Just as the ancient Hebrews had two ways of counting years, a religious year starting in the spring associated with the Exodus from Egypt and an older agricultural year starting in the fall, so they also had two ways of counting days, a practical day and a ceremonial day. The ceremonial day, used for feasts, fasts, and Sabbath, lasts from sunset to sunset, while the practical day begins in the early morning when one rises from sleep though the evening when one retires to bed at night, or if one does not retire at night, goes from morning to morning. 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.
This paper will explore these two types of days, showing when each is used in the Bible. It will demonstrate that in the Scripture ceremonial days are limited to feasts and fasts and apparently the Sabbath. When numbers are used in Scripture to identify a day, whether numbers of the month or numbers of the week, the days are practical days. Finally, application will be made to present day situations.
The ceremonial day has its origins in the creation account of Genesis chapter one where the evening precedes the morning. As noted in more detail below, it was used for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Day of Atonement. There is no indication in Scripture that Pentecost, the beginning of the month, or Rosh Hashanah were ceremonial days beginning with the evening before the day itself, although in Judaism they are practiced as such. Likewise, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles is not spelled out in Scripture as a ceremonial day, but it is hinted as such since the seven day feast has instructions on what to do on the first day and the eighth day (Leviticus 23:34-36), a likely reference to the first practical day when the feast begins in the evening and the last practical day when the feast ends in the evening. A feast of seven ceremonial days runs across eight practical days. In the same way, the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week is not spelled out as a ceremonial day, but there is post-exilic evidence in Scripture that it was celebrated as such. Nehemiah closed the gates of Jerusalem on the day before the Sabbath as soon as it began to grow dark (Nehemiah 13:19). When Jesus' body was taken down from the cross and hurriedly buried, Luke notes that the Sabbath was beginning, or literally, dawning (Luke 23:54). Further, after that Sabbath was over, the women bought spices to anoint the body and took them early on the first day of the week to the tomb (Mark 16:1). They must have purchased them on Saturday after sunset. Whether the Sabbath was celebrated beginning in the evening from early times is a matter of speculation.
The more usual day is the practical day. It is found in Leviticus 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. The Mishnah understands "the same day" as lasting "until the rise of dawn" (Berakoth 1.1). The practical day phrases "day and night," "morning and evening," and "morning by morning" are more common in scripture than the opposite "night and day," "evening and morning," and "evening to evening."
The question of whether a reference to a particular day is a ceremonial day or a practical day depends to a great extent on the usage of the Hebrew word for evening which refers to the beginning period of darkness after sunset or in context to the sunset itself. The meaning is complicated by the dual usage "between the evenings" in the Pentateuch, which refers to two evenings on the same day. The question is whether the evening other than sunset is 1) the declining of the sun in the afternoon or 2) the end of the twilight period when darkness comes. Twilight is the definition found in Hebrew lexicons following the understanding of the Samaritans, while the former is supported by the Mishnah, which says that the daily evening sacrifice was offered at half passed the eighth hour, that is, 2:30pm. On the day when the Passover lambs were slain, the time was moved up an hour to half passed the seventh hour (1:30pm), and if that day fell on a Friday, it was moved up two hours to half passed the sixth hour (12:30pm). This would find support in the Old Testament as well. Elijah, in his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, offered his sacrifice to the LORD at the time of the evening sacrifice (I Kings 18:29, 36). After the sacrifice, there was still time in the day to kill the prophets of Baal, pray seven times, and run before the chariot of Ahab to Jezreel. This offering must have been sometime around the middle of the afternoon at the latest, certainly not after sundown. Josephus gives a similar time for the Passover sacrifices, from the ninth to the eleventh hours, that is, 3:00-5:00pm.
There are places where the meaning sunset is clearly indicated. For example, in Exodus 12:18 the Israelites are told to eat unleavened bread from the evening/sunset of the fourteenth day to the evening/sunset of the twenty-first day. And in several chapters of Leviticus and in Numbers chapter 19 the phrase "unclean until the evening" refers to the period of uncleanness being over at sunset.
A case can be made that in the post-exilic period, the counting of the day of the month began at sunset. The Mishnah seems to refer to the preceding night as the night of the fourteenth (Peshahim 1.1), a time when all leaven was to be removed. And the daytime of the fourteenth is referred to as the "day before the Passover" and "the eve of the Passover" (Peshahim 4.1; 5.1). In addition, the book of Jubilees (49:1) refers to the evening after the fourteenth as the "evening of the fifteenth." However, this usage cannot be determinative for understanding the usage of the Scriptures.
In Scripture the Passover is said to be held on the fourteenth day of the first month (Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 28:16; 2 Chronicles 35:1; Ezra 6:19). The celebration of the Passover includes not only the slaughtering of the lamb "between the evenings," that is, as we have seen, before sunset, but also the meal that takes place after sunset in the evening. Joshua 5:10 explicitly says that they observed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month "in the evening." And Exodus 12:8 says to eat the flesh of the sacrifice "that night." The Mishnah instructs that nothing be eaten between the evening sacrifice and nightfall (Peshahim 10:1). The meal is eaten after sunset and thus the evening of the fourteenth day follows the morning, making the fourteenth a practical day. Further evidence that the Passover meal was considered to be on the fourteenth is the statement in Numbers 33:3 that the Israelites left Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. Thus it was the practical day which was used for numbering the days of the calendar, not the ceremonial day. So 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. Applying this to the Passover and the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, they may be diagrammed as in the accompanying chart:
The same is true of the Day of Atonement. It is said to be on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 16:29; 23:27; Numbers 29:7), but as a ceremonial day, it starts on the evening of the ninth day and lasts until the next evening (Leviticus 23:32). The ceremonial days are defined using the dates of the practical days.
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), this was before the evening when he first appeared to his disciples. Thus in reckoning the day of the week, the evening follows the morning.
Now when the expression "first day" of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is used, context must determine whether a ceremonial day or practical day is being used, for the term is used of both. In Exodus 12:15a we read that all leaven must be removed on the "first day" so that unleavened bread can be eaten on the seven ceremonial days of the feast. This would be on the fourteenth, as the Mishnah makes clear (Peshahim 1.1-4). However, in the very next sentence verse 15 forbids eating leaven from the first day through the seventh day. Here ceremonial days are in view. Then verse 16 says that on the "first day" the Israelites were to hold a sacred assembly. It was a day of refraining from work except for preparing food (a difference from the Sabbath when food preparation should be done the day before on Friday). That this "first day" is the daylight hours of the first ceremonial day equivalent to a practical day on the fifteenth is apparent from the following command that a second sacred assembly is also to be held on the seventh day. A similar use of days is found in Numbers 28:16-25 where the Passover is said to be on the fourteenth, and the fifteenth is called a feast day with a sacred assembly and extra sacrifices that are to be offered with the morning burnt offering. This is obviously in the daytime.
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 fourteenth, 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 later in Acts he refers to the week of the feast as Passover: Peter was arrested during the feast with the expectation that he would be tried and executed when Passover was finished (Acts 12:4). Writing for Gentiles, rather than using the term the Feast of Unleavened Bread, John also regularly refers to the whole feast as the Passover (John 2:23; 6:4; 13:1). Even the Mishnah says that the Passover of Egypt "was eaten in haste and during one night, whereas the Passover of the generations [that followed after] continued throughout seven days" (Peshahim 9.5). This helps to explain a common misunderstanding that the Jewish leaders had not yet eaten the Passover meal when they were before Pilate (John 18:28) since the fifteenth 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.
A modern application of this has to do with our understanding of Acts 20:7. A number of modern translations take "the first day of the week" as a ceremonial day, rendering it as Saturday evening or Saturday night. 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 "next day." 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 or Sunday night. Certain churches have followed this by offering a Sunday service on Saturday evening. These translations and practices are due to the misunderstanding that early Christians followed the Jewish practice of counting their days as evening followed by morning, the practice used for ceremonial days.
In summary, the Scriptures contain two kinds of days, practical (morning to morning) and ceremonial (evening to evening). Days were numbered, both for the month and the week, using practical days. Thus, Jesus rises early on the first day of the week and later in the evening of that first day appears to his disciples. In the same way, the first ceremonial day of the Passover feast, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is composed of the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month and the morning of the fifteenth. This insight into different kinds of days gives guidance as to when Sunday evening actually occurs.