Lord of the Sabbath: a pun of apocalyptic proportions?

Therefore, the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.
ὥστε κύριός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ τοῦ σαββάτου. [Mark 2.28]

When most modern English speakers sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, my guess is that they (as I once did) equate “Lord Sabaoth his name” with “Lord of the Sabbath”. In fact, Sabaoth is a transliteration of the Hebrew for what most translators render in English as “of hosts” or “of armies”. This was an early Israelite conception of God as warrior king, the leader of armies, Yahweh Sabaoth. Despite its phonetic resemblance (which is notably less in the actual Hebrew word), the Hebrew word underlying Sabbath is etymologically unrelated to Sabaoth.

I was just wondering today when reading this passage, which appears in all three of the Synoptics with slight variation, whether these misleadingly similar Hebrew words were so unintentionally misleading. “Lord of the Sabbath”, as far as I’m aware (and that’s not very far, admittedly), is not a title that existed prior to this pericope. Could this be a subtle apocalyptic allusion to the well attested title κυριος σαβαωθ ‘Lord Sabaoth‘?

In Mark, the first Gospel written and the source of the Matthew and Luke parallel passages, the similarity to κυριος σαβαωθ is fairly obscured due to the syntax: four discrete lexico-grammatical units intervene “lord” (κυριος) and “of the Sabbath” (του σαββατου), which it should be noted has an article that does not belong in the LXX phrase κυριος σαβαωθ. Add to this the fact that the book of Mark gives us little reason to  suppose the author expected his audience to catch the pun. So on first glance, there appears to be little to commend the idea that this was an intentional double entendre.

Matthew might be a different matter. This author is likelier by far to paint Jesus in terms deeply embedded in Jewish Scripture and also expect his audience to get it. He situates this statement amidst other occasions of Jesus’ railing against the religious leaders and speaking of an imminent time of “judgment unto victory”.  And interestingly, he rewords the saying in a way that brings κυριος and του σαββατου closer together and moves them to the front of the sentence, pushing “Son of Man” to the end: κυριος γαρ εστιν του σαββατου ο υιος του ανθρωπου. If there is an allusion to Yahweh Sabaoth, it’s still subtle, but it seems plausible that Matthew cued off of Jesus’ statement as cited by Mark, who was probably oblivious to the similarity, and drew the connection in an oblique fashion. Luke seems to follow Matthew’s rewording here.

On the other hand, I’m still left asking the question, why “Lord of the Sabbath”? Whence this claim to an unprecedented title? The phrase looks very much like a metanalysis, an uninformed re-analysis, for “Lord Sabaoth”. If I may add to all the suppositions in this post so far, I suggest that this saying goes back to an historical claim made by (or about) Jesus, that “the Son of Man is Lord Sabaoth,” the commander of the Lord’s armies, which is obviously the context in Daniel, the likely source of Jesus’ favorite self-descriptor, “Son of Man”. To Gentiles this no doubt sounded more like “Lord of the Sabbath” than anything else they were familiar with, and when speaking of the likely historical incident of Jesus breaking Sabbath restrictions, such a folk explanation would have suggested itself quite naturally to the author of Mark. In short, perhaps Mark’s explanation of this title associated with Jesus is analogous to the inference made by most modern day singers of “A Might Fortress”.

I’m sure I’m not the first to flirt with these ideas. Can anyone suggest any scholarly treatments of such a hypothesis?

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  • Jun

    In the book Heavenly Torah by Abraham Joshua Heschel there is mention of a famous rabbi saying “the sabbath was not put in charge of man but man in charge of the sabbath.” The similarity to Jesus’ statement “man was not made for the sabbath but the sabbath was made for man” is obvious. I think this makes your suggestion unlikely. If anything its more likely that Jesus was denying the bloodthirsty genocidal nature that the Pharisees probably imputed to God based on their reading of the Torah, and thus he was altering Lord Sabaoth to Lord of the Sabbath, rather than Lord of armies and genocide, Lord of rest and peace, with an especial emphasis on his denial that the Lord is a tyrant on the issue of the sabbath. This story is a clear denial of the story in the Torah about God commanding the man who picked up sticks on the sabbath to be put to death. Jesus is denying that that story ever took place. This is one of the places where we see clearly that Jesus was not inerrantist. Another is his mocking of the kosher laws “nothing you eat can defile you”.

    • I think this makes your suggestion unlikely

      Hmm…I
      just don’t see how the citation from a famous rabbi (before or after
      Christ?) makes this more unlikely.

      I really like your suggestion that this was a conscious move by Jesus
      subverting the Torah’s depiction of God as warrior king, but it does seem
      unlikely to me given that sabbath and sabaoth (שַׁבָּת
      and צבאות) are not as similar in Hebrew/Aramaic as they appear in
      Greek/English, hence my speculation about the provenance of the “Lord of the
      Sabbath” epithet as postdating Jesus.