Except by Prayer…and Fasting!

There is a somewhat strange episode in the Gospel of Mark (okay, so all of Mark is strange) where a father brings his son who has a spirit that makes him unable to speak and causes him to fall on the ground foaming and grinding his teeth (this sounds like epilepsy, but it is misnamed as such since we are dealing with an entirely different disease etiology in the text). The problem is that Jesus’s disciples are unable to cast out the spirit and so Jesus does it himself. Leaving aside the issue of demonic possession and medical diagnoses, the strange part of the story is the saying of Jesus that concludes the passage.

When the disciples ask in 9:28, “Why could we not cast it out?”, Jesus responds by saying “This kind (γένος) can come out only through prayer.” The first problem is that Jesus doesn’t pray to cause the spirit to come out. Why not? In the story, the reason that the spirit comes out is because the father believes. Then Jesus rebukes the spirit and it eventually comes out. It is worth noting here that both Matthew and Luke drop this ending of the story. In Matthew, the disciples still ask the question about why they weren’t able to cast it out and Jesus says that they lack faith. In Luke, the powerlessness of the disciples is dropped entirely. But what is the point of the story in Mark? Is Jesus more powerful than the disciples so he doesn’t need to pray? Or, can we explain the text by saying that the story was conflated with the saying?

The second strange part of the story is the text critical problem that some manuscripts add “and fasting” to the end of the verse. Modern translations and critical editions treat this as a later addition. Of course, Jesus doesn’t fast either, so the addition of this instruction doesn’t solve the problem with the story that Matthew and Luke saw. If anything, it makes the problem worse. So why add this to the verse? Could it be that the later disciples were trying to cast spirits out of people having severe medical problems and it wasn’t working with just prayer, so “fasting” was added as a requirement?

10 Replies to “Except by Prayer…and Fasting!”

  1. Trash,

    I know this isnt the kind of answer you are looking for (e.g., textual criticism) but here is my read on the text:

    This is a discourse on the necessity of disciples being prepared to serve others. Jesus castigates the disciples for being faithless and incapable of casting out the evil spirit. They question him as to why they cannot, he informs them they need to fast and pray more.

    I dont see this is a matter of the spirit being cast out as a direct result of fasting and prayer, but the disciples having not prepared themselves adequately to perform the task at hand because of their lack of faith which is a direct result of their lack of prayer and fasting.

    The essential nature of the combination of fasting and prayer in discipleship is abundantly attested to in the Scriptures.

  2. Kurt,
    Your answer is exactly the kind of answer that I am looking for. The problem with your interpretation, however, is that it conflates Matthew and Mark. Matthew says that they lack faith, but Mark doesn’t say that. Mark says that they have to pray (and fast), but Matthew doesn’t say that. Matthew definitely moves to make it more generic about faith and preparation, but Mark seems to be giving specific instructions about how to cast out particularly powerful spirits.

  3. For anyone interested, the synoptic parallels are Mt 17:14-21 and Lk 9:37-42. It is also interesting that both Mt and Lk significantly shorten the story.

  4. Matthew says that they lack faith, but Mark doesn’t say that.

    What about Mark 9:19? The same Greek apistia/apistos is shared between the Luke & Mark accounts, but the order of the pronouncements differ. I would take them as being theologically equivalent statements.

  5. Mk 9:19 is about the faithlessness of the father/crowd, not the disciples. Matthew and Luke both preserve this condemnation of the father/crowd, but only Matthew extends this condemnation to the disciples. Mark and Luke never indicate that the disciples lack faith.

  6. Hmmm, I have always read Mark 9:19 as a reference to the disciples, given the lead in of v. 18 where the father says the disciples couldnt do it, the disciples being part of the faithless generation incapable of doing great works. Is there anything in the Greek that necessarily excludes the disciples in being included in Jesus’ statement in v. 19?

  7. Kurt, when Jesus answers “them” in Mk 9:19, he is answering the “crowd” from 9:14-17. I think the reason that I resist seeing the disciples as part of the faithless generation is that Jesus isn’t addressing the disciples, he is addressing the crowd the crowd who asked him the question. The crowd always functions as a distinct unit in Mark.

  8. You’ve said;

    “Of course, Jesus doesn’t fast either, so the addition of this instruction doesn’t solve the problem with the story that Matthew and Luke saw. If anything, it makes the problem worse.”

    In Matthew 4 and Luke 4 we are told Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights.



  9. So apparently I’m almost five years behind on this conversation and it’s most likely that no one will ever read this, but here’s my question anyway: given the likelihood that Jesus was speaking Aramaic, not Greek, and part of the task of the four evangelists was not only to write down the gospel accounts but also to translate them from the spoken Aramaic to the written Greek, is it possible that whatever one word Jesus actually used was translated as “prayer” by Mark and “faith” by Matthew?

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