Posted by: mattcolvin | September 5, 2007

Jesus and the Sabbath in John 5


(Reposted from Fragmenta.)

In Greek class today, we read John 5’s account of the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida (Bethzatha). Several interesting things occurred to me during the reading, all having to do with the question of Jesus’ attitude toward the Jewish Sabbath.

First, it is sometimes alleged that Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly (presumably as part of his general program of earning merit to be imputed to sinners). Does the present passage speak to the question? I think it does in three ways. First, John says:
διὰ τοῦτο οὖν μᾶλλον ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἀποκτεῖναι, ὅτι οὐ μόνον ἔλυεν τὸ σάββατον…

Because of this the Jews sought to kill him all the more, because he not only broke the Sabbath… (Jn 5:18)
Now, it might be alleged that this is merely the Jews’ perception, but that Jesus was innocent of Sabbath-breaking by the actual letter of the Torah.

But, second, we should notice his defence when confronted with the charge:
ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἀπεκρίνατο αὐτοῖς, Ὁ πατήρ μου ἕως ἄρτι ἐργάζεται κἀγω ἐργάζομαι.

Jesus replied to them, “My father has been doing work up til now, and I too am doing work.”
Note well: Jesus does not deny doing work on the Sabbath. He explicitly affirms that he is working. His argument is that He, as the son of the Father, is called to imitate the Father’s pattern of work: God works on the Sabbath, so Jesus should too. It is an appeal to a principle that is higher than the Sabbath law — temporally prior, and superior in importance. In this, it is similar to Jesus’ argument about divorce, in which the creational, Adamic pattern, is temporally and ethically superior to the temporary Mosaic mitzvah.

What is the charge against Jesus? John says that the Jews hounded him ὅτι ταῦτα ἐποίει ἐν σαββάτῳ — “because he was doing this on the Sabbath.” There is thus formal similarity to the expected charge in Luke 6:6-11 (Mt. 12:9-14, Mk. 3:1-6), the account of the healing of the man with the withered hand. Yet the present instance is distinctive because the Jews’ first target is the man whom Jesus healed at the pool of Bethsaida. Jesus had commanded him to “pick up your mat and take a stroll” (ἆρον τὸν κράβαττόν σου καὶ περιπάτει). Had He not so commanded, the healing would have gone unnoticed. Jesus was fully aware that he was advertising His deed; and further, that He was ordering the healed man to break the Sabbath law.

The 4th evangelist clearly thinks Jesus broke the Sabbath. In addition to the already-mentioned offhand notice in 5:18, there is the fact that our author goes out of his way to call up an echo from the OT. He does this by scenothesia. Where does this healing take place? 5:2 tells us: ἐν τοῖς Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐπὶ τῇ προβατικῇ — “In Jerusalem at the sheep-gate.” The detail is surely significant, since in point of fact, the actual healing takes place at one of the collonades that lined the pool. Why then this mention of the gate?

It is there for one purpose: to call to mind Jeremiah 17:19-21:
The Lord told me, “Go and stand in the People’s Gate through which the kings of Judah enter and leave the city. Then go and stand in all the other gates of the city of Jerusalem. As you stand in those places announce, ‘Listen, all you people who pass through these gates. Listen, all you kings of Judah, all you people of Judah and all you citizens of Jerusalem. Listen to what the Lord says. The Lord says, ‘Be very careful if you value your lives! Do not carry any loads in through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.
Jesus picked his location well, precisely in order to challenge his audience with the newness of his “wine” and the oldness of their “wineskins.” He chose a setting that would call to mind the strictest warnings of the Mosaic covenant against carrying loads on the Sabbath. Remember: He ordered the healed man to pick up his mat and walk around. He need not have done so if his aim was to observe the Sabbath.

Some Sabbatarians would concede that Jesus indeed “broke” the Sabbath, but only because He was more than man; we mere mortals, they would say, do not have such a privilege: “That’s OK for Jesus, but not for Christians.” But Jesus rules out such an objection, explicitly vindicating his followers, and with a defense that is formally similar to the one He makes for His own behavior in John 5.

In Mt. 12:1-6, Jesus is confronted by Jews offended at the behavior of His disciples: “Behold your disciples are doing what is not permissible to do on the Sabbath.” As in John 5, Jesus’ reply is not at all to exempt the questionable behavior from condemnation by the Sabbath law. Rather, He appeals to David’s action with the Showbread in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. And note how He does so:
Οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε τί ἐποίησεν Δαυὶδ ὅτε ἐπείνασεν καὶ οἱ μετ’ αὐτοῦ, πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγον, ὃ οὐκ ἐξὸν ἦν αὐτῷ φαγεῖν οὐδὲ τοῖς μετ’ αὐτοῦ εἰ μὴ τοῖς ἱερεῦσιν μόνοις;

Have you not read what David did when he was hungry and those with him, how he went into the house of God and they ate the showbread, which it was not permissible for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone.
Note how Jesus emphasizes that David’s exception also covered the activity of “those with him.” Note also how Jesus does not contest the breaking of the Torah’s commandment. Rather, he implicitly admits it: what David did “was not permissible for him”; no two ways about it.

I have no idea how to read such passages from a Sabbatarian perspective. It would seem to involve torturing the text, ignoring its most emphatic diction and imagery, and eviscerating Jesus’ arguments of their rhetorical force.


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