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.

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 discuss 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.

Jesus and the Law, Part 4: The Sabbath Controversies

The so-called “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospel, at first glance, appear to be among the most prominent traditions relating to Jesus and the Law (Torah); however, a closer examination reveals a number of historical-critical and tradition-critical difficulties which complicate the picture. These traditions are part of a larger grouping of narrative episodes, which one may refer to under the heading “Controversies and disputes between Jesus and religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees)”. For a thorough list of relevant verses, see my Survey of Passages earlier in this series. Such episodes typically follow one of two basic narrative patterns:

    1. The religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) react negatively to an action or saying by Jesus, which provides the setting for a subsequent saying or parable. A developed (and especially memorable) example is the episode in Luke 7:36-50, involving the anointing of Jesus by a “sinful” woman, and which takes place in the house of a Pharisee.
    2. The Scribes and Pharisees ask a question of Jesus, in order to test him, which elicits a (sometimes enigmatic) saying or parable in response. In some stories, the end result is that Jesus’ opponents are silenced—they are unable to answer or unwilling to question him further. The episode involving the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) or the question regarding paying tax/tribute to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17) are among the more familiar examples.

The “Sabbath Controversy” stories follow the first pattern; there are two basic traditions involved:

    1. The episode involving Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5).
    2. A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, but the most widely attested (in the triple Synoptic tradition) is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11).

Critical commentators have expressed doubt generally regarding the authenticity and historicity of these stories, claiming that the setting is artificial and contrived. This may, however, be partly due to a misreading of the traditional narrative, ignoring the natural simplifications and formal/typical elements shaping the story. For example, we need not imagine that there were Pharisees standing around in the fields on the Sabbath at just the right moment to catch Jesus’ disciples plucking grain—rather, the traditional narrative simply records, in representative and typical fashion, the ways in which certain scrupulous and religiously devout Jews responded and reacted to the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. The sheer number of these controversy-stories in the Gospels makes it virtually certain, on objective grounds, that Jesus’ often provocative teaching and actions struck many religiously-minded observers as questionable or problematic.

Yet many scholars would hold that the Sabbath Controversy stories are actually products of the early Church, reflecting the disputes between Christians and Jews regarding Sabbath observance, etc. However, if this were the case, one might expect a narrative context that better fits the life-setting of early Christians—healing miracles and plucking grain in the fields do not seem especially relevant in this regard. A more plausible critical approach—at least with regard to the Sabbath healings—is outlined below. Since the healing miracle story setting is more prevalent in the Gospel tradition, I will begin there.

Healing Miracle(s) performed on the Sabbath

This takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition. The main episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, which takes place in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11). The common elements (using the Markan account) are as follows:

    • Jesus is in a local synagogue on the Sabbath (vv. 1-2)
    • A person is present with a noticeable physical ailment (man with a dried/withered hand, v. 1)
    • People (presumably Pharisees, but unspecified) watch Jesus to see whether he will heal the person on the Sabbath (v. 2)
    • Jesus asks those watching: “is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4)
    • They are silent, and Jesus looks around at them with grief/anger (over their hardness of heart) (v. 5)
    • Jesus tells the man “stretch out your hand”, the man does so and is healed (v. 5)
    • After this event, the Pharisees leave with the purpose of destroying Jesus (v. 6)

There are several key differences in the Matthean version:

    • It is certain of the people watching (presumably Pharisees) who ask the question “is it right/lawful to heal on Sabbath (days)?” (Matt 12:10)—Matthew adds the detail that they asked the question so that they might be able to accuse/charge Jesus with an offence (controversy pattern #2 above)
    • Similarly, instead of the question in Mark 3:4, here Jesus cites the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, how naturally one will grab hold to lift it out. He concludes with a statement, similar to the question in Mk 3:4, “it is right/lawful to do a fine thing [i.e. do good] on Sabbath (days)”

Luke’s account generally follows the Markan, but with several additions (some which heighten the dramatic effect):

    • He adds the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue (Lk 6:6)
    • He specifies that it is the “scribes and Pharisees” who are watching Jesus (v. 7), including (with Matthew) the detail that they asked the question in order to accuse Jesus
    • He explains that Jesus saw/knew their thoughts (v. 8)
    • He adds the detail that the Pharisees were filled with mindless rage (v. 11)

Luke also records a similar story in Lk 13:10-17; it is worth comparing the similarities and differences with the prior episode. First the similarities which fit a basic narrative form:

    • The Synagogue setting (v. 10); as in Lk 6:6, Jesus is described as teaching in the synagogue
    • A person with a physical disability (v. 11)—here it is a woman who was bent/stooped together and unable to straighten up (she is described as having a “spirit of weakness/infirmity” for eighteen years)
    • Jesus calls the person to him (v. 12); upon his command, the person is healed (v. 13)
    • A statement by Jesus to the effect that it is proper to to good (i.e. to heal) on the Sabbath; the statement, with its example involving animals, is similar to that in Matt 12:11-12
    • Jesus’ opponents are effectively silenced (here, “put to shame”, v. 17)

Apart from certain details, there are also these notable differences:

    • The personal detail in vv. 11, 12, 16, which suggest a stronger or more developed tradition
    • The response to the healing by the ruler of the Synagogue (v. 14)—this is especially significant in the way it frames the religious-legal issue (see below)
    • The positive response of the people in the Synagogue is emphasized, rather than the negative reaction of the suspicious/hostile Pharisees (vv. 13, 17b)

Even though Lk 13:10-17 is almost a doublet of Lk 6:6-11, there are enough differences to suggest that we are dealing with separate historical traditions (at some level), which may have been combined in Matthew’s single account. It is possible to isolate two distinct core elements (sayings) central to the episode(s):

    1. The question whether it is right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, and
    2. An illustration involving caring for an animal on the Sabbath

These two are incorporated in different ways within the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics. It is noteworthy, however, that we find the same two elements in a sayings-context where the healing miracle is less prominent—in Luke 14:1-6. Consider, indeed, how close this is to the account in Mark 3:1-6 / Matt 12:9-14:

    • Jesus is in a particular place on the Sabbath, in the presence of Pharisees (here it the house of a Pharisee, not a synagogue)
    • A man is present suffering from a physical ailment (here “dropsy”, i.e. excess of water or fluid, resulting in edema or swollen-limbs)
    • Jesus responds to the “scribes and Pharisees” and asks: “is it right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (cf. Mark 3:4; Matt 12:9)
    • Jesus’ ‘opponents’ are silenced (twice, v. 4a, 6)
    • Jesus gives an illustration involving caring for an animal in need, close to that in Matt 12:11—here it is an ox in a well instead of a sheep in a pit

Thus we have (in Luke) three separate narrative episodes each with a similar format and common/overlapping elements. This raises the critical question whether specific sayings of Jesus (in various/variant form) have been applied to the diverse healing-miracle tradition in such a way as to produce the distinct narratives we see in the Gospels. In other words, might not the Sabbath healing narratives serve as dramatizations, illustrating the sayings of Jesus in Lk 14:3, 5, along with the religious-legal issues involved? It is possible that we can see something of the sort at work in the Gospel of John; the fourth Gospel has no narrative matching that of the Synoptics (above), but in the two closest healing miracles (involving physical disability), there is also a “Sabbath controversy” element:

  • John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)
  • John 9:1-7ff: the healing of man blind from birth

These two narratives are similar in many respects: each involves a reaction from the religious authorities, and a questioning of the man who was healed (cf. Jn 5:10-16; 9:13-34), followed by Jesus encountering the man a second time and addressing him (5:14; 9:35-38), and finally Jesus answers the religious authorities (5:17; 9:39-41). In neither narrative is the Sabbath setting central to the main account of the healing miracle, though in John 5 it is more closely connected, at least at the literary level—note:

    • The healing miracle itself (vv. 1-9a)—no mention of the Sabbath
    • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-18), with two overlapping themes:
      (i) Jesus violating the Sabbath by performing work (healing)
      (ii) Jesus identifying himself with God the Father
      These are combined in the saying of Jesus in verse 17, and the summary in verse 18
    • Discourse of Jesus (vv. 19-47)—on the Son doing the work of the Father

This is a far more developed and expanded narrative structure than we find in the Synoptic Gospels, and, as such, is typical of the Gospel of John. Despite the centrality of the Sabbath motif in chapter 5, there is reason to believe that it represents a secondary development or application. Consider, for comparison, the way the Sabbath motif is similarly introduced in 9:14-16, but otherwise plays no part in the narrative of chapter 9. In John 7:21-25 mention is made of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, with controversy surrounding it implied, but without any clear narrative context—is it a reference back to chapter 5? There is, of course, no way to be certain just how the various Gospel traditions and narratives developed, and traditional-conservative commentators will always tend to take the narrative episodes more or less at face value. Still, the manner in which the “Sabbath controversy” element variously presents itself, in my view strongly suggests adaptation and combination of traditional material.

What exactly is at work in these narratives? The following aspects of the question should be considered:

  • The legal-religious aspect, as best represented by the twin sayings of Jesus in Luke 14:3, 5
  • The dramatic aspect—historical-critical questions aside, it cannot be doubted that the Sabbath controversy element heightens the dramatic effect of the healing miracle stories in the Synoptics; it also dramatizes powerfully the conflict between Jesus and many of the religious authorities of the time
  • The literary aspect—illustrated by (a) the use of the Sabbath theme to join traditions together (as in Mark 2:23-3:6), and (b) the role of the Sabbath setting to join narrative and saying (in John 5, a more complex structure joining narrative and discourse)
  • The theological-christological aspect—whether at the historical or literary level (or both), the “Sabbath-controversy” setting was joined with the larger theological (and religious) issue of Jesus’ own (personal) authority. This is most prominently displayed in John 5 (with its great discourse of vv. 19-47), but is manifest in smaller ways in the Synoptic Gospels as well.

It is the legal-religious and theological-christological aspects which relate most directly to the topic of Jesus and the Law; I will discuss these after first examining the second of the main “Sabbath Controversy” narratives—Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5)—in the continuation of this article in the next part of the series.