Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 3 (Mk 3:1-6; Mt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11)

Mark 3:1-6 par—Sabbath Controversy #2

Today’s note looks at the second of two “Sabbath Controversy” episodes in the Synoptic Gospels (see the previous note for the first, Mark 2:23-28 par). These two traditions share a common theme, which doubtless explains why they were joined together in the core Synoptic Tradition. The theme they share is a contrast between a strict (one may say over-strict) observance of the Law (i.e. the Sabbath regulations) and the care for human needs. It has been noted by many commentators that no definite violation of the Sabbath was made by Jesus himself in either episode; certainly the healing in Mk 3:1-6 would not qualify as “work” that breaks the Sabbath Law. Even the act of the disciples plucking and eating grain would be a borderline transgression, by any manner of interpretation. This has caused many critical commentators to question the historicity/factuality of the episodes; one scholar refers to the “air of artificiality” and “unrealistic setting” of the scenes (Sanders, p. 265). For more on these historical-critical questions, and on the relevant Torah passages (and their interpretation), cf. my earlier series “Jesus and the Law“, especially the two articles on the Sabbath Controversies.

Once again, I begin the study with the Gospel of Mark, as representing, more or less, the basic Synoptic tradition. The narrative fits the Gospel pattern of many of the healing miracle stories; cf. the earlier episode in 2:1-12 for an immediate (and particularly relevant) example. The outline is as follows:

  • The narrative setting, told very simply (v. 1)—Jesus comes into a synagogue, and there is a man in attendance with a “dried out” (i.e. withered) hand. It is clearly a Sabbath day, though this is not indicated (in Mark) until verse 2.
  • The point of tension and conflict is stated in verse 2: “And they kept (watch) alongside him (to see) if he will work healing on (one of) the Sabbath (day)s…” For the reader who begins with chapter 3 here, it would not be clear who “they” are, but it certainly must be understood, in the traditional/literary context, as referring to the same (or some of the same) Pharisees mentioned in 2:24ff (see also v. 6). Their purpose for watching was “(so) that they might bring down a public (charge/complaint) against him”—i.e. for violating the Sabbath law. There is a similar sort of reaction by the “Writers” (i.e. the literate experts on Scripture and the Torah), often identified with Pharisees, against Jesus in the earlier miracle episode (2:7).
  • Verses 3-5—This will be discussed in more detail below, but here is the outline of the central scene:
    • Jesus calls to the sick man—”Stand in the middle” (v. 3)
    • Jesus’ question (to his opponents), i.e. the saying (vv. 4-5a)
      —Their reaction, keeping silent (v. 4b)
      —Jesus’ reaction to them (v. 5a)
    • Jesus calls to the sick man—”Stretch out (your) hand” (v. 5b)
      And as the man obeys, his hand is restored, i.e. made as it was before.
  • Narrative conclusion—the Pharisees “straightaway” (i.e. right away) take counsel together with certain Herodians to “destroy” Jesus. In the narrative context, their reaction is not merely due to this one episode, but represents the culmination of all that has occurred from 2:1 through 3:5, the result of growing tension and opposition to Jesus.

Two aspects of Mark’s account are worth considering. The first is the way Jesus’ reaction is narrated, both before and after the central question. Though not specifically stated, Jesus apparently recognizes their thoughts and intent (see 2:6-8a), and takes the initiative, presenting the challenging question to them. This takes place in the midst of his act of healing (right before it), with the man to be healed in the center of the stage; again this may be compared with the earlier miracle scene (2:8-9). His reaction after the healing is described vividly:

“And looking around at them with anger, and saddened with them upon [i.e. at/by] the hardness of their heart…” (v. 5a)

It is a mixture of anger and sadness he feels toward these religious leaders, the reason for which can be seen in their response (silence) to his question (v. 4)—the question being second aspect to be considered:

“Is it allowed (for us) on the Sabbath (day)s to do good or to do ill, to save a soul [i.e. life] or to kill (it) off?”

On the verb translated here as “allowed” (e&cesti), see the previous note. This saying (question) by Jesus is the central element of the narrative; and it cuts to the point of the episode. While the Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus might (technically) violate the Sabbath law by doing work (i.e. any work), his question emphasizes rather the kind of work involved—doing good or ill, saving or killing. The implication is that any work that is good or saves/preserves life does not violate the Sabbath. That there was considerable debate regarding what did (and did not) constitute “work” on the Sabbath is seen from subsequent Rabbinic tradition; but generally speaking, if human life and safety was involved, this situation would override the Sabbath restriction (m. Yoma 8:6; Strack-Billerbeck I.622-30, cf. Fitzmyer, p. 607).

Before we can determine just how this episode was understood within the Gospel Tradition, it is necessary to examine how it may have developed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I begin with Luke’s account (6:6-11), as it more or less follows the Markan narrative.

Luke 6:6-11

To the extent that Luke has inherited a (Synoptic) tradition corresponding to Mk 3:1-6, the ‘additions’ are limited to details which enhance, and make more vivid (and immediate), the dramatic elements of the scene:

    • V. 6—Luke specifies that this episode took place “on a different Sabbath” (i.e. from that of the previous episode in 6:1-5); Mark’s account could be read as though the two scenes took place on the same day. Luke mentions that Jesus entered the synagogue to teach (for this Lukan emphasis, cf. 4:15, 31-32; 5:17; 10:39; 13:10, etc). He also adds the detail that it was the man’s right hand that was withered.
    • V. 7—The ones watching Jesus are specified as “Writers” (i.e. the literate legal/Scriptural experts) and Pharisees—”Scribes and Pharisees”, often joined together in the Gospel Tradition, though it is not clear if this represents a single group with two attributes (hendiadys) or two separate groups.
    • V. 8—Luke specifies what has to be inferred in Mark’s narrative, that Jesus “had seen [i.e. knew] their thoughts”. The word usually rendered “thoughts” (pl. of Greek dialogismo/$), from the verb dialogi/zomai, essentially means the gathering of things through one’s mind (or heart); the words are used fairly often by Luke. The scene is further made more dramatic by Jesus directing the man to “rise and stand in the middle”.
    • V. 9—Jesus begins his question in a more formal fashion: “I (will) question you about (it/this)…” Otherwise, the Lukan version of the question is quite close to that of Mark (3:4, above), with only slight differences in vocabulary and syntax.
    • V. 10—Interestingly, Luke apparently does not include what is perhaps the most dramatic detail in Mark’s account—the reaction of Jesus (though it is preserved variously in some MSS). The italicized portion of Mk 3:5a represents what is in v. 10a of Luke’s narrative:
      And looking around at [Lk adds all of] them with anger, and saddened with them upon [i.e. at/by] the hardness of their heart, he says/said to the man [Lk to him]…”
    • V. 11—Luke’s version of the Pharisees’ climactic reaction to Jesus is more direct and generalized than in Mark: “And they were filled with mindless (anger) and spoke throughout toward [i.e. with] (one) another (about) what they might do to Jesus”. There is no specific mention here of wanting to “destroy” Jesus (Mk 3:6).
Matthew 12:9-14

When we turn to Matthew’s version of the scene, we find again the same core Synoptic tradition; however, it appears to have been modified at its central point. Matthew shares the basic outline with Mark/Luke; in fact, the concluding verses (13-14) are very close to Mk 3:5b-6. The remainder of the episode, however, differs in two major ways:

    1. The narrative introduction is much simpler (compare with Mk 3:1-2 par); verses 9-10a read:
      “And…he came into their synagogue, and see—a man (was there) having a dry/withered hand.”
    2. The central section (vv. 10b-12) is quite different from the account in Mark/Luke. Because this portion has similarities with two different episodes in Luke (13:10-17; 14:1-6), it will be necessary to discuss this in some detail in the next note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981). Those marked “Sanders” are to E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Press: 1985).

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