Jesus Fasted Forty Days
Christ in the Wilderness is a painting by Moretto da Brescia (c. 1498 – 1554)
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson January 30–February 5: Matthew 4; Luke 4–5
We read in Matthew 4:2 “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.” Luke’s account (4:1-2) states, “And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.” Matthew’s account says only that he fasted, whereas Luke specifies that it was a fast of food only, not of water.
What does modern science and history teach us about extreme fasting? I found an abstract on PubMed of a paper in German (I was not able to retrieve the entire paper) published in 2009 by Kottusch et al. entitled, [Survival time without food and drink]. The authors stated, “After accidents, in which victims were trapped or buried alive, the question how long one can survive without eating and drinking often becomes a subject of public interest…Altogether, it seems possible to survive without food and drink within a time span of 8 to 21 days. If a person is only deprived of food, the survival time may even go up to about two months, although this is influenced by many factors.” (Kottusch P, Tillmann M, Püschel K. Oberlebenszeit bei Nahrungs- und Flüssigkeitskarenz [Survival time without food and drink], Arch Kriminol., 224:184-91, 2009).
An Editor’s Note in the 8 November 2004 Scientific American, for a paper titled, “How Long Can a Person Survive without Food?” stated, “Reports of the 1981 hunger strike by political prisoners against the British presence in Northeast Ireland indicate that 10 individuals died after periods of between 46 and 73 days without food.” A New York Times article, dated 4 October 1981 (section 1, Page 1) covered that historic hunger strike. The article began, “The hunger strike by Irish nationalist prisoners in Northern Ireland, in which 10 men have died since May, was called off tonight. The prisoners said they had ‘reluctantly’ concluded that the families of the men now on the fast would refuse to let them die.” The article concluded, “…the seven-month strike did achieve some of what the Irish Republican Army wanted, focusing world attention on its struggle to drive the British out of Ireland. As one young man after another starved himself to death, the Irish nationalist cause attracted sympathy and a flood of donations from around the world, especially the United States.”
The strike took place in a prison camp called Her Majesty's Prison Maze, or simply The Maze, located on the former Royal Air Force base of Long Kesh in the townland (township) of Maze, near Lisburn, about nine miles southwest of Belfast, Northern Ireland. There were over four hundred prisoners there, mostly Catholic/Irish nationalists, members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They considered themselves to be political prisoners but the British government saw them as common criminals. Arrests had been going on since 1971. The inmates began protesting in 1976 over five issues: the right to wear their own clothes rather than prison uniforms; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners and to organize educational and recreational pursuits; the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; and full restoration of any remissions [reduction in term of a prison sentence] lost during the protest. (Taylor, Peter, Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, pp. 229–234, 1997).
A chronology of the main events of the hunger strike, compiled by Martin Melaugh, can be found on the website, Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland. Ulster University (cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/hstrike/chronology.htm; retrieved 19 January 2023). Hunger strikes had occurred before; an IRA member, Frank Stagg, had died 12 February 1976, after 61 days of his hunger strike in Wakefield Prison, Yorkshire, England, protesting against the British government's refusal to transfer him to a prison in Northern Ireland – but the main hunger strike took place in 1981. On Sunday, March first, Bobby Sands, leader of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Maze Prison, began the strike by refusing food. Others joined the strike at intervals. While he was on strike, Sands was nominated for Parliament and won his election. Then on May fifth, 66 days into his strike, Sands died. He was 27 years old. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast. An additional nine prisoners, who had joined the hunger strike, died by the end of August before the strike ended on the third of October.
Martin Hurson (age 29) died after 46 days of his hunger strike. Francis Hughes (age 25) died after 59 days; Michael Devine (age 27) died after 60 days; Raymond McCreesh (24), Patsy O'Hara (age 23), Joe McDonnell (age 30) all died after 61 days; and Thomas McElwee (age 23) died after 62 days. Kevin Lynch (age 25) lasted 71 days and Kieran Doherty (age 25) lasted for an amazing 73 days before they died. All of these later deaths had occurred by August.
In September, after 32 days of his hunger strike, Bernard Fox was taken off the strike because his condition had deteriorated too quickly. Soon after, the family of Matt Devlin, then on day 52 of his hunger strike, stepped in and asked for medical intervention to save his life. Laurence McKeown’s family, then on day 70 of his hunger strike, did the same. Liam McCloskey ended his hunger strike on day 55. His family had said that they would call for medical intervention if he became unconscious. Then, a few days later, on October third, the strike was called off because of other families requesting medical intervention. At that time, six prisoners had still been on strike: Hugh Carville - 34 days; James Devine - 13 days; Gerard Hodgkins - 20 days; Jackie McMullan - 48 days; John Pickering - 27 days; and Pat Sheehan - 55 days. With the strike ended, some of the prisoners’ demands were met by the British government, one of which was that prisoners could wear their civilian clothes. The prisoners were also allowed free association with neighboring wings; the number of visits was increased; and up to 50 per cent of lost remission would be restored. The issue of prison work was not resolved at that point but changes were eventually made. The hunger strike of 1981 remains the most well documented of all extended fasts.
These data make it clear that Christ could have survived a forty-day fast even if he were a regular mortal. I have been unable to identify any special significance to the number forty; except that Strong’s definition 5062 states that the Greek word tessarákonta – means forty, “sometimes with added symbolic sense, i.e. ‘a full-testing period.’ That is, the full time (of a crisis, etc.) needed to successfully pass through to know God's approval.” The word can also be read as tessares (four) decades (biblehub.com/greek/5062.htm, retrieved 28 January 2023). A tessaracontera was a Greek galley with forty banks of oars (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tessaraconter, retrieved 28 January 2023).
We are also told in the scriptures that both Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1Kings 19:8) fasted forty days. However, Exodus 34:28 claims that Moses also went without water for forty days, which, in my opinion, is an added exaggeration. In Noah’s time, of course, we are told that it rained forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:4) and that he waited forty days after the tops of mountains could be seen before releasing a raven (Genesis 8:5–7). Moses sent out spies to explore the land of Canaan for forty days (Numbers 13:2, 25). Then after the Israelites believed the negative report from the majority of the spies, they were consigned to live in the wilderness for forty years – the period of years necessary for a new generation to arise (Numbers 32:13). However, those last two numbers are connected because the Israelites were told that they would wander one year for each day the spies had been in Canaan (Numbers 14:33–34). Several early Israelite kings and other leaders were said to have ruled for forty years: Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Samuel 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42). Goliath challenged the Israelite army twice a day for forty days before David took up the challenge and defeated him (1 Samuel 17:16). Jonah warned the people of Nineveh that “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Jesus taught his disciples for forty days after his resurrection and before His ascension (Acts 1:3).
One little side note. I have never been able to spell very well – I blame that in part on my first or second grade teacher who asked me to spell “krik.” When I spelled it phonetically, as I was taught: “k-r-i-k,” I was told I was wrong, the spelling was “c-r-e-e-k.” I thought, “That’s weird, why wouldn’t that be ‘creek?’” By the way, “weird” should be spelled “wyrd” for the three Fates – “…three goddesses who spun, measured, and cut the thread of life.” When I was looking up the word “forty” in Wikipedia for this essay, I discovered that “…the word is related to ‘four’ (4)” and that “fourty,” the way I’ve always spelled it, the original spelling, was replaced by “forty” “…in the course of the 17th century…” Where’s the logic in English spelling, and why did logic go by the boards in the 17th century? Or is that “boreds,” or maybe “bordes?”
A reminder to all of you who live nearby, I am still doing my discussions, "Where Science Meets Religion," every Thursday night 6-7 in the Relief Society room in our church on Fourth and Fredregill. I am looking into also putting them on Zoom but as yet do not have the requisite information.
Trent Dee Stephens