Fasting on the Sabbath in Early Christianity (Part 2)

Fasting on the Sabbath in Early Christianity (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, we reviewed the early history of fasting on the Sabbath. It was started by the heretic Marcion, but later adopted by the Roman Church as a routine discipline. This unfortunate practice was a way that the Roman Church attempted to demean or diminish the importance of God’s Sabbath.

Pope Innocent I (401-417 AD)

In the early fifth century, Pope Innocent I made a formal support of fasting on the Sabbath. In Epistle 25, section 4 he wrote: “Certainly, it is evident why we should fast on the Sabbath…” he went on to explain that we should fast on the Sabbath because Christ was in the tomb at that time – and that makes it a sad day. He taught that we fast on Sabbath out of sadness and then celebrate on Sunday to honor the resurrection. (JP Migne. Patrologiae, Cursus Completus. Series Prima. Vol 20. Latina. Paris, 1845. page 555. – Latin translation is mine).

To my knowledge, he is the first Bishop of Rome to issue a formal decretal regarding the Sabbath fast. Other well-known authors of the time discussed the issue.

Augustine (396-405)

We have two quotes from Augustine, who is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. The first quote is from a letter written to Casulanus. The second quote is from a letter written to Jerome, who is also venerated by the Roman Church. In it, we learn that the vast majority of Christianity refused to fast on the Sabbath because they still revered the day to the Lord.

Augustine to Casulanus (396)

“This question I would wish to see him investigate, and resolve in such a manner as would not involve him in the guilt of openly speaking against the whole Church diffused throughout the world, with the exception of the Roman Christians, and hitherto a few of the Western communities. Is it, I ask, to be endured among the entire Eastern Christian communities, and many of those in the West, that this man should say of so many and so eminent servants of Christ, who on the seventh day of the week refresh themselves soberly and moderately with food, that they are in the flesh, and cannot please God; and that of them it is written, “Let the wicked depart from me, I will not know their way; and that they make their belly their god”, that they prefer Jewish rites to those of the Church, and are sons of the bondwoman…” (Letter 36, Chapter 2, Sec. 4)

Augustine to Jerome (405 AD)

“For if we say that it is wrong to fast on the seventh day, we shall condemn not only the Church of Rome, but also many other churches, both neighbouring and more remote, in which the same custom continues to be observed. If, on the other hand, we pronounce it wrong not to fast on the seventh day, how great is our presumption in censuring so many churches in the East, and by far the greater part of the Christian world!” (Letter 82, sec. 14)

John Cassian (420-429)

John Cassian was a writer of the fifth century who recorded practices and customs of Christianity at that time. He affirmed that fasting on the Sabbath was a non-Apostolic practice and simply a tradition without any authority. He also gave a further elaboration on the justification some gave for the Sabbath fast. Apparently, some thought that Peter fasted on the Sabbath before his encounter with Simon Magus in Acts chapter 8. There is no Scriptural evidence for this statement and it does not agree with Pope Innocent’s reasoning for doing so.

“And throughout the whole of the East it has been settled, ever since the time of the preaching of the Apostles, when the Christian faith and religion was founded, that these Vigils should be celebrated as the Sabbath dawns…And so, after the exertion of the Vigil, a dispensation from fasting, appointed in like manner for the Sabbath by apostolic men, is not without reason enjoined in all the churches of the East… For this dispensation from fasting must not be understood as a participation in the Jewish festival by those above all who are shown to be free from all Jewish superstition, but as contributing to that rest of the wearied body of which we have spoken…” (Institutes, chapter 9).

“But some people in some countries of the West, and especially in the city [Rome], not knowing the reason of this indulgence, think that a dispensation from fasting ought certainly not to be allowed on the Sabbath, because they say that on this day the Apostle Peter fasted before his encounter with Simon. But from this it is quite clear that he did this not in accordance with a canonical rule, but rather through the needs of his impending struggle….but no canonical rule of fasting would have been made general from this, because it was no general observance that led to it, but a matter of necessity, which forced it to be observed on a single occasion” (Institutes, 3:9,10).

Trullan Synod (692)

The Trullan Synod (also called Quinisext) was ordered by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian II towards the end of the seventh century; various representatives of the East were present. It challenged Rome on certain issues and was an attempt to place the city of Constantinople on the same authority as Rome. In the second canon of this council, all 85 canons from the work entitled Apostolic Canons were reinforced as ecclesiastical law (the Apostolic Canons are not Apostolic as they date from the third or fourth century at the earliest). This stance was contrary to Rome, who only recognized the first 50 canons. Further, the canons from Laodicea were upheld (which were very anti-Sabbatarian).

102 Canons were published at this synod. Canon 55 prohibited people from fasting on Saturday (citing the Apostolic Canons as the reason for this rule). While fasting on the Sabbath was routine at Rome, it was banned in the East. Canon 80 forced mandatory Sunday church attendance. After three weeks of missed church, a person was punished with excommunication.

The Trullan Synod was an attempt to correct fasting on the Sabbath. Sunday was also enforced, which is a testimony to the fact that it was not as strictly observed as one might think. The Sabbath was still an important day of worship (Hefele, vol 5, 221-242).

In conclusion, the practice of fasting on the Sabbath gradually entered Christianity in the second century, but became common place in the West by the sixth or seventh century AD. The Sabbath fast was discouraged and opposed by the Eastern Church. This issue was one the main reasons why the Western and Eastern churches split from each other in 867 and finally in 1054.We may look at this more in a future article.

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

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