How and when should we fast?

At the beginning of Lent, it is traditional to consider taking up a spiritual discipline for the season—or perhaps giving something up. I have just read a number of posts telling me of friends who are giving up on social media until Easter! In the past, a key discipline has been that of fasting, but it seems to be less common now. For some reason, we appear to feel less able to refrain from the basic necessities of life than our forebears.

But before we think about fasting for ourselves, we need to ask: How often did Jesus and the first generation of his followers fast? Was it an occasional thing, focused on specific events or causes? Or was it something more habitual and regular, an integral part of their devotional life?

As most studies of the subject point out, fasting in the Old Testament was associated either with particular festivals (such as the Day of Atonement), with particularly intense experiences (as with Moses spending 40 days in the presence of God on Mount Sinai, echoed by Jesus’ fast in the desert which gives us the season of Lent), or with special seasons or feelings. Typically in the prophets and the writings, fasting is associated either with grieving, repentance, or intense prayer for a particular cause. There is nothing in any of these references to suggest that fasting was a habitual part of regular devotional activity.

But there are some fascinating clues to a change of perspective in the (so-called) inter-testamental period. The Book of Tobit relates stories set in the eighth century BC, but most believe it was written in the mid-second century BC (most scholars date the book of Daniel to a similar period).

Tobit 12.8–10 records the teaching of an angel as follows (in the style of sayings from Wisdom literature):

Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold.

For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life; but those who commit sin are the enemies of their own lives.

What is striking here, in relation to the earlier Old Testament texts, is that fasting has now become a regular part of devotional activity. What is even more striking is the close relationship between the practices in this text and Jesus’ teaching in Matt 6.1–18:

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them… So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets… And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites… When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do…

Here we have the same cluster of concerns—of righteousness, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. And, once again, fasting is assumed to be a regular, habitual part of the devotional life, not something reserved for special occasions. This also fits with the question that is asked of Jesus and his disciples: ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’ (Mark 2.18). The TNIV has translated this in a way suggesting this was a continual practice—and for good reason. In the parallel in Luke 5.33, the question appears to be on the lips of Jesus’ critics who state: ‘John’s disciples often [Gk: pukna, frequently] fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.’ Matthew appears to be caught between Mark and Luke. Whilst most manuscripts have at Matt 9.14 John’s disciples asking the question ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast…?’, a minority tradition has added the word ‘often’ [Gk polla], probably in an attempt to harmonise Matthew with Luke.

In fact, Luke (which we are reading this year as the Sunday lectionary gospel) appears to have a particular interest in this regular habit. In Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, we hear the Pharisee proclaim, ‘I fast twice a week…’ (Luke 18.12), and in fact we know on which days he fasted! An early Christian teaching document, the Didache (usually dated to the late first century, but lost until its rediscovery in the 19th) says this:

Chapter 8: But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday). Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, like this:…

and then follows a version of the Lord’s prayer very similar to the one we find in Matthew (‘his Gospel’). (For more on this, see the post on Jesus’ poetic teaching.) The term ‘hypocrites’ most likely refers to Jews who do not follow Jesus (hence almost certainly dating the Didache to some time after the year 85) but who fast—guess what!—on two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays. And precisely in line with Jesus’ teaching in all three Synoptic gospels, the followers of Jesus are also expected to fast two days a week, albeit on different days. In one of Luke’s other references to this practice, Acts 13.2, again it appears to be a habitual practice of the community of believers. (There is evidence that this regular fasting went from after breakfast until a light evening meal, rather than being a 24-hour period without food.)

Further confirmation of this practice comes from a slightly unlikely source. In Rabbinic Judaism from the second century onwards, there is no evidence that fasting continued to be a habitual practice. Instead, patterns of fasting return to what we find in the Old Testament. The best historical explanation of this is the mirror of what we find in the Didache. Just as the early Jewish followers of Jesus began to define themselves over against mainstream Judaism, so Rabbinical Judaism then began to define itself against the growing Jesus movement. So a practice like regular fasting, which marked out Jesus-followers against their pagan context, would be a good thing to drop.

It is worth reflecting on what this habit of fasting two days a week signified as a devotional practice. As Eliezer Diamond notes (Holy Men and Hunger Artists, p 130) the idea of regular fasting would have seemed odd to most in Graeco-Roman culture. The majority would have seen no need for it, whilst certain ascetic groups did practice fasting, but as a sign of detachment from the world. Intermittent fasting says something different.

‘Feast’ days celebrated a world made by God and all the good in it; alongside this, ‘fast’ days signified repentance, mourning and longing for deliverance—just the sort of practice you might adopt if you were awaiting the deliverance of a Messiah and the breaking in of the age to come. Intermittent fasting is just the sort of thing you might continue to practice if you wanted to continue to both affirm the world you lived in, but also to look for an age to come; it is the dietary expression of the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God (or, to use a theological term, the ‘partially realised eschatology’) we find in the New Testament. This is reflected in Jesus’ response to the critics of him and his disciples:

Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” (Luke 5.34–35)

Jesus is pointing out that, as we live in this world but look for the age to come in Jesus’ return, we are in the same position as those in his time who were expecting the Messiah to deliver Israel. So fasting is just the thing you would do if you were in the habit of praying ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’!

It is therefore not surprising that this kind of frequent, intermittent fasting has continued as a spiritual discipline. John Wesley, the found of the Methodist movement within the Church of England, was a well-known advocate:

For a portion of John Wesley’s ministry, he advocated fasting on both Wednesday and Friday each week as a regular spiritual discipline. It’s fairly well known that Wesley would not ordain anyone to the Methodist ministry who was unwilling to fast those days.

But as time passed, Wesley fasted mostly on Fridays, which was the Anglican norm. (Actually, as early as August 1739, he advocated Friday fasting for Methodists in his journal, according to the Anglican rule.)

Wesley usually began a Friday fast at sundown on Thursday. This was in continuity with Jewish and early Christian tradition, which both marked the beginning of the day at sundown, not midnight. Wesley typically ended his fast at 3:00 p.m. on Friday.

It might seem to be a coincidence that Wesley advocated the same pattern of fasting as that found in the Didache—when the text was not known until the end of the nineteenth century. But I suspect it is testimony to the persistence of a tradition, even when the teaching about it had been lost.

When I have written about this before, some people have objected on practical grounds.

Is fasting compatible with a secular vocation? If a person fasting drives a car, van or lorry, or works as a dentist or a surgeon, most members of the public – if they are sharing the road, and especially if they are the patients – earnestly hope that the faster’s blood-sugar levels, and consequent alertness, are at maximum. This question is relevant to fasting undertaken as an observance of any faith, whether Christian, Muslim or other.

mosley_1810279cThere is, in fact, a good, proven, medical answer to that. For some years, Michael Mosley has been promoting intermittent fasting, following his own quest for healthier living after his father died of heart disease on. His 5:2 diet plan proposes fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, exactly the pattern that we find in the New Testament! He also has an alternative, regular, 16:8 approach, sometimes called ‘time restricted eating‘, in which you eat your meals within an eight-hour window (for example, between 10 am and 6 pm) and fast in between, including overnight. One of the major reasons for doing this, says Mosley, is that it reduces your blood sugar level, thus both postponing the likelihood of diabetes for those who are overweight, and increasing mental alertness. Far from being a problem for those in ‘secular vocation’, it is actually a benefit.

The three temptations Jesus faced whilst fasting for forty days in the wilderness—turning stones into bread, demonstrating God’s protection of him, and taking a shortcut to the rule of the kingdoms of the world—might look a little random, until we understand them as temptations to hedonism, egoism and materialism.

Jesus was tempted three times. The temptations were hedonism (hunger / satisfaction), egoism (spectacular show/might) and materialism (kingdoms/wealth). John the Evangelist in his epistle calls these temptations “in world” as “lust of eyes” (materialism), “lust of body” (hedonism) and “pride of life” (egoism). [These temptations call for the responses of]: fortitude (courage) when his life was in danger because he was very hungry after fasting for 40 days and rejected devil’s proposition to make “bread” (“hedonism”); prudence (caution) when rejected proposition to make sign of conceit and might, a “spectacular throw” (“egoism”); and temperance (self-control) when rejected alluring offer to receive “kingdoms of world” (“materialism”).

It would be hard to deny that we live in a culture which runs on the belief that our desires should be met, immediately, that we should parade our best selves before others to impress them, and that material prosperity is the only kind that really counts. Displaying the courage of self-denial, the caution and humility not to parade ourselves before others, and the self-control to not live simply in material terms are intensely counter-cultural, and qualities that we have to offer the world. They are not unrelated to the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5.22.

So the question worth asking is: why wouldn’t we start fasting now—for spiritual, practical and health reasons? This shouldn’t just be a Lenten discipline, but part of our regular devotional habit. Perhaps Lent might be a good time to start?

(A shorter version of this was previously published in 2019.)

Watch our video discussion of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness in Luke 4 here:

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

19 thoughts on “How and when should we fast?”

  1. At the risk of being `Jock Molesworth’ and `down wiv skolarship’ again:
    When you say that most scholars date the book of Daniel to the mid-second century BC (i.e. approx. 150BC):

    I’d like to know what is meant by `most scholars’ who they are? what is their agenda? Because one of the reasons why Daniel attracts so much attention is because he made *prophecies* which hadn’t actually happened at the time he was writing (or, at least, so we are led to believe – that is one of the reasons why the book is important for us) – and, for example, part of the prophetic business was outlining something that looked suspiciously like Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC).

    Don’t these scholars – how to put it – steal the thunder from the book of Daniel if they date it to sometime *after* the prophecies were fulfilled?

    I also have some other jingling jangling doubts. Doesn’t the beginning of the eighth chapter go something like `In the third year of King Belshazzar’s reign, I, Daniel, had a vision, ….’ where the little word `I’ suggests that it was written by Daniel himself and that he wrote it during the reign of Belshazzar whom wikipedia (perhaps wiki isn’t a top-notch bible scholar) dates to 556-539BC?

    So I wonder where they get their date of mid-second century BC from – and how it chimes in with the fact that Daniel was supposed to contain prophecies – where their power is derived from the fact that they were prophesied before the events actually took place?

    Jock Molesworth (not a bible scholar)

    • Hi Jock

      There is probably a consensus among ‘critical scholars’ for a 2nd century BC dating of Daniel, but that doesnt mean that all Biblical scholars accept that. OT scholar Tremper Longman, for example, has argued Daniel was indeed written in the 6th century BC. As does Gleason Archer (he provides a strong argument against the main objections in his ‘A Survey of OT Introduction’).

      I dont have a particular problem with the idea that all or parts of Daniel were written after the events described (which just about everyone accepts includes specific references to Alexander the Great and Antiochus Epiphanes, both long after the 6th century BC) if the genre of the writing is such that its original readers would have understood it as such. But Im not convinced that is the case.

      But even if it was written ‘ex eventu’ Daniel’s predictions concerning the coming of the Messiah, for example, are still impressive. He accurately records that he would come around AD30. If Daniel was written after 167 BC that is still well over a century before the event. And of course the coming of the powerful and destructive Roman empire is also recorded, again impressive if written in the 2nd century BC (and btw that the Messiah would come during its reign).

      But as I said, Im not convinced at all of a 2nd century BC dating. Daniel was found in Qumran, suggesting at least a 3rd century BC dating. I wont go into the other evidence, but I think it’s simply unwise to accept the conclusions of so-called critical scholarship.


      • Being found in Qumran does not mean a 3rd century dating, let alone ‘at least’ a third century dating (for nothing at Qumran is 4th century or earlier). The options are anything from 300 BC to 66 AD, though it depends partly which other material it resembled (in ms form and/or form of writing) or was found with.

    • If you ask what is scholars’ agenda, that is a non question. If they have an agenda, that means they are not scholars. If they are scholars, that means they have no agenda.

  2. In the 90’s there was a significant emphasis on prayer + fasting, not only as an individual discipline, but whole church. There was teaching within the church and a book by Arthur Wallis – God’s Chosen Fast was a resource.
    The purposes of fasting were prominently taught, not merely pulpit a directive or exhortation.
    The fast was from food and somtimes, but not always, drink.
    As I’m older, I’d caution mixing fasting and prescribed medication, without medical advice, though I’m no medic.
    For 20 or so years, I’ve encountered no to little teaching on fasting, let alone a church call to fast for specific concerns.
    That said, today, there seems to be scant recognition of *spiritual warfare* that is found in scripture and encountered by Christians down the ages.

    • Steve – you know, the only time I ever received corporal punishment was from the Latin teacher. It was a Friday afternoon and we were quite deliberately doing ridiculous translations of the last section of the Aeneid – and she shouted, `Oh why am I surrounded by such idiots!’ and I replied, somewhat enthusiastically, `To keep you company!’ At which point she basically lost it …..

      • Oh, wonderful. You have made me laugh. Again, Molesworth, “he had a crack across his face that sometime resemble a smile” that’s how I imagine critical thinking scholars look.

      • I never did Latin but I did fall asleep in the Friday afternoon French lesson studying French literature – either Moliere or Camus I think. The teacher realised (not hard as my head was on my desk and eyes closed) and asked why I fell asleep. I said cos Im bored, to which she responded “How do you think I feel?”

        • Hello Peter,

          Ah …. I never managed to fall asleep. I took Latin only as far as O-grade and pursued French to Higher. Two reasons for this: firstly, by the time we got round to doing Latin, they had dumbed down the syllabus so we only translated one way (Latin into English) while we did it both ways in French. Secondly, I naively thought that French might be useful, but I’ve found myself in a bunch of countries – in none of which did they speak French. Nowadays, I find that English can be understood by everybody provided it is spoken slowly enough and loudly enough – so I think that in UK schools, `French’ could easily be replaced by `English spoken loudly and slowly’.

          Thanks for the Daniel comments. You are, of course, correct: even if by far the most of it had come to pass by the time the book was written, even dating it at approximately 160 BC, the prophesy of the Messiah to AD 30 is impressive.

          Nevertheless, I feel that there is something seriously dishonest about it if the `in the third year of Belshazzar’s reign, I Daniel ….’ doesn’t mean exactly what it says, that it was written by Daniel and can be dated to either Belshazzar’s reign or shortly after wards ……..

          • Hi Jock,
            Perhaps Daniel’s original clay records, diary, court docs., etc amounted to a ton or so. When some of the more prophetic stuff started to come true his trustees redacted it down to a hundredweight. When it needed to be transported back to Jerusalem it was further redacted, translated and written up on papyrus. Eventually someone joined up the various pieces into one narrative, in Greek, and added a few words to give it a beginning, a middle and end. Therefore it is still truly Daniels words but it’s final shape didn’t come about until much later. Perhaps by the 2nd century bc it was thought to have fulfilled its purpose.

  3. Steve – except that Daniel was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and most likely on papyrus originally. So unlikely to weigh a ton!

    Were you not on a sabbatical from this site, or was that someone else?!


      • Hello Steve, Peter;

        Well, I for one am very happy, Steve, that you are taking a break from the sabbatical.

        The problem with having an `original’ that was enormously long and written on clay – wouldn’t there be some fragments surviving somewhere? Especially if it were cunieform written on clay – and wouldn’t our scholars be pointing out that this was some sort of `proto-Daniel’?

        I get the impression that the `amateurs’ come up with better models for how Scriptures came to be than the professionals. Peter pointed out that Daniel *accurately predicts* the coming of the Messiah to approximately AD 30. This really was the major once-for-all event – and people were looking for it. And our top New Testament scholars don’t seem to have seriously explored the possibility that the disciples might have sensed that something really, really important was happening – in fact *the* once-for-all event – and ensured that good written records were made at the time.

        With Daniel, this discussion suggests to me that if we were to try writing a spoof Sokal-style article about the date and authorship of Daniel – and try submitting it to a scholarly Old Testament studies journal, we might have reasonable chances of success.

        The biggest fly in the ointment about a dating which isn’t approximately BC 560 – 530 is that there is strong evidence that if they sensed that a text was Holy (and written by a `big shot’ prophet), then they tended to revere the text and pass it on as-it-was, including grammatical errors. They wouldn’t even fix the grammar if the text was attributed to somebody Holy – and it is unlikely that someone who survived getting fed to the lions would be considered as anything other than a man of God – so his writings would have been preserved.

        It is very difficult to see how they could have slipped the writings of the prophet Daniel in at, say, 160 BC. So as well as being dishonest (the text itself clearly claims it was written by Daniel either during or shortly after Belshazzar’s reign), it is very difficult to see how it could have got in there.

        • Hi Jock,
          Thanks. I just wrote a gert bigun by way of reply then thought better of it.
          Back to the topic…
          I think fasting is something that is done without premeditation, like when one is so absorbed in work that one forgets to stop for lunch.

        • For example, if Daniel really did survive getting fed to the lions – I would expect this to get written up pretty soon after the event – and then the text to be considered Holy, revered and passed down without alteration (thus dating Daniel to between 550 and 500 BC). Because getting fed to the lions and surviving isn’t exactly something that happens every day of the week.

          So presumably those scholars who think that Daniel is from approx 160 BC think that this isn’t a description of a real event and that getting fed to the lions and surviving may be actually be a parable, which is only loosely based on a real event (for example – Daniel’s punishment might have been cleaning out the Ant Eater cage at the zoo) and which is supposed to have some metaphorical significance.

          We could construct a paper exploring this issue and see if we can get it through the journals?

          • That sounds like a lot of work!
            Then whatever conclusions we came to would be have to be defended endlessly. We would be hoist by our own petard. I like your enthusiasm !
            But hey, what about my idea about the effulgence separating us from God comment ?

          • Steve – you are (of course) correct – that interacting with such `scholarship’ is ultimately soul destroying.

            I can’t think of any `good’ assumptions behind a dating of Daniel to 160BC and I can only imagine that those who think this is OK don’t really believe that Daniel survived getting fed to the lions. One can either be shocked and appalled, or else one can find it very funny and run with the meme.

            For example, what is a parabolic lion? I then start thinking of one of my son’s favourite episodes from `The Herbs’ where a fierce lion has escaped from the circus and they can’t tell the difference between Parsley (the very friendly lion) an the circus lion.

            As to the parabolic nature, I’m reminded of one of the Goon shows, where Neddie Seagoon says to Eccles, `Do you see the map?’ to which Eccles replies `No’ and Neddie says, `Of course you see the map. This is radio, you nit, you don’t actually have to see the map.’ Eccles says, `oh …. ummm …. yes … I see the map.’

            But – really – interacting with the `scholarship’ while it may provide entertainment for a few minutes, can’t to any good. This `scholarship’ is basically by people who aren’t Christian – or, who, at the very least, don’t believe that the sign miracles actually happened and their agenda is to trash them.

            If Daniel really was fed to the lions and really did survive, this would have been written up, put in the records and preserved as a matter of urgency. The suggestion that Daniel was written in 160 BC is an attempt to trash the miracles.

  4. Parabolic lion!?
    Love it.
    Reminds me of the lion of Ephesus.
    Who lost his first love.
    Then lost his teeth.
    And his claws.
    But sucks on theology for comfort.

    That’s me


Leave a comment