The idea of two Sabbaths during Passover week is likely a foreign idea to most. However, it was common knowledge to the first century reader. To see this idea, we must first go to Leviticus 23.
Seven Annual Sabbaths
(All references from Lev. 23)
1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts. 3 Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings. 4 These are the feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons.
The Lord then proceeds to name the Feasts to be observed. The first one He names is Passover. However, we have not listed it below because it is not specifically listed as a "holy convocation" as the others are and therefore treated as a Sabbath. Below are listed the Seven Annual Holy Convocations or Feasts that are also regarded as Sabbaths, regardless of what day of the week they might fall.
1. Fifteenth day of the first month, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Chag HaMotzi. (verses 6-8)
And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein. But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.
2. Twenty-first day of the first month, the seventh day of the same feast. (verse 8) (Note verse above)
3. Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost (verse 21)
And ye shall proclaim on the selfsame day (the 50th day), that it may be an holy convocation unto you: ye shall do no servile work therein: it shall be a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.
4. First day of the seventh month, the Feast of Trumpets. (verses 24-25)
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation. Ye shall do no servile work therein: but ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord.
5. Tenth day of the seventh month, Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. (verses 27-28, 32)
Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. And ye shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God. It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest, and ye shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye celebrate your sabbath.
6. Fifteenth day of the seventh month, the first day of Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles. (verses 34-36)
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the Lord. On the first day shall be an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein. Seven days ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord: on the eighth day shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord: it is a solemn assembly; and ye shall do no servile work therein.
7. Twenty-second day of the seventh month, the eighth day of Sukkot. (verse 39)
Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the Lord seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath.
How do we know that these seven feast days were counted as Sabbaths? You mean apart from the fact that God calls them a Sabbath (see Lev. 23:39)? Well, look at the description of the weekly Sabbath. Leviticus 23:3 says,
Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work; it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.
Notice the phrases 'an holy convocation' and 'ye shall do no work '. These phrases are also used to describe these seven annual convocations. These seven days were observed as Sabbaths, regardless of the day of the week they might fall.
Notice also that Yom Kippur (#6) and the Feast of Tabernacles (#7) are specifically called Sabbaths. These are days of the month which are regarded as Sabbaths, regardless of what day of the week they may fall. These are what we would call "Dated Sabbaths", because they are observed based on their monthly date, not due to their placement in a weekly cycle. Such would also be the case for the others.
The Annual Sabbath that is most important to this study is the 15th day of the first month, which is the First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, (in the Gospel record called, a high day). Have you noticed in most calendars, even Jewish ones, that the 15th day of the month always follows the 14th day of the month?
We know that the 14th day of the first month is Passover. So Passover is always followed by a Sabbath, the 15th day of the first month. Amazing how that works.
The Wave Offering
This is another witness of two Sabbaths during Passover week. According to Lev. 23:11, the priest "shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. " This sheaf was the first-fruits of the barley harvest. The priest was to wave it before the Lord on the day after the Sabbath. The question is, which Sabbath?
In the first century, there was a disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, as to which Sabbath this refers to. The Sadducees believed that it was a reference to the weekly Sabbath, i.e., the first weekly Sabbath after the Fifteenth. However, the Pharisees taught that it was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Fifteenth of Nisan.
As far as the dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees, as to which Sabbath is correct, is not at issue here, although it is highly important. Here is a hint as to when the Wave Offering of the barley harvest would have been made. It is common knowledge that the majority of Sadducees belonged to the priestly class, while the Pharisees were dominated by the rabbis of the synagogue. This indicates that since the priests were in charge of the Temple duties and services, it is likely that the Sadducees opinion won out. Therefore, it is rather likely that the wave offering of the firstfruits was being offered at the end of the weekly Sabbath. Which happened to coincide with the resurrection of Jesus, who is the "firstfruits from the dead."
The main significance here is the fact of the dispute itself! They were arguing over which Sabbath was correct. Which one of the two! Two Sabbaths! There is the regular weekly Sabbath and then there is the annual Sabbath of the Fifteenth of Nisan, whatever day of the week it may be. This will play a significant role in the passion chronology.
The Two Sabbaths in Luke
These two Sabbaths can be clearly seen in Luke's account of the burial of Jesus. In Luke 23:54-56, we have the following recorded by Luke.
And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on. And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
This is Luke's record of what was happening at the burial site. In verse 54, it says "that day was the preparation and the sabbath drew on." However, as will be shown later, it is better translated, "that day was a (period of) preparation and a sabbath was commencing."
Later in verse 56, we have another Sabbath mentioned, the Sabbath that the women rested, according to the commandment. How do we know that there are two Sabbaths mentioned in these verses? We know this for two reasons. First, by the use of the greek definite article (the).
First we know that these are mentioning two different Sabbaths, because of the use and the absence of the definite article. The first Sabbath that is mentioned in verse 54 is recorded without the definite article, whereas the second Sabbath mentioned in verse 56, has the definite article with it. Why is this important?
The use or non-use of the greek definite article is a most telling indicator, about which the writer is speaking. A.T. Robertson says, "There is no obligation on any one to use the greek article unless he feels the need of it to make something more definite than it is without it."
It is common knowledge among Greek language students that when the article is used, it is pointing out a certain or specific thing, such as the man, as opposed to a man. When the article is not used, it points more to the nature or quality of a thing. In this instance, when the article is missing from the word, Sabbath, it is pointing to a day that by its nature or quality is regarded as a day of rest. If the article is used with Sabbath, it is pointing out a certain or specific Sabbath, e.g., The Sabbath as opposed to a sabbath, which is what we have here.
This passage is pointing out the difference between a day that is regarded to have the quality of a Sabbath and therefore treated as one, as opposed to a day that is The Sabbath. There is a sabbath and there is The Sabbath. Of that the greek is very specific.
So in verse 54, Luke is pointing to a day that by its quality is observed as a sabbath, or a day of rest. This would point to the annual Sabbath of the Fifteenth of Nisan, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As already mentioned, this day is regarded as a day of rest, regardless of what day of the week it might fall. In verse 56, Luke points out the regular weekly Sabbath, by using the article. It is 'the Sabbath' as opposed to 'a Sabbath'.
He further signifies this Sabbath as the weekly Sabbath with the note that the women rested on this Sabbath, "according to the commandment", which refers to the command found in Exodus 20:8-11.
Apart from Luke's use of the greek article, we have the testimony of Mark. Yes, Mark speaks to this passage found in Luke. Mark 16:1 says this,
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
Mark tells us that the women did not purchase the spices for the anointing of Jesus until the Sabbath had passed. The greek of Mark demands that the buying of the spices happens after the passing of Sabbath. But which Sabbath? If we go back to the last mentioned Sabbath in Mark's account (15:42), we will see that it refers to the Sabbath that was approaching as the burial was occurring. The Sabbath of the 15th of Nisan. Luke says that after they had prepared the spices, they then rested on the Sabbath, according to the commandment.
This could seem a little confusing. Mark has them buying the spices after a Sabbath had expired, while Luke has them preparing these spices and then resting on the Sabbath. The only way this works, is that we are dealing with two Sabbaths.
The Sabbath of the 15th of Nisan was approaching as the burial team worked to place the body of Jesus in the grave. After the passing of this Sabbath, the women went out and purchased spices for the burial, took them home and prepared them for use (this was the 16th of Nisan). Then they rested on the Sabbath, according to the commandment (this was the 17th of Nisan, the regular weekly Sabbath). Did you happen to notice that this is three days - the 15th, 16th and 17th. This is the testimony of both Luke and Mark.
To add to this scene, Matthew 27:59-61 tells us that after they had laid Jesus in the tomb and rolled the stone over the entrance, Joseph and his servants departed. However, the women continued to sit at the gravesite. A Sabbath was commencing as they were placing the body in the tomb, so by the time that all was done, a Sabbath had began. This Sabbath had started while the women continued to sit at the tomb. When did they buy these spices for the anointing? You might think that maybe they already had some, but then decided they would need more. You would be wrong.
These spices were not the kind that you had just laying around the house. They were a speciality item and very expensive. Remember the woman who came to Jesus with the box of ointment in Mark 14:3-8.
And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper*, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her. And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
This passage tells us that this ointment was very precious or extremely expensive1 and was in a sealed box of alabaster. The only way of getting the ointment out was to break, or literally crush or shatter the box. This does not sound like the type of substance that someone of common means would have just sitting around. It would be purchased only as needed.
When we put these three verses together, we get a very clear picture of the events that transpired with these particular women.
- The time of the burial was during the preparation (3pm-sunset) and a Sabbath (15th of Nisan) drew on, or was fast approaching.(Luke 23:54)
- The women followed the burial party and beheld how they laid Jesus in the tomb. (Luke 23:55)
- They placed the stone over the entrance (a sabbath was beginning). Joseph and his helpers departed the tomb. The women continued to sit at the gravesite. (Matt. 27:59-61)
- They returned to their homes.(Luke 23:56a)
- After this Sabbath of the 15th passed, they purchased the needed spices for the anointing of Jesus.(Mark 16:1)
- After purchasing the spices on the 16th of Nisan, they went home and prepared them for the anointing.(Luke 23:56b)
- They rested on The Sabbath (the 17th of Nisan), according to the commandment. (Luke 23:56c)
By combining these three passages, we get a clear view of these two Sabbaths in Luke and Mark.
Note on the use of the term Preparation:
The Hebrew term for 'preparation' is erev shabbat (meaning 'evening before Sabbath'), while the greek word is prosabbaton (meaning 'before Sabbath'). We have long been conditioned to think when we see the term 'preparation' in the Scriptures, we think that it means the whole day of Friday.
Samuel Lachs, in his A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament (p. 437), informs us that the term preparation refers to the day before the weekly Sabbath or the day before a holiday, more specifically pointing to the period between the hours of 3pm to 6pm, or sunset.
Josephus also mentions the period of preparation in his report of the letter from Caesar Augustus concerning the proposed treatment of the Jews, where he states that, "they be not obliged to go before any judge on the sabbath day, nor on the day of preparation to it, after the ninth hour." (Josephus, XVI, 6.2)
From this we can see that preparation not only referred generally to the whole day before Sabbath, but specifically meant the hours from 3pm to 6pm, or according to Jewish reckoning, from the ninth hour to sunset.
* The Aramaic seems to point to Simon not as a leper, but as a potter. Perhaps he made the pot or "box" that contained the spices wherewith Mary anointed the Lord. However, the term can mean someone who has any type of skin ailment, not just leprosy. 1 The disciples placed a value of more than 300 denari on this box of spices. The daily wage of a common worker was only 1 denari a day. Thus, this would have cost almost a year's wage. (Edersheim, Life and Times, p. 721)