The Greek use of the word "Sabbath"

by Joe Viel

The word "Sabbath" in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and Greek New Testament (NT) is rather peculiar, and seems to be sometimes different in the two versions. In the following I will document...

Grammatical usage

In the Greek NT, the word "Sabbath" seems to closely follow the typical rules of the "2nd Declension" in the neutral gender. In the LXX, it sometimes follows the rules of 2nd Declension but sometimes doesn't and may be following the rules of 1st Declension, feminine gender. The 2nd Declension spelling would be...

  Cases Number Gender
sabbaton Nominative, Accusative, or Vocative singular Neutral
sabbatou Genitive singular Neutral
sabbatw Dative singular Neutral
sabbata Nominative, Accusative or Vocative plural Neutral
sabbatwn Genitive plural Neutral
sabbatoiV Dative plural Neutral

This is how it is consistantly used in the Greek NT. But in the LXX, this is not the case. We sometimes see the above, but at other times, it seems to follow to rules of 1st Declension, feminine spelling. For example:

"sabbata sabbatwn" = A Sabbath of Sabbaths
(Greek LXX of Lev/Vay 23:32)
This can only match the Hebrew if it is interpretted as 1st Declension, feminine , since "sabbata" is singular in the 1st Declension, feminine, but plural in the 2nd Declension, neutral. If this is 2nd Declension, neutral., then it is reading different from the Hebrew text by saying "sabbaths (plural) of sabbaths (plural)" instead of "sabbath (singular) of sabbaths (plural)"
"ta sabbata" (Lev 25:6, 26:2, 34, 43) Here, the article would squarely cause us to interpret this as 2nd Declension, neutral.

One could resolve some of the awkward grammatical usage in the LXX by suggesting that the Greek speaking Jews had a tendency to pluralize the word "Sabbath" to "sabbaths" even when it wasn't called for in the Hebrew text. But one way or another, we either have to conclude that the LXX either doesn't match the Hebrew or it inconsistantly switches between 1st Declension, feminine and 2nd Declension, neutral. Also, since the Greek NT never does this, it leaves us with no explanation as to why we only see this in the Greek LXX and not in the Greek NT.

Now in Hebrew, the word "Sabbath" is feminine, so it is odd that it is NOT always feminine in the LXX and not feminine EVER in the Greek NT.

Other Jewish Writers using Greek

Jews who wrote in Greek give us some insight. Philo (20BC - 40AD) tends to follow the LXX as well, calling the "Sabbath" the "7th day" most of the time. In Special Laws , II, 194, he talks of how Yom Kippurim is called "a "Sabbath of Sabbaths (sabbata sabbatwn) or as the Greeks would say, a seven of sevens (ebdomada ebdomadwn)." "Sabbata" is also used in P.Cair.Zen.: Zenon Papyri, Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire document 59762 . But he usually calls it the "seventh day", not the "Sabbath". In fact, Philo even calls the annual feasts that fall in the middle of the week "seventh day"(s) in Greek. Now Philo was writing towards a non-Jewish audience, whereas the Septuagint was written to a Jewish audience, which may account for why he minimized the use of a Hellenized form of the Hebrew word "Sabbath".

So we do find places in the Septuagint where "Sabbath (sabbata)" is used. So we see that the 7th day of the week was called "Sabbath (sabbata)" within the Jewish community and "seventh day"/"ebdomaiV" when talking to non-Jews. But there's no record of the "week" being called the "Sabbath" at all. The Greek LXX always uses "ebdoma" for week, not "Sabbath".

Josephus (1st century AD) also follows the LXX approach, not the Greek NT approach. Some people have distorted Josephus to suggest his quotation was Aramaic influenced, but as we will see next, this is simply not the case. Some have falsely argued that

  1. Josephus called the "Sabbath" a "sabbata"
  2. "Sabbata" is an Aramaization of the Hebrew "Sabbath"
  3. Josephus called this a "Hebrew" word
  4. Thus it proves that when people say "Hebrew", they really mean "Aramaic".

The problem with this logic is in part 2. "Sabbata" is not an exclusively Aramaic way of expressing the word "Sabbath". It is a valid Greek approach, and can be the form chosen for 1st declension feminine or for 2nd declension neutral. So the conclusion that Josephus supports the idea that all historic references to Jews speaking "Hebrew" really means they were speaking Aramaic simply demonstrates that the writer in question does not know their Greek, or they would not be making an allegation so easy to disprove.

Here's the quote from Josephus in question

"...we celebrate a rest from our labors on that day, and call it the "Sabbath" (sabbata), which denotes rest according to the Hebrew dialect." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1 , Chapter 1, 1(33))

Now the argument is that "sabbata" is an Aramaicized for of the word "Sabbath"/"Shabbat", thus Josephus was calling an Aramaic word a "Hebrew" word. Not so. First off, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) uses "sabbata" several places (document elsewhere herein), so it is not a 'given' that this is an "Aramization" of the word (though it could be, since this IS how you pronounce it in Aramaic). Josephus did not say that "Sabbata" is how the word is pronounced in Hebrew, but simply is conveying that the word, in Hebrew, means "rest". If I say in English "Sabbath in Hebrew means rest", I'm not saying "Sabbath" is how you pronounce the word in Hebrew. "Shabbat" is how it is pronounced in Hebrew, but I don't have to necessarily stop and translate this back to "Shabbat" for you to understand what I'm saying in English.

Also, if we compare this other similar statements Josephus made only a few sentences later, we see the fallacy in this logic....

"...This man was called Adam (AdamoV) , which signifies according to the tongue of the Hebrews 'flame-colored' (redish/[yellow]) " (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Chapter 1, 2(34))

"Adam" does indicate emitting a shade of red in Hebrew. But we see here that Josephus is using a Hellenization or Greek form of "Adam", not the Hebrew one or an Aramaic one here. So if we apply the logic that says the quotes from 1:1:1(33) proves that "Hebrew" really means "Aramaic", we'd conclude that "Hebrew" really means "Greek" here. Obviously, that would be false logic. (Also, Only a few sentences later, in Antiquities 1:1:2[36], Josephus says a woman is called "essa according to the Hebrew Dialect".)

Josephus' use of "Sabbata" in 1:1:1(33) follows the LXX, which uses "sabbata" in a number of places so there's no more reason to presume that he means "Aramaic" when he says "Hebrew" due to Ant 1:1:1 than to presume he means "Greek" when he says "Hebrew" due to Ant 1:1:2 or 1:1:1.

Another problem with the idea that "Hebrew" means "Aramaic" is that there are a number of places where "Hebrew" was viewed by Greek writers of century 1+ AD as being a more specific term and where we see "Hebrew" confused with other terms, we see a REVERSE trend against what the "Hebrew died" proponents are telling us.

In English, we call Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic "Semitic" languages, and we understand "Semitic" to be a more generic term than "Hebrew" or "Arabic" that can mean either or can include both. Early Greek writers used the term "Chaldean" this way. All languages/cultures that were viewed as deriving or evolving from Babylon were called "Chaldean". So Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, etc., were all viewed as "Chaldean" languages and "Chaldean" was sometimes used to similar to how we use "Semitic" and sometimes only mean Hebrew or only meant Aramaic. So if early writers wanted to signify that Hebrew speaking people were speaking Aramaic, it would seem they would have described it as "Chaldean". Here's a few examples of this.

The Greek Septuagint (LXX) transliterates the Hebrew word "Shabbat" (tb#) as some form of "sabbat*" numerous times, appearing as "sabbata" in 49 times in the Tanakh and Apocrypha. Among them are:

"th de hmera th ebdomh sabbata"
The seventh day is the Sabbath (Sabbata)
(Greek LXX of Ex/Shem 20:10, 31:15, etc)
"sabbata sabbatwn"
A Sabbath of Sabbaths
(Greek LXX of Lev/Vay 23:32)
"th hmera twn sabbatwn" "the day of the Sabbaths"
(Greek LXX of Ex/Shem 35:3).
The Hebrew says "the day of the Sabbath (singular)".

"Sabbata" is the form we see in the LXX in both singular and plural form, usually feminine. In the Greek NT, the word "Sabbath" seems to closely follow the typical rules of the "2nd Declension" in the neutral gender. Thus, it only appears as "sabbata" when "sabbata" is the correct Greek declension, which is true for when it is plural, and in the Nominative, Accusative, and Vocative cases. Thus, when "sabbata" is used in Acts 17:2, this is the correct Hellenized form of the word "Shabbat" for this case.

But unlike the Greek NT, the LXX NEVER uses the word "Sabbath" to mean "week", and always uses the traditional Greek word for that, which is "ebdoma".

Greek NT usage of "Sabbath"

As stated before, the Greek NT does use the word "Sabbath" at least grammatically consistant, always in the 2nd Declension Neutral. But if the word is feminine in Hebrew, why isn't it feminine in the Greek NT?

But while the Greek NT is consistant in grammatical use of the word, it is not consistant in the interpretation of the word, which is probably more important. The Greek NT makes unusual use of the word "Sabbath" to mean both "Sabbath" (sabbata -7th day of the week) and "week" (ebdomh) or a 7 day period. This creates a lot of confusion over how to interpret certain verses. No one knows why, since there was already a perfectly valid Greek word that meant "week" (ebdomh) when the NT was written and no real reason to confuse the issue by re-inventing the word "Sabbath" to be used in a way in which there is already a Greek word to express the same meaning. The only real good explanation is that this was probably a misunderstanding of how to translate/read the Hebrew/Aramic words that the Greek NT was likely translated from, since in Aramaic and Hebrew the words for "week" and "Sabbath" are spelled nearly the same. "Sabbath" is tb# (tb$) and a "week" is (b#.((b$). So this is probably the root of why the Greek NT uses the word "Sabbath" to mean "week".

But let's take a look at a few examples where "Sabbath" only makes sense if interpretted to mean "week", and makes no sense if interpretted to mean "7th day" of the week.

"I fast twice every Sabbath (week)" (Greek Luke 18:12)

"I fast twice each week" (Aramaic Luke 18:12)

Fasting "twice each Sabbath" makes no sense. How do you fast twice a day? Do you eat non-stop except for two breaks????? There was a Jewish tradition of fasting twice a week, on Mondays and Thursday, that is well documented in the Talmud as well as other places, including some early Christian writings.

The use of the phrase "Sabbaton" or "Sabbaths" to mean "week" in the Greek NT is clearly seen in a couple places. This phrase also appears in Acts 20:7 et seq and 1 Cor 16:2, where there is no context establishing that it was the season of Shavuot / Pentecost.  In these verses, the "first of the weeks" of Shavuot would make no sense because the context gives no discussion of the 7 weeks of Shavuot.  Let's take a look at these two:   Acts 20:7 et seq  

On the first [day] of the week (sabbaton) we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. ...Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left.   Now if "first of the sabbaton" is "first of the sabbaths" here, you have a problem. It's the evening of the "first of Shabbaton".  Paul talks until daylight, which would still be "first of the shabbaton" and then gets on a ship.  If this was a Sabbath day, he travelled on the Sabbath and violated the Torah requirement that we not leave camp on Shabbat. Yet Paul/Shaul said he was Torah observant (Acts 22:3, 23:1-5, 25:8, 26:5-8 and 28:17) even claiming he never violated the Torah in several of these verses in Acts.

1 Cor 16:2 says  

"On the first [day] of the week (sabbaton)..."

Either this is "week" or the first Sabbath of the Shavuot season. The problem with interpreting this as the first Sabbath of Shavuot is that there is no context established for Shavuot season. Plus, was Shaul / Paul really saying only take up a collection on the first sabbath of Shavuot / Pentecost season and no other time?  Or was he saying do this each week? Also, was he encouraging the Corinthians to violate Sabbath requirements, in that Jewish Law forbade men to carry their purse on Shabbat?  Just doesn't fit.  So clearly, "sabbaton" can mean "week" without any special reference to Shavuot / Pentecost.

Another problem is what day did Yeshua rise from the dead on? We're told it was....

"after the Sabbath (sabbatou)" (Greek Mark 16:1)

"and when the Sabbath had passed" (Aramaic Mark 16:1)

Both Greek and Aramaic agree that the women went to the tomb AFTER the Sabbath was over. Then it goes on to say:

"At the beginning (prwi) of the first (mia) of the week/Sabbaths (sabbatwn)" (Greek Mark 16:2)

"At early dawn, at the first of the week ((b#)" (Aramaic Mark 16:2)

So here the Greek and Aramaic versions can only agree if "Sabbaths" can be interpretted to mean "week". Some people have suggested that this is resolved by concluding that Yeshua rose on the weekly Sabbath after the Paschal Sabbath, but the problem with that interpretation is that we are told that the women who went to His tomb "rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment" (Luke 23:56). So they did not go to His tomb on the Sabbath because they knew someone had to roll the stone away and that would require work. Also, they intended to carry spices with them, and carrying a load on the Sabbath is forbidden in scirptures (See Jer/Yer 17:21-27, Neh 13:15). John/Yochanan 19:39 tells us that the spices carried before His burial weighed what amounted to as about 75 pounds in English weights, so the full set of spices was no light load for two women to carry. We don't know exactly how much of that they returned with, but we do know when they returned. Luke 23:56 tells us the women did not go to the tomb on the Sabbath because they were resting in obedience to the commanmdment. Yet in Luke 24:1 it tells us...

"And on the first of the week (Sabbaths - sabbatwn), at early dawn, they came to the tomb, bearing the spices they made ready" (Greek Luke 24:1)

So right after being told it would be a sabbath violation to go to the tomb (bearing a load, like spices) on the Sabbath, the Greek NT tells us they went to the tomb on the "Sabbaths" (plural). This can only make sense if we interpret the word "Sabbaths" to mean "week". The Aramaic version of Luke uses "Sabbath" in Luke 23:53 and "week" in Luke 24:1, eliminating any possibility of misunderstanding or conflict. But in the Greek, if "sabbatwn" can only mean a 7th day of the week, then Luke contradicts itself in the next sentence after telling us the women rested (and thus did not carry a load such as spices) on the Sabbath.

And when it comes to consistant interpretation, if any Gospel verse "proves" that Yeshua rose on a Sabbath, then 1 Cor 16:2 "proves" we're only suppose to give money once a year, and we're suppose to fast twice on that day when we do it. (Which I guess means we can eat non-stop except for two pauses!!!)

Now indeed, the Greek NT does make peculiar use of the word "Sabbath". Secular Greek already had plenty of words to describe a week. They are...

Now these are just examples. Because of the Greek case structure, multiple forms of the above could appear. The Greek Septuagint LXX (250 BC) uses these terms in the following places:

Gen/Ber 29:27 "Finish this daughter's bridal week (ebdoma)"

Lev 23:15 "Count off seven weeks (epta ebdomadaV)"

Dan 10:2 "I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks (ebdomaV)"

Summary

The short of all this is that this probably provides some good evidence to the Hebrew/Aramaic thought that must be understood, lying beneath the Greek text. As written, the Greek NT simply makes no sense, and uses the word "Sabbath" in a way that is completely unknown outside the Greek NT. No other writer before the NT used the word this way, and no writer since has even attempted to adopt this language, because it would lead to too much confusion.

The best explanation is simply that the Gospels were translated into Greek from Aramaic, and the translators misunderstood the Aramaic word for "week", largely because it looks so much like the word for "Sabbath".

Also, we're left wondering about the audience issue. Philo stuck with using "ebdoma" and avoided using the word "Sabbath" so Philosophers could understand him. But the Greek NT uses confusing language not known to exist anywhere, thus it does not seem to be directed at unbelievers, but only at someone who would understand the unique terminology. Now Greek Primacists argue that the NT was written in Greek so that the whole world would understand it. If that's the case, then why wouldn't it use the established vocabulary? That logic just does not hold up under closer examination.