Jesus and Sabbath
Jesus came from an observant Jewish family, and there is no reason to suppose that he did not take seriously the command to `keep the Sabbath Holy'.
In Luke 4:16-30 there is a description of him going to synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. The major point of describing this incident is to show that Jesus was rejected in his home-town, but it also gives us insight into his Sabbath practices.
So going to synagogue on the Sabbath was his usual custom (v.16), indeed it would be unheard of for an observant Jewish man of his day not to go to synagogue. A number of ancient synagogues have been discovered in Galilee, mostly dating from the first or second centuries AD.
These, combined with rabbinic writings, give us some insights into synagogue worship in Jesus' day. As with the Temple in Jerusalem, synagogues in Galilee were generally orientated to the west, as an eastward orientation was associated with sun worship. At the front of the synagogue was a cupboard, or Ark, where the scrolls of the law were kept, and in the centre of the synagogue was the Bimah or reading desk.
Jesus must have been a respected person within his community because he was asked to read. Today in synagogue there is a reading each week from the Torah (Pentateuch) followed by a `Haftorah' reading which is a reading from the Prophets selected to fit the Torah theme. During the year, the Torah is read through once systematically. There are various suggestions concerning the lectionary in Jesus' day. One common view is that there was a three year cycle for reading the Torah and that there were also Haftorah readings.
Each week the Torah reading was divided into three. The person who read the last portion of the Torah may also have read the Haftorah and then taught on the passages.
If this were the case, Jesus would have been the person chosen not only to read but also to speak. The scrolls were written in Hebrew and as they were read, they were explained in Aramaic, sometimes drawing on the Septuagint for help in translation. This translation with explanation was known as a Targum and would account for some scriptural quotes in the New Testament seeming to be a little different to the Old Testament verse in the same translation of the Bible.
For example, the last two phrases of Luke 4:18 (`recovery of sight for the blind; to release the oppressed') are alternate meanings of the Hebrew original for the final line of Isaiah 61:1 (`and release from darkness for the prisoners'). This may have been a Targum by Jesus.
In our English translation of Luke it seems as if Jesus, after reading from the scroll, simply went back to his seat after reading and then added his challenge, almost like an afterthought.
It must be remembered that at this time it was traditional to stand to read and to sit to teach. So the description of him standing to read the passage and then sitting down before he spoke fits the customs of his day.
Jesus' teaching on that day was very challenging to his hearers. He not only proclaimed himself as the Messiah (anointed one) but also suggested that the Gentiles would be more responsive to his ministry than people from his own home town. His rejection by the people of Nazareth inevitably followed and from here he moved to Capernaum.
Although this does not exactly describe an average Sabbath in Nazareth, from this passage we can conclude that before he began his ministry Jesus was not only a respected member of his synagogue but he was also a regular lay preacher.
Did Jesus break the Sabbath?
In the first century there was continuing discussion about what was and was not permitted on the Sabbath. There were differences of opinion between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, where the Pharisees were more willing to find ways around Sabbath laws but the Sadducees were more literal.3
Among the Pharisees there were sometimes heated debates between the more lenient House of Hillel and the stricter House of Shammai. Other groups such as the Essenes had an even stricter understanding of the law. All these groups had different interpretations of the basic commands that a person should not work, start a fire or begin a journey.
In Luke 5:27-32 there are two stories where Jesus, or his disciples, are accused of breaking the Sabbath.
In the first story, his disciples picked some corn and ate on the Sabbath, and in the second Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. Both of these incidents led on to debate as to the precise regulations of the Sabbath but neither would have been seen as severe transgressions of the Sabbath by the vast majority of Jews at that time.
The Mishnah has a similar saying to the issue of corn in its section on Sabbath:
Beit Shammai rules: ink, dyes and alkaline plants may not be steeped unless they can be dissolved while it is yet day; but Beth Hillel, permit it. Beth Shammai rule: bundles of wet flax may not be placed in an oven unless they can begin to steam while it is yet day, nor wool. In the dyer's kettle unless it can assume the colour [of the dye]; but Beth Hillel permit it. Beth Shammai maintain: snares for wild beasts, fowls, and fish, may not be spread unless they can be caught while it is yet day; but Beth Hillel permit it. Beth Shammai rule: one must not sell, to a gentile, or help him to load [an ass], or lift up [an article] upon him unless he can reach a near place; but Beth Hillel permit it. Beth Shammai maintain: hides must not be given to a tanner, nor garments to a gentile fuller, unless they can be done while it is yet day; but in all these [cases] Beth Hillel, permit [them]
Why are wet bundles of flax permitted? - Because [the oven in which they lie] performs no action and is motionless. But what of the trap for wild beasts, fowl and fish, which performs an action, Why are they permitted?-There too [it means] with a fish hook and a trap made with little joists,so that no action is performed.
For the incident with the withered hand, an Israeli Professor, David Flusser compared it with another section in the Mishnah:
For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.
Jesus in doing this healing on the Sabbath, actually emphasises Sabbath at the day for the renewal of creation. If Sabbath is essential for the continence of creation, then this healing is a wonderful illustration of it.
But it was bound to perplex people with a less imaginative understanding of the meaning of this special day.
So there were lots of debates as to what was and was not permitted on the Sabbath. Many scholars today now conclude that Jesus' attitude to the Sabbath was well within the acceptable limits of his day.
And like many of the more moderate Jewish teachers, he wanted to guard against excessive regulations and to encourage his followers to find the Sabbath a delight.4
Mark adds the important saying of Jesus, `The Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath' (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was given to provide a day of rest in which to honour God. Adding on too many regulations can destroy the joy of the day.