A little story begins in Luke 4:40 after the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39):
Δύνοντος δὲ τοῦ ἡλίου
ἅπαντες ὅσοι εἶχον ἀσθενοῦντας νόσοις ποικίλοις ἤγαγον αὐτοὺς πρὸς αὐτόν·
ὁ δὲ ἑνὶ ἑκάστῳ αὐτῶν τὰς χεῖρας ἐπιτιθεὶς ἐθεράπευεν αὐτούς.
While the sun was setting
all as many as were having sick people with various diseases,
they brought them to him,
and he, on each one placing his hands, was healing them. (Luke 4:40)
Matthew’s introductory phrase is:
Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης
προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δαιμονιζομένους πολλούς
Having become evening
they brought to him many demonized people. (Matt. 8:16))
Mark has a double description of the time:
Ὀψίας δέ γενομένης, ὅτε ἔδυ ὁ ἥλιος
ἔφερον πρὸς αὐτὸν πάντας τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας
Having become evening when the sun was down,
they were carrying to him all those feeling ill. (Mark 1:32)
This text has received scrutiny for synoptic theory because of the double description in Mark. The Griesbach hypothesis (Matt > Luke > Mark) sees in this verse an example of Mark’s preservation of two sources, the introduction in both Matthew and Luke ( Luke 4:40; Matt. 8:16). Traditional Markan priorists have explained Matthew and Luke as independently simplifying Mark, but choosing different pieces of the double description.
There is another option: both Mark and Matthew placed the time of the episode after sunset. That makes good cultural sense according to the halaxa where the Shabbat would end after sundown. Luke, on the other hand, placed the beginning of this episode before the sunset has taken place. The continuative participle, “while the sun was setting,” does not include the endpoint in its view. The question arises, what was Luke trying to say? Did he see either Matthew or Mark, like most synoptic theories posit? If so, what was his purpose in placing the episode before the end of Shabbat? There is nothing in the following story in Luke that has any relevance to the Shabbat question. Was Luke trying to hint that the people were so excited to see Jesus that they started carrying sick people to Jesus before the Shabbat ended? Nothing in the story suggests that such a motive existed for Luke.
Perhaps Luke did not see Mark or Matthew. Is it possible that Luke received the story in Greek with an open-ended participle and hesimply preserved it? If so, how do we make sense of the three synoptic traditions?
Papias wrote that there was a Hebrew book about Jesus that was written for the Jerusalem Church. This tradition leads us to ask how such a story may have been recounted in Hebrew.
If a Hebrew text read ותבוא השמש (“and the sun went down”), the story would be unambiguous because the Shabbat would have been over. However, if the Hebrew text read והשמש באה the text would be ambiguous. A person could read this as ve-ha-shemesh báa “and the sun went down,” unambiguously ending the Shabbat, or a person could read this as ve-ha-shemesh baá “and the sun was going down.” The word order makes the second reading at least equally probable and natural if someone were reading the text without reflection or analysis. Participle clauses have “Subject-Participle” as their default order. Of course, even the open-ended description within a Hebrew story could be interpreted as implying the end of the Shabbat as the story moved from the temporal description to the first event of the story. The conjectured ancient Greek translator from Hebrew would have been fully justified in producing the phrase that we find in Greek in Luke, δύνοντος δὲ τοῦ ἡλίου. This Hebrew translation involves taking a Hebrew participle and putting a congruent participle of the same meaning into a Greek genitive (because the “sun” would not be the subject of the following clause). Another option in Hebrew would be ובבוא השמש (“and in the going down of the sun”), but not וכבוא השמש (“and after the going down of the sun”), which technically includes the end of verbal event. A corner on a single letter would differentiate the two meanings.
If that Greek phrase, δύνοντος δὲ τοῦ ἡλίου, was what was transmitted to Luke, he would have been fully justified in preserving it. The verb δῦναι “to go down, set (of the sun)” is a bit restricted in Greek. As a finite verb only the aorist, ἔδυ (“the sun went down”), which we find in Mark, was commonly used. The imperfect of this verb is rarely ever used in the ancient Greek language. If Luke’s source had a continuative participle, then he would have probably left the verb in that form since putting it into a finite verb would require changing the aspect and meaning of what he received. Furthermore, the follow-up verb in Luke is an aorist (ἤγαγον, “they brought”), which includes the end point of the action and is exactly what one would expect in a Hebrew story with a verb like ויביאו (“and they brought”) or וישאו or ויטלו (“and they carried”), although a Greek imperfect might have fit an open-ended scene had that been Luke’s intention. Luke and Matthew agree in an aorist verb at this point, contra Mark’s imperfect ἔφερον “they were carrying.” The long introductory phrase also sounds like a typical Hebrew preposed asher-structure כל (אלה) אשר היו להם חולים חֳלָיִים שנים הביאו אותם אליו “all that there were to them sickpeople of different sicknesses, they brought them to him.”
If Luke did not change the meaning, then who did? I do not assume that Mark saw Luke, but I do assume that they shared many of the same stories in one or more Greek sources. If Mark had received a tradition like what we see in Luke (from a shared source), then his finite verb ἔδυ, “(the sun) went down,” shows that he stopped to reflect on the situation and apparently wanted to clarify that the Shabbat had ended. We have two good reasons for believing that this is, in fact, what happened. First, Mark shows an interest in Jewish legal questions, as can be ascertained from his lengthy treatise in Mark 7 about purity: does the touching of fruit or bread with unwashed hands make bread or other food ritually unclean? Second, in Mark 1:32 Mark goes out of his way to specify that the Shabbat was over by using a double description of evening having arrived and the sun having already gone down: “That evening, at sundown…” Mark is the Evangelist who has specified that the Shabbat was over.
The simple phrase, δύνοντος δὲ τοῦ ἡλίου (“while the sun was going down”) in Luke appears to reflect am ambiguous phrase in a Hebrew story. Rather than being someone who went out of his way to make a point, Luke becomes a preserver of his source. Mark made a point, that the Shabbat had ended, and Matthew seems to have preserved that statement, although he simplified Mark’s point that the Sabbath had ended.
A careful reading of the texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke leads us to raise questions about the word choices and structures that each author has chosen in telling the story. Knowing the parameters and constraints of both Greek and Hebrew helps us in reading and appreciating what is going on. So, did Jesus heal the sick before or after the end of the Shabbat? Culturally, we can read all three stories as referring to visits and healing after the Shabbat, though Luke’s account was written in an ambiguous manner with a likely Hebrew-Greek precedent.