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February 1, 2015 
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Excerpted from “Fast, Fasting,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible

Fasting refers to a practice common in ancient Israel and post-biblical Judaism to abstain from nourishment, usually over the course of a day. In the Bible, it generally serves as a form of mourning and indicates that the individual or community is in some state of distress. …

The Nature and Scope of Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting in ancient Israel involved abstention from food and often, if not always, water (Jonah 3:7; Esth 4:16). It was accompanied by other physical performances: weeping, lament, tearing one’s clothing, donning sackcloth, applying ashes to one’s head, and/or lowering oneself to the ground (e.g., Esth 4:1-3). All these practices are closely associated with mourning, and fasting should be classified with them as an act of mourning. The presence of a technical vocabulary for referring to “fasting” suggests that the act was indeed conceived of as a discrete, coherent ritual, though there are instances in which the refusal of food is presented as a natural response to a given situation, rather than the decision to engage in a ritual act (e.g., 1 Sam 1:6). In all other respects, the effects of such reflexive abstinence resemble those of a formal fast. The duration of fasts varied; they could be set for a particular period of time (e.g., 2 Sam 3:35), culminate in a process of prayer or sacrifice (e.g., Judg 20:26), or simply come to an end when their purpose was met or became obsolete (e.g., 2 Sam 12:16-20). Individuals could embark upon a fast, or communal fasts could be initiated by the leadership, usually a royal but sometimes a priestly figure (Joel 1:13-14). …(T)he testimony of the OT suggests that it must have been a rather common phenomenon in that area of the world. A reference to fasting and weeping in the Deir Alla Texts, found in the eastern Jordan Valley, shows that these practices were not the province of Israelites alone.

The Meaning of Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting always appears in situations of real or threatened loss. Sometimes the loss concerned is final, as when fasting appears in mourning the dead. At other times, fasting occurs in close proximity to prayer, and it seems to aid in reversing an evil decree. How the same rite can appear in both contexts, be both efficacious and not, requires some thought. Perplexity regarding the meaning of fasting also follows from another angle. Formative Judaism and Christianity both tend to regard fasting as a penitential act, viewing it either as a physical expression of internal contrition or a way of atoning for sin by anticipating punishment and preemptively inflicting it upon oneself. However, in the OT, fasting frequently appears in situations in which there is no evidence of sin. Scholars have responded to these difficulties by positing the existence of different kinds of fasts. While the exact enumeration varies, one usually finds included within such lists: 1) fasting as an act of mourning the dead, 2) fasting as an act of penitence, 3) fasting as an auxiliary to prayer, and 4) fasting as a preparation for encountering the divine. This view of the diversity of fasting within the Bible is partially inspired by the results of ethnographic research. Early ethnologists studied the fasting practices of various peoples around the world and indeed found that fasting could be practiced for a wide variety of motivations.

While this view still has adherents, it should be questioned on a number of scores. Lists of fasting practices culled from multiple cultures would not seem to furnish an ideal paradigm for classifying the phenomenon within a single culture. More to the point, however, is the way in which the reigning classification undercuts the deep points of connection that exist between the different “types” of fasting in the OT. Running throughout all of these supposedly separate categories is the fact that fasting serves as a physical manifestation of distress, usually a type of distress that is not plainly evident upon the body of the one fasting because it has actually befallen others (e.g., the dead), because it is only potential (i.e., in the future), or because its lacks a visible bodily effect (e.g., barrenness or failure of crops). Fasting makes that distress evident. It allows the one who refrains from eating to assume the persona of someone who is actually afflicted. In those instances where suffering is already in physical evidence, fasting is rarely, if ever, employed.

It is for this reason that fasting as part of mourning the dead should not be seen as different in essence, only different in circumstance, from the sort of fasting that attends prayer. Within a social entity with shared interests, the diminishment wrought by death upon one member is felt by others and compels them to experience loss themselves through self-affliction (e.g., 2 Sam 1:12 ). Likewise, fasting constitutes a natural response to threatened affliction, preemptively reflecting upon the body future loss. Doing so can help move the deity to pity and thus frequently accompanies prayer, but it does not change the basic mechanism at work: the actualization of distress through the cessation of the normal bodily function of eating—only one step away from death itself. …

Fasting in the New Testament

Fasting in the NT conforms to the patterns of fasting within post-biblical Judaism, both in terms of its continuities with earlier biblical tradition and its newer developments. Confusion has been caused by the peculiar assumption that Jesus’ approach to fasting must have been distinct from his late Second Temple surroundings. Some scholars have therefore concluded that Jesus rejected the practice of fasting, a view that suits certain anti-ritual biases latent in modern scholarship. The position that would seem to emerge from the fasting controversy in Mark (2:18-20) and a statement presumably originally from the Sayings Gospel (Matt 11:16-19 and Luke 7:31-35) fits in quite well with the traditional view of fasting …. Fasting is an act of mourning and is antithetical to rejoicing. John and his followers followed a pious practice of mourning for the distraught state of the Jewish nation and therefore fasted regularly. Jesus and his followers conceived of themselves as participating already (in some fashion) in the kingdom of heaven. Fasting in such circumstances would be inconceivable—rather like fasting at a wedding; Zechariah had already made clear that fasts would turn to feasts when the moment of redemption came. The difference between Jesus, on one hand, and John and the Pharisees, on the other, is not over the value or nature of fasting, but over eschatology, whether Israel has indeed entered the period of redemption.

In the NT, there was a continued appreciation of fasting’s ability to help ensure successful prayer (e.g., Acts 13:3), though it is no longer clear whether the original reason for this connection was understood, namely the abjectness that fasting imposes upon the supplicant. We also find the view that fasting and prayer are good deeds, signs of individual merit. Thus the righteousness of Anna is bound up in her continual fasting and praying in the Temple (Luke 2:37). The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:16-18) encapsulates the change in the nature of fasting, from a method of manifesting and communicating need to a good deed. The entire context of the passage is, of course, the standard threesome of good deeds: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. With the performance of each, the individual accrues merit in heaven. This concept of individual eschatology and the new sense of fasting as meritorious leads to a rejection of the ostentation that was at the very heart of fasting in the OT: in the world of ancient Israel, God must see their distress and hear the articulation of said distress. The conception of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount clashes significantly with the more traditional fast of mourning undertaken by John the Baptist. This diversity within the NT is fully in line with the multiplication of meanings undergone by fasting within post-biblical Judaism.

--David A. Lambert