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RE: [Allison-Seminar] Celibacy, poverty, fasting

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  • Dale Allison
    Dear Loren You ask about asceticism and Jesus. This is a topic I very much enjoyed working on. It s one of those areas that makes modern NT scholars nervous.
    Message 1 of 6 , Mar 31, 2003
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      Dear Loren

      You ask about asceticism and Jesus. This is a topic I very much enjoyed working on. It's one of those areas that makes modern NT scholars nervous. Or if it does not, it's because they're absolutely confident that Jesus could not have been an ascetic. It's a bit like eschatology--it's so foreign to us that we don't want to find it in Jesus. But I think it's there. Of course, as soon as I say this, it's a question of how we define asceticism. If it's a bed of nails and whips, then Jesus wasn't an ascetic. But I tried to define asceticism carefully in terms of deliberate deprivation for religiouis ends, and on that score Jesus fits. I've found very few who agree, although I think that Stephen Patterson's essay in Vaage and Wimbush, Ascticism and the NT, which I did not know when I was writing Jesus of Nazareth, is moving in my direction. This of course is esp. interesting given that Steve's Jesus is not apocalyptic. Anyway, here are some thoughts in an attempt to answer your questions.

      i. You write:

      A question about asceticism. In your '98 publication
      you discuss the ascetic practices of Jesus and his
      closest followers -- celibacy, poverty, fasting --
      and list the five functions asceticism can serve in
      millenarian movements:

      1. Dedication to a mission (as with Paul's advise that
      marriage "divides" a person's loyalty)

      2. Distance from the present world order
      (eschatological dualism encourages detachment from the
      present world)

      3. Rhetorical persuasion (giving up money, sex, and
      food is good evidence of one's sincerity)

      4. Sign of judgment (the medium being the message)

      5. Realized eschatology (living as one would live in
      the kingdom, where wealth/sex/food abounds for
      everyone -- or, alternatively, none of it is needed by
      anyone, which amounts to the same thing)

      On the point of (5), however, it seems to have been
      the realized dimension of Jesus' eschatology which
      enabled him to dispense with fasting and instead feast
      in the present (Mk 2:18-20; Q 7:31-35), precisely in
      anticipation of the kingdom's full disclosure in the
      near future (Q 13:28-29). You hedge your bet here,
      opining that "Mk 2:18-20 is not a blanket denial of
      the legitimacy of fasting...telling us little more
      than that Jesus, unlike the Pharisees and followers of
      John, did not set aside fixed days every week for
      fasting" (174). You suggest further that since the
      reference in Q 7:31-35 to Jesus' "eating and drinking"
      adopts the polemical language of Jesus' adversaries,
      it "should not be reckoned an objective description",
      especially since Jesus himself was known for using
      "eating and drinking" in a pejorative sense (as in Q
      17:26-30, Q 12:45, etc.). More recently, in The
      Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, you
      note similarly that "nothing contradicts the canonical
      picture of a Jesus who sometimes feasts and sometimes
      fasts" (p 15).

      This is all correct. Thanks for getting it right. I remember running across an essay by Tom Wright in which he asserted that I denied Jesus had festive meals. As you say, I'm suggesting a Jesus who sometimes feasted and sometimes fasted.

      ii. But then you've got a question--

      But why would millenarians like Jesus and his closest
      followers "sometimes feast and sometimes fast"? Why
      would they be rigorously ascetic about sex and money,
      quasi-ascetic about food and drink? How exactly do we
      reconcile a Jesus who sometimes behaved like a "bon
      vivant" (a label used even by conservative John Meier,
      who, employing the criterion of embarrassment, notes
      that the early church would have hardly gone out of
      the way to fabricate mocking caricatures of its Risen
      Lord as a glutton/drunkard; Marginal Jew, Vol II, pp
      149-150) with a Jesus who disparages feasting
      elsewhere (Q 12:45, 17:26-30).

      A general comment: this is what we do again and again. We see two things in the gospels that, in our eyes, stand in tension. Our general inclination is to say one thing goes back to Jesus, the other does not. We're regularly using the criterion of consistency, even when we don't name it. I won't repeat my discussion at the beginning of Jesus of Nazareth, but I'm always back with the fact that the perceived tensions are all in the sources themselves. So we've got Jesus being consistent, his followers inconsistent, or not perceiving the tensions we perceive. Isn't this just a hangover from the old theology, in which Jesus is perfect in all things, and if there are any problems, they've got to come from the disciples? On the matter at hand, it is simply the case that the synoptics at least do have a Jesus who feasts and fasts, so we should at least ask whether they could be right here.

      ii. Seems to me that my view is consistent with what we see elsewhere. Consider e.g. Christian practice throughout the ages. Right now, as for 2,000 years, the Eastern Orthodox, at least the good ones, are fasting for Lent. Come Pascha and the big celebration of the resurrection, they'll have a big feast. Heck, some places they'll drink and dance half the night. Now surely we'd never look at this and think, We'll what a contradiction! But when we see something like this in the gospels, we get unimaginative, wooden minds and espy tension.

      iii. You ask, Loren, whether different audiences might explain Jesus' different teachings here. No.

      iv. For what it's worth, if the tradition shows Jesus feasting, it also shows him fasting and his disciples hungry. According to Mark 2:23-28, the disciples were, on one occasion, so hungry that they bent a sabbath rule. The text, whether historical or not, presupposes genuine need. Isn't this consistent with the synoptic instructions for missionaries, in which Jesus sends out itinerants without food or money? Further, in Q Jesus exhorts followers not to keep worrying about what they are to eat or what they are to drink (12:22ff.). And why should he do this unless they are anxious about eating or drinking? Similarly, would the brevity of the Lord's Prayer permit a petition for daily bread (Q 11:3) is daily bread were never a real problem? It's entirely plausible that, just as Paul the missionary sometimes found himself hungry and thirsty (2 Cor 11:27), so similarly Jesus and his disciples, who relied upon the hospitality of others, were occasionally less than full. My point, then, is that going without food was probably a necessary correlate from time to time of moving around from place to place.

      v. You write Loren: Did he believe it was legitimate for the poor and disaffected (God's elect) to occasionally enjoy
      "messianic banquets" already realized in the present age, and consider the feasting of the rich oppositely
      as a sign of judgment on them (relating to the whole "reversal of fortunes" principle)?

      This makes good sense to me and fits with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. My one question is whether, however, some of Jesus' hosts were well to do. Mark 2 has him with a toll collector; soo too Luke 19. Did Jesus accept the hospitality of the well to do? Or were impoverished people putting him up and setting up feasts?

      vi. I wonder what we're thinking when we think of Jesus feasting. The gospels just don't have any details, do they? But we must have pictures in our minds. So what are we thinking? And why are we imagining something that involved people who couldn't on some other occasion fast? Surely Jesus wasn't an alcoholic! See James Robinson's critique of Vaage's view in Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical, ed. William L. Petersen, Johan S. Vos, and Henk J. de Jonge.

      vii. You write:

      Or maybe fasting doesn't have the same rhetorical force or persuasion (3, above) as celibacy and poverty?

      Well, to the extent that fasting comes from poverty, they amount to the same thing, don't they?

      viii. My guess is that hungry people having a feast would have been for Jesus a perfect symbol of the kingdom. Isn't this in fact obvious? Certainly it's a better representation of "Blessed are you who hunger and thirst, for you shall be satisfied" than a bunch of otherwise full people just getting more of what they always get.

      Hope this helps--but I must say that so little has been done on this subject that I expect surprises await those who investigate it. E.g., point viii seems rather nifty to me, but has anyone thought about it before?

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