After Jesus called the tax collector Matthew to follow him, Matthew hosted a meal in honor of Jesus (Matt 9:10-11). Jesus is eating with people the Pharisees considered “sinners,” prompting a Pharisee to ask about Jesus’s practice of eating with potentially unclean people (Matt 9:11-13). But this meal prompts a second question from some of John the Baptist’s disciples. The meal seems to have fallen on a day the Pharisees and John’s disciples fasted, yet Jesus and his disciples are feasting!
The story appears in Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-37. One significant difference in Matthew is the question comes from the disciples of John; in Mark it comes from “some people” after the observation that the Pharisees and disciples of John were fasting. Unlike Mark, Matthew does not mention both John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.
John’s disciples ask about the common spiritual practice of fasting. Other than the Day of Atonement, the Law does not mention required fast days. Fasting was associated with mourning for the dead. David fasting after his son died (2 Sam 12:17-23). Fasting is often associated with prayer. Daniel fasts while praying and seeking the Lord’s will (6:18; 9:3; 10:1-3; cf., Neh 1:4-10). Fasting and prayer are often linked in the Psalms (35:13; 109:21-24). Fasting is often associated with repentance. In Jonah 3:4-9 the people of Nineveh fast after hearing Jonah’s announcement of God’s judgment. In Esther the Jews fast when they hear of Haman’s threats (4:3) and then feast in celebration of God saving the people from Haman (9:25-32).
These reasons for fasting are also found in the literature of the Second Temple period. For example, Tobit 12:8 associates fasting and prayer (although almsgiving is better). In The Testament of Joseph 3.4-6 Joseph claims to have fasted for seven years when his master was gone and he needed strength to resist Potiphar’s wife.
Tobit 12:8 Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.
Testament of Joseph 3.4 For those seven years I fasted, and yet seemed to the Egyptians like someone who was living luxuriously, for those who fast for the sake of God receive graciousness of countenance.5 If my master was absent, I drank no wine; for three-day periods I would take no food but give it to the poor and the ill. 6 I would awaken early and pray to the Lord, weeping over the Egyptian woman of Memphis because she annoyed me exceedingly and relentlessly.
Based on Daniel’s fasting, some Second Temple texts imply fasting is necessary before an encounter with God. For example, in the Apocalypse of Abraham 9.7-10 Abraham is told to abstain from food cooked by fire and wine and from anointing himself for 40 days. After this period God will reveal what judgments are coming on the evil of the human race.
By the first century the Jewish practice of fasting was well-known. “Fasting like a Jew” was proverbial in the Roman world of the first century (Suet. Aug. 76). The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. Didache 8:1commands Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays to avoid looking like the hypocrites, the Pharisees. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites for many of their practices, although he does not mention fasting. In Luke 18:12 the Pharisee boasts of his righteous practice of fasting twice a week.
Although he fasted for forty days prior to his public ministry, Jesus seems to distance himself frequent fasting even though the practice was considered a pious spiritual practice in the Judaism of his day. This is consistent with his practice of the Sabbath. He certainly kept the Sabbath but challenged the traditions of the Pharisees. With respect to fasting, undoubtedly, he would have fasted on the Day of Atonement. But it does not appear he would have fasted twice a week like the Pharisees.
Early Jewish Christianity continued to practice fasting as a spiritual discipline despite the fact Jesus did not teach his disciples to fast (Didache 8:). The bridegroom saying in Matthew 9:15 explains why Jesus’s disciples returned to fasting after the resurrection.
Jesus’s answer does not address the issue of Christian fasting or feasting. The Sermon on the Mount assumes his followers will fast at times, but he re-defines how they ought to practice the spiritual discipline (Matt 6:16-18).
Bibliography: David Seal and Kelly A. Whitcomb, “Fasting,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016); John Muddiman, “Fast, Fasting,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:774-76.