Two Types of Days

One of the things that seems strange to modern readers of the Bible is that the Hebrew New Year Day (Rosh Hashana) falls on the first day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1) rather than the first day of the first month. This is due to the fact that the Bible records that the Hebrews had two types of calendars: an older agricultural calendar beginning in the fall associated with the New Year Day and a religious calendar beginning in the spring associated with the Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:2). These two types of years figure in Theile's work in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (1994) in which he demonstrates that the numbers in Kings and Chronicles make sense if the Hebrew culture of the time is taken into account.

But just as there are two types of years in the Bible, there are also two types of days: the ceremonial day, which lasts from sundown to sundown, and the practical day, which begins in the early morning when one rises from sleep though the evening when one retires to bed at night. A variation on the latter is the Roman day, probably found in the gospel of John, which lasts from midnight to midnight, just as our modern day.

The ceremonial day has its origins in the creation account of Genesis chapter one where the evening precedes the morning. It was used for the Sabbath and such feasts as Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles/Booths. The practical day as such is seldom mentioned. It is found in Lev. 7:15 and 22:30, where it is said that certain sacrifices must be eaten on the same day that they are offered-that nothing should be left until the morning. However, it was the practical day which was used for numbering the days of the calendar, not the ceremonial day. In other words, the evening of the 14th day of a month follows the daylight hours of the 14th rather than preceding them. Thus there were two systems of reckoning going on at the same time—a new ceremonial day started each day at sundown, but it was still considered the same day of the month. This is seen in the references to the Passover week which occurred during the first month of the year (Abib; later called Nisan). This week may be diagrammed as in the following chart:










Kill lambs
























Feast of Unleavened Bread




Passover was on the 14th day of the month (Num. 28:16; Ezra 6:19; Ezek 45:21) with the Passover meal on that evening (Lev. 23:5; Num. 9:3, 5; Josh. 5:10) while the Feast of Unleavened Bread covered the seven day period from the evening of the 14th to the evening of the 21st (Ex. 12:18,19). The Passover lambs were to be killed "between the two evenings" on the 14th. The ESV translates that phrase "at twilight," but the Mishnah takes the killing to be on the afternoon of the 14th, specifically after the evening daily sacrifice at 2:30pm ("half after the eighth hour"; Peshahim 5.1). Numbers 33:3 records that the Israelites left Egypt on the l5th—the day after the original Passover. For this reason the 15th was considered the first day (i.e., daytime) of the Feast of Unleavened Breed (Lev. 23:6; Num. 28:17). In using the ceremonial day, Deut. 16:4 says that the evening of the first day of the feast precedes the morning of that day by which time no flesh of the sacrifice should remain. Now note that although the Passover evening is part of the first ceremonial day, it is the evening of the 14th, not the 15th (the first day). Days of the month use the practical day, not the ceremonial day.

By New Testament times, the two overlapping designations of Passover and Unleavened Bread had often come to be used interchangeably. Since the Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the evening of the 14th, Matthew and Mark refer to that day of sacrificing the lambs and preparing the Passover meal as the "first day of Unleavened Bread" (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12). They do make it clear that the meal was eaten in the evening (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17). Luke just refers to the day as "the day of Unleavened Bread" (Luke 22:7) and calls the Feast of Unleavened Bread the Passover (Luke 22:1). This helps to explain the fact that he later refers to the week of the feast as Passover (Acts 12:4). John also regularly refers to the whole feast as the Passover (John 2:23; 6:4; 13:1), which helps to explain a common misunderstanding that the Pharisees had not yet eaten the Passover meal when they were before Pilate (John 18:28) since the 15th was also a feast day (Num. 28:17). This shift in language from the Old Testament to the New Testament has led to some confusion.

It has been argued that the Jewish rabbis always used the ceremonial days and perhaps this is true in the Mishnah (Danby 1933: 136-141). In that document the night before the 14th is referred to as "the night of the 14th" (Peshahim 1.1), a time when all hametz (grain products with leaven: bread, dough, and even beer) were to be removed. And the daytime of the 14th is referred to as the "day before the Passover" and "the eve of the Passover" (Peshahim 4.1; 5.1). But usage by the rabbis a hundred years after the New Testament cannot be determinative for understanding the New Testament language.

Not only were days of the month identified using practical days, but also days of the week were practical days with the exception of the Sabbath which was a ceremonial day (Luke 23:54). This is seen in the New Testament in John 20:19 where it is said that Jesus appeared to the disciples "on the evening of that day, the first day of the week." It is obvious that when Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Mark 16:9) and the tomb was empty around dawn (Matt. 28:1ff; Mark 16:2ff; Luke 24:1ff; John 20:1ff), that was before the evening when he first appeared to his disciples. Thus in reckoning the day of the week, the evening follows the morning.

A modern application of this has to do with our understanding of Acts 20:7. A number of modern translations, including the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible, the Good News Bible (Today's English Version), and the notes of the Expanded Bible, take "the first day of the week" as a ceremonial day, rendering it as Saturday evening. But looking at how Luke, a Gentile writer with a Gentile audience, uses time, we see that in Acts 20:7-11 the evening of the first day of the week would follow the daytime of the first. The practical day is not considered to have come "until daybreak"—the "morrow." Thus, when they partook of the Lord's Supper after midnight, it was what we would call early Monday morning, but to them it was still the first day of the week. Not having clocks, they were not the legalist clock-watchers that we sometimes are. Therefore, the ceremonial day is not in view in Acts 20:7-11, and they partook of the Lord's Supper on what we call Sunday night, not Saturday night. That has implications for us today as to whether churches should meet for a Sunday assembly on Saturday night (as some have started doing) or Sunday night. The latter is more biblical.

—Bruce Terry, Ohio Valley University, July 4, 2016
Last updated on February 12, 2018
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