This note (on Matthew 12:5-8) is a supplement to my current article(s) on the “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospels (part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”). In the episode of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ criticism has two parts:
- He cites the example of David and his men at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6)
- The saying: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”
In between these, Mark has an additional saying of Jesus (Mk 2:27): “the Sabbath came to be for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Matthew, by contrast, includes three different sayings of Jesus which may (or may not) have been uttered on separate occasions and joined together by thematic (or “catchword”) bonding. Each of these will be discussed in turn:
“Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath (day)s the sacred officials [i.e. priests] in the sacred place [i.e. Temple] cross the threshold of [i.e. transgress/violate] the Sabbath and (yet) do not require an inquiry [i.e. are without fault/guilt]?”
The example from 1 Sam 21:1-6 does not relate directly to the question of violating the Sabbath law; the general example Jesus adds here increases the relevance. As a practical necessity, in order to maintain the Temple ritual, the priests (and other Temple officials) have to perform work, even on the Sabbath. There is an implicit underlying principle: those who perform work related to the sacred place (that is, the Temple) are exempt from the Sabbath restriction. But does Jesus mean to indicate that his disciples, in the simple action of plucking grain in the fields, are somehow to be compared with those who work in the Temple? The logic is extended by Jesus with the saying in verse 6.
“But I say to you that (something/someone) more than the sacred place [i.e. Temple] is here”
The statement is concise and rather ambiguous: “but I say to you that more/greater [mei=zo/n] than the Temple is here”. It is generally thought that Jesus is referring to himself; this has to be inferred from the context, but it is a fair assumption. Critical scholars may doubt the authenticity of this saying; but, if it is authentic, then it is one of the clearest statements by Jesus to the effect that he surpasses the Law (especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects) in his own person. The ‘Temple-saying’ in John 2:19 (cf. also Mark 14:58 par) also suggests that Jesus himself fulfills and, in a (spiritual/symbolic) sense, replaces, the Jerusalem Temple. What precisely is meant by the comparative/superlative adjective mei=zon (“more, greater”)? It is tempting to read in subsequent Christological considerations (with regard to incarnate Deity in the person of Christ), but it is better to keep to the context—what is involved in this passage? An outline of the sequence of the narrative may be helpful, with key themes and elements emphasized, presented as a chiasm:
- The action on the Sabbath is in response to physical need (hunger), also emphasized in the Sabbath healing stories
- It is the disciples—those following Jesus—who perform the action
- The action is viewed by religious authorities as a violation of the Sabbath (though the claim is questionable at best)
- The disciples (those in service to Jesus) are compared with those who serve in the Temple
- It is the disciples—those following Jesus—who perform the action
- Jesus declares his authority over the Sabbath, either to interpret the Sabbath law or to override/contravene it
According to this structure, the central religious claim (of the disciples violating the Sabbath) almost becomes irrelevant, whether or not the claim is accurate. For, surely, the argument in verses 5-8 would (or could) apply even to a more serious (and legitimate) violation of the Sabbath restriction. The implication is rather stunning: those engaged in ministry and service to God (and Christ), in the midst of such service, are not bound by the Sabbath law. Interestingly, the logical consequences of this idea do not seem to have been pursued elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, nor even in the early Church, at least not for some years.
“But/and if you had known what (this) is [i.e. what this means]—’I wish (for) mercy and not (for ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]’—you would not have brought down judgment against the (ones) requiring no inquiry [i.e. the guiltless]”
Perhaps even more striking is the use here of Hosea 6:6a, also cited in Matt 9:13. The context of the previous passage is the call of Matthew/Levi (cf. Mark 2:13-17 par), where certain Pharisees had similarly objected to Jesus eating with toll-collectors and “sinners”. There are two sayings of Jesus in Mark 2:17:
“The ones (who are) strong have no requirement for (one) who cures/heals, but the ones having illness (do)”
“I did not come to call the ones (who are) just/righteous, but sinners”
In Matthew, the saying with Hosea 6:6a is included between these. The original verse in Hosea is part of an exhortation for repentance and a return to YHWH; v. 6 echoes a familiar prophetic theme emphasizing ethical behavior and spiritual integrity over the ritual/ceremonial dimension of religion. The entire verse, rendered from the Hebrew, reads:
“For I desire(d) (faithful) kindness and not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice],
and knowledge of the Mightiest One [i.e. God/Elohim] more than (the) rising of (burt offering)s”
This basic teaching is effectively summarized by the scribe in Mark 12:28-34, who responds to Jesus’ declaration of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (vv. 29-31):
“Upon truth [i.e. truly] you have said (it) beautifully, Teacher… to love Him out of (one’s) whole heart and out of (one’s) whole understanding and out of (one’s) whole strength—and to love (one’s) neighbor as himself—is over (and) above [i.e. far more than] all the whole burnt (offering)s and (ritual) slayings [i.e. sacrifices]” (vv. 32-33)
Jesus affirms the substance of the scribe’s comment by saying “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).
The context in Matthew 12:1-8 even more dramatically emphasizes the distinction, as a juxtaposition between following Jesus and the Temple cultus (especially in verse 6, above). This would seem to involve a devaluing, or relativizing, of the sacrificial offerings associated with the Temple (and required according to the Torah). A proper treatment of this question is better reserved for a discussion of Jesus and the Temple (upcoming in the series on “Jesus and the Law”). However, the concluding saying of Jesus in verse 8 is certainly relevant:
“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”
This is nearly identical with the parallel versions in Mark 2:28 / Lk 6:5; though the additional sayings and teachings in vv. 5-7 (above) have added depth and resonance to the Matthean form of the declaration. We are perhaps seeing the beginnings of a clear Christological dimension within the early Gospel tradition. This raises the question of the relationship between the Matthean and Markan/Lukan versions here; from an historical-critical and tradition-critical standpoint, there are two main possibilities:
- Matthew has added verses 5-7 to a simpler (earlier) form of the narrative, best represented by Luke 6:1-5
- Matthew preserves a more complete version of the (historical) narrative, which has been simplified/shortened in Mark and Luke
Critical scholars would, I think, almost universally opt for the first, while traditional-conservative commentators would tend to prefer the second. Much depends on one’s view of the way Gospel tradition has developed. A critical rule of thumb is that elements or details which increase or add to a heightened view of Jesus’ person and nature tend to be added to the Gospel (and textual) tradition, not removed. If Matt 12:5-7 were original to the historical tradition, it is hard to see why they would be removed from Mark/Luke (or their underlying sources), whereas a reason for their addition is easy to find—they help to explain the narrative and serve to join together vv. 4 and 8. This does not mean that vv. 5-7 are not authentic sayings of Jesus, but only that they may have been added to the context here. Be that as it may, it is necessary that we deal with the text of Matthew as it has come down to us; and the presence of vv. 5-7 has several interesting effects related to an understanding of verse 8:
- The sayings involving the Temple in vv. 5-6 result in expanding the position and authority of the Son of Man: from the Sabbath law, in particular, to a larger view of the Law (as a whole), especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects.
- It is the particular ritual aspects of the Law—the sacrificial offerings and the Temple cultus—which are relativized or devalued in verses 6-7; by logical extension, back to verse 5 and ahead to verse 8, the Sabbath command would also appear to be relativized—following Jesus takes priority.
- Though not clearly stated, the saying in verse 6, joined with that in verse 8, has a decided Christological ring to it—that which is greater than the Temple (and, it would seem, the Sabbath as well) is identified with Jesus’ own person. Even if one may question whether the historical Jesus held this self-identification precisely, there can be no real doubt that the Gospel writers (and most early Christians) understood the matter this way. I believe that, within Gospel tradition, the emphasis is more on the personal authority of Jesus, rather than his deity as such, but the latter is certainly present and would come to dominate early Christian tradition.