by Al Maxey

Issue #173 ------- February 12, 2005
I'm not a teacher; only a fellow-traveler
of whom you asked the way. I pointed
ahead -- ahead of myself as well as you.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The Great Time Debate
Were the Events in Acts 20:7-12
Reckoned in Jewish or Roman Time?

In the spring of 58 A.D., after a five day voyage by ship from the city of Philippi, Paul arrived in Troas. Here he would spend the next week (Acts 20:6). His activities during that week are largely unknown to us. We do know, however, some of what happened on "the first day of the week." Paul gathered together in an upper room (on the third floor) with the disciples from Troas. There they spent many hours together in what must have been a wonderful and intimate fellowship. These brethren enjoyed an extended dialogue with Paul, they ate with one another, they witnessed the death and resurrection of a young man named Eutychus, and they apparently shared in the Lord's Supper together. On the next day, at daybreak, Paul departed from them and began the final leg of his journey to Jerusalem.

What a simple account of a wonderful evening. In just half a dozen verses the entire event unfolds before our eyes. And yet, disciples of Christ have debated these few words for centuries, and factions have been formed over differing dogmas regarding perceived patterns within this brief historical account by Luke. Paul and Luke both would undoubtedly toss in their graves if they knew even a fraction of the sectarian squabbling this account has generated among law-bound brethren. They have argued over why Paul stayed in Troas for seven days. They have had heated debate over the nature of the two "breaking bread" statements in the passage (vs. 7 & 11). Are these references to the Lord's Supper, or a common meal, or both? Some have declared vs. 7 is the Lord's Supper and vs. 11 is a common meal. Others argue just the opposite. And then there is the debate about the reckoning of time. Was this Jewish time or Roman time? Brethren have literally separated from one another over these matters.

If you are sitting there scratching your head in bewilderment over such nonsense .... join the club!! I heard a preacher once say, after listening to an extended debate over these "weighty matters," that he would like to grab all those involved and "slap the stupid out of them!" Harsh words, perhaps, but they reflect the frustration felt by many men and women of faith the world over. Although the answers to such questions may be of value to church historians, nevertheless the bulk of the debate has been waged by legalists and patternists. Those more spiritually focused couldn't, quite frankly, care less whether it was Saturday, Sunday or Monday that they "broke bread," and it matters little whether this phrase refers to a common meal, the Lord's Supper, or a combination of both. Such matters are "weighty" only to historians and to legalists; the former for the sake of historical accuracy, the latter for the sake of salvation! When fellowship and salvation depend on dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" ... when getting to heaven involves getting the "pattern" just right ... then these questions will indeed loom large before those patternists who depend upon exactness of every aspect of every example for their salvation.

What a horrid way to live one's life! Such people have no concept of God's grace. Freedom in Christ is completely foreign to them; they can't even grasp it. They are enslaved to a system of law, and, tragically, most don't even realize it. The leaders of these various factions will deny vehemently that they are bound to law. Indeed, they become irate at the suggestion. However, all one has to do is open the Bible to Acts 20 and ask them a few questions and one will quickly discover the real spirit that motivates them. They have built an entire theology around their assumptions and deductions from these half a dozen verses, and they will quickly cast you from their fellowship and consign you to the fires of hell if you dare to question their understanding of the text. There is no room whatsoever for diversity of conviction here. If a person does not submit to their perception of the pattern regarding this passage, that person is eternally lost. Period!

Perhaps you are wondering --- "What possible difference does it make if Luke had Jewish time or Roman time in view when he penned this passage?" Good question! To most disciples of Christ Jesus, it makes no difference at all. However, to the patternists the answer is a matter of life and death. The preservation of their Party depends upon the answer! If you answer "incorrectly," you can't even be regarded as a brother or sister in Christ. Thus, eternal life depends upon the answer to the question. You see, the patternists will declare -- and they use this passage in Acts 20 as the foundation of their theology -- that the Lord's Supper can ONLY be observed on Sunday. To remember the sacrifice of our Lord at ANY other time is a soul-damning sin. If a group of disciples gather together on Thursday evening (the day our Lord instituted this memorial) and lovingly remember what Jesus did for them by partaking of the bread and wine, God will send them to hell. I know, I know ... but that is the nature of this misguided theology, and I can assure you that they take it very seriously. If you violate their pattern, you will be tortured forever. A high price to pay for remembering the sacrifice of Jesus on any day other than Sunday! True, Paul quotes Jesus Christ as saying, "As often as you do this..." (1 Cor. 11:25-26), but this statement is deemed irrelevant by them! Troas observed the Lord's Supper on "the first day of the week," they declare, and that settles it ... forever ... for everyone. After all, we all know that human assumptions about a singular example always outweigh specific direction by the Son of God and an inspired apostle .... don't they?!! The patternists certainly seem to think so!

Jewish Reckoning of Time

Well, let's move on and get down to the debate itself. There are some who insist that Luke had Jewish time in mind when he wrote describing the events in Troas that weekend. Jewish time was reckoned from sundown to sundown. The Sabbath, for example, began at sundown on Friday and ended at sundown on Saturday. Acts 20:7 tells us that the brethren in Troas met "on the first day of the week." If this was according to Jewish time, the disciples would have met sometime between sundown Saturday and sundown Sunday. Since this was an all night meeting, and since Paul departed at "daybreak" (vs. 11), the saints would have met sometime after sunset on Saturday evening, and Paul would have departed after sunrise on Sunday.

Those legalists and patternists who adopt this view must, therefore, find a way to fit the Lord's Supper into a Sunday ONLY observance. They do this by declaring that Acts 20:7 is only a statement of intent, and that the actual observance of the Lord's Supper is pictured in vs. 11. Why do they declare this? Because the "breaking bread" in vs. 11 occurs after midnight, which would place it in the early hours of Sunday morning. Of course, if they were serious about binding this pattern precisely, they would have to meet in an upper room (specifically a third floor room) and partake of the Lord's Supper prior to sunrise. But, as we all know, they practice pared patternism. Parts of patterns they keep, and parts of patterns they don't. Who decides which parts? Well, they do, of course! But, then ... "Parts is parts!"

Those who promote the Jewish reckoning of time here are quick to point out that the phrase "first day of the week" is literally, in the Greek -- "the first of the Sabbaths" (te mia ton sabbaton). This phrase appears eight times in the NT writings -- Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2. Since the word "Sabbath" is used in the text, they assert, this must be a Jewish reckoning of time. This raises some interesting questions with regard to pattern, however. If this was indeed an example of the saints in Troas meeting on Saturday night "to break bread" (vs. 7), would this not indicate that the NORM would have been to observe the Lord's Supper on Saturday night? After all, the breaking of bread in vs. 11 was because Paul "prolonged his message until midnight" (vs. 7). An all night meeting would very likely NOT have been normal custom in Troas. The next day, after all, was a regular work day for these people. Thus, they would most certainly, under normal circumstances, have been home prior to midnight. Therefore, would not the NORM for the partaking of the Lord's Supper have been Saturday night?!

It should also be pointed out that those who advocate the Jewish time theory have probably made far more of the phrase "the first of the Sabbaths" than is warranted. The phrase had become so common in the first century that it had actually carried over into the usage of the various peoples of the empire, and had simply come to represent the day we know as Sunday. Any connection with Jewish custom or practice had been lost. In like manner, we today refer to the first day of the week as "Sunday," although I doubt many of us do so in honor of the sun. Thus, our own designations for the days of the week come from paganism, but that doesn't mean we follow the teachings of sun or moon worship. We simply have adopted the terms without having adopted the teachings that led to the formation of those terms. This was also the case with the expression "the first of the Sabbaths." It simply referred to the first day of the week, and is so translated in almost all versions of the Bible. Thus, the phrase itself in no way suggested a Jewish reckoning of time exclusive of any other.

Therefore, interpreters of Acts 20:7-12 should not read more into the phrase than is warranted. Although the wording may be Jewish in nature, that does not suggest the actual reckoning of time to have been. It may have been, but then again it may not have been. That will be determined far more by the context than by the phrase alone. To prove the events of Acts 20:7-12 in the city of Troas are portrayed in Jewish time, one must somehow show from the context that such an interpretation is both reasonable and required. It is my opinion, based on my study of the text and context, that this would be extremely difficult to do. There is simply nothing within the passage itself to warrant a Jewish reckoning of time, and much in the passage that suggests otherwise, as we shall soon see.

Roman Reckoning of Time

Although here and there one will find a few people who absolutely insist that the Jewish reckoning of time is inherent within the Acts 20 passage, such a view is very much in the minority. The vast majority of biblical scholars, myself included, believe the passage clearly suggests the Roman reckoning of time. There are several important facts to keep in mind here when seeking to interpret this passage. First, it must not be overlooked that Troas was a Roman colony. Indeed, it was Rome's second capital in Asia, and was even exempt from the land tax as it was viewed as a part of Italy. The citizens would have been largely Gentile, and would not have been living according to Jewish customs ... and that would include the reckoning of time. Why would Rome's Asian capital adopt a non-Roman method of measuring time? It would be illogical, and there is no historical evidence they did so.

But, let's return to the question of whether this was Jewish or Roman reckoning of time. As previously noted, Troas was a distinguished Roman colony. Although the city certainly had Jews living within it, as most cities of the empire did, nevertheless the population was largely Gentile. The Jews would have been the "newcomers" to the area. It seems rather unlikely, therefore, to expect all these Gentile cities to suddenly transform their reckoning of time to accommodate the Jewish preference. On the contrary, history shows us that most of the Jews of the dispersion tended to try to adapt themselves, at least to some extent, when it didn't directly violate their Law, to their new environments. Thus, it is more likely that they would have adopted the Roman reckoning of time, than vice versa.

Also, consider the fact that the book of Acts is written by Luke, a Gentile physician, to the "most excellent Theophilus," who was also most likely a Gentile. When Gentiles write to Gentiles, describing events in a Gentile city, doesn't it make sense that the Gentile reckoning of time would be the most logical? What would be the purpose of depicting the events in Jewish time?

Consider also a couple of statements within the text of our passage in Acts 20. There is no question but what this was an evening assembly. That is true regardless of which reckoning of time one adopts. They met after sundown, and Paul "prolonged his message until midnight" (vs. 7). After the death and revival of Eutychus, he then "talked with them a long while, until daybreak" (vs. 11). Thus, the events of this passage all occurred during the hours of darkness, between sundown and sunrise. No one would argue that point. Given these facts, notice that it was Paul's intent, when he came to meet with these brethren that evening, "to depart the next day" (vs. 7).

This, of course, presents some challenges to the patternists with regard to the timing of the observance of the Lord's Supper. Acts 20:7 does not depict the actual observance of this memorial meal, but rather states the intent of their assembling was to observe this breaking of bread --- "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread." When this "breaking bread" occurred during the course of their time together is not specified; only that this was their intent. The only mention of an actual "breaking of bread" is vs. 11. IF this was a reference to the Lord's Supper, and IF Roman time is in view, then this memorial meal occurred in the early hours on Monday.


As biblical interpreters we need to be very honest with ourselves and the text, and we need to face reality! There are simply so many factual uncertainties regarding the Acts 20:7-12 account, and such a wide diversity of assumptions made regarding this text, that for anyone to dogmatically promote his own position or tradition as ultimate Truth -- doctrine and practice to which all others must submit in order to be saved or in fellowship with them -- is a grave hermeneutical failing. We simply don't have sufficient information to fabricate LAW to which we then demand all men everywhere become amenable or else face eternal damnation. That is presumption bordering on heresy. The inevitable result of such a mentality, and it is evident all about us in Christendom, is the ever increasing fragmentation of the One Body of our Lord Jesus Christ into countless feuding factions.

Depending upon one's perspective, the breaking of bread could occur on either Saturday, Sunday or Monday. All have been argued for over the centuries, and the proponents of each position have sought validation from the same text -- Acts 20:7-12. This ought to tell us something, brethren. There is simply too much we don't know, and too much we must assume, for any of us to be dogmatic. I have my own opinions and assumptions about the passage, but that is all they are. Thus, I will never force others to agree with my views, nor will I ever question their relationship with the Lord merely because they may have arrived at a different conviction. Our fellowship and salvation is based upon a common faith in the One whom we remember in the breaking of bread, NOT upon agreement as to the day, or time of day, that memorial is observed. Ultimately, I go back to the words of my Savior, as recorded by the inspired apostle Paul, who said, "As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of Me" (1 Cor. 11:23-30). If more of us will just focus on the heart and soul of this meal, rather than feuding over countless patternistic particulars the sum total of which don't amount to a hill of beans, we just might come closer to experiencing the unity for which our Lord prayed and for which He died.

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in California:

My dear brother, The Principle of Reciprocity was another excellent article (as I've come to expect from you)! Bro. Terry Rush, of Memorial Drive in Tulsa, has written an excellent book on this subject -- "The Mandate of Mercy." He told me shortly after its publication that it just dawned on him one day, after reflecting on the verses you used, that "we write our own script for judgment." That phrase has stuck with me for several years and reminds me to be merciful to others.

From a Minister in Belgium:

Dear Al Maxey, Sometime ago I received weekly your Reflections, but some bad virus in my PC mixed up everything and so I lost contact. I would like to receive again your Reflections. Sorry for my English!

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Thank you, Al, for "The Principle of Reciprocity." For quite some time in my prayers, when I ask God to forgive me, I follow with: "Help me forgive others as You have forgiven me." This helps me to constantly remember the lessons taught in your last Reflections.

From a Reader in Texas:

You got me in the heart with this last one! I have to get over the way we have been treated, and go on treating others with consideration, regardless of their treatment of me and mine.

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, "The Principle of Reciprocity" was a great lesson for us all. I just happen to preach for a small group that had differences with their brethren that caused a split. If you don't mind, I would like to make copies of your article and hand them out to the congregation next Sunday!

From a Ph.D. in Alabama:

Al, I just wanted to send you a quick note to say that, although all of your Reflections articles are excellent, the most recent issue -- "The Principle of Reciprocity" -- has to be the best one so far! It is a message that ALL of us need to hear. Thank you for all you have done to encourage, instruct, enlighten, and edify me through your writings. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in California:

Al, Thank you so much for this article on reciprocity. Talk about getting back to basics! Sometimes I guess we all need some "Spirituality 101." Our minister recently used an illustration on forgiveness that has stuck with me. He said that our forgiveness for others MUST be unconditional, because if we do not forgive someone that our God has forgiven, we fall under God's judgment ourselves. That is definitely NOT a place I want to be! I can't tell you how much more free I feel now that I don't need to worry about judging my brother or sister! I've come to the conclusion that I'm not competent enough to judge another person. I'll leave that up to God. Thank you again for this Reflections ministry!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Just a short note on Issue #172. As usual, it was the writing of a genius! Many thanks for your hard work in preparing these wonderful documents! The woods are full of those who practice the "flip side" of the Golden Rule -- "Do him before he does you!" Al, there are those who hate you for the open and forward way you present the message of Christ. They are trying to "do" you before you "do" them. Thankfully, you are right and practice the love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness that you expressed in your last Reflections. The LOVE of a Christian is greater than all of our manmade rules. Again, thank you. I'm looking forward to the next Reflections.

Reflections on Two CD's
From a Minister in Arizona:

Bro. Maxey, I have been reading a lot of your Reflections on the Internet, and I have decided that I should just order the CD's so I wouldn't be tying up the phone lines so much. Enclosed is a $20 bill for both CD's. I really appreciate your writings and your research into the Word. I have been preaching since 1963 in "Instrumental" Churches of Christ, and we have always been rather conservative. But in many ways we have been too much like the Pharisees. I have been trying to broaden my views for a number of years now, and I just love to read your Reflections because they reflect much of my own conclusions. Keep up the good work!

Attention: One Cup Brethren
From a Minister in Missouri:

Al, I know you are busy, however I need to ask you to consider doing something for me. I have fully taken your Reflections article "Evangelizing the Enslaved" to heart, and I intend to practice this! Al, I would like to make contact with the other two (perhaps more?) One Cup ministers who subscribe to your articles. I believe one was from Texas. I have seen some of their responses in the Readers' section, although no names are given. If I could hook up with them perhaps we could all work together to evangelize the enslaved within this group (of which I too am a member). Al, you said that we have to be people of courage, so please help me find these brethren. I love you, brother, and thank you for what you've done for me!!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Al, you wrote in your last article: "I'm convinced that one of the greatest needs among members of the Family of God today is a better appreciation of the Principle of Reciprocity. ... Tragically, this failure will cost a great many people their very salvation. It is that serious!" I am surprised at you, brother. Salvation by works! Have you gone mad?! (I only wish you could see my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek.) That was another wonderful lesson! Although we have at times disagreed, I do believe in giving honor where honor is due. In my opinion, there is not a more balanced writer that I have been able to find on the Internet than you. Your ministry is a blessing!

From a Methodist Pastor in Iowa:

Even though I cannot pronounce the word "reciprocity," I am supporting the concept whole-heartedly! What goes around comes around. The self-inflicted misery in such persons I call being "baptized in lemon juice!" We take our sour dispositions out upon others! How unfortunate! Your Reflections article today reminded me to be careful in reciprocating the wrong things, and to be much more generous with the right kinds of reciprocations. I thank you for the thoughtfulness of your Reflections. May the Lord richly bless you!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Dear Al, I really don't know why it has taken me so long to email you and tell you Thank You for your heart and love for Christ. I really enjoy reading your thoughts and being challenged. I actually print your Reflections out and share them with friends and family, so many others are being touched as well. I have several friends who need to read your book Down, But Not Out. Although I have not read it all, I know it will be a big help to them. Thanks for using the gift that God gave you to help others.

From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother, The recalling of the events at the end of your mother-in-law's life here on earth so closely paralleled the passing of my own dear mother in 2003. The family gathering at her bedside with hymns and prayer is exactly what we did at my own Mom's passing. Knowing the tough days that were ahead of me as the family leader, I did not allow myself time for grief, and had not truly grieved until I read this Reflections about your wife's mother. Then the tears flowed freely, releasing a grief that had been denied for many months. Thank you for this help to me in your own time of grief. May the Lord help you and yours through the days ahead as the family slowly adjusts to Mom being gone.

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