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.

In the New Testament, we learn that the Jewish people fasted two days every week. In one parable, Jesus quoted a Pharisee as saying, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:12). From other primary sources, we learn that they fasted on Monday and Thursday.

The Didache is an early Christian document that is usually dated to the second century (though some date it earlier). In it, we learn various practices of early Christians. One of them was to fast every Wednesday and Friday. We have a quote from this work below.

Didache (early 100s AD)
“But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation” (idem, chapter 8).

Fasting on Wednesday and Friday seems to be driven by a motivation to be different than the weekly fast days of the Jewish people. This should not necessarily be taken as a form of anti-Semitism. The term preparation day was used for Friday. This indicates that the Sabbath was observed by the authors. The institution of fasting on these days would be crucial to this subject later in the second century.

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., 42.3.4, from Bingham, 1139). He had strong influence in the city of Rome in the mid-second century. Eventually, he was condemned as a heretic even by the Roman Church.

Tertullian (206 AD)
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. We have two quotes from him below.

“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, 4.12).

It is not abundant whether his work On Fasting is referring to Marcion or not. One way or the other, the practice of extending the Preparation Day fast into Sabbath existed in his time. This may have existed separate from the Marcionites who definitely fasted on the Sabbath.

Hippolytus (204 AD)
Hippolytus was a bishop who broke off from the Roman Church. Among his qualms the practice of fasting on the Sabbath. His break with the Roman Church may have been because of decrees such as that of Callixtus, who we will review next.

In the early third century, Hippolytus 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).

Callixtus (218-220 AD)
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. The ancient document Liber Pontificalis reads:

“He instituted a fast from corn, wine and oil upon the Sabbath day thrice in the year, according to the word of the prophet, of a fourth, of a seventh, and of a tenth.” (Translated by Loomis, XVII, p 20).

Victorinus (250-303 AD)
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 the Roman Church) be extended or ‘super positioned’ 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. p 1825; Latin was taken from: J.P. Migne, PL 5:306).

Council of Elvira (300-306 AD)
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, 1:145-147).

Sylvester (314-335 AD)
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 AD)
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 54.3).

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.

In the next article in this series, we will examine when this fasting practice was imposed on other believers.

CLICK HERE to read part 2 of this series! 

Kelly McDonald, Jr
BSA President;

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