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Jesus and the Law, Part 5: The Sabbath Controversies (continued)

In the Part 4 of this series I examined the main “Sabbath Controversy” story in the Gospels—the Sabbath healing miracles; here I will look at the second narrative tradition (Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath), as well as provide several concluding observations on the subject.

The Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath

This episode appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), and follows a simple narrative outline (using the Markan version):

  • As Jesus and his disciples pass through a grainfield on the Sabbath, the disciples pluck the heads of grain (to eat, being hungry), v. 23
  • Pharisees observe this (or otherwise learn about it) and apparently object to the disciples’ action: “(for) what are they doing on the Sabbath (day)s that which is not right/lawful?”, v. 24
  • Jesus responds by citing the episode of David at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6), where he and his men ate from the sacred loaves in the sanctuary (the “bread of the Presence”), vv. 25-26
  • The narrative concludes with a twin saying in vv. 27-28: (a) “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath”, and (b) “so too the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath”

The Lukan version is nearly identical to that of Mark; in Matthew there are included additional/expanded sayings of Jesus (Matt 12:5-7, on which see below). Interestingly, neither Matthew nor Luke includes the saying of v. 27 in Mark. Clearly this narrative is much simpler and shows less development than the healing miracle story-form previously discussed; however, it does have several elements in common (in addition to the Sabbath setting):

  • Jesus (or his disciples) take part in modest activity which responds to human (physical) need
  • Religious authorities (Pharisees) object to it as a violation of the Sabbath (though by any reasonable standard it is hardly such)
  • Jesus answers with a declarative saying and a practical example

Some critical scholars have thought that the narrative episode is an artificial construction, either as a reflection of early Jewish-Christian disputes, or to provide a setting for the saying(s) in Mark 2:27-28 par. However, if it is a product of the early Church, one would perhaps expect a more relevant life-setting than we find here. The healing miracle stories are more clearly intended to illustrate a saying of Jesus, and the critical view is more plausible in those instances.

Whether the disciples’ action in any way constitutes a violation of the Sabbath, as the Pharisees in the narrative claim, will be touched on briefly below. More noteworthy is the way that Jesus comments on the incident (and the Pharisees’ objection to it):

  • The example of David and his men from 1 Sam 21:1-6 demonstrates an instance when a far more egregious (apparent) violation of religious law and ritual was permitted in the face of human need (physical hunger). In the original historical context of the Old Testament narrative, the only issue mentioned is whether David and his men were in a state of impurity (vv. 4-5); if they had been, presumably they would not have been permitted (properly) to touch the sacred bread. Interestingly, this example does not deal directly with the legal question raised by the Pharisees, though the added sayings in Matthew increase the relevance.
  • The principal saying of Jesus (in all three Synoptics) is: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”. This will be discussed in more detail in a separate note. Mark has the additional saying “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath” (v. 27). The Greek preposition used is dia/ (“through”), but here better rendered in normal English as “for (the sake of)”—that is, God instituted the command to rest on the Sabbath to serve and help human beings, not the other way around (but cf. the reason stated in Exod 20:9-11). The twin sayings in Mark, then, make two basic points: (a) the Sabbath rest is meant to aid the human condition, and (b) the Son of Man has authority over the Sabbath.

These sayings of Jesus are fundamental to his teaching and view of the Sabbath—but how exactly should they be understood? Here it is necessary to refer back to the conclusion of Part 4, where I specified two main aspects for understanding and interpreting the Sabbath controversy stories—the legal-religious aspect, and the theological-christological aspect. Each will be discussed here in turn.

Conclusion:
The legal-religious aspect

The command to observe the Sabbath is specified in Exodus 20:8-11 (part of the Decalogue), cf. also Exod 16:26; 23:12; 31:13-17; 34:21; 35:2; Lev 19:3, 30; 23:3. The reason given is that the Sabbath—the seventh day—is holy, dedicated to YHWH (v. 10), in honor of his work as Creator (v. 11a); God blessed the Sabbath day and declared (made) it holy (v. 11b). The basic command involved the prohibition that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, but there are few specific and practical examples in the Torah itself as to what defines or constitutes “work”; thus, one task of religious authorities and interpreters of the Torah, was to clarify this point (e.g. tractate Shabbath in the Mishnah, ch. 7).

Interestingly, in neither the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics nor the episode of the disciples’ plucking grain, is there a clear violation of the Sabbath. Jesus’ healing miracles (as recorded) involve no actual work—commanding the man to stretch out his hand, or laying his hands on the crippled woman. Exod 34:21 forbids work on the Sabbath related to harvesting (and see m. Shabb. 7.2), but the disciples’ behavior would scarcely qualify; the example in Num 15:32-36 is perhaps a closer fit, but even that is highly questionable. What, then, should we make of the objection made by the religious authorities (“scribes and Pharisees”)?—there are several possibilities:

  • it is a sincere objection, based an ultra-strict interpretation of the Sabbath law
  • an overly-strict interpretation is being used (under pretense) in order to accuse Jesus or to portray him as a “sinner”
  • it is being used as a pretext to mask opposition to Jesus, out of jealously, personal animus, etc
  • it is a caricature, lampooning the religious views of the “scribes and Pharisees”

Arguments could be made in favor of each of these; the second and third would best fit the actual description of events in the Gospel narrative, though I am inclined to believe there is a touch of the fourth in the Gospel tradition as well. The response of the Synagogue leader in Luke 13:14 is the only instance where we find an explanation: superficially, at least, he draws upon the actual reasoning in the original command (Exod 20:8-11), with the implication that healing could be done on any of the six days when work is allowed—why not wait a day to heal the woman? Jesus’ response dramatically emphasizes the human element—this woman has been suffering for eighteen years, why should she not be healed on the Sabbath (i.e. why should she have to wait another day)? With regard to the Sabbath healing stories, the legal question is clearly specified—

“is it right/lawful [e&cestin] to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt 12:10; Lk 14:3)

which Jesus expands/generalizes in Mk 3:4 as:

“is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath … to save life… ?”

Three different (but parallel/similar) examples are used in dealing with the care of animals; even on the Sabbath, one would naturally: (a) untie an ox/donkey and lead it to drink (Lk 13:15), (b) lift out a sheep that fell into a pit (Matt 12:11), or (c) pull out an ox that has fallen into a well (Lk 14:5 with var.). The implication is obvious—how much more should one care for a human being on the Sabbath! But is it possible that this principle giving priority to human (physical) need over technical observance of the Sabbath regulation means that Jesus is, in fact, opposing the Law? Consider the example in Num 15:32-36, regarding the man who is put to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath—would not Jesus oppose such an application of the Law, in a manner similar to that described in John 8:1-11? It is an interesting question, but one which requires that we proceed to the second main aspect of the Sabbath-controversy stories.

The theological-christological aspect

This is best examined in terms of the principal saying of Jesus in Mark 2:28 par:

“the Son of Man is lord [ku/rio$] (even) of the Sabbath”

I will be looking at this saying (in its Matthean context) in more detail in a supplemental note, but here several different interpretations can be considered:

  • taking the Hebrew/Aramaic expression “son of man” in its ordinary sense (as “human being, mortal”), it may be a more dramatic way of saying what Jesus does in v. 27—that human need and care takes priority even over the Sabbath law
  • that Jesus (as the “Son of Man”) has authority (ku/rio$ in the basic sense of “lord, master”) which surpasses even that of the (Sabbath) Law, either in the sense that
    (a) by his word or action he can override the Sabbath regulations
    (b) he has authority to declare the true purpose, intent, and interpretation of the Sabbath
    (c) following the teaching and example of Jesus takes priority over specific observance of the (Sabbath) Law
  • that Jesus (the “Son of Man”) is also Lord, in the divine sense (as “Son of God”), even as God the Father (YHWH) is Lord; the Sabbath observance is dedicated to God, in his honor, and he has complete control over it

Again, arguments could be made for each of these points, but 2b perhaps best fits the overall Gospel presentation. We should, however, consider several related points:

  • Rather than simply rejecting (or correcting) the Pharisees’ criticism and application of the Law, Jesus takes the opportunity to address a deeper question as to the nature and ultimate purpose of the Sabbath command, much as he does else where in his teaching (such as in the Sermon on the Mount)
  • In what is perhaps the earlier strand of Gospel tradition, Jesus’ emphasis is on the priority of caring for the (physical) need of human beings, rather than the nature of his personal authority (regarding the Law)
  • The saying in Mark 2:28 par would seem to emphasize Jesus’ authority (as “Son of Man”, cf. also Mk 2:10 par) in relation to the Law
  • The additional sayings in Matt 12:5-7 stress even more clearly that Jesus’ authority—in his own person—surpasses that of the Law (and the Temple)
  • The Sabbath healing in John 5 is connected with an even more developed discussion regarding Jesus’ divine authority (as Son of God) and his relationship to God the Father

This suggests a process of development in Gospel tradition, leading from a relatively simple combination of short narrative and saying of Jesus to a more extended discourse with unmistakable Christological implications. But is it possible, at the historical level, that Jesus’ opponents—that is, certain “scribes and Pharisees” and other religious authorities—recognized the claims implicit in his words and actions from the beginning? Consider how, in the Synoptic tradition, the Sabbath healing of Mark 3:1-6 par represents the moment when the religious authorities begin to seek Jesus’ destruction (v. 6), a result seemingly out of proportion with the events of the narrative as we have them. John 5:18 specifically connects Jesus’ violation (“loosing”) of the Sabbath with saying that God was his Father (“making himself equal with God”), as their reason for wishing to kill him. This same question and issue will arise again regarding Jesus’ relationship to the Temple—which is the subject of the next part in this series.

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