The English word “sabbath” is a loan word from the Hebrew noun šabbāt, which names the last day in a recurring seven-day cycle. Scholars debate whether the noun šabbāt or the verb šābat is derivative (Hasel, 1992, p. 849). The noun probably derives from the verb because of the doubled middle consonant of the noun that characterizes a number of Hebrew nouns derived from verbs (Haag, 2004, pp. 388–389). Another argument favoring this derivation is that some texts (Gen 2:2–3; Exod 34:21) use the verb šābat in reference to the seventh day without naming this day as the sabbath (Morgenstern, 1962, p. 137). The Hebrew verb šābat communicates the action of ceasing or stopping. Derived from this verb, the noun šabbāt thus appropriately names the seventh day on which labor or work ceases and can refer to other Jewish festival days as well (Shafer, 1976, p. 760). Since this Hebrew noun is a loan word in English and many other languages, these languages attest that the notion of a recurring seventh day of rest named the sabbath is particularly Jewish.


During the twentieth century, scholars sought a precedent for the traditions in the Hebrew Bible to explain the origin of the sabbath. One proposed precedent was the Akkadian noun šab/pattu, which phonetically resembles the Hebrew šabbāt. This proposal met with several objections. The doubling of the middle consonant of šabbāt in contrast to the doubling of the final consonant of šab/pattu makes the derivation of the Hebrew from the Akkadian linguistically improbable (Hasel, p. 850). This Akkadian noun refers to the middle day of the month or the day of the full moon, whereas the Hebrew šabbāt refers to the last day of a seven-day, nonlunar cycle and is often mentioned in connection with the new moon (e.g. 2 Kgs 4:23; Isa 1:13; Neh 10:33) but never with the full moon (Haag, p. 392), even though some attempt unsuccessfully to link the sabbath with the full moon (Meinhold, 1905; Robinson, 1988). This proposed origin of the Hebrew šabbāt is therefore unlikely.

Attempts to find a precedent for the Jewish sabbath in the evil, unlucky days of the Assyrian calendar also encounter problems. These days resemble the sabbath since they occur on the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st, and 28th days of the month. Also, work on these unlucky days is taboo because efforts will not end positively. Linking the sabbath to these unlucky days, some argue that the prohibition of work on the sabbath originally arose from negative sanctions (Morgenstern, p. 137). However, the traditions in the Hebrew Bible provide only positive warrants for ceasing work, such as imitation of God’s resting on the seventh day (Gen 2:2–3) and remembrance of deliverance from Egypt (Deut 5:12–15; Haag, p. 393). These Assyrian taboo days also differ from the Jewish sabbath since the 28th day of one month and the 7th day of the next are not exactly seven days apart and since the 19th day is the most important but not in a seven-day schema (Hasel, p. 850). Seeing these days as a precedent for the sabbath is not therefore widely accepted.

The proposal of a primitive Canaanite calendar as a precedent for the sabbath is also not persuasive. This calendar’s basic unit was a week of 7 days, and its secondary unit was a period of 50 days or seven of these weeks plus one additional day as a day of celebration or termination. Seven of these 50-day periods (350 days) plus 2 festival weeks (14 days) and 1 supremely sacred day (1 day) comprise a 365-day year (Morgenstern, p. 136). This calendar is called “pentecontad” because of its 50-day cycles, but lack of evidence for this calendar makes this proposal “the least likely to be correct” (Shafer, p. 760).

Other proposals of a Kenite or Arabic origin or of Greco-Roman market days as a precedent for the Jewish sabbath do not provide good parallels for the sabbath. Seven-day festivals or seven-day periods indeed exist in texts from Ugarit, but none provides an exact analogy for the seven-day, recurring chronological period of the sabbath independent from lunar and solar cycles. The best parallel to the seventh-day sabbath is the Roman planetary week, but it is later and probably influenced by the sabbath (Bacchiocchi 1977, pp. 241–242). Each of the proposals for a non-Jewish origin for the sabbath faces “insurmountable problems” and none is a plausible, extrabiblical precedent for the Jewish sabbath (Hasel, pp. 850–851). The most reliable evidence for the origin and institution of the sabbath among the Jews remains the Hebrew Bible itself.

Institution and Development.

The development of the sabbath is complicated by disputes about the dating of the various sabbath traditions in the Hebrew Bible, and a definitive diachronic description is not possible (Shafer, p. 761). Nevertheless, it is possible to proceed from simpler to more developed notions. A basic conception is that the seventh day has special “blessed” status (Gen 2:3; Exod 20:11). Some texts mention the seventh day without naming it (Gen 2:2–3; Exod 23:12; 34:21) and other texts feel the need to designate the seventh day as the sabbath (Exod 16:26; 20:10; 31:15; Lev 23:3; Deut 5:14). These texts indicate, although not conclusively, that the name “sabbath” is probably a later development.

Another basic conception is that on the seventh day, work ceased (Exod 34:21). Three reasons are given. First, Yahweh commands rest on the seventh day so that the Israelites, their children and servants, and the alien living among them may be refreshed (Covenant Code; Exod 23:12). A second reason is that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt but Yahweh delivered them and gave them rest (Deuteronomic Decalogue; Deut 5:15). Therefore, Yahweh requires the Israelites to rest on the seventh day as a remembrance of their deliverance. A third reason is that God rested after the six days of creation, and the Israelites must imitate God by resting on the seventh day (Priestly Traditions; Gen 2:2–3; Exod 20:11; 31:17). The rationale for the cessation of work on the seventh day probably develops from purely social and ethical concerns to more ritualistic and liturgical considerations, which eventually dominate the institution of the sabbath (Haag, p. 393).

The seventh day becomes the sabbath of Yahweh (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14). Cessation of work is no longer primarily for personal renewal but a mark of Israel’s special status before Yahweh. The sabbath marks the sign of Israel’s sanctification by Yahweh and is designated as a perpetual covenant and an everlasting token of Israel’s special relationship with Yahweh (Exod 31:12–17; Ezek 20:12). The sabbath belongs to Yahweh and is eventually included among Israel’s appointed festivals (Lev 23:1–3).

This expansion of the sabbath moves beyond the passive cessation of work to the active performance of liturgical functions. It becomes a day for sacred assembly and worship (Lev 23:3; 24:8; Ezek 46:1–3). Specific sabbath sacrifices are prescribed (Num 28:9–10; Ezek 45:17; 46:4–5) and special sabbath songs composed (Ps 92; cf. 4Q400–407). Worship thus becomes an important part of sabbath observance (Lohse, 1971, pp. 16–17).

Although the religious dimension comes to dominate the institution of the sabbath, the basic notion of the cessation of work remains. This notion even expands to include prohibitions against commercial activities (Jer 17:19–27; Neh 10:32; 13:15–22), and the initial focus on ceasing agricultural work (Exod 34:21) broadens to other kinds of labor including domestic duties such as building of fires and food preparation (Exod 16:22–29; 35:2–3). The sabbath cessation of agricultural work is even extended to a sabbath of years called the Sabbatical Year (Exod 23:11; Lev 25:1–7) and a sabbath of Sabbatical Years called the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8–17). These years envision the cessation of agricultural labor every 7th and 50th year, respectively.

The traditions in the Hebrew Bible may not facilitate a definitive description of the development of the sabbath, but they nevertheless provide enough information to detect a development from a simpler social and ethical to a more elaborate religious and liturgical sabbath. These traditions emphasize the sabbath as a strictly Jewish institution, but some prophetic eschatological traditions envision the sabbath eventually including all who believe in Israel’s God (Isa 56:1–8), and belonging in the end to all humanity (Isa 66:23). Later developments of the sabbath confirm these prophecies as various types of sabbath observance spread not only among Jews but also among non-Jews.

Later Developments.

Jewish groups continue developing the institution of the sabbath. Jewish texts show that various Jewish groups consider the sabbath their special gift from Yahweh and a distinguishing mark of their devotion and identity (Jub. 2:17–22; 50:10; Lohse, 1971, pp. 6–8; Hasel, p. 854). These texts attest to the enormous significance of the sabbath among Jewish groups and to an elevation of sabbath observance that encompasses both heaven and earth (Jub. 2:18). These texts also show an interest in providing more precise instructions for sabbath observance than are found in the Hebrew Bible (Haag, p. 396). Jubilees (50:6–13) and the Damascus Document (10:14—12:5) list specific activities that must be avoided on the sabbath including sexual activity, travel, and transport. The Mishnah (Šabb. 7.2) lists 39 main categories of work that may not be performed on the sabbath. Each of these main categories is then further elaborated by six subsidiary types of labors that are prohibited (Lohse, 1971, p. 12). These texts emphasize the importance of correct sabbath observance among Jews, and such observance is reflected in the traditions about Jesus.

New Testament.

The sabbath figures prominently in the passion narrative (Martin, 2001, pp. 692–694). Jesus is crucified on Friday, the day of preparation before the sabbath, and dies at the ninth hour, sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. (Mark 15:33–41; Martin, 1993, p. 62). Joseph of Arimathea and the women only have from sunset until the first three night lights appear to bury Jesus before the sabbath begins (Mark 15:42–47; Martin, 1993, p. 67). Their haste results in an incomplete burial, and so the women must return after the sabbath is over on Saturday evening to complete the process (Mark 16:1–8). Mark 16:2 states that they came after the sun had risen on the first day of the week. However, Matthew 28:1 specifies that they came on the evening of the sabbath when the first day of the week was lighting up. Matthew thus places the resurrection of Jesus on Saturday evening, and John 20:1 says that it was dark when Mary encountered the resurrected Jesus. Protestants generally follow the Markan account and celebrate the resurrection with a sunrise service. In contrast, Roman Catholics are consistent with Matthew’s account and schedule the Easter Vigil late in the day on Saturday or on Saturday evening, and the Greek Orthodox celebration lasts for the entire night (Martin, 1993, pp. 67–69).

The sabbath also figures prominently in some key controversy stories in the gospels (Mark 2:23—3:6; Matt 12:1–14; Luke 6:1–11). The issue centers on what is permitted or prohibited on the sabbath (Lohse, 1971, pp. 14–15). In these stories, Jesus develops traditions that the sabbath is primarily for the renewal and refreshing of human life (Exod 23:12; Deut 5:12–15). He therefore emphasizes that doing good rather than harm and saving life rather than destroying it are proper sabbath activities (Mark 3:4; Matt 12:12; Luke 6:9) and that the sabbath was given for humans, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). He thus advocates a humane piety against the Temple piety of other Pharisees. Jesus declares that the Son of Man is lord or owner of the sabbath (Mark 2:28; Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5) and assumes an authority over the sabbath that is equal to Yahweh’s, since the sabbath belongs to Yahweh (Lev 23:3). Jesus’s claim to authority becomes a key problem for his opponents (Mark 11:27–33; Matt 21:23–27; Luke 20:1–8), and they condemn him for equating himself with God (Mark 14:63–64; Matt 26:65; Luke 22:67–71).

Among Jesus’s followers, proper sabbath observance is not a prominent issue. Acts records not a single sabbath controversy. In Colossians 2:16, many scholars see a sabbath controversy between Christians, who do not observe the sabbath, and Jews, who do. However, there are persuasive reasons for understanding this verse as a reference to a Cynic critique of Christian sabbath observance (Martin, 1996a, pp. 124–134; 1996b, pp. 106–111). Other scholars see a sabbath controversy in Galatians 4:10, where Paul supposedly criticizes the Galatians for returning to sabbath observance and abandoning his “sabbath-free” gospel. However, the sabbath is not mentioned in this verse, and other cogent reasons demonstrate that the time-keeping scheme in Galatians 4:10 is pagan rather than Jewish (Martin, 1995, pp. 449–450; 1996a, pp. 129–130; 1996b pp. 111–119). Paul’s gospel is therefore not “sabbath-free,” and the best evidence demonstrates that he and other early Christians adopt a Jewish calendar along with the sabbath (Martin. 1996a, pp. 126–131; 1996b, pp. 106–111).

One important proof that early Christians observed the sabbath is the practice of eating fish on Fridays. The Jewish sabbath begins when the first three night lights appear on Friday evening and a sabbath meal follows. In preparation, ancient Jews eat milk meals on Friday, the Day of Preparation. These meals are light so as not to dampen the appetite for the sabbath meal, and the only meat permitted is fish since it is considered lighter than lamb or beef. Eating fish on Fridays is still practiced by some Christians and is a carry-over from when early Christians still observed the Jewish sabbath before the shift to Sunday.

Several scholars investigate when and how Christians shift their day of worship from the Jewish sabbath to the first day of the week or Sunday (e.g., Rordorf, 1968; Bacchiocchi, 1977; Harline, 2007). Some New Testament texts indicate that this shift begins early (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2) and that Christians call Sunday the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10). The anti-Jewish backlash to the Jewish revolts probably contributes to this shift (Bacchiocchi, 1977, pp. 234–235), but early Christian texts (Did. 14:1; Ign., Magn. 9:1; Barn. 15:9; and Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67) provide theological explanations, especially the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week (Lohse, 1971, pp. 31–32; Bacchiocchi, 1977, pp. 213–235). Whatever the reasons, the majority of Christians shift their day of worship from the sabbath to Sunday, apply the Old Testament sabbath prescriptions to Sunday, and refer to Sunday as the sabbath.

Contemporary Relevance.

Jewish and Christian sabbath traditions continue to influence later religious practices, including the Muslim Jumu’ah or Friday prayer. These traditions also influence many people and organizations in the modern world to observe a day of rest to worship and recognize God’s ownership and claim on their lives. These traditions even occasion secular blue laws or Sunday rest laws and the modern international workweek, which is based not only on the Jewish sabbath but also on the Greco-Roman planetary week (Rordorf, 1968, p. 27; Bacchiocchi, 1977, 236–269). The days of this week were named after the planets Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus, and, with German names substituted, provide the English names for the days (Rordorf, 1968, p. 25). The Jewish sabbath and the Christian Sunday eventuate in a weekend that begins on Friday evening and ends on Sunday evening. The conception of this weekend as a more relaxed time than the five-day workweek is thus a major contribution of Jewish and Christian sabbath traditions to the modern world.




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Troy W. Martin