Prayer, charity, and asceticism

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving were already understood from their Jewish inheritance to be the fundamental acts of religious devotion for Christians.19


When Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus and Bithynia in the early second century, wrote his now famous letter to Trajan inquiring what he should do with Christians he had apprehended, he reported that, from what he was able to learn, they assembled in two different kinds of meetings, once early in the morning to sing hymns to Christ as if to a god, the other later in the day for a meal, not of any sinister kind as rumour had it, but a harmless meal. Instead of binding themselves by oath to do terrible and subversive things, they instead promised to refrain from criminal actions (Plin. Ep. 10.96). This early morning assembly for worship in word and song sounds very much like insider reports and instructions about frequent prayer. The Didache teaches followers to say the Lord's Prayer three times a day (Did. 8.2-3). The Apostolic tradition teaches that the faithful should rise early, wash their hands and pray at home before going off to work, but, if it is a day when instruction is given, they should instead go to the common place.21 We therefore assume that this instruction is given early in the morning. Later, those at home are to pray at the third, sixth and ninth hours, before going to bed and at midnight, making the sign of the cross upon their foreheads (Trad. ap. 35, 41-2). This continual round of daily prayer structured the lives of those who followed it.


Fasting was also part of the discipline expected of believers. Like almsgiving, it was a custom that assumed increasing importance in post-exilic Judaism (Ezra 8:21-8; Neh 9:1; Isa 8:3-9; Joel 2:12-13; Judith 8:6). The Didache enjoins regular fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (Did. 8.1). The Quartodeciman controversy of the second century about the correct day to celebrate Easter is presented

19 In the pre-exilic period, almsgiving is not singled out; the practice was part of the more general hesed or compassion, and hospitality. In the post-exilic period, fasting and almsgiving are given more attention and become established as inseparable works of piety (See e.g. Isa 58:3-7; Tob 4:7-11). Thanks to Toni Craven for these insights.

21 The information about going immediately to work indicates that it is not the leisured class that is addressed here, but those who must labour for a livelihood. On the other hand, the directive goes on to say that, if there is no common instruction, they should read a holy book at home. So at least someone in each household is presumed to be literate.

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