The conviction, that Jesus ended the ‘Jewish’ Sabbath, remains prevalent in many layers of Christianity. Though discussions especially gained momentum when Christianity re-discovered her Jewish roots, yet the ideas that the Sabbath was replaced by the Sunday, that baptism substituted circumcision and the Church supplanted Israel, persist.
Did Jesus end Jewish tradition?
Replacement ideology within the Christian tradition is particularly tenacious. The pericopes within the Gospels that refer to Jesus’ handling of the Sabbath, are traditionally explained as follows: Jesus exposed and refuted a ‘legalistic’ Sabbath. With that, He ended the Jewish tradition that deformed the Sabbath legalistically. He fulfilled the law and discarded the Sabbath; the Sunday subsequently emerged as a day of rest for Christians (in Christian tradition this was often given a ‘legalistic’ colour. That is another story).
Church said: God never intended the Shabbat…
Since early Christian exegesis the ‘violation’ of the Sabbath day law by Jesus, as supposedly found in the gospels, has been underlined. This lead to a pre-supposition that God never intended a Sabbath day law or even that it might have been Israel’s punishment. The statement of Barnabas is proof of the first: ‘the literal practicing of the Sabbath was never an object of God’s command’ (Letter of Barnabas). The second statement is expressed in the idea of Justin the Martyr, that God ‘branded the Jews by burdening them with the shame of the Sabbath’ (Dialogue). Accurate reading of the Gospels, though, sheds a different light.
It was Jesus’s custom to visit the synagogue on the Sabbath
All the gospels repeatedly declare that it was customary to find Jesus in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. This for Him was ‘normal’ living: He participated in synagogue services as a devoted, Torah believing Jew. A few times, it is said that He was invited to teach in the synagogue. It cannot logically be supposed that He would have been afforded this opportunity if His intentions were to declare that the Sabbath was meaningless. In Luke 4:40 it is written that when the sun was setting, many of the ill were brought to and healed by Him; thus the healings that might have involved some sort of work, took place only after the Sabbath has ended (the other healings on the Sabbath will be discussed later).
Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law
It is noteworthy that, in the process against Jesus, no mention was made of the Sabbath being violated. The evangelists specifically mention the fact that the chief priests and Sanhedrin, did their utmost to solicit witnesses against Jesus (e.g. Mark 14:55). If, in fact, Jesus was known to spurn the Sabbath, it would have played a much larger role in the process because of the importance of the Sabbath. Had Jesus indeed been calling for the Sabbath to be neglected during His preaching, the Sanhedrin would have had no need to exert themselves in order to collect false witnesses. The gospels unanimously declare that after Jesus’ body had been removed from the cross, the women waited for the Sabbath to pass before taking care of it: they observed the Sabbath. When Jesus says about the last days: pray that you do not have to flee on the Sabbath (Matt. 24:20), it is evident that He was of the opinion that His followers would be observing the Sabbath in the future. This summary clearly illustrates that Jesus and His disciples never distanced themselves from the commandment to keep the Sabbath. In fact, as Jews they wholly partook in the traditions of their people. After all, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfil it: fulfilling implies adhering to the rules.
Healing on the Sabbath
What, then, about the narratives in the Gospels about the Sabbath day healings, and all the discussions about it? Is the intention to imply that, even if Jesus did not break with the Jewish Sabbath, that He severed ties with the ‘legalistic’ way of thinking about the day of rest, as profiled in His days? Anti-Jewish interpretations of the Gospels over many centuries have created the image that Jesus had turned His back on the Jewish traditions and therefore against Sabbath observance. Ignorance about the Jewish world in which the Gospels originated played a part in this. The fact that the gospels echoed the halachic
debates in the development of Judaism were ignored. Without insight into the development of the Halacha, the Sabbath accounts in the Gospels are incomprehensible. A short explanation of the groups that are involved in the discussions with Jesus will clarify this.
The Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Sabbath
To start with, there are the Sadducees. This is the population’s aristocracy, the top layer, in especially Jerusalem and Judea. The rich chief priests – responsible for the High Priestly duties – belong to this group. It is, in fact, a conservative and elitist movement. They differ from the Pharisees in that they acknowledge the written Torah only; they reject the oral Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible. In their explanation of the Torah, they strictly adhere to the literal text of the written Torah. Application of Torah commandments according to changing circumstances or the consideration thereof, as is usual in hallachic tradition, was not allowed. Their interpretations are therefore strict and can be described as rigid.
The other group that we regularly meet in the Gospels is the Pharisees. Sociologically they primarily belong to the middle-class: merchants, teachers, artisans. They differ from the Sadducees in that they greatly value the oral Torah that was – according to rabbinical tradition – also given on Sinai, and they accept the other writings of the Hebrew Bible. Their interpretation of the law can be called casuistic; they strived to make the prescriptions of the Torah applicable on all areas of life and by considering varying circumstances, they ensured some flexibility in their application of the law. In general: they desired maximum obedience to the Torah by as many as possible in all possible situations. That, of course, lead to the development of different schools; the well-known schools of Shammai and Hillel, with the first being stricter than the second. In explaining the Torah, Jesus often comes closest to the school of Hillel. This is how the whole set of halachic-rabbinical discussions, that remains to be authorative in Judaism, originated. It can thus be said that the
Pharisees prepared the way for rabbinical Judaism,
Rabbinical Judaism became the face of the Jewish way of life after the destruction of the temple. A few examples might clarify the meaning of the explanation of the Sabbath law. Regarding the Sadducees, it is easy to be concise: they strictly adhere to the literal laws of the Torah. That, for example, means a total embargo on work. And this includes healing on the Sabbath. It furthermore meant, for instance, that people could not leave their homes on the Sabbath except to attend the synagogue. The later Karaites (a small group within Judaism that still exists, and is seen to be the spiritual descendants of the Sadducees) connected their homes via a passage system with their synagogue in order not to go outside on the Sabbath. The Pharisees developed an extensive system of rules for the Sabbath. First and foremost it should be stressed that they viewed the Sabbath to be a day of rest, study and great joy. This last aspect also includes communal meals. The system of rules is supposed to guarantee the exceptional character of the Sabbath and falls within the frame work of what is called a ‘fence around the Torah’. These instructions are meant to protect both the Torah and the people against desecration. The aim is not to burden the people but to enable them to enjoy the exceptionality of the Sabbath once they know how to be compliant with the character of the day. The purpose is to bring about a joyful Sabbath celebration as meant in the Torah.
Embargo on work
The most obvious, of course, is the embargo on work. The accounts of the building of the temple brought the Jewish Sages to the conclusion that there are 39 activities that are unlawful on the Sabbath. These activities have again been sub-divided. The most important rule is that exertion, aimed at production and gain, is prohibited. In Jesus’ days there were furious debates about the list of unlawful activities and especially about the ‘border cases’ such as winnowing (!), picking figs, grinding of fruit. Some had more rigid ideas about the Sabbath celebration than others. The Pharisees, as opposed to the Sadducees, intended to adjust the strict application of the prohibition on work and to make it accessible to the average Jewish person. That also included the care and protection of the socially impoverished.An example of this application is the ban on carrying on the Sabbath: nothing may be brought from the private area (own home) to the public area ( the street). This is but one of the main activities. It is apparent that this affords the rich person a larger private area and thus more freedom than the poor person without a private area. The solution is to create a communal ‘private area’ by combining all private areas or, in other words, to declare a large public terrain to be ‘private area’ within which objects can be carried. The condition for this is that this area must be enclosed with doorposts or symbolic gates and fences. This enclosed area, called an ‘eruv’ with its border called ‘techum’, limits the ‘Sabbath day’s journey’. This enables them to e.g. carry the prayer books to the synagogue and eating utensils to the neighbours where communal meals can be enjoyed. Both Amsterdam and Antwerp are West European cities with an eruv.
Rules on the Sabbath
A very important issue is that saving a human life (pikuach nefesh) is more important than the Sabbath laws. If someone’s life is threatened, the rules have to be broken. The margin for interpretation is wide, and healing on the Sabbath is justified when a life is indirectly being threatened; that is, healing by the spoken word, without the use of instruments and medicines to accomplish the healing – and in the last instance this is permissible, too, when there is immanent danger to life. This rule has its origin in the time of the Maccabeans. The Syrians had the habit of attacking the Jews on the Sabbath because the Jews were deemed to be defenceless, as they are not allowed to use weapons on the Sabbath. The Maccabeans then asked themselves: is it God’s intention that the Sabbath be consecrated while the people and the land are endangered? They formulated this beautiful reply: ‘In order for future Jewish generations to keep the Sabbath, we have to temporally break it’. The Mekhilta’s ground rule dates from that time: ‘the Sabbath is secondary to you, not you to the Sabbath’. Everyone reader of the Gospel recognizes Jesus’ words: ‘the Sabbath was made on account and for the sake of man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). He thus agreed with this rule.
Read the study Jesus and the sabbath