was successfully added to your cart.

Note of the Day – March 5 (Mark 2:23-28; Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5)

Mark 2:23-28 par—Sabbath Controversy #1

Following the method I have adopted for this series, I begin with the Gospel of Mark, as generally representing the basic Synoptic tradition. However, in this instance, there are at least two points where a distinct Markan addition may be involved. For the context of this episode within the Gospel narrative, cf. the previous day’s note.

The structure of the scene is reasonably simple and straightforward:

  • The narrative setting and action—the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (v. 23)
  • Reaction by certain Pharisees (v. 24)
  • Jesus’ answer to them—an example from Scripture (vv. 25-26)
  • Saying(s) of Jesus (vv. 27-28)

The saying (or pair of saying) in verses 27-28 provides the central significance of the scene and characterizes it as a pronouncement episode (the earlier scene in vv. 13-17 is another such episode). Let us briefly examine each of the four components in vv. 23-28:

Verse 23—The scene is set: “And it came to be (that)….”. Jesus and his disciples are traveling along, and, as they make their way through some fields, the disciples begin to pluck the heads of grain from the stalks. The centrality of the Sabbath setting is established by the relative emphatic position of the phrase “on (one of) the Shabbat (day)s” toward the beginning of the verse. The plural usage is fairly common, indicating the regularity of the day, as marking each week of the year.

Verse 24—Some Pharisees react with disapproval at the disciples’ behavior. The narrative leads one to imagine that they are right there standing in the fields watching; but it more plausibly represents the type of reaction that Jesus’ traditional-religious opponents (i.e. among the Pharisees) had to the (regular) behavior of he and his disciples. Their question to Jesus is “For what [i.e. why] do (your followers) do on the Sabbath (day)s th(at) which is not allowed?” The word translated “allowed” here is the verb e&cesti, which is difficult to render into English literally, but fundamentally refers to something which comes out of (e)c) a person—i.e. that one has the ability to do. From this is developed the idea of a person’s freedom to do something, and, by extension, that there are no obstacles against doing it—i.e. one is allowed or permitted to do it. Here, in the context of the Old Testament Law (Torah) this means what the Law permits (or does not permit). For the background to the Sabbath observance involved in this passage (cf. Exod 34:21, etc), consult my earlier discussion on the Sabbath controversy episodes in the series “Jesus and the Law”.

Verses 25-26—In response, Jesus cites an example from Scripture, from the life of David (1 Sam 21:1-6). Even though, in the context of that passage, the Temple had not yet been built, and the sanctuary (at the time) was located at the site of Nob, it is referred to as the “house of God” (o( oi@ko$ tou= qeou=), which could be applied easily enough to the Jerusalem Temple, as we see in Matthew’s version (below). The basic message is clear enough: caring for human need (in this case, hunger) takes precedence over religious regulations (i.e. the Temple ritual, cf. Lev 24:5-9).

Verses 27-28—The episode culminates with a saying by Jesus (or, possibly, a pair of sayings). It is not entirely clear whether the Gospel here has joined together separate sayings by Jesus, or whether they entered into the tradition originally as a dual-saying. In my view, the latter is more likely. Here is the two-fold saying as it reads in Mark:

“The Shabbat {Sabbath} (day) is through [i.e. because of] the man, and not the man through the Shabbat (day)”
“So too the S/son of M/man is L/lord also of the Shabbat (day)”

The saying in verse 27 is relatively straightforward, though commentators have not always grasped the full consequence of it. Jesus essentially reverses the original sense of the Sabbath Law (and tradition)—it was instituted to commemorate God ceasing (or “resting”) from His work of Creation (Exod 20:8-11, etc). Yet Jesus states that it was put in place “through [dia] man”—that is, on behalf of, for the purpose and benefit of, human beings. This, of course, is also part of the basic Sabbath Law (Exod 16:23-29, etc). But in this context—with the emphasis on the care and concern for the needs of human beings—the Sabbath regulation takes on a humanitarian, rather than ritual, purpose. Given the thrust of verse 27, it is possible that v. 28 is parallel to it. In the Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) idiom, the expression “son of man” is often synonymous with “man”, the two being set as parallel frequently in Hebrew poetry, i.e. “man…son of man…” (Num 23:19; Job 16:21; Psalm 8:4; Isa 51:12, et al). In such instances, it refers to humankind generally. If this is the sense in which Jesus uses it here, then the dual saying would be understood something like:

“The Sabbath was put in place for man, not man for the Sabbath
Even so, is man the lord of the Sabbath!”

In other sayings and situations, however, Jesus uses the expression “son of man” in a different sense—(1) in reference to himself, both as a human being, and/or as the Chosen One of God, and (2) specifically identifying himself as the divine/heavenly representative of God (“the Son of Man”) who will appear at the end-time Judgment. For more on this subject, cf. the article in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”. There can be little doubt that Matthew and Luke understood the expression here as a self-title of Jesus (cf. below).

Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5

This brings us to the tradition as it appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both Gospels generally follow the Markan narrative, with three notable differences:

  • They refer to the disciples plucking the heads of grain and eating (Matt 12:1; Lk 6:1) them. This has to be inferred from the narrative in Mark, but the detail places greater emphasis on the theme of caring for human needs (i.e. hunger)—indeed, Matthew specifically mentions that the disciples were hungry.
  • They each omit, or otherwise do not include, any mention of the (High) Priest who served at Nob (12:3f; 6:3f). Most critical commentators, who hold that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, believe that the reference was left out intentionally, since mention of Abiathar as the Priest would seem to represent an inaccuracy by Mark (consult the standard Commentaries for more on this point). It is less likely to be a Markan addition to the core Synoptic tradition, but that is still a possibility; even an early scribal addition or gloss might be considered.
  • Neither Matthew nor Luke has the saying corresponding to Mk 2:27.

This last detail is especially significant, since the lack of any reference to the first saying (about man) effectively removes the possibility that the expression “son of man” is meant in the generic sense in the second saying (12:8; 6:5, cf. above). In Matthew and Luke, almost certainly, it is understood as a (self-)title of Jesus and should be translated so—i.e., “Son of Man”. The saying then takes on a different emphasis; Jesus is identifying himself as the “Lord of the Sabbath”. The implication of this is clear enough—as the Lord over the Sabbath, Jesus’ words and actions, his ministry and personal presence, take precedence over the Sabbath laws. Whether or not the Pharisees properly interpret the regulations ultimately is beside the point; the emphasis is on Jesus’ authority over the Sabbath.

If there were any doubt in this regard, Matthew’s version makes it abundantly clear, by way of the ‘additions’ which are found in verses 5-7. These are three-fold:

  1. A second example from Scripture involving the Priesthood (v. 5), which makes the point in a different manner—the priests who work in the Temple on the Sabbath day are not guilty of violating the Sabbath.
  2. A saying involving the Temple (v. 6): “(one) greater than the Temple is here”. Compare the form of similar sayings (from the so-called “Q” material) in Matt 11:11; 12:41-42 par. Jesus takes the point a step further by essentially declaring himself to be greater than the Temple. The implication, in light of the example in v. 5, is that those who work in his service (i.e. his disciples) on the Sabbath do not violate it. It is but a small step to extend this principle to the entire Temple ritual, and, indeed, the Law (Torah) as a whole. On this, see the detailed discussions in the series “Jesus and the Law“.
  3. A citation from Hosea 6:6—(in Greek) “I wish (for) mercy, not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]”. Jesus quotes this same verse earlier (Matt 9:13 par), part of the core Synoptic tradition. Here it is even more pointed, in relationship to observance of the Law—”If you had known what (this) is [i.e. what the Scripture means]…you would not have brought down ju(dgment) (on) the (one)s (who are) without cause (of guilt)!” I.e., human beings (and, especially, Jesus’ own followers) who care for ordinary needs through ‘work’ on the Sabbath (even if it technically violates the regulations) are not guilty of any such violation.

Verse 5 would be categorized as “M” material (i.e. a tradition found only in Matthew); most likely this is so for the sayings in v. 6 and 7 as well, but these are harder to judge, on critical grounds. Regardless of the source of these traditions, their presence in Matthew’s version evinces an unmistakable development of the tradition. His version of the episode goes beyond the Markan and Lukan accounts, giving it a Christological resonance lacking in the other versions. Not only is Jesus the Son of Man and Lord of the Sabbath—but his authority is greater than even the Law and the Temple itself.

Leave a Reply