- LAST REVIEWED: 18 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0110
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0110
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.
The best very short introduction to asceticism is Harich-Schwarzbauer, et al. 2007; it also distinguishes between specific religious and philosophical traditions, though readers should be wary of the conceptual assumptions about the nature of asceticism within the different articles. For a helpful review of scholars’ conceptual differences in defining the topic, with a critical reflection on the merits of various definitions, see Saldarini 1999. Le Bras 1964 is cited because of its place in early French discussion of the subject. In approaching asceticism specifically in relation to the biblical texts, it is wise to begin with introductions to asceticism in the Greco-Roman world, while recognizing that these will in most cases neglect the full extent of Jewish asceticism and may be supplemented by articles specifically on the latter topic such as Fraade 1986. Until the late 20th century, accounts of asceticism were also often limited by Protestant or Catholic presuppositions about normative (Christian) conduct. Undergraduates looking for only the briefest account of asceticism in the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions may consult Ashbrook Harvey 1999 and Wimbush 2000. Those seeking a fuller academic introduction that includes critical discussion of both the concept and the historiography of asceticism should consult Krawiec 2008. Those interested in how ascetic conduct carries social meaning should look at Valantasis 1995.
Ashbrook Harvey, Susan. “Ascetic.” In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Edited by Glen W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, 317–318. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
From the classical Greek meaning of ascesis as “training,” asceticism is defined as “the practice of a disciplined life in pursuit of a spiritual condition.” This limits the topics noted: Greek philosophical and rabbinic self-discipline, Manichaean and Marcionite practices related to beliefs about the physical world, and monasticism in mainstream churches.
Fraade, Steven D. “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism.” In Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible through the Middle Ages. Edited by Arthur Green, 253–288. World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest 13. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
A good survey of Jewish texts touching on asceticism before Late Antiquity, though readers should be aware of the disputed dating, provenance, and compositional history of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha discussed.
Harich-Schwarzbauer, Henriette, Julien Ries, Thomas Podella, et al. “Asceticism.” In Religion Past and Present: Encyclopaedia of Theology and Religion. Vol. 1, A-Bhu. Edited by Hans D. Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski, and Eberhard Jüngel, 433–440. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
A set of brief articles cover “Religious Studies,” “Old Testament,” “New Testament,” “Church History,” “Ethics,” “Judaism,” and “Indian Religions.” The bibliographies are slight and dated, with few entries from the last decade. Taken together, the articles offer a helpful road map for the beginner.
Krawiec, Rebecca. “Asceticism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, 764–785. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Contains, in addition to the material noted above, a valuable section on the ideas of Michel Foucault concerning “technologies of the self” and their relevance to Peter Brown’s seminal work The Body and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
Le Bras, Gabriel. “Place de l’ascéticisme dans la sociologie des religions.” Archives des Sciences Sociales des Religions 18.18 (1964): 21–26.
French account of sociological seminars on asceticism prefacing a journal volume on asceticism in different religions. Helpfully approaches religion as a social construct with groups and institutions, rather than as a belief set of individuals. Asceticism is defined as personal, aiming at self-effacement before the divine, and encompasses strict chastity.
Saldarini, Anthony J. “Asceticism and the Gospel of Matthew.” In Asceticism and the New Testament. Edited by Leif E. Vaage and Vincent L. Wimbush, 11–27. New York: Routledge, 1999.
The first eight pages of the book form a valuable discussion of different definitions of asceticism as used by other scholars.
Valantasis, Richard. “Constructions of Power in Asceticism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63.4 (1995): 775–821.
Uses Foucault on social semiotic theory to analyze construction of meaning with focus on the individual “ascetic.” Available online to subscribers.
Wimbush, Vincent. “Asceticism.” In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. Edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh S. Pyper, 45–46. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Christian asceticism is set in the doctrinal context of transcendence. Discusses misconceptions: negative connotations in post-Reformation thought; undue focus on individuals; limiting analysis to the language of askesis. Notes the debt of Christian fasting to Jewish practice, and of Alexandrian theologians Clement and Origen to “Greek and Greco-Jewish” moral philosophy.
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