A Time To Fast?

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Once, when Jesus and his disciples were enjoying themselves at a dinner party, a simple observation was made: “Your disciples don’t fast!” The observation was innocent and simple enough; it was not an accusation, but an honest exclamation of perplexity. Jesus’ response, however, was far from simple.

Revised: 09-Jul-2009

And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” He told them a parable also: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old garment; if he does he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:33-39. All biblical quotations follow the RSV.)

Jesus’ Discourse on Fasting at the House of Levi[1]

Once, when Jesus and his disciples were enjoying themselves at a dinner party, a simple observation was made: “Your disciples don’t fast!” The observation was innocent and simple enough; it was not an accusation, but an honest exclamation of perplexity. Jesus’ response, however, was far from simple. There are some scholars who believe that Jesus’ original response has been entirely lost, and that Luke’s testimony comes from a much later tradition. Many scholars draw this conclusion because they understand Jesus’ response as a strong denunciation of the old traditions of Judaism in favor of the new way he had come to teach, and they rightly recognize that such a denunciation really has nothing to do with the simple observation about the disciples’ not fasting. Here, however, we suggest that, read in a different way, Jesus’ response does make good sense and that therefore we should read the observation and Jesus’ response as a single coherent unit. Therefore let us take another look at the observation made about Jesus’ disciples, and also his response as it is recorded in Luke 5:33-39, to see whether we can make any more sense of it. We will argue that in this pericope the authentic words of Jesus are preserved. We will also, by implication, argue against the prevailing opinion that Jesus’ reply constituted a strong renunciation of Jewish tradition, since, as we will discover, this was not Jesus’ concern in our passage. Instead, arguing for the unity of Luke 5:33-39, we shall attempt to prove that Jesus’ reply was pertinent to the issue raised, and dealt with it in such a way as to reveal Jesus’ skill and subtlety as a teacher.

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  • [1] I would like to thank Dr. Marvin R. Wilson of Gordon College for his encouragement in presenting this article, and also Miss Lauren Asperschlager for her critiques and suggested revisions.

Comments 1

  1. Adam Focht

    Hi Joshua, just to strengthen your argument. In Jewish tradition you cannot postpone joy on account of sadness. Meaning, a wedding cannot be postponed by a funeral or some other reason to fast. And weddings are not allowed to be held during times of ritual fasting.

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  • Joshua N. Tilton

    Joshua N. Tilton

    Joshua N. Tilton grew up in St. George, a small town on the coast of Maine. For his undergraduate degree he studied at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where he earned a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies (2002). There he studied Biblical Hebrew and…
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