Should Christians be ascetics

Theology Current

With bright colors and loud din, the fifth season is currently raging through our streets. But for members of the Catholic Church, the foolish hustle and bustle means more than exuberance: Lent begins for them on Ash Wednesday today. Renunciation and privation should promote a life modeled on Jesus Christ. But how celibate and poor did he actually live himself? Our New Testament scholar Prof. Dr. Dr. For THEOLOGIE AKTUELL, Thomas Johann Bauer takes a look at the historical Jesus of Nazareth and questions the extent to which his teaching can be viewed as an ascetic ethic.

Editor's note: Technical terms marked with an asterisk (*) are explained in a glossary at the bottom of the page.

by Prof. Dr. Dr. Thomas Johann Bauer

For Catholic Christians, Ash Wednesday begins the preparation for Easter - the festival of suffering, death and the resurrection of Jesus. In the German-speaking area, the term “Lent” has become commonplace for these days. “Fasting” is understood as a physical expression of an inner repentance for one's own wrongdoing towards God and the neighbor, as well as a sign of grief and the readiness for conversion and reorientation. With this pious practice, Christians see themselves as following Jesus of Nazareth, who, according to the testimony of the Gospels, followed John the Baptist's call to repentance and conversion and, after being baptized by John, withdrew into the desert to live here for Fasting forty days before beginning to proclaim the salvation of the kingdom of God. However, if one reads the Gospels carefully, it is noticeable that Jesus of Nazareth appears to be little ascetic in his life and his preaching.

Jewish roots of fasting

Fasting, along with other pious exercises, was given great importance in Christian communities very early on. In the center of the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew's Gospel, for example, Jesus of Nazareth will catechesis * on the pious exercises of “almsgiving” (Mt 6: 2–4), “prayer” (Mt 6: 5–15) and “fasting” (Mt 6:16 –18) placed in the mouth. In this way, the Matthew Jesus refers to three pious exercises to which special importance was attached in Judaism at the time. In the book of Tobit - a Jewish edification which was read and received by the Christian communities as part of the Greek Bible (Septuagint *) - it says: “It is good to pray and fast, to be merciful and just” (Tob 12 ,8th).

The Christian communities adopted the practice of fasting two days a week from the Jews, but chose other days as a sign of demarcation, namely Wednesday and Friday instead of Tuesday and Thursday (Did. 8,1). Since this fast was prescribed for all members in the Christian communities, it was no longer a form of private piety and asceticism, but an institutionalized practice of faith. In addition, special fasting times soon developed, especially in preparation for Easter with the memory of the redemption of man in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the celebration of baptism.

A life modeled on Jesus Christ

Institutionalized fasting is part of an ascetic orientation and a general appreciation of forms of celibacy and renunciation in Christian communities. Many Christians had been poor and celibate in following Jesus since the second century at the latest. With this renunciation they wanted to express their obedience and their total surrender to the will of God in a special way. Men and women who chose to follow Jesus for a life of poverty and celibacy saw this as an expression of following and imitating their Lord and Master Jesus Christ.

As loyal students, they wanted to live as he had shown them. For these men and women, Jesus was not simply the messenger of salvation, but the teacher of a path that, through self-mortification and renunciation of the satisfaction of bodily needs, not only leads to salvation, but to a higher level of moral perfection and to a form of higher knowledge and a Anticipating the vision of God could already lead in this earthly body and life.

... but: How celibate and poor did the historical Jesus himself live?

Even if early Christians understood Jesus and his message in this way, one must ask whether this interpretation coincides with what has been preserved in the Gospels as an authentic reminder of the life and work, of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth . Was Jesus of Nazareth an ascetic? Did he ask his disciples to make special “sacrifices” in his successor? Did Jesus want men and women who wanted to follow him to sell everything before they followed him (cf. Mk 10: 17–31 par.)? If so, did he then demand this indiscriminately from all or only from a small group who had been specially chosen and appointed by God for this purpose?

One thing is certain, despite some popular scientific theses: Jesus was unmarried and had no children. On the other hand, the difficult question is whether the historical Jesus of Nazareth was really poor and could not call anything his own. There is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth himself, in contrast to John the Baptist, did not actually live as an ascetic and did not preach or demand strict asceticism. While it is said in the Gospels about the Baptist that he lived in the desert on wild honey and locusts (Mt 3: 4) and that he ate neither bread nor drank wine (Lk 7.33), the look at Jesus is found the reproach that he is an eater and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and prostitutes (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34).

This unflattering judgment about Jesus is hardly due to the Christian community, but rather preserves an authentic memory of the behavior of Jesus, with which he offended many of his contemporaries, because they would at least have expected fasting and renunciation of wine from a prophet and messenger of God . This judgment about Jesus fits in with the numerous stories of the New Testament Gospels, which show Jesus as a guest at the festive banquets of his rich contemporaries.

Pre-Easter disciples and post-Easter Jesus movement: a necessary differentiation!

Early Christians were well aware of the contradiction between what Jesus himself lived according to the testimony of the Gospels and what is formulated in the Gospels as demands for the behavior of his disciples in following Jesus. They tried to find a solution or explanation that should relativize and classify this obvious contradiction between the practice of the earthly Jesus and the pre-Easter group of disciples on the one hand and the practice of the post-Easter Jesus movement on the other. The early church found an explanation in a possibly authentic word of Jesus, which is found in Mk 2,18f. has been handed down:

“Since John's disciples and the Pharisees used to fast, people came to Jesus and said," Why don't your disciples fast while the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting? " Jesus answered them: Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as the bridegroom is with them, they cannot fast. " (Mk 2,18f .; cf. Mt 9,14f .; Lk 5,33-35)

Only with the death and exaltation of Jesus, that is, with his bodily absence from the church, does a situation arise in which fasting is appropriate. As long as Jesus is physically present with his own people, it is a time of celebration and joy, in which there is no room for fasting as a sign of mourning.

The importance of theological (re) interpretations

The historical Jesus of Nazareth certainly did not understand this word in that way. He wanted to express that he saw himself as the one with whom the kingdom of God presented in the image of the wedding supper finally dawned, that is, the palpable and salutary presence of God with his people. Where salvation has become powerfully tangible and permanently present, there is only room for joy, but not for fasting, which is an expression of repentance and sadness. For the post-Easter congregation, however, the word was a welcome opportunity to justify their own fasting practice and to anchor it in the preaching of the pre-Easter Jesus, although he himself and his disciples decided by renouncing fasting, which according to the conviction at the time was a serious religious or philosophical life was actually indispensable, significantly and conspicuously differentiated from other groups of Judaism, but also from Hellenistic schools of philosophy and was also criticized for it.

Jesus of Nazareth did not continue the ascetic way of life of John the Baptist, from whose movement and circle of students he himself emerged, and did not propagate such a way of life and demand it from his disciples. The testimony of the Gospels is clear here: The disciples of Jesus did not fast (Mk 2: 18f.) And Jesus' practice of taking part in festive banquets and eating and drinking with religiously and socially marginalized people aroused criticism (Mt 11, 18-20). Jesus himself lived celibate, but he did not impose this way of life on his disciples. Jesus renounced the security of his livelihood through his own work and he undoubtedly proclaimed poverty and renunciation of property as a special value, but he let himself get what is necessary for life from rich friends and above all from wealthy patrons, that is, from women from the upper class give.

Jesus did not demand radical poverty or complete renunciation of property from all who followed him. However, when the words and life of Jesus in the post-Easter communities were more and more enveloped in a theological interpretation, his way of life and behavior were increasingly reinterpreted as an ascetic way of life and presented as an exemplary and pioneering figure of Christian life and thought.

"The teaching of Jesus cannot be described as an ascetic ethic"

- Thomas Johann Bauer

The historical Jesus of Nazareth tolerated various forms of discipleship in his environment without giving preference to any one of them and thus attaching a higher value to it. The teaching of Jesus cannot be described as an ascetic ethic, even if his traditional words contained statements to which such demands for consequent asceticism could later be linked. The development of a specifically ascetic ethic in the early Christian communities is a phenomenon of acculturation, that is, adaptation to ideas, values ​​and goals in the environment of the first communities. For forms of ascetic life were familiar to ancient society, both in the Jewish as well as in the pagan area of ​​the Hellenistic-Roman culture.

With the demand for celibacy and the rejection of the material world, Christianity also participated in dualistic and hostile tendencies, as they are otherwise evident in the thought of ancient people - no less with Jews than with Greeks and Romans - especially in the Platonic one Philosophy that opposed the ephemeral material world with eternal and immaterial ideas.


  • asceticism (lit.exercise) describes a strictly abstinent way of life, which is based on a religious or philosophical motivation.
  • catechesis(literal instruction) refers to the conveyance of Christian messages, especially to the unbaptized.
  • Septuagint (lit.Seventy) is the Greek version of the Jewish Bible; In addition to early translations of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) scriptures of the Jewish Bible, it contains other scriptures, including those originally written in Greek.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Thomas Johann Bauer is Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament at the University of Erfurt. His main research interests include the Revelation of John, the beginnings of Christianity and its literature in the context of the cultural and religious history of the Roman Empire, as well as New Testament, early Christian and ancient letters as well as the history and tradition of the Latin Bible. He has been Dean of the Catholic Theological Faculty since July 2017. In addition, since 2014 Prof. Bauer has been the scientific director of the Vetus Latina Institute Beuron for the development of a critical edition of the Vetus Latina of the Gospel of Luke.

To the profile page of Prof. Dr. Dr. Thomas Johann Bauer