For many centuries the issue of warfare on the Sabbath has been significant in ancient Judaism. After a major carnage of nonresisting Jews on a Sabbath during the Maccabean revolt in the first half of the 2nd century BCE, Mattathias and his companions decided to avoid similar bloodshed in the future.
1 Maccabees 2:41 describes this resolution as follows: If anyone attacks us on the Sabbath day, whoever he may be, we shall resist him; we must not all be killed, as our brothers were in the hiding places.
In Contra Apionem I:209 Josephus quotes Agatharchides who writes the following: The people known as Jews, who inhabit the most strongly fortified of cities, called by the natives Jerusalem, have a custom of abstaining from work every seventh day; on these occasions they neither bear arms nor take any agricultural operations in hand nor engage in any other form of public service, but pray with outstretched hands in the temples until the evening.
A few verses further on (Contra Apionem I: 212) Josephus confirms Agatharchides’s observation, speaking of his Jewish compatriots as men who consistently care more for the observance of their laws and for their religion than for their own lives and their country’s fate.
I believe there is a story in the synoptic gospels that – in its clearest form in Mark – discusses this subject also. It is the story of the man with the withered hand in Mark 3:1-6 (and parallels in Matthew 12:9-14 and Luke 6:6-11).
Mark 3:1-6 reads as follows:
(1) Again he went into the synagogue, and a man was there who had a dry hand. [(2) And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.] (3) And he said to the man with the dry hand, “Come into the middle.” (4) And he said to them, “Is it permitted on the Sabbath to do good or to injure, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. (5) And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardnessof heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (6) The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
This translation is based on Nestle-Aland, with some slight changes, for example ‘dry’ instead of ‘withered’. Below I will discuss why I have placed verse 2 between square brackets.
At first sight this story recounts a miraculous healing, but on closer inspection the central element of the story is the Sabbath question raised in verse 4: Is it permitted on the Sabbath to do good things or to injure, to save life or to kill? We can reformulate this question as follows: Are we allowed to wound and kill on the Sabbath? Or more specifically: Are we allowed to take part in military activity on the Sabbath? Such questions obviously belong to an era with military activity, which in this age is inevitably the war against the Romans (66-70 CE). In contrast to the Maccabean story, this time the issue was raised beforehand, not after a major bloodshed.
In these circumstances it is not difficult to recognise the man with the withered hand. This man doesn’t have a physical problem, but his hand remains dry because it doesn’t want to spill blood with the sword it is holding – at least not during the Sabbath. Jesus, one of the most prominent rebel leaders in Galilee, is aggravated by this because this attitude jeopardizes the military ambitions of the revolutionaries. The ‘hardness of heart’ of verse 5 is probably better translated as ‘inflexibility of heart’ in this context, because the person or persons involved can’t give up their Sabbath principles in a war situation of life or death. If the hand was restored to its normal condition after stretching it out, this simply means that the person involved agreed to use his sword on the Sabbath. That the ‘hand’ problem disappeared immediately points to a change of attitude rather than to a miraculous healing. It means that the dissension about warfare on the Sabbath that occupied the minds of the Galilean revolutionaries at the beginning of the war against the Romans had been solved. Probably this ‘dryness’ problem was not the problem of a single person but of one of the revolutionary factions, as the plurals αὐτοῖς/οἱ/αὐτοὺς/αὐτῶν (autois/hoi/autous/autōn) in verse 3 to 5 indicate. Maybe this story describes the confrontation of Jesus, the most prominent leader of the Galilean rebels, with a strict religious faction that was ill-disposed towards warfare on the Sabbath. It is their leader whom Jesus urges to come forward to the centre of the synagogue (in verse 3).
Verse 6 supports this military thesis. Would the Pharisees and the Herodians have looked for a way to kill Jesus if he had bestowed a miraculous healing upon a single pitiable disabled person? The reaction of both groups is political. The Herodian party was undoubtedly opposed to the rebellion and the Pharisees are portrayed as anti-war in the same breath. The ‘24/7 war’ decision of the revolutionaries was bad news for the anti-war parties and an element of further political polarisation. This is why the other parties wanted to eliminate Jesus.
With the exception of verse 2, this pericope is a consistent rebellion story. Verse 2 tries to draw the attention away from the original war content of this passage. It changes the political ‘warfare on the Sabbath and subsequent deadly opposition’ issue to a ‘Jesus healing on the Sabbath and his subsequent accusation’ issue, repressing the original political/military subject of the story. The accusation theme is introduced prematurely in verse 2, whereas in the military interpretation (without verse 2) the murderous intentions of the opposing parties naturally appear at the end. The flow of the text is also more natural without verse 2.