Was Jesus a Monk? Examination of His Ascetic Life

In trying to understand the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, many intriguing questions arise. Especially questions about who he was and who he was most similar to.

One figure often held up as a spiritual example is that of a monk.

Raising the question, was Jesus a monk?

Jesus did not take any formal vows to join a religious order or lead a life of solitude as a monk would. However, he did practice many of the spiritual disciplines of monks as he aimed to unite with God.

It is fascinating to contemplate and explore the life of Jesus from the perspective of solitude, contemplation, and perhaps even a connection to Buddhist monk traditions.

So, let’s do exactly that: draw upon the narratives provided in the gospels and various interpretations of Jesus’s life and teachings. And see what Jesus had in common with monks and he did not.

Lifestyle of a Monk

Monastic life, whether in Christianity or Buddhism, often comes with a defining set of practices that set it apart. Some significant practices of monks are:

  1. Celibacy: Monks typically commit to a life of celibacy, renouncing marriage and sexual activity for a life devoted fully to spiritual pursuits.
  2. Poverty: Monks often take a vow of poverty, living a life devoid of materialistic possessions.
  3. Obedience: Monks adhere to the rules of their religious order, showing total obedience to its teachings and the guidance of their spiritual leaders.
  4. Meditation and Prayer: A substantial part of a monk’s day is spent in meditation or prayer, seeking spiritual insight and tranquillity.
  5. Fasting and Simple Living: Monks often follow strict dietary rules, including periods of fasting and consuming simple, vegetarian meals.
  6. Community Living: Although they pursue an inward journey, monks usually live in communities or monasteries, offering mutual support in their spiritual paths.
  7. Service and Charity: Monks often engage in acts of service and charity, reflecting their compassionate commitment to the well-being of others.
  8. Study of Religious Text: Monks invest considerable time in studying religious scriptures, aiming to deepen their understanding of their faith’s teachings.

Of these eight practises of a monk, how many did Jesus live out?

Which ones did he not do?

Jesus Living Like a Monk

Not a monk in the traditional sense but he did practise many of these spiritual disciplines.

A Life of Celibacy

Jesus did practice celibacy.

The New Testament Gospels, make no mention of Jesus ever marrying or having a family. His life was singularly focused on his spiritual mission, similar to monks abstaining from sex to avoid distraction from their greater goal.

Jesus even went further and even condemned even looking at another with thoughts of sexual activities (Matt.5:27-30).

There are later texts and stories about him and Mary Magdalene having a sexual relationship. But these are much later texts and do not fit with the picture portrait in the gospels of his celibate life.

Of Life of Poverty

In terms of poverty, Jesus did lead a life that could be characterized as such.

The Gospels depict Jesus during his “ministry” as a man with no permanent residence or worldly possessions, often relying on the hospitality of others for food and shelter. His teachings echoed this lifestyle, as he famously stated, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3).

Furthermore, when advising a rich young man, Jesus suggested he should sell all his possessions and give to the poor if he truly desired to gain eternal life (Matt. 19:21). Sharply contrasting spiritual wealth over material riches parallels the monk’s lifestyle of simple living and detachment from worldly possessions.

The Gospels record Jesus stating, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Underscoring the transient and humble nature of Jesus’s lifestyle on earth. Giving up everything.

Echoing the life of a monk, who renounces a conventional home and embraces a life of poverty and simplicity.

Obedience to a Religious Order

As much as we can tell, Jesus never belonged to a formal religious order like the Essenes. The closest thing is his time as a disciple of John the Baptist.

But he was raised in the Jewish tradition and practised many of the customs of his faith. Along with teaching in synagogues.

But despite this, he did not strictly follow the established religious norms of his time.

In fact, he was often in conflict with the Pharisees, the religious leaders, over issues such as the observance of the Sabbath, ceremonial cleanliness, and the best way to live out the Law of God.

Jesus often preached a message of love, mercy, and grace, which often ran counter to the stringent legalism of the religious leaders. With its many does and don’t.

Emphasizing serving God, loving one’s neighbour and one’s attitude over strictly adhering to religious rituals and traditions. With such statements as “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

However, this does not mean that Jesus was opposed to all forms of order or discipline. He displayed immense self-control and obedience, particularly to the will of God.

He told his followers ” that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:20). Holding up the practices of the Pharisees.

Even saying in regard to the custom of tithing, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matt.23:23, similar to Lk.11:42).

Not belonging to a Religious Order, obedience to its rules was not top of mind to Jesus. But he did not scorn the idea of obeying religious leaders.

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” But Jesus did add a caveat, “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt.23:2-3).

Emphasizing obedience to go along with teaching.

Praying while studying

Meditation or Prayer

Jesus’ practice of prayer can indeed be likened to the meditative practices of a monk. He often retreated to solitary places for prayer and reflection, seeking communion with God.

“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Lk. 5:16) Seeking moments of solitary prayer echoes the practices of monks who retreat from the world to seek spiritual insight and connection.

Furthermore, Jesus taught his followers how to pray, providing them with what is now known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (Lk.11:1-13). This prayer, in its simplicity and depth, embodies elements of meditation, focusing on submission to God’s will, the pursuit of forgiveness, and the request for divine guidance and deliverance.

In his prayers, Jesus demonstrated a deep spiritual mindfulness comparable to meditative practices. He was fully present, engaged in the moment, and receptive to divine guidance.

His prayer at Gethsemane is a good example of this, where he said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

In conclusion, Jesus did place a high value and dedicated time to prayer. Prayer that would often last for hours. It was a time of focus on God, his will and drawing strength for what was about to come.

Fasting and Simple Living

Jesus’ practice of fasting is another aspect that possibly mirrors the monastic life.

In the Gospels, we see instances where Jesus undertook extensive periods of fasting as a form of spiritual discipline. The most prominent of these is his 40-day fast in the wilderness, as mentioned in Matthew 4:1-2, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”

Abstaining from Food

Fasting to focus his mind and spirit, preparing Jesus for the trials that lay ahead.

Demonstrating a high level of self-control and humbling himself before God.

This echoes the ascetic lifestyle led by monks, where fasting is used as a tool for purification and spiritual enlightenment.

But Jesus’ use of fastening seems to be less than many of his peers.

Comparison with John the Baptist

Interestingly, when compared to John the Baptist, Jesus was seen in a different light. John the Baptist was known for his austere lifestyle, which possibly surpassed that of Jesus. Living in the wilderness, wearing garments of camel’s hair and surviving on a diet of locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). Along with regular periods of fasting (Matt.9:14-17, Mk.2:18-22).

People even went so far as to accuse Jesus of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Lk. 7:34).

Leaving you wondering. Did Jesus not practice fasting much after his 40 days in the wilderness?

But he did still teach how to fast. Assuming that you should fast.

Maybe he was living out his own words and not drawing attention to his fast. Therefore, people missed it entirely and assumed he was not (Matt.6).

It would be interesting to study more, but for here, we will leave it at.

Jesus did practise fasting at times. He taught others how to fast.

But did not make fasting a prominent feature of his life.

Communal Living with the Twelve Disciples

Jesus notably lived in a community with his twelve disciples, accentuating another aspect of monastic life—communal living.

The gospels tell of Jesus and his disciples living together, sharing meals and sharing resources. This was not merely a practical arrangement but a profound expression of mutual support and collective spirituality.

No, it’s hard to envision the last few years of Jesus’ life outside of the context of communal living.

Maybe that’s why Jesus emphasized, “love thy neighbour”. It was required for him to survive in his community.

As the disciples often seem to struggle living in community.

Giving To Others

Service and Charity

An integral part of Jesus’s life is his commitment to acts of charity.

These acts went beyond the distribution of material goods, encompassing healing, teaching, and spiritual guidance. Jesus is often shown reaching out to those marginalized in society: the poor, the sick, the sinners, and the outcasts.

One of the most famous instances of his acts of charity is the miracle of feeding the 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus did not feel it right to send them away hungry in case they collapsed on the way home. So he fed them first.

Furthermore, Jesus remarked, “The son of man did not come to be served but to serve” (Matt.20:28, Mk.10:45,Jn.13:1-17), and his actions showed this.

Engagement with Religious Text

Jesus’s life shows a deep engagement with religious texts.

From a young age, Jesus is depicted as having an uncommon understanding of religious scriptures. At the age of 12, he was found in the temple, discussing the scriptures with the elders (Lk.2:41-52).

His teachings throughout his ministry often referred to and interpreted the religious texts of his time, specifically the Jewish Torah.

Throughout his life, Jesus used scriptures as a way to convey his teachings and messages. He often quotes passages from the Old Testament during his sermons, demonstrating a high level of knowledge and understanding of these texts.

Reading the Torah

Even during his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus uses scripture to respond to the devil’s challenges (Matt.4:1-11, Lk.4:1-13).

Monks often dedicate long hours each day to the study and contemplation of religious texts.

It seems that Jesus must have done the same.

Conclusion About Jesus Being a Monk

Despite the similarities Jesus shared with the monastic lifestyle, Jesus was not a monk in the formal sense.

He did not commit himself to a monastery. He did not take any formal vows. And his lifestyle was a life of service rather than a life of solitary contemplation.

However, the values and practices that Jesus lived in the last few years of his life could easily be transferred into a monastic tradition.

His dedication to prayer and fasting, as well as his knowledge and engagement with religious texts, are all characteristics often associated with monastic life.

He did not seek spiritual enlightenment in the Buddhist sense by these practices, but he did strive to be “one with the Father”. Which I am sure these spiritual disciples helped him achieve.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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