Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 1)

Psalm 92

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 4-8, 13-15 [3-7, 12-14]); 1QPsa (vv. 12-14 [11-13])

This particular Psalm has a composite character, drawing upon a number of well-established genres and traditional themes.

The central body of the Psalm (verses 5-12) consists of a hymn to YHWH, but one which incorporates two very disparate and distinct lines of tradition. These correspond, more or less, to the two parts of the hymn. The first part (vv. 5-9) is centered on the Wisdom lines in vv. 7-8, drawing upon several key themes from Wisdom literature: the foolishness of humankind, the presence (or lack) of knowledge and understanding, the brevity of human life, the vegetation/sprouting motif, and the contrast between the righteous and wicked. The second part (vv. 10-12) emphasizes the salvation provided by God, in rescuing the protagonist from his hostile (wicked) adversaries. This is a genre-theme found frequently in the Psalms, and reflects the royal background of many Psalms, whereby the protagonist is (or takes on the role of) the king, calling upon YHWH for help in overcoming his opponents and enemies. The king functions as a loyal servant to YHWH, representing the people, in a specific way, within the covenant bond (between YHWH and His people). In protecting and rescuing the king, YHWH confirms his rule over the kingdom.

The hymn is preceded by an introductory section (vv. 2-4) which establishes a worship setting, possibly indicating something of the liturgical setting in which the Psalm itself was performed. These verses form a distinct unit, as is clear from the fact that, syntactically, they comprise a single sentence. Following the hymn, there is also a closing section (vv. 13-16), which again draws heavily upon Wisdom-tradition, developing several themes and motifs from vv. 7-8ff.

The hymn unquestionably contains the oldest layers of the Psalm, and probably, in some form, represented the core composition, to which the opening and closing sections were added. The age of the Psalm, and even of the central hymn, is difficult to determine; however, verses 10-12, with its royal background clearly preserved, may well date from the kingdom period

The heading of the Psalm, in addition to designating it as both a musical composition (romz+m!) and a “song” (ryv!), mentions that it is “for the day of resting [tB*v^, i.e. Sabbath]”. This is the only Psalm with such a designation; indeed, this is the only occurrence of the word tB*v^ in the Psalter. It presumably means that the Psalm was to be performed, or had come to be performed, during the Sabbath service, as part of the liturgy. How ancient this association was is impossible to say. For more on this subject, cf. the article by Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are numerous departures from this meter.

Introduction: Verses 2-4

Verse 2 [1]

“(It is) good to cast (praise) to (you, O) YHWH,
and to make music to your name, Most High—”

As noted above, the opening couplets of the Psalm emphasize the worship of YHWH, and may allude to a liturgical setting for this composition. In this regard, verses 2-4 may have been composed or added later than the main body of the Psalm (vv. 5-12). The pairing of the verbs hd*y` (“throw, cast”, i.e., ‘throw’ someone praise) and rm^z` (“make music”) is natural, and occurs in a number of Psalms (e.g., 33:2). The prefixed –l in the first line can be read as a vocative (“O YHWH…”), or, similarly, a second person address can be understood as implied (“to [you,] YHWH”).

In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical sense. This is no less true in a religious setting, where the name of God is involved—YHWH’s name represents the nature and character (and presence) of YHWH Himself. Thus, to make music to YHWH’s name essentially means the same thing as making music to YHWH. Possibly, a specific reference to the Temple is intended, particularly if the opening lines share the same religious-theological outlook as the Deuteronomic works, where it is particularly the Jerusalem Temple which YHWH has chosen for His name to reside. Cf. the recent series of notes on 1 Kings 8.

Verse 3 [2]

“to put out front in the daybreak your devotion,
and your firmness in the night (watch)es—”

This second couplet builds upon the idea expressed in the first, elaborating the praise (in music) that the Psalmist would give to YHWH. He would “put in front” (vb dg~n`) of everyone (that is, express publicly) the loyalty of YHWH. The familiar pairing of nouns—ds#j# and hn`Wma$—is used to express this idea of YHWH’s covenant loyalty; cf. the frequent use of them in Psalm 89. The noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often (and nearly always in the Psalms), it connotes loyalty and faithfulness (i.e., to the covenant); here it is rendered as “devotion”. The parallel noun hn`Wma$ (like the related tm#a#) literally means “firmness,” in the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, etc.

YHWH’s goodness and faithfulness is such that He is worthy of being praised all day long—from the first “break (of day)” (rq#B)) in the morning, and then all through the night. The plural tolyl@ (lit. “nights”) is used, and probably refers to the ‘watches’ of the night (Ps 134:1, cf. Dahood, II, p. 336; I, p. 90).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2. Syntactically, vv. 3-4 represent the continuation of sentence beginning in v. 2. I read verse 3 as parenthetical, between vv. 2 and 4.

Verse 4 [3]

“on (the) ten-strings, even on (the) harp,
on (our) murmuring with (the) lyre!”

As mentioned above, verse 3, despite the centrality of its position, is parenthetical within the opening. Verse 4 properly continues the immediate thought of v. 2, elaborating the music-making that the Psalmist intends. Three different terms for a harp/lyre are used: rocu* (denoting an instrument with ten strings), lb#n`, and roNK!; we should not infer from this poetic variation that three different instruments are specifically meant. The music-making is done with the strings of a harp.

Similarly, the preposition lu^ (in the form yl@u&) occurs three times; it can be rendered “(up)on” —that is, the praise is sung to music played on the harp. The noun /oyG`h! denotes a low sound, such as the growl of an animal, or the “murmuring” of a person talking low/quietly; here it refers to music that is played—a ‘murmuring’ on the strings.

Metrically, verse 4 is best parsed as an extended 4+3 couplet; it could also be divided as an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon, each line consisting of a prepositional phrase (beginning with yl@u&).

The Hymn: Verses 5-12

Verse 5 [4]

“For you have made me glad, YHWH, by your deed,
and by (the) works of your hands I sing out.”

This couplet begins the main body of the Psalm, a hymn of praise to YHWH for the faithfulness which He has shown (v. 3) to His loyal servant. This faithfulness is demonstrated by specific actions. The noun lu*P* in the first line denotes something which YHWH has done, the singular probably intended in a comprehensive sense. The plural of hc#u&m^ (with basically the same meaning as lu*P*) is used in the second line. What YHWH has done on behalf of the protagonist has made him glad (vb jm^c*, Piel), and spurs him to “ring out” (vb /n~r*) praise in music and song.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb apparently has a third person (passive) form of the verb /nr (/nry), “it rings out”, rather than “I ring out” (MT /N@r^a&). The same manuscript also reads a singular, rather than plural, form of the noun hc#u&m^.

Verse 6 [5]

“How great are your works, O YHWH,
(how) very deep are your thoughts!”

The things done by YHWH correspond to his purposes. There is a formal parallel here between the nouns hc*u&m^ (“work, deed, act”) and hb*v*j&m^ (“thought, purpose, plan”). The things which YHWH plans, and carries out,  are both “great” (ldg, implying height) and “deep” (qmu); the greatness is dynamic, expressed through action—the verbs ld^G` and qm^u* are used.

For a different way of understanding da)m= (“much, very”), at the beginning of the second line, cf. Dahood (II, p. 335), who treats it as a Divine title or epithet.

Verse 7 [6]

“A man (who is) brutish does not know,
and a stupid (person) does not discern this.”

The deep thoughts of God are contrasted with the brutish stupidity of human beings. The Psalmist almost certainly is not referring here only to particularly brute-like (ru^B^) or stupid (lsk) people; rather, this extreme language is used to characterize humankind generally, in comparison with God. Only those faithful ones, who are willing to devote themselves to the Wisdom of God, can truly understand or have any real knowledge. The influence of Wisdom-tradition on vv. 7-8 is clear, as also on the closing verses of the Psalm (13-16).

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb in the first line has a w-conjunction before the negative particle (alw), thus giving a slightly different reading: “the man (who is) brutish and does not know”.

Verses 8 [7]

“With (the) sprouting of (the) wicked like grass,
even (though) all (those) making trouble blossom,
(it is) for them to be destroyed forever!”

The relevance of this Wisdom-verse, within the context of the hymn, is not immediately apparent. It clearly builds upon the thought of v. 7 (cf. above), alluding to the brutishness and lack of knowledge among (most) human beings. Here, the focus shifts to the wicked, a popular emphasis in the Psalms (as in Wisdom literature), whereby the wicked are typically contrasted with the righteous. The apparent success and prosperity of the wicked, undeserved as it may be, is also a common theme in Wisdom literature, and can be found in a number of Psalms. This particular vegetation/sprouting imagery was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 90 (vv. 5-6ff); cf. the earlier study.

The wicked are characterized as people who make trouble and do evil/unjust things, combining the verb lu^P* with the noun /w#a*, a traditional idiom (cf. Psalm 5:6[5]; 14:4; 28:3, etc). Their actions are altogether opposite (and opposed) to what YHWH does (cf. the same root lup used in v. 5); the righteous, who follow God’s example, have their actions similarly contrasted with those of the wicked.

The idea of the destruction of the wicked anticipates the theme in vv. 10-12, while the sprouting/flowering motif is picked up again in vv. 13-16.

Verse 9 [8]

“But you (are the One) on High,
into the distant (future), YHWH!”

This verse, which serves as the climax to the first half of the hymn, is difficult, both in terms of its rhythm and syntax. Returning to the praise expressed in v. 6 (cf. above), it also clearly is meant to contrast with fate of the wicked (emphasized by the Wisdom verses 7-8). While the wicked ‘sprout’ up and flower for a brief time, only to be destroyed “forever”, YHWH remains exalted forever. Two different ways of expressing this idea, of a period of time lasting (indefinitely) into the future, are used in vv. 8 and 9.

First, there is the expression du^-yd@u&, an alliterative doubling of related words from the root hd*u* (“go on, pass [by]”): (1) the preposition du^ (in the form yd@u&), “until, as far as,” etc, and (2) the noun du^, meaning something like “perpetuity” (i.e., continual, lasting time). The doubling can imply a certain circuity, possibly alluding to the sense of futility that attends the brief flourishing of the wicked. Second, in v. 9, is the more common <l*oul=, which literally means “(in)to the distant (future)”, but often in the generalized or abstract sense of “forever”.

The locative noun <orm* (“high place”), probably refers to YHWH’s eternal dwelling in Heaven; however, it could also be viewed as a Divine title, something like “(the One) on High”.

Metrically, the verse can be viewed as a single 4-beat line, or as a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet; I have opted for the latter division.

The remainder of the Psalm, consisting of the second half of the core hymn (vv. 10-12) and the closing section (vv. 13-16), will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).


Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 3 (Jn 5:1-5ff)

John 5:1-15ff

Having discussed the Sabbath Controversy episodes from the Synoptic Gospels—in particular, the healing miracle of Mark 3:1-6 par (see the previous notes)—it will be worth concluding this topic with a brief study of a (somewhat) similar miracle story in the Gospel of John. The Fourth Gospel actually contains two miracles stories, with a similar outline and structure—Jn 5:1-15 and 9:1-41. Each of these episodes is said to have occurred on a Sabbath day (5:9-10; 9:14-16), though only in the first does the Sabbath play a central role.

Actually, in the main section (vv. 1-9a), narrating the healing itself, the Sabbath is not mentioned. We are clearly dealing here with an authentic (historical) tradition, which includes several interesting local details (vv. 2-3, 5; also verse 4, which may not have been part of the original text). The reference to the Sabbath comes in verse 9b: “And the Shabbat {Sabbath} was on that day”. As in the Synoptic traditions, certain people object to “work” being done on the Sabbath. However, in the Johannine narrative, the people—they are not referred to as Scribes or Pharisees, simply other “Jews”—raise their objection, not to Jesus’ act of healing, but toward the man who was healed, for carrying his mat on the Sabbath (v. 10). The exchange between these “Jews” and the healed man (vv. 10-12) is similar to that which occurs in the later episode of chapter 9 (vv. 14-17), where the people interrogating the man are identified as Pharisees (vv. 13, 15). On the whole, the Sabbath healing episode of 5:1-14 is not all that different from similar traditions in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6 par; Lk 13:10-17). The tradition has been developed in John through its association with the discourse of Jesus that follows in 5:15-47.

A common feature of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John is the way that they start with a specific (historical) tradition. The Johannine traditions are quite similar to episodes we find in the Synoptic Gospels; but in the narrative context of the Fourth Gospel, they serve as the launch-point for a discourse. These discourses follow a dialog format, which leads into an expository ‘sermon’ by Jesus; the basic structure may be outlined as follows:

  • Narrative setting, often in the context of a traditional episode (miracle story, etc)
  • A statement or declaration by Jesus
  • The reaction by those who hear him (sometimes including a question or exclamation), which indicates a lack of understanding, i.e. regarding the true meaning of Jesus’ words
  • An explanation by Jesus—a kind of sermon or homily—in which he expounds and elaborates on the (true) meaning of his earlier statement

Occasionally these elements are repeated, producing a discourse with a more complex, cyclical structure. In John 5, the basic structure has been maintained, but widened in scope:

  • Narrative setting—context of a healing miracle on a Sabbath (and festival) day (vv. 1-14)
  • Statement by Jesus (verse 17; vv. 15-16 are transitional)
  • Reaction by those who hear him (verse 18)
  • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus, in two parts:
    • The Son does the work(s) of the Father—vv. 19-30
    • The work(s) as a witness of the Son (and the Father)—vv. 31-47

Verses 16 and 18 establish the connection between the discourse and the Sabbath healing episode; otherwise, there would seem to be little relation between the two. Jesus does not even mention the Sabbath in verses 19-47; rather, the theme, especially in verses 19-30, is on Jesus (the Son) doing the works of God (the Father). The statement by Jesus in verse 17 does, however, draw upon the ancient tradition that associates the Sabbath rest with God resting (ceasing) from his work (as Creator) on the seventh day. There are two components to Jesus’ saying, and each is provocative in its own right:

    • “My Father works (even) until (right) now…”—which implies that God’s work of creating (new) life actually continues right until the present moment. Jesus’ relationship to God (i.e. as Son) is also implied by his emphatic personalization, “my Father”.
    • “…and I (also) work”—the parallelism is intentional here, meaning that Jesus does the same kind of (life-creating) work as God. In the narrative context, this would refer to the healing of the disabled man; but in the discourse which follows (vv. 19-30ff), the emphasis is on resurrection—the granting of new life to those who are dead (literally and figuratively).

The implications of Jesus’ saying were not lost on his hearers, according to the reaction of the “Jews” narrated in verse 18:

“Through [i.e. because of] this, then, the Jews sought to kill him off, (in) that [i.e. because] not only did he loosen [i.e. break/violate] the Shabbat (law), he even counted God (as) his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

Do the Jews misunderstand Jesus’ statement, as the position of this reaction in the Johannine discourse format would suggest? Jesus never quite presents himself as equal (i&so$) to God in the Gospel. The closest he comes is in 8:58 and 10:30; but, in neither passage is the word i&so$ used. The word only occurs once in the New Testament in such a context—in the “Christ-hymn” of Philippians (2:6-11, v. 6), a passage which must read and studied carefully.

What, then, does Jesus actually say about his relationship to God in the discourse of Jn 5:19-30ff? It is precisely that of a Son to his Father. The principal idea stems from basic parental instruction, but, more specifically, from the common situation of the son who follows in the occupation of his father, and who must learn his trade by watching and listening to his father carefully. Jesus uses this motif repeatedly in the Gospel of John—the Son says and does (only) what he hears and sees his Father saying and doing (v. 19). It is a perfect imitation, and perfect obedience as well. Ultimately, the Son does the work that the Father does—the same work. This work essentially is to give life—new life—to those who are without it. The discourse moves from healing (vv. 1-14) to raising the dead (vv. 21-29)—resurrection both in a spiritual (vv. 21-24) and physical (vv. 25-29) sense. Verse 26 perhaps summarizes best Jesus’ own understanding of his relationship to God in this passage:

“For just as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave (it) to the Son to hold life in himself”

It is this life that the Son (Jesus) gives to others, to those who believe in him (vv. 24, 47, etc). It should be apparent how this idea relates to the miracle story (tradition) in vv. 1-15, and yet far transcends it, leading to a much deeper sense, and understanding, of Jesus’ life-giving power.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 3 (Mt 12:9-14; Lk 13:10-17; 14:1-6)

Matthew 12:9-14 (continued)

For the introduction to Matt 12:9-14 and the Sabbath Controversy episode (Mk 3:1-6 par), see the previous note. I mentioned there the main difference between Matthew’s version and that in Mark/Luke (which we may call the basic Synoptic version). To illustrate the difference, let us compare Matt 12:10b-12 with Mark 3:2-4.

Point 1—Mk 3:2 / Matt 12:10b

“And they [i.e. the Pharisees] watched alongside of him (to see) if he will heal [i.e. work healing] on (one of) the Sabbath (day)s, (so) that they might make a public (charge/complaint) against him”

“And they questioned him about (it), saying, ‘If it is [i.e. is it] permitted to heal [i.e. work healing] on the Sabbath (days)?’ (so) that they might make a public (charge/complaint) against him”

Instead of the Pharisees simply watching Jesus carefully, in Matthew’s version they specifically ask him the question whether it is permitted to heal someone on the Sabbath. This runs contrary to Luke’s version (6:8), in which Jesus responds to them by knowing their thoughts—i.e. without their saying or asking him anything.

Point 2—Matt 12:11-12

Between verses 10 and 13, corresponding to a point between Mk 3:2 and 3, Matthew includes (or ‘inserts’) an illustration and saying which effectively answers the Pharisees question in v. 10b. This is not in the Synoptic tradition of Mark/Luke. It would appear to represent a separate tradition. This might explain the difference between verse 10b and Mk 3:2 as well. In order to include the saying here, the Gospel writer likely modified the traditional context of Mk 3:2ff par, setting it as a response to a question by the Pharisees. As it happens, there is a parallel to Matt 12:10b-12 in the Gospel of Luke, in a similar episode, but in a different location.

Luke 14:1-6

Here we find another healing story, again on the Sabbath, and likewise involving the healing of a sick/disabled man (in the presence of Pharisees). This time, however, the episode is not set in the synagogue, but in the house of a leading Pharisee (v. 1). The man does not have a withered hand, but is said to suffer from a “watery appearance” (u(drwpiko/$)—i.e. “dropsy”, an excess of fluid due to a disease in the inner organs (kidneys, etc). Note first the similarities with the earlier (Synoptic) episode:

    • The Sabbath setting and the gathering of Scribes/Pharisees (vv. 1-2; 6:6-7a)
    • The presence of the sick/disabled man (v. 2; 6:6a, 8)
    • The question by Jesus whether it is permitted to heal on the Sabbath (v. 3; 6:9)
    • Their silence to his question (v. 4a, also 6; implied in the earlier episode, cf. Mk 3:4)
    • The healing of the man which follows (v. 4b; 6:10)
    • A concluding reaction by the Pharisees, showing their inability to cope with Jesus’ teaching and authority (v. 6; 6:11)

The basic outline is virtually the same, though specific details differ. The main difference is in the example Jesus gives in verse 5, which is very close to that of Matt 12:11 (set in the earlier healing episode); compare:

“What one is (there) out of [i.e. among] you that (if he) will hold [i.e. possess] a sheep, and this one should fall in a deep (hole) on (one of) the Sabbath (day)s, will he not grab hold of it (firmly) and raise it (out)?”

“What (one) of you, (if) a son or (even) an ox will fall into a (deep) well, will he not also straight away pull him/it out on the Sabbath day?”
Note: Some witnesses read “donkey” (o&no$) instead of “son” (ui(o/$)

The wording is different, but the basic example (even the form of it) is much the same. Just as interesting is the similarity between the question of Jesus to the Pharisees in verse 3, as it is quite close in form to the question by the Pharisees to Jesus in Matt 12:10b. Again, let us compare the two:

e&cestin toi=$ sa/bbasin qerapeu=sai;
“is it allowed to heal on the Sabbath days?”

e&cestin tw=| sabba/tw| qerapeu=sai h* ou&;
“is it allowed to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”

Both of these points of similarity strongly indicate that Matthew has combined two distinct (separate) traditions into one episode, while Luke has retained them both as separate episodes. To complicate matters further, the Gospel of Luke contains a third Sabbath healing episode, which also has a number of points in common (with the other two).

Luke 13:10-17

In Lk 13:10-17 we find a miracle story which has many points in common with that in 6:6-11 par. Again Jesus is in a synagogue (teaching, in Luke’s version), on a Sabbath day, with a crippled person in attendance. This time it is a disabled woman, her body stooped and bent over, unable to straighten herself (v. 11). After Jesus heals her (“Woman, you are loosed from your disability”, v. 12), it is the leader of the synagogue who objects to Jesus performing this work on the Sabbath, framing the matter in traditional religious terms (v. 14). Jesus responds with an example that has a general similarity to the one in 14:5 (also Matt 12:11, cf. above):

“Does not each one of you, on the Sabbath, loose his ox or his donkey from the feeding-trough and lead it away to give it (a) drink?” (v. 15)

Then, just as in the earlier healing episode (in Matt 12:12), Jesus applies the illustration directly to the person who is healed (on the Sabbath). Each response brings home vividly the point of Jesus’ teaching—that care for human need takes priority over the (strict) observance of the Sabbath regulation. The statement in Matt 12:12 reads:

“How much then does (this) carry through (for) a man (more) than a sheep! So too is it allowed (for us) to do well [i.e. good] on the Sabbath days.”

In Luke 13:16, despite deriving from a different tradition, Jesus’ words have much the same sentiment:

“And this (woman), being a daughter of Abraham, whom the Satan has bound—see! (for) eighteen years—is it not necessary (for her) to be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

It is easy to see, I think, from these examples, how traditions, with similar details and thematic points of emphasis, could be joined together and combined within the Gospel Tradition. There were doubtless many stories—of healing miracles, and Sabbath controversy scenes, etc—which did not come down to us, but which may have been known to the Gospel writers at the time. Luke records three such traditions, all quite similar in many ways, and Matthew may have combined two of them into a single account, as I have documented above. If added confirmation of this dynamic were needed, one could point to yet another Sabbath healing episode—quite apart from the Synoptic tradition—from the Gospel of John. This example, which I will discuss in the next note, also demonstrates a further development of the original (historical) tradition, such as we often see in the Fourth Gospel.

The Damascus Document, generally associated with the Community of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), contains an example quite similar to the one used by Jesus in Matthew 12:11f (and Luke 14:5). Only it makes the opposite point:

“Let no one assist a beast in giving birth on the Sabbath day. Even if it drops (its newborn) into a cistern or into a pit, one is not to raise it up on the Sabbath” (CD 11:13-14) [translation by J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke AB 28a, p. 1040]

This strict interpretation of the Sabbath law, presumably accepted by the Qumran Community, almost directly contradicts the attitude assumed by the saying of Jesus.

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).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 3 (Mk 2:23-28; Mt 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 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.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 3 (Mk 2:23-3:6 etc)

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:

  1. The episode of Jesus’ disciples gathering (and eating) grain in a field on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28)
  2. 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)
    • Jesus and the disciples eating with “sinners” (2:13-17)
      • Question regarding fasting (2:18-22)
    • The disciples plucking/eating grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28)
  • 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.

Jesus and the Law: Matthew 12:5-8

This note (on Matthew 12:5-8) is a supplement to my article(s) on the “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospels (part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”). In the episode of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ criticism has two parts:

    1. He cites the example of David and his men at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6)
    2. The saying: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”

In between these, Mark has an additional saying of Jesus (Mk 2:27): “the Sabbath came to be for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Matthew, by contrast, includes three different sayings of Jesus which may (or may not) have been uttered on separate occasions and joined together by thematic (or “catchword”) bonding. Each of these will be discussed in turn:

Matthew 12:5

“Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath (day)s the sacred officials [i.e. priests] in the sacred place [i.e. Temple] cross the threshold of [i.e. transgress/violate] the Sabbath and (yet) do not require an inquiry [i.e. are without fault/guilt]?”

The example from 1 Sam 21:1-6 does not relate directly to the question of violating the Sabbath law; the general example Jesus adds here increases the relevance. As a practical necessity, in order to maintain the Temple ritual, the priests (and other Temple officials) have to perform work, even on the Sabbath. There is an implicit underlying principle: those who perform work related to the sacred place (that is, the Temple) are exempt from the Sabbath restriction. But does Jesus mean to indicate that his disciples, in the simple action of plucking grain in the fields, are somehow to be compared with those who work in the Temple? The logic is extended by Jesus with the saying in verse 6.

Matthew 12:6

“But I say to you that (something/someone) more than the sacred place [i.e. Temple] is here”

The statement is concise and rather ambiguous: “but I say to you that more/greater [mei=zo/n] than the Temple is here”. It is generally thought that Jesus is referring to himself; this has to be inferred from the context, but it is a fair assumption. Critical scholars may doubt the authenticity of this saying; but, if it is authentic, then it is one of the clearest statements by Jesus to the effect that he surpasses the Law (especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects) in his own person. The ‘Temple-saying’ in John 2:19 (cf. also Mark 14:58 par) also suggests that Jesus himself fulfills and, in a (spiritual/symbolic) sense, replaces, the Jerusalem Temple. What precisely is meant by the comparative/superlative adjective mei=zon (“more, greater”)? It is tempting to read in subsequent Christological considerations (with regard to incarnate Deity in the person of Christ), but it is better to keep to the context—what is involved in this passage? An outline of the sequence of the narrative may be helpful, with key themes and elements emphasized, presented as a chiasm:

    • The action on the Sabbath is in response to physical need (hunger), also emphasized in the Sabbath healing stories
      • It is the disciples—those following Jesus—who perform the action
        • The action is viewed by religious authorities as a violation of the Sabbath (though the claim is questionable at best)
      • The disciples (those in service to Jesus) are compared with those who serve in the Temple
    • Jesus declares his authority over the Sabbath, either to interpret the Sabbath law or to override/contravene it

According to this structure, the central religious claim (of the disciples violating the Sabbath) almost becomes irrelevant, whether or not the claim is accurate. For, surely, the argument in verses 5-8 would (or could) apply even to a more serious (and legitimate) violation of the Sabbath restriction. The implication is rather stunning: those engaged in ministry and service to God (and Christ), in the midst of such service, are not bound by the Sabbath law. Interestingly, the logical consequences of this idea do not seem to have been pursued elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, nor even in the early Church, at least not for some years.

Matthew 12:7

“But/and if you had known what (this) is [i.e. what this means]—’I wish (for) mercy and not (for ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]’—you would not have brought down judgment against the (ones) requiring no inquiry [i.e. the guiltless]”

Perhaps even more striking is the use here of Hosea 6:6a, also cited in Matt 9:13. The context of the previous passage is the call of Matthew/Levi (cf. Mark 2:13-17 par), where certain Pharisees had similarly objected to Jesus eating with toll-collectors and “sinners”. There are two sayings of Jesus in Mark 2:17:

“The ones (who are) strong have no requirement for (one) who cures/heals, but the ones having illness (do)”
“I did not come to call the ones (who are) just/righteous, but sinners”

In Matthew, the saying with Hosea 6:6a is included between these. The original verse in Hosea is part of an exhortation for repentance and a return to YHWH; v. 6 echoes a familiar prophetic theme emphasizing ethical behavior and spiritual integrity over the ritual/ceremonial dimension of religion. The entire verse, rendered from the Hebrew, reads:

“For I desire(d) (faithful) kindness and not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice],
and knowledge of the Mightiest One [i.e. God/Elohim] more than (the) rising of (burt offering)s”

This basic teaching is effectively summarized by the scribe in Mark 12:28-34, who responds to Jesus’ declaration of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (vv. 29-31):

“Upon truth [i.e. truly] you have said (it) beautifully, Teacher… to love Him out of (one’s) whole heart and out of (one’s) whole understanding and out of (one’s) whole strength—and to love (one’s) neighbor as himself—is over (and) above [i.e. far more than] all the whole burnt (offering)s and (ritual) slayings [i.e. sacrifices]” (vv. 32-33)

Jesus affirms the substance of the scribe’s comment by saying “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).

The context in Matthew 12:1-8 even more dramatically emphasizes the distinction, as a juxtaposition between following Jesus and the Temple cultus (especially in verse 6, above). This would seem to involve a devaluing, or relativizing, of the sacrificial offerings associated with the Temple (and required according to the Torah). A proper treatment of this question is better reserved for a discussion of Jesus and the Temple (Part 6 in the series on “Jesus and the Law”). However, the concluding saying of Jesus in verse 8 is certainly relevant:

Matthew 12:8

“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”

This is nearly identical with the parallel versions in Mark 2:28 / Lk 6:5; though the additional sayings and teachings in vv. 5-7 (above) have added depth and resonance to the Matthean form of the declaration. We are perhaps seeing the beginnings of a clear Christological dimension within the early Gospel tradition. This raises the question of the relationship between the Matthean and Markan/Lukan versions here; from an historical-critical and tradition-critical standpoint, there are two main possibilities:

    1. Matthew has added verses 5-7 to a simpler (earlier) form of the narrative, best represented by Luke 6:1-5
    2. Matthew preserves a more complete version of the (historical) narrative, which has been simplified/shortened in Mark and Luke

Critical scholars would, I think, almost universally opt for the first, while traditional-conservative commentators would tend to prefer the second. Much depends on one’s view of the way Gospel tradition has developed. A critical rule of thumb is that elements or details which increase or add to a heightened view of Jesus’ person and nature tend to be added to the Gospel (and textual) tradition, not removed. If Matt 12:5-7 were original to the historical tradition, it is hard to see why they would be removed from Mark/Luke (or their underlying sources), whereas a reason for their addition is easy to find—they help to explain the narrative and serve to join together vv. 4 and 8. This does not mean that vv. 5-7 are not authentic sayings of Jesus, but only that they may have been added to the context here. Be that as it may, it is necessary that we deal with the text of Matthew as it has come down to us; and the presence of vv. 5-7 has several interesting effects related to an understanding of verse 8:

  • The sayings involving the Temple in vv. 5-6 result in expanding the position and authority of the Son of Man: from the Sabbath law, in particular, to a larger view of the Law (as a whole), especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects.
  • It is the particular ritual aspects of the Law—the sacrificial offerings and the Temple cultus—which are relativized or devalued in verses 6-7; by logical extension, back to verse 5 and ahead to verse 8, the Sabbath command would also appear to be relativized—following Jesus takes priority.
  • Though not clearly stated, the saying in verse 6, joined with that in verse 8, has a decided Christological ring to it—that which is greater than the Temple (and, it would seem, the Sabbath as well) is identified with Jesus’ own person. Even if one may question whether the historical Jesus held this self-identification precisely, there can be no real doubt that the Gospel writers (and most early Christians) understood the matter this way. I believe that, within Gospel tradition, the emphasis is more on the personal authority of Jesus, rather than his deity as such, but the latter is certainly present and would come to dominate early Christian tradition.

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.