Richard Finn

in Biblical Studies

ISBN: 9780195393361
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:


Asceticism may be defined as the voluntary abstention for philosophical or religious reasons from physical goods that are central to the well-being of humankind. The goods are primarily those closely associated with the satisfaction of bodily needs and the survival of the community: food, drink, sexual relations, sleep, and material possessions. Scholars do not wholly agree on the reasoning that distinguishes ascetic behavior from other forms of abstention. Most agree that ascetic abstention aims at rendering the practitioner morally acceptable before the divine. Few of these experts include abstention for the sake of ritual or cultic purity. Examples of the latter include the avoidance of impure foods ordained by the Mosaic law, though it may be helpful to include it, especially when some Jews lived by a form of ritual purity demanded of Israel at Sinai, or within the Temple precincts, outside its original context. The length and form of ascetic abstention vary widely. It may be adopted as a lifelong commitment, like the sexual abstinence of a monk inspired to be among those who “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12). Abstention may also be a periodic practice, like the fast on the Day of Atonement. Asceticism may be specific to an individual, like the Nazirite who avoids wine, or may be a group practice, as Early Christians fasted before Easter. Abstention from food may be general in periodic fasting, or particular in avoidance of specific types of food and drink, as in the refusal to eat meat. Abstention from material goods may distinguish between private ownership and common use. However practiced, asceticism is always meaningful, though the meaning depends on its social context: it may express the humility of a Hasmonean solider praying before battle, free the Platonist philosopher to attain union with the divine mind, or manifest the grace whereby Christians already live the angelic life of heaven. As the aforementioned examples suggest, different forms of asceticism were practiced and valued in the cultures that produced and treasured the biblical books. Within those books, ascetic practices are variously construed and either promoted or attacked. The biblical books in turn variously inspired Jews and Christians to new, meaningful patterns of asceticism. Jewish asceticism focused overwhelmingly on abstention from food. Early Christians largely rejected abstention from impure foods, but otherwise drew heavily on Jewish fasting practices and their meanings. Christians placed new emphasis on sexual abstention and renunciation, to which they gave new meaning. However, from the Hellenistic period onward, much Jewish and Christian asceticism was strongly influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy.

Article.  11428 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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