The first references concerning fasting in the Coptic Church are the paschal letters of St. Athanasius from the beginning of the fourth century, wherein Athanasius introduced the date of the Holy Lent. This tradition was continued by his successors such as Theophilus and Cyril. In all these documents, mention is made of Lent and the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays only.
A homily ascribed to Theophilus of Alexandria and kept in the Freer Collection at the University of Michigan, says, “My beloved, let everyone of you guard his bed pure during the Sabbath and the Sundays as well as the feast days and the meeting days according to the Canons of our holy fathers, the Apostles. And after these the forty holy days and the two fasts and the other dominical feasts.”
It seems that this was a practice that did not survive the commentary of the edition of this text: “i.e. The Pascal fast, at that time separate and beginning on the Friday before the Palm Sunday, and the fast of Jonas, or Nineveh, occurring one week before Lent” is not accurate, as the fast was introduced in the 10th or 11th century.
In the year 513, Homily 48 of Severus of Antioch mentioned that the homily was delivered during the fast of the Apostles before the feast of the Pentecost. In the 10th century, the first Coptic bishop writing in Arabic, Severus of Ashmunain, in his book The Lamp of the Intellect, provided a list of the fasting days. However, it seems that there is a later interpretation of this list.
In the Middle Ages, the patriarchs issued a series of canons. Among them were those of Christodoulos, who is precise in his instructions:
- Canon 15: “Likewise the Fast of the Holy Nativity shall be from the Feast of St. Mena [Mina] i.e. The fifteenth day of Hatur to the twenty-ninth day of Kihak.”
- Canon 6: “The believer shall conduct himself during the Fast of the Pure Forty [days] as our Lord and our God and our Saviour Jesus Christ fasted—to Him be glory—and this is asceticism and And during it [the Lent].”
- Canon 7: “and in Holy Week there shall not be any baptism or burial service.”
- Canon 13: “And the Fast of the Apostles which is after Pentecost is obligatory for the faithful, in thanksgiving to God that He has granted us the gift of the Holy Spirit, fasting continuously until the fifth of Abib; and they shall celebrate the Feast on it as is the custom.”
- Canon 14: “And if that day falls on a Wednesday, they shall celebrate the Feast, but they shall not break the fast until the accustomed time for breaking the fast on fasting days. And if the feast is a Friday they shall not break it before the time of the fast, which is customary on it.”
- Canon 19: “And it is not allowed for any of the faithful to fast on Saturday, except one Saturday in the whole year, and this is the Holy Saturday which is the end of the Lent.”
- Canon 20: “Fasting is obligatory on Wednesday and Friday always throughout the year, except the Fifty Days only.”
The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church also mentions the fasts of Advent, Wednesdays and Fridays, and of the Apostles. The fasts of the Virgin and of Jonah are not included. Cyril II issued a series of canons that exhorted the Christian congregation to fast the 40 days in a decent way, the fasts of the Apostles and the Nativity (Advent), as well as the Wednesdays and the Fridays, except during the Khamasin time (the 50 days after the Resurrection).
The last medieval author to provide a list of fasting days is Ibn Kabar in his encyclopedia The Lamp in the Darkness for the Explanation of the Service. This list includes for the first time also the Fast of Jonah, and there is a mention of a Fast for the Virgins, which became later the Fast of the Virgin.
According to the Lectionary of the Lent, the Fast of Jonah was introduced by Patriarch Afraham the Syrian, Ibn Zur‘ah. The detailed history of this fast is included in an Arabic manuscript preserved in the Vatican Library and published by Joseph Simeonis Assemani. According to the manuscript, this fast was promulgated by the Maphrian of Syria in the year 847 of the Calendar of Alexander (536 a.d.) for there was a plague.
According to Bar-Hebraeus, there was a dispute between some people and Abu al-‘Abbas al-Fadl ibn Sulayman concerning the Fast of Jonah (Ninevah) in the year 290 AH (902 a.d.). They later wrote to the Catholicus asking him the reason for this fast as well as the Fast of the Virgins. According to Gregory Bar-Hebraeus in his Ethicon (1282 a.d.), On the Number and the Days of the Fasts.
Besides the Wednesday and the Friday the Syrian people have five renowned periods of fasting: First: the fast of the Forty [days]. Second: the fast of the Apostles. Third: the fast of the Departure [of Mary]. Fourth: the fast of the Nativity. Fifth: the fast of Nineveh. As the fast of the Forty [days] is followed by the week of the Redeeming Passion, its days are completed in 48 days.
The people in the West [of Syria] observe the fast of the Apostles from the Monday after the feast of Pentecost till the 29th of Hziran which is the feast of Peter and Paul, the people in the East till the completion of fifty [days?]. About this [fast] the Holy Jacob [of Edessa] said that it is not compulsory; otherwise, anyone not keeping this fast would be blameworthy.
But perhaps because our Lord said to his Apostles: the sons of the Bride chamber . . . shall fast (Mt. 9:15), therefore, when our Lord ascended and the Spirit came, the Apostles fasted and this was accepted as a custom, but not prescribed. We observe the fast of the Departure [of Mary] from the first day of Ab till its full moon.
Some people observe the fast of Nativity forty days from the full moon of Teshrin the second, others twenty-five days from the beginning of Kanun the first and still others two weeks from the 10th of Kanun the first. The people in the East observe the fast of Nineveh from Monday in the third week before the great fast till the morning of Thursday, the people in the West till the morning of Saturday.
In addition to literary works, inscriptions from the Monastery of Epiphanius mention fasting twice: “Apa Shenute: If your word be true, that it is a sin to fast in the Pentecost, for that it is a [festival]; know then rather it is a far greater iniquity [wherein?] ye transgress, early [the] forty holydays . . .” and “[the] holy [forty] days fast . . . The eight weeks . . . [the day] of Me[chir . . . according to the ] Egyptians. We will begin . . . [the] holy [ . . . ] of the fasts, to wit . . . in number pleasing unto.”