath, were so connected to it, that they were thought of as belonging to the Sabbath. For instance, the day before the Sabbath (the sixth day) was known as Preparation, or 'Erev Shabbat.' The day after the Sabbath (the first day) was known as the termination of Shabbat, or 'Motzae Shabbat.'
The point is this. The day before the Sabbath was connected to it for its preparation, and the day following the Sabbath was connected to it for its termination. The sixth day belonged to the Sabbath, as well as did the first day. The evening following the Sabbath's end, known as Motzae Shabbat, was observed with a meal, singing and prayer. This can be seen in Acts 20:7. The New English Bible is one of the few that views this passage in its proper context. It says,
"On the Saturday night, in our assembly for the breaking of bread, Paul, who was to leave the next day, addressed them, and went on speaking until midnight."
Also Loshe, in his contribution to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), says concerning the phrase 'first of the week,' "The night of the Sabbath on the first day of the week, and the first day itself, are Motza'e Shabbat, the termination of the Sabbath."
The Catholic Encyclopedia adds its own witness to this truth, when it states, "As with the Jewish Sabbath, the observance of the Christian Sunday began with sundown on Saturday and lasted till the same time on Sunday."
(Catholic Encyclopedia, Sunday)
Acts 20:7 does not refer to taking of the Lord's Supper on Sunday, as many have mistakenly supposed. This is reading into the text (eisegesis) what is not there. Understanding that the Jews of the first century operated according to their own calendar, independent of all others, allow me to make a very important and necessary point.
When it comes to interpreting the New Testament, our Western/Roman calendar is useless. We cannot superimpose upon the NT our modern calendar, and hope to come to a true understanding of first century life and practice.
This is what has caused so much confusion among interpreters, trying to understand Jewish culture, thought and practices with our western minds and culture. In preparation for this writing, many chronologies of the Passover Event were investigated, and they all made one fatal mistake. They chained themselves to the western calendar, in attempting to understand this Jewish event. If we are going to come to the truth of this issue, we must cut ourselves free from these Western days.
The Meeting on the First of the Week
It is obvious that the Messianic Community (the Church) met together on the first of the week, as seen in Acts 20. As we have shown, it is reading into the text (eisegesis) to read it as a Sunday morning meeting. If we don't rip the early first century Church out of its cultural context, this meeting took place on the evening following the weekly Sabbath (what would now be our Saturday evening).
This meeting took place during the service known as Havdalah (Separation), at the termination of the Sabbath (Motzae Shabbat). This service concluding the Sabbath would likely also had another significance for the Messianic Community, although it may not be specifically stated; it coincided with the time of the resurrection of Jesus. I know we just made another huge leap into the unknown, but we shall land safely if we stay the course.
The Resurrection of Jesus
We must ask two questions.
Q. Did Jesus rise from the dead on the first day of the week? A. Yes.
Q. Did Jesus rise from the dead on Sunday morning? A. No.
There is no scriptural support for a morning resurrection on the first day of the week. What the Scriptures do reveal is that the morning of the first day of the week was the time of discovering the empty tomb by the disciples. The resurrection is never said to have occurred on Sunday morning.
So, if Jesus didn't rise from the dead on Sunday morning, then when did he?
The short answer is, at the conclusion of the weekly Sabbath at sunset. Our Saturday at sunset, according to the Jewish calendar, was the beginning of the first day of the week. This is when the Bible teaches Jesus rose from the dead. This raises another problem, the problem of his three days and three nights in the tomb. I mean a Sunday morning resurrection is really pushing the three days and nights, if you accept a Friday crucifixion.
So a Saturday evening resurrection really cuts into our time. Well, not really. Why? Jesus was not crucified on Friday, but on Wednesday. Now I know some are going to think that this is the same old tired argument for a Wednesday crucifixion and burial. Well, you would be wrong. Let's keep an open mind and investigate the matter, taking into account the Jewish calendar of the day and we shall see that this is what the Scriptures teach.
1 Bacchiocchi, Samuel, "How It Came About: From Sabbath to Sunday," Biblical Archeology Review, (Sept.-Oct., 1978), 39. 2 http://www.gkindia.com/holidays/weekdays.htm;http://www.pantheon.org/ miscellaneous/origin_days.html. 3 http://www.ntp-systems.com/think_sync_view_article.asp? ID=99&NewsletterID=1&month=3&year=2007 4 Dio Cassius, Histories, book 37, section 19