John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.4, ch. 34: Jesus and the Sabbath,
pp 235-341

(Detailed summary)

Does the rebuke of Jesus healing on the Sabbath correspond to reality?


The answer to this question is clear: no, the scenes in which Jesus is reproached for healing on the Sabbath probably do not date back to the historical Jesus, but rather are a creation of the early Christian communities in a Jewish setting. A number of arguments support this conclusion.

First of all, when we go through the entire Old Testament, we do not find any law that prevents healing on the Sabbath. The ten sayings or commandments only ask not to work. Some passages of Scripture will give some details of what it means not to work: not to plow or reap, not to make fire, not to trade, not to carry a load, not to travel. But with time, there will be a tendency to extend and systematize the prohibitions. Thus, in a fundamentalist milieu such as that of the Essenes, it would also be forbidden to assist a domestic animal on the Sabbath when it gave birth or when it fell into a cistern or pit. It was even forbidden to use a rope or a ladder or any tool whatsoever, except one's own clothing, to rescue someone who had fallen into water or a hole. This work of systematization will reach a peak with the Mishna (2nd century), which is situated after the period of Jesus, where the activities related to agricultural work are also forbidden. But in all this, one will look in vain for a prohibition on healing on the Sabbath.

Second, in the gospels, there is no scene that probably dates back to the historical Jesus that also contains a dispute about a healing on the Sabbath. First, three synoptic accounts (Mk 3:1-6: The healing of the man with the withered hand, Lk 13:10-17: The healing of the bent woman, Lk 14:1-6: The healing of a hydropic man) that recount a healing on the Sabbath, and which were analyzed in ch. 21, cannot be retained: there is a lack of evidence to trace them back to the historical Jesus. Second, two accounts from the Gospel according to John (Jn 5:1-9a: The healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, and Jn 9:1-7: The Healing of the Blind Man), contain opposition to Jesus because of what he did on the Sabbath, but the original substrate that goes back to the historical Jesus contained no reference to the Sabbath, as we saw in ch. 21.

Of course, there are words of Jesus about the Sabbath. They refer to the habits of the Jewish peasants who take care of their livestock on the Sabbath, which is not formally forbidden. By taking part in discussions about the Sabbath in this way, Jesus seeks to protect the simple peasant from the rigorism of the Essenes and, in some cases, from that of the Pharisees.

Finally, there is the passage (Mk 2:23-28) where the Pharisees reproach Jesus' disciples for picking ears of corn on the Sabbath, which is formally forbidden. An analysis of the story reveals three sets of passages that appeared at different times: the core of the story, which recounts the disciples' action and Jesus' first response, based on the Scriptures, does not go back to the historical Jesus, but is a Christian creation; to this story was added a phrase that probably goes back to the historical Jesus, but which circulated independently, without a precise context; finally, a Christian author added a last Christological argument to affirm the Son of man's lordship over the Sabbath.

In short, Jesus did not reject the Sabbath. But he was willing to take part in discussions about it and sought to make it acceptable to Jewish peasants. By taking a down-to-earth, pragmatic position, he sought to counteract the appeal of radical positions.

Jesus and the Sabbath

  1. The Sabbath From the Scriptures to the Mishna

    1. The Sabbath in the Jewish Scriptures

      1. In the Pentateuch

        For the Jews of the first century, the foundation of the Sabbath, this day of religious rest, was found in the Decalogue or Ten Commandments of which there are two major versions. First, there is Ex 20:8-11 which refers to the creation story in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4:

        8 You shall remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall work and do all your work; 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

        There is also Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

        12 Keep the Sabbath day holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall work and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You shall not do any work there, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates. So your servant and your handmaid may rest as you do. 15 You shall remember that you were in bondage in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out of it with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

        It will have been noticed that these two texts give a different foundation to the Sabbath. In the first case, it is a question of resembling Yahweh who did not work on the seventh day; in the second case, humanitarian motives are invoked by recalling that the people also experienced slavery and that compassion must be expressed for their slave.

        Biblical analysis reveals that there are texts on the Sabbath in the Pentateuch that are older than these two accounts of the Decalogue. These texts say this:

        • The Sabbath implies the cessation of plowing and harvesting (Ex 34:21)
        • The Sabbath is meant to allow the marginalized of society to catch their breath (Ex 23:12)
        • The Sabbath is a sign between Yahweh and his people, reminding them of what he has done for them, a sign so important that not respecting it deserves death (Ex 31-12-17)
        • The Sabbath also implies the prohibition to kindle a fire (Ex 35:3)
        • The community must stone a person who does not keep the Sabbath (Num 15:32-26)
        • The Sabbath is one of the solemn feasts of the liturgical calendar (Lev 23:3)

        In short, the Israelites and the people of the entire household must cease all forms of work on the Sabbath, a very strict obligation. Originally, the prohibition was aimed primarily at agricultural work. But with the development of urban centers, the prohibition of work was extended to commercial transactions. The Pentateuch gives few details about what is involved in the prohibitions, except for kindling a fire and gathering wood for a fire. But first-century Jews would build on certain passages to include other prohibitions, such as the prohibition against significant travel and movement, using the story of the manna in the desert: to prevent the people from moving on the Sabbath, Yahweh gave a double portion of manna the day before (Ex 16:5.22-30).

      2. Among the prophets

        In attacking the greedy merchants, Amos (8th century BC) testifies that the Sabbath prohibition covers not only agricultural work but also trade in the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 8:5). For his part, Jeremiah (7th-6th century BC) warns royalty and commoners not to carry burdens through the gate of Jerusalem or out of their homes on the Sabbath (Jer 17:19-27). Finally, the Trito-Isaiah (6th-5th century) urges people to honor God by refraining from traveling, transacting business, and making speeches (making agreements) on the Sabbath, and thus obtain great benefits (Isa 58:13-14).

        All prophetic exhortations emphasize the sanctity of the Sabbath. But daily life sometimes belies this prophetic vision. In the fifth century BC Nehemiah had to fight to prevent the sale of goods and agricultural products on the Sabbath and the treading of grapes (Neh 10:32; 13:15-22). Thus, it is not certain that in the first century CE all Jews respected the prohibition of trade.

      3. Conclusion

        The results of our analysis of the Scriptures on the Sabbath remain very slim.

        1. There is the fundamental prohibition of agricultural work (plowing and harvesting), which includes treading grapes and loading animals to bring its products to market
        2. It is necessary to add the prohibition to buy and sell, in short to make trade and to create agreements, to transport loads in the city
        3. Finally, the prohibition of fire and cooking should be included.

        But when we look at all this more closely, we are surprised to find that all these prohibitions have nothing to do with Jesus' controversial actions on the Sabbath. Of course, there is the plucking of the ears of corn on the Sabbath, but that is an action of his disciples (Mk 2:23-28). There is also the carrying of a load on the Sabbath, but it is the paralytic of Bethesda (Jn 5:1-9). All that remains is the fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. But there is no mention of such a prohibition in Scripture.

    2. The Sabbath in the Deuterocanonical (Apocryphal) Books

      Most of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament tell us nothing about the Sabbath, and the few books that do mention it tell us simply this:

      1. You must not fast on the Sabbath. In the book of Judith, the widow fasts all the time except on the Sabbath.
      2. It is permissible to wage defensive war on the Sabbath. In the first and second books of Maccabees, the followers of Mattathias defend themselves on the Sabbath against the attacks of the Syrian pagan Antiochus Epiphanes.
      3. The Jews were not subject to tolls and customs duties, nor were they obliged to appear in court on the Sabbath. This is indicated in a letter from the Syrian king Demetrius, echoed in 1 Macc 10:34.

    3. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and Qumran

      Let us restrict our attention to works composed in Palestine between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD Within this framework, only two works shed light on the Sabbath.

      1. The Book of Jubilees

        This is a writing composed by dissident priests in Jerusalem between 161-152 BC. It is the first document in existence to present a normative list of prohibited actions on the Sabbath.

        1. In chapter 2, the commandment forbidding all work on the Sabbath is presented in the creation story. After insisting that breaking the Sabbath law merits death, this chapter gives a list of actions forbidden on the Sabbath, among which are
          • Preparing food and beverages
          • Drawing water
          • Bringing something out of or into your home
          • Carrying something from one house to another

        2. In chapter 50, the commandment forbidding all work on the Sabbath is this time linked to the giving of the Law at Sinai. After also mentioning that breaking the Sabbath law merits death, this chapter first gives a list of prohibitions:
          • Having sex with your spouse
          • Discuss work (travel plans, selling or buying)
          • Drawing water
          • Transporting objects from one house to another

          Then it returns with a second list of prohibitions:

          • Going on a journey
          • Plowing a field
          • Kindling a fire
          • Riding an animal
          • Traveling on a boat
          • Killing animals or slaughtering them.
          • Fasting
          • Going to war

        What catches our attention is the fact that none of these prohibitions concern the reproaches addressed to Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Let us remember that harvesting on the Sabbath was done by his disciples (Mk 2:23-28), and carrying a bed was done by a paralytic (Jn 5:1-9).

      2. The Qumran scrolls, specifically the Damascus Document

        Only a portion of the document is of interest to us here, that portion which biblical scholars call "the Sabbath Code," CD 10:14 – 11:18a. The prohibitions found there seek to expand and extend certain biblical directives. Let us confine ourselves to what may illuminate the evangelical disputes.

        1. The document states that one can follow one's flock to feed it, but not more than 2,000 cubits or 3,000 feet. This reminds us of the words of Jesus in Lk 13:15 ("Hypocrites, does not every one of you untie his ox or his donkey from the crib on the Sabbath to lead it to drink?"), but with this nuance: Jesus does not mention restrictions concerning either the need to graze or the maximum distance.

        2. In CD 11:9c-10a, we read, "Let no one carry sammanîm (perfumes? Medicinal powder?) with him on his way to and from the Sabbath." Regardless of the meaning of sammanîm, the context is what one may or may not carry on the Sabbath, and it does not pertain to the act of healing someone, as Jesus did.

        3. The CD text 11:13-14a prohibits assisting a domestic animal on the Sabbath in two specific situations, when it gives birth or when it falls into a cistern or pit. This latter prohibition is contradicted by what is found in the gospel: "What man is there among you who has a single sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, will not go and pick it up and raise it up?" (Mt 12:11; see Lk 14:5).

        4. Finally, CD 11:16-17a writes: "And every human person who falls into a place (full) of water or into a place (from which he cannot rise), let no one pull him out by means of a ladder, rope or instrument." This prohibition against helping someone in trouble should not be misunderstood: one may not use an instrument that must be carried on the Sabbath, but there is nothing to prevent one from using one's own clothing to pull someone out of a bad situation, as is shown by this other text from Qumran, 4Q265 ("But if a human being is the one who falls into the water on the Sabbath, a man may throw his garment to him to pull him out, but he may not use any tool").

        It will be remembered from the Damascus Document that it offers more contrast to the Gospels than similarities.

    4. Jewish Diaspora Literature: Aristobulus, Philo, and Jsephus

      Much of the literature of the Jewish diaspora does not mention the Sabbath. This is all the more surprising since, in the eyes of the Greco-Romans, the Sabbath characterized Judaism along with circumcision and dietary prohibitions.

      1. Aristobulus

        This Jewish philosopher and interpreter of the Law simply explains that the Sabbath is a day of rest and echoes the writings of Homer and Hesiod who also considered the 7th day holy.

      2. Philo of Alexandria

        References to the Sabbath are found primarily in two of his works, Special Laws and The Life of Moses. The majority of the prohibitions are taken from the Jewish Scriptures, which he simply expands upon. He goes so far as to extend the Sabbath rest to animals and plants, so that pulling up shoots, breaking branches, and picking fruit become forbidden.

      3. Josephus

        Josephus is not a philosopher or a rabbi, but a historian. Thus the mention of the Sabbath is scattered throughout his works. Besides the obligation to refrain from work, he adds the following prescriptions:

        • Prohibition of kindling a fire for cooking
        • Prohibition to go to war
        • The legal custom of having a mid-day meal
        • Permission to discuss political matters in an assembly
        • Permission to fight defensively when attacked
        • The permission for the priest to perform certain actions, such as sacrifices in the temple
        • Permission to offer the first sheaves of barley and to celebrate the "feast of weeks" when it falls on the Sabbath

        It will have been noted again that there is nothing in all these prohibitions and prescriptions to support Jesus' disputes about the Sabbath which the gospels speak of. There is no prescription that forbids healing on the Sabbath.

    5. A Quick Glance Forward to the Mishna (200-220 AD)

      The tendency to expand and systematize the Sabbath prohibitions would continue with the Mishna, most notably in tractate Shabbat, but also in tractates 'Erubim and Besa. It will stabilize the list of prohibitions at thirty-nine. Among the first prohibitions it names plowing and harvesting, but extends it to related activities:

      • The threshing of the grain
      • The winnowing
      • Selecting fit produce
      • Grinding
      • Sifting
      • Kneading

      These prohibitions can only shed light on certain gospel passages, such as the disciples' act of plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath, which is forbidden, or Jesus' act of making mud, a case of kneading: "When Jesus had said this, he spat on the ground, made mud with his own saliva, and smeared the eyes of the blind man with it" (Jn 9:6). But in this last case, the accusation of the Jews does not concern the kneading but the fact that he restores sight on the Sabbath.

      So let's focus on the question: does the Mishna prohibit healing someone on a Sabbath? In the list of 39 prohibitions, never is the act of healing mentioned. However, some texts in the Mishna indirectly address the issue. For example, tractate Shabbat 14:3-4 says that a person may not eat food or use an ointment on the Sabbath for the purpose of obtaining a cure, but if the cure is obtained as a side effect, it is permitted. The idea is not to do anything other than what one is accustomed to do on the Sabbath. On the other hand, Tractate Yoma 5:8 specifies that one may give a sick person food for healing, if a medical expert prescribes it or the sick person requests it. And if the person is in danger of death, one may give him medicine. Thus, the answer to our original question about the permission to heal on the Sabbath is unclear. In short, after AD 70, a whole new set of prohibitions regarding healing were introduced that did not exist at the time of Jesus. What the Mishna gives us are the discussions of the religious elite, and it is quite possible that this did not affect the ordinary Jew at all.

  2. Jesus' Actions on and Sayings About the Sabbath

    1. Miracles on the Sabbath That Do Not Provoke a Dispute

      It is intriguing that all these stories come from Mark's tradition of miracles.

      1. The scene in Mk 1:23-28 (|| Lk 4:33-37), where Jesus performs an exorcism on the Sabbath without provoking a dispute, is a creation of Mark or his source to present a typical day of Jesus, i.e. a teaching in the synagogue followed by a healing or an exorcism.

      2. The healing of Peter's mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31) is part of the same typical day and one could hardly imagine a dispute, since the healing takes place privately in a house with the disciples.

      3. Finally, the scandal caused by Jesus in Mk 6:2.5 (people are surprised that a carpenter is teaching in the synagogue) does not concern the healings he performed on the Sabbath.

    2. Miracles on the Sabbath That Do Provoke a Dispute

      1. The Synoptic Narratives

        1. Mk 3:1-6 (The healing of the man with the withered hand) has already been analyzed and it has been concluded that there are no sufficient elements to trace it back to Jesus: rather, we note Mark's redactional work, which offers us here a Christological catechesis (the authority of Jesus). Moreover, the Jews have no grounds for accusing Jesus since he does absolutely nothing: he only orders the cripple to get up and stretch out his hand. There is nothing in all this that can be reproached. On the one hand, giving orders on the Sabbath was part of Jewish life in Palestine and in the synagogues of the Diaspora when the meaning of the Scriptures and what to do were being debated. On the other hand, there is no indication in the documents before year 70 that the act of healing, even by a simple word, was a violation of the Sabbath. And after AD 70, as we have seen in the analysis of the Mishna, the only prohibition was for out of the ordinary actions one would do on the Sabbath to heal someone.

        2. Lk 13:10-17 (The healing of the bent woman) has also been analyzed before and it was concluded that there is not enough evidence to trace it back to Jesus. The only notable difference in Jesus' attitude compared to Mk 3:1-6 is that he not only tells a word, but also extends his hand to the cripple. But one would look in vain in pre-70 Judaism for a prohibition against healing on the Sabbath either by a word or by a gesture of the hand.

        3. Lk 14:1-6 (The healing of a man with dropsy) has also already been analyzed, and again it has been concluded that there is not enough evidence to trace it back to Jesus. Moreover, Jesus does not say any words or make any special gestures, he only takes the cripple and sends him home; there is nothing about Jesus that could provoke an argument.

          In short, we must conclude that the disputes over Jesus' healings on the Sabbath are a creation of the evangelists.

      2. The Johannine Narratives

        In John we find two texts of healing on the Sabbath: Jn 5:1-9a (The healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda) and Jn 9:1-7 (The healing of the blind man from birth). Both texts have already been analyzed and it has been concluded that, on the one hand, these accounts probably echo an event of the historical Jesus, but that, on the other hand, in its early form both accounts contained no reference to the Sabbath. Only when the narrative is completed does the evangelist add the mention of the Sabbath to support his theological point and apply his literary structure in three stages: 1) An initial gesture by Jesus; 2) a discussion with people that concludes with 3) a Christological monologue or discourse.

        For example, in the case of the story about the cripple at the pool of Bethesda, after his healing, the evangelist 1) mentions that this takes place on the Sabbath (5:9b), 2) then presents a series of discussions with the Jews, the healed man, and Jesus (5:10-18) and then concludes with 3) a complicated Christological discourse on the relationship of the Son's authority to the authority of the Father. In the case of the story about the blind man from birth, 1) after the healing of the blind man (Jn 9:1-7); 2) various discussions with the healed blind man, neighbors, Jews, Pharisees, and Jesus (Jn 9:8-41), 3) which is concluded by Jesus' discourse about the good shepherd (Jn 10:1-18). Thus, the addition of the Sabbath and the ensuing discussions in part 2 are merely literary devices that aim only to introduce the long theological discourse put into Jesus' mouth.

        In short, after this survey of the synoptic accounts and the gospel according to John, we find ourselves without a single account of disputes about healing on the Sabbath.

    3. Sayings of Jesus on Sabbath Hălākâ Found in the Synoptic Miracle Stories

      In the three preceding synoptic accounts, there is a similar element: Jesus asks the rhetorical question of what is permitted on the Sabbath.

      1. Analysis of the three stories

        1. In Mk 3:4 Jesus asks, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good rather than harm, to save a life rather than kill it?"

        2. In Mt 12:10-13, Jesus' opponents ask him the question, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" Jesus answers with a question that appeals to common sense: "What man among you has one sheep, and if it falls into a hole on the Sabbath day, will not go and pick it up and raise it up?" And he concludes with an argument a fortiori: "Now how much more is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is permitted to do a good deed on the Sabbath". These two rhetorical questions of Jesus are probably an addition by Matthew to the story of Mk 3:1-6. But did he create them from scratch?

          We have a parallel of these two rhetorical questions in Lk 14:1-6. Jesus asks the lawyers and Pharisees, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to heal, or not?" As his opponents remain silent, Jesus says, "Which of you, if his son or his ox should fall into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath?" The similarities between Matthew and Luke might make one think that we are looking at the Q Document, but the differences point instead to two different oral versions (in Aramaic) that Matthew and Luke would have inserted in their own way: Matthew would have inserted it into a dispute account received from Mark, while Luke inserts it into an account of the healing of man with dropsy chosen from a tradition of his own (L).

        3. In Lk 13:10-17 (The Healing of the Bent Woman), when the woman has already been healed and the synagogue ruler is angry with the people who have come to be healed on the Sabbath, Jesus says to the ruler: "Hypocrites, does not every one of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the crib and lead it to drink? And this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound eighteen years ago, should not have been unbound on the Sabbath day!" It will have been noticed that Jesus, while addressing a specific man, uses the plural ("Hypocrites! every one of you...") We have an indication of a secondary addition of a word that was not originally part of this story. In fact, this word of Jesus probably circulated in isolation and independently in Christian circles.

      2. Meaning of the words of Jesus

        First, Jesus' rhetorical questions enjoy multiple attestations (Mark, L Document and even Q Document if one believes that Mt 12:10-13 and Lk 14:1-6 are from the Q Document), and thus probably go back to the historical Jesus. Thus, just as it has been argued that the disputes over the actions of Jesus healing on the Sabbath could not date back to the historical Jesus (for healing on the Sabbath was permitted), it is now argued that the speech of Jesus about the Sabbath, on the other hand, dates back to the historical Jesus.

        And these words reveal a first important thing about the historical Jesus: he took part in the typical discussions of the Jews of the time about the right way to keep the Sabbath. It is therefore wrong to imagine him as a prophet preaching general truths and presenting grand visions with no grip on the concrete details of religious life. On the contrary, he committed himself to points of concrete conduct of life and tried to convince his countrymen.

        These words reveal a second important thing about the historical Jesus: he shared the position of ordinary Palestinian Jews on the Sabbath, and thereby opposed radical and strict positions such as those expressed by the Essene milieu (see the Damascus Document) or other sectarian Jewish groups (see the fragments from the 4th cave at Qumran). Indeed, when he says, "What man is there among you who has a single sheep, and if it falls into a hole on the Sabbath day, does not go and pick it up and raise it up?" (Mt 12:11), he refers to a common practice of his audience with which he agrees. But this is in contrast to the practice of the Essenes, who forbade assistance to a domestic animal on the Sabbath when it falls into a cistern or pit (CD 11:11-14a).

        What was the position of the Pharisees in all this? We have no direct evidence, but we can assume that the Pharisees of the first century forbade taking an animal out of a hole on the Sabbath. For 3rd century Rabbinism, which took over from Pharisaism, only allowed the animal to be given fodder in the hole, not taken out of it (see the Tosefta, t. Sabb. 14, 3) By siding with the common sense of the common people, Jesus was thus also opposing the Pharisees and trying to limit their influence in the population.

        So far we have considered the situation of an animal. What about a human being in a difficult situation on the Sabbath? As we have seen, the Damascus Document and the fragments of Qumran Cave 4 allowed only the use of the garment one wears to pull a person out of a hole, but not a tool such as a rope or a ladder, even if a human's life is at stake (see CD 11:16-17a). This represents the position of the Essenes. To get an idea of the Pharisees' position, one can consult the Yoma tractate of the Mishna, which states that saving a human life in danger transcends all Sabbath rules (see m. Yoma 8, 6). And the Pharisee and Jewish historian, Josephus, as we have seen, tells us that in his day waging defensive war on the Sabbath is quite permissible: one's own life is at stake. Finally, the silence of the Pharisees when Jesus asks the question, "Is it permissible on the Sabbath to save a life rather than kill it?" suggests that they agreed with the principle. In short, the position of the Essenes and the Pharisees differed with respect to the Sabbath rules concerning human life, and the position of the Pharisees and that of Jesus was common.

        What can we conclude from all this? Jesus behaves like an ordinary farmer who has to take care of his livestock and has no interest in the intricacies of the law. And there is no record that an action like the one presented in Lk 13:15 ("does not every one of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the crib to lead it to drink?") would be forbidden. By taking part in the Sabbath discussions in this way, Jesus sought to protect the simple peasant from the rigorism of the Essenes and, in some cases, of the Pharisees.

    4. The Plucking of Grain on the Sabbath (Mk 2: 23-28)

      Let us remember from the outset that this is not an account of a miracle and that the dispute is not provoked by Jesus, but by his disciples.

      1. The Place of the Story within Mark's Cycle of Galilean Dispute Stories (Mk 2: 1 – 3: 6)

        1. We are faced with a concentric structure in which the narrative in 1a corresponds to that in 1b (two cases of paralysis), the narrative in 2a corresponds to that in 2b (the common theme of the meal), and that in 3 (again the meal) provides the interpretive key, namely that the presence of the Messiah ushers in new times:
          1a Healing of the paralytic (2: 1-12) 2a Call of Levi and meal with toll collectors and sinners (2: 13-17) 3 The question of fasting (2: 18-22) 2b The disciples who pluck the ears of corn to eat (2: 23-28) 1b Healing of a man with the withered hand (3: 1-6)

        2. This concentric structure presents a growing opposition to Jesus.

          In the first story (healing of the paralytic), the opposition of the scribes is silent before the one who blasphemes by forgiving sins. In the second story, the Pharisee scribes explicitly state their opposition to Jesus' attitude of eating with sinners. In the third story, an anonymous question to Jesus about his disciples not fasting is answered with a reference to Jesus' death. In the fourth story, the Pharisees challenge Jesus to call his disciples to order for doing what is not allowed on the Sabbath, that of plucking ears of corn. In the fifth story, the Pharisees decide that it is time to put him to death. In short, this is a complex and clever literary creation that can only come from a Christian theologian who puts forward his vision of a Jesus who is both the hidden and authoritative Messiah, both the son of man and the son of God.

      2. The Structure of the Story of the Plucking of the Grain

        Form criticism classifies this narrative as a dispute narrative.

        1. Setting the scene (in two parts, first Jesus, then the disciples v. 23)
          1. And it happened that on a Sabbath day Jesus passed through the harvest (v. 23a)
          2. and his disciples began to make their way by plucking the ears of corn. (v. 23b)

        2. The question that raises the objection. (v. 24) : And the Pharisees said to him, "See! Why do they do on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?"

        3. Jesus replies (in three parts, scripturally, then anthropologically, and finally Christologically, vv. 25-28)
          1. He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and his companions, (v. 25) how he entered the dwelling place of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the shewbread which is permitted to be eaten only by the priests, and gave some also to his companions?" (v. 26)
          2. And he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath; (v. 27)
          3. so that the Son of Man is master even of the Sabbath." (v. 28)

        Let us briefly analyze this structure.

        1. In the set-up of the scene, the two protagonists are introduced, first Jesus, who does nothing provocative, and the disciples who perform the provocative act of plucking the ears of corn, which is formally forbidden on the Sabbath. We note the distinction-connection pattern: the master is evoked alone, before associating him with the action of his disciples.

        2. The question that raises the objection on the part of Pharisees presupposes that Jesus, even if he did nothing, is still responsible for the actions of his disciples as their teacher.

        3. The first reply of Jesus continues the distinction-connection pattern with the story of David visiting the sanctuary of Nob (1 Samuel 21:2-10): in v. 25a David is first spoken of only, before later associating him with his companions ("he and his companions") in v. 25b, similarly in v. 26a it is first mentioned that David enters the temple alone to eat, but later goes to share the loaves with his companions in v. 26b.

          This distinction-connection pattern disappears completely in Jesus' second and third responses, where in v. 27 he first issues a general sentence or truth of an anthropological nature (the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath), before formulating in v. 28 a Christological word in the third person (the Son of Man is master even of the Sabbath). Thus, vv. 27-28 interrupt the beautiful literary unity of vv. 23-26, where expressions such as "to do... what is not permitted" are found at the beginning and end.

      3. From Structural Analysis to a Hypothetical Original Form

        The presence of this distinction-connection pattern is all the more surprising because it does not exist in the original account of David at Nob in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 21:2-10). Indeed, David is quite alone when he flees the murderous wrath of King Saul, he is alone when he meets the priest at Nob and receives the loaves, and the following account does not mention any companions. It is the gospel writer who invented the presence of companions with David in order to fit his account into the distinction-connection pattern and make it a story of dispute. But this pattern, present in vv. 23-26, disappears with vv. 27 and 28. And in order to try to link v. 27 to v. 26, the writer needs to introduce the expression "And he said to them" so much so that we pass to another form of thought. Thus, it can be said that the original narrative contained only the setting of the scene (v. 23), the question (v. 24) and Jesus' first reply (vv. 25-26). V. 27 (the anthropological argument) and v. 28 (the Christological argument) are secondary elements, added later, and do not belong to the original narrative. And the reason for these additions probably stems from the fact that over time Jesus' first reply was deemed inadequate.

      4. The Historicity of the Original Form

        Once it is accepted that the original account contained only vv. 23-26, can it now be said to go back to the historical Jesus? There are serious objections to recognizing its historical value.

        1. Pharisees who suddenly appear in a field in Galilee on the Sabbath leave us incredulous, especially when we know that they were mostly concentrated in Jerusalem and had no organization in Galilee.

        2. While the Sabbath law forbade traveling more than a mile from his home, the Pharisees would have been forced to break the Sabbath to observe Jesus. One might also wonder why the disciples did not ask for food in the surrounding villages if they were so hungry.

        3. By answering the Pharisees with the question, "Have you never read?", Jesus presents himself as an expert on Scripture, challenging them on their own ground. This is a departure from what we know about the historical face of Jesus.

        4. To present Jesus here as an expert in Scripture is all the more ironic because he is completely wrong and distorts the Old Testament text (1 Samuel 21:2-10): never does the text say that David was hungry and therefore ate the loaves, never does the text say that David was with his companions and that he shared the loaves with them.

        5. Jesus would be making a very awkward move by using this story of David at Nob to justify an action on the Sabbath, when the scene is definitely not on the Sabbath. Of course, Jesus does not go so far as to say that David's story takes place on the Sabbath, but he uses an emergency situation experienced by David, whereas his disciples are not in an emergency situation.

        6. Jesus would make other embarrassing mistakes: he speaks of the high priest Abiathar, whereas the Old Testament text speaks rather of Ahimelech, who was not a high priest but simply a priest.

        This sequence of errors in Jesus' mouth supports the idea that the story of the ears of corn being plucked on the Sabbath is not the story of the historical Jesus, but a creation of the early Christians. The image of Jesus that this episode leaves us with is incredible: he would not only be ignorant of the exact content of the scriptures, but he would even be so thoughtless and stupid as to engage in a public argument with experts about the scriptures; all that could result would be the mockery of the Pharisees at the abysmal ignorance of this carpenter. Even a non-sympathizer of Jesus like the Jewish historian Josephus tells us of Jesus that he was a wise man, a teacher whose word of truth the people received with pleasure (Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 #63).

        The story of the plucked ears of corn is probably a polemical composition by Jewish Christians before the year 70. But why was such a story composed? When we speak of polemics in the first century of the Christian era, we are not only talking about polemics with Jewish adversaries from outside the Christian community, but also polemics within the Christian community itself, where there were divergent positions, particularly with regard to the Sabbath. Thus, the author of the story supports a less rigorous position on Sabbath observance than other Jewish Christians, and portrays Jesus showing the Pharisees their ignorance of the Scriptures and their overly harsh attitude toward certain innocent activities on the Sabbath. Clearly, this scene did not convince the community, for it was felt that further arguments needed to be added later (vv. 27-28), which we must now examine.

    5. The Sabbath Sayings in Mark 2: 27-28

      Having concluded that vv. 27-28 were added later to strengthen the somewhat weak arguments of the original narrative, we must now ask: were they added at the same time or separately, and if the latter, in what order? One can immediately say that given their different theological "weight", v. 27 was added before v. 28, because the Christological argument of v. 28 is so strong that the anthropological argument of v. 27 would have been totally useless in this context.

      1. Verset 27: The Sabbath Was Made for Man

        There are a number of arguments in favor of the historicity of this phrase in the mouth of Jesus, even if these arguments are rather indirect.

        1. The sentence has a compact form with antithetical parallelism that makes it memorable, which was typical of Jesus:
          the sabbath for man was made and not man for sabbath

        2. Such a phrase is quite intelligible in the mouth of a Palestinian Jewish teacher of the 1st century as seen in Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya (ca. 180) as reported in the Mekilta: "The Sabbath is handed over to you, but you are not handed over to the Sabbath" (b. Yoma, 85b). The idea is the same: the Sabbath is a means, not an end in itself.

        3. By using the expressions "man" and "was made", the sentence refers us to the account of Genesis which says: "God created man in his own image... and so it was" (Gen 1: 27-30). It is a theology of creation that is expressed here, and the temporal priority of the 6th day gives a clue to the substantive priority of human beings over the sabbath (the 7th day). The argument is not at all Christological, but rather typical of the Jewish apocalyptic circles to which Jesus belonged. It is quite consistent with other words of Jesus.

        However, it is difficult to determine in what context Jesus might have uttered such a phrase. It is a typical dialectical statement of Jewish discourse which probably circulated independently in Christian circles. Sooner or later it created a certain uneasiness, for it implied that everything is permitted and opened the door to libertinism. Hence the need for v. 28.

      2. Verse 28: The Son of Man Is Lord Even of the Sabbath

        1. The Son of Man in the Gospels

          In general, references to the Son of Man can be grouped into 3 categories.

          1. The expression describes the public ministry of Jesus: the Son of Man "does" things, "undergoes" things, has to live things. For example:
            • The Son of Man has the power to forgive sins (Mk 2:10)
            • The Son of Man himself did not come to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45)

          2. The expression refers to the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
            • The Son of Man must suffer much, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, be killed and, after three days, rise again (Mk 8:31)
            • The Son of Man is delivered into the hands of men and they will kill him, and when he has been killed, after three days he will rise again (Mk 9:31)

          3. The expression refers to the final judgment and salvation
            • Whoever declares himself for me before men, the Son of Man will also declare himself for him before the angels of God (Lk 12:8)
            • There are some here present who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming with his Kingdom (Mt 16: 28)

          But there are passages that do not fall into these three categories, because they speak rather of the time of the Church and the relationship of the Son of Man to her. For example, this sentence of Stephen at the moment of death:

          • "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7: 56)

          These passages come from the Christian tradition rather than from the historical Jesus. A typical case is the Gospel of John. The latter incorporates the title Son of Man into its Christology and makes it the object of Christian faith. His Jesus is already exalted in heaven, and the judgment is now. The union of the divine and the human is a continuous experience in him through the Eucharist in the community. Thus, while the title Son of Man was probably used by Jesus, the evangelists will tend to use it to describe his role in the time of the Church and the experience of Christians.

        2. The Son of Man in v. 28

          The expression of Mk 2:28 is unique in all the gospels both in form and content. There is never this grammatical pattern:

          • "The Son of Man" (subject of the sentence)
          • "is": present tense of the verb to be
          • "lord of the sabbath": a predicate with a noun complement accompanied by its article "the".
          To make the expression more solemn, the word "lord" (or master) is put at the beginning of the sentence: lord is the Son of man also of the Sabbath, so that we find the Semitic chiasm or parallelism with the expression "Son of man" in the center of the sentence. Thus, rather than describing what the Son of Man does, as is the case throughout the gospels, our verse directly and solemnly proclaims his identity.

          The only comparison that can be made with other expressions in the gospels is with John and the expression that Jesus uses there: "I am".

          Mark 2: 28 John 6: 35
          The Son of Man I
          is am
          lord the bread
          of the sabbath of life

          Thus, v. 28 solemnly asserts that Jesus is the owner, the master, the controller of the Sabbath. This absolute claim cuts through all other arguments. Jesus is the living norm that must guide the believer in his observance of the Sabbath. Thus Mark shifts the debate from the disputes of the past to the present time and the new role of Jesus.

          This word of v. 28 is inconceivable in the mouth of a Palestinian Jew of the first century. But it is perfectly understandable in the context of the faith of the first Christians. In concluding the story of the plucked ears of corn, v. 28 also refers to the first dispute story ("Son of man has power to forgive sins on earth", Mk 2:1-12) to project a more than human aura onto Jesus. It would be a creation either of Mark himself or of a pre-Marcan writer who first assembled a collection of dispute stories that Mark developed and placed in the overall context of his gospel.

  3. Conclusion

    The picture that the New Testament leaves us of Jesus is that of a man who did not refuse to debate particular points of Sabbath observance, especially those that were of some importance to the peasants of Galilee ("What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a hole on the Sabbath day, does not go and pick it up and raise it up again?" Mt 12:11 || Lk 14:5). He did not reject the Sabbath. On the contrary, he sought to make it acceptable to Jewish peasants who could hardly lose an endangered animal, or even a child, on the Sabbath. By taking a down-to-earth, pragmatic position, he sought to counteract the appeal of radical positions. In short, Jesus was interested in the rules of daily life, to which the Sabbath law also related, and sought to give a human and moderate flavor to the various Jewish observances.

Next chapter: Did Jesus take a stand against the laws of ritual purity in Judaism?

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