A common conception among Protestants is that Marian veneration is a late medieval development. One article from Alpha and Omega Ministries implies that it is from around the 15th century. Yet, Orthodox and Roman Catholics argue her veneration is as old as the Church itself.
When we get into the nitty gritty of Church History, it is obvious that the veneration of the saints predates Christianity itself. For this reason, even Reformed apologist James White admits, “The current movement [within Roman Catholicism] to have Mary defined as as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate of the people of God is but the capstone of a theology that has evolved and grown for 1,800 years” (Mary: Another Redeemer, p. 14).
James White, beginning in page 33 of the same book, then covers in detail third and fourth century sources speaking of Mary’s perpetual virginity. This, he identifies, is the origins of an evolving doctrine that elevates the Theotokos into a demigod.
Dating Marian Doctrines. In debates between Protestants and Orthodox/Roman Catholics, the Protestant side is always looking to push forward the date of documents such as the Sub Tuum Praesidium so as to make Marian veneration appear a later development, while their opposition often argue that the same documents have very early dates so as to justify their veneration practices.
In scholarly arguments such as these, it often works best to find a “hostile witness” who disagrees with both sides. Thankfully for us, we do have such a “hostile witness.” In this article, we will be bring to “the stand” the textual-critics and theological liberals who study Church History and the Scriptures from a secular perspective.
In the following, we will cover pre-Nicene sources and their view of the Virgin Mary. Every single source is dated by textual critics and secular historians, which ironically tend to be Protestant or atheistic. Hence, the work of Orthodox and Roman Catholic scholarship does not weigh in the dating of the following documents.
It is my hope, that after reviewing the following, one will conclude that what Orthodoxy presently teaches about the Theotokos is in line with the earliest recorded Christian thought on the subject. The reason I am leaving post-Nicene sources out of the conversation is because they are so explicitly and thoroughly Orthodox, it would lead most Protestants to assume that everything “went bad” after Nicea.
Earliest Known Sources Pertaining to Marian Doctrines. Without further ado, the sources:
- Est. 100-200 AD: Mary’s virginity after birth is attested to in three separate sources from this early period. These references pertain to her labors being painless (Ascension of Isaiah 11:8-14, Ode of Solomon 19:8) and a story in the Protoevangelicum of James (Pars. 19-20) about a midwife physically checking for Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ. Her virginity is also implied by a late second century writer, Hegesippus, who wrote: “There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother” (emphasis added, Fragments).
It is worth noting that while the theological orthodoxy of the Odes of Solomon has been debated, though more recent scholarship identifies the work as the earliest extant, orthodox Christian hymnal. Verse 7 of the same chapter calls the Mother of God “a mother of great mercies.” Some are quick to see this as “proof” of a very early belief in Marian intercessions, though from the context of the verse itself it is not clear whether Mary dispenses mercy through her prayers, or in my own personal reading, Mary is the mother of our mercies in an indirect sense (because her motherhood made our salvation possible.)
- Est. 140-170 AD: Mary’s sinlessness is implied by several references in the Protoevangelicum of James.
The significance of the Theotokos being virginal after birth is not only so that Biblical prophecy may be maintained as trustworthy (see Ezek 44:1-3, about a gate that never opens but the prince somehow walks through it), but more specifically it speaks to how Mary is undefiled. This is why there are deliberate parallels between the Ark of the Covenant and Saint Luke’s treatment of Mary.
The significance of being undefiled is not simply a preoccupation with sexual intercourse. Rather, as we see in the Protoevangelicum, ritual purity is what is significant. For example, Saint Anna makes sure Mary’s bedroom is undefiled and that she eats nothing unclean (Par 6); after leaving her parents and living in the Temple an angel feeds her (Par 8); and Mary attests to her own purity in that she did not have marital relations with her betrothed (Par 15).
Such scrupulosity in detailing her purity and cleanliness seems to imply a doctrine of sinlessness until at least the point-in-time of Christ’s birth–which makes sense given the obvious connections between references to the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Sam 6 and Luke’s treatment of Mary’s conception in Luke 1. Just as God carefully made sure that the Ark of the Covenant was never defiled (it was even transported surrounded by the curtains of the tabernacle to in effect prevent anything unclean touching it), God preserved His human footstool, the Theotokos.
If we recognize that the Protoevangelicum teaches that Mary remained a virgin after birth, it interpretatively makes sense that the author believed that Mary subsequently preserved her ritual purity the rest of her life.
The preceding fact is not particularly earth-shattering, as no orthodox Protestant would reject that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to our Lord. The relevance of the title is that the Scriptures simply call the Theotokos “Mary” and otherwise she is referred to by Saint Paul and Saint Ignatius as “a virgin.” The title “the Virgin Mary” lends credibility to a belief that Mary remained a virgin, something that is otherwise not addressed explicitly in the first century.
- Est. Second to Fourth Century AD: We have evidence of Marian prayers, or explicit references to her intercession, from an early period of Church History.
The little known prayer to Mary’s womb in the Gospel of Bartholomew 4:17 may be the earliest record we have of a Marian petition. Stephen J. Shoemaker dates the prayer to the second century (see Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 2016, p. 93-95), though such a dating is predicated conflating this apocryphal writing with heretical “Gospels” of the Gnostics. (Note: While there is a certain Gnostic snobbishness about the work, and it was rejected in the West, it enjoyed some popularity in the Eastern part of the Church and apparently was not explicitly Gnostic in its cosmology.) My own opinion is that a dating in the second or third century is more likely than a fourth century dating. Those who would date the work to the fourth or fifth century do so simply because of a preconceived view of its “advanced Mariology.” If Marian veneration precedes these centuries, then such a dating automatically becomes unreasonable. Hence, if the genre of the work is consistent with those of the second and third centuries, this is likely its date.
From the third century, we also have the Anaphoras of Coptic/Egyptian Basil. These petitions are from an early Egyptian liturgy, dated as early as the late third century by even Anglican scholars. The anaphora clearly shows a belief in Marian intercession and the oldest Sahidic manuscript records for us the following: “…the holy and glorious Mary, Theotokos (Mother of God), and by her prayers have mercy on us all…”
Also (likely) from the third century is the much debated Sub Tuum Praesidium, our earliest manuscript containing a petition to the Virgin Mary. Most scholars concur that we can date the actual manuscript (let alone the prayer) to the third or fourth centuries. Scholars believe that handwriting evidence on this manuscript points to the third century, but Protestant scholars assert that its advanced Mariology makes it newer than that.
In short, scholars who give the manuscript a late date do so not on grounds of how old the manuscript actually appears, but because of their preconceived notions pertaining to its content.
In my opinion, the prayer is so short that it makes it hard to say that internal evidence should override other, more theologically neutral methods of dating the piece. In light of evidence of there being advanced Mariology between the second and third centuries in this article, I have now become convinced that a third century dating for the following is most likely, though a fourth century dating is not impossible for the prayer:
Beneath your compassion,We take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.
Marian Veneration Among the Gnostics. An early book, The Book of Mary’s Repose, also contains a belief in Marian intercession. It is dated to the third or fourth centuries. The book clearly ends with the statement that “those who decided to be saved will receive assistance from her. And if they receive the image of light, they will receive her rest and her blessing.”
The book itself, which survives intact in an Ethiopic manuscript, is a heterodox document. It calls Jesus Christ “the Great Cherub of Light,” it appeals to Gnostic cosmology (i.e. the Pleroma as a representation of the heavenly realm), contains a shocking story of Saint Joseph speculating that he got drunk and raped his betrothed, and mentions secret prayers that will help one get past the Aerial Toll Houses. While it is not clear that the Syriac, Greek, Georgian, and other fragments of the work maintain all the content of the Ethiopic text, we have some reason to believe that they do (for example, the Georgian text preserves the whole Joseph episode.)
What is most shocking is that the Church preserved such a document, so clearly at odds with orthodoxy on several levels. In all probability, though the text was Gnostic and heretical, its recounting of a popular tradition (the assumption of Mary’s body after death) probably made it popular.
Christians throughout the ages have imbibed in fiction (i.e. the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, anything C.S. Lewis has written, and even the Apostle Jude enjoyed apocryphal Jewish texts) that contained some truths, but otherwise were full of errors and strange ideas. It is entirely possible that Christians simply treated the heterodox document in this way until more orthodox presentations of Mary’s repose were devised, leading to the eventual disappearance of the Book of Mary’s Repose.
In light of the preceding book and the Gospel of Bartholomew (which similar to Gnostic works speaks of “secret knowledge,”) it is worth addressing the speculation whether Marian prayers developed out of Gnosticism and found their way into mainstream fourth century Christianity. After all, we have early Gnostic-leaning documents that preserve the practice and they are among the earliest recorded witnesses we have.
To this I would respond that while such speculation is reasonable, it is not conclusive in any event. For one, the Gospel of Bartholomew is not explicitly Gnostic. Other documents, such as the Anaphoras of Coptic Basil, the Sub Tuum Praesidium, the Protoevangelicum, and Odes of Solomon contain not a hint of Gnosticism. Therefore, the material evidence more clearly shows that the belief in Marian intercession was within the pale of orthodoxy and the the Gnostics (as syncretists) simply shared some orthodox views, and imposed upon them a heterodox cosmology and soteriology.
Gnostic cosmology requires some explanation in order to flesh out the preceding point. In Gnosticism, there is a pantheon of Aeons, all of which emanated from one another, finding a common source in Bythus (i.e. the initial creator.) The “saved” in Gnosticsm, do not become Aeons, but rather participate in the Pleroma of Aeons as the human spirit from there allegedly finds its source. Shoehorning the veneration of the saints into this cosmology is difficult, as the saints are an afterthought and play no crucial role in such a cosmology or Hellenistic emanationist thought. Therefore, it appears that saint veneration was something the Gnostics borrowed and added to their own belief system, not something that makes sense with their worldview and originated with themselves.
In short, veneration of the saints does not have clear Hellenistic precedents where it would be reasonable to assume that Greek Pagans influenced Gnostic Christians who then influenced mainstream Christians. Rather, it appears more reasonable to assume the Gnostics simply imported orthodox beliefs and tried to make it fit with their own esoteric and Hellenized view of the Christian religion. This is the same thing Gnostics did with Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and eastern mystery religions. The preceding is a profound point if one has a thorough understanding of what Gnosticism really is.
Conclusion. Honest Protestants already concede that we have 1,800 year old recorded evidence of Orthodox Marian doctrines. In fact, most of these documents are in fact older than the earliest Christian discussions pertaining to the Trinity and Biblical Canon.
This compels one to ask on what consistent grounds can one reject Orthodox Marian doctrines as part of early Church practice, but not reject the Biblical Canon or Christology the same, visible body of Christian ascribed to explicitly at a later date?
There are no such grounds. This is why when many Protestants on their way to Constantinople or Rome confront the “hurdle” of the veneration of the saints, they make one of two decisions: accepting the doctrine begrudgingly or abandoning the whole Christian religion.
Why? If we cannot trust the Church to understand the doctrine of prayer at such an early date, then we surely cannot trust them to get the Canon or Christology right. And, if that’s the case, than the very foundation of orthodox Protestantism is shattered. What we have left is a free for all where Gnosticism, Unitarianism, and Mormonism now are all on a level playing field.
Without being within the stream of Christian history, we are divorced from the consciousness of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the ages. These are the same men and women who died for the faith, hand-copied the Scriptures, and persevered in the faith by the grace of the Holy Spirit. To separate ourselves from these men and women is to deny the work of the Spirit in them, and in so doing schism rejects the Holy Spirit with it. For this reason, defending historical Marian doctrine is so important.