Jesus And The Synoptic Sabbath Controversies -- By: Donald A. Hagner

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 19:2 (NA 2009)
Article: Jesus And The Synoptic Sabbath Controversies
Author: Donald A. Hagner


Jesus And The Synoptic Sabbath Controversies

Donald A. Hagner

Fuller Theological Seminary

The historicity of the Sabbath-controversy passages passes a variety of tests including historical plausibility, dissimilarity, and multiple attestation. These passages find a natural place in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees. The plucking of grain on the Sabbath and the Sabbath healings could not but raise the ire of the Pharisees, who thought of themselves as the guardians of the law. Since the Sabbath was an anticipation of the eschaton, Jesus regarded it as the perfect day for bringing wholeness to those in need. These Sabbath deeds are an indispensable part of the kingdom he brings, and thus they point to his messianic mission, his authority, and his identity. Thus, as with the question of Jesus’ view of the law itself, so too the Sabbath controversies find their final explanation in matters of Christology and eschatology.

Key Words: Sabbath, law, conflict stories, Pharisees, plucking grain, healing, Messiah, authority, Christology, eschatology

One of the ongoing, intractable questions in Gospel scholarship concerns the attitude of Jesus to the law of Moses. Is Jesus loyal to the law and observant of it, does he violate it and cancel it out, or does he somehow transcend it by penetrating to its essence? One aspect of that larger question, in a microcosm, is the issue of Jesus and the Sabbath. In a large and important study of the Sabbath,1 Lutz Doering reviews the options under six headings: (1) Jesus was against the Sabbath commandment; (2) Jesus was against only the Pharisaic halakah and not the Sabbath commandment itself; (3) Jesus was not fundamentally against the Sabbath commandment but only against its universal and inflexible application; (4) the free stance of Jesus vis-à-vis the Sabbath is marked by the eschatological stamp of his teaching and work; (5) Jesus views the law not as a rigid ordinance but in terms of its intent; and (6) Jesus lived in full conformity to the Sabbath praxis of the day.2

The present article discusses the historicity and significance of the synoptic Sabbath controversies. In the first part, we look at the historical question with some attention to the redactional activity of the Evangelists. In the second part, we look at the problem of Jesus and the Sabbath as it can be understood within the theological framework of the person of Jesus, his message, and his work.

1. The Historicity Of The Sabbath Controversies

1.1 Methodological issues. Questions of methodology have only become mor...

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