This saying about the sabbath
day is the surest piece of evidence that the historical Jesus was a real Jew
whose thinking was based on principles from Jewish scripture. But it also
shows that Jesus was a creative thinker who was not afraid to express
radical views that stood conventional interpretations of scripture on their
Jesus’ perspective here is
Jewish---or at least Israelite---, because he accepts and tacitly endorses
the Hebrew Bible’s theological explanation of time. The Hebrew word
shabbat (“sabbath” in English) simply means to stop something. But for
Jews the term became practically synonymous with the week’s end due to this
definition from the ten commandments:
The seventh day is the sabbath
of the LORD your God....
In six days the LORD made the skies and earth,
the sea and everything in them;
but on the seventh day he rested.
That’s why the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it sacred.
--- Exodus 20:11-12
For any ancient culture that
followed a lunar agricultural calendar the four phases of the moon’s
twenty-eight day cycle naturally gave each seventh day of the month a
special significance. Because pagans regarded the moon as a god (or
goddess), changes in its appearance were widely regarded as ominous and
frequently associated with taboos. Many considered it dangerous to go about
daily routines or even venture out of the house on certain days, especially
at full moon and on days of lunar darkness. But the story in Genesis about
a benevolent Creator, who made the cosmos a habitable place and pronounced
all its elements good, gave an optimistic twist to the Israelite
interpretation of both the physical world and time. The Jewish sabbath
became a reminder that the God who gave this people’s ancestors a homeland
and promised Abraham’s descendants prosperity was still in control of the
universe. The seventh day was, therefore, a time of celebration rather than
This humane outlook is reflected in the first line of Jesus’ saying about
sabbath priorities. His argument presupposes the biblical story that sets
human beings at the pinnacle of creation, with God-given authority over all
creatures. If this is so, he infers, humans take precedence over all else.
By alluding to the scriptural chronology that elevates the human being to
God-like control of the creation before the institution of the sabbath,
Jesus makes a point that Jews might readily concede: human beings come
before time schedules in God’s order of things. Yet the conclusion that
Jesus drew from this challenged all conventional Jewish interpretations of
Since Jewish sabbath observance
was designed to set an absolute standard of communal behavior, it was not
just a matter of personal piety. Prohibition of any kind of labor by
anybody on the seventh day was made explicit by the most detailed of the ten
basic commandments in the Mosaic Torah:
The seventh day is the sabbath
of the LORD your God.
No work is to be done then,
either by you or by your son or daughter,
or by your male or female servants,
or by your work-animal,
or by a foreigner in your settlement.
--- Exodus 20:10-11
This list of who was to be
laid off on the seventh day was obviously designed to prevent attempts to
circumvent the sabbath rest by permitting or requiring others to continue
their daily chores.
Thus, those who did not rest on
the sabbath day risked excommunication as heretics who failed to honor
Israel’s God. The Jewish historian Josephus, a priest from Jerusalem who
was born within a decade of Jesus’ death, indicates that this was no idle
threat. For sabbath violators are high on his list of types of Jewish
refugees whom, he says, fled to Samaria, a region that Jews generally
regarded as populated by infidels and outlaws:
If anyone was charged by
authorities in Jerusalem with eating unclean things,
or with violating the sabbath or some other sin like this,
he fled to authorities at Shechem, saying he had been unjustly banished.
A Jew who had been excommunicated as a sabbath violator could plausibly
charge injustice because at that time there was not any universally
recognized Jewish standard for judging what activities violated the sabbath.
Although the biblical prohibition against sabbath work was absolute, the
Bible itself did not spell out what constituted “work.” Thus, different
codes of sabbath observance were not only possible but inevitable in the
remote areas of Judea or Galilee.
Members of a particularly
scrupulous sect, for instance, included this rule in its code of normative
No person who errs in
profaning the sabbath and the feasts shall be executed;
but the men are responsible for keeping him in custody.
Even if he is cured of his error,
they are to keep him in custody for seven years,
after which he can be admitted to the congregation.
--- Damascus Rule 12
High on this list of “errors”
for which a person might be incarcerated are violations of the following
No person is to walk outside
to do business on the sabbath.
No one is to walk more than 500 yards from his town.
No one is to eat anything on the sabbath, except what was already prepared.
One is to eat nothing lying in the fields.
One is not to drink, except in the settlement.
--- Damascus Rule 10
These stringent regulations
were, however, not adopted by the majority of Jews. Their discovery among
the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates that they were probably observed by Essenes,
a Jewish sect widely known in the first century for their rigorous standards
of purity and community solidarity. But, even admiration from
contemporaries did not guarantee the survival of the rigorous discipline of
these religious purists.
Modern Jewish sabbath observance owes more to the Pharisees, a Judean party
led largely by lay scholars, which was formed more than a century before
Jesus. The Pharisees were hardly a unanimous group. But they sought to
reach consensus in defining an oral code of social law by a process of open
debate between leading scholars. Certain customs and traditions were
accepted by all. But there was plenty of room for public argument to refine
the details of religious discipline.
With regard to sabbath
observance, for instance, the heirs of the Pharisees eventually recorded a
basic list of thirty-nine tasks that defined work to be terminated before
sundown on Friday. The chores at the top of this list, drawn up in a farm
culture, were naturally those performed by peasants, who constituted the
majority of the population:
sowing, plowing and reaping;
binding sheaves, threshing and winnowing;
polishing and grinding (grain);
sifting, kneading and baking.
--- Mishnah tractate Shabbat 7.2
The production, gathering and
preparation of food was prohibited on the sabbath day. Eating itself was
not, since the Sabbath was to be a time of celebration and renewal. But
sabbath food had to be prepared before sunset on Friday. On these broad
principles there was apparently no debate.
What acts fell within these
general categories of prohibited labor, however, was debated by Pharisees
and their descendants long after the time of Jesus. For example, the
feeding of livestock on the sabbath had been permitted, even though it
involved carrying bundles of fodder to where the animals were confined. But
this concession raised the question of how to treat human beings who were
not in a position to gather or prepare their own food before the sabbath.
Hebrew scripture had explicitly permitted the indigent to pick food from
their neighbors’ fields or orchards without setting any time limit. Abuse
of this privilege was prevented simply by prohibiting the use of tools or
If you go into your neighbor's
you can gather heads of grain by hand,
but you cannot use a sickle on your neighbor's standing grain.
--- Deuteronomy 23:25.
In a clear attempt to
reconcile the oral principle that prohibited agricultural tasks on the
sabbath with this written law, second-century rabbis issued rulings that
tolerated hand-picked sabbath snacks by hungry travelers. In the Babylonian
Talmud (tractate Shabbat 128a) Simeon ben Gamaliel II is credited with this
Anyone may pluck grain
by hand and eat it, but only without a tool,
And anyone may
husk and eat, but not husk a lot in a container.
His colleague, Judah ben Elai,
however, insisted on a further qualification to distinguish sabbath activity
from the everyday:
Anyone may husk with the tips of one’s fingers and eat,
but only if one
does not husk a lot by hand in the way one does on a weekday.
Even with such restrictions,
these rabbinic decrees are far more tolerant and humane than the Essene
regulation, quoted above, that prohibited a hungry person from picking
anything from a field on the sabbath.
These decrees are relevant here
because the gospels present Jesus’ saying about sabbath priorities as a
reply to Pharisees who challenged his tolerating disciples who gathered food
from grainfields on the sabbath. The Talmud’s rulings are relevant,
however, not because they were in effect in Jesus’ day, but precisely
because they were not. Chief rabbis did not issue rulings about the
legality of hand-picked food on the sabbath until more than a century after
Jesus’ death. During Jesus’ lifetime the practice was neither expressly
permitted nor prohibited (except by Essenes). So, the matter was in flux,
just awaiting a convincing resolution by someone mentally sharp enough to
settle the issue.
This is precisely the purpose
of Jesus’ statement about the authority of Adam’s son over the sabbath. The
biblical creation story depicts God not only as creating human beings (both
male and female) before the sabbath but as granting them authority over all
things on earth (Gen 1:26). The Hebrew Bible defined the human being as
such (Adam is a generic name for humanity in Hebrew) as a mirror
image of the Creator. So, Jesus concludes, if God is Lord, so is any child
of Adam (or Eve). If God is independent of constraint from others, so by
genetic inheritance is every member of the human race. Human beings are
designed by nature to be rulers of their own affairs even on the
The gospels give a pretty good
indication of the situation that prompted Jesus to issue this liberating
ruling by portraying him strolling with his disciples through grainfields on
some Saturday. This very setting would put him in jeopardy of facing
charges of violating the sabbath if he were a farmer or fieldworker.
For fields are the farmer’s workplace and were, by definition, off-limits to
agrarian Jews during the sabbath. But this is the Jesus who elsewhere
says: “the son of man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58//Matt
8:20). Though reportedly a carpenter by trade, both he and his disciples
had quit their workplaces for good, to live in the open as homeless
wanderers. They owned no beds, no house, much less fields to produce food.
They had no place to prepare in advance to celebrate any sabbath. Unless
some kind soul took them into her house as guests---and on occasion some
women did just that---, they would have to spend their sabbaths in the
fields, where they could find enough raw grain to stave off their hunger.
After all, did not scripture say that God permitted this? By foraging the
fields, Jesus and his comrades were simply taking the Creator’s unqualified
offer to human beings quite literally:
See, I am giving
you every seed-bearing plant around the earth
and every tree with seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food.
--- Genesis 1:29
Jesus himself told the hungry
not to worry about where their next meal was coming from in these terms:
Look at the birds of the sky!
They don’t plant or harvest or gather into barns.
Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
---Gospel of Matthew 6:26 (the wording in Luke 12:24 varies slightly)
Bird’s feed on seeds in
grainfields, don’t they? So, too, did Jesus and his disciples.
Yet, such free-spirited vagabonds were bound to raise the eye-brows and the
tempers of at least a few staid landowners and townsfolk, who tried to make
a living by the sweat of their own brow. It was for such types that Jewish
sabbath regulations were intended. After all, only people who are inclined
to do something generally need to be told what not to do. The command to
cease all labor, with its wagon load of appended taboos, was designed to
make workaholics take time off at least four days a month. The Hebrew Bible
said God stopped producing things after six days, so those created in God’s
image should follow that example. Thus, to many Jews who heeded scripture’s
unqualified outlawing of sabbath labor and religious rules designed to
enforce it, the behavior of Jesus’ band of homeless tramps seemed irregular
to say the least.
Hence, the Pharisees’ puzzled question: “Why are
they doing what’s not allowed on sabbaths?” (Mark 2:24). This is not a
charge that a specific act (eating hand picked grain) violated sabbath
rules, but rather simply a request for an explanation of an abnormal pattern
of behavior. Clearly, no real Pharisee would spend his sabbath lurking in
grainfields to spy on Jesus or anyone else (as Matthew interprets Mark’s
sketch of this confrontation). But Jesus’ band probably spent more than one
sabbath out in the fields. So, it would not have been long before some
pious townsfolk noticed that their general lifestyle deviated from social
norms. If their leader was not an infidel, he should know better and
Jesus’ response to the
Pharisees’ question justifies his tolerance of deviant behavior even in
religious observances. For if God did not define what tasks to terminate on
the sabbath, then any child of Adam was free to determine for him- or
herself how to observe it. Far from challenging the religious
observances of anybody, Jesus’ statement, “the son of man is master even of the sabbath” merely denies all humans the right to impose their own scruples on
anyone else. Jesus regularly referred to himself as “son of man” (rather
than “son of Abraham”) to show his solidarity with humans everywhere. But
he never patented this name for himself. Jesus’ followers are equally
descendants of Adam and Eve and, thus, masters of their own behavior on the sabbath or any day. But so too are the Pharisees. Therefore, Jesus does
not presume to tell them how they should celebrate the sabbath.
Jesus’ declaration “the son of man is master of even the sabbath” does not
establish any religion but, rather, is a declaration of the radical
religious independence of all people. It is designed for Jews or any
follower of Jesus as the ultimate---or, rather, primordial---definition of
social and religious tolerance. The only practice it undermines is the
attempt of any human being to impose a religious discipline on any other.