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THE DURATION OF THE COPTIC LENTEN FAST ACCORDING TO IBN SIBA’A

November 4, 2017

Lent

Figurative representation of the Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a

I shall start this series on the history of Coptic fasts by studying what the 13th century[1] Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya, known as Ibn Siba’a (يوحنا بن ابى زكريا المعروف بابن سِبَاعْ) has to say, and I shall limit myself here to Lent. Ibn Siba’a wrote a few books, but The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah), or simply The Precious Jewel, is perhaps his greatest.[2] The reader can read more about this book in my previous article, here.

Ibn Siba’a calls the Lenten Fast, the Holly Fast (الصوم المقدس). On it, he writes:

[The Fathers who were filled with grace] appointed that forty days every year are fasted akin to the fast of the Lord Christ, and they completed it forty days: five days every week; so that the fast consists of eight Fridays. As the Didascalia says: the first of the Fridays falls at the end of winter and their last falls at the beginning of summer: five days in every week excepting Saturdays and Sundays; for there is no fasting on Saturdays except the one Saturday when the Lord of the World was entombed; and there is no fasting at all on Sundays for Sunday is a day of spiritual joy indicative of the General Resurrection in the coming age where there will be no tiredness or suffering, and as fasting is tiredness and suffering, they [the Fathers] left out on Sundays for Sunday is the prototype of Resurrection.[3]

Ibn Siba’a talks about forty days but in fact it is 41 days: five days every week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) for the eight weeks that precede The Sunday of Resurrection; plus the only Saturday in which fasting is allowed, the Saturday before the Sunday of Resurrection (which we call now Sabt al-Nour (سبت النور, The Saturday of the Light).  The Coptic Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a then starts on Monday in the First Friday (he calls every fasting chunk of the week, ‘Friday’) and it represents Day – 55 before the Resurrection Sunday.

The Lenten Fast in the Coptic Church at the present is not 41 days but extends to 55 days in one continuous fast without a break on Saturdays and Sundays. Clearly, the Copts at some point felt it was reasonable to fast in the Saturdays and Sundays that intervene between the eight periods of Fridays; and in this way the whole eight weeks are fasted. It is not yet clear to me at what point of our history that had happened. A few explanations were made as to the reason for extending the duration of the Lenten Fast, which I hope I would discuss later.

Above, I have represented the Forty Days Fast in a figurative way.


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 [1] Unfortunately it is not possible to locate his life more precisely. Some believe that he lived into the 14th century.

[2] The work is often referred to in Western literature as The Precious Pearl; La Perle Précieuse. This is in fact wrong: while “جوهرة” means “jewel”; “لؤلؤة” means “pearl”.

[3] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); p. 678. Périer publishes only the first 56 chapters of the book of Ibn Siba’a (out of 115) in Arabic accompanied by French translation. The English translation here is mine.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2017 11:02 pm

    It worth noting that we have very limited resources in the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries because of a gradual decimation of the Coptic people and culture. This lead to loss of theology, loss of diverse liturgical practices, loss of language, loss of saints and a full calendar of saints (what we have is incomplete and inaccurate in areas), and loss of liturgical practices, including fasting rules. I would personally want to study these centuries to see how the golden age we had in the 14th century disappeared suddenly in the centuries following. This situation of the persecution of Christians during those centuries not only happened to Copts, but to all Christians in the Muslim world, whether anti-Chalcedonian, Chalcedonian, or anti-Ephesian.

    I have done research on the issue of “deification” in the Coptic Church, and I found that the terminology in Arabic (tahleeh or ta’aluh) seemed to be worrisome for many who still knew the original Greek and Coptic, and would not use those Arabic words in translating “theosis” or “theopoiesis”. This unfortunate lack of boldness in translation into Arabic lead to the present situation we have now in the Coptic Church, and this again is due to those particular centuries where we take for granted whatever survived in Arabic as “theology” rather than take a step back to reevaluate our theology in light of ancient Coptic and Greek resources.

Trackbacks

  1. THE TIME FOR BAPTISM IN EARLY COPTIC CHURCH ACCORDING TO IBN SIBA’A | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية
  2. THE DURATION OF THE LENTEN FAST ACCORDING TO SAINT ATHANASIUS THE GREAT | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية
  3. THE TIME FOR BAPTISM IN EARLY COPTIC CHURCH AT THE TIME OF PATRIARCH PETER I (300 – 311) | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

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