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.
- Est. 150-200 AD: Mary is called by the title “the Virgin Mary” in the Ascension of Isaiah, 11:13.
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.
//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//
Great point. This is one of the things I continually struggle with as I read through the Church Fathers. There is so much in their writings that is simply not Protestant.
Yes. I think the major thing that places the fathers and modern Orthodox apart is 1600 years. The Church has definintely changed in 1600 years, we have clarified things, we words some things a little differently. The way the Church spoke about grace in early Church history IMHO was vaguely more Protestant that modern Orthodox formulations, which are clearly worded in such a fashion to categorically reject forensic righteousness (which is true, because forensic righteousness is unbiblical and unknown in Church History.) Further, the veneration of the saints has certainly grown more elaborate.
It was my difficulty with sorting through those two issues, and understanding that the Orthodox teach the same today than they did 1600 years ago, that prevented my earlier conversion to Orthodoxy. Emphasis has certainly changed over the centuries.
More to the point, I sincerely doubt there exists a single academic anywhere–Catholic or Protestant–who doesn’t hold to Marian devotion being an innovation.
The simplest explanation is normally the best explanation. Spotty evidence–all of it pseudepigraphal–points to spotty practice.
Besides, iconographic evidence shows a plain, everywoman, humbly raising arms to pray…become a regally dressed, superwoman “Queen of Heaven.”
Scripture and the Apostolic Fathers paint a picture of an entirely different woman than post-Council-of-Ephesus Christendom.
I prefer to emulate the simple handmaiden of the Lord in her submission to the Spirit. You can keep the other Mary. I don’t recognize her.
Heck, SHE doesn’t recognize her!
A few things you wrote are not quite accurate:
1. I’d love for you to cite a single Protestant theologian or historian who believes that Marian devotion began in the Middle Ages. Some circles may indeed deprioritize knowledge of church history, but very few can be THAT dim witted.
2. TurretinFan’s article (on the AO Ministry site) does NOT see Marian veneration as beginning in the 15th century, but the complete version of the Hail Mary (which does indeed date to 1495 and Savonarola).
3. I think it uncharitable to claim that Protestants “push forward” the dating of say, the Sub Tuum. (Any more than one should say Conservative Catholics and Eastern Orthodox adherents “push back” the date. )The long and short of that particular document is that it is in an individual’s unique hand and cannot be dated textually with any precision. Content doesn’t carry the day, but it is hardly extraneous. Marian veneration DOES proliferate after the Council of Ephesus. That’s beyond debate.
In terms of presuppositions, RC’s and EO’s have more riding on an early date. Conversely, if the later date is wrong, Protestants don’t really lose anything. All our eggs are in the Scripture basket. Nothing even approaching veneration there.
4. As far as the Trinity, the Canon, and Chalcedonian Christology are concerned, each are there from very near the beginning in clear if undeveloped form. Later Marian veneration, on the other hand, is INCREDIBLY different from earlier honorings of the humble maid. They simply don’t lie along the same trajectory.
“1. I’d love for you to cite a single Protestant theologian or historian who believes that Marian devotion began in the Middle Ages…”
In never claimed that serious scholars asserted such things, though Turrentinfan’s implication was similar to common lay Protestant understanding. Here is one such inaccurate Protestant source:
“Now it should be noted, historically, that the official worship of Mary was established in 431 A.D. 431 A.D. Prayers to Mary came around 600 A.D., a few hundred years passed before this cult developed. It really is a form, an old, old pagan form of the goddess worship: Baal and Ashtoreth, Isis and Osiris in Egypt. ”
“2. TurretinFan’s article (on the AO Ministry site) does NOT see Marian veneration as beginning in the 15th century, but the complete version of the Hail Mary (which does indeed date to 1495 and Savonarola).”
Understood, but again I used the word “imply.”
“3. I think it uncharitable to claim that Protestants “push forward” the dating of say, the Sub Tuum. (Any more than one should say Conservative Catholics and Eastern Orthodox adherents “push back” the date. )”
Didn’t I accuse both sides of doing…both???
I referred to it in a Protestant article I wrote (https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2015/09/28/should-we-pray-to-the-saints-do-they-pray-for-us/) but even then I was aware that the evidence was the scholar’s conceptual opinions over and against the handwriting evidence.
In short, we have other verifiable early prayers (Methodius records that Simeon and Anna are praying for us, and he wrote this before he died in 311 AD) so the issue for me as a Protestant was not whether the saints pray–it was whether 1. they hear our prayers and 2. what kind of power do they have to actually do something about it.
This is why I never considered prayers to the saints objectively evil, as the theology for it is rather straightforward and consistent with Christianity.
“The long and short of that particular document is that it is in an individual’s unique hand and cannot be dated textually with any precision.”
I totally agree. But if the handwriting is suggestive and the prayer is consistent with what we know about 2nd and 3rd century Egyptian piety, then this lends a lot of support to that suggestive evidence.
“Marian veneration DOES proliferate after the Council of Ephesus. That’s beyond debate.”
Actually, no. Other than Saint Epiphanius (who says it is right to venerate Mary, just not worship her) we do not have any indication of the practice being opposed, but we have much indication of the practice being supported. We not only having by the 4th century tons of ink spilled on the subject, we have whole hymnals to the virgin in Jerusalem and Marian shrines before Ephesus (pesky archaeologists.) If you like, i can mail you Shoemaker’s book. It is from 2016 or 2017, it is probably the msot up to date treatment of the subject (from a non RC/EO).
Rather, after Ephesus, what we see is simply more Christian writing and more elaboration upon the veneration practices (which makes sense, as Christian art, Christian church building, and anything that costs money proliferated after Nicea.)
“In terms of presuppositions, RC’s and EO’s have more riding on an early date.”
We already have the anaphoras of coptic basil and st Methodius of olympus, so we have independent confirmation of similar practices and beliefs. We also know that Gnostics were having prayers as well. What we don;t have is evidence that anyone rejected the idea.
“All our eggs are in the Scripture basket.”
Fine enough, though that Canon comes from the same men you reject here, as they literally preserved those Scriptures and we trust them in discerning which ones were the Scriptures.
Protestantism is essentially reverse engineering, going through the scrap heap of history and pulling out the parts to build a Mercedes.
“4. As far as the Trinity, the Canon, and Chalcedonian Christology are concerned, each are there from very near the beginning in clear if undeveloped form. Later Marian veneration, on the other hand, is INCREDIBLY different from earlier honorings of the humble maid.”
I completely disagree. The issue is not a matter of degree. We already spoke about hyperbole in language. The issue is whether Mary is 1. sinless, 2. worthy of honor above all creation, and 3. has powerful prayer. We have 2nd and 3rd century evidence of 1, 2, and 3. No one was given the titles that Mary was given early on. The Church had other virgins, but only one “the Virgin Mary.” Only one “Theotokos.”
While I may argue that 85% of the Canon was clearly formulated by the Apostolic Fathers and we have no evidence at that time of Marian veneration, I would simply chalk it up to a lack of written evidence. We only have so much of it at any given time. The fact we start to get any in the 2nd century is persuasive that the Church had always held to its Marian doctrines.
You must essentially push the goal-posts to before the second century to push out Marian doctrines, which even then is tough, as the Biblical parallels between her and the ark of the covenant are exceedingly clear and not by mistake. We cannot simply ignore this.
Mary is all but invisible in the early church writings, which were being written as the church was forming. Even John’s gospel, the person to whom Christ said, “..this is your mother,” barely mentions her. The supposed first Pope of the Catholic church, doesn’t mention her in his letters. So, therefore, I believe of Mary what is written in scripture, nothing more and nothing less.
Appreciate the reply. Having trouble with my phone. I’ll have to answer bit by bit.
1. TurretinFan was implying no such thing. John MacArthur, on the other hand, sometimes lets his passion outrun his intellect.
2. The handwriting analysis cannot precisely determine the age of this text. Other determinations must be brought to bear to hazard a guess. We’re talking about guesswork here.
3. Canon comes from the Apostles. We could ignore the early church fathers entirely and still go back and reconstruct the canon.
4. To proliferate means to expand rapidly. Shoemaker uses the term “explosion” to describe the phenomenon. So, actually, yes.
5. Your “early on” evidence (and Shoemaker’s for that matter) is a lot of apocryphal and gnostic writings. Nothing Apostolic in nature.
6. Reverse engineering works fine as long as one does it correctly. Straightforward engineering with a lousy mechanic leaves one with a once-gleaming Mercedes that will not run and is ready for the scrap heap.
7. In the early church there is no consensus that Mary is sinless, certainly none that she rises above the rest of creation, and no evidence that anyone prayed to her. Shoemaker himself say there is no evidence whatsoever of Marian veneration prior to 150 C.E. (And Theotokos was not used early on unless you date the Sub Tuum advantageously.)
Origen allegedly used the term theotokos
8. We have enough textual evidence to know that Mary was not a significant figure in the very early church. (We have evidence of forensic justification for goodness’ sake!)
Does the fact that we have same-sex marriage and abortion on demand a mere 230 years after the writing of our Constitution say anything whatever of our Founding Fathers?
That religions innovate after their founding is a universal occurrence. Why do you like Shoemaker so much? He clearly says that Marian veneration is an INNOVATION!!!
9. Why should I have any problem with Mary as the Ark? The Ark was a simple wooden box covered in hammered gold. It’s CONTENTS were divine!
Or rather, its contents were analogically Messianic. (YHWH was aniconically enthroned between the cherubim on the Mercy Seat.)
Be that as it may, the early use of “Theotokos” was sparing.
Not sure I even care though. It has been the misinterpretation (and/or confusing employment) of the word that has caused problems…not the word itself (and Protestants do not shy away from the term even slightly).
The Chalcedonian Definition clearly describes her as the Theotokos “as to the Manhood.” RC and EO adherents often spin away from this concept into a full-blown, unqualified Mater Dei.
The word you want to use is misconception not conception. https://wikidiff.com/misconception/conception
That was pathetic bro, why do any of the apostles never teach this, neither do the early church fathers, it doesn’t make any sense. If you read the gospels you will find out even jesus says Mary is not more than anyone that does the will of God. Read the gospels man, its not that hard, it doesn’t take a scholar to figure it out, and you don’t need to make it complicated.
“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?”
We have Christology from the holy Ecumenical Councils. We have the canon from the churches trading lists of what they read in their churches and trading copies or asking for copies of things a church did not yet have, a process that went from the bottom up so to speak, and culminating in declarations by various patriarchs and councils as to what was being read in their churches.
But for the blessed Virgin, the ecumenical councils are silent but for the affirmation of the title Theotokos, which was affirmed as part of Christology, a counter to Docetism.
Amazing that you would cite the gnostic heretics as sources for mariology.
As a fyi, the gnostics sources are by far out numbered by Orthodox ones. Something like 2 to 11 in the first 200 years of Church History.