Fasting in Earliest Christianity
From the Sermon on the Mount, we know that Jesus instructed his earliest disciples to fast (Matthew 6:17–18); and from his admonition that certain evil spirits come out only from fasting and prayer, we know that his early apostles fasted (Matthew 17:21). But from the New Testament as it exists today, we have little idea how these early Christians fasted. We learn only that they were told not to fast as the hypocrites who disfigure their faces to be seen of men.
Interestingly, an early Christian text entitled the Shepherd of Hermas provides considerable information about the prescribed practice of fasting among very early Christians. Probably written near Rome and perhaps as early as the first generation after the time when the apostles Peter and Paul were in Italy, this text was accepted as scripture by many Christian Fathers of the second and third centuries. It was even included effectively as scripture in the extremely important fourth-century Codex Siniaticus, housed for centuries in the library at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, which I visited earlier this year in connection with advancing the work of the FARMS Early Christianity Initiative.
In this book, Hermas receives several visions, commandments, and parables from the oracles of the Lord. In Parable 5, Hermas is instructed how to fast. In particular, he is told:
1. You are first to “guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world.”
2. Then you must “estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day on which you intend to fast, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need.”
3. Moreover, “you must observe these things with your children and your whole household and in observing them you will be blessed [makarioi].”
4. Furthermore, those who receive fast offerings are to pray “on behalf of [hyper]” those who have extended their generosity in this way.
“This fast,” the Christian is told, “is very good in keeping the Lord’s commandments,” and if you will do these things, “this fast of yours will be perfect [teleia]” and “your sacrifice will be acceptable in God’s sight, and this fast will be recorded, and service performed in this way is beautiful and joyous” (compare perfect and rejoicing in D&C 59:13–14).
If these directives may be described as the true order of fasting, it is evident that few Christian churches today follow this essential instruction. Is it possible that this was one of the “plain and precious things” taken away from the original gospel as it went forth from the mouth of the Son of God as foreseen by Nephi of old (1 Nephi 13:28)? But Nephi also beheld that some of those truths would be restored by “other books” that would come forth “from the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:39).
Interestingly, the Old Latin version of the Shepherd of Hermas was first published in 1873 in Germany, and with the study of the crucial Greek text in Codex Siniaticus in the late nineteenth century, people soon realized the great antiquity of this important document. Yet only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as far as we know, teaches and actually operates a regular program of fasting along these earliest Christian lines.