The meaning of Abstinence in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
abs'-ti-nens: 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.
1. Public Fasts:
Only one such fast is spoken of as having been instituted and commanded by the Law of Moses, that of the Day of Atonement. This is called "the Fast" in Acts 27:9 (compare Ant, XIV, iv, 3; Philo, Vit Mos, II, 4; Schurer, HJP, I, i, 322).
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.
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 Isa. 61; Mat. 25; 1Co. 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).
2. Private Fasts:
In addition to these public solemnities, individuals were in the habit of imposing extra fasts upon themselves (e.g. Judith 8:6; Luke 2:37); and there were some among the Pharisees who fasted on the second and fifth days of the week all the year round (Luke 18:12; see Lightfoot, at the place).
Tacitus alludes to the "frequent fasts" of the Jews (History, V, 4), and Josephus tells of the spread of fasting among the Gentiles (Against Apion, II, 40; compare Tertullian, AD Nat, i.13). There is abundant evidence that many religious teachers laid down rules concerning fasting for their disciples (compare Mark 2:18; Matthew 9:14; Luke 5:33).
3. Degrees of Strictness in Abstinence:
Individuals and sects differ greatly in the degrees of strictness with which they observe fasts. In some fasts among the Jews abstinence from food and drink was observed simply from sunrise to sunset, and washing and anointing were permitted. In others of a stricter sort, the fast lasted from one sunset till the stars appeared after the next, and, not only food and drink, but washing, anointing, and every kind of agreeable activity and even salutations, were prohibited (Schurer, II, ii, 119; Edersheim, Life and Times, I, 663). Such fasting was generally practiced in the most austere and ostentatious manner, and, among the Pharisees, formed a part of their most pretentious externalism. On this point the testimony of Matthew 6:16 is confirmed by the Mishna.
4. Abstinence among Different Kinds of Ascetics:
There arose among the Jews various kinds of ascetics and they may be roughly divided into three classes.
(1) The Essenes.
These lived together in colonies, shared all things in common and practiced voluntary poverty. The stricter among them also eschewed marriage. They were indifferent, Philo says, alike to money, pleasure, and worldly position. They ate no animal flesh, drank no wine, and used no oil for anointing. The objects of sense were to them "unholy," and to gratify the natural craving was "sin." They do not seem to come distinctly into view in the New Testament.
(2) The Hermit Ascetics.
These fled away from human society with its temptations and allurements into the wilderness, and lived there a life of rigid self-discipline. Josephus (Vita, 2) gives us a notable example of this class in Banus, who "lived in the desert, clothed himself with the leaves of trees, ate nothing save the natural produce of the soil, and bathed day and night in cold water for purity's sake." John the Baptist was a hermit of an entirely different type. He also dwelt in the desert, wore a rough garment of camel's hair and subsisted on "locusts and wild honey." But his asceticism was rather an incident of his environment and vocation than an end in itself (see "Asceticism," DCG). In the fragments of his sermons which are preserved in the Gospels there is no trace of any exhortation to ascetic exercises, though John's disciples practiced fasting (Mark 2:18).
(3) The Moderate Ascetics.
There were many pious Jews, men and women, who practiced asceticism of a less formal kind. The asceticism of the Pharisees was of a kind which naturally resulted from their legal and ceremonial conception of religion. It expressed itself chiefly, as we have seen, in ostentatious fasting and externalism. But there were not a few humble, devout souls in Israel who, like Anna, the prophetess, served God "with fastings and supplications night and day" (Luke 2:37), seeking by a true self-discipline to draw near unto God (of Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23; I Timothy 5:5).
5. Abstinence as Viewed in the Talmud:
Some of the rabbis roundly condemned abstinence, or asceticism in any form, as a principle of life. "Why must the Nazirite bring a sin offering at the end of his term?" (Numbers 6:13-14) asks Eliezer ha-Kappar (Siphra', at the place); and gives answer, "Because he sinned against his own person by his vow of abstaining from wine"; and he concludes, "Whoever undergoes fasting or other penances for no special reason commits a wrong." "Man in the life to come will have to account for every enjoyment offered him that was refused without sufficient cause" (Rabh, in Yer. Kid., 4). In Maimonides (Ha-Yadh ha-Chazaqah, De'oth 3 1) the monastic principle of abstinence in regard to marriage, eating meat, or drinking wine, or in regard to any other personal enjoyment or comfort, is condemned as "contrary to the spirit of Judaism," and "the golden middle-way of moderation" is advocated.
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" (Lev. R. 13)—"to train the Jew in self-discipline."
6. The Attitude of Jesus to Fasting:
The question of crowning interest and significance to us is, What attitude did Jesus take toward fasting, or asceticism? The answer is to be sought in the light, first of His practice, and, secondly, of His teaching.
(1) His Practice.
Jesus has even been accounted "the Founder and Example of the ascetic life" (Clem. Alex., Strom, III, 6). By questionable emphasis upon His "forty days'" fast, His abstinence from marriage and His voluntary poverty, some have reached the conclusion that complete renunciation of the things of the present was "the way of perfection according to the Saviour."
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).
(2) His Teaching.
Beyond question, it was, from first to last, "instinct with the spirit of self-denial" "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself," is an ever-recurring refrain of His teaching "Seek ye first the kingdom of God," is ever His categorical imperative (Matthew 6:33 the King James Version; Luke 12:31). This is to Him the summum bonum—all desires and strivings which have not this as their goal must be suppressed or sacrificed (compare Matthew 13:44-46; Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 9:59-60; Luke 14:26 with Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 9:43-47; Matthew 16:24 f.; Mark 8:34 f.; Luke 9:23 f.; and Luke 14:33). In short, if any man find that the gratification of any desire of the higher or lower self will impede or distract him in the performance of his duties as a subject of the Kingdom, he must forego such gratification, if he would be a disciple of Christ. "If it cause thee to stumble," is always the condition, implied or expressed, which justifies abstinence from any particular good.
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, Luke 5:38). 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).
7. The Practice and Teaching of the Apostles:
On the whole, unquestionably, the practice and teachings of the apostles and early Christians were in harmony with the example and teaching of the Master. But a tendency, partly innate, partly transmitted from Jewish legalism, and partly pagan, showed itself among their successors and gave rise to the Vita Religiosa and Dualism which found their fullest expression in Monasticism.
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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