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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Fasting (2)

FASTING.—In the time of Christ, fasting appears to have been a prominent characteristic of Jewish piety. The fasts were both public and private. Of public fasts only one in the year was ordained by the law of Moses, the Day of Atonement; in Acts 27:9 it is called simply ‘the fast’ (cf. Josephus Ant. xiv. iv. 3; Philo, Vit. Mos. ii. 4; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] i. i. 322). The four annual fasts, established in memory of national calamities and referred to by Zechariah (Zechariah 8:19), had fallen into desuetude, and were not revived until after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The late ‘fast of Esther,’ on the 13th of Adar (Esther 9:31; cf. Esther 4:3; cf. Esther 4:16), was not at this time observed. But occasional public fasts were ordered from time to time during seasons of drought and public calamity. They were held on the second and fifth days of the week,—Monday and Thursday,—because Moses was believed to have gone up Mt. Sinai on a Thursday and to have returned on a Monday. They always began on the second day, so that a three days’ fast would fall on the second, fifth, and second—Monday, Thursday, Monday (see Didache, viii.; Const. Apost. vii. 23; Epiphan. Hœr. xvi. 1). Apart from these public occasions, however, many individuals were in the habit of imposing extra fasts upon themselves (Luke 2:37, cf. Judith 8:6); and some, particularly among the Pharisees, fasted on Mondays and Thursdays all the year round (Luke 18:12; Lightfoot and Wetstein, ad loc.). Religious teachers, moreover, were apparently accustomed to lay down rules about fasting for the guidance of their disciples (Mark 2:18, Matthew 9:14, Luke 5:33). The ‘frequent fasts’ of the Jews are alluded to by Tacitus (Hist. v. 4); and Josephus, speaking of the spread of Jewish customs among the Gentile cities, mentions fasting (e. Apion. ii. 40; cf. Tert. ad Nat. i. 13). Among the Romans a mistaken idea seems to have been current that the Jews fasted on the Sabbath (Sueton. Aug. 76).

The manner of fasting differed according to the degree of strictness of the fast. Thus, on less strict fasts, while abstinence from food and drink from sunrise to sunset was enjoined, washing and anointing were still permitted. The strictest fast, however, lasted from one sunset till after the next, when the stars appeared; and during these hours not only food and drink, but washing, anointing, and every kind of agreeable transaction, even salutations, were prohibited (Schürer, ii. ii. 119; Edersheim, Life and Times, i. p. 663, Temple, pp. 297–300). Fasting was generally practised in an ostentatious manner; on this point the testimony of Matthew 6:16 is confirmed by the Mishna.

Passing on to consider the attitude of Jesus towards fasting, we remark that, while on the one hand there is no reason to doubt that He observed the prescribed public fasts, and while He may even have undertaken a voluntary fast of forty days at the commencement of His ministry (Matthew 4:2; but see art. Asceticism), yet, on the other hand, it is evident that neither by practice nor by precept did He lay any stress on this form of devotion. His ordinary mode of life was so un-ascetic as to bring on Him the reproach of being a ‘gluttonous man and a wine-bibber’ (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). In His teaching He directly alluded to fasting only twice. The passages are as follow:

(a) Matthew 6:16-18. Here voluntary fasting is presupposed as a religious exercise, but the disciples are warned against making it an occasion for a parade of piety. ‘Thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret.’ Jesus thus sanctions fasting, but only as the genuine expression of a devout and contrite frame of mind. Its whole value depends on the purity and sincerity of the motive with which it is undertaken. As for the pretentious externalism of the Pharisees, that has its own reward.

(b) Mark 2:18-22, Matthew 9:14-17, Luke 5:33-39. In reply to the question of the disciples of John and of the Pharisees, Jesus deliberately refuses to enjoin fasting on His followers. Alluding to a Rabbinic ordinance that all mourning be suspended during the marriage-week, He says that fasting, which is a sign of mourning, would be inconsistent with the joy which ‘the children of the bride-chamber’ experience ‘while the bridegroom is with them.’ But He adds that the days of bereavement are coming, and then the outward expression of sorrow will be appropriate enough. Here, as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly sanctions fasting as a form through which emotion spontaneously seeks expression. But to the form itself He attaches very slight importance. This is brought out clearly in the succeeding parables of the Old Garment and the Old Wineskins. It is futile to graft the new liberty of the gospel on to the body of old observances and practices, and yet more futile to attempt to force the whole new system within the ancient moulds. The new piety must manifest itself in new forms of its own. Nevertheless, while Jesus seems to suggest that the Jewish regulations are not in harmony with the Christian spirit, He can sympathize with the prejudice of conservatives who still cling tenaciously to the custom of their fathers. ‘No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is good.’

The allusions to fasting in Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21 are corruptions of the text; for similar combinations of prayer and fasting see Tobit 12:6, Sirach 34:26, Luke 2:37. The second Logion of the Oxyrhynchus fragment discovered in 1897 commences with the words, Λέγει Ἰησοῦς, ἐὰν μὴ νηστεύσητε τὸν κὸσμον, οὐ μὴ εὕρητε τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. Here, however, the fasting spoken of is obviously metaphorical. Another reference to fasting occurs in the fifth of the New Sayings of Jesus, published by Grenfell and Hunt in 1904, but the Logion is ‘broken beyond hope of recovery’ (op. cit. p. 18 f.).

On the general bearings of this subject see art. Asceticism.

F. Homes Dudden.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fasting (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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