The Practice of Fasting in the New Testament -- By: Curtis C. Mitchell

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 147:588 (Oct 1990)
Article: The Practice of Fasting in the New Testament
Author: Curtis C. Mitchell

The Practice of Fasting in the New Testament

Curtis C. Mitchell

Professor of Biblical Studies
Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California

Is religious fasting a legitimate practice for today? If it is, how and why should it be practiced? This article studies each reference to fasting in the New Testament to seek answers to these questions.

Fasting as Practiced and Taught in the Gospels

Anna’s fasting (Luke 2:37)

The first mention of fasting in the New Testament is in connection with the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple (cf. Exod 13:2–15; Num 18:15–16). Two godly people, Simeon and Anna, were attracted to the infant. Anna’s constant service to God is called “fastings and prayers” (Luke 2:37). Νηστείαις (“fastings”) has the literal meaning of “not having eaten,” “being without nourishment.”1 The word most generally has the special religious sense of fasting.2

In this instance fasting is looked on favorably. It is said to be one way of “serving” God (Anna was “serving night and day with fastings and prayers”). There is no indication that she was required to do this. Rather her “fastings and prayers” were prompted by a felt need. Perhaps she was so burdened that the Messiah come that she spontaneously devoted much of her time to “fastings and prayers.”

Jesus’ Fasting

Jesus practiced fasting when He was tempted by Satan (Matt 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–4). During these tumultuous 40 days of loneliness, satanic attack, and the presence of wild beasts, “He ate nothing” (Luke 4:2). The phrase οὐκ ἔφαγεν οὐδὲν, with the emphatic negations ὄυκοὐδὲν and a constantive aorist, paints a strong assertion: total abstinence from food.3 But was this a fast? Luke did not use the word “fasting,” but Matthew did. He used the aorist participle νηστεύσας (“had fasted,” Matt 4:2), which Vincent contends is used throughout the New Testament to indicate “ab...

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