Abstinence as a form of asceticism reaches back into remote antiquity, and is found among most ancient peoples. It may be defined as a self-discipline which consists in the habitual renunciation, in whole or in part, of the enjoyments of the flesh, with a view to the cultivation of the life of the spirit. In its most extreme forms, it bids men to stifle and suppress their physical wants, rather than to subordinate them in the interest of a higher end or purpose, the underlying idea being that the body is the foe of the spirit, and that the progressive extirpation of the natural desires and inclinations by means of fasting, celibacy, voluntary poverty, etc., is "the way of perfection."
This article will be concerned chiefly with abstinence from food, as dealt with in the Bible. (For other aspects of the subject, see TEMPERANCE; CLEAN; UNCLEANNESS; MEAT, etc.). Thus limited, abstinence may be either public or private, partial or entire.
Four annual fasts were later observed by the Jews in commemoration of the dark days of Jerusalem--the day of the beginning of Nebuchadrezzar's siege in the tenth month, the day of the capture of the city in the fourth month, the day of its destruction in the fifth month and the day of Gedaliah's murder in the seventh month. These are all referred to in Zechariah 8:19. See FAST.
It might reasonably be thought that such solemn anniversaries, once instituted, would have been kept up with sincerity by the Jews, at least for many years. But Isaiah illustrates how soon even the most outraged feelings of piety or patriotism may grow cold and formal. `Wherefore have we fasted and thou seest not?' the exiled Jews cry in their captivity. `We have humbled our souls, and thou takest no notice.' Yahweh's swift answer follows: `Because your fasting is a mere form! Behold, in the day of your fast ye find your own pleasure and oppress all your laborers' (compare Isaiah 58:3; Expositor's Bible, at the place). That is to say, so formal has your fasting grown that your ordinary selfish, cruel life goes on just the same. Then Yahweh makes inquest: "Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? Then shalt thou call, and Yahweh will answer; thou shalt cry, and he will say, Here I am" (Isaiah 58:5-9). The passage, as George Adam Smith says, fills the earliest, if not the highest place in the glorious succession of Scriptures exalting practical love, to which belong Isaiah 61; Matthew 25; 1?Corinthians 13. The high import is that in God's view character grows rich and life joyful, not by fasts or formal observances, but by acts of unselfish service inspired by a heart of love. These fasts later fell into utter disuse, but they were revived after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Occasional public fasts were proclaimed in Israel, as among other peoples, in seasons of drought or public calamity. It appears according to Jewish accounts, that it was customary to hold them on the second and fifth days of the week, for the reason that Moses was believed to have gone up to Mt. Sinai on the fifth day of the week (Thursday) and to have come down on the second (Monday) (compare Didache, 8; Apostolical Constitutions, VIII, 23).
But, on the other hand, abstinence is often considered by the rabbis meritorious and praiseworthy as a voluntary means of self-discipline. "I partook of a Nazirite meal only once," says Simon the Just, "when I met with a handsome youth from the south who had taken a vow. When I asked the reason he said: `I saw the Evil Spirit pursue me as I beheld my face reflected in water, and I swore that these long curls shall be cut off and offered as a sacrifice to Yahweh'; whereupon I kissed him upon his forehead and blessed him, saying, May there be many Nazirites like thee in Israel!" (Nazir, 4b). "Be holy" was accordingly interpreted, "Exercise abstinence in order to arrive at purity and holiness" (`Ab. Zarah, 20b; Siphra', Kedhoshim). "Abstain from everything evil and from whatever is like unto it" is a rule found in the Talmud (Chullin, 44b), as also in the Didache (3 1)--a saying evidently based on Job 31:1, "Abstain from the lusts of the flesh and the world." The Mosaic laws concerning diet are all said by Rabh to be "for the purification of Israel" (Le R. 13)--"to train the Jew in self-discipline."
A fuller and more appreciative study of Jesus' life and spirit must bring us to a different conclusion. Certainly His mode of life is sharply differentiated in the Gospels, not only from that of the Pharisees, but also from that of John the Baptist. Indeed, He exhibited nothing of the asceticism of those illustrious Christian saints, Bernard and John of the Cross, or even of Francis, who "of all ascetics approached most nearly to the spirit of the Master." Jesus did not flee from the world, or eschew the amenities of social life. He contributed to the joyousness of a marriage feast, accepted the hospitality of rich and poor, permitted a vase of very precious ointment to be broken and poured upon His feet, welcomed the society of women, showed tender love to children, and clearly enjoyed the domestic life of the home in Bethany. There is no evidence that He imposed upon Himself any unnecessary austerities. The "forty days' " fast (not mentioned in Mk, the oldest authority) is not an exception to this rule, as it was rather a necessity imposed by His situation in the wilderness than a self-imposed observance of a law of fasting (compare Christ's words concerning John the Baptist:
"John came neither eating nor drinking", see the article on "Asceticism," DCG). At any rate, He is not here an example of the traditional asceticism. He stands forth throughout the Gospels "as the living type and embodiment of self-denial," yet the marks of the ascetic are not found in Him. His mode of life was, indeed, so non-ascetic as to bring upon Him the reproach of being "a gluttonous man and a winebibber" (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).
According to the record, Jesus alluded to fasting only twice in His teaching. In Matthew 6:16-18, where voluntary fasting is presupposed as a religious exercise of His disciples, He warns them against making it the occasion of a parade of piety: "Thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret." In short, He sanctions fasting only as a genuine expression of a devout and contrite frame of mind.
In Matthew 9:14-17 (parallel Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39) in reply to the question of the disciples of John and of the Pharisees, Jesus refuses to enjoin fasting. He says fasting, as a recognized sign of mourning, would be inconsistent with the joy which "the sons of the bridechamber" naturally feel while "the bridegroom is with them." But, he adds, suggesting the true reason for fasting, that the days of bereavement will come, and then the outward expression of sorrow will be appropriate. Here, as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sanctions fasting, without enjoining it, as a form through which emotion may spontaneously seek expression. His teaching on the subject may be summarized in the one word, subordination (DCG).
To the form of fasting He attaches little importance, as is seen in the succeeding parables of the Old Garment and the Old Wine-skins. It will not do, He says, to graft the new liberty of the gospel on the body of old observances, and, yet more, to try to force the new system of life into the ancient molds. The new piety must manifest itself in new forms of its own making (Matthew 9:16,17; Mark 2:21,22; Luke 5:36,38). Yet Jesus shows sympathy with the prejudices of the conservatives who cling to the customs of their fathers:
"No man having drunk old vane desireth new; for he saith, The old is good." But to the question, Was Jesus an ascetic? we are bound to reply, No.
"Asceticism," as Harnack says, "has no place in the gospel at all; what it asks is that we should struggle against Mammon, against care, against selfishness; what it demands and disengages is love--the love that serves and is self-sacrificing, and whoever encumbers Jesus' message with any other kind of asceticism fails to understand it" (What is Christianity? 88).
It is worthy of note that the alleged words of Jesus: `But this kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting' (Mark 9:29; Matthew 17:21 the King James Version), are corruptions of the text. (Compare Tobit 12:8; Sirach 34:26; Luke 2:37). The Oxyrhynchus fragment (disc. 1897) contains a logion with the words legei Iesous, ean me nesteuete ton kosmon, ou me heurete ten basileian tou theou: "Jesus saith, Except ye fast to the world, ye shall in no wise find the Kingdom of God," but the "fasting" here is clearly metaphorical.
Bingham, Antiquities, W. Bright, Some Aspects of Primitive Church Life (1898), J. O. Hannay, The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism (1902), and The Wisdom of the Desert (1904); Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, Migne, Dictionnaire d' Ascetisme, and Encyclopedia Theol., XLV, XLVI, 45, 46; Jewish Encyclopedia, and Bible Dictionaries at the place.
George B. Eager
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