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ABSTINENCE (ăb’stĭ-nĕns, Gr. apechomai). The verb abstain occurs six times and means “hold oneself away from.” The noun abstinence occurs once in the KJV (Gr. asitia,
Abstinence is not a virtue in itself, but it can be a means to make virtue possible.
See also Fasting.
The practice within the Christian Church of abstaining from the consumption of certain kinds of food. The principle behind it has often been traced to the custom of fasting* in the OT and its continuation in the NT. The latter considers the question in a new light. While it is encouraged as a means of defeating sin or helping the weak in conscience, it is condemned when it is set up as a new law (Col. 2:20-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-3). Abstinence was made a prominent ideal in the early church, especially in the growing monastic communities. The ideal was translated for lay people into a rule of abstinence from meat on Fridays, which continued in the Roman Catholic and other churches until modern times. The Eastern Orthodox churches have made even stricter rules. The sixteenth-century Reformers tried to restore the balanced view of the NT and attacked medieval views of abstinence. The evangelical revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fostered the growth of a specialized use of the word. Symptomatic of a return to a more legalistic view in Protestantism, societies in the USA and Britain formed to advocate total abstinence from alcohol.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
abs’-ti-nens: Abstinence as a form of asceticism reaches back into remote antiquity, and is found among most ancient peoples. It may be defined as a self-discipline which consists in the habitual renunciation, in whole or in part, of the enjoyments of the flesh, with a view to the cultivation of the life of the spirit. In its most extreme forms, it bids men to stifle and suppress their physical wants, rather than to subordinate them in the interest of a higher end or purpose, the underlying idea being that the body is the foe of the spirit, and that the progressive extirpation of the natural desires and inclinations by means of fasting, celibacy, voluntary poverty, etc., is "the way of perfection."
This article will be concerned chiefly with abstinence from food, as dealt with in the Bible. (For other aspects of the subject, see Temperance; Clean; Uncleanness; Meat, etc.). Thus limited, abstinence may be either public or private, partial or entire.
1. Public Fasts:
Only one such fast is spoken of as having been instituted and commanded by the Law of Moses, that of the
Four annual fasts were later observed by the Jews in commemoration of the dark days of Jerusalem--the day of the beginning of Nebuchadrezzar’s siege in the tenth month, the day of the capture of the city in the fourth month, the day of its destruction in the fifth month and the day of Gedaliah’s murder in the seventh month. These are all referred to in
It might reasonably be thought that such solemn anniversaries, once instituted, would have been kept up with sincerity by the Jews, at least for many years. But Isaiah illustrates how soon even the most outraged feelings of piety or patriotism may grow cold and formal. `Wherefore have we fasted and thou seest not?’ the exiled Jews cry in their captivity. `We have humbled our souls, and thou takest no notice.’ Yahweh’s swift answer follows: `Because your fasting is a mere form! Behold, in the day of your fast ye find your own pleasure and oppress all your laborers’ (compare
Occasional public fasts were proclaimed in Israel, as among other peoples, in seasons of drought or public calamity. It appears according to Jewish accounts, that it was customary to hold them on the second and fifth days of the week, for the reason that Moses was believed to have gone up to Mt. Sinai on the fifth day of the week (Thursday) and to have come down on the second (Monday) (compare Didache, 8;, VIII, 23).
2. Private Fasts:
In addition to these public solemnities, individuals were in the habit of imposing extra fasts upon themselves (e.g. Judith 8:6;
3. Degrees of Strictness in Abstinence:
Individuals and sects differ greatly in the degrees of strictness with which they observe fasts. In some fasts among the Jews abstinence from food and drink was observed simply from sunrise to sunset, and washing and anointing were permitted. In others of a stricter sort, the fast lasted from one sunset till the stars appeared after the next, and, not only food and drink, but washing, anointing, and every kind of agreeable activity and even salutations, were prohibited (Schurer, II, ii, 119; Edersheim, Life and Times, I, 663). Such fasting was generally practiced in the most austere and ostentatious manner, and, among the Pharisees, formed a part of their most pretentious externalism. On this point the testimony of
4. Abstinence among Different Kinds of Ascetics:
There arose among the Jews various kinds of ascetics and they may be roughly divided into three classes.
(1) The Essenes.
These lived together in colonies, shared all things in common and practiced voluntary poverty. The stricter among them also eschewed marriage. They were indifferent, Philo says, alike to money, pleasure, and worldly position. They ate no animal flesh, drank no wine, and used no oil for anointing. The objects of sense were to them "unholy," and to gratify the natural craving was "sin." They do not seem to come distinctly into view in the Essenes.. See
(2) The Hermit Ascetics.
These fled away from human society with its temptations and allurements into the wilderness, and lived there a life of rigid self-discipline. Josephus (Vita, 2) gives us a notable example of this class in Banus, who "lived in the desert, clothed himself with the leaves of trees, ate nothing save the natural produce of the soil, and bathed day and night in cold water for purity’s sake."
There were many pious Jews, men and women, who practiced asceticism of a less formal kind. The asceticism of the Pharisees was of a kind which naturally resulted from their legal and ceremonial conception of religion. It expressed itself chiefly, as we have seen, in ostentatious fasting and externalism. But there were not a few humble, devout souls in Israel who, like Anna, the prophetess, served God "with fastings and supplications night and day" (
5. Abstinence as Viewed in the Talmud:
Some of the rabbis roundly condemned abstinence, or asceticism in any form, as a principle of life. "Why must the Nazirite bring a sin offering at the end of his term?" (
Chazaqah, De`oth 3 1) the monastic principle of abstinence in regard to marriage, eating meat, or drinking wine, or in regard to any other personal enjoyment or comfort, is condemned as "contrary to the spirit of Judaism," and "the golden middle-way of moderation" is advocated.
But, on the other hand, abstinence is often considered by the rabbis meritorious and praiseworthy as a voluntary means of self-discipline. "I partook of a Nazirite meal only once," says Simon the Just, "when I met with a handsome youth from the south who had taken a vow. When I asked the reason he said: `I saw the
6. The Attitude of Jesus to Fasting:
The question of crowning interest and significance to us is, What attitude did Jesus take toward fasting, or asceticism? The answer is to be sought in the light, first of His practice, and, secondly, of His teaching.
(1) His Practice.
Jesus has even been accounted "the Founder and Example of the ascetic life" (Clem. Alex., Strom, III, 6). By questionable emphasis upon His "forty days’" fast, His abstinence from marriage and His voluntary poverty, some have reached the conclusion that complete renunciation of the things of the present was "the way of perfection according to the Saviour."
A fuller and more appreciative study of Jesus’ life and spirit must bring us to a different conclusion. Certainly His mode of life is sharply differentiated in the Gospels, not only from that of the Pharisees, but also from that of John the Baptist. Indeed, He exhibited nothing of the asceticism of those illustrious Christian saints, Bernard and John of the Cross, or even of Francis, who "of all ascetics approached most nearly to the spirit of the Master." Jesus did not flee from the world, or eschew the amenities of social life. He contributed to the joyousness of a marriage feast, accepted the hospitality of rich and poor, permitted a vase of very precious ointment to be broken and poured upon His feet, welcomed the society of women, showed tender love to children, and clearly enjoyed the domestic life of the home in Bethany. There is no evidence that He imposed upon Himself any unnecessary austerities. The "forty days’ " fast (not mentioned in Mk, the oldest authority) is not an exception to this rule, as it was rather a necessity imposed by His situation in the wilderness than a self-imposed observance of a law of fasting (compare Christ’s words concerning John the Baptist: "John came neither eating nor drinking", see the article on "Asceticism," DCG). At any rate, He is not here an example of the traditional asceticism. He stands forth throughout the Gospels "as the living type and embodiment of self-denial," yet the marks of the ascetic are not found in Him. His mode of life was, indeed, so non-ascetic as to bring upon Him the reproach of being "a gluttonous man and a winebibber" (
(2) His Teaching.
According to the record, Jesus alluded to fasting only twice in His teaching. In
To the form of fasting He attaches little importance, as is seen in the succeeding parables of the Old Garment and the Old Wine-skins. It will not do, He says, to graft the new liberty of the gospel on the body of old observances, and, yet more, to try to force the new system of life into the ancient molds. The new piety must manifest itself in new forms of its own making (
"Asceticism," as Harnack says, "has no place in the gospel at all; what it asks is that we should struggle against Mammon, against care, against selfishness; what it demands and disengages is love--the love that serves and is self-sacrificing, and whoever encumbers Jesus’ message with any other kind of asceticism fails to understand it" (What is Christianity? 88).
7. The Practice and Teaching of the Apostles:
On the whole, unquestionably, the practice and teachings of the apostles and early Christians were in harmony with the example and teaching of the Master. But a tendency, partly innate, partly transmitted from Jewish legalism, and partly pagan, showed itself among their successors and gave rise to the Vita Religiosa and Dualism which found their fullest expression in Monasticism.
It is worthy of note that the alleged words of Jesus: `But this kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting’ (
LITERATURE. Bingham, Antiquities, W. Bright, Some Aspects of Primitive Church Life (1898), J. O. Hannay, The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism (1902), and The Wisdom of the Desert (1904); Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, Migne, Dictionnaire d’ Ascetisme, and Encyclopedia Theol., XLV, XLVI, 45, 46; Jewish Encyclopedia, andat the place.
George B. Eager