June 16, 2010

Jesus and the Sabbath

“For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him [Jesus]; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).

2010 1517 page24 capohn 5:18 has played a prominent role in discussions concerning Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath. Was Jesus habitually breaking it? The way we answer this question has implications regarding the normative nature of the Sabbath. After all, if Jesus broke it why should His followers keep it? The issues at hand are therefore very important. To truly understand this verse, we need to deal with the biblical evidence carefully and honestly.

John 5:18 is the conclusion to a controversy about the healing of a paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. Apart from this incident there are six other Sabbath controversies in the Gospels: (1) the incident of the disciples picking and eating grain in the grainfields (Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5); (2) the healing of the man with a withered hand (Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11); (3) the healing of a crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17); (4) the healing of a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6); (5) a follow-up controversy about the healing of John 5:1-18 (John 7:19-24); and (6) the healing of a blind man (John 9:1-41).

This article will explore John 5:18 in its immediate and broader context. I will first evaluate two traditional interpretations and their ensuing problems and then proceed to offer an alternative.

First Interpretation: Jesus Was Breaking the Sabbath
A casual reading of John 5:18 suggests that Jesus was habitually breaking the Sabbath. This is how most commentators understand it. How-ever, there are two major objections to this interpretation, namely, context and clear statements to the contrary.

A Problem of Context:
In six of the seven Sabbath controversies recorded in the Gospels, Jesus is accused for healing the sick on the Sabbath. So the question arises, Did healings constitute a breach of the Sabbath? The answer is a resounding NO! Scripture never forbids them. And though some Jews complained, even Pharisaic Judaism eventually accepted them as permissible.1

2010 1517 page24In two Sabbath controversies other activities are involved. In Matthew 12:1-5 the disciples are accused because, while walking in the fields, they break and eat grain. Some argue that this violates the Sabbath because in breaking and eating grain the disciples were “harvesting” and “grinding.” But Jesus argues otherwise. To begin with, He calls the disciples anaitious. This is a very important Greek word. It is translated as “innocent.” It does not indicate someone who has done something wrong and is excused, but rather someone who has done nothing wrong at all. Furthermore, Jesus justifies the disciples by citing five stories from Scripture. The implication is that if the accusers really understood their Bible, they would not be complaining. So in the incident in the grainfields, the disciples did not break the Sabbath.

Apart from the healing of the paralyzed man in John 5:1-18 there is also the issue of the man carrying his bed—most likely a mat and/or blanket. Does the carrying of the “bed” constitute a Sabbath violation?

Some think so because Jeremiah 17:21-27 and Nehemiah 13:15-22 forbid the carrying of objects on Sabbath. However, a close look at the vocabulary of these two passages indicates that something completely different is envisioned there, namely, the buying and selling in the market. This is indicated by four words used in the original Hebrew: massa, used four times, suggests marketable goods;2 mecer and mimkar imply “merchandise”3 and “saleable goods,” respectively;4 melakhah conveys the idea of one’s “occupation” or “main business.”5 Clearly, the language points to business transportation and transactions in the market. From a biblical perspective, therefore, there is no parallel between the activities of the man in John 5:1-18 and the prohibitions of Jeremiah and Nehemiah. The context never presents Jesus as in breach of the Sabbath. In light of this, it would be strange for John 5:18 to completely reverse this picture and declare Jesus to be a habitual Sabbathbreaker.

Clear Statements in Which Jesus Upholds Bible Law: Another problem for those who claim Jesus habitually broke the Sabbath is that it contradicts clear Gospel statements in which Jesus upholds divine law. Matthew 5:17, 18 is a key passage here and is echoed by Luke 16:17. In Matthew, Jesus teaches that whoever breaks a commandment or causes others to do so will have no place in the kingdom (Matt. 5:18-20). To the rich young ruler Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” (Matt. 19:17), and He quotes five of the Ten Commandments (Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20). Jesus could hardly tell the man to keep the commandments if He Himself was habitually breaking one of them. In one instance Jesus contrasts the fifth commandment with rabbinic traditions, upholding the former and condemning the latter, and concludes: “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that” (Mark 7:13).

Looking at the context of all seven Sabbath controversies, Jesus did not break the Sabbath once. We have looked at several statements in which Jesus clearly upholds divine law. Therefore, to maintain that in John 5:18 Jesus was habitually breaking the Sabbath does not make sense. The first interpretation cannot stand.

Second Interpretation: Jesus in Perceived
Habitual Breach of Sabbath Law

Given the limitations of the first interpretation, some suggest an alternative understanding of John 5:18, namely, that while Jesus respected the biblical Sabbath, He disregarded Jewish traditions regarding it. The Jews therefore persecuted Him not because He was breaking the Sabbath but only because they perceived Him to be breaking it.

According to the Gospel record this approach is more accurate. Nonetheless, the question we still need to ask is this: Does John aim to tell us that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus because they perceived Him breaking the Sabbath? I doubt that.

2010 1517 page24First, John 5:18 does not state that Jesus was “perceived as breaking the Sabbath,” but rather Jesus “was . . . breaking the Sabbath.” To read it otherwise requires us to read into the text something that is not there, at least not in an obvious way.

Second, it is doubtful that the Jews would have wanted to kill someone for infringing on rabbinic interpretation. The time of Jesus was a fluid period in Judaism, and opinions on Sabbath observance and other issues varied.

This is evident in the Gospels. In the healing of a demoniac nobody objects. Rather, the people are “amazed” and spread the news throughout Galilee (Mark 1:21-28). In the healing of the crippled woman the synagogue ruler objects strongly, but the majority are “delighted with all the wonderful things he [Jesus] was doing” (Luke 13:17). In Luke 14:1-6 Jesus heals a man, and the Pharisees, finding no way to substantiate an objection, remain quiet. In Mark 1:32 the crowds hesitate to seek healing on the Sabbath and wait until sunset to bring their sick to Jesus. Obviously, opinions as to what was appropriate on the Sabbath were divided.

Another example is Luke’s account of the incident in the grainfields. Only some of the Pharisees accuse the disciples of breaking the Sabbath (Luke 6:2). For other Pharisees and the non-Pharisees, breaking and eating grain on the Sabbath was perfectly acceptable. After another Sabbath controversy, John defines Jewish attitudes well by concluding: “So they were divided” (9:16). Even in the Mishnah and the Talmud, two collections of Pharisaic traditions, there are many contradictory interpretations on how the Sabbath should be kept. In light of the above, it is unlikely the Jews would have wanted to kill Jesus for breaches of rabbinic tradition since there was no consensus among them as to what constituted proper Sabbath observance.

So the second interpretation, while more probable than the first, still does not do full justice to John 5:18. What then shall we do with this challenging text?

Paying Attention: An Alternative Interpretation
Let me suggest a third interpretation that is very simple and straightforward. The English verb “breaking” in John 5:18 translates the Greek verb luo. The primary meaning of this verb is “untie, release, set free.”6 On some occasions it can mean “destroy” and very rarely “break.” If we translate John 5:18 according to the primary meaning of the verb luo, John 5:18 would read as follows:
“For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him [Jesus]; not only was he setting the Sabbath free [from Pharisaic traditions], but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

Is this a viable translation? Yes, for at least two reasons. First of all, a word should be translated according to its primary meaning, if that makes good contextual sense. In this case, the primary meaning makes perfect sense.

Second, we know from the context that one aim of the ministry of Jesus was to liberate the faith of Israel from the countless rabbinic traditions, and restore it to its biblical simplicity. In Matthew 15:6 Jesus went so far as to say that these traditions “nullify the word of God”!

Twenty-one times the words “hypocrite(s)” and “hypocrisy” are used in the Gospels, always in relation to the spiritual leaders of Israel. When Jesus healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath and some accused Him of supposedly breaking the Sabbath, Jesus pointed out their folly by saying: “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?” (Luke 13:15). It is evident from these few examples that the traditions of the Pharisees were often against the spirit of the Bible, burdensome, and unnecessary, and this is why Jesus opposed them. In this sense, Jesus was truly “liberating” the Sabbath, “setting it free” from the burdens the Pharisees had placed upon it.

To translate the verb luo therefore as “set free” (a) is paying more attention to the meaning of the verb, and (b) fits the context of the Sabbath controversies better.

As already demonstrated, neither of the two traditional interpretations of John 5:18 seems textually and contextually appropriate. Based on the primary meaning of luo the text suggests that Jesus was setting the Sabbath free from Jewish tradition. This rendering is linguistically and contextually preferable.

I believe that thus properly translated and understood John 5:18 encapsulates the essence of Jesus’ relation to the Sabbath. He did not attempt to destroy it or go around disregarding it. How could He when He elsewhere upheld the Ten Commandments? But He labored to set it free from misguided casuistry and place it in a more positive perspective so that it could indeed be a delight—as originally intended (Isa. 58:13).

1 t.Sab. 5.16; b.Yoma 85b; Mek. 31:13; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (München: Beck, 1922-1961), vol. 2, p. 487.
2 W. Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), p. 672.
3 F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1979), p. 569.
4 Gesenius, p. 569; Brown, Driver, and Briggs, p. 569, use “sale, ware”; W. L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 199, “something saleable.”
5 Holladay, p. 196.
6 H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1889), pp. 481, 482.

Kim Papaioannou, PH.D., a native of Greece, is currently assistant professor of new testament in the Theological Seminary at the Adventist International Insitute of Advanced Studies, Philippines. This article was published June 17, 2010.