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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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(ἀσιτία , not eating, Acts 27:21), a general term, applicable to any object from which one abstains, while fasting is a species of abstinence, namely, from food. (See FAST). The general term is likewise used in the particular sense to imply a partial abstinence from particular food, but fast signifies an abstinence from food altogether. Both are spoken of in the Bible as a religious duty. Abstinence again differs from temperance, which is a moderate use of food or drink usually taken, and is sometimes extended to other indulgences; while abstinence (in reference to food) is a refraining entirely, from the use of certain articles of diet, or a very slight partaking of ordinary meals, in cases where absolute fasting would be hazardous to health. (See SELF-DENIAL).

1. Jewish. The first example of abstinence which occurs in Scripture is that in which the use of blood is forbidden to Noah (Genesis 9:20). (See BLOOD). The next is that mentioned in Genesis 32:32 : "The children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day, because he (the angel) touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank." (See SINEW). This practice of particular and commemorative abstinence is here mentioned by anticipation long after the date of the fact referred to, as the phrase "unto this day" intimates. No actual instance of the practice occurs in the Scripture itself, but the usage has always been kept up; and to the present day the Jews generally abstain from the whole hind-quarter on account of the trouble and expense of extracting the particular sinew (Allen's Modern Judaism, p. 421). By the law abstinence from blood was confirmed, and the use of the flesh of even lawful animals was forbidden, if the manner of their death rendered it impossible that they should be, or uncertain that they were, duly exsanguinated (Exodus 22:31; Deuteronomy 14:21). A broad rule was also laid down by the law, defining whole classes of animals that might not be eaten (Leviticus 11:1-47). (See ANIMAL); (See FOOD). Certain parts of lawful animals, as being sacred to the altar, were also interdicted! These were the large lobe of the liver, the kidneys and the fat upon them, as well as the tail of the "fat-tailed" sheep (Leviticus 3:9-11). Every thing consecrated to idols was also forbidden (Exodus 34:15). In conformity with these rules the Israelites abstained generally from food which was more or less in use among other people. Instances of abstinence from allowed food are not frequent, except in commemorative or afflictive fasts. The forty days' abstinence of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are peculiar cases, requiring to be separately considered. (See FASTING). The priests were commanded to abstain from wine previous to their actual ministrations (Leviticus 10:9), and the same abstinence was enjoined to the Nazarites during the whole period of their separation (Numbers 6:5). (See NAZARITE). A constant abstinence of this kind was, at a later period, voluntarily undertaken by the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35:16; Jeremiah 35:18). (See RECHABITE).

Among the early Christian converts there were some who deemed themselves bound to adhere to the Mosaical limitations regarding food, and they accordingly abstained from flesh sacrificed to idols, as well as from animals which the law accounted unclean; while others contemned this as a weakness, and exulted in the liberty wherewith Christ had made his followers free. This question was repeatedly referred to the Apostle Paul, who laid down some admirable rules on the subject, the purport of which was, that every one was at liberty to act in this matter according to the dictates of his own conscience, but that the strong-minded had better abstain from the exercise of the freedom they possessed whenever it might prove an occasion of stumbling to a weak brother (Romans 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). In another place the same apostle reproves certain sectaries who should arise, forbidding marriage, and enjoining abstinence from meats which God had created to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-4). The council of the apostles at Jerusalem decided that no other abstinence regarding food should be imposed upon the converts than "from meats offered to idols, from blood, and from things strangled" (Acts 15:29). Paul says (1 Corinthians 9:25) that wrestlers, in order to obtain a corruptible crown, abstain from all things, or from every thing which might weaken them. In his First Epistle to Timothy (4:3), he blames certain heretics who condemned marriage, and the use of meats which; God hath created. He requires Christians to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22), and, with much stronger reason, from every thing really evil, and contrary to religion and piety. (See FLESH); (See ALISGEMA).

The Essenes, a sect among the Jews which is not mentioned by name in the Scriptures, led a more abstinent life than any recorded in the sacred books. (See ESSENES). They refused all pleasant food, eating nothing but coarse bread and drinking only water; and some of them abstained from food altogether until after the sun had set (Philo, De Vita Contemplativa, p. 692, 696). That abstinence from ordinary food was practiced by the Jews medicinally is not shown in Scripture, but is more than probable, not only as a dictate of nature, but as a common practice of their Egyptian neighbors, who, we are informed by Diodorus (1, 82), "being persuaded that the majority of diseases proceed from indigestion and excess of eating, had frequent recourse to abstinence, emetics, slight doses of medicine, and other simple means of relieving the system, which some persons were in the habit of repeating every two or three days. See Porphyry, De Abst. 4. (See UNCLEANNESS);

2. Christian.

a. Early. In the early Church catechumens could be admitted to baptism; they were required, according to Cyril and Jerome, to observe a season of abstinence and prayer for forty days; according to others, of twenty days. Extreme caution and care were observed in the ancient Church in receiving candidates into communion, the particulars of which may be found under the head CATECHUMENS (See CATECHUMENS) . Superstitious abstinence by the clergy was deemed a crime. If they abstained from flesh, wine, marriage, or any thing lawful and innocent, in accordance with the heretical and false notions that the creatures of God were not good, but polluted and unclean, they were liable to be deposed from office. (See ABSTINENTS). There was always much disputation between the Church and several heretical sects on the subjects of meats and marriage. The Manichees and Priscillianists professed a higher degree of spirituality and refinement, because they abstained from wine and flesh as things unlawful and unclean, and on this account censured the Church as impure in allowing men the moderate and just use of them. The Apostolical Canons enjoin, "That if any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other clerk, abstain from marriage, flesh, or wine, not for exercise, but abhorrence forgetting that God made all things very good, and created man male and female, and speaking evil of the workmanship of God, unless he correct his error, he shall be deposed, and cast out of the church." At the same time, strict observance of the fasts of the church was enjoined, and deposition was the penalty in case of non-compliance with the directions of the canons on this subject.

b. Romish. In the Romish Church a distinction is made between fasting and abstinence, and different days are appointed to each. On days of fasting, one meal in twenty-four hours is allowed; but on days of abstinence, provided flesh is not eaten and the meal is moderate, a collation is allowed in the evening. Their days of abstinence are all the Sundays in Lent, St. Mark's day, if it does not fall in Easter-week, the three Rogation- days, all Saturdays throughout the year, with the Fridays which do not fall within the twelve days of Christmas. The observance of St. Mark's day as a day of abstinence is said to be in imitation of St. Mark's disciples, the first Christians of Alexandria, who are said to have been eminent for their prayer, abstinence, and sobriety. The Roman days of fasting are, all Lent except Sundays, the Ember-days, the vigils of the more solemn feasts, and all Fridays except such as fall between Easter and the Ascension. (See CALENDAR).

c. Protestant. The Church of England, in the table of vigils, mentions fasts and days of abstinence separately; but in the enumeration of particulars, they are called indifferently days of fasting or abstinence, and the words seem to refer to the same thing. The Word of God never teaches us that abstinence is good and valuable per se, but only that it ministers to holiness; and so it is an instrument, not an end. Bingham, Orig. Eccles, bk. 10, ch. 11, § 9. (See ASCETICISM).

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Abstinence'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​a/abstinence.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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