Disputing the Sabbath in Mark 2 and 3

Oh Mark—where have you been, with your dynamic directness, your parataxis and imitation of Old Testament narrative, your puns on ‘straightway’ and your dense biblical allusions? We have missed you! And yet—it is we who left you, whilst you have been waiting patiently all this time. We were seduced by the Beloved Disciple, with his dense spirals of recollection, his ambiguous language, and his exalted claims about Jesus. Forgive us for preferring his movement from the literal to the figurative, to your careful intercalation of pairs of stories. We loved his incidental historical observations (about him reaching the tomb ahead of Peter)—but we know that you have yours as well! We are back now—will you continue to teach us about what it means to follow Jesus as we journey with you once again?

The lectionary does something strange for the first Sunday of Trinity—the start of so-called ‘ordinary time’ away from the formal ‘seasons’. In the previous Year B, three years ago, we jumped on to Mark 3. But when Easter is relatively early, the lectionary adds an additional reading at the beginning—which then means that all the other readers that follow are shifted by one week.

So this week we are straddling the end of Mark 2 and the beginning of Mark 3 with two closely connected disputes related to the interpretation of Sabbath observance. This is another example of why, though we are grateful to Stephen Langton for introducing chapter divisions (so that we can share with others what we are reading; you don’t need chapters and verses if you are reading on your own), you cannot depend on the chapter division to indicate the literary structure.

There is a clear indication of a change of scene and focus in Mark 2.23 (‘And it came to pass…’ AV); there is a clear sense of continuity between Mark 2.23–28 and Mark 3.1–6 (the theme of Sabbath, the repetition of the phrase ‘what is lawful’, and the continuity marker ‘again, he entered the synagogue’); and there is a clear change of focus again at Mark 3.7 (‘And/but Jesus withdrew…). So we can treat our passage as a single unit in two halves.

However, we need to note some important questions of context. From the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark 1.15, through to the focus on his teaching from Mark 4.1, the narrative puts together a series of incidents in Jesus’ life and ministry. They appear to be connected more by theme than by timing; indeed, chapter 1 reads like a typical ‘day in the life’ of Jesus’ ministry. Throughout this, two themes keep emerging: Jesus’ popularity with the crowds during this Galilean phase of ministry; and the opposition that this provokes from the Jewish authorities.

We also need to note the immediate context, which is the dispute about fasting leading to Jesus’ saying about the new wine in new wineskins (note how often in Mark a dispute leads to teaching summarised in an aphorism).

On the question of fasting, notice that Jesus’ disciples have suspended their usual Jewish practice of fasting (‘often’, ‘twice a week’ and as it happens on Mondays and Thursdays from early breakfast to a late light supper). But they will resume that when ‘the bridegroom it taken from them’—so Jesus is not abolishing this common Jewish practice.

But his teaching in response to this is often misunderstood. From a non-Jewish ‘Christian’ perspective, the language of new wine and new wineskins is taken to mean the ‘old wine’ of Jewish teaching rooted in the Old Testament is thrown out, and replaced by the new wine of the kingdom (‘Come on in and taste the new wine…’ as Graham Kendrick sings for us). But the parallel in Luke 5.39 suggests both old and new continue to be of value. And the new wineskins are not new structures or new teaching (the wine is the teaching!) but people who receive and hold this good news.

This means that we need to read the debate about Sabbath not as a debate between Jewish teaching and (post-Jewish) Christian understanding, nor as a rejection or displacement of Torah (after all, Jesus was a Torah observant Jew). This is an intra-Jewish dispute about the interpretation and understanding of the Sabbath commandment, and fits with Jesus’ challenge elsewhere of the traditions of the Pharisees which are distinct from Scripture itself.

The passage itself begins with ‘And it came to pass…’ (AV), a ‘literal’ rendering of Καὶ ἐγένετο which in turn mimics the vav-consecutive of Hebrew narrative; Mark is writing in such as way as to sound as though he is writing Scripture.

Going through the fields, the disciples pluck heads of what has been sown (the term for ‘fields’ here implies ‘place where grain is sown’) which could be barley or wheat. What are they doing wrong? William Barclay (whom I remember from O-level RE, when the syllabus for the whole award was ‘the Gospel of Mark’!) suggests that, in the eyes of the Pharisees at least, they are reaping, beating the grain (by rubbing it in their hands), winnowing (by blowing away the husks) and preparing a meal (by eating the grains). Some speculate that they were also travelling more than a Sabbath’s day journey, but that cannot be the case, since it is the disciples alone (and not Jesus) who stands accused.

I think this fourfold construal is a bit fanciful; it is only ‘plucking’ that is mentioned. And, ironically, in Deut 23.25 plucking grain is specifically allowed and distinguished from reaping. But the focus in this passage is not the purpose of the Sabbath law, but its authority, articulated in the repeated question ‘what is [not] lawful?’ Mark implies that this is an ongoing dispute with the Pharisees, by using the imperfect tense ‘they were saying to him…’

We can see that Jesus is not rejecting scriptural teaching by the fact that his appeal is to Scripture itself: ‘Have you not read…?’ It seems to be a strange passage to choose, and Jesus refers to it in quite loose and general terms (David does not ‘enter the House of God’ in the narrative in 1 Samuel 21). But his point is this: the authority of the command is not absolute, but derives from the One who gave it. Therefore the person this One has appointed as king over his people has the right to interpret the meaning and application of the command.

Note: there is a debate in scholarship about the apparent error in referring to Abiathar as High Priest at the time, when it was in fact his father Ahimelech. There are several things worth observing here:

    1. There is awareness of this issue in the manuscript tradition, where some copyists have omitted to reference and so avoided the embarrassment. We are not the first to have noticed it!
    2. If this was a basic error of citation as is supposed, it is strange that Mark (or Jesus?) should make it, since Mark demonstrates such a detailed awareness of OT texts.
    3. If it is prone to look like a mistake, it is a sign of Mark’s faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching that it is included in the majority of manuscripts.
    4. Father-and-son High Priests were common, and often exercised authority in parallel.
    5. In an age prior to the use of chapters and verses, the only way to refer to a passage is ‘In the section where…’ and the grammar here permits of that interpretation.
    6. We, too, often anachronistically refer to people’s later status. When we say that ‘Prime Minister Winston Churchill was born in 1874’, no-one thinks we are in error because he was not actually Prime Minister at the time of his birth!

The Pharisees were so concerned about obedience to Torah that they erected a fence around the commands, so that, not only must we not transgress, we must be kept at a safe distance from even the possibility of transgression—kept at a safe distance by their additional traditions.

By contrast, Jesus teaches that Sabbath is a gift as well as a command—a call from God to live in the patterns he has made for us, and not an arbitrary straitjacket. And of course it forms part of the highest level of teaching in the Torah, the Ten Words (or ‘Ten Commandments’ as we have labelled them) rather than the lower and more detailed levels of regulation. Unlike the food laws, prohibiting the eating of certain foods or eating in certain ways, the Sabbath principle is rooted in creation itself, with its basis in the creation narrative of Gen 1.1–2.4.

It is not clear from Mark 3.1 whether this second, connected, incident happened on the same Sabbath or another; ‘again he entered’ does not necessarily tie it in to the same day, but does illustrate Jesus’ habit of synagogue attendance.

We see again Mark’s characteristic parataxis: ‘and he entered…and there was…and they watched…and he said.’ It gives the narrative both a sense of compression and of directness in describing the action. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ action and his opponents attention gives a sense of crackling tension. (Note that ‘they’ who watch are not specified; we have to infer they are the Pharisees from the preceding passage—though it turns out they are not alone.

Having in the previous episode explored the issue of authority of the Sabbath command, Jesus here addresses the purpose of the Sabbath—is it there to do good or to do harm? Again, he is not questioning the Sabbath command itself, but is challenging the Pharisees’ interpretation of it. The pro-active posing of a rhetorical question by Jesus, and the silencing of his opponents as a result, is typical of the debating style of Jesus in the Synoptic gospels.

There is a fascinating reference to the emotional life of Jesus here, which is distinctive of this gospel. We need to take seriously the possibility of Jesus’ anger at situations of harm and injustice—yet the second term is equally fascinating. The verb form here συλλυπούμενος is elsewhere used to describe grieving with someone, in sympathy with them. Is it possible that Jesus actually grieves for his opponents, and is not merely angry with them? Their hardness of ‘heart’ (here, the seat of will, decision, and understanding, not the seat of emotions which in biblical terms is found in the belly) not only harms others, but prevents them from repenting and receiving the good news of the kingdom for themselves.

Some have accused the gospel narratives of marginalising the disabled, and making them instruments for the display of Jesus’ healing power. There is an uncomfortable sense of this possibility when Jesus brings the man to stand before the people. Yet two things are striking: first, that Jesus involves the man as an active agent in his own healing (‘stretch out your arm’); and that there are no ‘fireworks’, no incantations, no words of power, not even a symbolic action from Jesus. Healing simply happens in the presence of Jesus and his holy power.

The authority, teaching, and healing of Jesus represent such a threat to the existing power structures and interests of different parties that two sworn enemies—the Pharisees, concerned with the purification of the people in obedience to Torah, and the Herodians concerned with maintaining their own power, even if it means collaborating with the pagan occupier Rome—now become allies. We might suggest the parallel of uniting Republicans with Democrats, or Reform with the Green Party.

Although, in narrative terms, these episodes together are about the Sabbath and its observance, in fact the central issue is the person and authority of Jesus. Jesus is the one who, as another David, has authority over his people. Jesus is the one who can rightly interpret the Sabbath—and with it the whole of Torah. Jesus is the one who fulfils the purpose of Sabbath, so that the writer to the Hebrews talks of him granting us true Sabbath rest. And Jesus is the one who brings life and healing as the Sabbath was intended to.

Come and join James and Ian as they discuss all these issues:

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23 thoughts on “Disputing the Sabbath in Mark 2 and 3”

  1. Surely the Jewish practice of fasting you refer to was on Mondays and Thursdays, not Mondays and Fridays? (Cf. Didache.)

  2. Blessed is the nation that puts into statute a mandatory national day of rest – in which case Christians should certianly keep it – but the weekly Sabbath is simply part of the Law of Moses and Christians are not under it. There is a weird hangover about that in the church.

    • Hi Anton,
      I agree the sabbath does seem to be a hangover.
      But the Westminster Confession understands that the Mosaic Covenant comes forward into the NT —and what is more in #19.2, like the Baptist 1689 Confession #19.2 —see that the 10 Commandments were ‘implanted in Adam’s mind/heart in Eden’ and thus stand outside the Mosaic Covenant and come through to the NT era.

      It seems Anglican theology is less articulated in this matter but certainly in their ecclesiology they do see some continuity of the Mosaic Covenant into the New Testament.

      • One can discuss which parts of Mosaic Law gentile Christians (at least) are meant to keep, but I absolutely disagree that the ten commandments have a status that the rest of Mosaic Law doesn’t. That is heresy and has led to absurdities such as preachers standing in a pulpit next to the Decalogue on the church wall while thundering “We are free from the law, not like those poor benighted Jews!”

      • Re the Ten Commandments : In at least one instance the BCP does not incorporate Exodus 20: 2 in its entirety. The service of Holy Communion (1662) omits the phrase “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (ESV). Quite apart from raising the issue of its inclusion in eucharistic worship, theologically speaking it undermines the order of salvation clearly outlined in The Song of Moses :”Who is like you O Lord —-majestic in holiness” —–. “You have led in your steadfast love (chesed) the people whom you have redeemed — (Exodus 15:11 – 13). At the risk of oversimplication, “Gospel” precedes “law”

    • Except that it precedes the Mosaic Law, because it is rooted in creation.

      And it part of the highest level of commandment. Are there others of the 10 Commandments you think don’t apply to Christians? Most have thought they all do.

      • Nowhere do I insist that the I0 C do not apply to Christians. I was speaking of a version of HC which excludes a clear statement of God’s covenantal redeeming love . How often have I had to deal with individuals who see the commandments as the basis of salvation! God’s love is revealed in creation, but the manifestation of that love is transparently revealed in the Mosaic Covenant; the supreme manifestation in the death of Jesus Christ!

        • Called -out Abram was called out from Ur of the Chaldees, by God, from his culture and its gods.
          Christians are similarly called out.
          The Hebrews were rescued, saved by God, Passover, from Egypt, and its worship of gods.
          They were saved so that they could worship God,
          And have “No other god before me.”
          They were to be separated to God, sanctified, to be Holy.
          Any breach of the decalogue was first and formost evidence of a breach of the first word- to have no other gods beore Him; idolatry.
          God’s call to be sanctified, to be Holy, as he is holy, continues, for His called-out ones, today.
          God’s love is Holy-Love.
          It is a call to a life transformed from surrounding culture: savaltion and sanctification.
          It is a call to be united to, one with Him, Father, Son and Spirit, even in our humanity, to be ever more in his image.

      • The 6+1 pattern is certainly rooted in creation, but the command for a national day off makes sense only to a nation. Do you consider that Christians in North Korea are sinning in God’s eyes (even if he forgives them) if they don’t go on strike on Sundays? Or Christian slaves in the early church? Given the level of persecution in NK, the church there would last precisely one week if they did that.

        There is a good discussion to be had about which laws of Moses are applicable to Christians today and which are not. What I am saying is that those criteria apply to the Ten Commandments no differently from other laws of Moses.

        • Surely the commands that Jesus said were the greatest (Matt 22:35-40) should be on church walls ahead of the Decalogue:

          ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.

          • New covenant theology argues (correctly to my mind) that all the OT legislation falls and we are left with the new covenant: “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The NT repeats the decalogue apart from the Sabbath day.

          • Anton – “the commands that Jesus said were the greatest”. Really! Were they not originally included in the Torah (to be precise : Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19: 18b respectively). You have declared that “you absolutely disagree that the 10C have a status that the rest of the Mosaic law doesn’t” while Colin Hamer pontificates that “the OT legislation falls and we are ‘left ‘ with the NC ‘law of Christ’ (a term he does not elaborate) ; then what conclusions are we to draw from these assertions?
            First: Anton’s contribution: is it not the case that Exodus 20 ( in its declaration of the Lord’s redemption (verse2), at the very least is a declaration of God’s covenant love? Or are we conclude that the “New Covenant Jesus” replaces him with someone more ‘palatable’ to the contemporary conscience – a law without regulation, a law without a call to discipleship and obedience? The recent form of C of E HC liturgy (2000) has from the outset included an up-to-date form of the commandments (P162) followed by Jesus’ “summary” of the Law – no evidence here of a lack of compatibility between the two phenomena !
            Or was it the intention of Jesus to rewrite the ethics of his ministry in order to eliminate any trace of ethnic ‘privilege’? After all, when we consider the case of the scribe who confronted Jesus with the question: ” What commandment is the most important of all?” , having cited the ‘summary’ (see above) received this response from Jesus: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Now according to at least one (Reformed ) theologian, had this man taken one further step to acknowledge Jesus as his Saviour and Lord, he would have moved from ‘not far from” to “inside”[Mark 12:28 f].
            However, is this not a form of eisegesis; reading a literalistic, NT interpretation into the text. and not allowing for the possibility that the statement of Jesus is a form of litotes((understatement)?Alas! even appearing to declare his love for God and his neighbour as a basis for entering the kingdom would run counter to the “gospel. ” Why did Jesus not go one stage further? Or is it the case that our absorption in “the law of Christ” has robbed us of the profundity of Scripture in its totality and the full reality of who Jesus is? Jesus was in in fact an observant Jew ( ‘I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them’). His opposition to the Scribes was not so much to their use of the Law, but their selfish *abuse* of the Law. In our desire to herald the New Covenant we must beware of saying on the one hand that “as OT legislation *falls* and on the other, ” we are *left* with the New Covenant – law of Christ. The issues are much bigger and profounder than those pertaining to Sabbath.

          • Colin M,

            I do accept that the Decalogue was in ther Ark. I should have said that disagree that the 10C have a status that the rest of Mosaic law doesn’t for Christians. I’m well aware that the two commands Jesus cited were from Mosaic Law and never suggested otherwise. Feel free to ask me a specific question.

    • Plenty of those! Job 38 should end three verses earlier than it does, so that the transition comes where God moves on from the material world to the biological world in his rhetorical questioning of Job. Also there should be a chapter break *after* each toledoth statement in Genesis (“these are the generations of”), since these statements actually end a passage rather than begin one as is popularly assumed. Such was the convention in the ancient world, and it resolves the mystery of why a man is named in a toledoth statement and then there is little or nothing about him in the following passages but plenty before.

      • (Puts tongue in cheek for a major tangent/digression….)
        Well of course it WAS me. Actually I’ve been stuck on this backwater planet for 65 million years since I came to do my stand-up comedy act for them big lizardy things you used to have here – you may have heard that went really badly…! Annoyingly stilll haven’t managed to genetically engineer an intelligent species to share the planet with….

        My time as the AoC was well mixed wasn’t it? I played a significant role in introducing clerical celibacy in England – please overlook my at least two children – and messed up the chapter divisions thing. On t’other hand I’m quite proud of the bit where I stood over that King John and made him sign that Magna Carta thing….
        Interestingly my family nearly had TWO AsofC; One Thomas Langton in the time of Richard III was appointed to the post but got taken out by some plague on the way to his installation.

        (Tongue out of cheek again…) A friend who does that genealogy thing says that contrary to what I’d thought I probably am a direct descendant of the original Stephen via one of those sons.

        • Anton
          In the Langton family Stephen is a kind of ‘go to’ when you for some reason want a change from traditional names of the local branch – because of the Archbishop, of course. My younger brother got ‘Edward Robert’ as the immediate family names. Fans of Charles Dickens may be aware of a Robert Langton (I think my great-great-uncle) whose books on Dickens are still available I believe via an American university – but sadly out of copyright so I can’t profit from them….

          In a different branch of the family I may be related to a famous American called Robert Leroy Parker….

  3. There has been a biblical theological hermeneutic in this article linking Genesis, with pulling together the meaning in Ian’s last paragraph.

    Why did God rest? He saw that it was “good”, that it was “very good”. He was satisfied, very satisfied with his work.

    Not only in Mark was there disputation with Jesus over the Sabbath, but in Matthew it comes to a head in chapter 11 where Jesus invites true Sabbath rest to those who come to him, to take his yoke (Sovereignty), to rest satisfied in his “finished”-“it is finished” work on the cross, for salvation.
    Jesus is the Sabbath Rest, filled-full to perfection. God in Triunity: Genesis expansively satisfied, teleologically recapitulated.

  4. A question and a couple of observations …

    Doesn’t “Lord of the Sabbath” carry even more weight? I think the phrase is calling for a maximal hermeneutic.

    Who created the Sabbath in Genesis 2:3? Who gave the law in Exodus 20? Mark is going to show us that Jesus is greater than Moses.

    This is only the second occurrence of “kurios” in Mark. I don’t think this is too great a stretch, because Jesus is constantly being identified with YHWH throughout Mark. This is the mystery hidden in plain sight, the apocalypse.

    In 3:6 The Pharisees are collaborating with The Herodians. They have already been outraged that Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”. Yet Herod is the arch-tax collector. Thus on this particular Sabbath they themselves are conspiring with “tax collectors and sinners” to destroy Jesus, while Jesus is restoring and healing. I think Mark wants us to see the irony and the hypocrisy.

    3:6 also removes any ambiguity we might feel about Jesus words in 2:17. Jesus clearly is not saying that the Pharisees and experts in the law are righteous (only that they think they are).

  5. Back to more serious after my earlier tongue in cheek comments
    I would want to pick up on two of Anton’s comments earlier

    “Blessed is the nation that puts into statute a mandatory national day of rest – in which case Christians should certianly keep it – but the weekly Sabbath is simply part of the Law of Moses and Christians are not under it. There is a weird hangover about that in the church”.


    “The 6+1 pattern is certainly rooted in creation, but the command for a national day off makes sense only to a nation. Do you consider that Christians in North Korea are sinning in God’s eyes (even if he forgives them) if they don’t go on strike on Sundays? Or Christian slaves in the early church? Given the level of persecution in NK, the church there would last precisely one week if they did that”.

    As I’ve been saying I understand it that we are not meant to have “Christian nations” of the worldly kind under the new covenant, but rather a situation of the Church itself as “God’s Holy Nation” operating inter/supra-nationally as a ‘Diaspora’ of ‘resident aliens’ (see I Peter), then can it be that in these and other passages about the Sabbath Jesus is looking forward to the very different situation that implies, and challenging his Church to think hard about what is important in the sabbath rule so that in that new covenant situation they will observe a ‘sabbath made for man’ rather than a less helpful ‘man made for the sabbath’ model. At least one well known pagan writing about the early Church seems to suggest a Church which indeed tried to meet on “The Lord’s Day” in memory of the resurrection, but then went back to their everyday lives the rest of the day – using the pagan holidays as days of rest/recreation if they could (which might have been difficult for those who were slaves).


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