A Gateway to the Research of the Jesus Seminar

 [Home] [About Site] [Complete Gospels] [Data Base] [Historical Quest] [Westar Institute
[Profiles] [Publications] [Reaction] [ Search ] [What's New?] [Weblog] [Network]

 


Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 

Mark 2

Matt 12

Luke 6

23

It so happened that

1

On that occasion

1

It so happened that

 

he was walking along

 

Jesus walked

 

he was walking

 

through the grainfields

 

through the grainfields

 

through grainfields

 

on the sabbath day,

 

on the sabbath day.

 

on a sabbath day,

 

and his disciples

 

His disciples

 

and his disciples

     

were hungry

   
 

began to strip

 

and began to strip

 

would strip

 

heads of grain

 

heads of grain

 

some heads of grain,

 

as they walked along.

       
         

rub them

         

in their hands,

     

and eat.

 

and eat them.

24

And the Pharisees

2

When the Pharisees

2

Some of the Pharisees

     

saw this

   
 

were saying to him:

 

they said to him:

 

said:

 

"See here,

 

"See here, your disciples

   
 

why are they doing

 

are doing a deed

 

"Why are you doing

 

what's not permitted

 

that's not permitted

 

what's not permitted

 

on the sabbath day?"

 

on the sabbath day?"

 

on the sabbath day?"

25

And he says

3

He said

3

And Jesus answered

 

to them:

 

to them:

 

them:

 

"Haven't you ever read

 

"Haven't you read

 

"Haven't you read

 

what David did when

 

what David did

 

what David did

 

he found it necessary,

       
 

when both he

 

when both he

 

when both he

 

and his companions

 

and his companions

 

and his companions

 

were hungry?

 

were hungry?

 

were hungry?

26

How he went into

4

How he went into

4

That he went into

 

the house of God,

 

the house of God,

 

the house of God,

 

when Abiathar

       
 

was high priest,

       
 

and ate

 

and ate

 

and ate

 

the consecrated bread,

 

the consecrated bread,

 

the consecrated bread,

 

and even gave some

 

which neither he

 

himself and gave some

 

to his men to eat.

 

nor his companions

 

to his men to eat.

 

No one is permitted

 

were permitted

 

No one is permitted

 

to eat this bread

 

to eat

 

to eat this bread

 

except the priests."

 

except the priests

 

except the priests

     

alone!..."

 

alone!"

27

And he used to tell them:

   

5

And he used to tell them:

 

"The sabbath day

       
 

was created for Adam,

       
 

not Adam

       
 

for the sabbath day.

       

28

So, the son of Adam

8

For the son of Adam

 

"The son of Adam

 

is lord of even

 

is lord of

 

is lord of

 

the sabbath day."

 

the sabbath day."

 

the sabbath day."

Color Key:
blue
= same wording in three gospels;
teal = same wording in two gospels;
black = wording only in one gospel.

 

 

1.1. Structure: There are seven distinct elements in this synoptic chreia about sabbath priorities:

A. Scene:        Jesus walks through grainfields on sabbath.
B. Action:       Disciples pick grain.
C. Challenge: Pharisees question disciples' behavior on sabbath.
D. Lesson 1:   David ate priests' bread (1 Sam 21:2-7).
E. Lesson 2:   Temple ritual on sabbath (Lev 24:8-9); greater here.
F. Lesson 3:   [God] wants mercy, not sacrifice (Hos 6:6).
G. Riposte:    Sabbath created for Adam / Adam's son rules sabbath.

The pre-Markan structure consisted of the elements ABCG (Mark 2:23-24, 27-28).
D (Mark 2:25-26) is just as likely a Markan interpolation as EF (Matt 12:5-7) is a Matthean addition.  The integrity of the original chreia is proven by the fact that the details of the narrative preface (AB) and opponents'challenge (C) are not apt to have been inferred from  the aphoristic conclusion (G).

1.2. Sayings:  The core of the chreia is the challenge/riposte dialectic of C/G. The aphorism in G is the only retort that would have been adequate to deflect the challenge in C.  The argument from the order of creation, which only Mark 2:27 preserves, would be particularly effective.  For the Judaic prohibition of all labor on the sabbath day was traditionally justified by appeal to the creation story in Gen 1 (Exod 20:8-11, 31:12-17).  To conclude that an heir to the archetypal human per se---not a priest or scholar---is in charge of the sabbath is the type of radical pronouncement that could generate this chreia and provoke synoptic scribes to elaborate on it.

The three appeals to study scripture (DEF) are clearly scribal insertions. Only Matthew took the reference to priests' bread in D as a pretext for the logical tangent in EF (Matt 12:5-7), which is totally irrelevant to the Pharisees' challenge (C).  In feeding themselves, Jesus' disciples did not, like the temple priests, perform a prescribed duty (E) nor an act of mercy (F).  The issue here was not the priestly ritual anyway; so, Matthew's devaluation of temple and sacrifice is hardly germane.

The synoptic argument in D is, likewise, a smokescreen.  For anyone who read 1 Sam 21 would know that here David did not violate the sabbath or any other command, for that matter.  Contrary to the impression given by the synoptics, he did not help himself to the priests' bread.  Rather, the priest (Ahimelech) voluntarily offered it to him after David swore that he and his companions were ritually pure.  This incident could be used to illustrate the general principle that human need overrides ritual regulations, a principle that at least some Pharisees would accept.  But as a defense against a charge of illicit behavior on the sabbath (C), it is a poor parry, one that would hardly persuade opponents presumed to be educated (οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε).

1.3. Dialectic: The source of the dialectical core of this chreia (C/G) must be tested, however.  The double dictum in Mark 2:27-28 (G) was clearly formed for some encounter before Jesus died.  Its dramatic hyperbole is typical of genuine Jesus sayings./1/  The most likely occasion for Jesus to assert absolute human authority over the sabbath was a confrontation with observant Jews over an infraction of sabbath customs.  This much could be inferred from Jesus' aphorism alone.  The question is whether the challenge prefaced to it in the synoptic chreia (C) represents the original historical pretext.  For the latter gives  the saying a thrust that does not presume Jesus' presence: to counter criticism of his partisans' behavior.  And complaints by Pharisees about irregular behavior by partisans of Jesus, like Mark 2:24, are typically "Markan" (cf. 2:18, 7:5).

If Mark found 2:28 as a free-floating aphorism, however, he would not have needed to create a dialectical pretext.   For his next pericope (Mark 3:1-6) focuses the sabbath question on Jesus himself, a pattern repeated in other gospels./2/   Mark could have applied the insertion technique here that he used just a few lines earlier when he set another "son of Adam" saying (2:10) into the story of the healing of the paralytic (2:1-12).  Or, better yet, he could have interpolated 2:28 into 1:21-28, a confrontation focused on Jesus' demonstration of unique independent authority on a sabbath.

Mark 2:24 is not only redactionally superfluous, it is for Mark an atypical pretext for a "son of man" saying.  Mark regularly used this idiom as Jesus' self-referential periphrasis and, unlike Matthew (9:8), never interpreted the singular form (ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) in a generic sense./3/  So, Mark is not likely to have invented 2:24 to explain 2:28.  And without a clear pretext, he probably would have even dropped the generic argument for human priority over the sabbath in 2:27, as Matthew and Luke did.  The fact that he preserved this argument indicates that he inherited the dialectical structure of C/G in which Jesus' aphorism answers a complaint about someone else's behavior.

1.4. Context: The link between this mini-dialogue (C/G) and its narrative preface (AB) also needs testing.  For it is not immediately clear whether AB comes from the original chreia or from Mark's editing.  Mark 2:23 sets the barest of stages, with characters and scene sketched in vague generalities.  The few details added by Matthew or Luke (disciples' hunger, husking, eating) are obvious inferences from Mark's inexplicit narration.  But, more important, there is no explicit or necessary connection between Mark 2:23 and 2:24.  Only Matthew blends the two statements into a single scene.

The temporal transitions in Matt 12:1 (ἐν τῷ καιρῷ) and 12:2 (ἰδόντες) are absent in both Mark and Luke.  Thus, they are best seen as inferences of Matthew's historicizing imagination rather than elements of the original chreia.  For it is unlikely that Luke     eliminated focalizers without introducing more elegant (and more explicit) substitutes.  Instead, Luke 6:1, like Mark 2:23, opens with an oral story-teller's vague ἐγένετο.  And Luke 6:2, like Mark 2:24 (but not Matt 12:2), has Pharisees pose a general question without any direct reference to the scene (A) or action (B) in the previous verse.

Yet, the statistical odds that the incident of grain-picking is a late story-teller's invention are slight.  A grainfield is not a typical Markan setting, like synagogue or sea, for a confrontation involving Jesus or his disciples.  The only element in the narrative preface (AB) that could be a deduction from Mark's core dialogue (C/G) is some type of illicit sabbath behavior by Jesus' disciples.  Given the sabbatical prohibition of work, the offense was obviously a deed that the critics considered labor.  But reaping was only one of thirty-nine categories of work traditionally prohibited by Pharisees on the sabbath./4/  And neither the Pharisees' complaint (C) nor Jesus' retort (G) suggests this infraction,

Besides, the only reason for a scribe to introduce the argument about David and his companions (D) would be to explain an irregular incident involving eating.  The fact that Mark gives priority to this argument increases the probability that the scene in AB is pre-Markan.  For a grainfield setting could not be inferred from 1 Sam 21.  But the sparse details of Mark 2:23 could make a literate person like Mark recall the story about David, and insert it between ABC and G without testing its dialectical value in that context.

 

 

2.1. Principles: Since the fact that a story is pre-synoptic does not guarantee its historicity, the three statements in Mark 2:23-24 must be tested seriatim.  Data reported to focus an authentic aphorism may echo the situation that provoked it.  But even if the dialectical preface to Mark 2:27-28 were fabricated by Mark (which, I have argued, is improbable), its separate statements (A,B,C) may still be based on historically valid impressions of Jesus.  The issue here is whether this chreia preserves accurate information about Jesus' behavior, not whether it recalls the exact circumstances that generated a particular logion. The latter is a judgment about the tradition history of a saying rather than the reliability of a description of Jesus' activity.

The question here is: did Mark give valid impressions in portraying

(A) Jesus on a sabbath stroll through grainfields,
(B) accompanied by disciples who pick grain (on a sabbath), and
(C) Pharisees questioning  their behavior.

The evidence is what the text actually says, not what the scribe or a later reader might imagine.  Thus, each statement needs to be judged on the basis of its content rather than its context.  Mark 2:23-28 does not itself mention any geographical region.  So, the idea that this incident is set in Galilee is a conclusion from Mark's narrative sequence.  Whether there were Pharisees in Galilee in Jesus' day is an important question; but its is a moot point here, unless one could prove that Jesus never left Galilee.

2.2. Itinerant. The fact that this scene (A) is an exception to the tendency of Mark and other evangelists to locate Jesus' sabbath confrontations in a synagogue commends its historicity./5/  For an unconventional setting is more likely to be a genuine recollection of the lifestyle of a controversial wandering Jew like Jesus than a conventional one.

The image of Jesus travelling on a sabbath is also consistent with a genuine non-Markan aphorism, "foxes have dens," which identifies him as a homeless wanderer for an indefinite period./6/  Dozens of other pericopes imply that Jesus lived an unsettled existence during his public career.  If just a fraction preserve a generally accurate image of Jesus' mobility, it is plausible that over a period of months he spent at least a portion of one sabbath on the road.

2.3. Grainfields. The topography of this chreia is unique in the Jesus tradition.  The fact that the "grainfields" (τὰ σπορίμα) in Mark 2:23 par is a New Testament hapax legomena makes it unlikely to be a Christian fiction. Neither Jesus nor any disciple was reputed to be a farmer. Yet, their familiarity with grain is clear from Jesus' choice of sowing / reaping / seed imagery in several genuine sayings./7/  Thus, Jesus must have walked by or through fields on many occasions.  Most gospel pre-passion narratives trace his itinerary through rural areas.  So, a sabbath journey through a grainfield can hardly be considered unrealistic.  In fact, if Jesus was homeless for any extended period, a sabbath trip to an obvious food source may even have been typical and deliberate.

2.4. Disciples gather grain. Simple historical logic is enough to prove that a group of disciples traveled with Jesus./8/  A vagabond leaves few traces without loyal companions to recall what he said and did.

The fact that the focus of this chreia is an act by the disciples (B) rather than Jesus is not a valid argument against its historicity.  For the tradition's tendency was to make Jesus the center of attention./9/  Besides, in this case, the situation is culturally cogent.  For in all traditional eastern societies, disciples automatically assume the menial role of providing food for themselves and their teacher.  The "son of Adam" saying in Mark 10:45a may have originated as Jesus' egalitarian protest against being served./10/  But the general trajectory of Christian tradition proves that he did not succeed in eliminating every ingrained social pattern of subservient behavior from his disciples.

Jesus' travel instructions also support the historicity of the image of his disciples foraging for food.  The disciples were to eat whatever a host provided./11/  So, Mark 6:8//Luke 9:3 is probably correct to include bread on the list items that they did not carry with them./12/   In inhospitable situations, they had to resort to gathering whatever nature offered.  In Judaic culture, grainfields were obvious sources of free nourishment since Torah-observant Jews were bound to allow indigent trespassers to gather whatever their hands could hold./13/ Thus, the image of the disciples of an itinerant sage gathering grain on at least one sabbath is historically sound.

2.5. Pharisees complain.  In 1987 a majority of the Jesus Seminar endorsed the generalization: "Jesus was in conflict with Pharisees."/14/ But prior to 70 C.E. Pharisees were hardly a monolithic party. Since the gospels tend to multiply incidents of friction between Jesus and Pharisees each report must be weighed on its own merits./15/  The complaint against the disciples in Mark 2:24 is that they are "doing what is not permitted on the sabbath day."  This interpretation of the disciples' action could only have been made by a Pharisee.  For though reaping in the sabbatical year was forbidden by written Torah (Lev 25:5), picking grain by hand on the weekly sabbath was not. There was, however, an ancient oral tannaitic sabbath prohibition that limited the practice of hand-gathering permitted by Deut 23:25 to weekdays./16/  That prohibition cannot be dated with precision, but this pre-Markan chreia (Mark 2:23-24) presupposes that at least Pharisees considered it normative, while the Jesus party did not.  This clash could have occured only in a Judaic context well before the tannaitic rule became generally accepted as law.

The objection that Pharisees were unlikely to spend their sabbath stalking Jesus through grainfields is irrelevant, because Mark never says this.  Rather, it is a reader's inference from the narrator's juxtaposition of two statements which condense actions over an unspecified span of time and space.  Unlike Matthew, Mark does not tell how Pharisees learned that Jesus' disciples did not obey their regulations.  Hearsay is just as plausible as direct observation.

Finally, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke do not claim the Pharisees pressed a formal charge of law-breaking.  Rather, they merely ask a question about Jesus' party's motivation (τί ποιοῦσιν / ποιεῖτε), which Jesus' concluding aphorism (Mark 2:27-28) apparently answered satisfactorily.  For this chreia does not claim these Pharisees took any action against Jesus or even pursued their investigation.  In fact, the initial success of Jesus' retort is probably what guaranteed its preservation as a chreia, so it could be recalled in future conflicts.  The idea that Pharisees in general were hostile to the Jesus party is an inference drawn from the Markan context and Matthean redaction, not from the evidence of this chreia itself./17/  The question in Mark 2:24, and the core chreia as a unit (ABCG), however, presuppose a social dialogue before prejudices have been established or party lines hardened.  Thus, this chreia probably took shape well before Jesus' crucifixion.  For Paul is proof that partisan hostility was intense soon afterwards./18/

 

3.1. Box. The core chreia about sabbath priorities is a mini-window on the world of Jesus.  If the pericope is voted on as a whole, I would recommend that it be boxed red or at least pink.  For the circumstances that provoked a genuine Jesus saying should be judged no less authentic. Here the only anachronisms are sayings (the three scripture lessons) added by Christian scribes.  In making these interpolations, however, Mark and Matthew did not mutilate or fundamentally alter the original elements of either the scene or the dialectic.

3.2. Lines. Voting by verse, however, allows more precise and nuanced judgments of the historical value of each synoptic statement.  The only  way to color code inferences from the report or its context in the gospel narratives is to formulate other statements and vote on them separately.

3.3. Recommendations:

Verse

Color

  Reasoning

Mark 2:23

red

Details are sparse; but the scene is completely consistent with
the image of Jesus' lifestyle implied by genuine sayings.
There is no evidence of scribal corruption.

Matt 12:1
Luke 6:1

pink

Most elements are congruent with Mark's report.
But the statements that only the disciples were hungry (Matt),
husked (Luke) and ate the grain (Matt/Luke)
are probably invalid inferences.
Ordinarily disciples would offer their leader the first fruit.

Mark 2:24

pink

This complaint is the probable pretext
for a genuine Jesus saying (Mark 2:27-28). 
The wording accurately reflects halakhic differences
between two groups of Jews without exaggerated friction.
But there is no evidence that all Pharisees in Jesus' day
would have endorsed this complaint.
So, Mark's identification of the opponents is too absolute
to be taken at face value.

Luke 6:2

red

This correction of Mark's wording is historically valid
on both points.
The confrontation involved only certain (τίνες) Pharisees;
and their complaint (addressed to Jesus)
would probably have implicated him in the violation.
The complaint is still a simple query, not an accusation.

Matt 12:2

gray

Matthew misinterpreted Mark
by making the Pharisees eyewitnesses
and turning their question into a charge.
But otherwise he preserves valid information.

Mark 3:25-6
Matt 12:3-4
Luke 6:3a

black

Not an original part of this chreia.
Jesus probably did not say this.
So, the synoptics misrepresent these words as a Jesus saying.

Mark 3:27a

red

Jesus probably said something like this.
The correct identification of a speaker of a genuine saying
should always be in red.

Luke 6:5a

pink

Luke's omission of Mark 2:27
makes his representation of Jesus' reply inexact.
A saying that a scribe has mutilated or altered
cannot be ascribed to Jesus without qualification.

Matt 12:5-7

black

Digressions found only in Matthew and typical of his rhetoric.
Arguments devoid of the wit found in genuine Jesus sayings.

3.4. Interpretation: Three usual inferences by readers from this chreia's setting in the gospels' narrative sequences that should be addressed are:

1. This incident occurred in Galilee.             Recommended vote: gray
(possible, but not necessary).

2. These Pharisees were enemies of Jesus.      Recommended vote: black
(an invalid inference from other pericopes)
On the surface, their question is just an innocent expression of surprise.

3. Jesus was critical of these Pharisees.          Recommended vote: black
(an invalid inference from sayings interpolated by Matthew and Mark).
Jesus' retort (Mark 2:27-28) simply justifies his own group's variant halakha.

 

/1/ The Jesus Seminar designated it pink in March 1988 (vote spread: R 15%, P 50%, G 21%, B 15%; weighted average: 55%).  Matt 12:8 and Luke 6:5 were designated gray (weighted average 37%) because they omitted the aphorism in Mark 2:27.

/2/ Luke 13:10-17, 14:1-6; John 5:9-19, 9:14-16.

/3/ Mark 3:28 uses a double plural (οἱ υἵοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων) to give a generic twist to a saying that Q and Thomas focused on a singular subject (Luke 12:10//Matt 12:32, Thom 44).

/4/ "The basic tasks are forty minus one: sowing, plowing, reaping...."  m Shabbath 7.2.

/5/ Mark has three sabbath/synagogue pericopes: 1:21-29 (Capernaum), 3:1-6 (uncertain) and 6:1-6 (Nazareth?).  Matthew repeats the last two, while Luke has parallels to all three plus 13:10-17.  Luke 14:1-6 is the only synoptic sabbath pericope other than the present chreia that is not set in a synagogue; and that has a typically Lukan meal setting.

/6/ The final vote on the Q version (Luke 9:58=Matt 8:20) fell just short of red (74%); Thom 86 was a bright pink (67%).

/7/ The version of the mustard seed parable in Thom 20 was voted red. The three seed parables in Mark 4 and the Q saying about birds not sowing or reaping (Luke 12:24//Matt 6:26) were designated pink.

/8/ The Jesus Seminar overwhelmingly accepted this general statement as early as 1987 (vote spread: YY 63% - Y 19% - N 3%,- NN 16%).

/9/ Witness the logical progression of John 5:10-18.

/10/ The Jesus Seminar did not vote on this verse as an independent logion, but designated the aphoristic cluster in Mark 10:41-45 gray ("some content useful for determining who Jesus was").

/11/ Luke 10:8//Thom 14:4a were designated pink by a slim margin (51%).

/12/ Both versions were designated gray, largely due to inconsistency among the parallels and Mark's tendency to soften Q's Spartan catalogue.  Q (Luke 10:4//Matt 10:10) does not explicitly forbid bread.  But travelers without a purse or bag would have difficulty carrying solid food with them (wineskins were not prohibited).

/13/ "If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you can gather heads of grain by hand, but you cannot use a sickle on your neighbor's standing grain" (Deut 23:25).  Containers were also forbidden (Deut 23:26).

/14/ Vote spread: YY 31% - Y 31% - N 14% - NN 24%.

/15/ Only two explicit critiques of Pharisees were voted pink: Pharisee and toll-collector (Luke 18:10-14, 58%) and the Q version of scholars' privileges (Luke 11:43//Matt 23:5-7, 53%).

/16/ b Shabbath 128a: "The sages say: One may husk with his fingertips and eat, but only if he does not husk a lot with his hands in the way he does on a weekday."  R. Akiba's pupil, R. Judah ben El'ai (mid-second century) was the only rabbinic sage reputed to have  lifted this prohibition: "One may pick by hand and eat, but only if one picks without a container.  One may husk and eat, but only if he does not husk a lot in a container (cf. Deut 23:26)"  Ibid.

/17/ Mark presents this incident as the third in a string of Pharisaic challenges to Jesus.  The fourth concludes with the Pharisees plotting to get rid of him (Mark 3:6).

/18/ Philip 3:4-6, Gal 2:13-14, 1 Thess 2:14-16.

Crossan, J. Dominic, In Fragments. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Funk, Robert W., The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1988.

copyright by author 2017
all rights reserved

  • This paper was presented on 15 Oct 1994 to a session of the Jesus Seminar in Santa Rosa CA and is published here for the first time.

  • Hypertext links to this web page are welcome. But the contents of this paper may not be reproduced or posted elsewhere without the express written consent of the author.

- last revised 29 July 2017 -

Website designed by Mahlon H. Smith
copyright 1997- 2017