Acts 20:7 reads, in the Authorized Version: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow, and continued his speech until midnight.”
Some claim that this passage proves that the disciples took “communion” on the first day of the week—on Sunday. Others claim that this passage proves that the disciples took “communion” on the weekly Sabbath. And then there are those who say that this passage has nothing to do with “communion”—regardless as to when Paul’s “breaking of the bread” occurred.
To address first the concept regarding “communion on Sunday” and “communion” in general, we stated the following regarding Acts 20:7 in a previous Q&A:
“This Scripture does not say Paul observed Sunday, the first day of the week, as a day of worship. If this were an example for us today, we would be starting the service on Saturday night – not on Sunday morning. Verse 7 shows Paul preached to them until midnight. Also services would have to continue till dawn (verse 11).”
Please note that Paul spoke until midnight (verse 7), healed the young man who fell down from the third story (verses 9-10); THEN broke bread and ATE (verse 11); and continued preaching until daybreak (same verse), ready to depart “on the morrow” (verse 7) or SUNDAY morning (the New King James Bible states that he was ready to depart “on the next day”; that is misleading as it could give the impression that he wanted to depart on Monday).
“Next, we realize that the breaking of bread was not a religious service, but merely the eating of a meal. Acts 27:33-38 proves this. Notice Paul’s situation. He was a Roman prisoner in the midst of many Gentiles on board a ship (Acts 27:1-2). Obviously Paul was not holding a religious service. The men ate for their health (verses 33-34).”
Verse 36 states expressly that “they were all very encouraged and ALSO took FOOD themselves.” Other examples, showing that breaking bread simply refers to the “ordinary” act of eating a meal, can be found in Acts 2:42, 46 (“breaking bread from house to house, they ate their FOOD with gladness…”) and also in Luke 24:30, 35 (two disciples recognized Jesus when He broke bread to eat with them).
We also wrote this in a Q&A on “breaking bread”:
“There is no evidence in the Bible that the New Testament Church ever partook of the symbols of bread and wine more often than once a year. Some point out that the disciples ‘broke bread’ on other occasions as well, and that this proves that they frequently partook of the New Testament Passover symbols. However, the term, ‘to break bread,’ simply means, ‘to eat a meal.’ Acts 2:46 tells us that the disciples ‘broke bread daily from house to house,’ eating ‘their food with gladness.’ They were eating bread daily to satisfy their hunger. Paul says, however, that if we satisfy our hunger, when we partake of the symbols of bread and wine, we do it to our condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:34). ‘Breaking bread,’ then, was just a common term to indicate eating a meal.”
Continuing with our above-cited Q&A on Acts 20:7:
“Acts 20:7 does not describe a regular service. Notice the context. Paul was en route from Greece to Jerusalem (Acts 20:2-3, 16). Since he did not know when he would see the brethren again, he wanted to teach them as much as possible. The people were more than willing to listen. So, after the Sabbath Paul remained behind teaching the brethren, while his ship sailed around the peninsula (verse 13). He remained talking with them till midnight and continued after a short meal until daybreak (Verse 11). Then after Paul had stayed as long as he could, he left them to walk across the peninsula to meet the boat (verses 13-14). He worked on that Sunday by taking this long walk of some 19 miles!
“There is nothing in the above Scripture to indicate it was Paul’s custom to observe Sunday. In fact, all through the book of Acts we see it was Paul’s custom to observe the Sabbath (Acts 17:2; 13:14-15; 42-44). We also note in reading Acts 20:6 that Paul was traveling after having observed the Days of Unleavened Bread. He continued to observe the annual holy days as well as the weekly Sabbath years after Christ had died as He remained faithful to the commands of God.”
Based on the translation in the New King James Bible, it seems obvious that the activities in Acts 20:7 refer to the first day of the week. Since days start and end with sunset, the disciples stayed after Sabbath services and after the Sabbath had ended, to have a meal together on Sunday, while Paul continued to preach to them. Why is it then that some claim that the gathering of the disciples and the breaking of bread occurred on the Sabbath and not on Sunday?
The answer is based on a peculiar choice of words in the Greek, as in the original, the word for “week” is “sabbaton” (the word “sabbaton” refers in some way to the Sabbath). The entire phrase “first of the week” (the word “day” is not in the original) is derived from the Greek expression “MIA TON SABBATON” (that is, FIRST (“mia”) of THE (“ton”) WEEK (“sabbaton,” i.e., OF WEEK). The Luther Bible from 1545 renders Acts 20:7 as follows: “On a Sabbath, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them…” (“AVff einen Sabbath aber / da die Jünger zusamen kamen / das Brot zu brechen / prediget jnen Paulus…”)
As we see, Luther rendered the word “sabbaton” here as “a Sabbath,” while most translations say, “of week.” The Interlinear Translation also says, “On first of the week…” To understand the problem with the different translations, a lengthy and somewhat technical explanation is required.
We have addressed one meaning of the word “sabbaton” in our booklet, “Jesus Christ—a Great Mystery!” when explaining that there were TWO Sabbaths during the crucifixion week—the weekly Sabbath and, prior to that, the annual Holy Day of the First Day of Unleavened Bread, which is also referred to as a “Sabbath” in the Bible.
We stated this:
“Matthew 28:1 also reveals–correctly translated–that there were actually two ‘Sabbaths’ during the crucifixion week, a weekly Sabbath and an annual Sabbath. Cockrell points out: ‘Matthew makes it plain that two Sabbaths had passed since Jesus was crucified. The KJV [Authorized Version] has this rendering: “In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher” (Matth. 28:1). On this verse nearly all translators have allowed tradition to control their translation. It is not “Sabbath” but “Sabbaths” in the Greek text (the genitive case and the plural number). The verse properly translated would read: “In the end of the Sabbaths…” This allows for an annual Sabbath on Thursday and a regular Sabbath on Saturday.
“The Fenton Bible renders this verse… as, ‘after the Sabbaths,’ and it includes the following footnote: ‘The Greek original is in the plural, “Sabbaths,” which is retained.’ Alfred Marshall’s Parallel New Testament in Greek and English likewise translate the clause as, ‘after the Sabbaths.’
“In the Greek, the word for ‘Sabbath’ in the clause, ‘after the Sabbath,’ is ‘sabbata.’ [See our further explanation on this below.] This is the plural form of ‘sabbaton,’ and it is translated elsewhere many times (but unfortunately, not always, and not consistently) in the plural. For instance, we read in Matthew 12:5 (Authorized Version): ‘… how that on the sabbath days [in Greek, ‘sabbata’] the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath [Greek, ‘sabbaton’]. Matthew 12:10 (AV) states: ‘”Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?”‘ The Greek is, ‘sabbata.’ Luke 4:31 (AV) reads: ‘… and taught them on the sabbath days [Greek, ‘sabbata.’].’ The New King James Bible translates this word quite accurately here as, ‘Sabbaths.’ Further examples can be found in [Matthew 12:5;] Luke 6:2, 9; Colossians 2:16; and Acts 17:2.”
In the original Greek, there is no word for “days” in those passages–the correct translation should be “Sabbaths.” The New King James Bible translates most of these passages as “Sabbaths.”
Subsequent to the publication of our booklet, we received the following inquiry as to the Greek word “sabbaton”:
“You state in your booklet, ‘Jesus Christ–A Great Mystery,’ on pages 83 and 84, that the word for ‘Sabbath’ in Matthew 28:1 is derived from the plural form of the Greek word (i.e., ‘sabbata’) and should be translated ‘Sabbaths.’ However, the Greek Interlinear Translation shows that the Greek word is in the singular–’sabbaton,’ not ‘sabbata’–and it should therefore be translated in the singular (‘Sabbath,’ not ‘Sabbaths’). Also, in the same phrase in Matthew 28:1, the Greek word for ‘week’ is ‘sabbaton,’ but it seems to have nothing to do with the weekly Sabbath.”
In answering this inquiry, we provided the following explanation on “sabbaton” in one of our Q&As:
“A good help in regard to the correct original Greek in the above-quoted Scriptures, including Matthew 28:1, can be found in Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible. It lists, under ‘Sabbath,’ the Scriptures which use the word in the singular (‘sabbaton’) and in the plural (‘sabbata’)…
“To add to the confusion, the Greek word in Matthew 28:1 (The New King James Bible translates, quite inaccurately: ‘Now after the Sabbath…’) is ‘sabbaton,’ but it is still the PLURAL form [of “sabbata”]–not the singular form. In the Greek, the genitive plural form is used–and the genitive plural form of ‘sabbata’ is ‘sabbaton.’ In the Original, it says that it was ‘late on’ or ‘in the end OF’ the Sabbaths–that is, it was in the end OF SABBATON. Since SABBATON is here the genitive plural of SABBATA, it is still a plural expression, and in English, it must be correctly translated: ‘Now in the end of the Sabbaths…’
“This shows, as we explain in our booklet, that there were actually TWO Sabbaths during the crucifixion week–a weekly Sabbath (the period from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), and an annual Holy Day–the First Day of Unleavened Bread, which fell in that week on a Thursday–beginning with sunset on Wednesday. The women came to the grave at the end of the WEEKLY Sabbath, when the annual Sabbath [on Thursday] had already ended and the weekly Sabbath was about to end.”
Let us summarize these important points:
The SINGULAR Greek word for “Sabbath” is “SABBATON.”
The PLURAL Greek word for “Sabbaths” (more than one Sabbath) is “SABBATA.”
However, when the GENETIVE PLURAL form for “Sabbaths” (more than one) is used, then the Greek word is again “SABBATON” (in the expression, “in the end OF the Sabbaths”).
But what is meant with the remaining phrase in the sentence, stating that the women came to the grave on the “first day of the week”? In the Greek, it actually says, “MIAN SABBATON,” meaning “… [the] first [day] of [the] week [“MIAN (“first”) SABBATON (“OF week”)].”
Young’s Literal Translation renders Matthew 28:1 as follows: “And on the eve of the sabbaths, at the dawn, toward the first of the sabbaths, came Mary the Magdalene, and the other Mary, to see the sepulcher…”
As mentioned, most translations say, “on the first day of the WEEK,” translating “sabbaton” as “of [the] week.”
In the Q&A on “sabbata,” we addressed the Greek word “sabbaton” in connection with the English rendition, “week.” Recall, in Matthew 28:1, it talks about the two Sabbaths AND the first day of the WEEK (the word “week” is also a translation from the word “sabbaton”). We stated this:
“In addition, it is correct that the word ‘week’ in Matthew 28:1 is also derived from the Greek plural word for Sabbath, i.e. ‘SABBATA.’ (Even though the Greek in Matthew 28:1 is ‘sabbaton,’ it is again the genitive plural of ‘sabbata,’ since it says, in the original Greek, ‘… as it was getting dusk toward the first day OF the week…’). Young’s Analytical Concordance of the Bible explains that the phrase ‘week’ in Matthew 28:1 is to be understood as ‘from Sabbath to Sabbath’–that is, a week is composed of the time from one weekly Sabbath to the next weekly Sabbath. It is mostly used in the plural (‘sabbata’), meaning ‘one OF Sabbaths,’ signifying the first day AFTER the weekly Sabbath. Examples where the word ‘week’ is translated from the Greek plural word for Sabbath (i.e., ‘sabbata’), can be found, in addition to Matthew 28:1, in Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; and 1 Corinthians 16:2.
“In a few cases, such as Luke 18:12 and Mark 16:9, the Greek word for ‘week’ is in the singular form for Sabbath (i.e., ‘sabbaton’). In Luke 18:12, the Pharisee claims that he is fasting ‘twice a week.’ It literally says: ‘twice of the Sabbath’; that is, ‘twice in the days after the weekly Sabbath.'”
In Matthew 28:1, it is correct to translate “sabbaton” as “week” in the phrase, “first day OF the week.” To translate, “as it began to dawn on the first of the Sabbaths,” would be factually incorrect, if implying that literal Sabbath days were addressed in this particular phrase. The reason is that the women arrived at the grave when the SECOND (weekly) Sabbath was ending (i.e., the weekly Sabbath, when it was dawning towards the first day of the week; that is, when Sunday began). The FIRST Sabbath (the first Day of Unleavened Bread) had long ended on Thursday evening. (So, the phrase could not mean to say that the two Sabbaths had ended and that it was now dawning towards the first of the Sabbath days.)
It is therefore obvious that the rendering is correct here: “… when the first (day) of the WEEK began” (the time interval from the end of the weekly Sabbath to the beginning of the next weekly Sabbath).
The same explanation applies to Acts 20:7, as in the Greek, the same wording is used as in Matthew 28:1. We read that the disciples came together for an evening meal “on the first [day] of the week” (“sabbaton”—the Genitive PLURAL of “sabbata”; in Greek: “MIA [“first”] TON [“the”] SABBATON [“OF week”]”). That is, they came together for a meal on Saturday evening, after sunset; as the women came to the grave on Saturday evening, at or shortly after sunset. The translation of Acts 20:7 in the old Luther Bible from 1545, rendering “sabbaton” here with “a Sabbath,” is therefore misleading and technically incorrect, as he misunderstood “sabbaton” in this passage as being used in the singular form, while ignoring the Genitive PLURAL, which is designated by the expression, “FIRST OF…”
In conclusion, the disciples came together on the first day of the week, when the weekly Sabbath had just ended, to have a meal with Paul (not a religious “communion”), who then continued to preach to them throughout the night, as he was departing Sunday morning and would not see the disciples again for a long time.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link