And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep It Holy
God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and separated it from other days (made it holy). Then he commanded Israel to “Remember the Sabbath day” in order to keep it separate through refraining from our work. God’s work during the first week was creation, so on the Sabbath, he stopped creating. He very deliberately made that day different from the previous six days, and commanded Israel to continue what he had begun by resting every seventh day.
Almost everyone around the world believes that the day we call Saturday in English is the seventh day of the week and, therefore, the Sabbath that God said to remember. In fact, many languages from different linguistic families and regions have a name for that day that is very similar to our word Sabbath, which comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat. Here are just a few examples:
- Hebrew – Shabbat
- Spanish – Sabado
- Russian – Subbota
- Somali – Sabti
- Javanese – Sabtu
- Arabic – Alsabt
Across Europe, Asia, and Africa, people of many different tongues use a word very similar to the Hebrew word, Shabbat, to describe the day we call Saturday, and some of those words can be traced back to the most ancient texts of the language. While this doesn’t prove that Saturday is the original Sabbath, it does show that people all over the world have believed so for thousands years.
However, billions of people believing something doesn’t make their belief true, and there are some competing theories. For example, despite calling the seventh day some variation of “Sabbath”, for almost 2000 years, most Christians have actually kept the first day of the week, Sunday, as the “Christian Sabbath”.
After so much time has passed, does it really matter all that much?
God thought the Sabbath was so important that he mandated the death penalty for Israelites who refused to take the day off from their work. The Bible says that those who love God will keep his commandments. So it seems to me that every Israelite who loves both God and his own life ought also to consider keeping the Sabbath a very important matter, and how can you keep it if you don’t even know what day it is?
Competing Claims for the Sabbath
Despite the linguistic and traditional evidence that Saturday is the Sabbath that God wants us to remember and keep, there are at least three competing theories that claim otherwise.
1. The Unknowable Sabbath
2. The Lunar Sabbath
3. The Christian Sabbath
Before I address these different ideas, I want to make a vital point. Don’t skip this. Everything else depends on it.
Yeshua kept the Sabbath and kept it perfectly. If he didn’t, then he wasn’t sinless, wasn’t the Messiah, and died for nothing.
Yeshua kept the same Sabbath that all Jews of his day kept. We can know this because he had many arguments with the lawyers and teachers of his day about the Sabbath, but all of their arguments were about how to keep the Sabbath. They never argued about when. Therefore, we know that the Jews of Yeshua’s day kept the Sabbath on the right day because they kept it on the same day that Yeshua did.
Can We Really Know Which Day of the Week is the 7th Day?
The Egyptians had a calendar, the Babylonians had a different one, and the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Hebrews all had theirs. Today, most of the world uses a calendar derived from the Romans, mostly due to their 600 year dominance of the western world. However, our calendar is only superficially similar to the one used by the ancient Republic. It used to have 304 days and 10 months until Julius Caesar corrected it to the 365 days and 12 months that we still have today. More corrections were made over the centuries to fine tune the calendar year to sync with the actual time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun. The most recent significant update was the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which the British Empire, including America, didn’t adopt until 1752.
So with all of these calendar changes, how do we know that the day we call Saturday is the same as the day the ancient Jews called Shabbat? The answer is actually quite simple…perhaps too simple to satisfy some of the more conspiracy minded readers.
We don’t need to track the week all the way back to creation. As I stated above, we only need to establish how Yeshua did it. If today’s seventh day is the same as the seventh day of Yeshua’s time, then that’s all we need to know.
The calendars of the Ancient Near East, including Babylon, Assyria, and Israel at the very least, have used a seven-day week since before the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the eighth century BC. At that time, Rome was using an eight-day week, but in the first-century BC, Rome began using the continuous seven-day week as well (“continuous” meaning that the seventh day of one week is always followed by the first day of the next week), only renaming the days after their own gods.
By the time of Christ, the seven-day week was in common use from Britain to Persia. From the writings of various Roman and Jewish historians, we know that the day that the Hebrews called Shabbat was the same that the Romans called Saturn’s Day, what we call Saturday. (See the list of ancient sources at the end.)
Paperwork is the hallmark of all bureaucracies everywhere, and bureaucracy was one of the greatest secrets of Roman success. They were famous record keepers. The further back in time one goes, of course, the sketchier the records get, but by the first century AD, Rome was writing nearly everything down.
Over the ensuing centuries, with so many cultures adopting the Roman calendar, including the seven-day week that Rome had adopted from the Near East, it became impossible to make any changes without reams of records and massive coordination across thousands of miles, dozens of administrative borders, and armies of bureaucrats. Calendar changes were big deals. They had to be debated, analyzed, discussed, and planned before they could be implemented. They left league-long paper trails, and so every calendar change left its mark in history.
The most significant factor in all of these calendar changes for our purposes, is that the continuous cycle of the days of the week was never impacted. Not even once. And believe me, we would know if it had been. The week went from Saturday to Sunday every single week for more than two thousand years without a single break.
Can you imagine the confusion that would have resulted from one city being on Monday and the next city being on Tuesday on the same day? Even at the depths of the so-called Dark Ages, scribes, merchants, and bureaucrats kept voluminous records, and although they certainly had to deal with the days of the week having different names in some regions, (e.g. Shabbat vs Saturday), they never had to deal with one day being Friday and the next day being Thursday.
We would know from a hundred different sources if the cycle of the days of the week had been interrupted anytime in the last two thousand years, and it hasn’t. The day we call Saturday is the same day of the week that the Romans called Saturn’s Day, and is therefore still the seventh day of the week today.
Of course, some will insist that the conspiracy to hide God’s true Sabbath must have involved erasing all of the records from history, but that would require digging up all of the records no matter how insignificant, forging them using the original papers, inks, and carbon content, and then re-hiding them in their original locations so they could be found by historians and archaeologists centuries later. If you believe that, you might as well believe that the world was created the day you were born and all of history was manufactured just for you. A person can imagine anything they want and make up fantasies to justify it, but I think I’ll stick with the available evidence.
Is the Lunar Sabbath the Real Sabbath?
All ancient peoples defined a month as a single lunar cycle, from new moon to no moon. The word, month, comes from the word, moon. Among the variations of the seven-day week in the Ancient Near East, there were some calendars that divided each lunar month up into three seven-day weeks, plus a fourth week of seven to nine days, depending on when people were able to see the new moon.
There is a theory in some circles that the continuous cycle of seven-day weeks without any connection to the lunar cycle is a Babylonian invention, while the original Hebrew week was linked to the moon. According to this idea, the first week of the month began on the day after the new moon, or on the same day, depending on who you ask. The day of the new moon would be a Sabbath, then the seventh-day Sabbath would be seven days later, typically on the eighth day of the month, and again each seventh day after until the next new moon reset the clock. So the first, eighth, fifteenth, twenty-second, and twenty-ninth days of each lunar month would be Sabbaths. If there was a day or two between the twenty-ninth day and the first day of the next month, those would be extra days or non-days, again, depending on who you ask.
Here is what a sample month on a lunar Sabbath calendar might look like. If the New Moon falls on a Sunday, then all of the Sundays in that month would be “seventh day” Sabbaths. Notice that the second New Moon at the bottom of the calendar is on a Tuesday. All of the weekly Sabbaths for that month/moon would then fall on Tuesdays.
The obvious problem is that there isn’t a single place in the entire Bible that even hints at such a scheme. Except for the Feast of Trumpets, there is no command to rest on a new moon, and except for other high Sabbaths (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc.), there is no command to rest on any day except the seventh. While the Bible refers to the Sabbath as “the seventh day”, it never refers to it as the seventh day of the month, or the eighth or fifteenth day of the month or anything else of that sort. It is always and only “the seventh day”, and never of the month.
There is only one place in the Bible on which a weekly Sabbath can be pinpointed to a date in a month: Exodus 16, which describes the first time God gave the Hebrews manna to eat in the wilderness. The story begins on the fifteenth of the month, which is indeed a Sabbath, but that single instance isn’t evidence (let alone proof!) that every fifteenth of every month must therefore be a Sabbath. In the traditional, continuous seven-day week, the weekly Sabbath will fall on some fifteenth day of some month, many, many times.
On the other hand, there are several places that the Bible strongly hints that the first and fifteenth days of every month are not normally Sabbaths, and there is one place that makes the lunar sabbath idea impossible.
To the first point, Israel was commanded to rest on the first day of the seventh month for the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24), and on the fifteenth days of the first and seventh months for the Feasts of Unleavened Bread (Numbers 28:18) and Sukkot (Leviticus 23:39), respectively. If those days of the month were always Sabbaths, there would have been no need to tell anyone to rest. Everyone would already be resting for the weekly Sabbath.
To the second point, according to Leviticus 23:15-16, the Feast of Shavuot (aka Pentecost) is calculated by counting seven Sabbaths (or weeks) from the day after the first Sabbath of Unleavened Bread. The day after that seventh Sabbath is Shavuot, itself a special Sabbath day, and must be the 50th day of the count. In the lunar sabbath calendar, it would be impossible to count seven sabbaths plus one day to reach 50 days. A lunar month is always longer than 28 days, so the count after seven Sabbaths will always be greater than 50 days.
A third proof comes from the Jewish and Roman historians I mentioned earlier.
Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote to a Greek and Roman audience and frequently referred to the Jewish day of rest as “the seventh day” or “Sabbath”, but never as the eighth or fifteenth day or in relation to a new moon. Since the Greeks and Romans didn’t tie their week days to the lunar cycle, surely he would have been obligated to explain what he meant by “the seventh day”. He didn’t, which means he assumed his readers would know what it meant, which means it almost certainly wasn’t tied to the lunar cycle.
Philo was another Jewish historian. He lived at the same time as Yeshua and wrote extensive commentaries on Scripture and Jewish practice. He wrote of a continuous cycle of six days of labor and one day of rest with no hint that he was even aware of another system in use by the first century Jews. (See this post for several quotes from his commentary on the Torah.)
Cassius Dio and Sextus Julius Frontinus were Roman historians who wrote of the first century BC conquest of Judea. Both of them recorded that the Jews rested every week on the day that the Romans called “Saturn’s Day”. If the Jews of that time kept a lunar Sabbath, then their week could not have been synced to the Roman week, and their Sabbath would not have been identified with Saturn’s Day any more than with the Sun’s Day (Sunday) or Mercury’s Day (Wednesday), because the Sabbath could have been on any of those Roman days depending on when the new moon came around.
These facts seem to me to be conclusive proof that the lunar Sabbath is incorrect.
Is the “Christian Sabbath” the Real Sabbath?
By far, the most common objection I have heard to our Saturday being the same as God’s commanded Sabbath day is that the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday as the new “Christian Sabbath”.
I have one, simple request: Show it to me in the Bible.
These are the facts that you will find in the New Testament regarding the first and seventh days of the week:
1. Yeshua kept the weekly Sabbath on the seventh day, including attending synagogue and studying the scriptures.
2. Yeshua, Paul, and others denounced man-made doctrines concerning the Sabbath that placed excessive burdens on people that God did not intend.
3. Keeping the Sabbath is not a prerequisite for obtaining eternal salvation.
4. The Apostles frequently attended synagogue or Temple services on the seventh day.
5. The Apostles frequently gathered for prayer, worship, teaching, and fellowship on the first day of the week.
6. Neither Yeshua nor any of the Apostles mentioned anything about a “Christian Sabbath” or changing the weekly Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day.
Meeting, worshiping, studying, fasting, feasting, or resting on any day of the week doesn’t make it the weekly Sabbath. It only means you’re doing those things on another day of the week.
However, there are two passages in the Old Testament that talk about men who try to move one or more of God’s appointed times, such as the Sabbath, to a new day.
In 1 Kings 12, King Jeroboam of Israel needed to break the hold of the Temple over the rebellious northern Kingdom of Israel to cement his power and prevent the people’s loyalties from returning to Rehoboam, King of Judah. He used the same tactic that the Roman Catholic Church has used in converting pagan peoples to Christianity. He created an alternative holiday with all the same themes and traditions, but changed the date and location. Instead of going to the Temple in Jerusalem in the seventh month for the Feast of Tabernacles, he made his people go to a new altar and temple in Bethel in the eighth month. He claimed the authority to change God’s appointed times, but he was only a man, and a wicked man at that.
In Daniel 7, a prophesied eleventh king, a type of anti-Christ, “shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law…” Attempting to change the appointed times of God is the habit of wicked kings, not of righteous servants. If anyone claims to have the authority to change the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first, then he is in league with this wicked king of Daniel 7:25, and not on the side of the righteous.
In short, there is no Christian Sabbath in the Bible, and creating one puts the creator squarely in the camp of all of the anti-Christs of history.
What Day Is the REAL Sabbath?
We can be certain that Yeshua kept the Sabbath on the correct day and in the correct way. According to Scripture, sin is transgression of God’s Law, which includes violating the Sabbath. Also according to Scripture, Yeshua lived a perfectly sinless life, We know beyond any reasonable doubt on which day of the week he kept it, and we can also be certain–as certain as anything historical can be–that the seventh day of the week in the first century BC is still the seventh day of the week in the twenty-first century.
Yeshua told the Pharisees that they must not elevate their own traditions above the commandments of God, but that doesn’t mean that all traditions are bad. Without some traditions–historical and linguistic understandings, especially–we wouldn’t even be able to read the Scriptures. Although I wish we could change the names of the days of the week to remove references to pagan gods, the order of the days of the week is still sound.
Sunday is the first day of the week. Saturday is the seventh day of the week and still the Sabbath that God told the Israelites to keep as a sign of his covenant with them.
But…. Does the Sabbath Start at Sunset, Midnight, or Sunrise?
I have seen a number of arguments based on a couple of verses that a biblical “day” is actually only from sunrise to sunset, so night time doesn’t count. Every one of them was a case of eisegesis, reading a foregone conclusion back into the text, when a plain reading of what the text actually says would never lead one there. There will always be another objection from people who want to do things differently from everyone else.
I’ll give you two verses–although there are others–that show the biblical Sabbath starts and ends at sunset.
The First Day
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
The very first day consisted of evening and then morning, in that order, not morning and then evening.
In the Face of the Sabbath
As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day.
In order to keep the merchants of Jerusalem from violating the Sabbath, Nehemiah closed the gates as soon as the light began to fail at the gates “before the Sabbath”. The Hebrew is l’pani haShabbat, which literally means “in the face of the Sabbath”. In other words, when the sun was low enough that the gates began to get dark, the Sabbath was imminent. (H/T Matthew Janzen)
Why Do You Do What You Do?
We have all been sold a bill of religious goods. When a person first realizes it, his natural reaction is often to assume that everything is a lie, and understandably so. But that’s a lie too, one intended to keep you separated from the rest of God’s people, locked up in your own little cage of special knowledge.
I know that everyone, who insists that the biblical Sabbath must be kept some way other than what everyone else is doing, isn’t doing it just to be different. Most truly believe that they are doing the right thing.
It’s fine to question everything. Just don’t reject everything by default. Most of the great Christian and Jewish theologians are right about most things in the Bible, even if they get some important things wrong. Everyone is wrong about something, but nobody is wrong about everything.
ANCIENT SOURCES FOR THE JEWISH SABBATH DAY IN THE 1ST CENTURY
Josephus, Cassius Dio, and Sextus Julius Frontinus are the most prominent ancient historians that discussed the Jewish Sabbath in relation to the Roman calendar. See the following works:
- On the Decalogue
- The Special Laws, Book II
- On the Decalogue
- Antiquities of the Jews
- Book I, chapters 1 & 19
- Book III, chapters 5, 6, 10, & 12
- Book XII, chapters 1, 5, & 6
- Book XIII, chapters 1, 8, & 12
- Book XIV, chapters 4 & 10
- Book XVI, chapters 2 & 6
- Book XVIII, chapter 9
- Against Apion
- Book I & II
- Wars of the Jews
- Book I, chapters 2 & 7
- Book II, chapters 8, 14, 17, 19, & 21
- Book IV, chapter 9
- Book VII, chapters 3 & 8
- Antiquities of the Jews
- Cassius Dio
- Roman History
- Book XXXVII, chapter 16
- Book XLIX, chapter 22
- Roman History
- Sextus Julius Frontinus
- Book II, Part I