The Seven-Day Week
© ITCHS 2024
[Ed. Note: The years between, say 450 B.C. and the Roman Empire are normally thought of as the exciting gestation period of Western drama. In tragedy, it is the period that begins by producing Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and ends with the rehearsed dramas of Seneca. In comedy, it is the period of foundational development beginning with the satires of Aristophanes, proceeding through the Middle Comedy of Menander, and coming into an essentially modern form in Plautus, leaving almost two centuries of modern development before the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
If in any significant way these years are misunderstood, we have an exceedingly shaky base for understanding the foundational dramatic traditions of the West.
So, it is well to rethink this half-millennium, a period of tremendous change, excitement, and competition for the direction of Western history. Competition, conflict, adaptation, and intrigue are routine bases for dramatic interest, and these centuries have it all on a world scale.
Interestingly, these same centuries are talked about in Western theology as “the Silent Years,” and are often glossed over. They are silent in that the last of the Old Testament Prophets have already been written. Unfortunately, secular history has accepted this basic stance of silence when, in fact, the same years are filled with normally beneath-the-radar and indirect evidence that the ideas embodied in the Jewish Scriptures and personified in the Jewish Synagogue were exerting enormous influence on all things Mediterranean.
A revised paradigm then would be that the Silent Years are years of exciting world-wide competition between the Greek establishment and the Roman New Order, while underneath, Judaism was sculpting new directions that were very disquieting in their own day and which remain fundamental paradigms and strains in Western society even today. “The Silent Years” are the first three acts of a stupendous, unfinished drama, the dark comedy of Western Thought and Culture. Well into the fifth act as we currently are, division about this comedy and this darkness, even division over whether it is a comedy or rather a tragedy, is still raging around us.
ITCHS was founded to study Travesty, Comedy, and Humor. We have occasionally made forays into Classical studies in these efforts and have been gratified by their reception. But if we are to do more in the foundational dramatic realities of the West, it seems necessary to provide an appropriate basic understanding of the times in which those foundations were laid. “The Seven-Day Week” is a first installment in that effort of understanding.]
* * *
The Inter-Testamental Period is the period in which the Jewish Scriptures entered “all the world” through a dispersed Jewish people with a Jewish religion based in those scriptures. Many of the Jewish Scriptures anticipated this outreach into all the world. For example, Psalm 22, a Psalm of David, was a cornerstone of Jewish hymnody. “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the LORD’s; and he is the governor among the nations” (28-29).
Ironically of course, the Jews would be carrying the Scriptures into all the world more as oppressed slaves than as conquerors.
It is that irony that has led to secular history that discounts both the Jews and their influence on the Mediterranean world and thus on Greco-Roman civilization in the Inter-Testamental Period.
The seven-day week is perhaps the most obvious and objective symbol of the often far-from-obvious interaction between Judaism and the Mediterranean world. We retell, then, the seven-day week story as it would be seen from a fairly Orthodox Jewish perspective:
The Jews had been “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). They were sure of being entrusted even as they were sure that the Jews had failed to live up to these oracles and had been sorely chastised for disobedience.
And central to these oracles was the Sabbath and inherently, the Seven-Day Week. From the time they fled out of Egypt, the Jews had been instructed to observe as central to their special, called-out, and separated relationship to God a seven-day week based firmly in a Sabbath rest, an eternal ordinance that witnessed to the Hebrews’ wonder-working God as also God the Creator.
The Jews thought of the Sabbath as “the Seventh Day,” the day God rested from the work of Creation, and thus the Sabbath was a memorial “day of rest.” Any economic, military, or other secular consequence of this was merely incidental and to be taken in stride. But to be a Jew at its core was to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest.
So, for Jews, the Sabbath was uniquely theirs, not to be shared with the goyim of any nation. “Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you” (Ex. 31:13b).
Outside Judaism, of course, there was a vested interest for working-class goyim to have a day off once in a while. By and large, in the ancient world of, say, 800 B.C., the working class didn’t get a day off. On the other hand, people needed a day to go shopping, a vendredi as the French would say, a selling day. If, as the Romans did, the shopping day in the early Republic, named the nunidiae, was every eighth day, then the eight-day period was a recognized unit something like what we now call a week. And agricultural laborers in particular could look forward, if not technically to a day of rest, at least to a differentiated day without the back-breaking regular-day obligations.
About three quarters of a century after 800 B.C., the Jews were dispersed, first under the Assyrian Captivity and later dragged off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (606-586 B.C.).
Technically, there would be a few more scriptural Prophets in Israel after the remnant returned in 538 B.C. But most Jews did not return. They did, however, continue to observe the Sabbath if allowed to do so where they had been scattered abroad.
And everyone noticed.
The working class would particularly notice and yearn for a day off for themselves.
We then move down a few centuries and by the 2nd century B.C., we do know of a Chaldean (Babylonian), astrological week. There were more Jews in the Babylon Euphrates at the time than in any other place in the world, including Judea.
The astrological week numbered hours after the ”seven planets,” and that allowed them to name the succeeding days of the week after whatever planet happened to be the first hour that day. This wasn’t Jewish practice at all—the Jews were calling the days by number after the days of Creation—but the astrological week did end up creating seven separately named days.
Worked right, the seventh day started with Saturn, the ill-omened planet, and no one in his right mind would want to do substantial business under the bane of its being Saturn’s day. So Saturn’ s day turned out to be the Jewish Sabbath, and everyone in Chaldea could lighten up: the Chaldeans basically to avoid continuous labor, the Jews to be in special relationship to God.
Evidently the Chaldean practice was attractive to working classes everywhere, and quite understandably so given an envious working-class understanding of Judaism.
By the early Roman Empire, Rome decided on a seven-day week, days named after the planets in the secular Chaldean pattern: Sunday (Sun’s day), Monday (Moon’s day) Tuesday (Mercury’s day) Wednesday (Jupiter’s day), Thursday (Mars’ day), Friday (Venus’ day) and Saturday (Saturn’s day.) Later Teutonic invaders forced Wednesday to honor Woden, Thursday to honor Thor, Friday to honor Frieda.
By the end of the 1st century A.D., Josephus could claim that “the whole world” had accepted the weekly Jewish calendar. Coincidentally, the early days of the Roman Empire are also the culminating days of the Inter-Testamental period, the supposedly Silent Years but also the years according to Josephus when everyone accepted the Jewish week.
The week as we have had it ever since was originally a Jewish scriptural reality meant only for Jews. But as a seven-day period with a day of rest, it had such working-class vested interests attachable to it that, once Jewish practice was widely understood in the Dispersion and once the Jewish week had been re-presented as an astrological week honoring planets and thus pagan deities, it was virtually inevitable that the privileged classes would have to eventually make the best of a bad deal and go along.
Incidentally too, the working-class vested interest didn’t end there. Today, we have calls for a four-day work week (out of seven days, of course!) In Martin Luther’s time, with the Peasants’ Revolt, the rallying peasant cry (we could call it their “bumper sticker”) became “Monday is Sunday’s brother”—in other words, we want a second day off (out of seven days, of course!)
* * *
In considering the adoption of a seven-day week, we have seen a classic pattern—perhaps The Classical pattern. Something starts entirely within the Jewish community based in the Jewish texts, primarily in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses giving the Law and presenting the history of Israel from the Creation, but more specifically from the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus becomes the defining picture of Jewish reality along with the Law as given during the Exodus. The Sabbath and Seven-Day Week along with the celebration of Passover become the defining picture of being a practicing Jew in special relationship to God.
But then Jews start to interact with non-Jews. The greatest of these interactions is accomplished through Assyrian and Babylonian Captivities and dispersions. Another is the translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek as the Septuagint, a translation for which we have very good evidence and a date of approximately 300 B.C. Finally, we have the Jewish Synagogue or assembly, in which the Scriptures are read and discussed. While non-Jews cannot join the Synagogue, they can be present and “overhear” its reading and discussions.
These are objective ancient realities. But after them, Gentiles who have become somewhat acquainted with Jews, Jewish practices, and/or Jewish Scriptures may decide in any one of perhaps innumerable ways to interact with this knowledge in their own personal lives and choices.
As has been seen for the Seven-Day Week, one of the main choices Gentiles seem to make is to take a somewhat distorted version of a Jewish original, take something they want from it, discard most of the rest, and then paper their work over with a veneer of pagan conformity.
This becomes a major paradigm, but it is not the only paradigm. This paradigm and alternates to it are the unfortunately overlooked ingredients for understanding Judaism’s burgeoning influence on the Mediterranean world as a whole in the vibrantly alive period from the last days of the Persian Empire and the rise of Greek overseas colonies to the bad Emperors of 1st century A.D. Rome.
Next chapter: Monotheism