Fasting on the Sabbath in Early Christianity (Part 1)

Fasting on the Sabbath in Early Christianity (Part 1)

One of the ways that the Sabbath was attacked by satan in early Christianity was the idea that believers were required to fast on it. While the Roman Church condemned this practice at first, they gradually accepted the practice. In this two-part series, we will look at fasting on the Sabbath in the early church using primary source quotes.

Marcion – 144 AD

The first individual in the Christian Era I can find who advocated fasting on the Sabbath was Marcion, the infamous heretic of the second century. “Since that day is the rest of the God of the Jews, who made the world and rested the seventh day, we therefore fast on that day, that we may not do anything in compliance with the God of the Jews” – (Epiphinaus, Haers., Sec. 42, from Bingham, 1139). He had strong influence in the city of Rome and beyond from 144 to about 155. Eventually, he was condemned as a heretic even by the Roman Church.

Tertullian – 206

Tertullian (160-218) became a Montanist in 206. He wrote a work On Fasting at this time. He also wrote Against Marcion. In both works, he took a decidedly pro-Sabbath stance; he rebuked the practice of fasting on the Sabbath (except one Sabbath out of the year – the one before Passover; in this way, he imitated the Roman Church).

“Why do we devote to Stations the fourth and sixth days of the week, and to fasts the preparation-day? Anyhow, you sometimes continue your Station even over the Sabbath — a day never to be kept as a fast except at the passover season, according to a reason elsewhere given…” (On Fasting, Chapter 14)

“For from the Creator’s Scripture, and from the purpose of Christ, there is derived a colorable precedent — as from the example of David, when he went into the temple on the Sabbath, and provided food by boldly breaking up the show-bread. Even he remembered that this privilege (I mean the dispensation from fasting) was allowed to the Sabbath from the very beginning, when the Sabbath day itself was instituted….In short, He would have then and there put an end to the Sabbath, nay, to the Creator Himself, if He had commanded His disciples to fast on the Sabbath day, contrary to the intention of the Scripture and of the Creator’s will… the prophet Elisha on this day restored to life the dead son of the Shunammite woman, you see, O Pharisee, and you too, O Marcion, how that it was proper employment for the Creator’s Sabbaths of old to do good, to save life, not to destroy it; how that Christ introduced nothing new…” (Against Marcion, bk 4, ch 12).

Callixtus – 218-220

It is possible that Callixtus, the bishop of Rome from 218-220, also enforced some sort of Sabbath fast. It may have only been a partial fast on certain Sabbaths in the year (Liber Pontificalis, p 20). Hippolytus was a bishop who broke off from the Roman Church. Among his qualms with the practices of his day was fasting on the Sabbath. In the early third century, he wrote: “And now some undertake the same things, clinging to vain visions and to the teachings of demons and often determining a fast both on the Sabbath and the Lord’s day, which Christ did not determine, so that they dishonor the Gospel of Christ” (Commentary on Daniel, 4.20.3; TC Schmidt version).

Victorinus – 250-303

Victorinus advocated fasting on the Sabbath eve (Friday night). Those who honor the Sabbath spend Friday in preparation for it; we often call it preparation day. Victorinus proposed that the Friday fast (which was already common in Roman Christianity) be extended or ‘superpositioned’ into Friday night. His reasoning contained a tinge of anti-Semitism. He does not ground his proposed observance in any passage of Scripture, but rather due to a disdain for the Jewish people.

When we read the original Latin text, we learn that he advocated this superimposed fast into the beginning of Sabbath “…lest we appear to observe any Sabbath with the Jews” [in Latin, the broader context reads: Hoc die solemus superponere; idcirco ut die dominico cum gratiarum actione ad panem exeamus. Et parascve superpositio fiat, ne quid cum Judaeis Sabbatum observare vidamur.” (See: A dictionary of Christian Antiquities: Edited by William Smith and Samuel Cheetham. Vol 2. Hartford: The J.B. Burr Publishing Co. 1880. Page 1825; Latin was taken from: J.P. Migne, PL:5, 306)

Council of Elvira – 300-306

The Council of Elvira or Eliberis was held in Spain in the early fourth century. Two canons have to do with the subject matter at hand. In Canon 21, any one was excommunicated who neglected to come to church three Sundays in a row. In Canon 26, a strict fast was enforced every Sabbath. It had been either neglected or suppressed. We can clearly see that neither Sunday attendance nor the Sabbath fast were being regularly practiced (Hefele, vol 1, page 145-147).

Sylvester – 314-335

Some people say Sylvester was the first pope to enforce fasting on the Sabbath. However, I have found the evidence of this lacking. The only evidence we have suggesting this idea are some letters written by Catholic representatives who lived 500-700 years after him. These letters simply state that he started the trend. There is a lack of primary source evidence regarding Sylvester in general, especially on this subject. We cannot be certain.

Ambrose – 340s-397

The Catholic saint Augustine wrote several letters that reference fasting on the Sabbath. In Letter 54, he quoted Ambrose, who lived between 340-397 AD. In it, we learn that Rome followed the practice of fasting on the Sabbath even though nearby cities did not. “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here [Milan], I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offense by your conduct, nor to find cause of offense in another’s” (Augustine – Epistle 54, sec 3).

While Milan was closer to Rome than other parts of the Christian world, it still did not follow Rome’s custom of Sabbath fasting. Thus, we can see that Rome did not have quite the power over the Christian world at this time which some have claimed it had.

We will continue this article next time!

Kelly McDonald, Jr; BSA President; www.biblesabbath.org

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