The Origins of Lent

The Origins of Lent March 31, 2014

There is arguably no season in the Church calendar with more diverse scholarship surrounding it than the exploration of the origins of Lent. The opinions for its origins range widely, pointing to its beginnings emerging as early as pre-Christian Judaism and as late as the council of Nicaea, and from nearly every area on the map of the ancient Roman Empire. One of the most fascinating and influential theories in the last few decades has been the theory that Lent emerged from a post-Epiphany fast in Alexandria. Epiphany was the traditional celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, and it was argued that a 40 day fast, similar to the one Jesus underwent, followed the memorial of Jesus’ own baptism in Egypt. This fast was later affixed to Easter, also known as Pascha, shortly after the council of Nicaea.

This theory I belive offers the best evidence for the origins of Lent,  but little has been done online to educate people about it. This article seeks to lay out the theory, and all of the current evidence for it, and make a determination of its viability in the current academic conversation.

I hope you all will read through it this lent to help you grasp the origins of this great season we are participating in!

The brief history of the Lenten scholarship

Before a deeper look at the evidence for the Egyptian theory can begin, a basic outline of the history of scholarship will be beneficial for our study. Theories about the emergence of Lent, as they are known today are the result of a gradual evolution, which taken together is a fascinating story. To understand this story one has to understand a bit of the picture of what assumptions were made in the beginning. Even as early as 50 years ago hardly anyone questioned the origins of Lent. It was assumed that Lent was an early evolution in the liturgy that resulted from the gradual expansion of the pre-paschal fast into longer periods of fasting taking approximately three developmental stages consisting of: 1) a pre-paschal fast, which developed into 2) holy week, which was expanded in turn into a 3) period of roughly forty days. This was the theory taken up as recently as 1945 by Gregory Dix in his Shape of the Liturgy, though he did modify the theory a bit arguing that the original fast was only for the catechumens, where the traditional theory argued that the catechumenate fast was a latter addition. Lent’s connection to Easter was assumed, as was Easter’s connection to baptism.[1]

The Easter origins of Lent began to come under fire in the twentieth century. The first blow was stuck by Callewaert who discovered that the Lenten quarantine ended before Holy Week in the Byzantine liturgy, culminating on Lazarus Sunday rather than the Easter Vigil. He asked why a period of preparation for a feast would end a full week before the feast actually occurred in the liturgy.[2]

The accepted theory began to unravel more as the Callewaert question was given an answer by Chavasse. Chavasse was able to connect Lent to baptism (rather than Easter) as the catalyst for fasting, and discerned a three week pattern embedded in the liturgy of Rome.[3] This thesis was later developed by both Lages and Johnson who were able to connect the baptism to three week periods of fasting throughout the world.[4] The question still remained, however, where the forty days came from, and the answer to this was proposed by Talley. Talley dug into another well of liturgical scholarship, that surrounding a post-epiphany fast in Alexandria. According to Talley the forty day Lent came from the attachment of a forty day post-epiphany fast in Alexandria to the baptismal practices that had become attached to the Easter Vigil.[5]  This theory eventually came to dominate much of the thinking on Lenten origins, at least in the United States and Great Brittan, however understanding Talley requires a more in depth look at the gradual emergence of his theory from a long history of scholarship surrounding the post-Epiphany fast.

A history of the post-epiphany fast scholarship

Unlike the common pattern of a three week preparatory period for baptism in much of the Christian world in the first centuries, Alexandria seems to have had its own liturgical quarantine: the forty-day post epiphany fast in Alexandria. This oddity was initially rediscovered by Johann Michael Vansleb in the late 17th centuries. In his trip to Egypt to recorded his observations about the Coptic Church he recorded:

Beginning in the first times of Christianity, the day after the feast of the Epiphany which is the 12th of their month of January (12 Tûbah = 7 Janurary). It lasted for the forty days that followed and ended on the 22nd of their month of February (22 Amshir = 16 February). And with respect to Holy Week, it was observed then separately in the month of Nisan, or April; at the end of which the resurrection of our Lord was celebrated with the Pascha of the Jews.[6]

He records that Lents current place was the result of a transfer done by Patriarch Anbâ Demetrius (189-232).[7]

As interesting as Vansleb’s observations were his writing was not widely used for over two hundred years.  Vansleb had written about the early Coptic worship quoting from Macarius’ letter, The Book of Chrism, as mentioning that baptism only occurred once a year on Good Friday, this seemed to contrast with the idea that there was a post-epiphany 40 day pre-baptismal fast, Vansleb had assumed the Macarius letter was an anomaly. The Coptic sources were therefore discounted or ignored. This was a mistake. The confusion, it turns out, lay in Vansleb rather than the sources. Vansleb had read that baptism had occurred on the sixth Friday of the fast and had made an assumption that it was referring to Good Friday. This error was discovered by Louis Villecourt when he went back to the sources to examine them himself.[8] In The Book of Chrism itself the author, Macarius, complains that the ancient practice of baptism on the Friday that ends the fast had faded away and only the blessing of chrism remained. He was upset because baptism had lost its relationship with the day that Jesus had baptized his disciples, which he seems to have believed was at the end of the 40 day fast in the desert.[9]

In addition to The Book of Chrism Villecourt also explored two other Coptic sources that helped shed light on the origins of Lent. One was the fourteenth century The Lamp of Darkness. This book indicated that the end of the fast was Palm Sunday. This comment, when taken with the Coptic tradition of not fasting on Saturday or Sunday, would have made the Friday before Palm Sunday the true end of the fast. This supports the idea that there was a fast that functioned as more than a preparation for Easter, but it didn’t connect the fast to the post-epiphany fast. The second Coptic source was a legend found on a Coptic papyrus dated from around 600 CE. In this legend, each year at the consecration of the baptismal font, there was a miraculous fire which would appear over the waters and trace a cross. One year this miracle failed to occur. The patriarch Theophilus was instructed to send for Orsisius, abbot of the Pachomian communities. He was found and journeyed six days back to Alexandria, arriving on Good Friday, and the miracle occurred once again. Villecourt believed that this story was invented to offer some justification of the shifting of the date of baptism to Pascha.[10] The one conclusion that Villecourt was able to make from this is that there seemed to be evidence that there certainly was a baptism ceremony distinct from Pascha in the Coptic tradition.

There was clearly evidence of a period of fasting before a time of baptism quite separate from Lent itself, but it was not definitive. The claim that there had been an ancient post-epiphany fast was found in The Lamp of Darkness, but the manuscripts that pointed toward this reality were all of relatively late dates. The earliest of the manuscripts date from the tenth century.[11] Validation for the early claims of these later manuscripts was sought through the work of René-Georges Coquin.

Coquin believed that verification for these late claims could be found in the Canons of Hippolytus.[12] He focused on two canons in particular, which he dated to the fourth century. Both canons 12 and 20 refer to forty day fast of penitence that is unconnected to Pascha. They do not, however, speak of the forty days it as connected to a post-epiphany period, but as a common theme of fasting which can only be applied to a post-epiphany period by inference.[13]

Coquin also focused on another fourth century document Canons of Athanasius. In this manuscript forty days again is enjoined as a period of penance, but there is an explicit connection to its connection to a catechumenate. Since there is no indication that this period was in any way related to paschal it certainly strengthens the case for a post-epiphany 40 day fast culminating in baptism. However there is no clarity here of whether or not this 40 day period was in any way associated with epiphany.

Coquin strengthened the case for a post-Epiphany period highlighting other sources. He noticed that the Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus seemed to talk about a 40 day fast, much earlier than a 40 day pre-paschal Lent would have existed, however a much later translation is all that we have and this could easily have been a later addition.[14] Highlighting another giant of the ancient church Coquin also notices that in 330, Athanasius begins to argue for a 40 day paschal quarantine, but had only commended the 6-day fast but a year before suggesting that a change had suddenly emerged around this time.[15] Even more interesting was the way that Athanasius promoted the 40 day fast. He quoted a number of passages in Scripture to promote the 40 day fast, but neglects to include what is arguably the most obvious and strongest example of a 40 day fast, the fast of the Lord Jesus himself. This absence is striking, and may be evidence that Athanasius was aware of the Egyptian 40 day fast celebrated after the Epiphany baptism celebration in commemoration of the post-baptismal fast of the savior, and was afraid that bringing up the forty day fast would have promoted the Egyptian fast rather than the new post-Nicean pre-paschal quarantine.[16] This is also seen in Eusebius who also appears to be deliberately avoiding the use of Jesus’ wilderness fast as a scriptural model for Lent; using only the examples of Moses and Elijah instead.[17]

After an extensive study of the early Egyptian documents, Coquin was quite convinced of the historical existence of the post-epiphany 40 day quarantine. The question of why this period was moved to before Easter still remained a bit of a mystery. Coquin’s answer to this question was fairly straight forward. He believed that the original quarantine could have been construed as a support for Arianism by removing focus from the celebration of the birth of Jesus.[18] What then resulted was a hybridization of the 3 week period of pre-paschal fasting, found throughout much of the Christian world, with the Egyptian 40 day practice.[19]

Coquin’s work was taken up again and expanded in the 1980s by Thomas J. Talley. He affirmed the theory that there had developed a three week pre-paschal liturgical system, and saw Nicea as the “watershed” moment for a pre-paschal 40 day Lent, and sought to understand how the work of Coquin might be expanded to develop an understanding of where the 40 days had come from.[20]

Talley’s research touched on a number of essential points. First he focused on the distinction between Lent and Great Week. He noticed that there were a number of sources that made distinctions between Lent and great week. These included the festal letters of Athanasius, the Apostolic Constitutions and the writings of Egeria (as she visits the tomb of Lazarus).[21] These showed that Lent was a separate liturgical unit somewhat distinct from Great Week. His work with Athanasius also returned to Coquin’s concern with why Athanasius hadn’t referred to Christ’s fast. Dix had attempted to explain this away saying that the connection between Christ’s fast and the liturgical fast hadn’t been made yet.[22] This point he dismissed noting that the Canons of Hippolytus had explicitly justified the 40 day fast by referencing the fast of Christ (canons 20-22).[23]

Tally’s most significant original contribution was his attempts to understand the reference in the Book of Chrism to the end of the 40 day fast as “day on which the Lord Jesus baptized his disciples.” This account is nowhere mentioned in the canonical Gospels.

It had been assumed that this was a reference from a narrative source popular in Alexandria that had attempted to fill in the historical details missing from the Gospels themselves. Talley took it upon himself to try to locate the source for this comment within the manuscript tradition. Talley believed that evidence for this tradition could be found in the recently discovered early-third century manuscript the “Mar Saba Clementine Fragment.” This document quotes a “secret gospel” of Mark which offered an expansion the canonical text just after Mark 10:34. The secret Gospel itself was preserved within a letter that claimed to be written by Clement of Alexandria, itself only two and a half pages long. It contained a story of a man who was raised by Jesus, in a similar way Lazarus was raised, who then asks to follow Jesus. He waits six days and then spends a night with Jesus, wearing only a linen cloth, and is taught the mystery of the kingdom of God. Here is a translation of the text as found in Morton Smith’s Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark:

And they came into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” But the disciple rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightaway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.[24]

Talley was attracted to this passage because if offered four things. First it was part of the Gospel of Mark, which he believed would be the most logical source for the story about Jesus’ performance of baptisms. Second it seemed to describe a pattern of initiation. Thirdly it was recorded by the author to be a passage only read to those who were being initiated. Finally and most importantly if helped make sense of some lectionary anomalies he had noticed in some lectionary reading. Tally concluded that although there was no mention of baptism in the passage itself he had indeed located a source for the belief that the disciples were baptized after the fast.

The anomalies in the lectionary that had inspired Talley to grab hold of secret Mark center around a sudden shift which takes place in the Byzantine typica of the ninth and tenth centuries. In this cycle there seems to be a remnant of a reading of Mark in series.[25]
In this cycle Mark is gone through almost completely in a fairly chronological order, but suddenly breaks off and goes into John’s account of the razing of Lazarus and the anointing of Jesus. The typica cycle:

  • Week 1
    • Saturday – Mark 2:23-3:5
    • Sunday – John 1:44-52
  • Week 2
    • Saturday – Mark 1:35-44
    • Sunday – Mark 2:1-12
  • Week 3
    • Saturday – Mark 7:31-37
    • Sunday – Mark 8:34–9:1


  • Week 4
    • Saturday – Mark 8:27-31
    • Sunday – Mark 9:17-31
  • Week 5
    • Saturday – Mark 2:14-17
    • Sunday – Mark 10:32-45
  • Week 6
    • Saturday – John 11:1-45
    • Sunday – John 12:1-18



Talley concluded that the shift to John must have taken place because “Secret Mark” used to be there, but when its status in the canon was disputed, the Church moved to a similar pericope in John. Both include the raising of someone from the dead which then leads into the triumphal entry. So the reference in the Book or Chrism to a “day on which the Lord Jesus baptized his disciples” was a reference to the secret Gospel’s lectionary placement. Talley believed this passage would have coincided with the end of the fast and the day of both the blessing of chrism and the baptism of catechumenates in the Coptic Church, and the shift away from baptisms on that day would have been the grounds for the concern raised in the letter.

Talley composed a hypothetical cycle trying to recreate what he believed was the original lectionary of the Egyptian church. According to Talley the start of the cycle would have begun with the account of Jesus baptism in the Jordan, as seen in Mark 1:1-11 this reading would continue in a contiguous manner until it hit the final week, at which time the cycle would conclude with Mark 10:32-34/Secret Mark/Mark 10:35-45 being read on Friday, Mark 10:46-52 being read on Saturday and Mark 11:1-11 being read on Sunday.

Talley believed that this cycle was eventually transferred to a pre-paschal position because of the growing ubiquity of Easter baptisms. Since the fast was associated with baptism, when baptism changed it attracted Lent with it. What resulted is a shift of the whole forty day lectionary, along with the forty day fasting period. This 40 day period was the contribution of the Egyptian church to the post-Nicaea liturgical year. In some places like Rome the 40 days took over the pre-paschal season altogether, in other areas like Byzantium the forty days simply became affixed before Great Week, creating a divide between Great Lent and Great Week within the byzantine tradition. Through this process, the readings from the Egyptian lectionary found their place within the lectionaries of other churches and were still evident in the 10th century typicans Talley examined.
The Hypothetical Marcan cycle:
Here is the list of readings reconstructed before and after the movement to Pascha according to Talley’s theory:[26]


            Talley also sought to support the Alexandrian origins of Lent in the “festal interlude” he saw in the Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday weekend a strange break in penitence to make room for a celebration.[27] As mentioned previously he paid particular attention to the announcements made by Athanasius distinguishing these two events from one another, as well as the processions recoded in Egeria that bring her to the tomb of Lazarus followed by a procession of palms the weekend before Easter. This trend is not only seen in the Holy City of Jerusalem, Talley also noticed this pattern in the writings of John Chrysostom in Constantinople. He too distinguishes between Lent and great weeks and notes a celebration that inaugurates Great Week with the festival of the crowds coming to Bethany to meet Jesus who had just raised Lazarus.[28] Talley was puzzled by the development of a break in the fasting. Why would this practice have emerged?[29] When the strong evidence for a combined Lazarus-Saturday/Palm-Sunday interlude within the post-Nicean framework is considered in light of what appears to be an Alexandrian differentiation between the seasons of Lent and Great week in Athanasius, it does seem that Talley’s reconstructed lectionary cycle has some merit.

Talley was, however, far from the final word on the matter. Many of the assumptions that he made to defend his work have come under attack in the last few decades. These critiques will be critical to examine if we are to determine if the Egyptian Origins theory is still a viable option in the 21st century.

Criticism of Talley’s Theory

One of the first criticisms of Talley came from Paul Bradshaw. Although Bradshaw believed that much of what Talley had done was accurate, he questioned the justification that had been offered by Talley for the movement of the 40 day fast to its pre-paschal position. Talley had argued that Pascal baptism had been the preferred position of baptism throughout the Christian world. This had been based on large part from the prominence paschal baptism had been given in the Apostolic Tradition (ApTrad), which offered an ancient text with what he believed to be paschal baptism.

What ApTrad includes is a schedule where the catechumens are to (1) to be bathed on Thursday, (2) fast on Friday, (3) receive their final exorcism on Saturday, and (4) receive baptism at cockcrow at the conclusion of a vigil begun earlier that night.[30] Bradshaw highlighted that, although this cycle may appear to mirror the Pascal cycle, the connection to Pascha is never explicitly made in the text. Also, Bradshaw’s own work had sought to show that the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215), was a composite of a variety of sources from various authors, and was not necessarily a western document at all. This gives it less weight as demonstrating the early origins of Pascal baptism.

Not only was ApTrad’s use critiqued, Bradshaw also offered other examples where baptisms were done at other times of the year. Although “Passover” is given as the best time for baptisms, Tertullian also argues for Pentecost as an ideal time.[31]  This reality of multiple baptism times was also seen in Alexandria, where he notes that Coquin and Talley himself had both pointed to its practice surrounding epiphany. More mimnetic epiphany baptisms also seemed to have been present in Syrian churches and early Gallican churches as well, as noted by Gabriele Winkler.[32] Bradshaw also pointed to baptismal practice on saint’s days and Christmas. Baptisms were clearly being done throughout the year, so Talley’s theory didn’t seem to have enough evidence. Another explanation would have to be found.[33]

Buchinger accepted Bradshaw’s conclusions, and moved to offer a new justification for the movement of the fast. He believed that the movement of baptisms to Easter, and the transfer of 40 day fast which moved with it, was rooted in a theological development. He looked to Origen as the instrumental source of the theological foundation. Buchinger believed that Origen’s reflections upon the Passover in Peri Pascha held the key. In this work Buchinger believes that Origen establishes the idea of “passage” as a key to understanding Pascha. He takes a look at the Passover in Exodus 12 and states that Christ demonstrated the true Passover, a passage to a new beginning, which was done by the washing of water in baptism.[34] Bunchinger was particularly struck by the failure to reference any liturgical practices that also make this connection. If, as Origen believed, Passover found its completion in the baptism of Christ why would he have neglected to mention a baptism ceremony at Pascha. One must admit the omission is striking. This paper offered the theological justification for moving baptisms to Easter, but offered no evidence that the move necessarily followed.[35] Maxwell Johnson, like Paul Bradshaw, sought to critique the justification that Talley had given for why the feast would have moved. He did not believe that baptisms were done with such consistency and universality within the church that it would have motivated a movement of the fast to the extent as is seen in with the attachment of the 40 days to Pascha, as is seen in the post-Nicean. To defend his theory he looked toward one of the earliest text describing the liturgical practices of the early church, The Bible itself. In the book of Acts he notes that the second chapter describes the event of Pentecost as a massive baptismal event. He believed that this passage might be a window into the world of the early church, which had perhaps begun developing the feast of Pentecost as the primary location for baptism.

He explored this idea more deeply by examining the structures of Luke-Acts. He drew upon the work of Walter Ray who highlights a two-fold pattern of the promising of the spirit, and the fulfillment of the spirit, seeing this pattern in the conception, birth, and baptism of Jesus. This pattern is also seen in the Pentecost account of Acts 2 as well as in the account of the Baptism of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10-11. Johnson saw a connection between all of these instances. They all opened pointed to the Holy Spirit as the one who brings about new birth. The connection between birth and Pentecost was also drawn from the Jubilees calendar which linked the birth of Issac with the feast of Pentecost. Johnson argued that this may have led early Christian communities to connect Pentecost and the Baptism of Jesus early on, in one single unitive feast. This might explain the presence of fire language in Syrian accounts of baptism, both in the Jordan event as well as other times of baptism. This work seems very interesting, but until more work can be done exploring it further, the theory is simply speculation.[36]

Martin Connell also both a critique and a solution to the Talley approach.[37] One of the holes in Talley’s theory is that there is little evidence that there ever was a baptismal liturgy in February. Connell argued that there formally was a baptismal liturgy is February, but it had been transformed into the feast of preparation, commemorating the meeting with Simeon and Anna, known as Hypapante. First he noted that there is baptismal imagery in Cyril of Jerusalem’s sermon for Hypapante including: light, candles, a wedding Chamber, and a reference to Adam’s exultation. This baptismal language was seen in other homilies in Jerusalem with common themes of Noah and being employed on that day. Amphilochius of Iconium’s homily (373-395) for the feast even adds references to Noah, the Red Sea, and milk and honey; all baptismal symbols. It also spent time discussing a linen burial garment which may have been a connection to the raising of Lazarus of a reference to the story recorded in secret Mark. Connell also noted that the Armenian lectionary assigned Galatians 3:24-29, a highly baptismal passage, to the date as well.

Not only was there an abundance of liturgical language and symbols that pointed to the connection, there was also a historical connection. Egeria’s travel records that on Hypapante everything is done “as on Easter Sunday.” Connell argued that this may be an illusion to the inclusion of a baptismal day at the time of Hypapante. Another historical curiosity is the testimony of Severus of Antioch (465-538), who describes the feast of the presentation as a novelty and then mentions an even newer feast in which Palms are waved as the faithful accompany the Lord on a donkey, perhaps indicating liturgical shifting around these commemorations in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Looking at scripture itself Connell also found evidence that the narrative of the presentation had replaced a commemoration the raising of Lazarus, which had been the baptismal festival posited by Talley. He noted that the language of hypantao (from which we get Hypapante – the Greek name for the presentation) does not actually occur in the biblical passage of the presentation (Luke 2:22-38), but it does appear in John 11, language which is also picked up by Egeria in his description of the stational liturgy on Lazarus Saturday in Jerusalem.  Russo points out, however, that Nicholas Denysenko’s work on Hypapante seems to undermine this theory, demonstrating that hypantao language in the feast was a later development.[38]

Perhaps the most significant critique of Talley’s work is the assault that “Secret mark” has undergone in recent scholarship. Within the world of litugiologists, this attack has been led in large part by Peter Jeffery, but a number of other scholars have jumped into the fray. The discovery of the manuscript has been accused of having dubious origins, and has been condemned  as having a high degree of inauthenticity, has even been accused of being an all-out forgery by some. Nicholas Russo evaluated the state of scholarship on the Mar Saba Clementine Fragment, through which Secret Mark was preserved, and he offers 8 possibilities as to the Origins of the manuscript:

  1. The letter is authentically Clement’s and the pericope from Secret Mark is from the same pen as the author of canonical Mark;
  2. The letter is not authentically Clement’s, but Secret Mark is Markan;
  3. The letter is authentically Clement’s, but Secret Mark is a later, yet still ancient, addition to the Gospel of Mark;
  4. The letter is not authentically Clement’s, but it is still an ancient, albeit pseudonymous, composition; the pericope of Secret Mark is a later interpolation into the canonical text;

Post-Nicea to Pre-modern

  1. The letter and Secret Mark were composed at some point after Nicea but before the medieval Coptic and Syrian sources appear relating a legend of Jesus baptizing his disciples on or around the day on which Egypt’s ancient post- Epiphany fast ended;
  2. The letter and Secret Mark were composed at some point after these Coptic and Syrian sources were written and before the seventeenth century (the earliest proposed date for the Mar Saba MS);

Pre-modern to 1958

  1. The letter and Secret Mark are a pre-modern composition possibly crafted by a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century monk-scribe associated with the Monastery of Mar Saba;
  2. The letter and Secret Mark are a modern composition crafted by the purported discoverer of the text: Morton Smith himself (the “discoverer” of the fragment).

Jeffery argued for option eight, believing the document to be a forgery. His argument rests in large part on the documents failure to conform to the known practices at the time, its anachronistic inclusion of codified readings, and a use of vocabulary foreign to the historical Clement.[39] Although none of these critiques are definitive, enough substantial criticism has been levied against the document that it can no longer be used to bear the weight that was placed on it by Talley. An argument for an Egyptian 40 day quarantine must be made without resting upon Talley’s hypothetical Marcan cycle.

The most recent significant critique of Talley comes from Nicholas Russo. Russo masterfully compiled all of the research that had been done, and produced an in-depth evaluation of the sources, highlighting what might be gleaned from those he thought were key to understanding the origins of Lent. In his estimation Lent was, at least partially, influenced by the Egyptian practice, but he believed that the attraction of Lent to Easter was not due to a common baptism date, but rather was a response to heresy. He believed that Nicea not only condemned Arianism, but also fought against an adoptionist sect which may have been the primary root of the 40 day fast in Egypt.[40] Pointing to the work done by F. C. Conybeare who argued that there was a deliberate anti-adoptionist agenda and that since the baptismal celebrations were closely associated with this group the church distanced itself from any large epiphany celebrations.[41] Russo does not believe that the move was necessarily as deliberate as Conybeare argued, but still thinks it is a more viable option than the reason given by Talley. Russo also draws on the work of David Brakke who argues that the writings of  Athanasius  conflate all heretics and schismatics into single group, which he deems “Jews.”[42]

Russo additionally highlighted Peter of Alexandria’s Canonical Epistle (ca. 306), which records a 40 day fasting period in Alexandria in Canon 1. Russo notes that this appears to be a free floating fast with no direct reference to the feast of epiphany which goes against Talley’s theory of the static post-epiphany fast, though Russo does note that the free-floating fast could have been modeled after the post-epiphany fast recorded elsewhere.[43]

A final evaluation

After evaluating the history of scholarship surrounding this question, what remains is a collection of sources. When left by themselves, none of which can hold up the theory the Egyptian origins of Lent. However when taken together they offer a compelling mosaic. The evidence is by no means conclusive on the issue, but it does appear more likely than not that there was a 40 day period of fasting in Egypt before Nicaea, and that this period was influential in the development of the 40 quarantine attached to Pascha throughout the Christian Empire in the time immediately following the council. The reason for this move is still unclear, but I find the argument that the Orthodox were distancing themselves from an adoptionist group who emphasized the baptismal story associated with epiphany the most compelling explanation offered at this time.

The supporting evidence – A chart

What follows is a chart highlighting the supporting evidence of a 40-day post-epiphany fast, underscoring what evidence it offers and the weaknesses of the evidence:

Evidence What it demonstrates The weakness
The festive break of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday in both Byzantine and Hagiopolite liturgical celebration. It seems to indicate that the 40 days had originally ended in a celebration. Also, the typika of the ninth and tenth century shows a baptismal liturgy at this point, perhaps showing that when Lent was moved a vestigial baptismal liturgy may have come with it. There is no indication that this was an Egyptian liturgical source.
The Secret Gospel of Mark/ The Hypothetical Marcan cycle If taken together, there would have been a reading through Mark beginning at the baptism and ending after the 40 days ending in a seemingly baptismal account. Significant questions have been raised about the authenticity of the manuscript.
The Athanasius/ Eusebius argument They do not point to Jesus’ own fast of 40 days when defending the practice of a Lenten fast before the Easter Vigil to those in Egypt, possibly because the Egyptians might have seen this verse as a proof text for their own post-epiphany fasting. This is an argument from silence.
The Book of Chrism Claims that baptism used to end the fast and this corresponded to a belief that Jesus baptized his disciples after his own 40 days of fasting. There is no indication of this fasting period being connected to epiphany
The Lamp of Darkness Claims there was a post-epiphany fast following the celebration of the baptism of Jesus. Manuscript evidence only goes back until the 10th century.
The Legend on the Papyrus Seems to indicate that there baptism on Pascha was not the original situation, and created a legend to explain the shift. The story is not a historical account.
Origen – Homilies on Leviticus There is reference to a 40 day fast much earlier than the development of a pre-Pascal period anywhere The only manuscripts we have are later Latin translations which might have added the reference at a later date.
Peter of Alexandria – Canonical Epistle, Canon 1 Records a 40 day fasting period in Alexandria from (ca. 306) The recorded fast is a free floating occasion not linked to Epiphany.
Canons of Hippolytus – Canons 12 and 20-22 There is a discussion of 40 day periods of fasting apart from Pascha. In this there is mention of Jesus’ own 40 day fast as the model. There is no reference to a post-epiphany fast directly.
Canons of Athanasius There is a 40 day fast associated with a catechumenate with no mention of Pascha There is also no mention of Epiphany
Canons of Basil Basil is an expanded version of the Canons of Athanasius. It seems to indicate that there was a 40 day penitential season in Egypt prior to Nicea and that its usage persisted even after Lent was established in its pre-paschal position. There is also no mention of Epiphany
Origen’s reflections upon the Passover in Peri Pascha Origen clearly connects Passover to Baptism, but does not mention any link in the liturgy. This suggests Easter was not seen as the primary place for baptism, at least in the communities Origen was a part of, giving a possible theological explanation for why the feast was moved. This is an argument from silence.
Baptismal parallels in the Hypapante texts and practices There is baptismal language and symbols in the Hypapante liturgy and a stronger linguistic connection in the biblical text to the Lazarus event than to the actual dedication account in the Gospels. Suggesting that this was originally the feast that marked the end of the baptismal fast, but was transformed after the 40 day fast moved. Linguistic and processional parallels have been demonstrated as later developments.




[1] Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, 2nd ed. (New York: Seaberry Press, 1945), 354.

[2] A summary of this work, as well as an English translation of relevant selections from Callewaert can be found in Nicholas V. Russo, “The Origins of Lent” (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame, 2010), 8–9.

[3] Maxwell E. Johnson, “From Three Weeks to Forty Days: Baptismal Preperation and the Origins of Lent,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 119–120.

[4] Ibid., 129–132.

[5] Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd, emended ed (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1991).

[6]Histoire de l’Église d’Alexandrie, Part 2, ch. XVIII, 71-72; in Villecourt, “Le Saint Chrême” (Part 2), 17-18. Translation found in Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 15–16.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Thomas J. Talley, “The Origin of Lent at Alexandria,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year, ed. John Francis Baldovin and Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 192–193; Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 18.

[9] Louis Villecourt, “Un Manuscrit Arabe Sur Le Saint Chrême Dans l’Église Copte (Part 2),” Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique 18 (1922): 16; Louis Villecourt, “Le Lettre de Macaire,”,” Le Muséon 36 (1926): 39.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 21.

[12] Hippolytus, Les Canons d’Hippolyte: édition critique de la version arabe, ed. René-Georges Coquin (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1966).

[13] Ibid., 364–365; Paul F. Bradshaw and Carol Bebawi, The Canons of Hippolytus (Gorgias PressLlc, 2009), 17–18.

[14] Gary Wayne Barkley, Origen: Homilies on Leviticus: 1-16, vol. 83, Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 206–207.

[15] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 25.

[16] René-Georges Coquin, “Les Origines de l’Épiphanie En Égypte,” in Nöel- Epiphanie: Retour Du Christ, ed. Bernard Botte, vol. 40, Lex Orandi (Paris: Cerf, 1967), 152.

[17] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 29.

[18] René-Georges Coquin, “Une Réforme Liturgique Du Concile de Nicée (325)?,” Comptes Rendus, Académie Des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1967): 190.

[19] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 32.

[20] Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 167–168.

[21] Egeria, Egeria, trans. George E. Gingras (Paulist Press, 1970). Apostolic Constitutions V 13.

[22] Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, 354.

[23] Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 190.

[24] Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 447; Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 208.

[25] Juan Mateos, Le Typicon de La Grande Église: Ms. Saint-Croix No. 40, Xe Siècle, Vol. 2 Le Cycle Des Fêtes Mobiles,, vol. 166, Orientalia Christiana Analecta (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientalium, 1963), 18–23, 28–31, 38–39, 46–47, 54–57, 64–67.

[26]Originally produced in Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 144.

[27] Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 171–183.

[28] Quemadmodum enim quando Lazarum suscitavit Dominus, occurrebant iili omnes Jerosolyminani, ac multitudine sua testificabantur , quod ille mortuum suscitavisset (nam adventantium sollicitudo indicium erat miraculi) Patrologia Graeca 55.519ff-520aa.

[29] Talley, “The Origin of Lent at Alexandria,” 187–188.

[30] Apostolic Tradition 17, 20-21

[31] Tertullian, De baptismo 19

[32] Gabriele Winkler, “The Original Meaning of the Prebaptismal Anointing and Its Implications,” Worship 52 (1978): 36.

[33] Paul F. Bradshaw, “‘Diem Baptismo Sollemniorem’: Initiation and Easter in Christian Antiquity,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 138–139.

[34] Peri Pascha 1, §12-13

[35] Harold Buchinger, Towards the Origins of Paschal Baptism: The Contribution of Origen, vol. 35, Studia Liturgica, n.d., 12–31.

[36] Maxwell E. Johnson, “Tertullian’s ‘Diem Baptismo Sollemniorem’ Revisited,” in Studia Liturgica Diversa: Essays in Honor of Paul F. Bradshaw, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips (Portland: OCP, 2004), 35.

[37] Martin F. Connell, “‘Just as on Easter Sunday’: On the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,” Studia Liturgical 33 (2003): 159–174.

[38] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 115–118; Nicholas Denysenko, “The Hypapante Feast in Fourth to Eighth Century Jerusalem,” Studia Liturgical 37 (2007): 73–97.

[39] Peter Jeffery, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery (New Haven, CT: University Press, 2007).

[40] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 396.

[41] Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare, ed., The Key of Truth: A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898), 75.

[42] David Brakke, “Jewish Flesh and Christian Spirit in Athanasius of Alexandria,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9, no. 4 (2001): 453–481.

[43] Russo, “The Origins of Lent,” 322–330.

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