Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mark 9:29 and Prayer and Fasting and the Early Church

A small but interesting textual variant occurs at the end of Mark 9:29.  A veritable tsunami of Greek manuscripts and versional copies of Mark, constituting over 99.9% of all extant witnesses to this verse, state that Jesus said, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”  In three Greek manuscripts – Aleph, B, and 0274 – and in Codex Bobiensis (Old Latin k) and, according to the UBS4 apparatus, in an early stratum of the Old Georgian version represented by the Adysh Codex (produced in 897), Jesus says, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer,” with no mention of fasting.

The UBS4 and NA-27 text, echoing the 1881 WH text, adopted the shorter reading here.  Metzger summarized the reasoning for this:  “In light of the increasing emphasis in the early church on the necessity of fasting, it is understandable that και νηστεια is a gloss which found its way into most witnesses.  Among the witnesses that resisted such an accretion are important representatives of the Alexandrian, the Western, and the Caesarean types of text.”  The UBS committee gave the adoption of the shorter reading here an “A” rating, implying that the committee-members felt that this text “is virtually certain.”

The NET supports the same conclusion:  “Most witnesses, even early and excellent ones (P45vid Aleph2 A C D L W Θ Ψ f1, 13 33 M lat co), have “and fasting” (και νηστείᾳ, kai nēsteia), after “prayer” here.  But this seems to be a motivated reading, due to the early church’s emphasis on fasting (TCGNT 85, cf., e.g. 2 Clem 16:4, Pol. Phil 7:2; Did. 1:3, 7:4).  That the most important witnesses (Aleph* B), as well as a few others (0274 2427 k) lack και νηστεια, when a good reason for the omission is difficult to find, argues strongly for the shorter reading.”

Do those references provide sufficient grounds for the theory that early copyists considered fasting so important, and so commendable, that they would deliberately supplement a saying of Jesus about prayer by adding “and fasting”?  Did everyone in the early centuries of Christendom view fasting as an entirely positive activity (or rather, non-activity)?  For those who might not have convenient access to the contents of Second Clement, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, or the Didache, here are the references mentioned in the NET’s note:

Second Clement 16:4 says, Know ye that the Judgment Day approaches like a burning oven, and certain of the heavens and all the earth will melt, like lead melting in fire; and then will appear the hidden and manifest deeds of men.  Therefore alms-giving is good, as repentance from sin; fasting is better than prayer, and alms-giving is better than both.  ‘Charity covers a multitude of sins,’ and prayer out of a good conscience delivers from death.  Blessed is every one that shall be found complete in these; for alms lightens the burden of sin.”

The emphasis of this passage from Second Clement, in which the author loosely quotes Tobit 12:8-9 before also quoting First Peter 4:8b, is on alms-giving, not fasting.  Almsgiving, the author says, is more praiseworthy than fasting or prayer.  Yet no copyists, as far as I know, saw fit to place “and almsgiving” after any mention of prayer in the Gospels.
In chapter 7 of his Epistle to the Philippians, Polycarp wrote, “Forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning, watching unto prayer, and persevering in fasting, beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God ‘not to lead us into temptation.’  As the Lord has said, ‘The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”

This casual statement is hardly evidence of the sort of association between prayer and fasting that would lead a copyist to link them together like bacon-and-eggs. 

The Didache, in its opening paragraph, says, The way of life, then, is this:  first, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this:  Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.”

That’s more like it:  the author has paraphrased the fuller reading of Matthew 5:44.  (This reference should be remembered when evaluating that variant, especially inasmuch as it is not included in the UBS-4 apparatus.)  In doing so, he interchanged prayer and fasting, indicating that the two were conceptually linked in his mind. 

However, that is not all that the author of Didache had to say on the subject of fasting.  Two other statements from the Didache should be considered.  In the seventh chapter, which gives instructions about baptism, the author states, “Before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.”  This does not supply much of a basis for the idea that copyists felt obligated to supplement Mark 9:29 by adding “and fasting.” 

When we turn to the eighth chapter of the Didache (to which the NET’s notes did not draw attention), we find some interesting additional comments about fasting:       

“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).  Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:  ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors.  And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory forever.’  Pray this three times each day.”

(This reference should be remembered when evaluating the variant in Matthew 6:13.)

In the Didache, weekly fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays are commanded, but fasts on Mondays and Thursdays are prohibited on the grounds that Christians should not follow the fasting-pattern that is followed by “the hypocrites.”  This command seems to have been modeled on Matthew 6:16-18, combined with the understanding that the twice-weekly fasting of the Pharisees (mentioned in Luke 18:12) occurred on Mondays and Wednesdays.  The prayers and the fasts described in this part of the Didache are regular:  fasting was to be maintained twice a week, and prayer was to be offered three times a day.          

In Apostolic Constitutions, Book 5, which was compiled in about 380, an explanation is offered regarding why the Christians’ weekly fast-days are Wednesday and Friday.  The apostles are depicted stating that Jesus commanded them, after His resurrection, to fast on the fourth and sixth days of the week; the former on account of His being betrayed, and the latter on account of His passion.”  In the same composition, after a variety of details about the schedule for Easter-time, the 20th chapter concludes with the following words, framed as if the apostles themselves were speaking:

“We charge you to fast every fourth day of the week, and every day of the preparation [i.e., Fridays], and bestow upon the needy what you conserve by fasting.  Every Sabbath-day except one [the exception is Holy Saturday; this is explained in the previous chapter], and every Lord’s Day, hold your solemn assemblies, and rejoice.  For he will be guilty of sin who fasts on the Lord’s Day, being the day of resurrection, or during the time of Pentecost, or, in general, who is sad on a festival-day to the Lord.  For on them we ought to rejoice, and not to mourn.”

It seems sufficiently clear that by the late 300’s, and probably considerably earlier, both the instructions to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the prohibition against fasting on Mondays, Thursdays, and Sundays, were common practice in the locale where Apostolic Constitutions was compiled. 

The 48th chapter of Book 8 of Apostolic Constitutions is basically a list of rules for church-officers.  Some of these rules were about fasting:

   Rule 64:  If any one of the clergy be found to fast on the Lord’s Day, or on the Sabbath Day (with one exception), let him be deprived; but if one if the laity is found to do this, let him be suspended.
   Rule 69:  If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or lector, or singer, does not fast the fast of 40 days, or the fourth day of the week, and the day of preparation, let him be deprived, unless he is hindered by physical weakness.  And if one of the laity is found to do this, let him be suspended.  
   Rule 70:  If any bishop, or any other of the clergy, fasts with the Jews, or keeps the festivals with them, or accepts some of the presents associated with their festivals, such as unleavened bread or some such thing, let him be deprived.  And if one of the laity is found to do this, let him be suspended.”

These rules from Book 8 of Apostolic Constitutions convey that not only was the twice-weekly fast to be enforced via church discipline, but that the thrice-weekly prohibition against fasting was also to be enforced with church discipline.  The same standard was mentioned by Epiphanius, who added (in De Fide, chapter 22) the detail that the twice-weekly fast was observed until the ninth hour of the day, and who also mentioned that the twice-weekly fasting was not observed during Pentecost, or on the Day of Epiphany [by which he meant Christmas-day, the day on which Christ was born].  Thus, while it is true, as the NET’s note states, that the early church had an emphasis on fasting, it is also true that the early church emphasized the avoidance of fasting just as much.
All this should be kept in mind as we turn to a closer consideration of some external evidence pertaining to Mark 9:29.


M.P. said...

"constituting over 99.9% of all extant witnesses to this verse"

Is there an actual count someone has done that backs this up, or is this the non-specific use of "over 99.9%" simply to mean, "a great majority"?

Daniel Buck said...

M.P, it's a bit of an approximation. The actual number may be as low as 99.5%.