Bezae’s elusive Sabbath worker episode and fourth-century anti-Judaizing canons

Bezae’s point of view on the Sabbath is difficult to pin down despite its apparent interest in Sabbath-related passages. This is certainly true of one of Bezae’s more enigmatic variations, depicting Jesus’ encounter with a man working on the Sabbath in Luke 6:5:

“On the same day seeing a certain worker on the Sabbath, he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Man, if you know what you are doing (οιδας τι ποιεις), you are blessed. But if you do not know, you are accursed (επικαταρατος) and a transgressor of the law!'” [1]

Despite wide diversity of opinion concerning potential initial contexts for this saying, interpreters have consistently placed it in the second century or earlier. [2] Of course, this putative saying of Jesus stands out not only in condoning work on the Sabbath, but moreover encouraging it, offering blessing to the man who works on the Sabbath while knowing what he does, yet abruptly pronouncing a curse if he does not know what he does.

In fact, both halves of the pericope are startling in different ways. Yet both halves offer clues suggesting that in its final form the saying belongs in the fourth century, echoing decisions on church order made concerning Christian observance of the Sabbath versus the Lord’s day. It is well-known that by the mid-fourth century, the Lord’s day had been set aside as a day of rest for those who were able to do so (Codex Justin. 3.12.3), while at the same time, resting on the Sabbath was increasingly viewed as “Judaizing” and heretical. The only sure way to avoid the charge of heresy was to work on the Sabbath.

Consider Canon 29 from the Council of Laodicea (ca 363):

“Christians are not to Judaize and rest on the Sabbath. Rather they are to work on this day and honor the Lord’s day, during which they may rest as Christians. But if they are found to be Judaizers, let them stand accursed from Christ (ἔστωσαν ἀνάθεμα παρά Χριστῷ).” [3]

The formal parallels with the Sabbath worker saying stand out at once, but especially the explicit affirmation of work on the Sabbath. Also noteworthy of course are the anathemas, though given (ostensibly) for different reasons. In any case, the form of the saying in Bezae parallels that of the prescription of Canon 29 at Laodicea in a manner that suggests that work on the Sabbath was a matter that set Christians apart from “Judaizing” heretics. In fact, the juridical nature of the saying is noted by E. Bammel, who, while not considering the fourth century as a possible context, nevertheless observes:

“The form of the saying is not without relevance. It gives knowledge its place within a framework which contains elements of juridical argumentation, prescription and liability to penalty.” [4]

But if we suppose such a context, what are we to make of the Sabbath worker’s knowledge in Bezae’s saying? In this light we might consider how the fourth-century redactor of Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians urges Christians to keep a spiritual Sabbath as they perform physical labor on the Sabbath:

“let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body” (Magn. 9; ANF. 1)

Of course, this makes Sabbath observance a kind of knowledge peculiar to Christians, who otherwise do not keep the literal Sabbath. In a sense then this knowledge defines a true Christian versus an unbelieving heretic. In a manner that is almost typical of the fourth century, it is this profession of doctrine that ultimately determines one’s status — whether blessed or damned.

While Jewish-Christianity was of course a factor in the first and second centuries, it continued to draw notice throughout the fourth century. Speaking of the contemporary Nazoraeans, Epiphanius describes how they are “still fettered by the law — circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest,” before declaring them “under a curse” (υπο καταραν) (Pan. 29.7.5,8.1). [3] But his subsequent indictment that they are not of one mind with Christians (χριστιανοις δε μη ομογνωμονουντες) (Pan. 19.7.5), is most telling in suggesting that doctrinal differences concerning Sabbath observance may in fact supply a plausible context for Bezae’s otherwise puzzling reference to the Sabbath worker’s knowledge as what saves or curses his efforts.

So what then is the Sabbath worker to know about his work on the Sabbath? Apparently, he is to know that his physical labors do not detract from the spiritual significance of the Sabbath as the day of rest.


[1] Translations mine unless indicated.

[2] See E. Bammel, “The Cambridge Pericope. The Addition to Luke 6.4 in Codex Bezae,” New Testament Studies 32 (1986) 404–426 at 405.

[3] C. J. Hefele, ed., Histoire des conciles, 1/2.1015.

[4] Translation by F. Williams (1987), 117, 118.

What do you think?