When it comes to distinctively Jewish practices, how much did the “average Jew” care about keeping these traditions? The great majority of Jews, comments N. T. Wright, “cared sufficiently about their god, their scriptures, and their Jewish heritage to take a fair amount to trouble over the observance of at least biblical law” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 213-214). Thi would certainly be true for the practice of Sabbath in the Second Temple period.
Keeping the Sabbath was of critical importance to first century Jewish practice. The day is set aside for rest, those that willfully broke the Sabbath were to be stoned. This day of rest was considered by non-Jews to be a most peculiar practice and a practice which could be exploited. The Romans took advantage of the Jews’ refusal to shoot on the Sabbath to build earthworks near the walls (War 1.15-147).
Sabbath was not dour cessation from activity, on the contrary, most Jews tried to make it as festive a day as possible. Food was prepared ahead of time so that it was available for an evening meal after sundown when the Sabbath came in.
There were rules (often devised by the Pharisees) allowing people to carry food to a neighbor’s house, increasing the festive, community aspect of Sabbath (erub). Meals were likely fish or fowl, better than a regular mean but not the red meat of a feast day. Many Jews gathered at a synagogue for prayer and scripture reading.
Practices like Sabbath worship caused problems for Diaspora Jews. For a Palestinian Jew, it was likely more difficult to break Sabbath or to not eat kosher than to obey. But in Gentile cites far from Jerusalem, Jews were a small minority with some “strange” traditions. Why should the Jews not work once a week? Why should the Jews receive other privileges other ethnic groups did not? Rome consistently upheld the rights of the Jews to assemble and keep the Sabbath. These protections were remarkable since Julius Caesar dissolved all associations except those of very ancient practice. Philo praised Augustus for allowing the Jews alone to assemble in synagogues.
In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus refers to these additional clarifications of Sabbath and other laws. While Jesus never breaks the Sabbath, he seems to challenge more restrictive interpretations of the Law. In Matthew 12:8 Jesus declares himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath and proceeds to heal someone who is not critically ill on the Sabbath.
If the Sabbath was so important to some Jews that they were willing to place themselves in mortal danger to keep it, how might Jesus’ words and actions be understood? Is he challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?