Throughout Brown’s attack on the Rabbinic understanding of the Sabbath the recurring refrain is: “is this what the Lord intended?” Brown expects his readers to come to the conclusion that the Rabbinic observance of the Sabbath is not the observance that God intended when He presented this commandment to His people.
If one’s understanding of spirituality in general and of the Sabbath in particular has been acquired from the literature and the general milieu of the modern Western world, then Brown’s argument will find a listening ear. But if one’s understanding of spirituality and of Sabbath is rooted in the Jewish Bible and in the environment of ancient Israel, then Brown’s argument is meaningless.
The Western world does not consider a procedure, in which people follow a detailed set of physical instructions, to be a rich spiritual experience. But the Jewish Scriptures teach us otherwise. Some of the pivotal narratives in Scripture teach us that man’s obedience to a series of detailed physical instructions bring man into a closer relationship with God. This is a feature in the episode of Noah’s ark. One of the central lessons integral to that account is the fact that God chose to renew life on this planet through Noah’s ark; an ark that was built according to a specific set of instructions. The entire Tabernacle narrative has the Jewish nation obediently following a detailed set of instructions and that this obedience was favored by God to the degree that He came to dwell amongst this nation. Scripture makes it clear that man’s obedience to intricate instructions is an important feature of the relationship between man and His Creator.
The historical record clearly indicates that every community of Jews in ancient Israel understood that the work that God prohibited on the Sabbath consists of a set of prohibitions that proscribe many minor physical activities. Some of these communities (such as the Qumran community represented in the Dead Sea Scroll literature) actually took a stricter view than Rabbinical Judaism in this area. The concept of Sabbath espoused by Protestant Christians, which is limited and confined to an indistinct “spiritual rest”, was unknown in ancient Israel. In ancient Israel the Sabbath was understood to be a spiritual rest that is amplified and supported by a defined set of rules prohibiting certain actions.
The Christian Scriptures themselves confirm the truth that the Biblical prohibition from work on the Sabbath applies to minor physical activities. Brown himself half-heartedly acknowledges this point when he tells us: “Now, it is more than likely, that Yeshua himself lived within the framework of SOME of these laws…” (page 226). In other words, Brown recognizes that Jesus himself observed the Sabbath according to the Rabbinic understanding of God’s holy day. Brown attempts to modify his admission with the argument that it was only “some” of the laws that Jesus observed, and with the myth the Rabbinic understanding of the Sabbath was not yet fully developed. But after everything is said and done, Brown is admitting that Jesus observed the Sabbath by refraining from minor physical activities.
The authors of the Christian Scripture clearly acknowledge this. In all of the Sabbath controversies that Jesus has with his opponents, not once does he disagree with the definition of “prohibited work” that his opponents espoused. His argument with them is that for the purpose of healing the Law of Sabbath is moved aside. But never does he argue that his opponent’s understanding of the Sabbath law is erroneous.
This means that mixing dirt and spittle is prohibited on the Sabbath (John 9:14), carrying a mat is prohibited in the Sabbath (John 5:10), and picking kernels of grain is prohibited on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1). These minor physical activities would hardly constitute a violation of the Sabbath according to the philosophy espoused by Brown. Yet Jesus never denies that these activities ought to be prohibited on the Sabbath, barring extenuating circumstances.
The Christian Scriptures actually take this one step further. They have Jesus quoting a detail of Rabbinic Sabbath law to prove a point. In John 7:22 Jesus bases his argument on the Rabbinic law which would generally prohibit an incision to the flesh on the Sabbath, yet permits it in the situation of circumcision. According to Brown’s understanding, why should a cut to the flesh be prohibited to begin with? And once it is determined that it is indeed prohibited, how can we know that for the sake of circumcision it is permitted?
It is clear from the Christian Scriptures that the Rabbinic understanding of the Sabbath was common knowledge in Jesus’ days, and that Jesus never disputed this conception of the Sabbath. Brown’s attack on the Rabbinical Sabbath is but a poor attempt to rewrite history.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal