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Lord of the Sabbath

Many scholars believe Jesus is claiming a divine prerogative when he declares himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath” in Mark 2:28, Matthew 12:8 and Luke 6:5. However, we need to take a closer look at the story about what Jesus and his disciples are doing on the Sabbath in Mark 2:23-28. A very helpful source is by Maurice Casey, “Culture and Historicity: The Plucking of the Grain (Mark 2.23-28)NTS 34 (1988): 1-23 and expanded upon in Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ disciples were plucking grain left unharvested at the border of a field, a biblically mandated form of charity for the poor and hungry (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22). Neither this act, nor healing by speaking a word (Mark 3:1-6), needs to be seen as breaking the command about working on the Sabbath. Some scholars read the words “to make a way” in Mark 2:23 as indicating that the disciples carved out a royal road through the field for king Jesus, which would be work on the Sabbath, but this reads too much into Mark’s admittedly awkward phraseology and Casey insists that Mark was just trying to translate an Aramaic source. However, the Pharisees were concerned to build a “fence around the Law” so that one would not even get close to violating a command and they may have defined plucking grain or healing as work in their own oral traditions that served as a guide for how to observe the Law.

To counter the Pharisees indignation, Jesus raises the objection that David and his followers ate the bread of the presence that was only meant for the priests in the temple to eat (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6). Just as the disciples were hungry and in need, the example may suggest that human need takes precedence over strict regulations, though the situation does not seem quite analogous to the accusation that the disciples were breaking the Sabbath commandment. Yet Casey offers evidence that it was culturally assumed that David was eating the sacred bread on the Sabbath when the shewbread was changed, so Jesus’ example may be more relevant than it first appears. In a subsequent episode, while the Pharisees may have objected to Jesus healing a non-life-threatening condition (a person with a withered hand in Mark 3:1-6) on the Sabbath, Jesus was convinced that his mission to liberate people from all forms of physical and spiritual ailments had priority.

Finally, it is crucial to highlight that Mark 2:27-28 may suggest that the Sabbath was created as a gift for humankind, rather than the reverse, and that humans are the rightful masters of the Sabbath. Casey views this as equivalent to other Jewish texts that speak about humans as ruling over all created things (4 Ezra 6:54; 2 Baruch 14:18). Of course, whatever Aramaic traditions underlie the text of Mark, Mark 2:28 seems to treat “the Son of Man” as a title distinctly in reference to Jesus. However, the logic could still follow that since the Sabbath was given to humankind, Jesus as the Human One par excellence can rightfully interpret how the Sabbath is best to be observed. By omitting Mark 2:27, Matthew and Luke may cut out some important aspects of the original argument and heighten Jesus’ personal authority over the Sabbath institution.

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