Friday, March 16, 2012

Meier on Sabbath Controversies and Jesus' Confusing Itinerary

I have two items for my write-up today on volume 2 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.

1. Meier does not believe that the Sabbath controversy in Mark 3:1-6 happened, but he is open to the possibility that Jesus cured a man with a withered hand on a Sabbath and that the story about that "evolved through decades of controversy between Jews and Christians into the story we now have in Mark 3:1-6" (page 683).

A reason that Meier does not believe that the Sabbath controversy is historical is that he does not think that the Pharisees would have had a problem with Jesus healing on the Sabbath. He notes that there was pluralism regarding Sabbath observance in Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, that "Galilean peasants who did not belong to any stringent pious group would probably not have been terribly upset over minor acts to aid the sick on the Sabbath", and that the "Mishna itself gives evidence that some rabbis found ways of getting around the strict rule that medicine was not to be practiced on the Sabbath" (page 683).

Meier elaborates on what the Mishnah says about healing on the Sabbath. M. Yoma 8:6 refers to the principle that a person can apply medical treatment on the Sabbath if one's life is in danger. Meier states: "If Rabbi Mattithiah ben Heresh is so lenient that he allows medicine to be dropped into a man's mouth simply because the man was in danger in his throat----all on the grounds that there is doubt whether life is in danger----it is difficult to imagine that 1st-century Jews in Galilee would become very upset over Jesus' healing with a mere word" (page 732). Moreover, Jesus healed in Mark 3:1-6 by word, and, as E.P. Sanders states, there was no prohibition on talking on the Sabbath.

Meier raises valid points, but I have difficulty saying that the controversies about healing on the Sabbath are un-historical. For one, they are so prominent in the four Gospels that they probably pass the test of multiple attestation. Second, perhaps there were Jewish leaders who had problems with Jesus healing on the Sabbath, for they did not think that the people he was healing were in danger of losing their lives from their ailments on that day. As the synagogue ruler in Luke 13:14 said, the sick could come on other days of the week to be healed. But other rabbis held that we do not know if an ailment can become life-threatening, and so we should err on the side of caution by allowing medical treatment on the Sabbath, even for ailments that do not appear life-threatening. Perhaps Jesus agreed with this sentiment.

2. In my post here, I referred to Paul Achtemeier's argument that Mark lived outside of Palestine because he gets details about Palestinian geography wrong. Achtemeier states: "His confusion about Palestinian geography (the Greek of 7:31 shows the author assumes Sidon is south of Tyre, and that the Sea of Galilee is in the midst of the Decapolis, inaccurately in both cases) and his fluency in Greek make it likely he grew up in an area outside Palestine."

On my BibleWorks, there are two Greek versions of Mark 7:31. The KJV has: "And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis". It follows the Byzantine text, and it seems to present Jesus making a roundabout itinerary. The New American Standard Version, however, has: "And again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis." The second is probably what Achtemeier is using, for it presents Sidon as south of Tyre and the Sea of Galilee as within the Decapolis.

Meier acknowledges that Jesus' itinerary in Mark 7:31 is strange, and he appears to go with the Byzantine text (if I'm not mistaken). Why would Jesus start at Galilee, go north to Tyre and Sidon, and then take a roundabout route through the Decapolis to get to the Sea of Galilee (see the bottom map here to look at the location of the Decapolis in relation to the Sea of Galilee)? Meier states that "Mark may be combining various geographical designations from his sources, or betraying his ignorance of Palestinian geography, or both" (page 712).

Meier then speculates that there may be a theological reason for Jesus' itinerary: Jesus in Mark 7:19 has just declared all foods clean and has thereby removed a barrier between Jews and Gentiles, and now Jesus is traveling to various Gentile regions, bringing healing.

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