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THE TIME FOR BAPTISM IN EARLY COPTIC CHURCH ACCORDING TO IBN SIBA’A

November 5, 2017

Baptism Ethiopian

Ethiopian biblical manuscript showing baptism of an adult (kept at University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History)

It seems that baptism was held in the Coptic Church in the past once in a year on a certain day. We have the evidence from the 13th century Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya, known as Ibn Siba’a (يوحنا بن ابى زكريا المعروف بابن سِبَاعْ) in his invaluable book The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah).

Ibn Siba’a starts by telling us that the baptised person in early Church was not allowed baptism until he was thirty years old, the age in which the Lord Christ was baptised by John [the Baptist].[1] Then:

And in the early age prayers were not made on water to baptise people except on a certain day in the year, which was the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast. And the reason for choosing that day specifically is that Christ’s crucifixion, his sufferings, his death and his entrance into the grave – I mean by his earthly element – was on Friday, the sixth day, in the six thousandth [year of Creation].  Therefore, the Fathers, Teachers of the Church, made it to simulate what the Lord Christ did in his entrance into the grave to release all who deserved salvation from the progeny of Adam. For that they arranged for baptism to be like the death of Christ on Friday, the sixth day in the sixth Friday of the Fast, in the six thousand Year of the World. They [the Fathers] made baptism release everyone who was immersed in it as the death of Christ for us has released us from the custody of Satan.[2]

Ibn Siba’a then adds:

And those who arranged this with this meaningful and perfect vision, also envisaged something for the flock of the Almighty God who would perish without baptism and without simulating the death of Christ for us if they died in childhood without reaching thirty years of age akin to the perfect age of Christ [at his baptism]. They arranged for the male child [to be baptised], when they are purified of the unclean postpartum blood of their mothers, after forty days; and, in the case of a female child, after eighty days. They arranged that as they feared that they [the flock] may die and miss the high Kingdom of God and the progress towards it, their souls staying with Satan and surrounded with death in fire.[3]

Ibn Siba’a clearly talks about two groups of individuals: those adults who are new converts, and, if in good health, I suppose, would be baptised at the age of thirty years; and the new-borns of Christian families who are baptised any time after the passage of forty days from their birth for boys and eighty days for girls. Still, with the second group, there is no indication that baptism in early Church was undertaken on other days other than on the one day in the year he tells us baptism was held – Friday, the sixth day of the week (since the week started with Sunday), in the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast (the Lenten Fast).

In a previous article, I talked about Ibn Siba’a’s understanding of the duration of the Coptic Lenten Fast: to him, the Lenten Fast included eight weeks before Easter, with only forty one days fasted as Saturdays, except the Saturday of Light, and Sundays were not fasted. Each Monday to Friday period fasted in a week, he calls ‘Friday’. The Baptism Friday (the 6th Friday of the Holy Fast), which Ibn Siba’a speaks of, is, therefore, the 30th day of the Lenten Fast. I mark that Baptism Day with a star in the figure below.

Baptism Day

Figure showing the duration of the Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a, and the Baptism Annual Day

 ________________________

[1] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); p. 671. 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.

[2] Ibid; pp. 671-2.

[3] Ibid; p. 672.

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