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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University


The sabbath was created for the human
not the human for the sabbath.
So the son of man is a master of even the sabbath.
  ---Gospel of Mark 2:27-28



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 head.

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 fear.

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 the sabbath.

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.
  ---Antiquities 11.346

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 behavior:

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 regulations:

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 containers:

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.
     --- 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 decree:

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 sabbath day.

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 discipline them.

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.


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  • This article is one of the author's contributions to a multi-authored volume on probable authentic sayings of Jesus that never made it to press.  It is published here for the first time.

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- last revised 04 March 2023 -

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