Perhaps the most noticeable divergence between Orthodox and Protestant piety is the regard both respective parties have for Mary. The Theotokos, a title for Mary which means “God bearer” in Greek, is popularly venerated by every corner of Christendom spanning from the Christians of Kerala, Ethiopia, Russia, to Ireland. In fact, there was no popular opposition to her veneration until the Protestant Reformation.
Protestants object to Marian veneration due to it being, allegedly, a late innovation that wormed its way into Christian practice. Nevertheless, strictly opposing the practice on literal Biblical grounds would be overly simplistic. Most reasonable people realize that a plethora of pious practices, such as going to worship on Sunday or celebrating Easter (what Orthodox call “Pascha”), do not have explicit Biblical warrant. This is not a stumbling block for most, because these practices are documented in the first and second centuries of Church history. This adds credibility to Biblical inferences interpreters draw when justifying their observance.
In this article, the veneration of the Theotokos will be historically delineated from the Scriptures themselves and the earliest known Christian documents pertaining to the matter. Perhaps if Protestants understood the implicit Biblical basis for the Theotokos’ veneration and its popularity in early Christian Church, they would be less judgmental of the Orthodox tradition and set a more skeptical eye upon their own traditions.
The Latria-Dulia Distinction
Before assessing the aforementioned evidence, it is important to quickly review a few important principles.
First, Orthodox do not “worship” the Theotokos as God or a god. It is important clarify what the term “worship” has meant in recent centuries. The term is derived from the word “worthy” and it originally applied to men as well as God. (Francis and Kay 1997, 77) Kings would have been addressed as “Your Worship” due to their perceived worthiness and even today some may use the word for dramatic effect in contexts such as, “I worship the Beatles.” However, in any case, the literal worship of a deity is not implied and the term in English is simply not precise enough to permit the interpreter to infer as such.
To the contrary, Greek is considerably more precise. This providential so as God preserved in the Scriptures the teachings of Christ’s Apostles in that language. In the New Testament, as well as the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated into Greek which is frequently quoted ad verbatim by both Jesus Christ and the Apostles), the Greek terms “latria” (λατρεύειν) and “dulia” (δουλεύειν) are used to portray the worship of God. The key difference is, however, that “latria” in every single one of its usages only refers to the worship of a deity while “dulia” is similar to the English term “worship” in that it can be in reference to both man (Phil 2:22, Gal 5:13, and 1 Tim 6:2) and deity (Luke 16:13, Rom 7:25, Gal 4:8).
Saint Augustine provides a short summary of the Latria-Dulia distinction:
[W]e are commanded to serve one another by love, which is in Greek δουλεύειν [dulia], but in that in which God alone is served, which is in Greek λατρεύειν [latria]. From whence they are called idolaters who tender that service to images which is due to God. For it is this service concerning which it is said, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” [Deut 6:13 LXX] For this is found also more distinctly in the Greek Scriptures, which have λατρεύσεις [latria]. (On the Trinity, Book 1, Par 13)
While Deut 6:13 is an extremely clear example of latria being performed only to God, we also have a good example of dulia being paid to man. Saint Paul teaches that when a servant works for his master, paying him due honor, the servant in so doing pays honor to (i.e. “worships”) God:
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ…with goodwill doing service (dulia), as to the Lord, and not to men (Eph 6:5, 7).
In the preceding, one can perceive that men can be served as to the Lord, depending upon the context. This is basic common sense, after all, as honor and veneration is often paid to men in secular contexts.
Therefore, it is also commonsensical that one worships God in a different way than simply venerating Him—even if God is paid similar honors. For example, we may honor God and memorialize what He has done for us, such as on Pascha. Nevertheless, we do the same with men. Many fondly remember their loved ones and we have holidays in memory of great men like George Washington or Martin Luther King. One may perceive that the preceding fails to meet the bar for what we popularly consider “worship.” So, what is undistilled worship which is clearly different than simple veneration? Sacrifice.
God alone is presented with sacrifice, whether if it is the sacrifice of one’s complete devotion or one’s partaking in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Father (something that Orthodox believe we share a part in every liturgy by communing). Because many Protestants do not have a sacrificial understanding of Christianity, their bar of “worship” can be described as an elevated sense of honor. Because Orthodox have an actual sacrifice which cannot be confused with mere honor, they do not confuse veneration (dulia) with worship (latria). Orthodox can more naturally make the distinction, because they actually practice it.
The Biblical Basis for Performing Dulia to the Theotokos
Being that we already accept the principle of paying honor to men, then there should be no question that the Church’s saints are paid the highest veneration.
Not surprisingly, there is a clear, Biblical example of veneration being paid to the Theotokos—provided one takes a Christological interpretation of Ps 44 (LXX)/45 (MT). The Psalm itself, at least on the surface, is about a King and his Queen. We must have a Christological interpretation, however. Ps 45:6-7 is clearly identified as pertaining to Jesus Christ by Saint Paul in Heb 1:8-9. So, the King is Jesus Christ.
Who is the Queen? Let’s start unpacking the Psalm:
The King has at His “right hand…the Queen.” (Ps 45:9) He also has “daughters.” These are clearly in reference to different people. We know that standing at both Jesus Christ’s left and right hands is not for Him to grant, but the Father. (Mark 10:40) So, for the Queen to be at the King’s right hand is a serious position to be in. A simple interpretation, that the Queen is solely the Church, is insufficient. Who are the King’s daughters given such a reading?
Who is actually at God’s right hand? Orthodox tradition has taught that it is the Theotokos. This Queen is “greatly desired” for her spiritual “beauty.” (Ps 45:11) This is highly similar to Mary who is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:28), which means due to her exceptional holiness she “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). It is reasonable to presume the one who is blessed among women will have a special standing with God.
The Psalm then addresses the Queen directly: “[T]he daughter of Tyre will come with a gift, the rich among the people will seek your favor.” (Ps 45:12) If the Queen is merely the Church, why is she being paid homage and sought for favor herself? In the Scriptures, the nations are usually bringing gifts to God. (cf Is 66:20) The most likely explanation is that “the daughter of Tyre” represents the gentiles paying dulia (“a gift”) and “the people” seeking favor are the faithful asking for Mary’s intercession in prayer.
As a brief aside, asking a glorified saint for prayer is not idolatry anymore than asking any righteous person for prayer. The Scriptures are clear that the saints pray for the living in heaven, such as the martyrs praying to God for an end of persecution. (Rev 6:10; cf Rev 8:3) Furthermore, the saints hear our prayers, as evidenced by Elisha knowing what Gehazi was up to when he asked for money from Naaman: “Did not my heart go with you when the man turned back from his chariot to meet you?” (2 Kings 5:26) There is no Biblical precedent for not asking a saint for intercession, which is perhaps why the Jews legitimately confused Jesus Christ quoting Ps 21 LXX/PS 22 MT as calling upon the Prophet Elijah for intercession. (Matt 27:47) Not surprisingly, third and fourth century AD Talmudic sources make clear that Jews had veneration practices including prostrations at the grave sites of the patriarchs and asking for the deceased for prayer. (Bar-Llan 2004)
And so, the Psalm can easily be read in the preceding light in verse 12 as well as other verses. Verse 14 states, “The virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to You.” Clearly, if the Queen is merely the Church, this passage does not make sense as the virgins are clearly the Church as they are brought to God. Interestingly, they “follow her.” This seems to be another obvious reference to the Church’s veneration of the Theotokos bringing them closer to God—literally “brought” into “the King’s palace.” (Ps 45:15)
The Psalm ends with God promising the Queen:
I will make your name to be remembered in all generations; Therefore, the people shall praise you forever and ever. (Ps 45:17)
Due to Hebrew and Greek lacking capitalization, some may conjecture verse 17 switches its subject from the Queen back to the King. However, this Psalm appears to be echoed by the Theotokos’ own lips:
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:48)
In any event, being that Ps 45 was understood as typological and prophetic in the first century, it would make sense that the references to the Queen would be typologically understood to apply to the Theotokos—as this would be the simplest explanation of the Psalm if one were to try to maintain consistency between the types.
Earliest Historical Evidence of the Theotokos’ Veneration: An Overview
Identifying first to third century historical evidence of Marian veneration is supposedly elusive. For example, some point out that the New Testament does not have any explicit mention of her veneration.
However, there is good reason for this, as when the New Testament was written high praise would have predictably be restrained, because she was still alive. Excessive praise to the humble may present an occasion for stumbling. Furthermore, based upon the Biblical evidence, one may infer that the Theotokos is often treated considerably more positively than other saints.
In fact, the saints are often quite tough on one another. For example, Saint Paul speaks somewhat frankly (to put it nicely) about the Apostles Peter, James, and John (the “so-called pillars” in Gal 2:9). He also gets into a heated exchange with Saint Barnabas over Saint Mark (Acts 15:39). It seems to have been a two-way street, as Saint James and others seems to view Saint Paul as too anti-Jewish, compelling him to publicly correct the record in Acts 21:20-25. So, while there are less “mentions” of the Theotokos (she is last mentioned in the Scriptures as being present during Pentecost, Acts 1:14), one may infer that the absence of critical mentions is indicative of her high repute. This is because the Apostles in their authentic humility and honesty were often not deferential to one another.
Another issue that opponents of Marian veneration invoke is that there are not a lot of sources invoking her veneration. But this is not as much of an issue as people think. This is because before the Council of Nicea in the early fourth century, there exists relatively little extant hymns and prayers about God, let alone the Theotokos. Sadly, these are the precisely the sort of sources that are used in veneration that we would need to have documented proof of a historical practice.
Why? The Church was persecuted and apparently many of its prayers and hymns were of a highly local nature, probably committed to memory due to their shortness and musical nature. Paper itself in today’s currency cost thousands of dollars. So, we should not expect to find many prayers or hymns written down until the Church became quite a bit more wealthy, particularly through patronage. What one would expect is that precious resources were dedicated to chiefly copying and re-copying the Scriptures themselves. Furthermore, the writing of apologetics works in response to persecutors and heretics would have been a more pressing need than copying hymns that people have memorized.
The Theotokos’ Veneration in Early Hymnography
This does not mean we do not have any extent early hymns. A mid-20th century hymnographic scholar, Messenger (1942), identified nearly every Christian hymn that can be potentially dated to before the Council of Nicea:
-One short hymn in the Didache.
-Two hymns in the Apostolic Constitutions, one including the Phos Hilaron which is still sung every Saturday in Orthodox churches.
-Two hymns in the Liturgy of Saint James.
-Two hymns in the (Gnostic) Acts of Thomas
-One hymn in the (Gnostic) Acts of John
-One Nassene (Gnostic) hymn quoted in Saint Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies
-One extant hymn from Valetinus (Gnostic).
-One extant gnostic hymn in Coptic.
-41 Odes of Solomon
-The Hymn of Thekla within Banquet of the Virgins by Saint Methodius of Olympus
Messenger failed to identify in her treatment another early hymn:
-The Oxyrhynchus hymn
Of all the preceding hymns and prayers, it is of some interest that only the Liturgy of Saint James’ one hymn (and its prayers), the Banquet of the Virgins and its hymn, and the two in the Apostolic
Constitutions were extent before the year 1800. This means, if one were to be looking at this issue approximately 200 years ago, there would be a grand total of four hymns preserved from the earliest of times. Ironically, 25 percent of the hymns were to a saint. This is an admittedly small sample size, but it is worth pointing out because it shows that those who oppose veneration of saints on grounds of sparse documented evidence do not appreciate how sparse this evidence really is.
In the last 200 years, another 50 have been discovered. One of these (Ode of Solomon 19) is about the Theotokos and is probably dated to the early half of the second century. It gives the Theotokos titles such as “the Virgin” and “a mother of great mercy.” It invokes the doctrine of her painless birth (which implies that birth did not violate her virginity) stating that “she labored, but not in pain” and “she bore Him as if He were a man, openly, with dignity.” It also states that “she loved Him, swaddled Him, and revealed His majesty.” The hymn clearly exalts the Theotokos.
To sum up the hymnographic evidence as of present, about four percent of all hymns before the Council of Nicea are about saints—one being about Thekla and another about the Theotokos. These numbers must be taken with a grain of salt because this is admittedly still a scanty amount, perhaps minimizing or exaggerating how much veneration of the saints existed. Additionally, the numbers are affected by about 80 percent of the hymns coming from a single source.
The Theotokos’ Veneration in Early Prayers
Similar to early hymnography, we have early prayers mainly preserved in liturgies and in passing in apologetic and other works. Due to the difficulty of dating some of the liturgical evidence, and liturgies themselves being very long prayers, counting these is far more difficult than the hymns.
For the sake of simplicity, one can estimate that there were approximately 150-200 separate Christian authors whose works we have extent before the Council of Nicea that do not include the writers of the New Testament or hymns (covered above). (Kirby 2020) These authors often focused on very specific controversies and their writings usually have nothing directly to do with the Theotokos or a given saint. Despite all of this, we still have five pre-Nicene authors writing something, somewhere containing explicit Marian prayers/veneration.
The Sub Tuum Praesidium petitions: “O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”
The Anaphoras of Coptic/Egyptian Basil in its oldest Sahidic manuscript has the following within a Litany: “…the holy and glorious Mary, Theotokos (Mother of God), and by her prayers have mercy on us all…” This work is dated by Anglican scholars to be “at least three hundred years older” than the mid-seventh century (Cuming and Jasper 1990, 67) and “the early fourth century” by the most recent scholarly treatment of the subject. (Shoemaker 2016, 231)
The Gospel of Bartholomew contains a short prayer in an apocryphal context: “Bartholomew raised his voice and said thus: ‘O womb more spacious than a city, wider than the spreading of the heavens, that contained him whom the seven heavens contain not, but thou without pain didst contain sanctified in thy bosom!’” (4:17 in Vienna Manuscript)
The Grotto of Jerusalem has a graffiti that has survived the test of time which states, “Under the holy place of M[ary?] I wrote there the [names?], the image I adored of her.” One source states that “the grotto can be interpreted, according to Bagatti, as an indication of an image of Mary.” (Bigham 2004, 101)
If one presumes the aforementioned graffiti pertains to the Theotokos (which is the most likely interpretation of the archaeological evidence), there are five separate Christian authors invoking prayers to the Theotokos out of a total of approximately 200 known pre-Nicene authors whose writings we have. This means about three percent of the extent authors venerated the Theotokos according to the written evidence–a proportion similar to the hymnographic evidence.
This may seem tiny, but in reality this is pretty high considering the Theotokos was not a subject of any specific pre-Nicene controversy. Furthermore, as stated previously, the Church had limited resources at this point to commit to writing works which were not Scriptural or apologetic in nature.
Doctrines Concerning the Theotokos in Early Sources
On top of hymnography and prayers, historians also have a few pre-Nicene historical sources which convey a high Mariology. These include:
Protoevangelicum of James, which teaches that the Theotokos maintained uncorrupted Virginity (Par 19-20) and was implicitly sinless.
Hegesippus (n.d.) in a fragment wrote, “There still survived of the kindred of the Lord grandsons of Jude, who according to the flesh was called His brother.” The obvious implication is that Jude was not Jesus Christ’s actual brother, which is an oblique reference to the Theotokos’ perpetual virginity.
Ascension of Isaiah 11:12-14, which teaches that the Theotokos’ had no pain in childbirth. It should be noted that this work is Docetist (a first and second century Christological heresy which posits Jesus Christ only appeared to be incarnate and did not have a physical body).
The Book of Mary’s Repose, which states in its conclusion 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.” (Shoemaker 2016, 121) It should be noted that this work is a highly developed gnostic work and is heretical in several respects.
The preceding demostrates that there are yet another four sources that evidence a high Mariaology in the early Church on top of the prayers. One may perceive that Christians believed in her perpetual virginity, sinlessness, and heavenly intercession. Hence, when added to the prayers, we have a total of about five percent of pre-Nicene authors (excluding hymnographic sources) that ascribed to a Mariology consistent with Orthodoxy.
It should be noted that the last two of the cited sources are heretical. While one would be quick to discount these, this should not be done haphazardly. One must consider that if Orthodox sources contain similar doctrines as anti-Trinitarian and gnostic authors, this reveals that a high-Mariology transcends sectarian lines. It was something in common among all within Christendom, which belies a common origin—an Apostolic practice.
Furthermore, the fact that Gnostics were syncretists which borrowed ideas from Christianity, Greek philosophy, and mystery religions should exclude them from the honor of having invented the Marian doctrines. They always borrowed and combined ideas from various sources. Only their cosmologies were perhaps original, peculiar to their specific teachers.
As for the Marian doctrines in the Ascension of Isaiah, a source which may very well be from the first century, this tells the interpreter one of two things. If Trinitarian theology is a “later development,” something that many liberal theologians and historians accept, then this source preserves for us an extremely early proof of high-Mariology among early Christians before such a development. However, if one maintains the traditional perspective that the Church was always Trinitarian, the dating of the passage in question does not change. In any event, there is an obvious first century record of Marian veneration.
Due to other early Christian works, even popular ones such as the Shepherd of Hermas, likewise having similarly suspect Christology and Pneumatology, this would seem to suggest that heretical works were tolerated to an extent within Orthodox Christendom. Those who are undiscerning may have believed the Ascension of Isaiah contained authentic prophecy from Isaiah or some other prophet, similar to the Shepherd. Consequently, the work was preserved.
Interestingly, its teaching on the Theotokos is not really its emphasis—the work is far more concerned with laying out an angelic hierarchy eerily similar to Saint Dionysius the Areopogite in On Heavenly Hierarchy. It also explains how Christ became incarnate without a physical body.
So, the fact that this work in passing says something Mariological gives interpreters a good indication of how average Christians would have viewed the issue. It is likely that it invoked commonly accepted things about Mary to add credibility to its angelology as well as to explain why the Theotokos’ birth was painless. Hence, the existence of the Marian doctrines appears to precede the heresy of Docetism itself (which may have existed when 1 John 4 was penned), as opposed to the doctrine originating in the Docetist heresy. Adding weight to this perspective is the fact that Orthodox sources from roughly the same period, such us the Protoevangelicum and Odes of Solomon, also invoke the Theotokos’ painless labor.
From the preceding, one may conclude that the Orthodox Mariological doctrines are consistent with Biblical distinctions between worship and veneration (latria and dulia), that Ps 45 provides a Biblical basis for venerating the Theotokos herself, and early documented evidence (though understandably scanty) is still prevalent enough to leave little doubt that she was venerated in the earliest documented periods of Christian history. For all of of the preceding reasons, the burden of proof should be on those who oppose the solid hermeneutical and historical grounds for Orthodox Marian veneration.
Bar-Llan, Meir. 2004. “Prayers of Jews to Angels and Other Intermediaries during the First Centuries CE.” In Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity, by M. Poorthuis and J. Schwartz, 79-95. Boston: Brill.
Bigham, Steven. 2004. Early Christian Attitudes toward Images. Rollinsford, New Hampshire: Orthodox Research Institute.
Cuming, G J, and R.C.D. Jasper. 1990. Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Francis, Leslie J., and William K. Kay. 1997. Religion in Education. Wiltshire: Gracewing Publishing.
Hegesippus. n.d. Fragments from His Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church. Accessed October 23, 2020. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers2/ANF-08/anf08-165.htm.
Kirby, Peter. 2020. Early Christian Writings. Accessed October 23, 2020. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/.
Messenger, Ruth Ellis. 1942. Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries. New York: The Hymn Society of America.
Shoemaker, Stephen J. 2016. Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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