Luke 18 and Fasting

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Translator’s Preface

“I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week…”

So begins the infamous prayer of the Pharisee (Luke 18:11b-12a) in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The entire parable (Luke 18:9-14) is the regularly appointed Gospel for Ash Wednesday. In preparation for preaching on that text I translated the following excerpt from Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck’s Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament on the Basis of the Talmud and Midrash), vol. 2, Das Evangelium nach Markus, Lukas und Johannes und die Apostelgeschichte (The Gospel According to Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles) (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1961), p. 240-244.

For more about the authors, see the “Translator’s Preface” in The Passover Meal.

The Talmudic citations refer to the corresponding tractate in one of the following works:

  • Jacob Neusner, ed., The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, CD, trans. J. Neusner, Tzvee Zahavy, Edward Goldman, and B. Barry Levy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2009).
  • Rabbi Isidore Epstein, ed., Soncino Talmud, 30 volumes (Brooklyn, NY: Soncino Press, Ltd, 1990).

Soncino and Neusner sometimes translate corresponding tractate titles differently (e.g. Berakoth in Soncino vs. Berakhot in Neusner). The translator followed each edition’s spelling when using that edition’s translation.

It is my prayer that this excerpt helps the reader to see how deeply the Jewish world in Jesus’ day was infected with the poison of work-righteousness, and that God would guard the Christian church from such work-righteousness today. May he lead us to find all our righteousness in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Commentary on the Gospel for Ash Wednesday

Luke 18:11b. “I thank you that I am not like other people.”

R. Nehuniah b. Haqqanneh (c. 70 AD) also used the prayer of thanksgiving to God to compare himself to other people in order to make himself look better. JT Berakhot 4:2: “And when [R. Nehuniah b. Haqqanneh] exits [the study hall] what does he say? ‘I give thanks to thee, Lord my God, God of my fathers, that you cast my lot with those who sit in the study hall and the synagogues, and you did not cast my lot with those who sit in the theaters and circuses. For I toil and they toil. I arise early and they arise early. I toil so that I shall inherit [a share of] paradise [in the world to come] and they toil [and shall end up] in a pit of destruction. As it says, “For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the pit” [Ps. 16:10].’”1 — The parallel in Berakoth 28b reads: “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [i.e. the study hall] and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.”2 ● In a similar way, the (ideal, i.e. rabbinically oriented) congregation of Israel gives an account of herself before God by comparing herself with the inhabitants of large towns and the prevailing world power. ‘Erubin 21b: “Raba [† 352] made the following exposition: What [are the allusions] in the Scriptural text: Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages, let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine hath budded, whether the vine-blossom be opened and the pomegranates be in flower; there will I give thee my love? [SS 7:12f.] ‘Come, my beloved, let us go forth in to the field’; the congregation of Israel spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the universe, do not judge me as [thou wouldst] those who reside in large towns who indulge in robbery, in adultery, and in vain and false oaths; ‘let us go forth into the field,’ come, and I will show Thee scholars who study the Torah in poverty; ‘let us lodge in the villages [בכפרים]’ read not, ‘in the villages’ [בַּכְּפָרִם] but ‘among the disbelievers’ [בַּכּוֹפְרִים], come and I will show Thee those upon whom Thou hast bestowed much bounty [i.e. the Roman Empire, which had become Christian by Raba’s time] and they disbelieve in Thee [כפרו בך]; ‘let us get up early in the vineyards’ is an allusion to the synagogues and schoolhouses; ‘let us see whether the vine hath budded’ is an allusion to the students of Scripture; ‘whether the vine-blossom be opened’ alludes to the students of the Mishnah; ‘and the pomegranates be in flower’ alludes to the students of the Gemara; ‘there will I give thee my love,’ I will show Thee my glory and my greatness, the praise of my sons and my daughters.”3 — One can see, then, that the prayer of thanksgiving that Jesus put into the Pharisee’s mouth in Luke 18:11f. was not some original or completely biased invention, but was formed entirely by listening to actual prayers.

Luke 18:12a. “I fast twice a week.”

1. δίς τοῦ σαββάτου = פַּעֲמַיִם בְּשַׁבָּת. — Baba Bathra 88a Mishnah: “A shopkeeper must clean his measures twice a week [פעמים בשבת, so that the measures would not be diminished by the drying up of the residual goods inside], wipe his weights once a week [פעם אחת בשבת] and cleanse the scales after every weighing. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel [c. 140] said: These laws apply only to moist [commodities], but in [the case of] dry [ones] there is no need [for the cleaning].4

2. νηστεύειν = צוּם,iהִתְעַנֶּה, often also יָשַׁב בְּתַעֲנִית, Aramaic יְתֵיב בְּתַעֲנִיתָא “to sit in a fast,” “to observe a fast.” — There were two kinds of fasts: a general fast, which was mandatory for everyone, and a private fast of the individual, which was voluntary.

A public fast for everyone took place on the Day of Atonement, on the 9th of Ab (the day the temple was destroyed), and at times of national crises (drought, crop failure, epidemics, war). In the case of the first two, the fast lasted for one day and was held on the day of the week on which the Day of Atonement or the 9th of Ab fell. Yet when the calendar was arranged every year, care was taken, if necessary, to make sure that both days did not fall on a Sabbath. For fasting observances on the occasion of national crises, we are provided detailed instructions about these in the case of persistent lack of rainfall. In this case a full fasting observance spanned 13 days. Monday and Thursday were always the fasting days, so the entire fast extended over a period of seven weeks. See the excursus “Fasting Observances” (Fastenfeier).

On the choice of the second and fifth days of the week as fasting days, see Tanchuma B וירא §i16 (47b): “With which passages of Scripture have the [earlier] generations supported the regulation that a person should fast on the second and fifth days of the week [Monday and Thursday]? When the Israelites committed that act [i.e. worshipped the golden calf], Moses went up [Mt. Sinai] on the fifth day of the week, and on the second day of the week [after 40 days had passed] he came back down. Therefore the sages have commanded that a person should fast on the second and fifth day of the week, on the days when Moses went up and came down. And at the end of the 40 days they fasted and wept before Moses, and God was filled with compassion for them and made that day a day of atonement for their sins.” — This tradition is limited entirely to this passage alone. For the actual reason the second and fifth days of the week were chosen as fasting days, see endnote 10.

The voluntary private fast of the individual is attested in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 12:16; Psalm 35:13; 69:11; 109:24; Daniel 9:3; 10:5, et al. In the final two centuries BC it had gradually been adopted as a common custom, at least within certain circles of the Jewish people; see Sirach 31:26 (Fritzsche ed.); Tobit 12:8; Judith 8:6; Psalms of Solomon 3:8; Testament of Joseph 3, 4, 9, 10; Testament of Benjamin 1; cf. also passages in the New Testament outside of Luke 18:12, such as Matthew 6:16ff; 9:14; and Luke 2:37. In the years AD the private fast of the individual was regarded in the synagogue as an obvious expression of piety. People fasted for shorter or longer periods of time (e.g. R. Zadok, c. 50 AD, fasted for 40 years – Gittin 56a)5 to make up for a wrong or atone for a transgression; to guarantee that a wish would be fulfilled or a prayer answered; to avert some physical or spiritual harm; or even just for fasting’s sake, because the merit of fasting was considered to be of inestimably high value in God’s eyes. Rf. the excursus on fasting for proofs for all these. The individual could of course undertake his fast on whatever day he wanted; only the Sabbaths and festival days were to be excepted. However, it became the custom to observe the private fast, if at all possible, on the days of the week used for the public fast, namely Monday and Thursday. This became so very commonplace that the Didache (8:1,2) commanded: “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites [i.e. the Jews], for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day [Wednesday] and the Preparation (Friday).”6 For more particulars, rf. the excursus on fasting.

The private fast of the individual described up to this point is altogether characterized as incidental and occasional. It has its basis exclusively in the person of the one fasting himself, in his problems, concerns, and needs. But the fasting done two times a week by the Pharisee in Luke 18 is clearly not thus characterized. With him, we are dealing with a regular fasting that cannot be explained on the basis of the personal circumstances of the one fasting. The motive for his fasting lies elsewhere. But where?

We possess a writing in the Aramaic language from the first century AD, called Megillat Ta‘anit, “Scroll of Fasting.” It enumerates in 12 chapters the national days of joy of the Jewish people, on which there was not to be any fasting or public mourning. Sometime later a commentary written in Hebrew was joined with this writing to make up the whole book. At the end of the twelfth chapter, this commentary mentions people who regularly fast twice a week, and in fact on the second and fifth day of the week. For them the requirement of pausing the fast if one of the national days of joy fell on a Monday or Thursday is rescinded. But they were only to be entitled to continue their fast on these days if their fasting vow was taken before the publication of the days of joy named in the Scroll of Fasting (cf. also Ta‘anith 12a Baraithra)7. We may confidently place these people in the camp of the Pharisee in Luke 18; they and he without a doubt fall into the same category. Unfortunately we do not also learn in this passage in the Scroll of Fasting the motives that caused these people to undertake fasting twice a week.

Later on a thirteenth chapter was added to the Scroll of Fasting as a closing chapter. Here we finally get the information we wanted: “Our teachers have also stipulated that one should fast on the second and fifth days of the week on account of three things: the destruction of the temple, the Torah that has been burned, and the profaning of the divine name.”8 Thus it was national tragedy which occasioned regular fasting twice a week in certain circles after the destruction of the second temple. By their fasting they want to atone for the sins which brought about the disaster, in order thus to avert any further disaster that could still break out against the people as a result of those sins.

It would have been exactly the same case with the regular fasting twice a week in certain circles before the destruction of the temple. The men who decided to undertake it felt an inner calling to step into the breach between God and Israel, which the sin of the masses at large was ever tearing apart anew. By the atoning power of their fasting they hoped to turn away God’s wrath and guard the people from blows of national tragedy. Thus it is said about R. Zadok (c. 50) in Gittin 56a: “R. Zadok observed fasts for forty years in order that Jerusalem might not be destroyed.”9 Here we might furthermore call again to mind the arrangement of the so-called “men of standing,” who had to represent the entire Jewish people when the daily morning burnt offering (the morning tamid) was made in the temple, or who had to assemble at their local synagogue for joint Scripture reading and prayer. During their week of service they fasted from the second to the fifth days of the week, thus for four days, “but they did not fast on Friday out of respect for the Sabbath, nor on the first day of the week [Sunday], so that they would not go straight from resting and living in ease [on the Sabbath] to pain and fasting, and die as a consequence.”10 It is then communicated more precisely that they fasted on the second day of the week (Monday) for those traveling by sea (for their safe travels), on the third day for those traveling by desert, on the fourth day for angina, that it would not befall their children, and on the fifth for the pregnant and nursing (see at Luke 1:5, p. 63ff, esp. notes fh). From this we recognize not only how the synagogues systematically trained a wide circle of the people for fasting, but also, above all, how they intentionally attempted to make the general well-being the precise motive and object of fasting. Then it cannot surprise us when the most zealous of those faithful to the law did not want to let themselves be outdone in fasting by the men of standing, and so took upon themselves to regularly fast twice a week on their own, whether for one year or for more, in the name of the common good. The Pharisee in Luke 18 also belongs to this group of people zealous for the law. So he stands before God as one who carries the well and woe of the people of God on his heart as he fasts and prays. He thereby thinks he can make himself be regarded by God.

Note: It is incorrect when every so often it is inferred from the Pharisee’s fasting twice a week that most Jews were only accustomed to fasting once a week. The ancient Jewish literature knows nothing of such a general practice. The other opinion, that all the Pharisees were obligated to fast twice a week, is just as incorrect. Such an obligation never appears. Regular fasting like this was always observed only by individuals who vowed to do so completely on their own.

Endnotes

1 Neusner, 155.

2 Soncino, 172.

3 Ibid., 150, 151. Wettstein is incorrect at Luke 18:13, when he takes the words of Aboth 2:13: “[W]hen thou prayest, make not thy prayer a set task” (Soncino, 22, 23), to mean: “When you pray, do not enumerate your good works in your prayers.” – Strack-Billerbeck

4 Soncino, 361.

5 Ibid., 257.

6 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html

7 Soncino, 53.

8 Cp. Ta‘anith 26a,b Mishnah: “On the seventeenth of Tammuz [perhaps July]…Apostomos burned the scroll of the Law and placed an idol in the temple [perhaps “the profaning of the divine name” in the Scroll of Fasting?]. On the ninth of Ab [perhaps August]…the temple was destroyed the first and second time…” (Soncino, 138, 139). Schlatter in Die Tage Trajans und Hadrians (The Days of Trajan and Hadrian), p. 24 and 29, wants to read “Apostatis” instead of “Apostomos,” and he understands “Apostatis” to be R. Elisha b. Abuyah, c. 120. Schlatter seems to refer the setting up of the idol to the founding of the temple of Zeus in Jerusalem by Hadrian. – Strack-Billerbeck

9 Soncino, 257.

10 These words incidentally reveal to us the actual reason why the second and fifth days of the week were appointed for days of fasting. For fasting, people wanted two days in the week which, for one, had no contact with the Sabbath, and which furthermore were as far separated from each other as possible, so that fasting recurring for a longer period of time would not make demands on the person’s physical abilities that would prove too strenuous. There were only two such days in the week – Monday and Thursday. Thus the choice of the second and fifth days of the week for fasting days has nothing to do with Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai, as the earlier citation from Tanchuma B suggests. – Strack-Billerbeck

About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the Midwest.

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