§ 37. The Fasting of the Disciples of John

Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics
by Bruno Bauer

Volume 2



§ 37.

The Fasting of the Disciples of John.

Matthew 9:14-17.

And then, Matthew continues, as Jesus was dining with that tax collector, the disciples of John came to him and asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” In order to preserve the honor of his protege, who prompted the Pharisees with this question, Schleiermacher **) simply states that “the question from John’s disciples would have been almost naive,” without telling us why, and without considering whether the way Luke has the Pharisees ask the question would make these people appear even more naive. But Luke reports that the same Pharisees who had just grumbled about Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners said to him, “Why do the disciples of John fast often and pray frequently, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink?” Anyone who wants to argue that Luke’s account is the original one must make it understandable to us how the Pharisees suddenly adopt the remarkable objectivity of language, speaking of themselves as if they were others or even strangers. Until casuistry is so far advanced that it explains even this peculiar case, it will probably have to be considered as the only possible explanation that Luke only allows the Pharisees to ask the question in this way because he literally copies the question from a scripture in which it is only asked by Jews in general. He did not consistently carry out the modification of the original report and partly let himself be governed by the letter. And yet he himself changed the question, but in the wrong place: he lets the Pharisees ask why the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast so much and pray so much, and forgets to change the question so much that he makes the opponents wonder why Jesus’ disciples do not pray. He only writes: “and eat and drink what is appropriate.” He has forced the mention of prayer into the report and only forced it into one half of the report, because even in his narrative Jesus only speaks of fasting, as if prayer were not even thought of in the question. Of course – he writes Jesus’ answer according to Mark. Finally, he does not close the question as it should be: why do not your disciples fast, but rather breaks the rhythm of the question and lets the Pharisees speak: but why do yours eat and drink? This change betrays to us the pragmatism of the evangelist, because already before, when the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples: why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners, he has changed it so that the question refers to the behavior of the disciples: why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? Luke wanted to bring both narratives into immediate connection and now presents the matter in such a way that the questioners are not only the same people, but that their question also refers to the same case, namely the behavior of the disciples. He realizes that even according to his own account, it is not eating in general, but eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners that is criticized, and he has failed to notice that Jesus’ first answer: “I have come to call sinners” assumes an accusation of the Lord and not of his disciples.

**) Cf. Schleiermacher, p. 79.

*) Still maintained by Neander, p. 228.


However, according to the original tendency of the account, they must have been decided opponents of the Lord or people whose hostility was already stirring when they took occasion from the disciples’ way of life to accuse the Lord himself. If the question were issued by John’s disciples, it would be inappropriate, if not “simple,” as Schleiermacher thought, unless the historian also explained how they came to such a hostile attitude that they confronted the Lord with the Pharisees. However, Matthew did not provide us with this explanation; he could not provide it unless he wanted to invent a new story like he did on another occasion with the fourth evangelist. And he did not need to provide it because he did not even think that far and only wanted to specify and vivify the indefinite beginning given by Mark’s account. Indeed, at the outset, Mark notes briefly and succinctly – for nothing more was necessary to prepare the reader for the following narrative – “the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting” (Mark 2:18), and now he only lets people step forward who take occasion from the way of life of his disciples to accuse Jesus. Of course, he does not leave the matter completely indefinite, since he always lets the Pharisees act hostilely against the Lord before and after, so he certainly thinks of them as the questioners this time too. However, he intentionally keeps the representation in suspense because he wanted to avoid the appearance that both attacks happened during the meal at Matthew’s, perhaps also because of a correct aesthetic feeling, he wanted to avoid the uniformity of the representation and did not want to start every single paragraph with the remark that the Pharisees stood there and carried out the attack. This feeling prompted him, in chapter 3, verse 2, not to mention the Pharisees by name right away and only to note later (verse 6) that it was the Pharisees who had laid in wait for the Lord.


The way in which Jesus justifies his discipline must cause a lot of trouble for the theologian who has not yet freed himself from the service of the letter, and eventually, if he wants to save the letter at any cost, force him to kill the life that is really present in the letter. The letter does not kill, if it depends solely on it, i.e. if its living development is not forcibly suppressed, but it is the apologist who kills it. Criticism revives it again and leads it back to the only source of life, into self-awareness.

First, Jesus answers (Mark 2:19-20): Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast*). Fasting is not rejected in itself, but it is only appropriate if it happens at the right time, namely in the moment of abandonment.

*) Matthew has nicely shortened it by omitting the answer to the question “can they fast?” and immediately following the question with the indication of when the wedding guests will fast. Luke also abbreviated it in this way. Under the hand of Mark, the definite form of the saying only arose, he still struggled with the moments of thought and therefore sometimes gave the members, which become superfluous when the whole is finished, instead of the short whole.

And without pausing, Jesus continues (Mark 2:21-22): No one sews a patch of new cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, and the tear will be worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into new wineskins. That is to say – and this saying is usually understood in this way – do not try to impose the forms of the old on the standpoint on which I have placed mine, otherwise the old will be shattered by the power of the new principle, and instead of gaining a form for the new, one runs the risk of losing it itself. It is unmistakable that the transfer of legal customs to the Christian standpoint can be described and criticized as not only illegitimate but also harmful and corrupting; however, Neander argues that this idea would then be “completely foreign” to the preceding passage *). “What harm does that do?” we might answer, “if only one or both of the passages have a sound sense for themselves.” Oh no! it rings in the apologist’s innermost being, that would be terrible, frightening, because then there would be no way to avoid the admission that we do not have here a saying of the Lord before us, or at least it could no longer be denied that both sayings did not owe their origin to the same occasion at the same time. So let’s just help vigorously, twist, distort, and squeeze! So – the meaning of the second saying is now – “one cannot even reform the old nature of man by forcing fasting and prayer exercises on it from the outside.” Listen: “from the outside!” That’s supposed to be the point! It is true that images must not be anxiously held onto in their individual features, so that one would want to search for a corresponding element in the matter itself for every feature, and one would be rightly said to violate this principle if we were to object to Neander that there is no question here of the old nature of man, since the compared thing is compared to the new wine that one should not put in old wineskins. Well then, let us withhold this objection for a moment, but then we have a much greater right to reject Neander’s explanation and to twist the point, which lies in the determination: “from the outside,” since it is based only on the isolated circumstance that in the first saying there is talk of the patch that one “puts on” an “old” garment. We say, an even greater right! For if two images are brought together to represent the same thing, we can in any case, if the composer is not too clumsy, be sure that the second one will be clearer and more precisely corresponding to the thing. So it is here; it is about the form in which the disciples of Jesus are to grasp the new spirit, and then the second image of the fate of the must, depending on whether it is placed in old or new wineskins, is the one that most closely corresponds to the determinations of the thing itself. But even if it were not the case, the point “from the outside” remains forever lost, as there is no place for it in the second image, unless one believes that the must can be poured into the skins from the inside. The point is not “from the outside”, but rather the idea that only homogenous, new things fit together, that every thing must have its appropriate appearance form – in short, it remains that both images are intended to reject the attempt to bind the new spirit in the old forms of the legal spirit as foolishness, and thus it is again established that the sayings attributed to the Lord here exclude each other. First, it is said that fasting practiced at the right time should not be disapproved, and afterwards, it is described as impossible to unite the old and the new, the new principle and the old forms.

*) ibid., pp. 232-234.


Luke must have already had a feeling that both sayings were not really connected, he at least makes the transition from one to the other with the formula “he also told them a parable”, which we have already encountered in his writing in places where he put together sayings on his own and could not hide that the connection he intended was not really present *). Finally, Weisse has successfully found that it is “more correct to separate both sayings from each other or at least leave their connection undecided **).” But as we have proven, they must be separated altogether.

*) Luke 5:36 και παραβολήν προς αυτούς. Compare Luke 6:39 είπε δε παραβολήν αυτοίς. Luke 18:1 έλεγε δε και παραβολήν αυτοϊς.

**) a. a. O. I, 483.


First of all, as a necessary consequence of the above criticism, we would have to state that both sayings did not arise from the same occasion; but if the question is asked which saying arose from the presumed occasion, we might well wonder for which of the two the apologist will decide. But no! We don’t want to know, he doesn’t admit that result at all, and we won’t bother him any further for that reason, since we have nothing more to do with this question and the investigation must take a completely different turn. If only one of the two sayings, and both equally, can be appropriately related to that occasion, then this occasion no longer exists for us as a historical one, and it reveals itself to us as a freely formed category under which Mark has placed sayings that refer to the same collision of the old and the new. Weisse himself must admit that the parables of the garment and the wine “only fulfill their purpose if they are not taken merely as a dismissal of that particular question” – but what does that mean other than: their general scope is out of proportion to that specific occasion, and this disproportionality has arisen because general controversies that the community had to fight through were compressed into a single event in the life of Jesus? Jesus has just appeared – the way of life of his followers cannot yet have been so peculiarly shaped that it caused a sensation, so it could not yet be contrasted with the way of life of the disciples of John. Furthermore, when we consider that real history knows nothing about a special school of John’s disciples, nothing about how a group of followers who were supposed to have gathered around the Baptist (but never existed) lived and behaved according to the law, it is clear that this occasion is pure invention. The struggle of the old and the new, which the community endured, was to be exemplified in an incident from the life of Jesus, or rather the life of the Lord, since it was unknown, could only be taken from the treasure trove of the experiences and events of the community: thus, sayings of far-reaching universality and carefully constructed occasions had to come together. This time, the freedom of the Christian principle was to be brought to the attention of a feature of the life of Jesus: it was fitting that not only the one legal party, namely the Pharisees, confronted the Lord, but the power of the new only appeared in its full scope when even the man closest to salvation had not yet freed himself from the shackles of the old. Instead of the Baptist, who had been displaced from the scene, his disciples had to be placed opposite the Lord, and for that reason alone, Mark had to make this historical discovery that there had been a special circle of John’s disciples, because the saying he wanted to convey this time had the way of life of the community in mind and the disciples of Jesus, who are now the historical image of the community, had to be placed opposite the entire circle of disciples of the old powers.


The first saying about the fasting of the wedding guests shows itself in all its parts as a later creation. To call oneself “the bridegroom” was impossible for the Lord because at his time the bride, the church, had not yet been born. From the time when the bridegroom was taken away *), he could not speak so briefly that everyone would understand what he meant. No one could know what this strong expression “taken away” meant, even less so since the natural and ordinary circumstances of the bridegroom offer no aspect that could be the self-evident image of the violent rapture of the Lord. Only after the death of Jesus was the saying understandable and where it has its meaning, it was also only formed then.

*) Mark 2, 20. parall. ελεύσονται δε ημέραι, όταν απαρθή απ’ αυτών ο νυμφιος.


The theologian should actually be grateful to us for restoring this saying to where it originated, because as long as the assumption holds that it belongs to the Lord, and as long as statutory authority is granted to the biblical word, it must also be a law that the church fasts constantly after the rapture of the Lord or, if this is impossible, accepts that law through specific fasting days. However, if it originated in the church, the saying should not be understood so literally, since after the death of Jesus there was no law or custom by which constant fasting was strictly commanded, and it is finally clear that fasting is to be understood figuratively. Matthew understood this correctly and used the more general expression at the beginning of the saying: can the wedding guests “mourn” *), as long as the bridegroom is with them? In short, fasting is the internal pain and sorrow, this feeling of negation that is an essential element in the life of the church due to the memory of the death of the Redeemer.

*) C. 9, 15 πενθείν.

The difference between both sayings, which we had to designate as such at the beginning and which contradict each other, remains, although according to the figurative explanation of the first, it becomes clear that both are not entirely unrelated: in the first, the point is the idea that the church fulfills the legal commandment of fasting in a higher sense, in the pain over the sufferings of their Redeemer – (she dies with her Lord every day) – in the second, the demand that the Old should be the form of the New is unconditionally rejected. Mark was well aware of this resonance of both sayings, namely that they both exercise a negative dialectic against the old law, when he put them together, but it is just as certain that he did not create both freely and from scratch himself. He freely formed the first, the more artificial one, and for the second, he used a general principle, perhaps a proverb that had formed in the church.


Regarding the saying about new wine and old wineskins, Luke (C. 5, 30) adds another one as if it were in the best context: “And no one who drinks old wine wants new, because he says the old is better.” However, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to find a connection between this saying and the preceding context. “If it is authentic,” says Weisse, “it can only be said to explain the difficulty of penetrating Jesus’ teaching.” *) According to our previous discussions, it is hardly necessary to ask whether a saying of this kind, if it were actually spoken by Jesus, could have been remembered for years; indeed, it is much too meager and thin to be a proverb that was circulating in the community. Proverbs of this meagerness, which do not sharpen into a specific spiritual relationship through the power of their point, owe their origin rather solely to the writer, who, with more or less success, continues a given topic and the already found execution of it on his own. Weisse also considers it “more likely that Luke added the saying off the cuff and without thinking of anything right about it.” Luke did indeed add it, believing that he was putting it in the best context, but he was mistaken, for the mere fact that wine was mentioned before and after, that old and new were talked about in both sayings, is not enough to create a true connection. Nevertheless, if no connection with the preceding, but at least some spiritual meaning can be found in the saying itself, this comes solely from the fact that natural relationships are the images of spiritual determinations in themselves.

*) II. 140.



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