Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Incorrect 8-Week Great Fast Claims

March 9, 2024

COLLEYVILLE, TX. March 9, 2024 -- Incorrect 8-Week Great Fast Claims

There is a common belief that the introductory week in the Coptic Church began as the 'Week of Heraclius'. After Emperor Heraclius reclaimed Jerusalem from the Sasanian (Persian) Empire in 628 AD, he performed a mass slaughter of Jews for allegedly helping the Sasanians and persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem initiated this week-long fast as atonement for Heraclius. It was an agreement for retribution. The claim is that the Coptic Church agreed to observe this fast and still practices it today. There are four main reasons for believing this claim is not historical but rather a fabricated polemic against the Coptic Church.

  1. This event took place two centuries after the split regarding the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). Copts are anti-Chalcedonian and Zacharias was a Chalcedonian patriarch. They would have no reason to follow his decree, to fast in order to allow murder, nor to do it as retribution for the Chalcedonians.

  2. Heraclius appointed Cyrus as the Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria in 630 AD to persecute or exterminate the anti-Chalcedonians in Egypt, while Benjamin I was already the non-Chalcedonian patriarch there since 623 AD. Heraclius would have no reason to do that if the non-Chalcedonians were fasting annually for his atonement, and the non-Chalcedonians would have no reason to continue to fast for him after appointing Cyrus.

  3. The 8-week fast had been practiced non-uniformly in various regions, including Egypt, for centuries. In the fourth century, Egeria documented in her Holy Land pilgrimage journal that she went to Jerusalem (381 AD), that they fasted there for 8 weeks before the Resurrection Feast to achieve 40 strict fasting days in 5 weekdays (since Saturdays and Sundays were classified there as non-abstaining fasting days), and that she then came to Egypt (382 AD). Although Egypt initially only considered Sundays as non-abstaining fasting days, Saturdays were later also classified there as non-abstaining days. In the sixth century, the non-Chalcedonian Severus of Antioch mentioned this 8-week tradition in his homilies. After being exiled, he stayed in Egypt until he died in 538 AD. There, he was well-accepted and honored by the Church of Alexandria for his teachings.

  4. All Chalcedonians stopped practicing this 8-week tradition and switched to a 7-week tradition (the 40 days plus Holy Week) before Heraclius. Jerusalem temporarily "reintroduced" it for Heraclius and then returned to their 7-week practice after his death. Actually, the two confessions intentionally opposed each other regarding the additional week after Heraclius' death, where the Chalcedonians turned it into a week-long celebration feast and the non-Chalcedonians responded by increasing their asceticism during that week. Why would the non-Chalcedonians agree to fast with the Chalcedonians and then later oppose them with a stricter version of their opposer’s fast?

Thus, the 8-week tradition that was adopted by the Copts did indeed originate in Jerusalem, but centuries earlier and for a completely different reason. It was an adoption of the Jerusalemite tradition of classifying both Saturdays and Sundays as non-abstaining fasting days, and thereby achieving 40 abstaining fasting days in 5 weekdays across 8 weeks. It was practiced non-uniformly for centuries and then simply became a uniform practice in Egypt. Since their tradition deviates from the Chalcedonian 7-week practice, its origin was associated anachronistically with the short-lived 'Week of Heraclius'. Due to the opposition between the confessions, the reason for the non-Chalcedonians’ ongoing practice was falsely attributed to Heraclius’ mass slaughter as a criticism against the Church.

Another claim is that this introductory week is just a Preparation Week. The liturgical theme of the first week is indeed an initial spiritual step that prepares believers on their journey. It focuses on laying up treasures in heaven rather than on earth as the necessary first step. However, the additional week was never introduced as a separate preparatory week apart from the fast, where one prepares to fast by fasting.

Therefore, in Egypt, the Great Fast always had the singular goal of fasting 40 days, in an elevated manner, as an imitation of Jesus Christ. There were initial variations in how to achieve this goal. Yet, the goal was never divided between ‘atonement’ or ‘preparation’ and imitating Christ.