A Brief History of Christian Fasting

Adapted from paper presented for the “Spiritual Disciplimes” class at ACM in March 2016 (personal bits removed – and, indeed, rendered irrelevant by intervening events).

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I worship in a tradition which has previously practiced fasting but has now mostly abandoned the practice to embrace silence, stillness, and contemplation in its place. I’m not the sort who’s ever had much of a problem with silence, stillness, and contemplation, so these things aren’t really a spiritual discipline for me – or, at least, not a new one, and part being alive is to grow and try new things.

Fasting in the Bible

In the Bible, fasting appears to have been used for a variety of reasons, including mourning[2], preparation for a physical battle[3] or spiritual trial[4], supplication[5], repentance[6], seeking guidance[7], reading the Scripture[8], or simply to draw nearer to God[9] or gain spiritual strength[10]. On many occasions, prayer is mentioned alongside fasting[11] or depicted with it[12].

At several points in the Bible[13], we see people fasting merely for appearances’ sake, to make themselves seem more spiritual; this was apparently such a problem that Jesus gave specific instructions about fasting so as to avoid it. In Matthew 6:16-18, the disciples are told not to go about fasting in an obvious way, but to do it in secret, maintaining a happy outward appearance.

From the Biblical record, we can see that there are a number of needs which fasting fulfils, listed above. While some of these probably seem to us today to be either irrelevant (preparation for a battle) or just a little odd and unnecessary (as mourning or as preparation for reading the Scripture), they are, for the most part, needs which Christians still have today – such as spiritual trials, repenting, and the need for spiritual strength or guidance.

Fasting in Historical Christianity

Fasting two days of the week quickly became the norm in early Christianity. The Didache, which was written sometime before the end of the second century[14], states that Christians should fast on Wednesday[15] and Friday[16], rather than on Monday and Thursday “with the hypocrites”[17] (presumably the Jews[18]). The Didache also links fasting and praying together in the single sentence[19], indicating that the two were viewed on a similar level.

The Rev’d Joseph Connolly, a Catholic priest[20], stated,

“Fasting is recommended by the scriptures and practised by the church as a means of atoning for sin and commending ourselves and our prayers to God. Hence the fast days of the Christian calendar and their connecting with times of prayer, such as Lent and Ember weeks[21] and the eves of the great feasts.”[22]

In both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the term “fast” now applies more commonly to what might better be known as “abstinence”. In Orthodox churches, a “plain fast” or a “strict fast” require abstinence from meat, eggs, dairy, fish, wine, and oil[23]. Some feast days require relaxed fasts which allow wine and oil and sometimes fish. In the Roman Catholic church, which has far fewer fast days than the Orthodox church, “fasting” is abstaining simply from meat[24], or from some other food, and the canon law states that works of charity or “exercises of piety” may be substituted for fast and abstinence observance[25]. In the West, it has become more popular for Catholics to abstain from activities, such as texting[26], or from treat foods only, such as chocolate, for Lent. Some Anglican churches recommend daily periods of contemplative prayer and self-examination in place of fasting[27].

Meanwhile, while the practice of fasting is falling prey to attempts to make it relevant by eliminating it in traditional churches, it has experienced something of a revival in Pentecostal churches. Pentecostal churches, leery of legalism, do not legislate any specific fast days and instead leave it up to “the leading of God”. However, many individuals within the Pentecostal movement have labelled different sorts of fast, including “normal fasts” (abstaining from all food but continuing to drink water), “water fasts” (abstaining from everything, including water), and “Daniel fasts” or “partial fasts” (abstaining from one or more items of food, typically meat and sweets)[28].

Fasting in the Modern Context

It is clear to see that fasting can be, has been, and is being adapted for the modern context. In the Bible, as well as in traditional churches, fasting has been very much a communal activity, as well as at times a private one. Today, we no longer live in close, closed communities of believers, whether Jewish or Christian, which can undertake fasting as a community event. Nor, probably, would many protestants want to do so, since faith in many protestant traditions is much more a personal affair than a community one.

Despite whatever postmodern reluctance we might have to avoid doing anything as a group, whether for legalism-avoiding reasons or for anything else, it is most assuredly ill-advised to go about fasting without letting anyone know, even if only for the health concerns, to say nothing of spiritual ones. For this reason it is important to find some way of treading a middle ground between individual, personal fasting behaviour, and the congregational fasting periods of history.

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[1] Thigpen, P., Soul Building, Discipleship Journal

[2] Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 31:13, Samuel 1:11-12, 1 Kings 12:27, 1 Chronicles 10:12, Nehemiah 1:4, Esther 4:3, Psalm 69:10, Jeremiah 14:12, Joel 1:14

[3] 2 Chronicles 20:3, Esther 4:16, Matthew 4:2

[4] Acts 13:2-3, Acts 14:23

[5] Judges 20:26, Nehemiah 1:4, Jeremiah 14:12, Daniel 6:18, Daniel 9:3, Joel 1:14

[6] 1 Samuel 7:6, Psalm 35:13, Psalm 69:10, Daniel 9:3, Joel 2:12-15

[7] Ezra 8:21-9:5

[8] Nehemiah 9:1

[9] Psalm 35:13, Psalm 69:10, Psalm 109:24, 1 Corinthians 7:5

[10] Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29

[11] Daniel 9:3, Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29, Luke 2:37, Acts 10:30, Acts 13:2-3, Acts 14:23, 1 Corinthians 7:5

[12] 1 Samuel 7:6, 2 Chronicles 20:3, Ezra 8:21-9:5, Nehemiah 9:1, Joel 1:14

[13] Isaiah 58:2-6, Zechariah 7:3-5, Luke 18:12

[14] van de Sandt, H & Flusser, D 2002, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity, Royal Van Gorcum, Assen, Nederlands., pg. 48b

[15] Interestingly, in the Gaelic language, which has no record for weekday names prior to the arrival of Christianity, Wednesday is called “Di-Ciad-Aoin”, meaning “day of the first fast”. Likewise, Friday is “Di-h-Aoine”, or “day of the fast”, leaving Thursday as “Di-Ardaoin”, a shortened form of “di-eadar-aoin” or “day between the fast”.

[16] The suggestion has been made that these days were chosen for the following reason: Wednesday because that is the day Judas betrayed Jesus, and Friday because it is the day on which Jesus was killed

[17] van de Sandt, H & Flusser, D 2002, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity, Royal Van Gorcum, Assen, Nederlands., pg. 12e, 8.1

[18] van de Sandt, H & Flusser, D 2002, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity, Royal Van Gorcum, Assen, Nederlands., pg. 292c

[19] van de Sandt, H & Flusser, D 2002, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity, Royal Van Gorcum, Assen, Nederlands., pg.s. 12e-13a, 8.1-8.3

[20] Hickerson, P, ‘Father Connolly, Severn pastor for 16 years, dies’, The Baltimore Sun, 7 March 1993, accessed 22 March 2016, <http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-03-07/news/1993066097_1_catholic-priest-roman-catholic-connolly&gt;.

[21] Weeks of dedicated prayer, vigil, and spiritual renewal, see Davies, JG (Ed.) 1972, A Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, 5th edn, SCM Press Ltd, London., pgs. 168-169

[22] Davies, JG (Ed.) 1972, A Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, 5th edn, SCM Press Ltd, London., pg. 180b

[23] Seraphim of Platina, F 2008, The Rule of Fasting in the Otrhodox Church, Orthodox Christian Information Centre, accessed 24 March 2016, <http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/father-seraphim-rose-fasting-rules.aspx&gt;.

[24] Canon 1251, Code of Canon Law, accessed 22 March 2016, < http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4O.HTM&gt;

[25] Canon 1253, Code of Canon Law, accessed 22 March 2016, < http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4O.HTM&gt;

[26] ‘To text is to sin’, NZ Herald,  8 March 2009, accessed 22 March 2016, < http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10560485&gt;

[27]  I can’t really provide a reference for this one, but if you want to check its veracity, feel free to contact Fr. Steve at Holy Innocents’ Anglican Belair.

[28] I don’t know that any of the sites I perused to find this out could be considered legitimate sources of authority, but they include, but are not limited to, such places as “Pentecostal Pioneers” <http://www.pentecostalpioneers.org/fasting.html&gt;, “Central Pentecostal Church” <http://cpchurch.ca/2013/01/03/fasting-not-just-another-diet/&gt;, and “The Apostolic Pentecostal Church” <http://theapc.org/the-foundation-of-fasting/.

Some further divide their fasts by length, exact things being abstained from, or reason. Elmer Towns, a Baptist writer, identifies fast types by  reason or aim, rather than length or abstinence, and lists nine different sorts of fast this way in his book Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough, 1st Indian edn, OM Books, Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India.

[29]  Towns, E. L. The Beginner’s Guide to Fasting, Regal Books, Ventura, California, USA.

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One thought on “A Brief History of Christian Fasting

  1. Trippmadam says:

    I grew up in a tradition based on Calvin’s and Zwingli’s writing. Fasting is not required, but not discouraged either. It is seen as a personal decision, but members of my community are warned against “showing off”. Physical battles do not happen in my life, but from time to time I have felt the need to prepare myself spiritually for intellectual battles or for difficult conversations (f.e. with my supervisor at work). Stillness and contemplation are what works best for me. But people/souls/minds are different, and what seems to be good for me might not work for other people.

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