Jesus and the Sabbath

Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as healing on the Sabbath. This healing frequently caused disputes between Jesus and his contemporaries. Why? There are a few options to explain these episodes.

1. The popular view is that the Jews were evil and they didn’t believe in healing people and used the Sabbath as an excuse to condemn Jesus. The problem with this view is that Jesus’s opponents had no problem with the healing, only healing on the Sabbath. Jesus was free to heal six days of the week.

2. Jesus didn’t think that what he was doing violated the Sabbath. The problem with this view is that Jesus explicitly claims to violate the Sabbath.

3. Jesus did think he was violating the Sabbath, but disagreed with the Mosaic laws around Sabbath observance. Healing people was a job. Jesus looks very much like other traveling healers and these people all got paid. It is likely that Jesus also got paid for his healing ministry since he has no other means for supporting himself during his travels. In this view, Jesus worked as a healer and doing this kind of work would have been explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus seemed to view certain kinds of work as permissible on the Sabbath. Jesus may have thought that his profession should be exempt.

4. Jesus violated the Sabbath deliberately. Why couldn’t he have waited 24 hours to heal these people? Many had been sick for years. Certainly one more day wouldn’t have hurt anything. Jesus seems to have deliberately violated the Law on these and other occasions. Jesus’s complicated relationship with the Law may have had some apocalyptic elements to it, such as his episode overturning the money-changers, signifying the coming destruction of the temple.

5. Jesus didn’t violate the Sabbath at all. These are later Christian constructions to justify the separation of the Church from Judaism in both practice and theology. The historical problem that we have, of course, is knowing what exactly Jesus was up to. These events are lost in the layers of tradition. Most certainly the explanations offered in the Gospels are secondary justifications locating the distance between the church and Judaism in the actions of Jesus himself.

If there is a historical kernel to Jesus’s Sabbath-violation, what are we to make of it?

24 Replies to “Jesus and the Sabbath”

  1. I’ll bite:

    wouldn’t another view be that the pharisaic class had elevated the law above worship, above having a pure heart, above doing good, and thus Jesus violated the law as the Pharisee’s held it to demonstrate a how the law ought to be observed? Thus Jesus, even in his own eyes did not actually violate the law. Compare with other occasions including gathering food on the sabbath.,5,8,10-12#1

  2. TrevorM,
    Can you explain how your understanding of these episodes differs from my 1 and 2? It seems that you are saying that he wasn’t violating the Sabbath, only the Pharisaic interpretation of the Sabbath. But I don’t really see that in the text.
    The food issue you quote is separate, but even there Jesus claims that 1) exigent circumstances justify violating the Sabbath and 2) the work of priests is permitted because it is holy work. Both are exemptions to the Law itself, not Pharasaic interpretations.

    In the healing episode, the issue is further complicated because it is not clear what is at stake:

    In Mark 3:4 (cf. Lk 6:9): “And [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” No one answers the question, Jesus simply heals the man and the Pharisees are angered.

    Here, the question doesn’t make any sense because no one is suggesting that the man with the withered hand be killed. Nor is there any reason to believe that his life is jeopardy. Thus, it is a false choice. Jesus could wait 24 hours. What is implied, however, is that saving a life or doing good is lawful, even if it is work. There is no rejection of a Pharasaic tradition (paradosis is the word for tradition that Jesus rejects in other contexts), but simply a straight legal argument that certain kinds of “work” are lawful.

    In Matthew 12:10: “And [the Pharisees] asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.” Jesus responds in 12:12 “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Here, Jesus claims that the kind of work he is doing is explicitly permitted (lawful), but doesn’t explain the legal reasoning. At best, doing good is a lawful category, and healing is a member of the category of doing good.

    In the Markan original, Jesus challenges the Pharisees by arguing that doing good is lawful, and heals someone as an example. In the Matthean version, the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the issue of whether healing is lawful, and Jesus argues that because it is doing good, it is lawful. This is a clear departure from the Markan original from which Matthew takes the story, and the change in the question and the answer seems to acknowledge the awkwardness of Mark’s version.

    It is the bad legal arguments in these texts that prompted this post. What kinds of work on the Sabbath does Jesus consider lawful? Only miraculous healings? All actions that can be construed as “doing good”? Only actions where a life is in danger? Is he simply making a minor modification to an existing exemption (doing good) to include healings as lawful, despite the fact that it is professional work (e.g., Matthew’s interpretation)? Or, is he making a more profound argument that anything that is doing good must be considered lawful, even if it seems to violate the law? I take these legal explanations to be secondary interpretations of a core story of Jesus violating the Sabbath in order to heal. That Mark and Matthew seem to disagree on the legal issues at stake raise the question of exactly why he chose to violate the Sabbath in this way.

  3. Jason,
    Good question. The more I look at it, it is more unclear to me. The confusion seems to have been shared by the gospel writers as well, because there is inconsistency on this point. I guess the issue is whether you think that Jesus is arguing that he is justified in violating the Sabbath given the circumstances, or whether Jesus is arguing that he is not violating the Sabbath at all. In the plucking the grain, he seems to argue the former, but in the healing examples it is less clear. In some cases it seems to be the former, and in others the latter.

    For those who are interested, the references are:

    Plucking Grain:
    Mark 2:23-28; Mt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5

    Healing Man with Withered Hand
    Mark 3:1-6; Mt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11

    Lukan variations on the healing on the sabbath:
    Lk 13:10-17; 14:1-6.

    The Johannine independent story is very different because Jesus is accused not of healing, but of telling the man to take his bed and walk: John 5:2-16. However, the author admits that Jesus broke the Sabbath here in 5:18. What is confusing is that Jesus later argues that he is persecuted for healing on the Sabbath in 7:23.

  4. The distinction I am drawing is with your number two, in which you claim Jesus says that he explicitly violates the Sabbath (for which Jason asks a reference). I appeal to Matthew who pairs events related to Sabbath interpretation, as evidence of Jesus’ repeated disregard to pharisaic legalities. I would add this denunciation of Pharisiac interpretations of the law to my point.,23,25,27,29#13

    Note Verse 23 in which Jesus denounces the Pharisee for attending first to things of a lower order. Giving precedent to tithes rather than to mercy et cetera. I see what Jesus is arguing is for his higher law which he apparently taught multiple times during his ministry. He flouts the legal interpretations of the Pharisees in demonstration of their hypocrisy and to continue to espouse the higher law. I don’t see Jesus’ legal interpretations as genuine appeals to Mosiac authority or as justifications of Sabbath breaking, but rather as examples of the superiority of his higher law or as examples of the corruption of the pharisees. He knew the law well and obeyed it, he only engaged the Pharisees so as to defy them.

    You are obviously much better versed in these matters than I am, and that i why I wrote “I’ll bite” at the top of my first post.

  5. BTW. perhaps an interpretation of John 5:18 is not that it is an authorial admission of guilt but rather an acknowledgment of the reasoning of his enemies.

    John 5:16, “And therefore did the Jews apersecute Jesus, and bsought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.”

    Verse 18 “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his aFather, making himself bequal with God.”

  6. TrevorM:
    I appeal to Matthew who pairs events related to Sabbath interpretation, as evidence of Jesus’ repeated disregard to pharisaic legalities. I would add this denunciation of Pharisiac interpretations of the law to my point. [Ref Mt 23]

    Let me just say that Mt 23 is a separate legal issue and must be dealt with separately. The stories of Sabbath-violation are their own issue and we have to stick with those texts to explain them. In the Sabbath texts, there is no indication that a specifically Pharisaic interpretation of the law is what is being disputed. In Mt 23, Jesus makes distinctions between “law” and “tradition” (paradosis) as the basis for his legal argument, but he does not make this argument in the Sabbath violation stories. Instead, he appeals to “doing good” as a justification for his actions. What is not explained is why he thinks “doing good” is lawful.

    There are three issues at stake:
    1) Let me put the problem another way: Why would the Pharisees object to healing on the Sabbath? What would they possibly have against it? Clearly, they have nothing against healing people because there are several other healing episodes where the Pharisees don’t object, because they only object to healings done on the Sabbath.

    I have suggested that healing is a violation of the Sabbath because it is a professional activity. There were lots of healers roaming around the ancient world, and Jesus was one among many. Perhaps this was Jesus’s main source of employment during his ministry. Because this was a profession, it counted as work, and was therefore prohibited under the Law, not simply on the basis of some uniquely Pharisaic interpretation, but something that any ancient Jew would recognize as prohibited.

    2) The question that remains then is how does [the evangelists’] Jesus explain the violation of the law? The answers given in the synoptic gospels don’t satisfy me. There was no immediate danger to the person, so his argument from exegency doesn’t work. Further, what exactly are the implications for considering all “doing good” to be “lawful”? Is the healing profession uniquely exempt from the Law, or all professions which can be construed as “doing good”?

    3) As I have said, I find these legal explanations to be secondary additions of the authors. That Matthew willfully changes Mark here suggests that the legal explanations were still being worked out among Christians. If we strip away the legal explanations, we are left with an instance of Jesus doing something that other Jews recognized as violating the Sabbath. Why would he do such a thing?

    With regard to 5:18, the charges against Jesus are:
    1) he broke the Sabbath
    2) he said God was his Father
    The author does not say that these are false accusations. Indeed, he admits that the second is completely true. Why should we assume that the author thinks that the first accusation is false, but the second is true?

  7. In John 5:16, the question is what “these things” refers to. Since the Pharisees are upset at the man for carrying his bed on the Sabbath, and he says that Jesus told him to, it seems that “these things” refers to the fact that Jesus told this man to break the Sabbath.

  8. So question:

    how does this relate to the assertion that jesus is totally obedient without sin. Is admitted sabbath breaking a problem in that regard?

  9. My question stands. I am really curious about this. the assertion is also in the BOM and the Doctrine and Covenants.

    Would admitted Sabbath breaking, be a stain on the “sinless sacrifice” appellation that we so frequently apply to Jesus?

  10. Trevor, I think that the point that I am making is that this isn’t an issue for the Evangelists (again, IIRC), so it shouldn’t affect the way that we interpret their writings on the subject. If we were to start with the assumption that Jesus is “sinless,” an assumption not shared by the text we are reading, we will come out with very different results.

    That said, the evangelists’ accounts do attempt to exonerate Jesus from this charge, and that is one of the things I am trying to figure out. Their attempts to exonerate him don’t make sense to me, or more accurately, could fall within any of the first 5 options I laid out in the original post.

  11. Thanks for giving the references.

    My reading of Jn 5:18 is the same as TrevorM’s, and I doubt it matters to the author whether both are true or both are false or whatever.

    The same with the episode where he plucks grain. I understand Jesus’s argument as trying to show the Pharisees that they might be taking the Law too seriously, for even their venerated King David broke the law.

    So, while #2 looks appealing, I think your #3 might be the best option (the first two sentences of #3 anyway).

  12. I think Jesus was following the “great commandment” in the law when he healed on the sabbath.

    Matthew 22
    37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
    38 This is the first and great commandment.
    39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

  13. My sense is that reducing healing to Jesus’ profession (which it, I think, clearly was) ignores the manner in which He used healing as a way of consciously subverting certain aspects of Torah (at least as interpreted in the dominant traditions represented by Pharisees and the temple priesthood) more generally — i.e. touching lepers, corpses, etc. Further, by connecting His healing with the forgiveness of sins (or, in a different but equally valid rendering, the cancellation of debts) he directly challenged the authority of the temple and its self-arrogated monopoly on the power to forgive sins.

    I’m not entirely sure how sabbath observance fits into this picture except for a few general points:

    –At least one sabbath healing involves the connection of the power to heal with the authority to declare sins forgiven independently of the temple.

    –The sabbath, in Torah, is not just a set of rules and regulations governing behavior one day a week. It was a more all-encompassing set of laws that governed socioeconomic relations in Israel–prohibitions against usury; the year of the Lord’s release (summary cancellation of debts); the returning of land to original families to prevent the emergence of a landed aristocracy and the driving of poorer, more vulnerable classes off of their historically held lands; Jubilee year, etc. Mostly, it was a code governing various kinds of debt and debt-release designed to keep socioeconomic relations between Israelites from becoming exploitative and unjust. The dominant traditions of Torah-interpretation during Jesus’ time had developed means of circumventing virtually all aspects of the debt code, while focusing single-mindedly on restrictive, weekly sabbath day observance. That is, they reduced Yahweh’s Sabbath to a set of rote rules and obsessive regulations that were essentially restrictive while totally ignoring all sabbath-related laws with liberating potential (“the Sabbath was made for man…”). Jesus challenges the legitimacy of the temple and the dominant Torah traditions by subverting their empty, over-restrictive version of sabbath observance and at the same time abrogating other aspects of their purity codes (prohibitions against touching the ritually and/or socially unclean) and demonstrating His power to heal and His authority to declare sins forgiven.

    That His healing activity would technically constitute a violation of narrow, Pharisaic readings of Torah is deeply ironic given the emphasis of His teachings and practice on restoring the fuller, most liberating and just elements of the Lord’s Sabbath.

    It should also be remembered that the Isaiah passage he reads and announces the fulfillment of in the Nazarene synagogue is a jubilee text.

  14. Brad,
    I think that you offer a very interesting set of issues to consider, but there are a few assumptions that I am not comfortable with:

    1. Setting aside the healing episodes that entail Sabbath-breaking, you seem to argue that healing itself would have been opposed by Pharisees in particular, and other Jews more generally because it involves ritual and social transgressions. This may be so, but I think that we require more evidence for such a claim, specifically other Jewish texts that oppose healings or the healing profession. I am not aware of any such oppositions either to ancient medicine or “religious” healings in ancient Jewish literature. As such, it seems difficult to construe Jesus’s healings as such as “a violation of narrow, Pharisaic readings of Torah” or “subverting certain aspects of Torah.”

    2. This argument also rests on some assumptions about Pharisees, especially the idea that they would have advocated ritual purity for regular Jews outside of the context of temple worship. What seems clear from Josephus is that the Pharisees attempted to remain ritually pure (avoiding corpses, etc) at all times. This was a departure from how most Jews lived, who would have been ritually impure most if not all of their lives, except in the few instances in which they would have participated in temple rituals. Otherwise, being ritually impure had no negative moral implications. The question is whether or not the Pharisees would have objected to Jesus’s healings because they would have rendered Jesus impure, or whether they would have advocated this life-style for non-Pharisees. I am not sure that we can find evidence of this in the NT text, and I am not sure we can find it in other ancient accounts of the Pharisees.

    3. While I am sympathetic to some of the social justice issues you raise with regard to Sabbath observance, I am not entirely convinced yet that this is the issue at stake in Jesus’s Sabbath violation. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but can you offer some gospel passages that would support this interpretation?


  15. TT,
    1. It’s not an argument about healing per se, just about Jesus’ particular healing practices. His methods are framed in the gospel narratives as inverting the logic that governed the purity codes — namely, that contact between the ritually/socially clean and unclean will contaminate the clean. In Jesus’ case, His contact (or even the contact of His raiment) with unclean persons, whether lepers or hemorrhaging women, renders them clean, rather than the other way around. That His healing program is connected with His authority to pronounce sins forgiven/debts cancelled ties the healings to the temple in a way that challenges and subverts its legitimacy as a mediating institution for God’s forgiveness. To the degree that various kinds of illness, unwholeness, etc. are equated in the dominant discourse with sinfulness, the link is only strengthened. The Markan healing narrative in question, while admittedly not involving (so far as I can see at least) transgression of purity regulations the way other healings did, nevertheless connected the anti-temple component of Jesus’ healing with His claim to authority to declare sins forgiven and His willingness to heal on the sabbath, even when it entailed sabbath violations (telling the man to take up his bed).

    2. I admit that my sense of who the Pharisees were is based largely upon secondary analysis, in particular the work of Borg and Neusner. I don’t much trust what the gospel narratives have to say about the Pharisees (at least as a source of historical phariseeism). Nor, in my view, can anything Josephus has to say about salient Jewish political questions be taken at face value. Nevertheless, the Pharisees’ insistence in the gospel narrative that Jesus’ disciples eat with ritually clean hands or their scandalization at Jesus’ own table habits both seem to suggest at least some expectation that others comply with their understanding of social obligations for the ritual purity standards of the temple extending at least to the table outside of the temple.

    3. I don’t think the gospels make any overt linking of Sabbath observance with the larger issues of debt-release, debt-peonage, sabbatical years, jubilee, and socioeconomic justice. For me, the implicit link (aside from the obvious connection Sabbath/Sabbatical Year), is the temple and the forgiveness of sins/cancellation of debts. I admit that I am engaging in an almost structuralist reading, but the narrative (Mark in particular) ties healing/debt-cancellation/sin-forgiveness to both the temple and the Sabbath. I haven’t spent enough time thinking about all the implications of the connections, but my sense is that they did mean something for the gospel writers, especially the author of Mark’s gospel.

  16. Brad,
    Thank you for your very thoughtful response.

    1. I agree with you here more or less with regard to your characterization of Jesus’s treatment of some of the purity codes that governed ancient Judaism. However, I think that these apply more to his issues around food and sociality than around healings. This is the reason that I raised the point in the original post that there is no objection to Jesus’s healings at all in the gospels, whether by Pharisees or others, except when they are done on the Sabbath. Since there seems to be no objection to his healing activities, I am reluctant to see these activities themselves as transgressive of purity codes (even if other of his actions might fit this category).
    On the question of healing and forgiveness, I think that this is a separate issue, especially since this is not a Sabbath healing and the Pharisees object on different grounds. The healing itself is not objected to, but the forgiving of sins. I think that we need to separate out this episode from the other episodes, namely those involving Sabbath violation.
    Inasmuch as healing itself is not considered problematic for Pharisees or other Jews, we are left with the original question of why it would be problematic on the Sabbath, and if it were, why Jesus would violate the Sabbath to do it.

    2. On the sources, if you don’t “much trust what the gospel narratives have to say about the Pharisees …. nor, in my view, can anything Josephus has to say…be taken at face value,” then we aren’t left with much because these are essentially our only relevant sources from the 1st c. AD. Of course, there are perhaps one or two oblique DSS refs, and a handfull of 2nd-6th c. mishnaic refs, but these are far less useful than either the NT or Josephus for reconstructing the Pharisees. I agree that we need to read these sources critically, but we are stuck with them as our only sources.

    The issue of Pharisaic authority is admittedly profoundly complex. Part of the problem is that we think that the Pharisees increased in authority during the intervening years between the first and second Jewish wars, the time in which both the NT and Josephus were written. This means that both sources might exaggerate their authority in earlier times.
    Consider Josephus:

    What I would not explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people (paredosan tes demes) a great many observances (nomima) by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances (nomima) to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers (ek paradosews twn paterwn). Ant. 13.10.6

    The episode that you offer is a good example of the problem. Take Mark 7:1-4:

    1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition (paradosis) of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles [and beds]). (Mark 7:1-4)

    Though straightforward and descriptive, this passage highlights the problems of many scholarly reconstructions of Pharisaic authority. The parenthetical section intends to explain the background of the conflict over hand washing as related to issues of ritual purity to a Gentile audience. A close reading of this passage is useful in looking at the various options available for understanding the religious authority held by the Pharisees over such practices. The parenthetical statement (7:3-4) and the presupposition of the controversy (7:1-2, 5) are key for evaluating Pharisaic authority in religious practice. Jesus’ disciples are depicted as transgressing a “tradition of the elders” that not only the Pharisees observe, but all Jews (cf. Mt 15:1). Whether or not all Jews also observe the other “traditions” mentioned in 7:4, such as washing food and dishware, is ambiguous grammatically. At the very least the passage assumes that many non-Pharisees washed their hands before meals for the sake of purity.

    Neuser himself argues for a much more limited view of Pharisaic authority, suggesting that the Pharisees were a self-enclosed group who did not have authority over non-Pharisees. What exactly would be the mechanism for such authority? He depicts Pharisees as a “pure food eating club,” concerned with keeping a high standard of table purity in imitation of priestly regulations. Thus, he would not consider Mark 7 to offer an accurate picture of Pharisaic influence or concern for non-Pharisaic religious practice.

    E. P. Sanders, although differing in many great respects from Neusner, has come to similar conclusions about non-Pharisees following Pharisaic traditions such as hand washing. He relies on three basic arguments. First, he greatly limits the scope of Pharisaic influence in political life. While Josephus describes in sweeping summaries great Pharisaic authority (e.g. Ant. 18.17), Sanders notes that none of the actual examples of power in Judean politics described by Josephus ever actually discusses the Pharisees. He concedes that they wielded a kind of “indirect power,” however weak. He argues that after Pharisees were ousted from political power that their decreased influence can be attributed to “prudence.” They faced strong opposition in Herod’s government and they failed to oppose the government so as not to provoke violent retaliation, which often happened.

    Second, Sanders extends his devaluation of Pharisaic power to the realm of non-governmental aspects of social life. He argues against Ant. 18.1.3 and M. Yoma as evidence of Pharisaic control of temple rituals and other religious rites. He also argues against a common presupposition that Pharisees ran synagogues, since there is really no evidence for such a conclusion. However, he does not leave them entirely devoid of power and influence. He concedes that Pharisaic tithing rules were observed universally. Much of Pharisaic life was concerned with such issues relating to purity. Sanders argues that in this period of Judaism there was a hierarchy of purity with priests at the top, Pharisees, and ordinary people. Each group was expected to maintain a certain level of purity. Against Neusner, the Pharisees did not desire to be as pure as priests, or to eat food in purity as priests might.

    Finally, Sanders deals specifically with the issue of hand washing. He argues from rabbinic literature that Pharisees (though never mentioned by name) wash their hands, but only for limited purposes. They would was their hands to keep impurity away from priests’ wine in connection with heave offering (Shabbat 14b), their own cups of wine on holy days including Sabbath (M. Berakhot 8.2, 4), and after handling scripture (Eduyot 5.3; Yadaim 3.5). From this evidence he concludes: “Pharisees did not wash their hands to protect their own food from impurity, but rather the priest’s food, which shows perfectly clearly that they did not think of themselves as eating in priestly purity.” According to Sanders, only the Pharisees, not the priests or the common people performed the non-biblical practice of hand washing. It was done only in special circumstances, not before every meal. Sanders argues that Mark 7 does not represent Pharisaic practice at all. Rather, he believes that hand washing was performed only by Diaspora Jews before prayers.
    However, Sanders’ arguments about the Pharisees fall short on a number of instances.

    To accept Sanders’ conclusions about hand washing makes Mark 7 incoherent. Yet, Sanders may have a point that it is strange that this type of hand washing before meals isn’t mentioned in the Mishnah. Mark explains that not only do Pharisees but all Jews wash their hands before meals, according to the “traditions of the elders”. But if the tradition of hand washing was so universal among all types of Pharisees and Jews, why then is it not mentioned in the Mishnah? This, however, is largely an argument from silence. One need not suppose that every Pharisaic tradition made it into the Mishnah. These traditions were certainly not static over the time that passed between pre-70 Palestinian Judaism and the codification of the Mishnah circa 200 CE.

    True, not everyone followed all Pharisaic practices. But to assert that no one followed any of them is to go too far. Such a claim makes gospel stories like Mark 7 entirely incomprehensible and ignores the historical claims of Josephus that at one time non-Pharisaic authorities accepted these rules, and Paul that Pharisees were concerned with the early Christians. It is most likely that in either pious imitation or a sense of religious obligation many Jews followed some of the Pharisees’ “traditions of the elders.” In the case of Mark 7, the Pharisees consider the tradition of hand washing as a litmus test for piety, and such a test comes from their own traditions.

    Thus, I am willing to concede some level of informal Pharisaic authority with respect to some extensions of the Law, but for the most part I think that we need to be highly suspect with regard to assumptions about the universality of Pharisaic traditions and practices. I am not sure that we can say that Jesus’s healings violated some specifically Pharisaic Sabbath law without being more specific about what that law was and how it differed from regular Jewish practice.

    3. Again, I think that this is an intriguing suggestion, but I am not sure that I see how the healing episodes as a symbol of debt cancellation/forgiveness isn’t a conflation of separate issues. In any case, this doesn’t quite seem to be the objection of the Pharisees with regard to Jesus’s Sabbath healings, so I share your concerns that such a “structuralist” reading might be an overreading.

  17. Right, TT. I’m not arguing against using the NT or Josephus as sources, I just don’t think (and your discussion seems to indicate general agreement here) that they are not sources that can be taken at face value. It seems clear that Josephus exaggerates the sociopolitical power of the Pharisees — especially in a backwater region of Israel like Galilee — while the gospels exaggerate their significance as threatening, antagonistic forces in Jesus’ ministry. Both records read the role of the Pharisees tendentiously (to turn a Crossanesque phrase). My intuition is that the Pharisees were likely a very minor nuisance to Jesus’ program. Clearly the temple priesthood is a much more significant source of opposition to Jesus, and that probably only during His final (or, more likely, only) visit to the temple during His ministry. But whether or not Jesus registers on the radar screen of the priestly families in Jerusalem or the Sanhedrin, they clearly register on His radar screen. The Pharisees, in my view, are just a foil injected into the gospel narratives in order to depict the presence of opposition during the Galilean ministry that infuses the events leading up to Jerusalem with an air of conspiracy and predestination.

    I think Jesus’ practice is, among other things, a systematic and overt subversion, not of the authority of a conservative eating club, but of the temple and the temple priesthood. I don’t think I’m conflating separate stories (am I? I’m not looking at my scriptures right now because I’m lazy) but doesn’t telling the man to take up his bed both constitute a violation of sabbath behavioral codes and a device for demonstrating His authority to declare sins forgiven/debts canceled? I don’t think sabbath observance was a primary point of confrontation for opening up a criticism of what has happened to Torah under the temple state. Healing in general, speaking parables, and table fellowship are much more central to Jesus’ messianic practice as I read it. The figure that dominates the synoptic narratives seems unrelentingly critical of the multiplication of traditions hedging up the purity code alongside the equally ubiquitous mechanisms for circumventing the demands of the debt code. Reducing the meaning of the Sabbath — a practice that focuses on Yahweh’s sovereign authority over creation and reinforces Israel’s dependence upon His approbation, primarily through the institution of sabbatical debt release every seven years and jubilee years — to weekly behavioral restrictions constitutes the proverbial straining at gnats. Torah becomes an instrument for rationalizing and even reinforcing exploitative social relations, for fostering dependency upon an institution that stood at the symbolic and economic center of the very forces that reduced most of the Judean and Galilean countryside to bare-subsistence poverty: the temple. Jesus’ practice, to the degree it was taken seriously, not only made the temple irrelevant; it challenged and undermined the logic upon which its power depended: the belief that prosperity in the promised land depended upon something to which only the temple granted access — God’s forgiveness and blessing. To the extent that Galilean peasants imbibed the logic of a temple-centric cosmos, they participated in their own exploitation.

    I recognize that this discussion extends well beyond the specific question of sabbath breaking, but I just don’t think that the latter can be adequately addressed without being inscribed into a historical context and framework of Jesus’ larger program and larger relationship with different authority traditions.

  18. Brad,
    Excellent comments, and I am inclined to agree in large part.

    “I think Jesus’ practice is, among other things, a systematic and overt subversion, not of the authority of a conservative eating club, but of the temple and the temple priesthood.”

    How to classify the entirety of Jesus’s mission is of course a debate that has consumed scholarship over the last nearly 300 years, and I tend to shy away from totalizing theories that force us to fit the evidence into the thesis, but I think that there is a case to be made for your discussion of Jesus’s opposition to certain aspects of the temple. (On the other hand, Jesus’s prophesies “against” the temple could also contain a pro-temple theology, as well as the story of the widow’s mite. Additionally, Luke-Acts tends to be pro-temple as well). However, I am also inclined to beware of some of the protestant bias in the Jesus scholarship of Borg, Crossan, and a few others than construct a Jesus who is “anti-institution.”

    That said, if your thesis is right, I am still left with the question of how to understand healings on the Sabbath within the framework that you have set forth. In what way does this constitute a “subversion” of priesthood authority? Given that the primary opponents in these stories are Pharisees, and not priests, I think that we are stuck with them as the primary context for such stories, even if they are later Christian rationalizations.

    I am afraid that you are conflating the story of the forgiving of sins of the paralytic man in the synoptics (Mk 2:1-12; Mt 9:1-8; Lk 5:17-26) with the healing of the paralytic man on the Sabbath in John 5. I am not sure that I see any connection between Sabbath violation and the forgiveness of sins.

    “Torah becomes an instrument for rationalizing and even reinforcing exploitative social relations, for fostering dependency upon an institution that stood at the symbolic and economic center of the very forces that reduced most of the Judean and Galilean countryside to bare-subsistence poverty: the temple.”

    I think that this might be a bit of an exaggeration, given that the Romans are running things, not the temple. I think that you are seeing ancient Judaism as more temple-centric than might be warranted, but I am willing to hear more about why you think this.

    “I recognize that this discussion extends well beyond the specific question of sabbath breaking, but I just don’t think that the latter can be adequately addressed without being inscribed into a historical context and framework of Jesus’ larger program and larger relationship with different authority traditions.”

    I readily concede this, but I also don’t think we should force Sabbath-breaking into our preconceptions about what Jesus’s ministry was trying to accomplish. The conclusion needs to follow the evidence, not the other way around. If we start with trying to get an accurate understanding of the Sabbath-breaking, namely, what issues were at stake, why he did it, what Sabbath restrictions he was violating, etc, we are likely able to get a better understanding of the larger program.

  19. I don’t want to focus too much on our differences here, given how minimal they are. My leanings on these questions are tentative at best. And, it turns out that you are indeed correct about my conflation of stories. The healing in Mark 2 is not a Sabbath healing. The significance of “take up thy bed” is what caused the confusion for me here, figuring centrally in both stories — as the focal point for sabbath-breaking accusations in John and as a textual point of connection between healing and the declaration of forgiven sins in Mark.

    It isn’t Judaism per se that I’m reading as temple-centric; it’s the Israelite temple-state. I see the post-Solomonic temple as primarily a fixture of political economy, not a privatized “religious” institution (again with the protestant bias). But, as you outlined above, I admit that after all this, I don’t think I’m much clearer than you are about the role of Sabbath observance in the conflict narratives of the gospels or whether such stories contain any residue of the “Historical Jesus.” I definitely see the gospel writers retrofitting the conflict that culminates in Jesus’ execution back onto the Galilean ministry, so engineering conflict around Sabbath interpretation might just be a part of this process. I think there’s a much more secure historical case for the centrality of table fellowship, healing in general, and parable-speaking as central to Jesus’ ministry than anything relating to the Sabbath and I’m doubtful that He encountered anything like serious opposition from powerful people and/or institutions prior to the temple confrontation of the Passover festival. So I guess I’m saying that this is primarily a textual tension rather than a historical question.

  20. Brad,
    Again, I am so grateful for your thoughtful engagement with this issue. I have very much enjoyed your comments and appreciate your willingness to plum this issue a bit with me. Perhaps we have exhausted the issue and we are both left still wondering what is going on in these stories. Indulge me one last question that we can consider, perhaps if only for our future reflections on this topic if not for this thread.

    Let us grant for a moment that Sabbath violation is not a part of [social revolutionary version of] the Historical Jesus. You seem to suggest that these stories have the narrative function of building up opposition to Jesus early in his ministry in order to explain his death later in the story. The narrators depict Jesus as violating the Sabbath in order to explain why the Pharisees (and others) wanted to kill him. In one sense, this is a perfectly reasonable explanation, but in another, I don’t think that it gets us much more than we had before. We still have to explain why the narrators chose to produce stories of Sabbath violation as the justification for Pharisaic opposition. While Sabbath-violation may accomplish that aspect of the narrative, it also puts Christians in the potentially awkward situation of having a Sabbath-violator as their Savior. Why would they do that? What are the issues going on at the time of the writing of the Gospels that would explain why they chose to depict Jesus as violating the Sabbath (instead of any other point of opposition)? Is the Sabbath being challenged by early Christians as they separate from Judaism? Are healings being performed by Christians on the Sabbath and they are using the stories of Jesus to justify this behavior?

    That is to say, if we push the story back from the historical Jesus to the early Church, I think that we are stuck with having to explain the same issues around why this constitutes Sabbath violation and what are the legal arguments trying to accomplish.

    Thanks again for stopping by on our blog and we hope to see you any time!

  21. Well, my understanding is that early Christians did not observe Torah-prescribed Sabbath regulations — that it came to serve as an important distinguishing feature between emerging Christianity and emerging rabbinic Judaism.

    I’ve thought a bit more about what Sabbath controversies might signal in terms of vestiges of the Historical Jesus. Here are some possibilities (which I admit are only ideas and subject to scrutiny):

    1) To the extent that Sabbath observance became an important marker of Hebrew/Israelite distinctiveness, along with more stringent focus on purity laws in social rather than ritual/ceremonial contexts, during the exile (when ties to space/land/temple structure were lacking), then challenging normative interpretations of Sabbath observance that were primarily restrictive in nature (i.e. whose purpose was more about clarifying and reinforcing distinctions between righteous and unrighteous, Israel and non-Israel) by advocating a notion of Sabbath that emphasized doing good and the value of man would fit within a larger program, of which challenges to purity codes also figured integrally, of breaking down barriers between people, emphasizing the merciful and liberating nature of Yahweh and the relevance of His kingdom to Jews and Pagans alike.

    2) Several of the Israelite prophets, whose ministries, it must be acknowledged, also contained an anti-temple component, connected the Sabbath with the Covenant, with violation of the latter signifying abrogation of the former. Isaiah 56: 2, 6 makes the link explicitly and Ezekiel 20: 14-16 equates sabbath violation with Covenant breaking in Israel’s history. Thus, the meaning of the Sabbath is closely connected with the status of the Covenant. If Jesus is attempting not to brazenly disregard the Sabbath but to redefine its terms (“The Sabbath is made for man…”) within a context of successful healing, then He is implicitly setting Himself up as a new, temple-independent, broker and mediator of Israel’s Covenant with God.

    3) Since 3 of the 4 Sabbath healings take place in synagogues (Mark 1:21-28, Mark 3:1-6, and Luke 13:10-17), they could be seen as confrontations with local authority and institutions, i.e. the synagogue itself and its leadership. This applies in particular to the Lukan account, since His confrontation over Sabbath interpretation is not with Pharisees or Scribes but with the ruler of the synagogue. Such confrontations might be seen, then, at least in part as accumulations of social capital, acquisitions of honor and following at the expense of established, traditional symbols and agents of authority. Such a strategy would make sense as Jesus prepared for His confrontation with the Temple authorities in Jerusalem.

    That’s about all I’ve got for now. Thanks for the dialog.

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