The Historicity of Jesus Christ’s Controversies on the Sabbath

The Sabbath is the most sacred day of the Jewish week. It is a day set apart for rest and the contemplation of God. It is also a day that is rooted in the Bible’s creation story in Genesis and the Ten Commandments. It was given by God to be a day of rest from work and labor.

The Sabbath and Interpretations

Despite its immense importance, there was no single Jewish approach to the Sabbath. Although it was obvious to all that the Sabbath meant to rest on the Sabbath day and that this was communicated in the Torah, Jews interpreted this in new contexts.

How it worked differed from group to group. For example, the text of Jubilees prohibits the preparation of food or drink on the Sabbath (2:25-33). According to Philo’s Life of Moses, attending the synagogue on the Sabbath was required (2.215-16). Those Jews living at Qumran allowed cattle to roam in pasture but only to the limit of three thousand feet (Damascus Document 11:5-6), yet the Mishna (composed in the second century CE) states that cattle can be led but only if they do not carry any load (Mishnah Shabbat 5:4). 

The Essenes would prohibit anyone helping an animal give birth or rescue it if it fell within a pit (Damascus Document 11:12-17) and the legalistic Pharisees allowed the use of medicine to aid an ill person on the Sabbath (Mishnah Yoma 8:6). The Pharisees also had 39 rules stating what was prohibited on this day some of which included sowing, plowing, baking, washing, weaving, stitching, writing two letters, building, tearing down, kindling or putting out a fire, transporting an object from one domain to another, and more (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). Although there was a wide interpretation of what constituted work, these Jewish groups attempted to faithfully obey God’s command and apply it to their lives on this sacred day. 

Turning to the historical Jesus, what evidence is there that this was a prominent feature within Jesus Christ’s ministry?

Independent and Early Attestation

The first, and perhaps most important, evidence is that the role of the Sabbath in Jesus’s ministry is multiply and independently attested, particularly in that it caused a reaction from some Jews who felt he violated the Law. This criterion states that an event or saying appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which the event/saying is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source. The more independent witnesses to an event/saying the better, just as the more independent witnesses to a crime make the case easier to solve for a detective.

Mark’s gospel provides the narrative of the plucking of grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28). In this account, Jesus claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath,

“Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (2-27-28).

This episode is further mentioned in Luke (6:1-5) and Matthew (12:1-8), but both derive their material from Mark. These accounts do include some differences and additions. Matthews‘s account has the single attestation of priests working in the temple on the Sabbath (12:5) and God’s desiring mercy over sacrifice (12:7). All three gospels of MarkMatthew, and Luke include the anecdote of David and his soldiers eating the shewbread which was not permitted by the law because it was the privilege of priests only (1 Samuel 21:2-10). There is further controversy regarding Jesus’s healing of a man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6 = Matthew 12:9-15 and Luke 6:6-11). Taken together, MarkMatthew, and Luke constitute a single source for controversy regarding Jesus on the Sabbath. Additional independent attestation comes from material unique to Luke’s gospel containing Sabbath healings (L = Luke 13:10-17, 14:1-6) and John’s gospel which includes Sabbath controversies too (5:1-47, 9:1-41).

Three independent sources attest to controversies surrounding Jesus on the Sabbath: MarkL, and John, suggesting this theme to be deeply embedded in the historical tradition. Mark and L are also regarded as early sources, meaning that the controversies surrounding Jesus on the Sabbath are in some of the earliest gospel traditions. 

What Was Jesus Communicating? 

If we consider Jesus’s claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath, it is not possible to verify this saying by the historical-critical method because it is singularly attested and several scholars view it as the work of the early church, but we will examine its significance anyway.

Jesus is claiming high authority by saying that he is Lord of the Sabbath. It is to say that he has authority over the sacred calendar and one of the Ten Commandments. It is indeed a high claim since who wields such authority other than God himself?

Further, the Son of Man was Jesus’s preferred (and most common) title he gave to himself and it is a title that has connections to the figure prophesied in Daniel 7:13-14. This figure is said to receive divine honor and ride the clouds as only transcendent entities do. This association is clearer later in Jesus’s ministry as he gradually unveils himself. Jesus’s remark that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) seems to say that, in his view, it was never God’s intention for the Sabbath to become so restrictive as it had, especially to the extent that essential and basic activities such as eating would be prohibited for it being deemed work. 

We find multiple attestation of a controversy regarding Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath in Mark 3:22 (= Matthew 12:24 and Luke 11:15) and material unique to Matthew (M = Matthew 9:34). In this case, Jesus is accused of casting out demons and using the power of Beelzebul, which is a term for Satan. There is a historical tradition, particularly from opponents of Christianity, that Jesus indeed wielded supernatural power but that this power came from an evil source. We learn from Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist and writer of the second century, that Jesus was accused of being a magician (Dialogue with Trypho 69.7, 108), which is repeated by the philosopher and skeptic Celcus a century later (Origen’s Contra Celsus 1.28, 1.68), and the Talmud claims Jesus used sorcery (b. Sanhedrin 43a). 

A constant tradition beginning with the earliest gospel, Mark, and M material attests to Jesus working with unusual, supernatural power. It is not a denial that he used such power, rather the speculation was where this power came from. Some scholars have declared the miracle-working of Jesus to be some of the strongest evidence we have for him (1). Through his healing on the Sabbath, Jesus was affirming his close connection to God, who is the ultimate healer and restorer.  


1. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. 670.

Bock, Darrell L. 2012. Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 65-78.


One comment

  1. Very good write-up, very interesting. Now I’m sure you realize that the “Sabbath” as Jesus, et al refer to it, was on Saturday. Why are Christians now observing the Sabbath on Sunday?

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