As many scholars have maintained, the Sabbath dispute stories in the Gospels lack historical verisimilitude. Few if any 1st century Jews were so strict in their observance of the Sabbath day as to reprimand deeds of healing upon it. In fact, according to the Gospels themselves, most took no issue with Jesus’ Sabbath activity at all (Mark 1:27-31, Luke 13:17). That some of Jesus’ kinsmen would therefore have accused him of lawbreaking for merely instructing a man to “come forward” and “stretch out [his] hand” strains credulity (Mark 3:1-6).1
Episodes in which Jesus heals by the word of his mouth (Luke 13:12) or by the touch of his hand (Luke 14:4) fare no better from a historical perspective. Jesus simply does nothing in these scenes that could conceivably be interpreted as work and thus warrant censure. Either these stories are fabrication, the remnants of some later dispute between Christians and Jews, or the Sabbath controversy surrounding Jesus arose from some other quarter, one not involving the supposed work performed by the healer.
Spirits of Sabbath
Can anything in the life of the historical Jesus then account for the Sabbath controversies enshrined in the Gospels? Once we recognize Jesus as did his contemporaries, that is, as a spirit-possessed prophet, a potential solution emerges. As a spirit-possessed prophet, Jesus produced startling deeds not by his own force or wisdom (as a divine man might), but by the power of the spirit inhabiting his body. Understood according to this model—Jesus as spirit-healer—the identity of Jesus’ δαιμόνιον became a major point of contention—a point that was both engendered and inflamed by his spirit-work: cures and exorcisms. So, in light of the Beelzebul dispute, along with various other sayings,2 divisions and questions naturally arose: What kind of spirit did Jesus embody when he expelled debilitating demons, loosed crippled backs, and strengthened lame knees? Whose spirit was at work in Jesus on the Sabbath? Was it the Devil’s? Could it be God’s?
From here, the question of whether or not Jesus’ physical activity on the Sabbath could be considered work in violation of the commandment fades into the background. Controversy followed Jesus in this regard not because of what he did on the holy day (i.e. speaking, touching, healing,3 etc.), but because of what was implied by the Sabbath-activity attributed to his spirit.
Two interpretive frameworks developed in response.
On the one hand, for those who opposed Jesus, the signs produced by Jesus on the Sabbath confirmed that he was indeed possessed by the powers of darkness. Only unclean spirits, the scribes and Pharisees reasoned, would work on the day of rest and thus scorn Israel’s divine lawgiver. The Devil and his legions, as it turned out, were ever vigilant, ever at the task of thwarting God (cf. Matthew 13:24-25, 1 Peter 5:8). They did not take the Sabbath day as an opportunity to rest from their deeds of torment and manipulation (cf. Mark 1:21-27, Luke 13:16, Revelation 12:10).
On the other hand, for Jesus and his allies, the prophet’s deeds of power were ascribed to God’s spirit—Jesus being God’s mediator, partner, or imitator (John 5:17; 19-20). Cures performed on the Sabbath then, works of God as they were (John 4:34, 9:4), were sinless. God did not, after all, violate his own law. Strange at it may have seemed, the same God who rested from the work of creation on the Sabbath day was also at work in Jesus to restore Israelite bodies both on and off Sabbath. This work, Jesus argued, like the rescue (or circumcision) of a son, was legal and holy, and in complete accordance with the day of rest (cf. Luke 14:5, John 7:19-23).
God the lawbreaker
Still, all told, these competing frameworks are not highlighted in the Gospel Sabbath-stories themselves. Instead, for the most part the Gospel writers abbreviate the matter in simple and self-serving terms. While the generous Jesus does good on the Sabbath and is rewarded with applause from the people (Luke 13:17), the cynical and humiliated Pharisees spend the day of rest plotting their rival’s downfall (Mark 3:6). Jesus is honorable, the Pharisees dishonorable.
In one Sabbath dispute narrative, however, the true nature of this historical disagreement glimmers: the story of the man born blind (John 9). We find there that in reference to Jesus’ opening the man’s eyes on the Sabbath, the crowds recognize that a “sinner,” that is, a Sabbath violator, cannot perform wondrous signs from God. God neither abides with such a man (as spirit) nor listens to his prayers (John 9:16; 31-33). Yet when the Pharisees fail to debunk the miracle as a case of mistaken identity, some are left wondering whether a spirit of the Devil is actually capable of such a display of power: “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:21).4 The people are forced to consider a great conundrum: Either the God of the Sabbath has been roused into action in and through Jesus, or Jesus is harboring the Devil’s laborers in his very being.
As all parties acknowledge in this text, therefore, the historical controversy was not fundamentally a matter of whether or not Jesus the man broke the Sabbath—it was a matter of whether or not God himself was a lawbreaker—as the word and work of Jesus seemingly suggested. God’s rejection of the Sabbath, if that really was what Jesus’ cures represented, remained a confusing and terrifying proposition. One cannot blame faithful Jews for concluding instead that the Jesus who healed on the Sabbath was the Devil’s hired hand.
1—John P. Meier comments on this particular controversy: “Jesus performs no action to cure the man’s withered hand… It is incredible that Pharisees or anyone else would seek to put Jesus to death for the event described in Mark 3:1-6″ (A Marginal Jew volume II, 683).
2—Jesus is accused of demonic witchcraft in Mark 3:22, Matthew 10:25, and John 8:48-49 (cf. Matthew 12:28).
3—It is worth emphasizing that Jesus was not viewed as a physician, at least not in reference to his work as a healer (cf. Mark 2:17). He could not have been accused of practicing nonessential medicine on the Sabbath. His spirit accomplished the cure, not elixir, incense, or therapeutic technique (cf. Acts 2:22, 10:38).
4—While unclean spirits generally destroyed the body with disease and madness, they were also responsible for the wonders that emanated from the false prophet (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:9, Revelation 16:13-14).