2010-04-06

Why Matthew and Luke changed details of Mark’s sabbath dispute

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by Neil Godfrey

Little details, such as Matthew turning a Pharisee’s statement in Mark into a question, and Luke adding the little word “some” to Mark’s account, on closer inspection turn out not to be haphazard variations, but evidence that the gospel authors were more focused on creative story telling than passing on “traditions”.

The example of this that I noticed most recently is the slightly variant accounts of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees over his disciples’ corn-plucking on the sabbath. (I was thinking through James Crossley’s argument for these different accounts revealing evidence that Mark was written before “the church” experienced any controversy over sabbath observance. In his efforts to uncover “assumptions” being made by Mark, and reliance on a presumed Aramaic source text, he misses much of what actually is there to be seen on the surface.)

Here are some of the differences:

Mark 2:23-28 Matthew 12:1-8 Luke 6:1-5
On the sabbath, the disciples began to pluck ears of corn On the sabbath the disciples were hungry so they began to pluck corn to eat On the sabbath the disciples plucked ears of corn, ate them, rubbing them in their hands
The Pharisees ask Jesus why the disciples are doing what is not lawful on the sabbath The Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of doing what is not lawful on the sabbath Some of the Pharisees ask Jesus why he is doing what is not lawful on the sabbath
Jesus replies that David also acted unlawfully by eating the sacred shewbread when he was hungry Jesus replies that David also acted unlawfully by eating the sacred shewbread when he was hungry Jesus replies that David also acted unlawfully by eating the sacred shewbread when he was hungry
Jesus adds that on the Sabbath the priests work in the temple but are guiltless
Jesus makes it clear that he is greater than the temple
Jesus quotes the prophets to say that mercy is greater than sacrifice, and accuses the Pharisees of not understanding this, and of wrongly accusing his disciples who are innocent.
Jesus concludes that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath
And says that therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath And says that therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath And says that therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath

Matthew’s changes

Matthew’s changes certainly do not point to any historical sayings of Jesus. Jesus is hardly likely to have got away with saying that he was greater than the temple without provoking a little bit of noticeable response. His preaching mercy to the Pharisees is also a caricature (and an early anti-semitism?) of the Pharisees who, as far as we understand historically, had popular support because they did indeed preach mercy rather than sacrifice.

So if Matthew is not bothering to pass on another tradition about the historical Jesus, why is he reshaping Mark’s material? He clearly does not think Mark’s story is something to be preserved as a historical memory of Jesus. If he did, why not repeat (not change) the story and then add his own commentary if he felt certain details needed explaining for his audience?

What Matthew seems to me to be doing is extending his Sermon on the Mount message that followers of Jesus must be more righteous than the Pharisees themselves. In that Sermon he stresses the superiority of Jesus over Moses, not by kicking Moses out, but by going even further than Moses. Moses said murder and adultery were wrong, Jesus says even hate and sexual feelings are wrong, etc.

For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matt 5:20, 48)

So continuing this theme (of messing up with converts minds and making them intolerant and mental wrecks in the end as they strive to deny their humanity with all sorts of thought-tourniquets to become “perfect”) Matthew in part turns Mark’s cornfield story into an illustration of how unrighteous the Pharisees are compared with Jesus and his disciples.

Firstly, he does not give the Pharisees a chance to ask questions as they did in Mark. He shoots them before they do. He has them make an unjust and merciless accusation. The poor disciples are hungry and need to eat! They don’t need Pharisees coming along and finding fault with them for that!

Mark’s original was not really about hunger or a desperate need to eat to stave off a hypoglycemic low. But Matthew introduces this in order to have a reason to bring in the punch line:

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

The hunger, the accusation and the mercy outweighing sacrifice are all part of Matthew’s interest in asserting the moral superiority of Christians while at the same time denigrating Jewish righteousness as legalistic and hypocritical. (Remember that this was the same Matthew who had the Jews call out for the blood of Jesus to be on them and on their children.) At the same time he reminded his readers that Jesus was greater than Moses by being even greater than the temple whose purpose was to carry out the laws of Moses.

Luke’s changes

Luke has more modest plans for his change to Mark.

Firstly, only “some” of the Pharisees are involved. Naturally, if we are right in thinking that the author of this was also responsible for Acts in which many Pharisees did become Christians. Elsewhere in this gospel we read of Jesus visiting a Pharisee’s house for dinner.

Luke also sees the desirability of making Jesus assume direct responsibility for his disciples’ behaviour. So the Pharisees blame him for what his disciples are doing. This, also, would cohere with the theme of Acts in which Jesus carries on his work through his disciples — all in perfect harmony with their Head.

Mark’s “original” written out?

Mark has a number of curious details that indicate his “christology” was quite different from that of other evangelists. I sometimes wonder if he also contains little hints that his theology has more in common with less orthodox ones that, to mention just example, taught that Jesus was attempting to restore his disciples back to an “original” ideal condition before “the Fall” of Adam.

If so, would this explain why Mark has Jesus appear to repudiate Moses’ allowance for divorce. Mark first has the explanation of Moses’ teaching on divorce, and then follows with a BUT:

BUT from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female . . . Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. (Mark 10:1-12)

Matthew reverses the order of Mark’s narrative so that the creation story is told first, and it is this ideal story that is then butted out of real life, and the Moses exception (although necessarily tightened — Christians have to be more righteous than Pharisees, remember) is allowed to stand:

Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate . . .

Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce . . .  And I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for . . . (Matt. 19:1-9)

I wonder if Mark is rightly seen by Matthew as some sort “good old days”, pre-Flood, pre-Fall theologian who saw Jesus as attempting to restore how things were at the beginning.

Does Mark’s reference to the sabbath being made for man also point to some sort of “origin” or pre-Fall theology? If so, this might explain why it was omitted by Matthew and Luke.

13 Comments

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-06 15:02:38 UTC - 15:02 | Permalink

    Well, I think here the old friend of historicists comes into play.

    There have been interpolations.

    James Crossley writes :-
    ‘The background of Mk 7.1-23 can now be appreciated more fully. Although this is a source edited in light of gentile ignorance of Jewish purity laws it can be seen that when this is removed there are assumptions that only make sense in a Jewish context. Editing (e.g. Mk 7:3-4) aside, the source can only realistically go back to an extremely early intra-Jewish source.’

    Posit interpolations when there is no evidence.

    NEIL
    ‘I was thinking through James Crossley’s argument for these different accounts revealing evidence that Mark was written before “the church” experienced any controversy over sabbath observance.

    CARR
    Neil, this is a *terrible* misrepresentation of James views.

    James points out on page 132 of ‘The Date of Mark’s Gospel’ that Mark 3 has the Pharisees teaming with the Herodians to kill Jesus over a Sabbath dispute.

    How can the church not have experienced any ‘controversy’ over sabbath observance when the Pharisees and Herodians had tried to kill Jesus himself over a Sabbath dispute?

    If death threats and plots to murder Jesus are not to be regarded as ‘controversy’, then what is?

    Didn’t you read that bit by Crossley?

    How can you claim that Crossley states that the early church experienced no ‘controversy’ over the Sabbath when Crossley pointed out to you that Jesus was almost killed over a Sabbath dispute?

    • 2010-04-06 15:55:53 UTC - 15:55 | Permalink

      Another “spectacular” misrepresentation Steven. For the last time, ok? If you knew the Aramaic text behind the original, and the Rabbinic disputes of some centuries later that were attributed to the times of Gamaliel, you would know that Jesus was nearly killed over “additions” to the biblical law (and this can’t be emphasized enough), and not over the biblical law, which we know he always kept because unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark didn’t have to tell us that because he just assumed everyone knew it, and that proves just how early he was writing. Got that?

      These comments of yours are so bloody weird!

      (um, for anyone reading this without knowing the background, this is a spoof)

      • Steven Carr
        2010-04-06 16:17:18 UTC - 16:17 | Permalink

        Apparently Paul persecuted the early church over not obeying these additions to the Biblical law.

        So why was there no experience of controversy in the early church over Sabbath observance? Didn’t the persecutions count as an experience of controversy?

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-06 15:19:53 UTC - 15:19 | Permalink

    ‘I was thinking through James Crossley’s argument for these different accounts revealing evidence that Mark was written before “the church” experienced any controversy over sabbath observance.’

    On page 171, James Crossley writes that Luke and Matthew make clear that Jesus did not reject the Sabbath.

    So I wonder why Paul never has to quote Jesus on issues like observing Sabbaths.

    • 2010-04-06 16:02:12 UTC - 16:02 | Permalink

      That’s easy. The idea was to win gentiles to the church. To turn them away by making them keep lots of rules they didn’t want to keep was not the way to do this. Jesus’ example was an embarrassment, which of course only goes to prove how historical it really was.

  • 2010-04-06 21:24:42 UTC - 21:24 | Permalink

    The “ideal condition before ‘the Fall’ of Adam” can be seen in Paul. He illustrates this in Romans 5.10-20. Here Paul says that this ideal condition was a condition that didn’t include death. Christians are brought back to that ideal condition by faith in Jesus, since Jesus was the “new” or “opposite” Adam, the one who brought eternal life (since it’s assumed that before “the Fall” all humans had eternal life).

    Is this evidence that Mark is Pauline?

  • Zeke
    2010-04-07 04:31:27 UTC - 04:31 | Permalink

    It is what may be called the pericope Cantabrigiensis, the addition to Luke 6. 4 in the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, which runs as follows: On the same day he saw someone working on the Sabbath and said to him: man, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed, if you do not know, you are cursed and a law-breaker.

    • edmond
      2016-07-26 09:59:53 UTC - 09:59 | Permalink

      Matthew expanded and edit the info of mark,how they change the meaning of the passage?

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-07 11:57:49 UTC - 11:57 | Permalink

    James Crossley’s argument is that Mark wrote ‘On the sabbath, the disciples began to pluck ears of corn’

    While Luke wrote ‘On the sabbath the disciples plucked ears of corn, ate them, rubbing them in their hands’

    Therefore, Mark must have been written by the 40’s at the latest.

    Because Luke had to tell his readers explicitly that Jesus was allowing the disciples to eat the grain immediately and not take it away.

    ‘This kind of Markan assumption could not have been made by the 50’s onwards’

    And Crossley cites the following as proof of that – Romans 14 ‘One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.’

    This leap of logic is just plain mind-boggling.

    No wonder almost everybody who read Crossley’s book misrepresented his arguments.

    I am certain that I cannot put Crossley’s argument in words without misrepresenting it.

    Apparently, the logic runs as follows.

    1) Mark has a Jesus say that his disciples were only doing what David and his companions did when they were hungry.

    2) Mark says that the disciples plucked the corn.

    3) Mark does not explicitly say that the disciples were not preparing to take it away.

    4) Therefore, Mark assumed that his readers knew the disciples were going to eat straight away.

    5) And Mark assumed that his readers knew this, not because Jesus said that they were doing what people did when they were hungry, but because taking the corn away would have been work – which was against the Sabbath.

    6) Luke makes clear that the disciples were going to eat straight away.

    7) This is because Luke knew that his readers might think Jesus was allowing work on the Sabbath.

    8) Before Luke wrote, violent disputes had arisen among Christians about whether they were allowed to work on the Sabbath.

    9) So Mark must have been written before those disputes arose, or else he would have had a Jesus who made clear that the disciples were going to eat straight away, by means other than stating that the disciples were doing what David and his companions did when they were hungry.

    This extraordinary chain of logic is not worth the paper Crossley’s book is written on. Why not just pulp the book?

    Can anybody find an actual real argument in Crossley’s book which supports his claim that Mark must have been written before Christians started arguing about working on the Sabbath?

    By an actual argument, I mean one that can be stated in words without Crossley immediately claiming that his argument has been misrepresented?

  • 2010-04-07 22:49:22 UTC - 22:49 | Permalink

    You have oversimplified Crossley’s case, Steven. I have been working on a discussion of some of his arguments, but to cover all the assumptions and circularities is a mammoth task. (But is it worth it?)

    • Steven Carr
      2010-04-07 22:58:40 UTC - 22:58 | Permalink

      I couldn’t find a real argument in the book. So I did my best to say what I thought Crossley’s argument was.

      As James says in his Introduction, many people have misrepresented his arguments.

      What actually is the basic logic?

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-15 16:09:16 UTC - 16:09 | Permalink

    Mark 2:23-28
    On the sabbath, the disciples began to pluck ears of corn

    Luke 6:1-5
    On the sabbath the disciples plucked ears of corn, ate them, rubbing them in their hands.

    How can we be sure that one passage represents ‘inter Jewish halakick debates’ of no interest to Gentile Christians?

    While the other was written for Gentile Christians who were not interested in whether carrying corn away was work on the Sabbath while eating it immediately was not work on the Sabbath?

    James Crossley explains all on page 113 of ‘The Date of Mark’s Gospel’

    James points out passages in Luke 13:10-17 and Luke 14:1-5 that have , I quote , ‘references to halakic debate’.

    So why were Luke’s Gentile readers interested in these ‘references to halakic debate’ that were ‘surely within the bounds of Jewish legal debate’.

    Was Luke also written in the 40’s?

  • 2010-04-20 11:00:46 UTC - 11:00 | Permalink

    Is there any indication that these sorts of Casey-Crossley “arguments” have taken hold anywhere outside the auditoriums or printing presses of University of Sheffield?

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