Fasting, Christians, and Jews in the Late First Century

It is well known that Orthodox Christians customarily fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. There are four exceptions to this each year, however, one which is the Week of the Publican and the Pharisee: after hearing of the Pharisee who thanked God because he fasted twice a week, we take a break from our own fasting, lest we fall into a similar temptation.

The discovery of the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (usually styled the “Didache”) by Metropolitan Philotheos of Nicomedia in 1873 not only corroborated the exceeding great antiquity of the Christian practice of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (tracing it back at least to the early sub-Apostolic age, if not earlier), but interestingly also set it in the context of the struggle between the emerging “normative Judaism” and “normative Christianity”1. Consider this portion of the text:

Αἱ δὲ νηστεῖαι ὑμῶν μὴ ἔστωσαν μετὰ τῶν ὑποκριτῶν· νηστεύουσι γὰρ δευτέρα σαββάτων καὶ πέμτῃ· ὑμεῖς δὲ νηστεύσατε τετράδα καὶ παρασκευήν. (8.1)

But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites: since they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, you must then fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. (8.1)

The term ὑποκριταί (hypocrites) is evidently borrowed from Jesus’ rhetoric against the Pharisees and his other opponents in the Gospels, and it seems to be directed to the representatives of “normative Judaism” contemporary to the author of the Didache. The mention of Mondays and Thursdays help us make this probable identification, for as Shmuel Safrai has noted,

“Mondays and Thursdays, which were synagogue days, when country-folk came to town and the courts sat and the Torah was read, were the favoured days for public and private fasts. People would assemble for prayer, mention the reason for the fast, as follows from a baraita in the Babylonian Talmud. Most texts which mention fasting on Mondays and Thursdays are later than 70 C. E. though some are definitely earlier. Epiphanius says that these were the days of the Pharisees’ fasts in Jesus’ time, and the Didache warns against fasting ‘along with the hypocrites’ (the Pharisees) on these days, urging for Wednesday and Friday instead. The Pharisee in Luke who boasted of his twice-weekly fasting must have meant Mondays and Thursdays. But the custom was confined to certain circles among the Pharisees and their disciples”2.

One further comment about the word ὑποκριτής itself: Moisés Silva has noted that, like its English cognate, it “indicates inconsistency between what one says and one does, but it would be difficult to prove that the Greek word carries the offensive overtones (such as dishonorable motives) that we normally associate with the English word. Paul describes the behavior of Peter and other Jews in Antioch as hypokrisis, but it is unlikely that he was thereby impugning their motives”3. This may be the case in the New Testament, of course, but as we all know, the word eventually became a term of abuse in later Christian discourse. It would be particularly interesting, then, to examine at which stage in the history of the semantic change of the word do we find its use in the Didache 8.1. My own sense is that by this point the word has at least become a technical designation for the “normative Jewish” opponents of “normative Christianity,” and therefore is already a step beyond its New Testament use.



1 It should be noted, of course, that both of these designations are problematic; however, properly qualified, they are eminently useful as descriptors of the dominant traditions that arose from the tensions of the first century. For the important qualifications that make the use of such terminology possible, see Arlan J. Hultgren, The Rise of Normative Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988). For the seminal (and often criticized) work that introduced the term “normative Judaism,” see George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927-30).

2 Shmuel Safrai, “Religion in Everyday Life,” in S. Safrai et al. (eds.), The Jewish People in the First Century: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions, vol. 2 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1976), page 816.

3 Moisés Silva, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woobridge (eds.), Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (1986; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), pages 115-116.

5 responses to “Fasting, Christians, and Jews in the Late First Century

  1. Speaking in terms of a semantic shift — Liddell & Scott gives the Attic sense of ὑποκριτής as being "interpreter/expounder" or "actor" (as in one who plays a part on the stage).



  2. Rather a fascinating post, my friend! I particularly appreciated the comment from the infallible Moisés Silva. I think I shall have to repost this on a certain other blog I’m working on helping with.


  3. Surely here the Didache is more or less quoting Matthew 6:16, Ὅταν δὲ νηστεύητε, μὴ γίνεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταὶ. The difference in wording is perhaps because the Didache is based on an Aramaic/Syriac version, but the word ὑποκριταί is common to both.

    But the Didache author has missed the whole point of what Jesus said here, as well as of Luke 18:9-14. Jesus’ “do not be like the hypocrites” did not at all intend that his hearers should set up similar rules for fasting to those of the Pharisees, just on different days. Instead it was the whole principle of corporate public fasting which he was condemning.

    It is interesting that the Orthodox recognise the temptation to thank God for one’s own diligence in fasting, which is precisely what Jesus was warning about in the Sermon on the Mount. But if this is a temptation, surely it is something which we should flee from not just one week a year but all the time. The best way to do this is to follow the example of the Roman Catholic Church by abolishing mandatory fasting, making it a private matter between the individual and God as Jesus taught.


  4. Richard> Thanks for the note! I well remember my shock when I fist saw this word used in that sense in a Classical text. ;-)

    Aaron> Feel free to do that, my friend!

    Peter> Very good point! While I doubt that the Didache is directly quoting Mt 6:16, it clearly parallels it, so it is at least an allusion. Of course, my broader point is that 8.1 (and 8.2) directly draw from Jesus' polemic against the Pharisees, so it is therefore no wonder that its tone and wording should resemble Jesus' own (and by extension, that of "normative Christianity") when speaking on the same subjects.

    Again, I have little interest in a protracted discussion on whether corporate fasting, evidently practiced by the early Church and also by the Orthodox Church, is appropriate or not. To do away with it like the Latins have more or less done, and as did large segments of the Reformation (but not, interestingly, those zealots for Scriptural warrant, the Purtians), seems to me as an exercise in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Of course, people are welcome to practice whatever they wish and in whatever way seems appropriate to them; as for me, I am content to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays like those who did it for many centuries before me, and those will do it long after I'm gone. I will at least say that the fact that earliest Christians, in a thoroughly polemic context, failed to do away with the practice of corporate fasting they inherited from Old Testament religion seems to me as an argument that it is not the author of the Didache (and by extension the by then traditional views he commits to writing) who has missed the point.


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