Jesus Tells a Lie and Breaks the Sabbath: Festival Attendance and Sabbath Controversy

Painting on west wall in Dura Synagogue. Possibly a depiction of the midwives before Pharaoh, receiving order to kill the male babies. In the narrative they lie to Pharaoh and are blessed by God. – Exod 1.15-21

I derive the title of this post from John 7, where Jesus first tells a lie (7.1–10) and later defends his right to heal on the Sabbath (7.20–24; cf. 5.1–15). I would imagine, that for many readers of this post, the first of these transgressions is much more shocking than the latter. Interestingly, though, while Jesus breaks two commandments of the Decalogue he only defends himself against Sabbath breaking. In fact, the evangelist is not at all concerned that Jesus lies.

In this post, I want to briefly examine both transgressions and then offer a hypothetical retelling of the Sabbath controversy, where we replace Sabbath breaking with lying. This will be an attempt to explicate the severity of Jesus’ actions to those who are typically not troubled by Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath.

{Update (7/7/13): When I first wrote this post it seemed to me evident that Jesus was indeed lying. I therefore did not include a defense of this conclusion but simply stated it as fact. I have received a couple of responses challenging my statement that Jesus was lying and, while I have responded to them below, I feel that I ought to provide a formal defense within the post of why I believe Jesus is lying in John 7.

It seems to me that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Succoth anon after telling his brothers that he is not going to Jerusalem leaves us with two options: Jesus changed his mind or he lied to his brothers. If we entertain the former, we need to find something in the text that reveals (whether explicitly or implicitly) that Jesus changed his mind. Thus, we need to know why Jesus decided not to go. In v. 6 Jesus tells his brothers that the reason does not want to attend Succoth is because his “time has not yet come,” which means it is not time for Jesus to die. Thus, in light of his opposition that is waiting to kill him at any opportunity (v. 1), Jesus’ reason for not wanting to attend Succoth is more than understandable. It is odd, however, that Jesus does attend the festival even though his hour had not yet come (see 8.20) and indeed will not come until the end of his public career (17.1). It does not seem, then, that Jesus changed his mind, for the very reason why he told his brothers he was not attending had not yet occurred.

In order to examine the second option––i.e., Jesus lied––we need to find a motivation to for Jesus to lie. The narrative reveals that there was an opposition to Jesus waiting in Jerusalem in order to kill him (v. 1), thus Jesus can not enter into Jerusalem conspicuously. Although his brothers are probably not intending to enter Jerusalem behind a marching band announcing their arrival, they are also not concerned about stealth. Jesus, on the other hand, wants to remain unseen until his speech. Thus, it is quite plausible that Jesus lied to his brothers that he was not going to attend Succoth so that he could surreptitiously enter Jerusalem on his own (v. 10) and remain their under the protection of his supposed absence (a pretense his brothers would have unknowingly spread).

In the end, the argument that Jesus changed his mind is weakened by the fact that the reason Jesus gave for not attending Succoth is not fulfilled until ch. 17. In other words, there appears to be no explicit or implicit reason in the text for Jesus to have changed his mind. On the other hand, the argument that Jesus lies coincides well with Jesus’ knowledge that his opponents want to kill him, which provides a clear motivation as to why Jesus would have lied to his brothers.}

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Growing up, lying was always considered one of those absolute sins; that is, there was never a time when lying was justified. It’s a sin. Period. You don’t do it. It was also common to play the “what if” game, where we would place ourselves in difficult scenarios, which would engender a discussion about whether it was appropriate to lie or whether the truth was the appropriate response. As far as I remember, 100% of the time, no matter what situation in which we found ourselves, it was always wrong to lie. We justified this by saying that when we tell the truth, we leave matters in the hands of God.

While I am no longer an “absolutist” about the sinfulness of lying, it was still a bit shocking when I came across a lie told by Jesus. In John 7.8, Jesus tells his brothers, “I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” Once his brothers go off to the festival, however, we are told that “Jesus himself also went up [to the festival]” (v. 10).

Jesus certainly has his reasons for lying to his brothers; namely, that he desires to attend the festival secretly, for his time (i.e., arrest/death) has not yet come (v. 6). Regardless of the reasons, though, Jesus is portrayed as a liar. What’s more, the evangelist does not seem to be too concerned about Jesus’ lie. Rather, the evangelist is much more concerned with defending Jesus’ other sin: healing on the Sabbath (7.20–24; cf. 5.1-15; 9.1–14).

Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath was first taken up by the evangelist in ch. 5. Jesus defended his actions by stating that he will work on the Sabbath because the Father works continuously (v. 17). In ch. 7, though, Jesus takes a different approach. He defends himself by pointing out the already established rule that when the eighth day of an infants life falls on the Sabbath it is permitted to break the Sabbath to perform circumcision. Basically, circumcision was determined by the Jewish leaders to be weightier than the Sabbath. So when these two regulations came in conflict with each other, the weightier law (in this case, circumcision) was to be observed. Jesus’ conclusion is that healing someone on the Sabbath is not a sin because deliverance from oppression is a weightier command than keeping the Sabbath.

If you are not a Jew, the fact that Jesus would break Sabbath regulations to heal someone probably does not cause you any concern. However, keeping the Sabbath has always been a hallmark of Judaism. As such, Jesus actions on the Sabbath would come across as shocking and incredible for many Jews. This was certainly true for Jesus opponents in the Gospel accounts.

So why are non-Jews less troubled by Jesus actions on the Sabbath? I can only imagine it is because there is no emotional tie to the Sabbath. Gentiles might be aware of the importance of the Sabbath for Jews but this awareness is nothing more than intellectual knowledge. The Sabbath does not significantly impact the lives of gentiles.

Lying, on the other hand, has a more significant impact. For many Christians (and Jews?) lying is a sin that is never justified. If this is the case, I would argue that if these Christians want to get a better understanding of how unimaginable Jesus’ Sabbath actions would have been to those around him, perhaps it would be worthwhile to replace “Sabbath” with “lying.” As mentioned at the beginning of the post, this is a hypothetical scenario. Nevertheless, it bears some veracity because we have already seen that Jesus does tell a lie.

If we insert “lying” in place of “Sabbath,” then in John 5 and 9 Jesus delivers a man from oppression by lying. (Perhaps a fitting scenario would be that the man is being oppressed and Jesus lies about his whereabouts in order to deliver him from his oppressors. There are certainly other occasions in the Scriptures where someone lies to deliver someone from oppression and in return are blessed by God because they are doing his will [Exod 1.15–21; Josh 2]. More recently, those who lied to protect the Jews from the Nazis would be an appropriate illustration.) To put this in an accusatory form, Jesus is a liar. If this strikes you as blasphemous, then you get the point. It would be similar to the accusatory statement, Jesus breaks the Sabbath. One might respond that, “God would never command someone to lie; thus, clearly a man who lies can not be from God.” Now your starting to react like Jesus’ opponents (9.16). For Jesus, though, his actions are not his own, but those of the Father (4.34; 5.17, 19–22, 30, 36; 8.28; 10.25, 37; 14.10; 17.4, 14). Thus, Jesus is vindicated when he breaks the Sabbath and when he lies, for God has commanded him to do both.

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About adrmckinney

Previously a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I am currently a student at Duke Divinity School working toward my second (yes, second) ThM. Hopefully, I will be working on my PhD next year. I am married to Christy and we have three wonderful children. My academic interests are Gospel studies (canonical and non-canonical), Historical Jesus, Paul, Second Temple Judaism, and reconstructing the early Christ-following communities. Contact Info:

11 thoughts on “Jesus Tells a Lie and Breaks the Sabbath: Festival Attendance and Sabbath Controversy

  1. I’ve always noticed that passage, but it’s never shocked me. It’s always failed to shock me, not because the Sabbath is meaningless to me, but because I’ve never seen justification for the assumption that He’s lying. Many times in my life I’ve said something and then done the opposite, not because I was lying but because I changed my mind for some reason. You state matter-of-factly that “Jesus is portrayed as a liar.” So what is the justification for the assumption that that is what’s happening in this passage? I think the “fact” that “the evangelist is not at all concerned that Jesus lies” is pretty good evidence that the evangelist didn’t see Jesus’s statement as a lie.

    You also state as fact that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Obviously He broke the Sabbath in the eyes of the traditionalists, but Scripture never describes Jesus anywhere as “breaking” the Sabbath. Instead it always gives the impression that Jesus was living and teaching the Sabbath’s true meaning and protecting it from the traditions of men. That seems like the opposite of “breaking” the Sabbath.

    This post is a very nice explanation of your assumptions; I’m just wondering what those assumptions’ justifications are.

  2. Thanks for this. It is important to note that the reason Jesus is not going to the festival is because his time has not fully arrived (7.8). If Jesus has changed his mind about this then we would need to see indication that he believes he time has come. But in 8.20, while Jesus is speaking at the same festival, we find out that his time has still not come, and Jesus is aware of this. So no, I don’t think this is one of those, “He wasn’t in the mood to go but now he is.” In other words, Jesus is not changing his mind; he is lying. He said that he was not going because his time had not yet come, but he ends up going even though his time had not yet come. The very thing that would have caused him to change his mind, had not happened yet in the Gospel narrative (see 17.1).

    Your comment about Jesus not really breaking the Sabbath, in that he was merely breaking the traditions of men, misses the point. It is precisely in Jesus breaking the, so called, “traditions of men” that cause the animosity. For, these “men” were viewed as spokesmen of God. Thus, there was great shock value in Jesus breaking the Sabbath as it was regulated during the first century.

    In the same way, there is great shock value in saying Jesus lied. I used this as a means to bridge a gap; both temporally (1st century to the 21st century) and also ethnically (Jews and Gentiles).

    My point in all this, though, is really to show that Jesus’ lie is not a sin, for he is doing the will God. Just as the will of God provides the trump card for Jesus to break the established Sabbath regulations, so the will of God provides a trump card for Jesus to lie to his brothers so that he can go to the festival in secret, for his time had not yet come. This is the same rationale, by the way, behind the stories in Exod 1.15–21 and Josh 2.

    • Very nice, thank you for explaining. It’s very interesting. I’ve noticed those stories before, and it seems like the same rationale behind 1 Samuel 21:10-15, too. I’ve always found it interesting that Colossians 3:9 says not to lie to one another.

      All definitely good food for thought.

      • Thanks for these other passages and the dialogue. I’ve never thought about Col 3.9. It’s similar to Eph 4.26 and 4.31. The former says “be angry and do not sin” and the latter says put away “every kind of bitterness, anger….” I think these two verses are problematic because we are so accustomed to taking the latter as an absolute. That is, we want to say there is never a time to be angry. I think it would be more helpful if these commands (lying and anger) were taking as true on a case by case scenario. Just like circumcision is permitted on the Sabbath and the Sabbath is not defiled, so lying and anger are permitted during certain situations.

        Clearly, this way of thinking can be abused and taken too far, but the same is true with the “absolutist” view. I believe a balance is necessary.

  3. The question of whether Jesus had a common ethic with the Pharisees, or not, is debated. But this issue is part of the interplay between the Pharisees and Jesus in Mt 22:35-40, isn’t it? What exactly was the test? whatever could be used against Jesus, we can be pretty sure; they perhaps didn’t care exactly what it was.

    But their committee-baked question was (22:36) “what is the great commandment in the Law?” If we imagine the Law as a to-do list, the test could have been to see what Jesus would say the first priority item on a to-do list would be, and criticize that.

    As an illustration of something they might have already perceived as a violation of priority, if I were a Pharisee, I would be miffed by the SM story (Mt 5:23-24) of Jesus telling the disciples to drop their offering at the altar and get reconciled to their brother if that was a current issue. The Pharisee might rather have quipped that ‘there are other times to get reconciled to your brother; go do that on another day, and finish offering your gift to the altar now.’ (So I think you should add Mt 5:23-24 to the “break” list … 😉 )

    And so perhaps the Pharisees were hoping in Mt 22:35 and 41 that Jesus would install something wrongly as “the great commandment” or that something he said would imply something that was obviously a wrong prioritization. But the reply of Jesus in 22:39 blows the whole concept of “the great commandment” — although it’s not often interpreted that way. Jesus is increasing the number of things that everything else depends on, from one, “the great commandment,” to two! … “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Two!

    And it’s the second one, I think, that points to the lack of a common ethic with the Pharisees. Rectitude, in Pharisaism, is a by-product of ordering the Laws correctly and going by that order. Rectitude, in Mt 22:39, does not push love of neighbor down the some list, but raises it, and all its duties, to be at the top with the love of God.

    • Right. I agree. The difference between Jesus and his opponents (mainly the Pharisees in Matthew) is that Jesus is interpreting the Torah in light of the the love command and this is what he is accusing his opponents of ignoring. In Matthew it is very clear that whatever one does to the each other (a disciple in the case of ch. 10), one does for God. Thus, the love command extends beyond a “vertical” only relationship and the love of God becomes intimately related to love of neighbor. This them of love of men = love of God is shared by Philo, Decalogue 108–110; Testament of Issachar 5.2 (“but love the Lord and your neighbor, show mercy to the poor and weak.”); 7.6; Testament of Dan (“Love the Lord with all your life, and one another with a true heart.”).

  4. Have you ever said you were not going to do something and ment it at the time but later changed your mind and decided to do it? I think that is what happened here. His brothers left Galilee and he remained 7:9 but after they went up maybe he reconsidered and then went up. That is also a viable option. After all he was human and often changed His mind. All I’m saying is there are other reasons for this change that would totally explain why he did what he did. The lie option is therefore not a slam dunk.

  5. Yea… Even after reading your response above to the same option I still think he changed his mind. His time had not come has other implications than just this one instance. And the truth is his time didn’t come until much later when they put Him to death.

    • Phillip,
      First, I just inserted an update into the post dealing with this very issue. I tried to deal with it in more detail. Hopefully it’s clear.

      Second, I must admit I am not following your reasoning here. You still think Jesus changed his mind because “his time had not come has other implications than just this one instance”? Could you elaborate on this? What other implications are you referring to and how does that relate to the point I’m making?

      You also mention that Jesus’ time came later at his death as if it’s an argument in favor of Jesus changing his mind but I’ve used this same information as evidence that Jesus could not have changed his mind. Can you elaborate on how you are using this information and if I’m understanding you correctly?

  6. After loking it up, it seems Jesus certainly did not lie in the original manuscripts. Translating it into English causes the problem.

    ” In English, the use of present continuous tense “I am not going” can and often does apply to a events in the future. That would mean the same thing as “I am not going to go at all” However the verb tense used in Greek here simply meant “I am not now going” … as in he wasn’t going to budge that moment and go like they wanted. It wasn’t an indication that he didn’t maybe plan on going.”

    • The problem with the argument you provided is that it assumes that the Greek present tense naturally places the emphasis on the immediate occurrence of the verb. This is simply not the case; there are a half-a-dozen or more ways to “naturally” understand the Greek present tense. As with all languages, the syntactical meaning of the tense of a verb varies given its context. So no, just because Jesus uses the present tense does not mean that his brothers would naturally believe that he was eventually going to join them at the festival but just not at that moment. As I have argued above, the context indicates that they didn’t think he was coming at all and the syntactical meaning of the verb tense should be interpreted likewise.

      An additional problem with this syntactical understanding is that the instantaneous present (which seems to be the way your source is understanding the present tense ἀναβαίνω in v. 8) is typically reserved for verbs of speaking or thinking. To apply it to a verb of motion/movement as in v. 8 (ἀναβαίνω) would be unusual and would need to be demonstrated that this is best understanding in light of the context. I read your source and the author did not defend this interpretation in light of the context; rather he simply asserted what the Greek means and then offered his conclusion.

      Furthermore, if Jesus meant, “I am not ‘now’ going,” the adverb νῦν should be there; this would be the typical (only?) way to get this meaning across. (I do think this would be the only way to transparently get this meaning across.)

      However––and a bit ironically––even if I grant the argument you provided, Jesus is still lying. He said that he was not going because his time had not yet come; an event that doesn’t come until a few chapters after he goes to the festival. So either Jesus is lying about the “time” or he is lying about not going at all; either way, he’s not being truthful.

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