In September 2019, an article with the headline “Pastor Dies After 30 Days of Fasting To Beat Jesus Record” appeared in several Facebook groups and users’ feeds:
A South African pastor, Alfred Ndlovu has died of malnutrition after going without food for 30 days when he tried to emulate Jesus Christ and fast for 40 days and 40 nights.
Buzz South Africa reports that the 44-year-old pastor left home on June 17  for a nearby bush to have prayers, just like Jesus did. Attempting to equal or break Jesus Christ record of fasting for 40 days, Mr Alfred Ndlovu died just a month despite having no history of illness. He was alone in the wilderness and his body was found by a stranger who then called the police. He was known by his family and community at large as a very spiritual person whose faith could move mountains and his death surprised everyone, even church members.
When we first attempted to archive the article, which is datelined August 2 2019, we noted that it had been previously archived in late 2018 or early 2019. That previous version of the page was dated May 2017, and the possibility existed that the date had been changed even before that.
Strike one: The page’s author was clearly eliding the age of the article in an attempt to suggest its claims were more novel than they were. Strike two: The accompanying photograph showed several individuals carrying a stretcher. A reverse image search indicated the image was from at least August 2016, if not before. That means that before we even looked into the origin and veracity of the claim, the site had already demonstrated its use of at least two techniques used by hoaxsters and disinformation purveyors.
On August 4 2016, the story was shared to Reddit’s r/atheism:
The same claim and image was shared in what seemed to be its very first iteration by BuzzSouthAfrica.com on August 1 2016. An “about” page for BuzzSouthAfrica.com described the site as a “news and entertainment site,” which occasionally was verbiage used to cover “satirical” stories.
Two days after the image was first crawled by reverse image search site TinEye, a since-expired link to an apparent early version of the same claim was similarly recorded. The Internet Archive preserved a copy of the original page, dated August 4 2016, which itself linked to a separate, expired link. That link was also preserved by the Internet Archive, and was dated August 2 2016. It cited an outlet called NigeriaToday, which claimed:
A South African pastor learned the hard way not to “beat God,” as he lost his life due to malnutrition after trying to breach the number of days that Jesus of Nazareth fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
Alfred Ndlovu, 44, decided to embark on dry fasting, which lasted for only 30 days, a NigeriaToday report confirmed.
In a determined bid to break the record, the cleric left home on June 17  for a nearby bush to spend his days in prayer, much like the Messiah did.
Little information about the initial site sharing the claim was available, but the same outlet was the subject of an April 2019 AFP fact check, which determined it was spreading untrue claims in at least one instance.
We were unable to find any sites under the name “NigeriaToday,” if that was the original source. The first result for that search was VanguardNGR.com — which, interestingly, carried a version of the same story dated September 5 2019. Titled “Pastor dies of starvation while observing 30 days fast,” it claimed:
A Zambian pastor identified as Brighton Samajomba has reportedly died of starvation 10 days before the end of his annual 30-day fasting programme.
Samajomba, 37, of “Heaven Is My Home” in Solwezi, Northwest area of Zambia, was reportedly found dead by his wife in the early hours of the 20th day of his 30-day fasting programme of standing in the gap for his family and church members. Samajomba’s death was confirmed by his brother Reagan Samajomba in Solwezi [in late August 2019].
SaharaReporters.com published a very similar article on September 6 2019; and FacesofMalawi.com’s September 4 2019 report credited but did not link the Zambian Sun. A report with the same date on TheZambianSun.com noted that local police were unable to corroborate the claim:
But when contacted for a comment North-Western police commissioner Mr Hudson Namachila said he had no yet received a report on the matter.
Finally, the story of a pastor who died attempting to fast for 30 days and beat Jesus’s record was suspiciously similar to a widely-reported 2017 claim about a pastor who attempted to walk on water — only to be devoured by crocodiles. We investigated that claim in May 2017, and discovered that it originated on a satirical website.
To recap, in late August and early September 2019, a thinly-sourced story about a pastor dying after attempting a 30-day-long fast in Zambia circulated on blogs and viral news sites in Africa. Local police were unable to confirm whether there was any such death. At the same time, a site that first ripped off a similar yarn in August 2016 changed the page’s date to September 2019 and that story re-spread on Facebook.
Not only were both stories suspiciously similar to one another, they both resembled a 2017 falsehood about another pastor who died in an attempt to beat Jesus at something — that time, walking on water. Although it’s possible one or both deaths occurred, it is highly unlikely either did in the fashion described.
The longest recorded fast on record to date was Angus Barbieri’s in 1965, which lasted for more than a year — 382 days. However, he did so for medical reasons rather than religious ones, and he remained under direct medical supervision for its duration.