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Chapter 3: Fasting Through The Patristic Era

The Development of a Christian Religious Practice

The early Christian community practiced fasting, as already evidenced by the references in the NT. As the Christians reflected on their newly emerging eschatological identity, their fasting practices took on distinctly Christian theological explanations. This chapter will explore a number of fasting passages in important early Christian literature, then focus on writings that specifically address fasting by leading theologians of the patristic era, and finally trace the development of official church practices regarding fasting.

Joan Brueggemann Rufe offers a rather comprehensive examination of fasting in the early church, focusing on Christian references to fasting through A.D. 230. She notes that both Jews and Gentiles in the early church had backgrounds that included fasting, and the early community incorporated the practice for similar, but often reinterpreted, reasons. She summarizes the occasions and theological motivations:

These early Christian texts show Christians fasting to prepare for baptism, to mourn and commemorate Jesus’ death (for many their only routine practice of fasting as a ritual act of lamentation), to better resist temptation, to obtain revelation, as part of their observance of stations, in response to persecution, and to care for the poor and address community needs and support community goals. This fasting practice, in addition to being separate and distinctive, reflected two strongly-held convictions: (1) because Christians were living in an age of joy inaugurated by their risen Lord, fasting routinely practiced as a ritual act of lamentation was no longer appropriate behavior; and (2) because God’s demands that justice and righteousness be done were primary, fasting was acceptable to God only when or as those demands were also met.238

This early emphasis would be consistent with the underlying perception of the church as the eschatological new community. As Rufe herself notes, there was fasting in commemoration of Jesus’ death that became embedded in the Christian calendar. This reflects an awareness of something like the already/not yet understanding of the nature of the age. As time went on, it seems reasonable to think that the newness of the Christian situation would gradually be replaced by a more settled sense of awareness of the Christian experience as a pilgrimage, in a still fallen world, but awaiting consummation. Perhaps that theology at least partly explains the growing tendency toward asceticism in the church from the early centuries through the medieval period.

Herbert Musurillo produced an important survey of fasting in Greek patristic literature, taking a phenomenological, inductive approach. The variety of fasting practices and themes associated with them, he says, “defeats any attempt in the direction of precise categorization or unification.”239 He does offer, however, nine sections in which he examines major emphases, some of which live in tension with one another. These are:

1. ‘Exempla’ of Fasting and the ‘Laudes Monachorum’ (5-11), which show how Church Fathers listed positive and negative examples from sacred history;

2. Philosophic Motifs (11-16), which traces how Pythagorean, Neoplatonic and Stoic ideas on the relationship of the body and soul influenced fasting;

3. Hygienic Fasting (17-19), which shows the patristic awareness of medical ideas of the time, and fasting’s presumed positive role in health;

4. Daemonic Motif (19-23), which reflects their belief in fasting having a role in spiritual warfare;

5. Christian Fasting as a Mourning-Fast (23-25), which suggests that the early church used fasting to acknowledge grief for Adam’s sin as well as Christ, the bridegroom, being absent;

6. Abnormality in the Practice of Fasting (25-35), which surveys competitive or eccentric fasting approaches among monks, such as the stylites;

7. Spiritual Fasting (35-42), which highlights the emphasis patristic writers had on true, internal elements (like humility, justice, service) in fasting taking precedence over the form;

8. Fasting as a Means of Self-Conquest (42-55), which shows the desire for self-control and discipline;

9. The Martyrdom of Asceticism (55-62), which suggests that after the persecutions waned and the empire became Christian, asceticism was a way of identifying with the call to suffering and martyrdom as was required in former days.

Musurillo concludes that these varied strands work together in a conglomeration of themes that affect fasting practice and teachings about them in the patristic era. He highlights three main internal tensions here: (1) the polarity between spiritual and bodily emphases; (2) the conflict between rigorous asceticism and the exhortation to moderation; and (3) the contrast between the ascetical approach and the more mystical elements often associated with it.240 When all is said and done, Musurillo offers this observation about fasting practices in the patristic era:

[A]usterity of all kinds (and especially fasting) would appear to be nothing more than the vital reaction of the Christian, in the concrete circumstances and psychological presuppositions of his milieu, to the call of Jesus in the Gospels. And the words, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ have been transposed from the messianic message of Christ to the precarious position of the Christian community placed between the Resurrection and the Parousia.241

So while there is a good deal of diversity in references to fasting in the history of the church, Musurillo is fundamentally right that this discussion is about appropriating human religious actions in the context of a theological understanding of the nature of the age in which Christians find themselves. This eschatological motif is a significant component underlying Christian fasting, however haltingly the theology may be understood at any given time, or however loosely Christians practicing fasting may see the connections.

References to Fasting in Early Christian Literature:
The Growth and Idealization of Fasting

Since Rufe and Musurillo have provided such a thorough analysis of early Christian fasting, it will not be necessary here to go into the background and detail that they have already done. Instead, various authors and texts will be treated on their own terms, in order to paint something of a portrait of how fasting factored into their understanding of their place in the new Christian era. Hopefully, then, a synthetic picture will emerge that can help summarize the main contributions fasting practices offer in the emerging theological context of early Christianity. The two categories of literature that will be addressed in this section are the writings known as the Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament Apocrypha. In this literature, it will be seen that the emerging Christian community had a growing awareness of the role of fasting, and fasting became part of an idealized description of the disciplined Christian life.

Fasting in the Apostolic Fathers:
Its Growth in the Emerging Christian Community

One can observe from the following discussion that fasting played an important role in the self-understanding of the early Christian community. Fasting is mentioned and discussed more frequently in the early decades after the first apostles than in the NT itself. During this time or soon after, the several fasting variants discussed in the previous chapter found their way into the NT manuscript tradition, which also gives some indication of the growing importance of fasting. Key passages in the following documents find their way into church tradition as well, becoming authoritative for later patristic writers as they will mold fasting practices into what they hope will be meaningful, ritualized behaviors. The following survey examines all of the references to fasting in the documents that are commonly collected as the “Apostolic Fathers,” with special attention paid to the emerging sense of Christians as an eschatological community.

Clement of Rome: Fasting Identifies with God’s People,
Reflects Righteousness, and Intensifies Prayer

First Clement 53.2 (from around the end of the first century) gives a passing reference to the fasting of Moses forty days on the mountain in a passage that holds him up as a positive example of a leader identifying with his people in prayer and seeking forgiveness. First Clement 55.6 also mentions the fasting of Esther in context as a positive example of self-sacrifice. Second Clement 16.4 (from near the middle of the second century) says,

Almsgiving is therefore good even as penitence for sin; fasting is better than prayer, but the giving of alms is better than both; and love “covers a multitude of sins,” but prayer from a good conscience rescues from death. Blessed is every man who is found full of these things; for almsgiving lightens sin.242

Here we see the connection with the deeds of righteousness Jesus spoke of in Matthew 6, with a prioritization of the practices being given, apparently, relative to their intensity (fasting as better than prayer) and efficacy (almsgiving better than both, in accord with the law of love). All three fall under the category here of blessed things. The scriptural allusion to love covering a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8; Jas 5:20) is expanded to say that almsgiving actually “lightens” sin, and linked here to penitence, suggests a gradualistic approach to forgiveness and judgment.

Polycarp: Fasting Aids Against Temptation

Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 7 (ca. 150) warns against the temptation of false teachers and heresy, and believers are urged in 7.2:

… let us turn back to the word which was delivered to us in the beginning, “watching unto prayer” and persevering in fasting, beseeching the all-seeing God in our supplications “to lead us not into temptation,” even as the Lord said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”243

Here fasting is connected to the disciplining of the flesh to obey the spirit in avoiding temptation.

Barnabas and Diognetus: Fasting Requires Justice and
Must Differ from Judaism

The Epistle of Barnabas (probably early second century) includes two passages that refer to fasting. Barn. 3.1-5 quotes Isa 58:4-10, referring to God’s rejection of the fasting that is not accompanied by humility, justice and generosity to the poor. The text is used to show that even in the OT God desired “guilelessness,” and that the people of God in the new Christian community should not be “shipwrecked by conversion to their law,” that is, to revert to Judaism.244 Barn. 7 uses typological interpretation to show Christ as the scapegoat for sin on the day Atonement in his crucifixion. While the people fasted on that day, Christ broke his fast when he was given vinegar and gall to drink. By this action, he both identified with the people who could not avoid sin under the law, and became a curse for them. So here fasting is used as a foil to teach substitutionary atonement (even though the correspondence of Passover to the specifics of the Day of Atonement appears strained, as the people were not actually fasting during the crucifixion). Both of the passages in Barnabas highlight the early community’s need to distinguish itself from Judaism through a christological interpretation of the OT.

Similarly, The Epistle to Diognetus (from the late second to early third century) contrasts the Christian community with the Jews. Diogn. 4.1 mentions the Jewish “hypocrisy about fasting” in context with the Sabbath, circumcision and new moons, as “ridiculous and not worth discussing.”245

The Didache: Fasting as a Part of Christian Self-Identity

The Didache contains three explicit references to fasting: 1.3, 7.4, and 8.1.246 Clearly fasting was an accepted part of life for the early Christian community being addressed, and the practice is given certain practical associations and distinctions. The main themes that emerge are that fasting and prayer should be done for the sake of one’s enemies, fasting is part of the preparation for baptism, and fasting should be practiced on different days from the Jews.

Fasting and Praying for Enemies. Did. 1.3 is an interesting reference to fasting comes in the midst of a chapter that presents a remolding of ethical teaching, largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount tradition, and headed by an introduction of a “Two Ways” theme that reflects Jewish wisdom literature.

Now, the teaching of these words is this: “Bless those that curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you. For what credit is it to you if you love those that love you? Do not even the heathen do the same?” But, for your part, “love those that hate you,” and you will have no enemy.247

The explicit fasting reference here reworks the phrases from Matt 5:44, ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν καὶ προσεύχεσθε ὑπὲρ τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς.248 The phrase in the Didache in Greek is προσεύχεσθε ὑπὲρ τῶν ἐχθρῶν, νηστεύετε δὲ ὑπὲρ τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς. What results is a form of parallelism between prayer and fasting in the phrases. The text presupposes persecution in the early Christian community, and like the gospels, enjoins prayer for their enemies.249 In the midst of persecution, fasting would be an appropriate sign of the manifestation of suffering and seeking the Lord’s presence. But it is significant to note that the Christians do this on behalf of their enemies. Their fasting, like their prayer, is seen as a benevolent act of mercy that engenders love. This clearly evidences a radically new kind of commandment in the tradition of Jesus, and so this kind of fasting demonstrates an outward, rather than an inward, focus.

Fasting Before Baptism. Didache 7 discusses the Christian rite of baptism, invoking the Triune name (7.1), prioritizing mode (7.2-3), and associating fasting with baptism (7.4). Specifically, 7.4 reads:

And before the baptism let the baptiser and him who is to be baptised fast, and any others who are able. And thou shalt bid him who is to be baptised to fast one or two days before.250

A couple of observations are of interest. First, the verb used for fasting here, προνηστευσάτω (a third person singular imperative), is unusual.251 The addition of the prefix may reflect the discussion at hand of fasting “before” the baptism, and this kind of prefixing appears in 7.1, προειπόντες. Another observation is the fact that not only the candidate was commanded to fast, but also the baptizer, as well as others from the community who were able ( καὶ εἴ τινες ἄλλοι δύνανται). This association of fasting with baptism has seeds in the NT, with Jesus’ baptism preceding his fast in the wilderness, and Saul fasting following his conversion experience and prior to his baptism (Acts 9:9). Baptism in the NT was generally seen as an act of repentance, and repentance often had fasting associations implied in Jewish practice.252 Additionally, as baptism was a preparation for partaking in the Eucharist, the community of those already baptized may have practiced fasting with the baptismal candidate as an act of solidarity for the special occasion.253 This description of fasting prior to baptism in the Didache may be a link in a chain that gave rise to the more full-blown Easter preparations in the church year. Willy Rordorf cites J. Schümmer and comments:

A remark of J. Schümmer seems particularly pertinent to me: “The custom of fasting with the person to be baptized is possibly even older than the general Easter fast (cf. Didache) and it could in its turn, after the transfer of the time of baptism to the Easter celebration, have contributed to first making the Easter fast into a general practice.” The trajectory then passed from the Didache to Justin (1 Apol 61), to Tertullian (Bapt 19f) and to Hippolytus (ApTrad 21).254

Linking baptism with fasting, then, showed the connection of both with the idea of repentance. But further, baptism became the singular mark of the new community, and so linking fasting to that act also associates it with new rituals that commenced and were invested with new meaning with the coming of the Gospel.

Fasting on Different Days Than Jews. The final reference to fasting in Did. 8.1 follows immediately the reference in 7.4, and so fasting becomes the transitional hinge to a further brief discussion of prayer. The text reads: “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”255 This is clearly similar to Matt 6:16, with the next verse following suit echoing Matt 6:5, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,” and finishing up with the Lord’s prayer that is similar in wording to Matt 6:9-13.256 Included in this passage is the not-so-subtle implication that the term “hypocrites” referred to by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is being applied to practitioners of Jewish fasting generally. As already seen, certain members of the Jewish community fasted twice a week (like the Pharisee in Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Here the Christians are instructed to change their fasting days to Wednesdays and Fridays, and the imperative mood ( ὑμεῖς δὲ νηστεύσατε) suggests to some that this fasting may have been compulsory, though that is not certain.257 The references to the days of the week the hypocrites fast ( δευτέρᾳ σαββάτων καὶ πέμπτῃ) are in the dative, while the days enjoined here are in the accusative ( τετράδα καὶ παρασκευήν). The shift in case is best explained as reflecting a difference between the dative referring to point in time (i.e., fasting on those particular days) and the accusative referring to extent of time (i.e., throughout those particular days),258 which would actually mean an intensification of the fasting practice.

The only clear differentiation being made between Jewish and Christian fasting here is the days on which it is to be done. While this could imply that there was relatively little difference between their fasting practices, it could also be the case that fasting on the same days was the only common denominator left between the two practices, and now this link was also being severed.259 Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays could commemorate Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, as well as distinguishing Christian practice from Judaism. Since Jews prepared meals for the Sabbath on Fridays, it was a day of extra food preparation, and Christian fasting on Friday would imply breaking with Jewish Sabbath observance as well. By marking out different days for fasting, the Christians represented by the writing of the Didache appear to be using fasting as a means of self-identity.260 This at least shows an awareness that they believed they were a new community, while still being linked through Christ, the promised fulfillment, to the old.

The Shepherd of Hermas: Fasting for Visions and
Righteous Conduct

Another important early witness to Christian fasting practices is The Shepherd of Hermas, a text originating in central Italy and probably addressed to Rome, written sometime between the last years of the first century and the first half of the second century.261 The several references to fasting in The Shepherd of Hermas can readily be dealt with in two categories. First, the author associates fasting with the obtaining of visions in four places. Second, an extended discussion of fasting broadens the scope of fasting to greater acts of righteous conduct and minimizes fasting as ritual, all in a manner reminiscent of biblical discussions of fasting.

Fasting for Visions. The first reference to fasting occurs in Vis. 2.2.1. In the previous chapter, the author had received a book with instructions to copy it, although he could not understand it. Now, after fifteen days of fasting and much prayer, the writing was revealed to him. The content of the vision is primarily a call to repentance for the author and his family, which includes treating his wife as a “sister” (2.2.3, which probably means sexual abstinence) from that time forward.262 Vision 3.1.2 functions similarly, with the author receiving an explanatory vision from an ancient lady, symbolic of the church, after fasting for a long time ( νηστεύσας πολλάκις). Again Hermas is viewed as in the midst of confession of sins, and the vision he receives pertains to the building up of the church in righteousness. These fasts remind the reader of the fasting and visions of Daniel (Dan 9:3, 10:2-3).

In Vis. 3.10.6-7 he requests understanding of the three forms in which he has seen the lady appear to him, and she replies,

“Every request needs humility: fast therefore and you shall receive what you ask from the Lord.” So I fasted one day and in the same night a young man appeared to me and said to me, “Why do you ask constantly for revelations in your prayer? Take care lest by your many requests you injure your flesh.”263

While Hermas receives the answer to his question, this passage has an intriguing turn to it. Fasting is here associated with humility, and will result in receiving an answer to the request. Yet, when the answer comes, there is a kind of castigating of the importunity of the questioner (reminiscent perhaps of Jesus’ parable of the woman and the unjust judge). While fasting is an ingredient in receiving his request, he is cautioned that he may indeed injure his flesh (perhaps by too much fasting), and it seems to imply a possible danger in progressing too far down this road—but it is a road Hermas insists on traveling, and his wish is granted.

Similitude 9.11.6-8 could similarly be classed as fasting relating to the receiving of visions, though it does not refer to fasting explicitly. Rather, Hermas spends a night with some maidens in prayer and sleeping. When the shepherd appears in the morning, he asks if they supped, and Hermas replies that he supped “on the words of the Lord the whole night.” This motif might be considered fasting, in line with Jesus’ words during his fast about man not living by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In response to Hermas’ words, he receives further vision and explanation. Like Daniel in the OT (Dan 9:3, 20, 10:1-5), Hermas has linked fasting with revelations and angelic visitations from God.

Fasting for Righteous Conduct. The most important discussion of fasting in The Shepherd of Hermas is found in three chapters in Sim. 5.1-3. Hermas was fasting and sitting on a certain mountain when he saw the shepherd sitting by him. When the shepherd asked what he was doing, he replied that he had a “station” ( στατίωνα). The station suggests the Christian fasting during part of the day as a sort of spiritual watch, like a soldier on guard duty, who spends the time in spiritual meditation and prayer.264 Pressed further, he explained that he was fasting as he had been accustomed ( ῾Ως εἰώθειν, οὕτω νηστεύω). The shepherd replies that this fast is useless, and is not really a fast to the Lord (5.1.3). Rather, God is looking for a fast from evil, a keeping of the heart pure and obedience to his commandments (5.1.5). He proceeds to tell a parable (5.2) that he says concerns fasting (though later chapters reveal that there is a great deal more meaning in the symbolism than strictly about fasting). This parable of a vineyard describes a faithful servant who weeds and cares for what his master gave him.265 After some time, the master is pleased with the servant, and makes him a joint-heir with his son. When he sent a feast to the servant to celebrate the announcement, the servant kept a small portion for himself, and shared the rest with fellow servants. This pleased the master even further. The next chapter (5.3) begins to explain the parable. Hermas is told that there is a fast that is very good for him to keep. First, he should keep himself from evil words and desires. Then, on the day of his fast, he is to eat only bread and water, and take the price of the food he would have eaten otherwise, and give it to a widow or orphan or someone else who is destitute (5.3.7).266 This would demonstrate true humility and “fill his soul” ( ἵν᾿ ἐκ τῆς ταπεινοφροσύνης σου ὁ εἰληφὼς ἐμπλήσή τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ψυχὴν, 5.3.7), and be credited as acceptable before God. This passage reminds the reader of Isaiah 58 and other OT prophets on fasting. What is acceptable to God is righteousness and care for the poor, more than ritual.

This OT theme of justice superceding fasting finds frequent use in Christian writings. And, as noted above, the “station” fast mentioned in the Didache and Hermas was apparently being practiced by the early Christians with some regularity. The admonitions about justice and the like never really seem to have deterred them from practicing fasting, but rather served to qualify the relative merit of the practice. So we see again how the early Christians drew from the common practice of fasting, which was virtuous in the Old Covenant, and brought it into the new age with what they hoped would be appropriate reinterpretations.

Fasting in Early Christian Apocryphal Writings:
Part of an Idealized, Ascetic Life

The early Christian apocryphal writings bear testimony to the importance of fasting in the early Christian community. Although orthodox Christians do not look at these writings as authoritative in doctrinal matters, it is fairly clear that they at least represent a link in the chain of historical traditions concerning fasting. These texts present an idealized portrait of early Christians as disciplined, ascetic people who fast.

Apocryphal Gospels: Fasting Remembers Christ, Imitates
Him, and Associates Heroic Figures with Him

The apocryphal gospels mention fasting in several contexts, and as might be expected, these are generally associated with the central figure of Jesus. However, the focus of these texts is often not on Jesus himself, but on the heroic figures around him that are being addressed, or the disciples of Jesus and how they are to respond to him. The following examination of these texts shows that fasting was used as a motif for associating Christ’s followers with him, and sometimes by more or less orthodox means.

The Gospels of Hebrews and Peter: Disciples Fasting for Jesus’ Crucifixion. The Gospel According to the Hebrews was written at the beginning of the second century and is not extant, but Jerome mentions that he translated it. He quotes from it in De vir. Ill. 2, saying that “James had taken an oath that he would not eat bread from that hour on which he had drunk the cup of the Lord till he saw him risen from the dead.” When the risen Jesus appeared to James, he gave him bread to eat in celebration of his resurrection.267 The Gospel of Peter (probably from the second half of the second century) 7.27 similarly says that after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were in hiding because the Jewish leaders were seeking them, and they “were fasting and sat mourning and weeping night and day until the Sabbath.”268 Whether or not the stories reflect historical fasting accounts of the disciples, these references do at least show that early Christians viewed the crucifixion as a time of mourning, a time appropriate for fasting. Perhaps these kinds of texts show a bridge to later, more developed Lenten fasting practices that commemorated Christ’s death.

The Gospel of Thomas: Fasting as a Step of Repentance, Unnecessary for Those Who Have Attained. The Gospel of Thomas contains four specific references to fasting. First these references will be presented, and then an attempt will be made to interpret them in light of the unorthodox theology of the community that produced them. It appears that these references see fasting as part of repentance, but that prayer and fasting could be rendered unnecessary by the spiritual disciple who has achieved a perfect state of righteousness.

Gospel of Thomas 6 has the disciples asking Jesus, “Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray, and shall we give alms, and what diet shall we keep?” (paralleling the deeds of righteousness of Matthew 6, with the addition of diet). Jesus’ response is only “Do not lie and do not do what you hate, because all things are revealed in the sight of Heaven.”269 Again, Gos. Thom. 14 links fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, with Jesus saying, “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves and, if you pray, you will condemn yourselves, and, if you give alms, you will do evil to your spirits.”270 Gospel of Thomas 27 has Jesus saying, “If you do not fast with respect to the kingdom of the world, you will not find the Kingdom; if you do not keep the Sabbath as Sabbath, you will not see the Father.”271 Gospel of Thomas 104 parallels the synoptic fasting question, with the disciples here saying that they would pray and fast on a certain day. Jesus responds, “Why? What sin have I committed or how have I been conquered? But after the bridegroom has left the bridechamber then let people fast and pray.”272 In this reference, it is clear that fasting would be associated with repentance or mourning, and this would not be appropriate in Jesus’ presence, but afterward it would be.

These references to fasting are difficult to harmonize theologically, leaving the impression that they do not represent a consistent approach, even for the community that is responsible for the writing or collecting of the sayings.273 The first two appear to view fasting very negatively, the third encourages it, and the fourth distinguishes between the presence and absence of Christ. It is possible that there is no coherent theology in these diverse logia, and that they are a conflicted collection. However, Antti Marjanen suggests that these statements can be interpreted in light of what is communicated by the imagery of the bridal chamber, which represents a kind of pinnacle of existence for the Thomasine theology, one in which the believer becomes his own master:

Therefore, it seems best to understand Jesus’ response to the disciples as a paradoxical statement according to which ‘masterless’ Christians need never practice fasting and prayer because after having entered the bridal chamber they should not leave it at all. But whenever some do and thus commit sin and become defeated in the midst of worldly allurements, they are in need of fasting and prayer.274

It is likely, then, that at least in the majority of examples, the Gospel of Thomas views practices like fasting, prayer and almsgiving as evidence, and perhaps even further causes of, the infection of sin. The one who is purified of sin would not need to practice them, and Jesus is presented in the book as an example and teacher of this theology. This presupposes an appropriate ground for fasting as an act of repentance, while adding a grossly unorthodox theology of spiritual perfectionism that, if attained, would do away with the need for things like prayer and fasting. Jesus’ disciples would not have to do what they hate doing, because that would make them liars.

So by this theology, fasting (along with its classic partners, prayer and almsgiving) is made an intermediate step in mastering righteousness. By doing so, this takes a truth from the nature of the age—that Jesus is absent and it is a time for fasting—and combines it with a heretical notion, that in this life the followers of Jesus can attain a level of godhood that separates them from the need for penitent attitudes and behaviors.

The Protoevangelium of James: Fasting Associates Mary’s Parents with Messianic Expectation. The Protoevangelium of James (from the second half of the second century) 1.4 presents Mary’s father, Joachim, as going down to the wilderness where he “fasted forty days and forty nights, saying to himself, ‘I shall not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God visits me; my prayer shall be food and drink.’”275 Joachim and his wife, Anna, were childless. Anna received an angelic vision and Mary was conceived. Along with the association of mourning for childlessness and the seeing of heavenly visions, this text adds Mary’s father to the forty-day fasting motif of Jesus from the Gospels in the line of Moses and Elijah. By doing so, it elevates the status of the conception of Mary to something messianic, “and it may be said with some confidence that the developed doctrines of Mariology can be traced to this book.”276 This apocryphal story shows that the forty-day fast was enough of a stock image in early Christian theology that a writer would use it to associate his heroic characters with Christ.

Apocryphal Acts: Idealized Apostles
Live Wondrously and Perform Great Deeds by Fasting

There are several apocryphal Acts that present the apostles as idealized Christian leaders. Fasting plays an integral part in the portrait these books paint of the first Christians, and so we can see that fasting played a significant role in the life of these early church communities. The apostles are presented as characters that fast and pray, and are enabled by God to receive supernatural revelations, do mighty miracles, and confound their enemies. They are held up as examples for the early church, and so one can surely infer that the apostles’ fasting was also being imitated.

The Acts of John and Paul: Idealized Apostles Make the Unusual Act of Fasting the Norm for Miraculous Living. The Acts of John (late second century) 84 lists fastings in a long list of the righteous activities of the saints (of which Fortunatus, an unbeliever raised from the dead by Christians and remaining in opposition, would never partake).277 The Acts of Paul (from the end of the second century) contains several references to fasting, some of which are surmised from fragments. Paul finds the Christian community in Damascus fasting when he arrives after his conversion (Acts Paul 1).278 Paul “was fasting with Onesiphorus and his wife and his children in a new tomb” for the sake of Thecla, who was miraculously spared execution (Acts Paul 3.23).279 When Paul was captured and had to face a lion, Artemilla and Eubula “mourned not a little, fasting,” and of course, Paul was spared (Acts Paul 7).280 Similarly, in a fragmentary account about another woman condemned, Paul “laboured and fasted in great cheerfulness for two days with the prisoners” (Acts Paul 8).281 The people of the church in Corinth “were distressed and fasted” for Paul when he announced that he would go to Rome, because they believed he would be killed there. But when the Spirit spoke through a certain woman, Myrta, that it was for the greater glory of God, “each one partook of the bread and feasted according to custom” (Acts Paul 9).282 On the ship to Rome, Paul was “fatigued by the fastings and the night watches with the brethren” (Acts Paul 10).283

These references to fasting present an idealized picture of the apostles, one in which they fast and pray and perform miracles. Fasting functions to present them as ideal examples to the Christian community, but it also appears to set them apart as especially holy, powerful Christians. These two ideas held together show something of the paradoxical nature of fasting for Christian spirituality: an inherently unusual activity is promoted as exemplary (hence normal), but results in unusual characters being the most likely to live out the ideal.

The Acts of Peter: Fasting for Guidance and Visions in the New Community. The Acts of Peter (from around the end of the second century) contains several references to fasting.284 In 2.1.1 Paul “fasted for three days and asked of the Lord what was right for him,” and he received a vision instructing him to go to Spain.285 Paul is described as contending with the Jewish teachers, teaching that Christ had “abolished their sabbath and fasts and festivals and circumcision and he abolished the doctrines of men and the other traditions.”286 After an apostasy, some faithful members of the church in Rome fasted and mourned awaiting the arrival of Peter, while Peter himself fasted aboard the ship on his voyage there (Acts Pet. 2.2.5). Peter “fasted for three days and prayed” in response to a crime of a wicked Simon, and was rewarded with a vision of the true nature of the crime, whereupon he urged the people to fast and pray yet again (Acts Pet. 2.6.17-18).287 In preparation before Peter was forced to face Simon in the forum, he “continued (in prayer) tasting nothing, but fasting, that he may overcome the wicked enemy and persecutor of the Lord’s truth,” and his companions received encouraging visions of success (Acts Pet. 2.7.22).288

In a manner similar to the Acts of John and Acts of Paul above, the Acts of Peter presents fasting as a powerful tool in the hands of early Christians faced with a hostile world. The apostles see themselves as members of a new community that has differentiated itself from the Jewish fasting practices, but they still fast and pray for guidance and visions. The Christians who produced these writings apparently saw fasting as a sacrificial action that accompanied the fervent prayer of the apostles and their companions, prompting God to respond with appropriate blessings and interventions on their behalf.

The Acts of Thomas: The Ascetic, Idealized Apostle Fasts Serenely for the Sake of the Gospel. The Acts of Thomas dates from the beginning of the third century, and was incorporated into the Manichean canon in place of the orthodox, canonical book of Acts.289 The book stresses the ascetic life of its hero, Thomas, taking a somewhat hostile attitude toward worldly things. It portrays the apostle as “a wanderer and traveller [sic] who rescues souls for the army of the Great General and Athlete.”290 Thomas travels to India with a merchant, and on the way comes to a king’s feast, but Thomas fasts, saying, “For something greater than food or drink am I come hither” (Acts Thom. 1.5).291 When he settled in a city, his reputation was of one who traveled house to house preaching the gospel; “continually he fasts and prays, and eats only bread and salt, and his drink is water, and he wears one garment” (Acts Thom. 2.20).292 Thomas fasted all night before the Lord’s day and the celebration of the Eucharist. While he received gifts of food from well-wishers, “he himself continued in his fasting, for the Lord’s day was about to dawn,” and the passage goes on to say how he received a vision (Acts Thom. 2.29).293 In speaking on meekness, temperance and holiness as the three heads that portray Christ; “for forty days and forty nights he fasted, tasting nothing. And he who observes it (temperance) shall dwell in it as a mountain” (Acts Thom. 9.86).294

The Acts of Thomas presents the hero as an idealized, ascetic apostle. He fasts regularly, living a life of austerity with a serene attitude for the sake of evangelism. This noble, if idealized, portrait of Thomas captures at least something of how many in the early church viewed fasting. Its heroes were champions of humility, and fasting was a component in showing how far they could go in renouncing worldliness for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Pseudo-Clementine Literature: Fasting Associated with
Rituals of Baptism, Lent, and Stations

The Pseudo-Clementine literature consists of texts attributed to Clement of Rome, but that probably came into existence around the beginning of the 4th century or up to a few decades before.295 In the Ps.-Cl. Homilies 35 there is an instruction that those who are going to be baptized should fast three days, but this section is possibly an Ebionite insertion because of its later references to James.296 Ps.-Clem. Hom. 13.9-12 has instructions that purport to go back to Peter. The children of Simon the magician beg for their mother to be baptized, and Peter commands her to fast the day before. She already had been fasting for joy for two days anyway. But Peter still required another day, and he and the others joined in this fast.297

The Apostolical Constitutions require the one being baptized to first fast,

for even the Lord, when He was first baptized by John, and abode in the wilderness, did afterward fast forty days and forty nights. But he was baptized, and then fasted, not having Himself any need of cleansing, or of fasting, or of purgation, who was by nature pure and holy; but that He might testify the truth to John, and afford an example to us (Apos. Con. 7.22).298

Similarly, the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions that mention fasting are also in contexts having to do with baptismal instruction.299

The next chapter of the Apostolical Constitutions goes on to teach concerning what days to fast. Similarly to Did. 8.1, Apos. Con. 7.23 says to fast either:

… the entire five days, or on the fourth day of the week, and on the day of the preparation, because on the fourth day the condemnation went out against the Lord, Judas then promising to betray Him for money; and you must fast on the day of the preparation, because on that day the Lord suffered the death of the cross under Pontius Pilate.300

The only Sabbath to be observed by Christians in the year is the one before Easter, and that Christians Sabbath remembers Christ’s burial with a fast. The Lenten fast of eating only bread, salt, herbs and water (though all who are able are asked to fast entirely on the day of preparation and the Sabbath) is commanded in Apos. Con. 5.13, 15, and 18-19, to be observed beginning on the second day of the week before Passover, broken after the day of preparation, then resumed for the Passover (for the sake of weeping for the Jews).301 These fasts recall the words of Jesus, “when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:15; Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35).

These texts further demonstrate the association of fasting with baptism, stations, and early Lenten practices, as well as the further distinction from Judaism. Although not genuinely going back to Clement, they do reflect practices that were generally a part of the practice of mainstream Christianity in the early centuries of the church. From this evidence it is clear that fasting was becoming thoroughly normalized into Christian rituals.

Fasting Texts in Select Church Fathers:
Promoting and Defining Fasting

Fasting references in patristic literature become more numerous as time goes by. The significant contributions of selected authors will be examined, with the hope that a general picture of fasting and its theological associations in the mainstream Christian community will emerge.

First, references to fasting in Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria will be examined, to get a general sense of how early orthodox church leaders viewed fasting. Then four Church Fathers who wrote significant homilies about fasting will be examined, beginning with the earliest, Tertullian, who critiques orthodox fasting from his own more rigorous Montanist perspective. Basil the Great wrote important homilies that were influential in Eastern Orthodoxy, and Augustine likewise wrote on fasting and was so influential in Western Christianity. Finally, Leo the Great will be examined as a link to medieval, papal Roman Catholicism’s approach to fasting. Fasting in the monastic tradition, which certainly overlaps the patristic era some, will be treated in its own category in the next chapter.

Through these fathers who developed fasting themes directly, it is hoped that a fair representation of patristic fasting can be seen from early to late periods, in both the East and West.302 It is clear that these fathers promoted fasting, while defining and qualifying it for the faithful.

Justin Martyr: Fasting as Genuine Repentance,
and Jewish Fasts Prefigured Christ

Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165) was an important early Christian apologist, and as his name suggests, martyr. In works dating from between A.D. 150-160, Justin mentions fasting in several places. In his First Apology 37 he defends the prophets, and quotes Isa 58:6-7 to argue that God prefers justice over rituals (including fasts).303 In describing preparation for baptism, he says that Christians “pray and ask God with fasting for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them” (First Apol. 61.2.3).304 He again cites Isaiah 58 in an extended quotation to urge Jews to humble their hearts before God, repent and become Christians: “In order to please God you must, therefore, learn to observe God’s true fast” (Dialogue with Trypho 15).305 He describes the Jewish Day of Atonement as a fast306 that had to take place in Jerusalem, making a typology between the two goats offered and Christ. The goats refer to Christ’s two advents, because at the first advent Christ suffered for the people’s sins, but at the second advent the people will repent “and comply with that fast which Isaias prescribed” (Dial. Tr. 40.4-5).307 He mentions the fasting of the Ninevites at the preaching of Jonah as a sign of the repentance that is needed by the Jews to accept Christ (Dial. Tr. 107.2.12).

Justin’s statements on fasting, repentance, humility, and justice sound a familiar chord from the OT prophets. Justin uses these motifs in a direct challenge to Jews to turn to Christ, advancing themes present since the apostolic fathers. So for Justin, Christ fulfilled the OT promises typologically embedded in the fasting rituals of Judaism, and fasting ought to be a mark of the true humility that is required to come to Christ.

Clement of Alexandria: Fasting as a Christian
Practice of Humility that Leads to Blessing

Writing around the beginning of the third century, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 155-ca. 220) mentions fasting on a few occasions.308 He mentions the fasting of Esther when listing women who had attained high levels of spiritual perfection (Strom. 4.19). He cites Tob. 12:8, “Fasting with prayer is a good thing” (Strom. 6.12). He says that station fasts of the fourth and preparation days are practiced in order to help repel the temptations of covetousness and voluptuousness, because one must learn to abstain from pleasure to attain true spiritual knowledge (Strom. 7.12). He tells a story of a disciple of the Apostle John who had turned to a life of crime, but repented with serious prayers and fasting, and was restored (Quis dives salv. 42).309 He lists numerous good works that may be performed by Christians, and recalls Isaiah 58 when discussing fasting to insure that truly good deeds must be prioritized above ritual (Paed., or The Instructor, 3.12). Fasting is described as being done as preparation for baptism in Exc. ex. Theod. 83-85. This is because it is a time of fear and vulnerability, “since unclean spirits often go down into the water with some, and these spirits following and gaining the seal together with the candidate become impossible to cure for the future.”310 Therefore fasting is part of the purification ritual before baptism, which is thought to parallel Christ’s fasting in the desert following his baptism, in preparation to meet temptation. Since food is a source of earthly life and absence of food symbolizes death, Christians fast to show they have died to the world so that their souls might live, even as Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”311

While there is nothing particularly extraordinary about these comments on fasting, they do seem to represent a kind of general approach to fasting that can be felt in most of the orthodox Church Fathers. Fasting must be humble, and it is secondary to deeds of justice for one’s neighbor. It is formally associated with church rituals like baptism and the station fasts, and these are done for the spiritual purposes of purification and combating the flesh. These kinds of actions please God, and he will bless those who do them from a sincere heart.

Tertullian: Fasting Is a Key Component in Christian Life
and Ritual, and Disciplines the Flesh to Obey the Spirit

Tertullian (ca. 160-225) is an important link to early Christian fasting attitudes and practices. He clearly valued fasting, both during his days as an orthodox Christian as well as during his time as an apologist for the even stricter fasting regimens of the Montanists. A variety of references to fasting will be examined below, with special attention paid to his influential treatise On Fasting.

Various Incidental References: Fasting as a Key
Component in Christian Life and Ritual

There are a number of incidental references to fasting in his writings from his orthodox years, in which he cites a variety of reasons and occasions for fasting. In his treatise On Baptism he mentions that candidates for baptism “ought to pray with frequent prayers, fastings, and bowings of the knee, and long watchings, and with confession of all their past sins, that they may shew forth even the baptism of John.”312 Although Jesus fasted after his baptism for forty days, his fast was for strength when under temptation, and the candidate for baptism now finds his position in the reverse, so that victory and rejoicing come with baptism after the time of penitence and temptation is over. He also urges people to “cherish prayer by fasts, to groan, to weep, and to moan day and night unto the Lord his God” as part of confession:

Wherefore confession is a discipline for the abasement and humiliation of man, enjoining such conversation as inviteth mercy; it directeth also even in the matter of dress and food, to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to hide his body in filthy garments, to cast down his spirit with mourning, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he hath committed.313

He considered fasting an act of the operation of patience in the body, which would strengthen prayer and “open the ears of Christ our God.”314 Fasting ought to be hidden, in line with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, so the kiss of peace should not be withdrawn during a fast lest we show ourselves to be fasting (except in the case of the Paschal Day, in which case all are fasting and so the kiss of peace is not passed).315 During “Fasts and Stations no prayer must be observed without kneeling, and the other usual modes of humiliation.”316 In describing why a woman cannot be a Christian and married to a heathen, he says that she would not be able to observe fasts and stations, as well as so many other Christian duties, as the Lord would want her to do.317

So in these references, we see that Tertullian advocated fasting as part of prayer, confession and repentance. Also, it is clear that the church of his day was incorporating fasting into rituals surrounding baptism, and practicing the station fasts mentioned already in the Shepherd of Hermas.

Tertullian’s On Fasting: Fasting Disciplines the Flesh

The first extant extended Christian treatise about fasting is Tertullian’s De jejunio (or De ieiunio), translated On Fasting, bearing the subtitle “In Opposition to the Psychics.”318 The treatise was written around A. D. 208, after Tertullian had sided with the Montanists against the Catholics. The Montanists were practicing various more rigid fasting rituals, including prolonged stations, “xerophagies,” that is, dry diets that kept food unmoistened, abstinence from “winey flavour,” and abstaining from the bath.319 Tertullian begins with a frontal attack on gluttony and lust, which he believes are related due to the proximity of the belly and the sexual organs.320 The “psychics” he attacks are those Catholics that he views as “materialists, men of the flesh.”321 Rufe writes, “To the Gnostics, ‘psychics’ were Christians who did not have the saving knowledge ( γνῶσις) that freed the spirit imprisoned in the material body. To Tertullian, ‘psychics’ were Christians who had not embraced the strict self-discipline ( ἐγκράτεια) deemed essential for salvation.”322

Tertullian’s orthodox opponents taught that the regulations of the OT were no longer binding, that the times of fasting were for when “the Bridegroom was taken away” (likely referring to the pre-Easter fast), and that other fasts (such as Wednesday and Friday stations) were matters of individual choice.323 However, Tertullian’s description of his opponents’ position, which is intended to portray them as gluttonous and carnal, actually seems to have the effect of making them appear moderate and his own position in fact the novelty, the charge from which he is trying to vindicate himself.

For support, Tertullian begins with Adam, who became a “psychic” when he ate and fell: “He ate, in short, and perished; saved (as he would) else (have been), if he had preferred to fast from one little tree.”324 The curse of God then rested on food, and even if no other discussion of fasting ever occurred, this would be sufficient for Tertullian to “have habitually accounted food as poison, and taken the antidote, hunger; through which to purge the primordial cause of death.”325 This excessive statement suggests a problematic assignment of meritorious value to abstention from food, as if the material world were the spiritual problem of humanity.326 But it also shows that the idea of fasting beginning in paradise with Adam and Eve has very ancient roots in Christian tradition.

According to Tertullian, God allowed a widening of allowable foods after the flood, because man had proven himself unable to keep even the lightest commands. The law of Moses then restricted more food usage, as God revealed to his people, whom he was restoring, more of the nature of their need for abstinence.327 Moses and Elijah are held up as examples, as are other OT instances of fasting.328 In the NT, Anna is a positive example, as is the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism and before his temptations:

By the virtue of contemning food He was initiating ‘the new man’ into ‘a severe handling’ of ‘the old,’ that He might show that (new man) to the devil, again seeking to tempt him by means of food, (to be) too strong for the whole power of hunger.329

As evidence for xerophagies, he cites Daniel and his friends abstaining from wine, as well as Paul’s instruction to Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach (1 Tim 5:23) as a reverse evidence of Timothy’s devoted abstinence: “from which he was abstaining not from rule, but from devotion—else the custom would rather have been beneficial to his stomach—by this very fact he has advised abstinence from wine as ‘worthy of God,’ which, on a ground of necessity, he has dissuaded.”330 He uses some strained argumentation from Peter’s experience in Acts 10 over which hours to end a station fast,331 concluding in favor of a longer fast that requires more rigor. The rigors of fasting would help prepare one to face suffering and martyrdom, “the soul herself withal now hastening (after it), having already, by frequent fasting, gained a most intimate knowledge of death!”332

Tertullian finally seeks to place the Montanists in moderate ground, rejecting the charge that he was guilty of the Galatian heresy by assigning that to the Jews. He notes that Montanists practice their xerophagies only two weeks of the year, excepting Sabbaths and Lord’s days. He says they are “abstaining from things which we do not reject, but defer.”333 He cites Rom 14:17, asking the Catholics who they are to judge another’s servant. Since the eating of food is of no great consequence to Paul, it should be thought a good thing to abstain.

Self-indulgence is a great sin, and even the pagans observe fasts, in devilish imitation of the truth. Devotees of Isis and Cybele fast similarly to the Montanists, which Tertullian admits:

It is out of truth that falsehood is built; of religion that superstition is compacted. Hence you are more irreligious, in proportion as a heathen is more conformable. He, in short, sacrifices his appetite to an idol-god; you to (the true) God will not. For to you your belly is god, and your lungs a temple, and your paunch a sacrificial altar, and your cook the priest, and your fragrant smell the Holy Spirit, and your condiments spiritual gifts, and your belching prophecy.334

As Tertullian concludes, he contrasts his way with the epicureans, and says that the Montanists do not hesitate manfully to command,

“Let us fast, brethren and sisters, lest tomorrow perchance we die.” Openly let us vindicate our disciplines. Sure we are that “they who are in the flesh cannot please God;” not of course, those who are in the substance of the flesh, but in the care, the affection, the work, the will, of it. Emaciation displeases not us; for it is not by weight that God bestows flesh, any more than He does “the Spirit by measure.” More easily, it may be, through the “strait gate” of salvation will slenderer flesh enter; more speedily will lighter flesh rise; longer in the sepulchre will drier flesh retain its firmness.335

He ends with the note that athletes eat robustly, but the Christian’s wrestling is not against flesh and blood. So perhaps dining sumptuously for bodily strength would help over-fed Christians be able to physically battle lions and bears—but when they meet them (in the arena of martyrdom), they would have been better off having practiced emaciation.

No doubt Tertullian’s words and images are chosen for rhetorical effect, and one hopes that he does not believe in the literal truth about lighter flesh rising faster in the resurrection. Although one can see that Tertullian was flirting with heresy, one can also see from this discussion that his orthodox opponents did indeed practice fasting, though they did not enjoin it with as much discipline as the Montanists.

Basil the Great: Fasting is a Positive Virtue
That Christians Should Welcome

St. Basil the Great (ca. 330-379), also known as Basil of Caesarea, was one of the famous fourth century Cappadocian fathers and archbishop of Caesarea. He is noted not only for his doctrinal contributions, but is also heralded as one of the most important figures in eastern monastic movements. He also wrote fasting homilies for Lent that have been influential in history, About Fasting, Sermons 1 and 2.336 Although his writings on fasting stress themes of abstinence, Basil strives hard to turn the focus of fasting from the negative to the positive. He sees fasting as a positive Christian virtue, one that purifies body and soul. He believes that any spiritually minded Christian should welcome such an act, regarding it as an integral part of sanctification, which for Basil, is basically the process of salvation.

Basil’s Monastic Rules: Monks Should Fast
for Positive Virtues

Basil wrote a good deal on asceticism and composed rules for monastic life, the most important of which are known as The Longer Rules and The Shorter Rules.337 The Longer Rules consists of fifty-five questions with rather extended answers, while the Shorter Rules consists of 313 questions with rather brief answers.

Basil requires complete abstinence from all that is harmful, but as food needs differ from person to person, much latitude is allowed. But the stomach should not be full, and eating should be for necessity and not for pleasure. Monks should eat as little as possible to get by, and be satisfied with water to drink (Longer Rules 19).338

Basil rejected extreme forms of asceticism, yet sought to promote the virtues of abstinence and self-control, not to “protect one from what is evil but rather to purify one’s disposition, mortify the passions and free the spirit from servitude to the flesh.”339 In actual practice for monks who followed these rules, Basil allowed for just one meal per day, so that “of all the twenty-four hours of the day and night barely this one may be spent upon the body. The rest the ascetic should spend in spiritual exercises.”340 While Basil frowns on competitive forms of asceticism, it is clear that he advocates austerity in bodily pleasures for the sake of spiritual attention.

Basil’s Longer Rules do not concern themselves with fasting specifically, but the Shorter Rules 126-40 address the topic. In answer to the question, “How can a man avoid taking pleasure in eating?” Basil responds: “By taking as his criterion what is fitting and having it always as his guide and teacher as to what things should be taken for use, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant”(Shorter Rules 126).341 From this it appears that monks were to try to avoid deriving pleasure from food, a rather tall order—although perhaps the pleasure to be avoided would be more of an excessive attachment, since Basil acknowledges that foods may indeed be “pleasant,” urging rather a focus on fitting portions. When asked, “If a man wishes to practise abstinence beyond his strength so that he is hindered in fulfilling the commandment set before him, must we permit him so to do?” Basil responds:

The question does not seem to me to be rightly framed. For abstinence consists not in refraining from material foods, whereby the severity to the body condemned by the apostle results, but in complete giving up of one’s own will. But how great is the danger of falling from the Lord’s commandment owing to one’s own will is clear from the apostle’s words: “Doing the desires of the flesh and of the thoughts, and we were by nature children of wrath.”342

Since Jesus commanded that his disciples “appear not unto men to fast,” the question is put to Basil of what someone should do, “when he is seen against his will.” Basil responds:

This precept applies to those who study to do the commandment of God to be seen of men, that they may cure the fault of men-pleasing. For that the commandment of the Lord, when done for God’s glory, is by nature unfitted to be hidden from those that love God, the Lord showed when He said: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp and set it under a bushel, etc.”343

From these it is clear that Basil promoted fasting for its positive virtues, although he did not want to see abstinence become an end in itself. Jesus himself, he believed, commanded fasting, and therefore it should be practiced with proper motives. Monks in his tradition were expected to be disciplined in body and spirit, in order that they might more readily be pleasing to God in doing his will.

Basil’s Homilies About Fasting: Welcome the
Sanctifying Virtue of Fasting Between the Times

Basil’s authentic, extant sermons on the subject of fasting are known as De jejunio 1 and De jejunio 2.344 (There is a third homily on fasting in the Basilian corpus, but it is universally regarded as inauthentic.)345 Unfortunately they are not readily available in English, and so a fresh translation has been undertaken, and can be found in the appendix. These English translations will be referred to as About Fasting 1 and 2. The only available English translation that the author has found, and that of only the first homily, is a translation by Reginald Cardinal Pole, who appended a translation of it to his Treatie of Iustification in 1569.346 Needless to say, the English there is rather antiquated in style, although it was done well.

Basil’s homilies focus on the sanctifying virtues of fasting, and in the following discussion the main themes he presents will be examined. He establishes the need for fasting, and calls his parishioners to willingly participate in the Lenten fast. Basil traces the origins of fasting to paradise, and cites numerous biblical examples as models. He names spiritual, physical, domestic and societal benefits of fasting to encourage his people to engage in the practice. And finally, he keeps a theological focus on the eschatological basis for fasting.

The Need for the Sanctifying Virtue of Fasting. Basil approaches fasting as a sanctifying, virtuous act. Preached at the beginning of Lent on a feast day, Basil urges that the time of joy should merge seamlessly into the time of fasting. So the season remembers Christ’s suffering and passion, but that is a positive thing, one that works salvation in our souls, in anticipation of our glorification. Basil stresses the positive role of fasting like a preacher who knows he has to turn a disagreeable subject for his congregation into a palatable one. He cites Jesus’ command in Matt 6:16-17 not to look gloomy-faced, and urges his congregation to happily embrace fasting:

Therefore let’s agree, as it has been taught, that we won’t be looking gloomy on the days that are approaching, but we will cheerfully, agreeably look forward to them, as is fitting for saints. No one is passionless when he is receiving a victory crown! No one is gloomy when a victory monument is being erected for him. Don’t make being healed gloomy!347

Similarly, the second sermon begins with Basil comparing his role as a priest to a general giving a rousing speech to his troops before battle, and a trainer urging his athletes to exert themselves in the games: “And so it is now with me. The soldiers of Christ have been ordered to war against invisible enemies, and the athletes of godliness are preparing themselves for crowns of righteousness through self-control. So the word of exhortation is indispensable.”348 By Basil’s day, the Lenten fast was widespread and considered obligatory, though only five days long.349 He says that “all around the world the proclamation is being announced. There isn’t any island, land, city, nation, or remotest border where they haven’t heard of the proclamation.”350 Yet it appears that church leaders felt it necessary to remind the faithful of their duties, since many obviously observed the fast less than whole-heartedly. Basil calls heaven to witness against them, urging them not to be deserters in this spiritual warfare: “The angels are writing down the names of those who fast in each church. See to it that you don’t forfeit the angelic register through a little pleasurable food, and make yourself liable as a deserter, since you have been enlisted as a soldier by the scriptures.”351

The Origins of Fasting. The origins of fasting are not to be found in the Jewish law, but fasting has the most venerable of histories, being the first command in Paradise: “Fasting is as old as mankind itself. It was given as a law in paradise. The first commandment Adam received was: ‘From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil do not eat.’ Now this command, ‘do not eat,’ is the divine law of fasting and temperance.”352 Abstaining from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a command to Adam and Eve to fast, before sin ever entered the human race. Humanity could have been like the angels, partakers of divinity. But with their failure to keep the appointed fast came the curse of pain and toil, and Basil quips: “If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not have to keep this fast now.”353 Commenting on this theme of fasting to restore paradise, Franco Beatrice writes:

We must conclude by saying that also the interpretation of ascetical fasting as a remedy for the Fall and as the best means of re-opening Paradise is an integral part of the Asiatic theology which was deeply rooted and widely diffused in broad sectors of the early church.354

In fact, Augustine would refer to this passage in Basil and the broader theme of fasting to regain paradise in his struggle against the Pelagians, because he found it useful to defend the doctrine of original sin.355

Biblical Examples of Fasting. Basil engages a good deal in what Musurillo referred to as citing “exempla,” characters from sacred history that are used to illustrate the desired fasting principles, positively or negatively.356 Noah, although he got drunk, is excused, because he was ignorant of the potency of wine, and after the great flood man’s food regimen was altered away from the ideals of paradise. Moses fasted forty days and received the divine law, but it was for naught, as the people ruined the results of this fast with one night of drunken debauchery.357 Esau threw away his birthright for a single meal, the glutton! By contrast, Hannah conceived the prophet Samuel because of fasting. Likewise Samson’s parents conceived him in fasting, and he was nurtured to manhood and great strength through fasting regimens of the Nazirites. Elijah received his beatific vision of God after fasting, and he and Elisha performed great exploits related to their fasting and austere lifestyles. The three Hebrew children escaped the fiery furnace because fasting had turned their bodies into inflammable substances.358 Likewise, lions could not eat Daniel, because they “weren’t able to sink their teeth into him. Fasting is like sharpening the edges of a man by dipping his body in iron—it makes him tougher than lions! They couldn’t open their mouths against the saint.” So “when he was thrown down in their den, he taught the lions to fast!”359

The rich man and Lazarus provide sharp contrasts of luxury and poverty and the results. Speaking of the rich man: “You should be afraid of the example of the rich man. That which is delightful throughout life cast him into the fire. It wasn’t unrighteousness, but delicate living that accused him, roasted him in the flames of the furnace.” And referring to Lazarus, “What was it that caused Lazarus to wake up in the bosom of Abraham? Wasn’t it fasting?”360 John the Baptist renounced the normal pleasures of this life, and Paul fasted and suffered many things for the sake of the gospel.361

But above all, Jesus fasted, teaching us to follow his example before facing temptations: “But above all that has been said, our Lord took flesh and fortified it with fasting on behalf of us. Then in that condition he welcomed the assault of the devil, teaching us to anoint and to train ourselves with fastings before struggling with temptations.”362 While he was fasting, he could welcome the attack of the devil, and in his ascended, resurrected body he could show what real food, real nourishment was all about.

In these illustrations, Basil shows his keen awareness of biblical history, as well as his rhetorical skill and communicative flair.363 Basil connects fasting with the spiritual power evidenced by these biblical characters, and calls his parishioners to imitate them.

The Spiritual Benefits of Fasting. The spiritual benefits of fasting commend the practice to any Christian. Basil chides his listeners for their willingness to prefer their stomachs over their souls. Fasting is like medicine that can kill the noxious worm of sin. Faces are darkened to obscure hypocrisy, like actors who wear masks. Rather, Christians should “run to greet the cheerful gift of the fast.”364 The Spirit and the flesh are adversaries, and “just like when one army defeats the other, the flesh is handed over to the conquering spirit, and the spirit is changing the rank of the flesh to slavery.”365 All of the passions need to be kept in check by fasting, because anger, lust, and greed can have the same general effects as drunkenness: “For as smoke drives away bees, intoxication drives away the spiritual gifts.”366 So fasting is seen as spiritually purifying, enabling the worshiper to enter into the presence of God in a holy state: “The Lord admits the one who is fasting inside the walls of holy places, but he doesn’t approve of extravagance, he regards that as profane and unholy.”367 Fasting must be done with the right motives, and be accompanied by righteous living. If the believer approaches fasting that way, spiritual blessings and joy can be expected:

Let’s fast in an acceptable manner, one that’s pleasing to God. A true fast is one that is set against evil, it’s self-control of the tongue. It’s the checking of anger, separation from things like lusts, evil-speaking, lies, and false oaths. Self-denial from these things is a true fast, so fasting from these negative things is good. But on the positive side, let’s delight in the Lord, being in pursuit of the words of the Spirit. And let’s delight in taking up the laws of salvation, and in all the doctrines that restore our souls.368

The Physical Benefits of Fasting. Fasting in this life is good for the body as well as the soul, keeping a person from being overburdened with food, making him like “the boat in stormy weather that goes right over a dangerous rock.”369 Even animals are healthier when on a plain diet, and people should consider fasting a healthy way to live.370 The water that replaces wine during the fast is superior, because “No one ever got a hangover from water. No head ever ached because it was burdened with water.”371 Fasting heightens the anticipation of food, making regular meals taste better.372 Fasting even brings a healthy complexion and pleasant demeanor, and the inner senses come alive.373

Domestic and Societal Benefits of Fasting. Fasting has domestic benefits as well. The household servants get to rest when the members of the house are fasting, so give them a break, Basil urges.374 Wives and husbands are less suspicious of each other when they see each other fasting—after all, if one can abstain from eating, surely one can abstain from sexual immorality that would destroy the marriage.375 From the familiar refrain of Isaiah 58, Basil urges his listeners to fast consistently with matters of justice.376 The fast benefits the city as well: “But how is our public life in this society? The entire city has come together, and the entire region adopts good conduct, puts to sleep the shouting, gets rid of quarrels, and silences insults.”377 In fact, in rather grandiose fashion, Basil envisions that fasting could be the means to world peace and the end of social ills!:

If only everyone who needs a counselor would take her in, there would be nothing preventing a deep peace from abiding in each house. Nations wouldn’t be attacking each other, and armies wouldn’t be engaging in battle. Neither would weapons be forged, if fasting ruled. There would be no point in holding court, prisons would be unpopulated, and evildoers wouldn’t have a place to hide. If slanderers were found in the cities, they would be thrown into the sea.378

The Eschatological Dimension of Fasting. In the conclusion of his first homily, Basil highlights the christocentric, eschatological place of fasting for the Christian. He asks the congregation, “So, do you know whom you are about to receive? He who promised us, that ‘I myself, and the Father, we will come and make our home with him.’”379 In addition to the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit wants to come in, so the people should be sober, because “drunkenness chases away the Holy Spirit.”380 He urges that the fasting days should be as joy-filled as the current feast day, and he hopes that feasting will have the same dignity as fasting. But the people should remember that they participate in the upcoming fast days “as competitors in these preliminary contests,” as the Christian looks forward to the final Day of Judgment.381 Previously, Basil had already mentioned that fasting prepares us for the heavenly banquet table in the Kingdom of God. Conversely, there is an eschatological warning for gluttons. The rich man (Luke 16) was condemned to hell for his luxurious lifestyle, while Lazarus went to Abraham’s bosom because he knew what fasting was like.382

To conclude his second homily, he says that “Wisdom” has prepared a spiritual feast, a “wineless bowl.” So fasting becomes a spiritual feast, and then he alludes to Jesus’ words in that theologically important fasting passage in Matt 9:15, Mark 2:19, and Luke 5:34: “Once we have thoroughly taken our fill, may we also be found worthy of the exhilaration that comes in the bridal chamber of Christ Jesus our Lord!”383 The fasting of this age will consummate in the spiritual feasting of the eschatological age, when the bride of Christ enters his bridal chamber.

Believers are lodged between the times of Christ’s passion that is being remembered and the final day of recompense. This age, for Basil, is a time for fasting and spiritual feasting, both positive virtues working together to sanctify the believer. This attitude recalls the paradise from which we have fallen, the salvation that has been brought about in Christ, and looks forward in anticipation of the consummation of the ages.

Augustine: Fasting to Defeat Temptation and to
Create Capacity for Love and Good Works

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the perhaps the most important Latin church father. He mentions fasting in numerous places in his writings, and also devotes an important homily to the subject. Robert P. Kennedy says that for Augustine, fasting has two basic functions, (1) ascetical and (2) spiritual or ecstatic.384 Ascetical fasting has to do with fighting temptation and gaining mastery over desire. Spiritual fasting aids the mind in transcending earthly realities for heavenly ones, creating a greater capacity for love and good works. While fasting is a profitable discipline, there may be community diversity in its practice. It is not an end in itself but a means of developing “our capacity for contemplation of God and service to the church.”385

Various References: Fasting Aids the Christian
in the Struggle Against the World and to Be Like Christ

Augustine clearly believed in abstaining from worldly pleasures. He mentions in his Confessions 10.31 that he fights against the sweetness of earthly pleasures with fasting, because he has come to view food as a necessary medicine for sustaining life rather than existing for enjoyment. In what is perhaps his longest sermon, Discourse of Augustine the Bishop Against the Pagans (which may have lasted three hours), he filibusters on New Year’s Day 404 to keep his congregation in church and away from the pagan festivities going on in the streets outside.386 Apparently, it was customary to observe fast days in the church during pagan feast days: “We regularly say that fasting is to be practiced during these festive days of the pagans, precisely as a kind of prayer to God for the pagans themselves,” but unfortunately it seemed that Christians were just as willing to participate.387 He says the Lord was figuratively fasting in not taking the godless into his body, as he was fasting from the fruitless tree that he cursed.388 In an echo of Did. 1.3, he urges his people to fast for the Gentiles. He chastises them for going without food while they gamble on games, when the church asks such a small thing of them as fasting on January first. This custom apparently was divisive in the congregation, as some wished to regard it as a feast day.389 Some Christians were so caught up in pagan frivolities that the faithful congregation ought to fast on behalf of the large number of these wayward brethren as well. Christian feast days should be more like a letting up of fasting, rather than like the pagan revelry around them.390 Toward the end of his fiery sermon, he ties prayer, almsgiving and fasting together, saying that they will reach Christ if done in sincerity, because Christ made himself poor for us, he fasted for our sakes, and prayed for us and forgave our sins.391

Augustine annually preached a “solemn exhortation” at the beginning of the Lenten fast, to feed the minds of his people as they set about chastising the body and making a cross of the pleasures of the flesh.392 As Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted forty days, so Lent is celebrated for forty days; but what is signified in Lent should last through the whole of the year. All year one should abstain from sin, but during this time one should abstain even from some of that which is good, such as food and marriage partners. Ascetics might fast on other days of the year as well, and they should add to those fasts during Lent. Delicacies should not be merely rearranged by eating or drinking unusual things, because that would be a mere pretense of self-denial.393 But above all, one should fast from quarrels, and do justice in line with Isaiah 58.394 This theme of doing justice and fasting is echoed again and again, and when these virtues are practiced, prayers will fly more readily to heaven.395

In a sermon dating from A.D. 420-25, Augustine says that almsgiving is:

… a practice which with holy and faithful men customarily goes along with fasting, so that what is subtracted from the one who has may be added to the one who has not. This is the way to cheat your soul to your own profit; to place firmly in heaven what you take away from the flesh.396

Here Augustine ties the ascetic value of fasting to the classic acts of righteousness of Matthew 6, and the early church’s connection of fasting with deeds of social justice is continued. This use of the acts of righteousness is a repeated theme in Augustine’s work, especially his Lenten sermons. For instance, he says,

And so let us perform our alms and deeds of kindness all the more lavishly, all the more frequently the nearer the day approaches on which is celebrated the alms, the kindness that has been done to us. Because fasting without kindness and mercy is worth nothing to the one who’s fasting.397

The almsgiving ties in with the theme of social justice, and together sincere, virtuous lives of righteousness show one to be acceptable to God, and thus prayers go unhindered to heaven—and so the link with Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6 is made complete.

Augustine explains the calendar cycle of Lenten fasting and Easter baptism, like Tertullian, as being a kind of inverse of Christ’s experience.398 Since in baptism a Christian strips off the old, flesh-bound life, it is most appropriate (though any day of the year might be acceptable) to be baptized on Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection. There is no special merit in the day, but the majority of people seeking baptism converge on that day due to the greater joy of the feast. But it must be remembered that Christ’s baptism differs from John’s; Christ received John’s baptism, Christians receive Christ’s. So Christians do not necessarily need to fast after baptism, as Christ did. Rather, like Christ, we should fast when faced with temptation, and the period of Lent, and before one’s baptism, symbolizes that. Fasting during Lent is a humbling of oneself. The bridegroom has been taken away, and we have to mourn (Matt 9:15-17; Ser. 210.4). He echoes Tertullian’s “let us fast and pray, for tomorrow we shall die.”399 During the fifty days of Pentecost the fast is lifted for the joy of the resurrection.400 He urged more frequent fasts for those who were able. He also noted that total abstinence from food is impossible, but the same is not true of sex. He says, “I don’t think it’s asking too much to suggest that married chastity can do for the whole paschal solemnity what virginity can do for the whole of life.”401

Apparently the act of fasting could be viewed as a kind of punishment, perhaps in connection with the idea of penance for sin. In discussing the reality of original sin in even infants, he mentions the example of Ninevite children being required to enter into fasting and prayers of repentance, and finds Jerome (and all of orthodox history) in agreement with him.402 In describing the kind of righteousness that is possible while away from the presence of the Lord, he goes to the acts of righteousness of Matthew 6, almsgiving, fasting and prayer. He says:

By fasting he meant, of course, the whole chastisement of the body. By almsgiving he meant every instance of good will and every good deed, whether in giving or in forgiving, and by prayer he suggested all the forms of holy desire. The chastisement of the body holds in check that concupiscence which ought to be not merely held in check, but ought not to exist at all and will not exist in that perfection of righteousness in which there will be no sin whatsoever.403

Augustine cites Basil’s sermon on fasting (which he notes that he translated himself from the Greek to gain more exact fidelity to the original), and notes that the command to Adam not to eat from the tree implied fasting.404 Because Eve did not fast, we fell from paradise. Now we must fast so that we may return to it. He uses this passage from Basil to show that Basil was in agreement that the healthy do not need a physician, but the sick, and that because of the original sin in paradise, humanity is fallen.405

In his list of heresies, he mentions the Aerians, followers of a bishop Aerius who fell in with the Arians and added some of his own teachings. He taught that “the solemnly prescribed fasts should not be observed, but that each one should fast as he wishes so that he does not seem to be under the law.”406 A monk, Jovinian, taught that all sins are equal, and that once one has been baptized into regeneration, fasting and abstinence from foods were of no value. He also taught that chaste marriage was of equal merit with celibacy, which was considered heretical and stamped out.407

Augustine makes an analogy between sexual desire and the desire for food, saying that a Christian can put up with the desire for food so long as it does not overtake him. Nevertheless, it should be fought against by fasting and eating less than is desired, because it is a fallen desire that wars against what is good in the spirit. Sexual desire is even more hazardous, because one might still enjoy conversation and rationality while enjoying food, but engaging in sex often causes couples to be totally given over to bodily passions. Augustine thinks this is something wiser Christian couples would even want to give up, if they could.408

Franz Cremer notes that Augustine’s comments on the synoptic fasting query places the Christian in a temporal continuum, after the mournful fasting of the old covenant, and in the new covenant that fasts in joy in anticipation of knowing and being like Christ. Cremer says that Augustine’s approach to fasting in these passages can be characterized by the contrast between “Trauer und Freude,” or “sadness and joy.”409 Christ has turned our mourning into gladness with his appearing, so for Augustine, Christian fasting could no longer signify mourning in the redemptive-historical sense. This appears to be a creative theological exegesis of the text, one that over-realizes the eschatology inherent there. But at least there is present in Augustine an awareness of the eschatological turn of the ages, which for him connects to the joy of being like Christ.

On the whole, these passages show Augustine to be committed to fasting, yet clearly in the context of Christians willingly giving themselves over to Christ. Ritual acts like fasting are valuable, but they must be understood as means to an end. Worldliness is all around the Christian, and fasting will help to learn to avoid it. There is perhaps an underlying aversion to the material world that affects his understanding of fasting, which results in some devaluation of the goodness of the creation as given to us by God. While the tone seems a bit more negative than that of Basil’s examined above, it is clear that Augustine wants to use fasting to promote Christ-likeness. The next sermon to be examined makes that even more clear.

On the Value of Fasting: Christians Caught Between
Heaven and the World Must Tame the Flesh

Among the voluminous works of Augustine is a sermon, On the Value of Fasting.410 This sermon might be dated to Lent or some other fast day, perhaps around AD 411 or 412.411 In Value of Fasting 1 he calls fasting a “strengthening of the spirit, this cheating of the flesh and profiting of the mind.”412 The angels do not observe fasting, for in heaven they are filled with God. People in the flesh must eat food, but the incarnation came about for the purpose of giving heavenly food to humanity: “Christ instructed us to hunger for this food, when he said, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, since they shall be satisfied (Mt 5:6).’”413 In being hungry, people stretch themselves, are enlarged, increase their capacity, and in due time are filled (a reference to eschatological bliss). This is the perspective of Paul, who may seem to be so great, yet he considered himself not yet to have attained, but was striving after the goal (Phil 3:13-14).

Value of Fasting 2 goes on to say that there are people of faith who occupy a middle ground, between the angelic realm of perfect obedience and fleshly, carnal people who think the only good is earthly delight. By this middle course he means not some specialized caste of holy Christians, but rather, the calling of all Christians (though his neoplatonic approach is clearly in view). The flesh drags the believer down toward the earth, but the spiritual mind is being drawn up toward heaven (and here he cites Wis 9:15):

For the body which is being corrupted weighs down the soul, and the earthly dwelling oppresses the mind thinking many things (Wis 9:15). So if the flesh, inclining to the earth, is a load on the soul, and a burden weighing down the soul as it tries to fly ahead; the more you delight in your higher life, the more ready you are to lay down your earthly burden. There you have what we are doing when we fast.414

He compares the flesh to a horse he must ride to “Jerusalem,” and it must be tamed by regulating its rations. Otherwise the horse might gain control, and run off the course, which is the way of Christ.415 While the flesh wars against the spirit (Gal 5:17), that should not be understood to mean that the flesh itself has an evil origin (as the Manichees think), since God made them both and everyone loves his own flesh.416 Rather, “there is a kind of marriage between flesh and spirit.”417 From Adam we derived the flesh, and because it is fallen, something to be overcome. But the flesh is subordinate to the Lord in all cases, though not in all cases to the individual person. So God uses the flesh to train a Christian, and likewise the Christian trains the flesh to be obedient, like a slave. Temperate people abstain even from lawful pleasures, so as not to cross the line into those that are unlawful.418

At this point in the sermon, Augustine begins to digress into a lesson about church unity. Pagans, Jews and heretics might fast, but unless fasts are properly directed toward God, they are rejected, and fall under the words of Isa 58:4-5.419 This points toward the unity and supremacy of the body of Christ, and the fasting of the church ought to promote that unity, though sometimes pagan worship puts Christian worship to shame.420 The heretics have rejected Christian unity, but Augustine calls them back like a loving son who dutifully tries to rouse his father from a dying slumber even when he prefers to die. Since God will never die, we cannot divide up his inheritance among his children.421

Augustine’s Monastic Rule: Subduing the
Flesh to Restore Internal Order

After his conversion, Augustine engaged in a lifestyle that might be described as monastic for a time in Thagaste, and later as Bishop of Hippo wrote rules for a monastery there, which have continued to guide Augustinian communities to the present.422 In his Rule 3.1 he urges fasting and abstinence practices for the community: “To the extent that your health allows, subdue your flesh by fasting and abstinence from food and drink. If anyone is unable to fast, let him at least take no food between meals, unless he is sick.”423 Along with his neoplatonic philosophical bent, Augustine’s experiences with worldly pleasures in his youth affected him deeply, and his reaction to this in his maturity no doubt drives a good deal of his desire for asceticism.424 The verb translated above as “subdue,” from the Latin domo/domare, means “discipline” your flesh, and is used primarily of breaking in an animal for riding.425 It is a moderate word without harshness, and “implies understanding, moderation, courage, perseverance, and, above all, a striving for unity and harmony.”426 This kind of discipline flows from Augustine’s previous rules on self-giving and prayer, to stretch his followers to greater capacities. Sister Agatha Mary writes:

To dispossess ourselves of rank, money, goods, and the like is one thing; but dispossession of nourishment above a basic minimum is to place ourselves entirely at God’s disposal. As Augustine says, it is not for us to go beyond the degree of tolerance that our body has, but voluntarily to live on the borderline is an act of great courage. It is in this area that the asceticism of the eastern monastic tradition finds expression in the West.427

The order of creation was disturbed in the fall, and self-denial helps Christians to restore proper order in their hearts.428 Reading takes place all through meals, because “Food is not for the mouth alone; your ears also should hunger for the Word of God.”429 Special food might be given to some due to illness, but on recovery this should not continue, lest they become enslaved to pleasure. When putting up with privations, the members should consider themselves richer, “For it is better to need less than to have more.”430 It is worth observing that while Augustine urges fasting, he did not prescribe specific days, or forbid certain foods, but rather left the details up to local communities to apply.431

So even in his Rule, Augustine clearly grounds fasting practices in his understanding of the body in the world. The need for restoration of order and mastery over the primitive desires seems to dominate in this conception of sanctification as struggle against the world and the flesh. It is clear that fasting could play a significant role in such a theology.

Leo the Great: Fasting as the Link
Between God and Neighbor

Leo the Great (d. 461) was Bishop of Rome from 440-61, and he garnered a good deal of authority for the papacy. He preached a number of sermons related to fasting coinciding with the fasts of the church calendar that have been translated into English.432 Leo’s work forms something of a bridge between the previous Church Fathers and medieval Roman Catholicism, and so it is very much worth examining his writings on fasting.

Leo takes the three themes of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-18) and orders their sequence logically into prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three actions form a paradigm for Leo for understanding Christian duty—to God, self, and others. In Sermon 12.4 he writes:

For by prayer we seek to propitiate God, by fasting we extinguish the lusts of the flesh, by alms we redeem our sins: and at the same time God’s image is throughout renewed in us, if we are always ready to praise Him, unfailingly intent on our purification and unceasingly active in cherishing our neighbour. This threefold round of duty, dearly beloved, brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God’s image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains stedfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind.433

So then fasting is a kind of bridge: an aid to prayer in our relationship with God on the one hand, and an incentive to charity on the other. Fasting, then, occupies a central place, and the individual is purified internally for the obligations to God and neighbor, bringing the Christian’s entire duty into focus. The one who fasts truly abstains from sins of the mind as well as pleasures of the body. By doing so, “he will be made pure and holy by true fasting, and will be fed upon the pleasures of incorruptible delights, and so he will know how, by the spiritual use of his earthly riches, to transform them into heavenly treasure” by sharing with those in need.434 The Lenten fast “is imposed on all the faithful without exception; because no one is so holy that he ought not to be holier, nor so devout that he might not be devouter.”435

Reginald Cardinal Pole used Leo’s emphases during the Counter-reformation as a foundation for understanding the relationship between faith and works. In his Treatie of Iustification he argues for the need of grace on the one hand, and the need for penance and good works in the salvation process on the other. To his treatise he appended fresh English translations of patristic sermons: Augustine’s Of Faith and Works, Chrysostom’s Of Praying unto God, Basil’s Of Fasting, several sermons by Leo on fasting, and Cyprian’s Of Almesdeedes. These sermons were used to support Pole’s thesis of the need for joining faith and works in justification. While fasting itself plays only a minor role in the text of the treatise, it is obvious that Pole felt that fasting was an integral part of demonstrating true repentance (or “doing penance” as the Catholic literature tends to render the term). Christ’s admonitions from the Sermon on the Mount linked prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as “acts of righteousness,” so it is not surprising that these components factor into such a discussion of justification, especially from the Catholic side which tended to emphasize the role of works in righteousness. Whether or not one agrees with Pole’s particular approach to linking faith and works in the context of sacramental theology, one can at least appreciate the moderate and serious discussion of this important issue from his perspective. His work lacks some of the unseemly polemics so common to that period, as he attempts to steer a middle course as best he could. It also demonstrates that some of the Protestant positioning against Catholicism involved caricature of their positions, even as the Catholics tended to caricature the position of the Protestants as antinomian.

Alexandre Guillaume has thoroughly studied Leo’s theology of fasting, and his work can be found in the French publication of his dissertation, its later expansion, and an abridgement.436 Guillaume analyzes Leo’s theology of fasting practice as proceeding from an attribute of God he designates pietas, that is, a covenantal, filial bond of devotion the Father has with the Son, which can be reciprocal with men as well.437 The five main points Leo makes about fasting can be distilled as follows:

1. Christian fasting differs from the fasting of Jews and Manichees.

2. Fasting without the exercise of charity would not be true Christian fasting.

3. Fasting stands in the central place in the work of charity, as the hinge of purifying self, between relations with God and neighbor.

4. Fasting, as the source of almsgiving, is itself a work of charity, as it causes one to identify with the needs of others.

5. The efficacy of fasting depends on its expression of charity.438

Guillaume sums up Leo’s view of fasting by saying that it is an expression of charity, an act of worship, a participation in the sacrifice of the cross, and a work that renders glory to God’s divine charity.439

While Leo builds his approach to fasting on Scripture and previous church tradition, he clearly takes it some distance further in his thinking. The commendable aspect of fasting as an act of charity gives Guillaume hope for renewal of appropriate fasting practices in the present, which is reflected in recent papal statements as well as Vatican II.440 But one can also see in Leo no-so-subtle shades of emphases on fasting that will guide medieval Catholic practice into something the Reformers came to reject. Most notably, these include the binding of all people to follow certain fasting practices and the view of fasting as an act of worship that earns a person saving merit before God. There appears to be a minimizing of the spiritual benefits of voluntary, sacrificial fasting in the daily life of the normal believer, since fasting was becoming so encouched in ritualized behavior. By the time of Leo, there is a theology of fasting, but its context has been split into two main arenas: the life of the faithful in the rituals of the church on the one hand, and the austerities of ascetic monks on the other which will be examined in more detail in the following chapter. This important development of fasting as prescribed behavior in the church needs more examination, and to that we now turn.

The Development of Official Church Fasting Practices:
Formalizing Fasting into
Seasonal and Liturgical Ritual

The teachings and traditions of the early church were formalized through various official church pronouncements. Often church councils are remembered for their important doctrinal controversies and decisions about those things that are central to orthodoxy. But it must be noted that church councils also often dealt with issues related to church practice, such as rituals and liturgy, that were very much considered by them to be part of orthodox Christianity. And so fasting practices came to be formalized through the gradual processes of church pronouncements that codified some traditions and rejected others. It is likely that as this happened, the voluntary aspect of fasting was largely lost for the bulk of the laity, replaced by seasons of prescribed and defined fasting practices.

Eucharistic Fasting:
Requiring Purity to Partake of Christ

Christians in the early centuries developed their approach to the Eucharist with fasting concepts in mind. Occasionally small groups of Christians practiced the Eucharist with various elements (such as milk, honey, cheese, oil, salt, vegetables), the main reasons having to do with a bit of a blurred line between regular and ritual Christian meals, typical available foods, and symbolic meanings that might be attached to them.441 Tied more closely to fasting practices in asceticism were some early Christians who practiced “ascetic Eucharists” of bread and water, a practice that was rejected in favor of the traditional elements of bread and wine. Some of these were heretics, like Marcion, or more orthodox ascetics, like Cyprian, who rejected the drinking of wine.442 This tension can be seen in different recensions of the Acts of Thomas, where the earlier Greek edition has him asking for water for the Eucharist, but the later Syriac texts change this to wine, in line with later ecclesiastical mandate.443

That fasting was associated with the dispensing of the Eucharist can be seen in the discussion of the canons of the councils.444 Augustine had commented in A.D. 400 that reverence for the Lord’s body prompts fasting before the Eucharist, and that there was no reason to change what was by then an established custom. So, by the beginnings of the 5th century, fasting before the reception of the Eucharist was essentially church law, which also had the practical effect of limiting the celebration of the Eucharist to mornings.445 Fasting from midnight before reception of the Eucharist became universally binding in the Roman Catholic Church. Combined with the emphasis on the awesomeness of the divine presence and the authority of the priest in offering the sacrifice, this tended to produce hesitancy among the faithful to participate. These factors “progressively obscured the notion of the sacramentality of the communion of all those present at the Eucharist,” observes modern Catholic canonist Joseph Dieckhaus.446 As will be shown in the next chapter, these age-old traditions would finally give way to reform in the 20th century, especially in the wake of Vatican II.

Fasting in Canons of Early Church Councils:
Establishing Universal Seasonal Fasts

The many references to fasting in the Church Fathers received some formal codification in the early church councils. It was understood that fasting was a practice with biblical and apostolic warrant and a long history of practice. The councils’ references to fasting largely concern aspects of Lent, baptism and Eucharist, and characters who were violating what were considered standard practice.

Nicea: The Formalizing of a Forty-Day Lent

Numerous Church Fathers, including Eusebius, mention that the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) dealt with the establishment of a common paschal date, although the official acts of that council are not extant. It is generally agreed that the tradition of forty days of Lent prior to Easter (the “Quadragesima” or similar terms are used in various languages) was given ecumenical authority here, having grown from shorter observances in previous times.447

Gangra: No Fasting on Sunday, and the Church Reserves
Its Rights for Traditional Fast Days

The Council of Gangra (A.D. 325-81) condemned the practices of a bishop Eustathius and his followers, who promoted (among other things) “fasting on the Lord’s Day, despising the sacredness of that free day, but disdaining and eating on the fasts appointed in the Church; and certain of them abhor the eating of flesh.”448 Canon 18 anathematized anyone who, under the pretense of asceticism, fasted on Sunday. This was seen as an act of rebellion, because fasting carried with it connotations of mourning, but Sunday was to be a celebration of the resurrection.449 Conversely, Canon 19 condemns those who disregarded the “fasts commonly prescribed and observed by the Church, because of his perfect understanding of the matter.”450 This phrase appears to be sarcastic, and the condemnation highlights the fasting practices involved as schismatic.

Laodicea: Regulating Lenten Fasting

The Synod of Laodicea (A.D. 343-81) ruled in Canon 45 that no one could be received as a candidate for baptism after the second week of Lent.451 This highlights the practice of catechumens fasting before their Easter (or Easter Eve) baptism during Lent, and basically codifies a kind of procedural rule for the practice. Canon 49 of this synod also stipulates that bread is not to be offered during the liturgy during Lent, except on Sabbath and Lord’s Day, emphasizing the fasting going on during this period.452 Canon 50 explicitly commands continuing the fast on Maundy Thursday so as not to dishonor the Lenten season. Apparently some had a practice of breaking the fast on that day to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. This canon also defined the fast of Lent as “eating only dry meats,” a statement in itself a bit unclear, but apparently intended to forbid animal flesh that once flowed with blood.453

Carthage: Ministers Must Observe the
Eucharistic Fast, and More Regulations for Lent

The “African Code” of the Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), Canon 41, states “That the Sacraments of the Altar are not to be celebrated except by those who are fasting,” except for Maundy Thursday.454 The Council in Trullo, or Quinisext Council (A.D. 692), used similar language, “that the holy mysteries of the altar are not to be performed but by men who are fasting” in Canon 29, even on Maundy Thursday, noting however that there were customs to that effect.455 This highlights the practice of eucharistic fasting in the church. In Rome, there was a local practice of fasting on Saturdays during Lent (the day before Easter excepted), which was condemned in Canon 55, though this practice apparently did not change much.456 Some churches in Armenia and elsewhere were following different practices on what was allowed during Lent, and so Canon 56 included eggs and cheese as foods forbidden, so that “the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly.”457 Canon 89 says, “The faithful spending the days of the Salutatory Passion in fasting, praying and compunction of heart, ought to fast until the midnight of the Great Sabbath: since the divine Evangelists, Mathhew and Luke, have shewn us how late at night it was [that the resurrection took place].”458 This stipulated that the fast of the day before Easter should extend until midnight, so that essentially a vigil is kept for the coming of day of the resurrection.

Trullo: No Fasting on Saturday or Sunday,
and More Regulations for Lent

Trullo also affirmed the authenticity of “The Apostolic Canons,” which had been handed down from the fathers. Since Trullo is considered ecumenical by the Eastern Orthodox, so they also accept the authority of these canons. In “The Apostolical Canons” fasting is mentioned in a couple of places, and expansion of these is found in other canon law. Canon 66 forbids fasting on Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Canon 69 requires that fasting be observed for Lent, the “Quadragesimal fast of Easter,” and includes the “day of Preparation,” the one Saturday that would be an exception to the rule not to fast on Sabbath days.459

Conclusion: The Fasting Calendar Summarized

As the net result of the formalization of fast days in the patristic era, fasting practices became ritualized into the seasonal cycles of the calendar of the church. The old “station fasts” of Wednesday and especially Friday were regarded as traditional markings of Christ’s betrayal and death, with Friday becoming more binding over time. Saturday fasts were practiced by some, but could not succeed in the long term and were condemned in the East. Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, was never to be a fast day. The “Ember Days,” fasts to mark the beginnings of the four seasons, did gain traditional and authoritative status, although their dates could change and practices could be altered. But the most universal and binding fast was the paschal on the Friday before Easter. This fast in preparation for Easter, along with the days of Lent that preceded it, emerged definitively as the central Christian fast.460 People would generally fast before baptism or ordination, and perhaps other special occasions. Beyond these, Christians might celebrate local or occasional fasts in their given communities before particular saints’ feast days, or engage in voluntary submission to more rigorous ascetic behaviors. The fact of fasting was clearly established as a regular part of Christian life for the Catholic faithful for centuries, while the details were often left to be hammered out through the long processes of church canon law or simply subject local custom.

The establishment of fasting in the context of the formal church calendar has potentially both positive and negative effects. From the positive side, the church provides a seasonal reminder to believers of the need to remember Christ’s passions, and identify with him through self-denial. As the Lenten fast proceeds to the Easter feast of the resurrection, the believer is reminded of the glorious fulfillment of the covenantal promises of God in Christ, and lives in hope of the final consummation. As such, the calendar can perform the very needed function of a regular, cyclical reminder of the Christian’s place in this world between the times, and a kind of ritualized lesson in the eschatology of the nature of the age. But from the negative side, formalization of ritual practices tends to obscure the underlying theology, and focus seems to shift from what these actions mean to how to perform them correctly. Two more key elements are the loss of the voluntary nature of fasting and the increasing connection of works of self-denial with the earning of justifying merit before God. These are the tensions that grow through Catholicism and monasticism in the Middle Ages, coming to a head in the Reformation. Those themes will be dealt with in the following chapter.


238 Joan Brueggeman Rufe, “Early Christian Fasting: A Study of Creative Adaptation” (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1994), iii.

239 Herbert Musurillo, “The Problem of Ascetical Fasting in the Greek Patristic Writers,” Traditio 12 (1956): 2.

240 Ibid.: 62.

241 Ibid.: 63.

242 Kirsopp Lake, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers with an English Translation, vol. 1, LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 155.

243 Ibid., 293.

244 Ibid., 349.

245 Michael W. Holmes, ed. and rev., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings, 2d ed., J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, eds. and trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 541.

246 Lake, Apostolic Fathers, 1: 308-09, 320-21.

247 Ibid., 1: 309.

248 The phrase referencing fasting is generally viewed as evidence of a later interpolation into the oral gospel tradition, as it does not appear in the Gospels. Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache: A Commentary, trans. Linda M. Maloney, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 74. Cf. also Luke 6:27-28.

249 Considering the strong theme in the Didache to distinguish the Christian community from the Jews, it is likely that the enemies envisioned here come from Judaism (Niederwimmer, 74).

250 Lake, Apostolic Fathers, 1: 321.

251 Rufe, 161, LSJ and BAGD note that this verb appears elsewhere only in Herodotus II.40 and Hippocrates. de nat mul. 95; Niederwimmer, 129, mentions that Lampe also notes Ammonius of Alexandria, Fragmenta in Acta apostolorum 13.2 (PG 85:1541A), and that the Wengst edition of the Didache has nhsteusavtw in this passage like Constitutions.

252 Rufe, 164, also notes possible parallels with mystery religions’ initiation rites and the possibility of viewing baptism as an act of exorcism, which may have appealed to Gentile converts to Christianity. Probably the main influence is from the biblical and Jewish heritage, but over time accommodations for the Gentile culture were being made.

253 Did. 9.5 makes it clear that only baptized converts were allowed to participate in the Eucharist, with the citation of Matt 7:6, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

254 Willy Rordorf, “Baptism According to the Didache,” The Didache in Modern Research, ed. Jonathan A. Draper (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 216; citing J. Schümmer, “Die altchristliche Fastenpraxis: mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Schriften Tertullians” (LQF 27: 164-78), 169. Niederwimmer, 130, however, thinks that the group fasting practice rather declined and can scarcely be connected to the later Easter ritual.

255 Lake, Apostolic Fathers, 1: 321.

256 Whether or not the writer of the Didache had access to Matthew’s written gospel, or was simply relying upon a similar oral tradition, is a debated point (Rufe, 152, n. 24).

257 Jonathan A. Draper, “Christian Self-Definition Against the ‘Hypocrites’ in Didache VIII,” The Didache in Modern Research, ed. Jonathan A. Draper (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 234. Niederwimmer,131, however, says that “these are freely chosen days of fasting imposed by individual Christians on themselves. (Nothing is said about the motives for such fasting.) Thus this section is not intended to introduce the custom of fasting but simply to fix the commonly accepted custom in a certain way and with more precision.”

258 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 202. Wallace cites the example of Matt 4:2 in which Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and since the reference is in the accusative it means that he fasted not only on those days, but throughout the entire period. He suggests that Did. 8.1 makes a qualitative distinction between the fasting practices of the two groups. Rufe, 155, notes that Audet, Rordorf and Tuilier support this interpretation, but she notes that the temporal dative can also be used to answer the question of “how long,” which suggests to her that “the Didachist might not have been as rigorous in his use of the forms as some scholars surmise.” BDF 161.2 describes the use of the accusative of extent of time, 201.1 the temporal dative.

259 Rufe, 154.

260 For a caution on the parochial nature of the Didache and its use in comparison to the NT and early Christianity, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 67, n. 32.

261 Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 18-20.

262 Ibid., 54.

263 Lake, Apostolic Fathers, 2: 55.

264 This is probably a loan word from Latin, having military associations. Tertullian would later say that Christians observed stations because they were God’s militia (De orat. 19, De jejun. 10). Although the exact nature of the practices in this early period of the church’s history is not clear, the witness to fasting twice a week in Did. 8.1, here, and to Tertullian may give some idea of the growth of customary station fasting. Christine Mohrmann, “Statio,” VC 7 (1953): 221-45; Rufe, 202-07; Osiek, 169; Norbert Brox, Der Hirt des Hermas, Kommentar zu den Apostolischen Vätern (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), 308-9.

265 Cf. vineyard imagery in Isa 5:1-11; Mark 12:1-12/Matt 21:33-46/Luke 20:9-19; Matt 24:45-51/Luke 12:41-46; Mark 13:34; Matt 25:14-30; Luke 12:27 (Osiek, 171).

266 Parallels can be found in Didasc. 19 and Ap. Const. 5.1.3 (Osiek, 174).

267 J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 5, 9-10.

268 Ibid., 150, 156.

269 Ibid., 136.

270 Ibid., 137.

271 Ibid., 139.

272 Ibid., 146.

273 For an extensive discussion of the problems, see Antti Marjanen, “Thomas and Jewish Religious Practices,” in Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays on the Gospel of Thomas, ed. Risto Uro, Studies of the New Testament and Its World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), 164-74.

274 Ibid., 172.

275 Elliott, 49, 57.

276 Ibid., 48.

277 Ibid., 334.

278 Ibid., 364.

279 Ibid., 368.

280 Ibid., 379.

281 Ibid., 382.

282 Ibid., 383.

283 Ibid., 383-84.

284 Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, rev. ed., 2 vols. (Louisville: Wetminster/John Knox, 1992), 2: 271-83.

285 Ibid., 2: 287.

286 Ibid., 2: 288.

287 Ibid., 2: 300.

288 Ibid., 2: 305.

289 Ibid., 2: 323.

290 Arthur Vööbus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, CSCO 184: 14 (Louvain: CSCO, 1958), 85-86.

291 Schneemelcher, ed., 2: 340.

292 Ibid., 2: 347. Cf. also Acts Thom. 9.96; 9.104; 12.145

293 Ibid., 2: 351.

294 Ibid., 2: 373.

295 Ibid., 2: 485.

296 PG 2:300-301; Schneemelcher, ed., 2: 488.

297 PG 2:336-38; Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Christian Library 17 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870), 216-18.

298 Ante-Nicene Christian Library 17: 185-86. The Apostolical Constitutions are sometimes regarded as Pseudo-Clementine literature since the manuscripts bear Clement’s name, but probably date from later centuries. Various Eastern Orthodox communities regard them as bearing apostolic authority, but they were largely unknown in the West until modern times. See De Lacy O’Leary, The Apostolical Constitutions and Cognate Documents, with Special Reference to Their Liturgical Elements, Early Church Classics (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1906), 11-13; Ante-Nicene Christian Library 17: 3-4.

299 Ps.-Clem. Rec. 3.67, PG 1:1511; Ps.-Clem. Rec. 6.15, PG 1:1355-56; Ps.-Clem. Rec. 7.34-37, PG 1:1368-70.

300 Ante-Nicene Christian Library 17: 186.

301 Ante-Nicene Christian Library 17: 130, 134, 138-39.

302 Limitations of time and space have prevented an exhaustive analysis of primary sources related to fasting in all the church fathers. In addition to the material presented in the following sections, material in such important figures as Origen, Chrysostom and Jerome could prove useful for further study. However, these authors do not offer extended treatments of fasting but rather mention it in diverse and scattered contexts. Therefore, I have chosen to focus more on those authors who write directly about fasting, examining numerous other references to fasting that they also mention, in order to get a deeper understanding of those key individuals.

303 Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, trans. Leslie William Barnard, ACW 56 (New York: Paulist, 1997), 48-49.

304 Ibid., 66

305 Justin Martyr, Writings of Saint Justin Martyr, FC 6, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, 1948), 170-71.

306 Cf. also Dial. Tr. 46.2.5; 111.1.3.

307 FC 6: 209.

308 Stromata 3 describes those who are eunuchs for the kingdom of God as performing a kind of fast to the world (which is not exactly fasting, but the connection to sexuality is here made explicit). This book remains untranslated from Latin in the ANF series due to its subject matter and the sensibilities of the populace. ANF 2: 381, 399-400.

309 Who Is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved? ANF 2, 603-4.

310 Robert Pierce Casey, ed., The Excerpta Ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria, Studies and Documents 1, ed. Kirsopp Lake and Silva Lake (London: Christophers, 1934), 91.

311 Eclog. ex Scrip. Proph. 14; PG 9:704-05.

312 Tertullian, On Baptism 20, Tertullian, Apologetic and Practical Treatises, trans. C. Dodgson, A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1842), 278.

313 Tertullian, On Repentance 9, Apologetic and Practical Treatises, 365.

314 Tertullian, On Patience 13, Tertullian: Disciplinary, Moral and Ascetical Works, Fathers of the Church, vol. 40 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959), 216.

315 Tertullian, On Prayer 18, Apologetic and Practical Treatises, 310-11.

316 Tertullian, On Prayer 23, Apologetic and Practical Treatises, 317.

317 Tertullian, To His Wife, 2.4, Apologetic and Practical Treatises, 425-26.

318 Tertullian, On Fasting, ANF 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956).

319 Tertullian, On Fasting 1, ANF 4: 102.

320 Although Tertullian links eating and sexual pleasure frequently, Gerald Bray notes that in Tertullian’s overall work, fasting occupies much less of his attention than continence in his approach to sanctification. This may be because fasting as a religious ritual would have little meaning to the larger Roman world in general, and also because total fasting is impossible, as food is necessary for life. Gerald Lewis Bray, Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979), 134. This statement should qualify the title of the thesis by Martin J. Lunde, “Understanding the Preeminence of Fasting in Tertullian’s Practical Theology” (M.A. thesis, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2000).

321 Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 83; Lunde, 6.

322 Rufe, 284, n. 147.

323 Tertullian, On Fasting 2, ANF 4: 103.

324 Tertullian, On Fasting 3, ANF 4: 103-4.

325 Tertullian, On Fasting, 3, ANF 4: 104.

326 Lunde, 35, 38.

327 Tertullian, On Fasting 4, ANF 4: 104-5.

328 Tertullian, On Fasting 6, ANF 4: 105-6.

329 Tertullian, On Fasting 8, ANF 4: 107. Also, references to the casting out of demons by fasting in Matt 17:21 and Mark 9:29, and Cornelius fasting in Acts 10:30, demonstrate that these NT textual variants were already established in the textual tradition and were viewed as authoritative by Tertullian.

330 Tertullian, On Fasting 9, ANF 4: 108.

331 Tertullian, On Fasting 10, ANF 4: 108-9. Mohrmann, 221-45, traces the use of the “station,” both for fasting days of the week as well as eucharistic practice, from The Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas and Tertullian through later Catholic practice.

332 Tertullian, On Fasting 12, ANF 4: 110.

333 Tertullian, On Fasting15, ANF 4: 112.

334 Tertullian, On Fasting 16, ANF 4: 113.

335 Tertullian, On Fasting 17, ANF 4: 114.

336 These are generally known by the Latin title De jejunio (PG 31:163-98), and they have been newly translated here from Greek and included in the appendix.

337 The Longer Rules may be found in English in Augustine Holmes, A Life Pleasing to God: The Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000); Saint Basil: Ascetical Works, FC 9, 223-339; both the Longer Rules and Shorter Rules may be found in English in Basil, The Ascetic Works of Saint Basil, trans. W. K. L. Clarke, Translations of Christian Literature Series 1, Greek Texts (New York: MacMillan, 1925).

338 Holmes, 241-43.

339 Ibid., 244.

340 Ibid., 246.

341 Basil, The Ascetic Works, trans. Clarke, 277.

342 Shorter Rules 128, Basil, The Ascetic Works, trans. Clarke, 277.

343 Shorter Rules 223, Basil, The Ascetic Works, trans. Clarke, 311.

344 PG 31:163-84 and PG 31:185-98, respectively.

345 PG 31:1507-10.

346 Reginald Pole, A Treatie of Iustification (Lovanii: Ioannem Foulerum, 1569; reprint, Farnborough: Gregg, 1967), 48-57.

347 About Fasting 1.1.

348 Ibid., 2.1.

349 This can be seen when he says the stomach “should make a truce, a peace offering with us for five days” (About Fasting 1.7), and also when he rhetorically quotes the possible carnal reasoning of his parishioners, “‘Since five days of fasting have been proclaimed for us, let’s drown ourselves in drunkenness today’” (About Fasting 2.4).

350 About Fasting 2.2.

351 Ibid.

352 Ibid., 1.3.

353 Ibid.

354 Pier Franco Beatrice, “Ascetical Fasting and Original Sin in the Early Christian Writers,” in Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church, ed. Pauline Allen, Raymond Canning, Lawrence Cross (Everton Park, Queensland, Australia: Centre for Early Christian Studies, 1998), 227-28.

355 Ibid., 211-15. See also discussion below on Augustine.

356 Musurillo: 5-11.

357 About Fasting 1.5.

358 Ibid., 1.6.

359 Ibid., 1.7.

360 Ibid., 1.9.

361 Ibid.

362 Ibid.

363 Cf. also About Fasting 2.6 for similar lists.

364 About Fasting 1.2.

365 Ibid., 1.9; cf. 2.3.

366 Ibid., 1.10.

367 Ibid., 2.4.

368 Ibid., 2.7.

369 Ibid., 1.4.

370 Ibid.

371 Ibid., 1.9.

372 Ibid., 1.8.

373 Ibid., 1.9; cf. 2.6.

374 Ibid., 1.7.

375 Ibid., 1.9.

376 Ibid., 1.10.

377 Ibid., 2.5.

378 Ibid.

379 Ibid., 1.11.

380 Ibid.

381 Ibid.

382 Ibid., 1.9.

383 Ibid., 2.7.

384 Robert P. Kennedy, “Fasting,” Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 354-55.

385 Ibid., 355.

386 Discourse of Augustine the Bishop Against the Pagans, Sermon 198, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, pt. 3, vol. 11, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1995), 229, n. 1.

387 On The Three Ways of Understanding Christ in Scripture, Sermon 341.26, Works of St. Augustine 3.11: 304-05: “Those of you here today who didn’t fast yesterday should grieve that you spent the other festival days of the pagans in this way, while we were feeling so sad for you, and should please have the goodness, some time or other, to relieve us of our sadness and yourselves of your vile behavior.”

388 Against the Pagans 5, The Works of St. Augustine 3.11: 184.

389 Against the Pagans 6, The Works of St. Augustine 3.11: 184-85.

390 Against the Pagans 9, The Works of St. Augustine 3.11: 187.

391 Against the Pagans 56, The Works of St. Augustine 3.11: 223.

392 On the Beginning of Lent, Sermon 205.1, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 103.

393 This must have been a personally vexing issue, as it creeps into every annual Lenten sermon with fairly strong and pertinent comments; cf. Sermons 207.2, 208.1, 209.3, 210.10-11.

394 On the Beginning of Lent, Sermon 205.1-3, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 103-5. Cf. Sermon 209.1.

395 On the Beginning of Lent, Sermon 206.2-3, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 107-08.

396 On Almsgiving 1, Sermon 390, The Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 413.

397 On the Beginning of Lent, Sermon 207.1, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 109-110.

398 On the Beginning of Lent, Sermon 210, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 118-27.

399 Ser. 210.7, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 122.

400 Ser. 210.8, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 122-23.

401 Ser. 210.9, The Works of St. Augustine 3.6: 123.One wonders whether Augustine’s married hearers would agree with his entirely positive assessment of what married chastity did for them, as they would likely have found pleasure in returning to normalcy, just as with eating.

402 Answer to the Pelagians: The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins and the Baptism of Little Ones 3.6.12, Works of St. Augustine 1.23: 127-28.

403 Answer to the Pelagians: The Perfection of Human Righteousness 8.18, Works of St. Augustine 1.23: 296.

404 On the use of Basil’s sermons by Augustine, translations available to him and a chart of relationships of various editions, see Heinrich Marti, ed. and trans., Rufin von Aquileia, De ieiunio I, II: zwei Predigten über das Fasten nach Basileios von Kaisareia (Leiden: Brill, 1989), xxviii-xxix.

405 Answer to the Pelagians, II: Answer to Julian 1.17, 32, Works of St. Augustine 1.24: 279, 291.

406 Arianism and Other Heresies: Heresies 53, Works of St. Augustine 1.18: 47.

407 Heresies 82, Works of St. Augustine 1.18: 53.

408 Answer to Julian 4.71, Works of St. Augustine 1.24: 420-21.

409 Franz Gerhard Cremer, Der Beitrag Augustins zur Auslegung des Fastenstreitsgesprächs: (Mk 2, 18-22 parr) und der Einfluss seiner Exegese auf die Mittelalterliche Theologie (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1971), 45-49.

410 De utilitate jejunii, PL 40; cf. Augustine, The Usefulness of Fasting, in Treatises on Various Subjects, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, ed. Roy J. Deferrari (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1952), 395-422; On the Value of Fasting, Sermon 400, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 471-83.

411 Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 482, n. 1.

412 Ibid., 471.

413 Ibid.

414 Ibid., 473.

415 Value of Fasting 3, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 473.

416 Value of Fasting 4, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 474, referring to Eph 5:29.

417 Value of Fasting 5, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 474.

418 Value of Fasting 6, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 475.

419 Value of Fasting 7, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 476.

420 Value of Fasting 8-11, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 476-80.

421 Value of Fasting 12-13, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 480-81.

422 George Lawless, Augustine of Hippo and his Monastic Rule (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 60. Cf. also Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, 2000), 125-30 for a description of his pre-monastic life in Thagaste, and 131-38, 193-95 for a description of monastic life in Hippo.

423 Ibid., 85, 111.

424 Adolar Zumkeller, Augustine’s Rule: A Commentary, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, ed. John E. Rotelle (Villanova, Penn.: Augustinian, 1987), 66-67.

425 Also mentioned in Value of Fasting 3, Works of St. Augustine 3.10: 473.

426 Agatha Mary, The Rule of Saint Augustine: An Essay in Understanding (Villanova, Penn.: Augustinian, 1991), 116; cf. P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 1:571-72.

427 Ibid., 117.

428 Zumkeller, 66.

429 Rule 3.2, Lawless, 85.

430 Rule 3.5, Lawless, 87.

431 Zumkeller, 68.

432 A selection of sermons has been translated in The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great, NPNF2 12; the full set of available sermons is translated in St. Leo the Great: Sermons, FC 93, in which see esp. Ser. 12-20, 39-50, and 86-94.

433 NPNF2 12: 123.

434 Sermon 19.3, NPNF2 12: 128.

435 Sermon 49.1, NPNF2 12: 160.

436 Alexandre Guillaume, Jeûne et charité: dans l'eglise latine, des origines au XIIe siècle en particular chez saint Léon le Grand (Rome: Pontificia Universitate Gregoriana, 1954); Prière, jeûne et charité: des perspectives chrétiennes et une espérance pour notre temps (Paris: S. O. S., 1985); abridged ed. (Paris: S. O. S., 1988).

437 Ibid., 61-65.; cf. P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 2: 1378.

438 Guillaume, Prière, jeûne et charité (1985), 81-111.

439 Ibid., 112.

440 Ibid., 147-200.

441 Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), 140-42.

442 Ibid., 164-66, 199-213. “Orthodox” here would refer here to adhering to accepted Christian doctrine, though often these ascetics were part of schismatic groups. The distinction here was important for the church when they attempted to mainstream various schismatics back into orthodox church life.

443 Vööbus, 84.

444 See discussion of the “African Code” of the Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), Canon 41, and The Council in Trullo, or Quinisext Council (A.D. 692), Canon 29.

445 Joseph C. Dieckhaus, “The Eucharistic Fast and Frequent Communion in the West: A Canonical and Liturgical Perspective” (Licentiate in Canon Law Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1991), 9-11.

446 Ibid., 14.

447 Paschal Scotti, “The Times of Fasting in the Early Church” (Licentiate in Canon Law thesis, Catholic University of America, 1995), 35-37.

448 “Synodical Letter of the Council of Gangra,” NPNF2 14: 91. While Gangra itself is not considered one of the seven ecumenical councils, its canons (along with those of Laodicea [343-81] and several other occasional councils) were accepted at Chalcedon as in continuity with apostolic tradition and binding (NPNF2 14: 59).

449 NPNF2 14: 99-100.

450 Ibid.: 100.

451 Ibid.: 153. On this synod’s ecumenicity, see discussion of Gangra, above.

452 Ibid.: 155.

453 Ibid.: 155-56. While there may be similarities to Tertullian’s discussion of the Montanists’ xerophagies, it appears that these are different things.

454 Ibid.: 461-62.

455 Ibid.: 378. For this council’s authority, which is somewhat short of ecumenical status, see 356-58.

456 Ibid.: 391.

457 Ibid.

458 Ibid.: 403.

459 Ibid.: 598.

460 Scotti, 22-24.

Related Topics: Fasting