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The Sabbath Controversies in the Gospels

Jesus engaged in debates with the Pharisees over halakah (from the verb “to walk” and relates to legal rulings and discussions). Conflicts over the Sabbath law are multiply attested in the Gospel tradition, the examples cited and the argumentation employed in paralleled in other Jewish texts (e.g. the shared agreement between Jesus and the Pharisees about rescuing an animal from a pit on the Sabbath would be regarded as too lenient for the author of the Damascus Document among the Dead Sea Scrolls), and the fine nuance about what was permitted on the Sabbath might have been irrelevant to an increasing non-Jewish Christ movement that no longer observed the Sabbath at all (Rom 14:5; Col 2:16).

One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions’ [*check out 1 Samuel 21:1]… ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;so the Son of Man [‘human’] is lord even of the sabbath.’ Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (Mark 2:23-3:6)

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ (Luke 13:10-15)… [After healing a man with dropsy] ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ (Luke 14:1-5, see also Matthew 12:11-12)

Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’  At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.Now that day was a sabbath.  So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’  But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.”… Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.  But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God… (John 5:8-11, 16-18)

If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? (John 7:23)

Diverse Scholarly Opinions

“Controversy between Jesus and his opponents concerning the Sabbath is one of the best attested features in the Gospels.  It is found in three of the four traditions behind the synoptics and absent only from Q, which is hardly surprising since Q contained but one narrative. Moreover, the independent tradition behind the fourth Gospel contained two Sabbath controversy stories… the sabbath controversies are best understood as the conflict between holiness and compassion” – Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus, p. 158-59

“Are we to imagine that Pharisees regularly patrolled grainfields on the Sabbath, looking for possible violations? Or have the Pharisees sent out a special commission to spy on Jesus and his disciples in this particular grainfield?… If this scene gives us a true picture of the biblical knowledge and teaching skill of the historical Jesus, then the natural and effective response of the Pharisees would have been not fierce anger and concerted opposition but gleeful mockery. They would have laughed their heads off-and invited the populace to do the same-at this uneducated woodworker who insisted on making a fool of himself in public by displaying his abysmal ignorance of the very scriptural text on which he proposed to instruct the supposedly ignorant Pharisees.” – JP. Meier, ‘The Historical Jesus and the Plucking of Grain of the Sabbath’

“Most importantly for this study is that Mark in no way portrays Jesus condoning non-observance or an abrogation of the Sabbath… Mark 2:23-28 is very Jewish and unlike anything known from the early church. Thus it is possible that this is a passage that accurately reports an event from the ministry of the historical Jesus” – James Crossley, Date of Mark’s Gospel, 160, 164 [note: Crossley does argue that John’s Gospel has Jesus break the Sabbath Law in commanding the man to pick up his mat based on Jeremiah 17:22 and goes beyond Mark in claiming equality with God as the justification for doing so.]

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