Did Christ teach us how to fast?

The title is (mildly) tendentious. It is a reflection on the only fast that the Gospels relate Christ performing:

for the space of forty days, [Christ] was tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.

Luke 4:2

For many years, I can remember thinking “No, after forty days he was dead”. The body has some minimal nutritive needs, which seem far transgressed by forty days of eating nothing. There seem to me to be only three ways of preserving the letter of the text:

1.) We claim that the fast was wholly miraculous. Most commentators on the passage did not take up this question at all, but Matthew Henry does claim in passing that the fast was wholly miraculous. But if this is so, could we say that Christ taught us how to fast? When Christ miraculously heals a leper, he isn’t showing us how to treat lepers; and his feeding of the multitude isn’t showing us how we should feed a group of several thousand.

2.) We can distinguish the senses of “day”. In one way, one day is opposed to another: like Monday to Tuesday; and in another way, day is opposed to night. The first sort of day is a twenty-four hour period, the second the period of daylight. On this interpretation, we say that Christ did eat what one could find in the desert after sundown.

3.) He ate nothing, but drank something. I’d have to check this out. I have my doubts that one could meet minimal nutritional needs with simply the fluids he finds while alone in the desert. Water has no calories.

On the latter two interpretations, the sense of Christ being hungry after forty days would be he was at his physical limit of tolerating minimal  needs.



  1. bruce said,

    March 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Yeah, I’d assume he drank water. That’s humanly possible. And nothing in the Bible says ‘it was a miracle he survived’. Just, ‘he was hungry’. People back then had a pretty practical idea of how long you could go without food. He was in the brush, did some hard thinking, he didn;’t eat while he was there, afterwards ‘he was hungry’.

    That’s Jesus for you. Human. Just with a bigger daddy.

  2. March 26, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    You seem to be pulling for option three. I don’t know. I’m not confident that it’s possible to just drink water (or whatever fluids you find in the desert… what about that “wild honey” that John the Baptist lived on…?) for forty days and live. I seem to remember someone telling me you’d be dead in a week if you lived like that- which would force us back to the “miracle” option.

  3. PatrickH said,

    March 26, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    Many nutritional alternative practices entail fasting on water only, often for longer than forty days. The practice is more common in Europe, or was, but it was done with many thousands in North America by the Natural Hygiene movement. Fasting of this type is characterized by phases involving the presence, absence and then return of hunger, with the final hunger being quite different both subjectively and in its objectively imperative nature from the initial hunger phase, which is like what most people think of, and experience as, hunger.

    When one embarks on an extended water fast, one transitions into it with feelings of pangs in the stomach, cravings for food, lassitude. This can last for several days up to a week. After a while, the real fast begins: hunger pangs disappear, energy levels may rise, the body begins living on its fat stores, the tongue may become coated, the breath foul, and sometimes skin eruptions appear as toxic deposits are excreted through it as a byproduct of metabolism. The key here, which often surprises people, is the absence of hunger.

    Then–and here’s the relevance to Jesus and the forty days–after several weeks, hunger returns. But it is radically different than the initial hunger, which is the hunger you and I think of as hunger. The tongue becomes clear, the breath freshens, the skin ceases to break out. The body has used up its fat stores, and now signals its need for nutriments with the return of hunger. But this hunger is different: it is not experienced as hunger pangs, but as a deep need throughout the body, a kind of cellular craving for food. It is not exactly unpleasant (at first: after any delay in eating, it becomes agony), but it is imperative, and it must be honored. Because now the faster is in genuine starvation. “And he was hungry.”

    A typical time from onset of food elimination to return of imperative hunger: oddly, about forty days is not unusual. Some can go quite a bit longer, some quite a bit less. But a typical adult man with typical stores of fat can go about five or six weeks. But when that time is up…you MUST eat. Your body craves food desperately. You must eat, or you will begin to die.

    (I have fasted for ten days on water, and can testify to the elimination of hunger and the other symptoms. I broke the fast before true hunger returned because of a social requirement where I had to eat.)

    “And he was hungry.” This was cellular hunger. Post-fast craving. So the devil was tempting Jesus not with some bread to kick back at that peckish feeling in his stomach, but with food that his entire body was telling him he must eat NOW.

    This tells me that the temptation was not appetitive so much as existential, pardon the language. Jesus was tempted by bread the way a starving man would be. Because he really was starving, and he had to fast for forty days to get to that point. Just as he was tempted with rescue by angels as would be a man falling to his death from a great height.

    So he did fast for forty days, I think. The plain sense of the text not only survives scrutiny, it achieves probability given its correlation with the results of modern fasting practices.

  4. March 26, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Wow. That’s a far better answer than I had ever hoped to get.

  5. berenike said,

    March 27, 2010 at 5:25 am

    Patrick – thank you for taking the time to write that!

  6. no.2 said,

    March 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    FWIW the 10 IRA/INLA prisoners who died in 1981 refused all food (though not water) for between 46 and 73 days before dying. (13 others joined the hunger strikes of that year for between 13 and 70 days and lived).

    An account of a participant in the 1980 hunger strike and its effects from a man who refused food for 52 days. http://www.nuzhound.com/articles/irish_news/arts2006/oct6_Hunger-striker_sight.php

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