Friday, April 20, 2012

By Prayer and Fasting

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain, where He then experienced the Transfiguration. There, Moses and Elijah showed up, speaking with Jesus in His transfigured state. Moses and Elijah departed, and then Jesus and the three Disciples walked back down the mountain, with Jesus explaining along the way that just as the Teachers of the Law had said, Elijah would come before the Messiah, and he already had come. John the Baptist was Elijah.

By Prayer and Fasting
Fasting is one of those oddities common in many faiths. In the Bible, fasting is mentioned around 65 times. There is no command, law, ordinance, or recommendation to fast in God's Law, the Torah. However, the Torah does record the first person in the Bible to have fasted.

According to Deuteronomy 9:7-29, Moses fasted two, or possibly three, times. The first time, he (and possibly Joshua) fasted for forty days when while preparing the first set of God's stone tablet commandments (Exodus 24:12-18). The second time, after having destroyed the stone tablets when he found the Israelites worshiping a Golden Cow, Moses (alone this time) fasted for another forty days to get the second set of tablets from God (which had the Biblical, not the popular, version of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 34:1-28). The third time is implicit, when, for yet another forty days (according only to the Deuteronomy account), Moses laid facedown praying to God to prevent Him from slaughtering all of the Israelites because they had been frightened by the native inhabitants of the Promised Land (Numbers 14).

Despite the lack of a legal compulsion, the example set by Moses was enough to inspire the Priests to incorporate fasting into their standardized religious tool bag, even to the point of making it ritualistic, such as including fasts for the Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av holidays, among others times. Without God's backing in the Torah, these fasts could have been considered nothing more than traditions taught by men, the kind of thing Jesus was allegedly opposed to. Yet the tradition was meaningful enough to garner God's explicit backing later in the Old Testament, such as in Joel 2:12.

By the time Jesus showed up, He Himself fasted for (you guessed it) forty days (Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:2), provided instructions for fasting (Matthew 6:16-18), and, when questioned about it, said that His followers would fast when He was gone (Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20, Luke 5:33-35). Jesus mentions fasting later in the Gospel story too... maybe... as we will see in this study.

Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43 all record the story of how, after coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration event, Jesus exorcised a demon from a boy, who had symptoms which are very reminiscent of epileptic seizures.

Before Jesus had arrived with Peter, James, and John, the other nine Disciples had tried to exorcise the demon, but were unsuccessful (Matthew 17:16, Mark 9:18, Luke 9:40). Jesus' response to this failure is nearly identical across Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, and Luke 9:41. In Matthew 17:17 we find:
"O unbelieving and perverse generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to Me." NIV
Feel-good Christians often try to portray Jesus as overflowing with love and compassion, but what we find here is a cranky Jesus who is tired of dealing with people. This is the Jesus for the service industry workers, just doing His job until He can punch out on the eternal time clock and get back to really living.

You might think that, having this shared verse, the three accounts would be nearly identical, but they are not. The skeleton of the story is the same, but each author has a distinct twist. We will explore some of the finer differences in the later "Textual Analysis" section, but there are some big oddities to cover first.

Let us start with Mark 9:15, which tells us that when Jesus came down from the mountain to the crowd:
As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet Him. NIV
Now, why would the people be "overwhelmed with wonder," or, as other translations say, "greatly amazed" when they saw Jesus? Nowhere in the Gospels is anyone amazed by Jesus simply showing up, but rather they were amazed by what He did and what He said. The implication here is that there was something special, something wondrously strange, about the way Jesus looked.

It appears that Mark is relaying that the actual Transfiguration of Jesus endured beyond His time on the mountaintop. If you remember from Mark 9:2-3, the only specific transfiguration mentioned was that Jesus' "clothes became dazzling white." It was Matthew and Luke who made Jesus literally shine. So it appears that the crowd was just impressed with how white Jesus got His whites. Interestingly, Matthew and Luke do not mention the crowd being amazed when they saw Jesus.

(By the way, none of the Transfiguration accounts mention when [if ever] Jesus, or His clothing, changed back to normal.)

The next point to mention happens after Jesus expels the demon from the boy. According to Matthew 17:19 and Mark 9:28, the Disciples asked Jesus why they had had such trouble exorcizing this demon themselves. That certainly seems like a good question and good information to record, so that they (and future followers) could be better prepared for future demonic encounters. However, Luke, the Editor, crops that question and its answer out of his account. That seems more than a little odd, unless Luke did not like Jesus' answer, which brings us to our final point before the deeper textual analysis.

Depending on which manuscripts you read, or which version of the Bible you have, Mark 9:29 has Jesus reply that this kind of demon can only be expelled either "by prayer" or "by prayer and fasting." In my opinion, the omission of "and fasting" was probably a scribal error, which then had some subsequent propagation. One of the oldest extant Mark manuscripts, P45, includes "and fasting."

Jesus' reply in Matthew 17:20 to the Disciples is that they failed because of their weak faith (despite them having performed exorcisms before according to Mark 6:13). Depending on which resource you have, Matthew's version of Jesus' reply continues on with Matthew 17:21, which goes on to agree with Mark 9:29 that this particular kind of demon requires "prayer and fasting" to expel. In my opinion, Matthew 17:21 is more likely to be a legitimate verse mistakenly or purposefully omitted by scribes in some manuscripts than for it to be the later addition of a scribe. (There is more discussion on this topic below.)

So, let us "take it on faith" that prayer and fasting were required for the exorcism of these kinds of demons. The big question is why? Perhaps this type of demon was extra powerful. So what? Were the Disciples exorcising demons from their own power, or was it through God's power instead? While it was the Disciples who were making the requests for the exorcisms, clearly this power comes from God. Even the need for prayer and fasting speaks of this arrangement, as these are solicitations of God's power.

If that is the case, given that the Disciple were free to use God's power to exorcise demons, why would they then need a hunger strike and a little divine conversation for God to use His power to do the exact same thing in special cases? It really makes no sense. I mean, God would want them to perform these exorcisms, right? Would there really ever be a case where God would want to leave a demon in someone, especially if it was a strong demon? No, not if God is good. So adding this prerequisite is contrary to logic.

Besides that, Jesus had no problem exorcising the demon, and yet there is no indication that He had prayed or fasted in order to do so. Obviously, there is no need for prayer and fasting to exorcise strong demons. Perhaps this inconsistency is why Luke opted to edit out this little snippet of dialog, preferring instead to leave the Disciple's inability to exorcise the demon as a mystery.

Extra Credit - Textual Analysis
In the previous study, I suggested that the Synoptic Gospel authors shared some resources, but these resources were earlier revisions than the ones we have in the Bible today. This section of text contains evidence supporting that theory.

Below you will see a color coded textual analysis. Mark is in the left column, followed by Matthew, and then Luke. Bold black text is unique material to that particular account. Orange text is shared across all three accounts. Blue is shared by Matthew and Mark. Red is shared by Luke and Mark. Brown is shared only by Matthew and Luke.

Two things are immediately obvious: Mark's account is much longer, and, correspondingly, Mark's account has much more unique material. That is not too unusual for Mark. We have seen cases where Matthew and Luke whittle down Mark's account before, such as in the beheading of John the Baptist.

Another interesting observation is the amount of red and blue. We see that Matthew has borrowed from Mark, and we see that Luke has borrowed from Mark, not Matthew, and they each focused on different parts of Mark's story.

So what is unique to Mark? Primarily two things, aside from the implicit reference to the Transfiguration noted above.

One is that Mark begins the scene with an argument involving the Teachers of the Law (Mark 9:14-16). It is not too surprising that Matthew and Luke would have excluded this detail. It adds nothing significant to the story, other than to point out one more time that their little group often had confrontations the Teachers of the Law.

The other is that Jesus had an extended dialog with the boy's father (Mark 9:21-27). The strange part there is that the father asks Jesus to help "if you can." In Mark 9:23, Jesus mocked him by repeating those words to him, and said that anything is possible for those who believe. The mocking may have seemed a little too harsh for Matthew and Luke, justifying their omission of it. However, it seems that Matthew may have reformatted the topic, as we will see in a moment. Another notable part of this dialog is the father's paradoxical reply in Mark 9:24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" It is no surprise that Matthew and Luke dropped that peculiar statement.

One final, minor uniqueness to point out in Mark is that Jesus identified that this was a "deaf and mute spirit," as in a spirit which causes deafness and the inability to speak, but there is nowhere else in any of the accounts that it mentions that the boy is deaf. In fact, Mark is the only Gospel to ever mention Jesus healing a person who was both deaf and mute, and he does so twice; both here and in Mark 7:31-37.

On to Matthew. There are two primary unique points to Matthew as well.

The first is that Matthew 17:14-15 presents the boy's father with more humility and recognition of Jesus' identity: he kneels before Jesus and calls Him "Lord."

The second is Matthew 17:20, as noted above, which states that the/a reason that the Disciples could not expel the demon was because of their lack of faith, and that if they had just a little faith, they could move mountains. This message is similar in essence to what Jesus tells the father in Mark's version, plus it ties in with Jesus' earlier complaint about this "unbelieving" generation. It is easy to see the origin of Matthew's words, too, as we see a similar mountain-moving statement in Mark 11:23 (and its parallel in Matthew 21:21). That is to say, faith-moving-mountains was already part of the Jesus' story, providing a source for Matthew to copy-and paste-this blurb here.

Luke has nothing significant in its unique material. Rather, his omission of the Disciples asking why they had failed is the most notable aspect of his account.

Closing out this analysis, at the beginning of this section I stated that there was evidence supporting a the sharing of earlier revisions of source material, and it is time to deliver that evidence. Jumping back to the verse where Jesus whined about having to put up with people, the Mark 9:19 we have today has Jesus calling those people an "unbelieving generation." However, both Matthew 17:17 and Luke 9:41 record that Jesus called them an "unbelieving and perverse generation." This is the only spot where Matthew and Luke share information which is not in Mark in this anecdote. Also, as noted earlier, it appears that both Matthew and Luke drew from Mark as a resource here, but not from each other. The reasonable conclusion is that they were drawing from some version of Mark which also had that "perversion." However, either through scribal error, or through intentional editing (given that this scene does not portray anything perverse about these people, who had come to Jesus looking for divine help), the version of Mark we have today omits this reprimand.


  1. Fasting is universal in religions. Controlling breath and food are two ways to alter awareness. That is how they enter the picture, I think.

    Fasting is also good for your health. I think this too is understood.

    Your analysis of which gospel shared from whom is interesting. Where did you get the color coded page?

  2. @Sabio
    I looked up fasting on Wikipedia before writing this, and there is some research which suggests fasting every other day could have life-prolonging benefits, and is a lot less stressful to the body than continuous multi-day fasts, but it leaves you in a state of crankiness.

    I have never fasted myself. Not on purpose anyway. Do you fast?

    I created the color coded page myself. With as diverse as Matthew and Luke were on this anecdote, I wanted to better understand exactly where they were coming from, so I parsed it out myself. I can send you the file if you are interested.