Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as healing on the Sabbath. This healing frequently caused disputes between Jesus and his contemporaries. Why? There are a few options to explain these episodes.
1. The popular view is that the Jews were evil and they didn’t believe in healing people and used the Sabbath as an excuse to condemn Jesus. The problem with this view is that Jesus’s opponents had no problem with the healing, only healing on the Sabbath. Jesus was free to heal six days of the week.
2. Jesus didn’t think that what he was doing violated the Sabbath. The problem with this view is that Jesus explicitly claims to violate the Sabbath.
3. Jesus did think he was violating the Sabbath, but disagreed with the Mosaic laws around Sabbath observance. Healing people was a job. Jesus looks very much like other traveling healers and these people all got paid. It is likely that Jesus also got paid for his healing ministry since he has no other means for supporting himself during his travels. In this view, Jesus worked as a healer and doing this kind of work would have been explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus seemed to view certain kinds of work as permissible on the Sabbath. Jesus may have thought that his profession should be exempt.
4. Jesus violated the Sabbath deliberately. Why couldn’t he have waited 24 hours to heal these people? Many had been sick for years. Certainly one more day wouldn’t have hurt anything. Jesus seems to have deliberately violated the Law on these and other occasions. Jesus’s complicated relationship with the Law may have had some apocalyptic elements to it, such as his episode overturning the money-changers, signifying the coming destruction of the temple.
5. Jesus didn’t violate the Sabbath at all. These are later Christian constructions to justify the separation of the Church from Judaism in both practice and theology. The historical problem that we have, of course, is knowing what exactly Jesus was up to. These events are lost in the layers of tradition. Most certainly the explanations offered in the Gospels are secondary justifications locating the distance between the church and Judaism in the actions of Jesus himself.
If there is a historical kernel to Jesus’s Sabbath-violation, what are we to make of it?