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Jesus in the Grainfields, Part 1: The Challenge of the Pharisees in Context

In part one of this two-part series, Dr. Wave Nunnally examines a famous passage of Scripture that, when read without the benefit of cultural understanding, could leave many readers wondering about the ethics of Jesus and His disciples!

Dr. Wave Nunnally, professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and an instructor for the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS), assists in providing a regular CHLS column to PE News. This column offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. This is the first part of a two-part series. 

Much of Scripture is so straightforward, we humans have to try hard to misunderstand its intended meaning. For example, few would attempt to argue the intended meaning of “You shall not steal” (Matthew 19:18). On the other hand, some of Scripture including some of the teachings of Jesus are so closely connected to the culture, languages, and mindset of His day that they require “more” of us than a surface reading. As an example of this, when He said, “Honor your Father and mother” (Matthew 15:4), what He meant and what we usually mean when we cite that verse are entirely different (see my earlier article “The Truth About ‘Honor Your Father and Your Mother’”).

With this in mind, in this article I would like to consider a passage of Scripture many of us have read many times over, but may have missed some of its meaning due to its deeply textured nature. When read in context, like a clean mirror, it gives a clearer representation of the image it is supposed to reflect. Such is the case with the episode recorded in Matthew 12:1-8, which begins with an interesting setting: 

“At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, "Behold, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2).

If we will allow ourselves to process this information carefully, we immediately feel the “tension”: the world and issues of Jesus are clearly not our world or our issues. This “tension” should cause us to ask, “Jesus and His disciples are walking on property they don’t own and eating produce that doesn’t belong to them! Why don’t the Pharisees ask Him why He is permitting His disciples to trespass and steal rather than raising issues about Sabbath observance?” 

Our answer is found not by interpreting the Bible through the “lenses” of our own world, but by looking through the lenses of the biblical world! In the absence of living witnesses and videos, this comes through a willingness to interact with the remnants of that bygone era through the lenses of geography, archeology, and ancient literature, including the Bible itself! 

For example, Jesus gave us a snapshot of what ancient roadways were like in His “Parable of the Sower and the Seed.” He said, “As he sowed, some seeds fell along the path…” (Matthew 13:4). Mark 4:4 reads similarly, but Luke’s version provides a helpful addition, “The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path; and it was trampled under foot…” (Luke 8:5, emphasis added). Bingo! In the ancient world of Scripture, footpaths typically followed the easiest and quickest route between points A and B. This usually meant traveling through what would be classified as “private property” in our world, but this was long before governments began “condemning” private property and appropriating it for public use as roads and rights-of-way. 

Jesus told another parable that assumes the same dynamics: a man found a treasure in a field (Greek, agrow: a cultivated area), sold all that he had, and bought the field that contained the treasure (Matthew 13:44, and this parable is found only in Matthew, a gospel oriented toward Jews living in the land of Israel!). However, what was the man doing walking through someone else’s property to begin with? He was traveling along a footpath that ran through the landholder’s agricultural area that was accessible to all. 

These parables of Jesus are snapshots of everyday life in His world: it was common knowledge that footpaths ran directly through agricultural areas and were available for everyone’s use. The Rabbis understood this as a matter of course, with no discussion needed (Mishnah Peah 2:1). Having the same mentality, Jesus felt perfectly comfortable regularly using an agricultural area on the Mount of Olives that did not belong to Him for meetings with His disciples and for prayer (John 18:1-2). Consequently, we never hear people in Scripture saying, “Get off my property!” Similarly, no archeologist has ever unearthed an ancient “No Trespassing” sign in Hebrew! With this evidence in mind, we see that our concept of “trespassing” would not have been in the minds of Jesus, His disciples, the Pharisees, the landowner, OR the gospel writers. Our issues and outlook are often not the issues and outlook of biblical characters. 

“Fine,” one might say, “but that does not absolve Jesus’ disciples of stealing, does it? Is this not a universal that requires no additional knowledge of context to understand it?” Nevertheless, we see in Scripture that neither Jesus (“…you would not have accused the guiltless,” Matthew 12:7) nor the Pharisees (who were clearly looking for an excuse to accuse His disciples) even hint that the plucking and eating constituted “stealing”. This is because “gleaning rights” had been extended beyond the poor, the needy, the alien, the orphan, and the widow (see Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; and Deuteronomy 23:24-25) to include people on a journey. This extension of the “laws of gleaning” presumably took place under the influence of Deuteronomy 24:19, which states, "When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand…” (see Mishnah Peah 8:1, which permits everyone, but gives first opportunity to the poor; see also Tosefta Peah 3:11, where both rich and poor may gather). It is certain that this was a practice current not only in Moses’ day but in Jesus’ time as well. Writing about the same time that the Gospels were being written, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus reports: 

“When autumn fruits are at their prime, you must not forbid travelers from touching them, but let them take their fill, as if they were their own…rejoicing at thus affording them a share in the fruits of the season” (Antiquities of the Jews 4:234, emphasis added; the rabbis in Mishnah Peah 5:4 render a similar ruling). 

Evidently, the early rabbis recognized that the alien, the fatherless, and the widow comprised a class of especially vulnerable persons. They also recognized that those who undertook travel in their day were equally vulnerable because they were away from their homes where safety and provision were more readily available. Jesus Himself must have held the same opinion, because when he became hungry on another journey, He approached a fig tree (that was not His, but just happened to be along the way) to its pick fruit (Matthew 21:18-19=Mark 11:12-13). Jesus’ disciples, then, were fully within their rights and were acting in accordance with commonly accepted practice, when they were “going through the grainfields…and began to pluck heads of grain” (Mark 2:23)! The Pharisees knew this, and consequently made no objections to these actions. Thus, every detail of this and other biblical stories, which from our perspective seem fraught with irreconcilable moral and ethical problems, all fit perfectly into the beliefs and practices of first-century Judaism in the land of Israel. 

When we step into the world of the Bible, we immediately recognize it is not our own. Despite our discomfort at the lack of familiarity, however, we see that this exercise enables us to see what the original participants saw. Contextualizing the Bible in this way also prevents us from being confused or sidetracked by reading things into the text that weren’t there to begin with! Printing presses, satellite uplinks, microwave ovens, and gas engines were not a part of the reality of biblical times. Nor were property rights (access or produce) governed by the same standards are they are today. If we do not allow the Bible to speak from its own perspective and instead superimpose our own world onto the biblical world, we will often perceive a clouded reflection of its truth. However, when we see the truth of God’s Word in all its contextualized clarity, it is then that “we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free”! 

In the next article in this series, “Jesus in the Grainfields, Part 2: The Response of Jesus in Context” will take up the even more textured defense of His disciples' actions, a defense that can only be fully appreciated and understood within its original context.