Practice of the Early Christians. The doctrine and practice of our Lord and his apostles respecting fasting may be thus described. Our Saviour neglected the observance of those slated Jewish fasts which had been superadded to the Mosaic law, and introduced especially after the captivity, to which the Pharisees paid scrupulous attention, Matt. 11:18, 19; and he represented such observances as inconsistent with the genius of his religion. Matt. 9:14–18; and parallel passages, Mark 2:15–25, Luke 5:33–39. The practice of voluntary and occasional fasting he neither prohibited nor enjoined; he spoke of it, however, as being not unsuitable on certain occasions, nor without its use in certain cases. Matt. 9:15, 17:21; be fasted himself on a great and solemn occasion. Matt. 4:2; and he warned his disciples against all ostentatious and hypocritical observances of this kind. Matt. 6:16–18. The doctrine of the apostles on this subject was to the same purport, neither commanding the practice of fasting, nor denouncing it as unlawful, unless either the observance or omission should involve a breach of some moral and christian duty, Rom. 14:14-22, Col. 2:16–23. 1 Tim. 4:3–5. In practice, the apostles joined fasting with prayer, on solemn occasions. Acts 13:2, 3, 14:23.
It does not appear that much value was attached to the practice of fasting, in the age immediately succeeding that of the apostles. In the Shepherd of Hermas it is spoken of in disparaging terms. "Nothing is done, nothing is gained, for virtue by bodily abstinence; rather so fast, that you do no wrong, and harbor no evil passion in your heart." It appears rather singular that we find so little notice taken of fasting by the writers of the first centuries, if we take into account the spirit of the times, and especially the doctrines of Montanus, the tenets of the new Platonic school, and the progress of Gnosticism, which taught that matter was essentially evil. But it seems that the observance of fasts was introduced into the church slowly and by degrees. We learn from Justin Martyr that fasting was joined with prayer, at Ephesus, in the administration of baptism; which is worthy of being remarked as an early addition to the original institution. In the second century, in the time of Victor and Irenaeus, it had become usual to fast before Easter; and Clement of Alexandria speaks of weekly fasts. Tertullian, a Montanist, in his treatise De Jejunio, complains heavily of the little attention paid by the Catholic church to the practice of fasting; and hereby gives us to understand that, in his days, a large portion of orthodox Christians exercised that liberty of judgment which had been sanctioned by the apostles. Origen, in his voluminous writings, adverts to the subject only once; namely, in his tenth homily on Leviticus. And here he speaks in accordance with the apostolical doctrine. It appears, however, from his observations, that at Alexandria Wednesdays and Fridays were then observed as fast days; on the ground that our Lord was betrayed on a Wednesday, and crucified on a Friday. The custom of the church at the end of the fourth century may be collected from the following passage of Epiphanius: "In the whole christian church the following fast days, throughout the year, are regularly observed. On Wednesdays and Fridays we fast until the ninth hour (i.e. three o'cIock in the afternoon); except during the interval of fifty days between Easter and Whitsuntide, in which it is usual neither to kneel nor fast at all. Besides this, there is no fasting on the Epiphany or Nativity, if those days should fall on a Wednesday or Friday. But those persons who especially devote themselves to religious exercises (the monks) fast also at other times when they please, except on Sundays and during the fifty days between Easter and Whitsuntide. It is also the practice of the church to observe the forty days' Aist before the sacred week. But on Sundays there is no fasting, even during the last mentioned period. (Comp. Doctr. de fide.) But even at this late date there was no universal agreement in the practice of the church in this matter, neither had fasts been established by law. The custom, so far as it existed, had been silently introduced into the church, and its observance was altogether voluntary. This fasting consisted, at first, in abstinence from food until three o'clock in the afternoon. A custom was afterwards introduced, probably by the Montanists, affecting the kind of food to be taken, which was limited to bread, salt, and water.
Practice of Later Times. But fasting, after a time, ceased to be a voluntary exercise. By the second canon of the council of Orleans, A. D. 541, it was decreed that any one who should neglect to observe the stated times of abstinence should be treated as an offender against the laws of the church. The eighth council of Toledo, in the seventh century, (can. 9,) condemns any who should eat flesh during the fast before Easter, and says that such offenders deserve to be forbidden the use of it throughout the year. In the eighth century, fasting began to be regarded as a meritorious work; and the breach of the observance, at the stated seasons, subjected the offender to excommunication. In later times, some persons who ate flesh during the appointed seasons of abstinence were punished with the loss of their teeth (Baronius, Annal. ad. an. 1018.)
Afterwards, however, these severities were, to a certain extent, relaxed. Instead of the former limitation of diet on fast days to bread, salt, and water, permission was given for the use of all kinds of food, except flesh, eggs, cheese, and wine. Then eggs, cheese, and wine were allowed, flesh only being prohibited; an indulgence which was censured by the Greek church, and led to a quarrel between it and the western. In the thirteenth century, a cold collation in the evening of fast days was permitted.