Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Jesus’ Ethical Dilemma, the Sabbath Law, and Mark’s Historical Blunder?

     Did the disciples of Jesus violate the Sabbath law with the Lord’s approval? Does Jesus teach that the end justifies the means, condoning situation ethics? Did he (and/or Mark) make a factual mistake by naming Abiathar as high priest, even though Abiathar was not high priest at the time of the recounted incident? Was Sabbath observance intended for all of mankind?
Divine Law and Situation Ethics
     The Law of Moses permitted hungry travellers to help themselves to grain fields (Deut. 23:25), while it prohibited reaping on the Sabbath (Exod. 34:21). There is a big difference between plucking grain by hand and using a sickle or other harvesting tools. Rather than defending situation ethics, the example of David (cf. 1 Sam. 21:1-6) is more likely employed to demonstrate the inconsistency of the Pharisees. They accepted David for doing what was unlawful, while condemning Christ and his disciples for doing what was legally permissible. Jesus merely asks a thought-provoking question and leaves the judgment to his critics. This is not a legitimate proof-text for advocating situation ethics.
Historical Blunder?
     Mark is the only synoptic writer to include the name of Abiathar in this account, but there are variations among manuscripts: “in the days [time] of Abiathar the high priest” (ESV, NASB, NKJV) vs. “when Abiathar was high priest” (ASV, N/RSV). While the incident did occur in the days of Abiathar, his father Ahimelech was actually the recognized high priest at the time. As a prolepsis1 this would simply describe Abiathar as he was known when the reference was made, and it is certainly plausible that he was present on this occasion with his father. Ahimelech was killed soon afterwards, and Abiathar was then appointed high priest (1 Sam. 22:17-21). There is no historical blunder here.
The Perpetual Sabbath Law?
     Only Mark records the following words of Christ, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The obvious point is that God’s regulations were never intended to be harmful or burdensome but to benefit those subject to them (cf. Deut. 10:13; 12:28; 1 John 5:3). Jesus, as “Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 28; cf. Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5), had the knowledge and authority to discern how divine laws were to be observed, particularly with respect to blessing others (cf. Mark 3:1-6).
     This affirmation, however, does not suggest that the 7th-day Sabbath law was instituted for all men everywhere of all time. Contextually Jesus is speaking directly to Pharisees (ethnic/religious Jews) still subject to the old covenant system of Moses. The context qualifies this seemingly general reference as applicable to Israelites amenable to Sabbath legislation under Mosaic Law (Ex. 16:9, 23-26; 20:2, 8-11; Deut. 5:1-15). It is no more universal than the Lord’s observation in Mark 7:7-8, where the commandments and traditions of men advocated by the Pharisees were merely those of their fellow countrymen, not of all mankind. The sense of Mark 9:31 is not that Christ was betrayed into the hands of all men everywhere but only those stipulated by the action described. Not every man universally is joined to or separated from a wife (Mark 10:7, 9) or creates images of false gods (Acts 17:29), but only those to whom the general allusion applies.2
     The 7th-day Sabbath law was part of the old covenant of the Jews mediated through Moses (Deut. 4:13; 5:1-15; cf. Jer. 31:31-34), and these pre-christian regulations were in force until Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:13-17). The new covenant of Christ, void of any Sabbath legislation, has now superseded the obsolete arrangement of ancient Judaism (Heb. 8:6-13; 10:9; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6-14).
     Regardless of the unwarranted accusations of the Pharisees, the Lord’s Jewish disciples did not violate the Hebrew Sabbath law. Although modern-day critics would like to contend otherwise, Christ did not condone disobedience to God’s commands, and he did not teach or justify situation ethics. Contrary to the ardent claims of antibiblicists, neither Jesus nor Mark were ignorant of the biblical/historical record and did not convey false information. Despite the misconceptions of our sabbatarian neighbors, the 7th-day Sabbath law was limited to the old covenant of the Jews and intended to be a blessing for those amenable to it, particularly the liberated Jewish slaves of Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:15). The Lord’s new and better covenant does not include this Hebraic convention.
     When an isolated text of scripture prompts challenging questions, let us not jump to hasty conclusions or buy into the prejudicial assumptions of skeptics and pseudo-religionists. All the facts should be carefully and honestly evaluated. The conclusion of our current investigation, despite ill-informed claims to the contrary, is that the integrity of the Bible and a coherent understanding of its message remain intact.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 A prolepsis is a literary device that depicts something as having existed or occurred before it actually did (e.g. Mark 11:1-2; 12:3). A modern-day example would be, “When President Lincoln was a young boy …”
     2 Compare also Matt. 10:17; 23:4, 5, 7; Luke 2:52; 6:22; John 2:10; 2 Cor. 3:2; et al.

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Related articles: Wayne Jackson's Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?

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