Doctrine of Fasting

August 8, 2011

Doctrine of Fasting

1.    The Meaning of the Word.

A.    Greek “nestis

1.    Means “one who has not eaten, who is empty.”

2.    This word is used with specific reference to intentional abstention from food on religious grounds.

3.    Used for the one who fasts.

B.    Greek “nesteuo”

1.    Means “to be hungry, without food.”

2.    Usually means “to fast” in a religious and ritual sense.

C.    Greek “nesteia”

1.    Has the general sense of “not having eaten, being without nourishment, suffering hunger.

2.    Usually has the special religious sense of fasting.

3.    Can also be the name for the fast-day.

a.    In the Athenian cult for a day in the festival of Thesmorphia.

b.    In Judaism for the great Day of the Atonement.

2.    Fasting in Antiquity.

A.    The practice of fasting, found in all religions, and used here in the specific sense of temporary abstention from all nourishment on religious grounds, is at first more common among the Greeks than the Romans, but then under foreign influences it spread across the whole of the ancient world.  The original and most powerful motive for fasting in antiquity is to be found in fear of demons who gained power over men through eating.  Fasting was also an effective means of preparing for intercourse with the deity and for the reception of ecstatic or magical powers.

1.    The idea of fasting to ward off evil spirits is found.

2.    It is possible that the mourning fast had apotropiac significance (prophylactic, in the sense of averting evil influence).

a.    There are accounts of making fun of this practice because the parents of the deceased up to the burial, for three days, abstained from all food.

b.    A man watching over the corpse is not allowed food or wine.

c.    So long as the soul of a dead person is near, there is danger of demonic infection through eating and drinking.

3.    Egyptian priests had to fast before entering the sanctuary to offer sacrifices or perform cultic actions.  There is no similar tradition in respect to Greek and Roman cults.

4.    The Thesmorphia festival in Athens, which was in honor of Demeter, imposed a one day fast on women, which they had to keep sitting on the ground.

5.    In the mysteries abstention from food and drink was an important obligation for those about to be initiated.  Along with other prescribed rites fasting was supposed to make them fit for union with the deity.

a.    In the Eleusinian mysteries, the neophyte fasted up to receiving the mixed sacramental drink.

b.    In the Phrygian mysteries of Cybele and Attis partial fasts culminated in total fasting during the three days of mourning for the death of Attis.

c.    Initiation into the Isis mysteries seems to have demanded a complete fast, though there was a ten day abstention from flesh and wine before each of three acts.

d.    The Mithras mysteries imposed strict rules of asceticism, but there is no evidence of true fasting.

e.    The Greeks and Romans knew that abstention makes one receptive to ecstatic revelations.  Thus fasting plays an important role in the history of manticism (the practice of divination, prophesying).

1)    The prophet of the oracle of Apollo at Clarus fasted day and night before receiving the revelation.

2)    As the priestess of the oracle of the Branchidae at Didymoi fasted three days, so many others who dispensed oracles, e.g., the Pythians, mortified themselves prior to the discharge of their office.

3)    Preparation by strict fasting was made for the dream oracles through which gods revealed the future to those asleep in their temples, with promises of healing from sickness.

f.    In magic fasting is often a precondition of success in the magical arts.  The texts always demand sobriety, if not extended fasting, to strengthen the magical force.

B.    It is striking that the fasting of antiquity stands in no close connection with ethos and ethics.  Conversely, the moral idea of “egkrateia” (self-control, continence, temperance) which the philosophers proclaimed and sought to achieve in their schools never led to a demand for times of fasting, though we do find the Utopian desire for a life without any nourishment at all.  The fasting of the Graeco-Roman world is not asceticism.  It is a rite which is observed for the sake of relations to the spirits and the gods.

3.    Fasting in the Old Testament and Judaism.

A.    Many aspects of fasting are the same as in other religions.

1.    Fasting in case of death has its roots in belief in demons.

2.    Fasting has the character of a mourning custom expressing sorrow for the deceased. (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35; 12:21)

3.    Fasting seemed to be preparation for receiving revelation. (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy  9:9; Daniel 9:3; 10:2f)

4.    Fasting expresses submission to God.  The fast is an act of self-renunciation and self-discipline which is designed to make an impression on God, to mollify His wrath and to move Him to grant what man desires.

a.    The individual fasts when he hopes that God will liberate him from tormenting care. (2 Samuel 12:16ff; 1 Kings 21:27; Pslms 35:12; 69:10)

b.    In times of emergency the whole people fasts in order that God may turn aside calamity. (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings. 21:9; Jeremiah 36:6, 9; 2 Chronicles 20:3f; Joel. 1:14; 2:12ff; Jonah 3:5ff)’

c.    Fasting and prayer go hand in hand to cause God to answer (Jeremiah 14:12; Nehemiah 1:4; Ezekiel 8:21, 23; Esther 4:16), especially penitential prayer and confession (1 Samuel 7:6; Joel. 1:14; 2:12ff; Nehemiah 9:lff; Jonah 3:8).

d.    Fasting and vows go hand in hand. (1 Samuel 14:24; cf.  Numbers 30:14)

e.    The one who fasts takes up the attitude of a mourner. (Isaiah 58:5; Esther 4:3; Nehemiah 9:1; Daniel 9:3)

f.    The length of the fast:

1)    The rule is a fast of one day from morning to evening. (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 14:24; 2 Samuel 1:12)

2)    There is one instance of a fast of three days and three nights. (Esther 4:16)

3)    The seven day fast involves fasting only during the day, up to sunset. (1 Samuel 31:13, cf. 2 Samuel 3:35)

4)    The three week self-mortification is not a total fast. (Daniel 10:2f)

5)    Severe fasting affects the body. (Psalms 109:24)

B.    The only fast prescribed by the Law and closely related to the cultus was the fast of the Day of Atonement, the great day of national repentance.  (Leviticus 16:29ff; 23:27ff; Numbers 29:7)

1.    The fast, and complete rest from work, lasted the whole day.

2.    Death was the punishment for violation.

3.    After the destruction of Jerusalem, four days, in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months, were set aside to remember this national disaster.  These were days of fasting and prayer. (Zechariah 7:3, 5; 8:19)

C.    Fasting, like sacrifice, with which it is associated as a cultic action, tends to become a material achievement performed to one’s own advantage.

1.    The prophets protest against this externalization.  (Jeremiah 14:12; Isaiah 58:lff)

2.    True fasting which leads to salvation is a real bowing of the soul in moral action (Zechariah 7:5ff; 8:19; Joel 2;13), in loving service to the poor and unfortunate among the people.

3.    The prophets’ protest is disregarded by the people.

4.    In exilic Judaism, with its legalistic trends, fasting is one of the most important of religious activities.

4.    Fasting in the New Testament.

The position which Jesus adopts toward fasting is new and distinctive.  At the beginning of the story of the temptation, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting in the wilderness.  This already does not accord with current practice.  Behind the story there obviously stands reminiscence of Moses’ fast on Sinai.  The way of the Messiah (Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22) corresponds to that of Moses.  But whereas the mediator of the covenant of the O.T. fasted in preparation for the revelation of God, Jesus already had received it, and he fasted in order to be equipped to confirm the Messianic dignity and power with which he had been invested ‘ His refusal of nourishment is no mere ascetic exercise.  As One who has been apprehended by the Spirit (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1), He lives in a world where different conditions of life apply from those on earth.  The sources give us no reason to suppose that He fasted during the period of His public ministry, though His external attitude to the dominant cultus leaves us in no doubt that He would observe the general days of fasting.  Nor does He forbid His hearers to fast.  In Matthew 6:16 He presupposes that they might engage in voluntary fasting as one of the common forms of religious discipline.  But the significance which he ascribes to fasting is wholly different from that which Judaism in fateful misunderstanding tends to associate with the custom.  Fasting is service to God.  It is a sign and symbol of conversion to God which takes place in concealment.  Impressive display before men defeats the end of true fasting.  Fasting before God, the Father of those who turn to Him, is joy.  Hence there is no place for melancholy signs of mourning.  The immediate disciples of Jesus do not fast like the more pious of the people, the disciples of John and the Pharisees.  When complaint is made about this, Jesus will not accept it.  He defends the disciples on the ground that fasting in the presence of the bridegroom is nonsensical.  The presence of the Messiah, the time of salvation which has dawned, means joy.  Joy and fasting, i.e., sorrow (Matthew 9:15), are mutually exclusive.  Sorrow and fasting belong to the time of waiting for salvation.  This is true for the disciples too, who by His death will be rudely put back in the state of waiting.  Seen from the standpoint of the Messianic eschatological centre of the message of Jesus, fasting is transcended.  But since Jesus is aware of an interval between the Now and Then, between the dawn of salvation on earth and its consummation, He finds a place for fasting between the times.  It is no t, of course, a pious work.  It is a sign and symbol of the inner attitude which perhaps hardly needs such a sign and symbol.  The attitude of Jesus to fasting is not unlike that of the prophets.  But the reasons and concrete expression are His own, uniquely determined by His Messianic consciousness.

In the Gospel tradition primitive Christianity links the parables of the new patch on the old garment and the new wine in old wineskins with the question of fasting.  In so doing it preserves a recollection of the fact that fasting does not belong to the new age introduced by Jesus.  Nor does the lst century tell us that Christians practiced voluntary fasts.  But the habit of strengthening prayer by fasting is adopted by Christians in Acts 13:3 (on the sending out of the missionaries Barnabas and Paul from Antioch) and in Acts 14:23 (when elders are appointed by Paul and Barnabas in the newly founded churches of South Asia Minor.) In common worship the prophets and teachers of Antioch prepare themselves by fasting for the revelation of the Spirit which will decide which missionaries are to be set apart, Acts 13:2.  In the Pauline circle “the fast day” is familiar from the Jewish calendar, though this does not imply its observance.  The New Testament epistles say nothing about fasting.  This applies especially to Hebrews 13:16, which mentions prayer, thanksgiving and well-doing as sacrifices which are pleasing to God, but not fasting.  In Romans 14 and Colossians 2, Paul discusses ascetic and ritualistic leanings in the churches, but he does not even mention the subject of fasting.  This leaves us with the impression that the question did not even arise, at least for Hellenistic congregations.

5.    Fasting in the Early Church.

A.    From the post-apostolic period onwards a different trend is evident.

B.    Voluntary fasting on specific days returns.

C.    Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday.

1.    The Christian who fasts on these days is vigilantly expectant of the Lord’s coming.

2.    There is no rule of fasting on these days prior to the third century.

3.    Friday is chosen because it was held to be the day of the crucifixion, and Wednesday because it was the day of the arrest of Jesus.

4.    During the course of the second century there is laid on all Christians the duty of fasting during the time that the Lord was in the tomb (the Easter fast).

5.    To fast on Sunday is forbidden.

6.    It soon becomes a practice for the candidate to fast before baptism.   The baptizer and others who also take part in the baptism fast as well.

7.    The fast of neophytes begins already during the catechumenate.

8.    The custom of fasting communion is practiced.

9.    Fasting is commonly practiced along with and to strengthen prayer, and also to prepare for receiving God’s revelation.

10.    Fasting to express sorrow.

11.    In the service of well-doing, to help the poor with the food saved, fasting is a good work.  This fasting is meritorious.

12.    In all fasting established by the Church from the second century on there is a continuation of O.T. and Jewish piety.

13.    Where there is criticism of fasting, it is based on the O.T. prophets.  Along with sharp rejection we find a trend toward inwardness and the subordination of the rite to the ethos.

14.    During this period there is no longer any clear awareness of the way in which Jesus viewed fasting.