Mark 2:23-3:6 (& par)
The next topic in this study on the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the Gospel Tradition (cf. Introduction), looks at the “Sabbath Controversy” episodes. There are two main traditions recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, which were joined together, it would seem, at a relatively early point, since they are found in sequence in Mark 2:23-3:6 par. It presumably represents an example of thematic or “catchword” bonding—two traditions, each involving observance of the Sabbath, become linked together. The association is primarily thematic, rather than chronological. The two traditions are:
- The episode of Jesus’ disciples gathering (and eating) grain in a field on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28)
- The healing of a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6)
These two episodes are actually part of a larger sequence (of five) showing the reaction of the religious authorities (i.e. Pharisees and teachers/experts on the Law [and Scripture]) to Jesus, and depicting their (growing) opposition toward him. The sequence, as it appears in the Synoptic (Markan) narrative, makes up a distinctive block of traditions for the Galilean period, and can be arranged into flanking pairs:
- Healing miracle (2:1-12)
- Healing miracle on the Sabbath (3:1-6)
At the conclusion (3:6), in a climactic point of the narrative, the Pharisees start making plans to “destroy” Jesus.
The two miracle episodes show a similar structure, centered around an illustrative teaching by Jesus (2:8b-10; 3:4); likewise the two episodes in 2:13-17, 23-28 are both pronouncement scenes, which lead into a fundamental declaration by Jesus (vv. 17, 27-28). The central episode of 2:18-22, which perhaps most clearly shows the tension between Jesus and the religious mindset of the Pharisees, features a pair of proverbial teachings, functioning almost as short illustrative parables (vv. 19-20, 21-22). The five episodes may also be grouped in a different way, representing a thematic progression:
- Jesus and sin/sinners (2:1-12, 13-17)—the forgiveness of sin (by Jesus)
- Jesus and religious tradition (2:18-22)—the newness of Jesus’ teaching
- Jesus and the Law (Sabbath) (2:23-28; 3:1-6)—the priority of Jesus and his mission
Each theme has in common the basic idea that Jesus’ own (personal) authority and presence (including his ministry work) supersedes the established traditional/religious forms governing Israelite and Jewish society.
Matthew’s Gospel has the same block of five episodes, but organizes them differently, separating the first three (9:2-8, 9-13, 14-17) from the last two (12:1-8, 9-14). In so doing, the author has rearranged the material and has included various other traditions (from the so-called “Q” and “M” material). The main organizing principle involves a division into two sections, each of which begins with Jesus gathering his disciples (5:1; 10:1-4) and providing instruction to them, in the form of a block of teaching (a kind of “sermon” in the literary context)—5:2-7:27 and 10:5-42, respectively. After this instruction, each section narrates episodes from the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry. The first section has a more clearly defined structure, with three groups of miracle stories (8:1-17; 8:23-9:8; 9:18-34) separated by teaching involving Jesus’ disciples and/or the theme of discipleship (8:18-22; 9:9-17). The second section appears to be structured more loosely, but the general emphasis is on the reaction of people to Jesus’ ministry. The Sabbath controversy episodes come from the second section of the Galilean period in Matthew (12:1-14).
Luke, by contrast, retains the Synoptic/Markan sequence and order of the five episodes, and also their general position in the narrative—Lk 5:17-6:11. However, as we shall see, Luke also includes two other episodes (13:10-17; 14:1-6) which are parallel to the Sabbath healing tradition of 6:6-11. This will be discussed in terms of the development of the core Synoptic tradition (Mk 3:1-6 par).
The next note will examine the first of the Sabbath controversy episodes—the scene of the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath.