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November 12, 2017

We have seen in a previous article, ‘The time for baptism in early Coptic Church according to Ibn Siba’a’, what the 13th century Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya ibn Siba’a has written in his book , The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah),that baptism in the early Church was practised on a certain day, once every year. That day was “the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast”, by which he means Friday of the sixth week of the Lenten fast. As for the reason of choosing this day in particular:

[T]he 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.[1]

The reason Ibn Siba’a gives, suggests that that sixth Friday of the Holy Fast was actually Good Friday. However, in another section of his book, which I wrote about in another article, Ibn Siba’a writes about the duration of Lent, considering it eight weeks in duration. It is, therefore, reasonable to postulate that the Baptism Day in early Church, if we take his reckoning, occurred on the 30th day of Lent – that is on the sixth week of an eight week long Lent, and not on Good Friday at the end of Lent.

Now, we have earlier evidence than Ibn Siba’a’s that confirms the early Church of Alexandria did perform baptism on only one day each year, and sheds more light into this matter. The evidence is in the first part of History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church which was written sometime in the fifth century by a certain Menas the Scribe.[2] It includes the lives of the Patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria from its founder in the first century St. Mark the Evangelist to St. Dioscorus I (444 – 454) its twentieth patriarch. In the Live of St. Peter I (300 – 311), we read the beautiful story of St. Marturia and her two children, Philopator and Eutropius,[3] from Antioch of Pisidia,[4] who lived at the time of the Great Persecution (303 – 311). The Christian woman’s husband was one Socrates who was one of the commanders of the troops and served at the palace under Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305). Socrates was “by birth a Christian, and was baptised; but he denied his religion, and came to hate the Christians.”[5] When the two children “grew and were fit for baptism”,[6] Marturia begged her husband to travel with her to Alexandria, away from the eyes of Diocletian, to baptise her children. He refused and tried to scare her by the vengeance of the king. Seeing that he has refused, she embarked on a ship to Alexandria with her two children. On the way, a strong wind rose and all on the ship thought they would drown. Fearing that her children may die unbaptised, Marturia prayed, and then:

“She cut her right breast with the knife, and took from it three drops of blood, with which she made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of her two children, and over their hearts, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and she dipped them in the sea, saying: ‘I baptize you, my children, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’”.[7] After threatening the ship with wreckage, the wind, however, calmed down, and all travellers safely arrived at the city of Alexandria.”[8]

As it happened, the day Marturia entered Alexandria, as History of the Patriarchs tells us, was a day in “the week of Baptism, which is the sixth week of the Fast, when infants are baptized”.[9] And Marturia immediately saw a deacon and asked him to facilitate for her a meeting with Patriarch Peter in order to add her children to those who would be baptised. The deacon asked her to take a seat in the church, and reassured her that her children will be baptised when the patriarch came. “When the time came, and the father and patriarch had finished the liturgy, they presented to him for baptism the infants who were to be baptized, and so they were baptized. Then they brought to him the two children of the woman of Antioch; but when the patriarch took the two infants to baptize them, the water was congealed, and became like stone.”[10] St. Peter set Philopator and Eutropius aside, and brought other children for baptism, and immediately the water liquefied. Bringing Philopator and Eutropius again, the water solidified; and he repeated the matter with other children and then Philopator and Eutropius three times; and each time the same happened.

St. Peter asked the archdeacon to fetch the mother of Philopator and Eutropius; and when she was brought to him, he asked her: “Make known to me, woman, thy circumstances, and tell me what thy religion is.”[11] He probably thought that Marturia wasn’t Christian and that she might wanted to mock the Christian baptism. Marturia explained to him everything, and what she did on the ship to her children when the storm rose against the ship and threatened them with drowning in the sea. On hearing her story, St. Peter told her:

“Let thy heart be comforted, my daughter; fear not, for the Lord is with thee. When thou didst wound thy breast, and take from it the blood, and make the sign of the cross upon the faces of thy two children, in the faith of God the Incarnate Word, whose side was pierced on the cross with the spear, when the water and the blood came forth from it, he it was who made the cross over thy two children with his divine hand.”

He then blessed the two children, and did not baptise them, “for he could not baptize them a second time, because the Lord has accepted them on the sea. For the patriarch said: ‘None can be baptised twice, for there is one baptism only; and these two have already been baptized once by the intention and faith of their mother, and by what she did.’”[12]

As with all who have received baptism, St. Peter gave Philopator and Eutropius of the holy Mysteries. He took Marturia and her sons into his house until after the Feast of the Holy Easter, and then they returned back to Antioch.[13]

History of the Patriarchs tells us that St. Peter composed a homily on the story of Marturia and her two sons, Philopator and Eutropius.[14] This homily was most probably made in Greek. It has vanished; but most likely the individual who has written the Live of St. Peter has depended on this homily. What we learn from The History of the Patriarchs is that there was a Baptism Day, and it fell in what was called Baptism Week; and that that week was the sixth week of the Lenten fast. So far, it does not offer us more than what Ibn Siba’a has already given us.

We have another source for the story of Madura and her two children: Brit. Mus. Ms. Oriental, No. 6783. This manuscript was published and translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, in 1914, in his book Coptic Martyrdoms, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt.[15] The Coptic Sahidic manuscript was copied by one Victor Mercurius Eponuchos, a deacon from Esna, in Upper Egypt, in AD 1003.[16] The relevant part is titled by Budge, “The Encomium on Demetrius, Archbishop of Alexandria, by Flavianus, Bishop of Ephesus[17]”. The first part of The Encomium is about St. Demetrius I, particularly about the mystery of his virginity,[18] while the second part is about St. Peter I and the story of Marturia and her two sons.[19] The story as in The History of Patriarchs and in The Encomium is almost identical, but with more details in the latter. It can be said that they both took from a common source, which I suggest was the homily delivered by St. Peter himself.

We have seen in History of the Patriarchs that Marturia arrived in Alexandria on a day in “the week of Baptism, which is the sixth week of the Fast”.  It does not tell us, however, on which day of that week exactly Marturia arrived with her children in Alexandria or on which day was baptism held. As we have in Coptic literature two differing views on the duration of Lent, one saying that it lasted for eight weeks (Ibn Siba’a)[20] and the other says it lasted for sixth week only (St. Athanasius of Alexandria)[21]; we are not sure of the chronological position of this ‘Baptism week’ within Lent. There is certainly no indication in The History of the Patriarchs that the Baptism week coincided with the Pascal week at the end of Lent.

Fortunately, there is some detail in Brit. Mus. Ms. Oriental, No. 6783 that helps us in finding more about this matter. After informing us about what Merturia had done at the sea to baptise her children, it tells us:

“And within three days they arrived at Rakote. And by the help of God they came into Rakote on the day of preparation, on the fourth day of the week, on the Passover [Pascha], whereon they are wont to baptize children according to the tradition of the Egyptians. And the woman saw that the whole city was draped in white, and she asked what the matter was. And they told her, saying, ‘All the Christians who are living in the city are going to baptize their children to-morrow.’

And she answered, saying, ‘In truth God hath made straight my way.’ Then she made her way to a certain deacon, and said unto him, ‘My father, I wish to meet the Archbishop.’ And he said unto her, ‘What is thy business with the Archbishop?’ And she said unto him, ‘I am a stranger, and I want to baptize my children.’ And the deacon said unto her, ‘Hast thou any other business with the Archbishop besides this?’ And she said unto him, ‘No, I have not.’ And the deacon said unto her, ‘If this be really the only thing for which thou wishest to meet the Archbishop then tarry thou here. For behold, the children of this city are to be baptized tomorrow and your own children shall be baptized with them.’”[22]

Here we learn that Marturia and her children arrived in Alexandria on the fourth day of the Pascha week, which is Wednesday.[23] It was a day of preparation for the baptism of the children of Alexandria on the following day – a day of preparation and purification in which the whole city was clothed in white. One would expect the Baptism Day to be Thursday, but that wasn’t the case. The Enconium tells us that on the following day:

“And when the evening had come, and the Archbishop had finished Divine Service, he commanded them to bring to him the little children, and to make them ready for baptism.”[24]

In our modern definition of the twenty-four hour day, day starts in midnight and is followed by the night. In the days of Pascha, the Jewish definition of the day was held, where night precedes day time, and the day starts with sunset and the onset of night (the appearance of the stars).[25] Therefore, when The Encomium says, “when the evening had come,” and St. Peter had asked for the children to make them ready for baptism, one should not take the day as Thursday evening but the evening of Friday – that is Good Friday.

We can conclude from all that that the Egyptian tradition on the timing of baptism, at least of children, was on the evening of Good Friday in the sixth and last week of Lent, that is on the Pascha week. This is consistent with Ibn Siba’a’s statement that “… 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.” We must here reject Ibn Siba’a’s assertion that Lent continued for eight week and take St. Athanasius’ evidence that it was rather six weeks. The Baptism Day was therefore Good Friday, and the Baptism Week was the same as the Pascha Week. It was a mass baptism day.

James C. Robertson tells us in his History of the Christian Church:

“With the system of preparatory training [for catechumens] was introduced the practice of confining the ordinary administration of baptism to particular seasons. Easter and Whitsuntide[26] were considered as especially suitable, on account of the connexion between the sacrament and the great events which those seasons respectively commemorated; and it was on the vigil of each festival that the chief performance of the baptismal rites took place.”[27]

St. Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240), indeed, in his On Baptism, of Passover and Pentecost as the times most suitable for baptism, even though he adds: “However, every day is the Lord’s; every hour, every time, is apt for baptism: if there is a difference in the solemnity, distinction there is none in the grace.”[28] The Egyptian tradition was definitely holding a mass baptism on the evening of Good Friday and not on Pentcost, while baptising those who are in threat of death at any time they needed baptism.


[1] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); pp. 671-672.

[2] See: Johannes Den Heijer, History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria in Coptic Encyclopedia (New Yourk, 1991); p. 1239.

[3] The names of the mother and her two children are not given in History of the Patriarchs but are included in The Encomium on Demetrius, Archbishop of Alexandria, by Flavianus, Bishop of Ephesus in Coptic Martyrdoms, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, edited and translated from Coptic by E. A. Wallis Budge (London, 1914).

[4] In present day Turkey.

[5] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria  (1904) Part 1: St. Mark – Theonas (300 AD). Patrologia Orientalis (Paris, 1904); p. 385.

[6] Ibid. The ages of the children are not clear, but at least one of them is above the age of one year old.

[7] Ibid, p. 386.

[8] Ibid, p. 387.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid; p. 388.

[12] Ibid; p. 389.

[13] Ibid; p. 390

[14] Ibid; p. 389.

[15] See n. 3.

[16] Coptic Martyrdoms, p. xx.

[17] I have not been successful in establishing the identity of Flavius, bishop of Ephesus. The lists of the bishops of Ephesus do not contain a bishop by the name of Flavius; however, the lists are not complete.

[18] Coptic Martyrdoms; pp. 390-401.

[19] Ibid; pp. 401-408.

[20] See: Dioscorus Boles, The duration of the Coptic Lenten fast according to Ibn Siba’a, which you can access here.

[21] See: Dioscorus Boles, The duration of the Coptic Lenten fast according to St. Athanasius, which you can access here.

[22] Coptic Martyrdoms; pp. 403-404.

[23] The Christian week starts on Sunday.

[24] Coptic Martyrdoms, p. 404.

[25] We have evidence of this, for example, in the Festal Letter for the year AD 334 in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1891); p. 523.

[26] Whitsuntide is the week beginning with Whitsunday (Pentecost) and especially the first three days of this week. Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Easter to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Christ.

[27] James C. Robertson, History of the Christian Church, Vol. I (John Murray, London, 1918); p. 230.

[28] Chapter 19 in Tertullian: On Baptism. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885);

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