What the Earliest Recorded Marian Prayer Reveals About the Early Church

Rylands Papyrus 470, containing the Sub Tuum Prayer
Rylands Papyrus 470, containing the Sub Tuum Prayer

What does the history of praying to Mary look like? It’s easy to think of Marian prayer as a later addition to the faith, a sort of Medieval superstition that seeped in slowly. Michael Reeves, a lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, acknowledges that, from “the very earliest days” of the Church, theologians reflecting upon Scripture have had an elevated Marian theology (for example, seeing her as the New Eve who helps to bring about our salvation). But, he claims:

That was a theological trajectory. It didn’t do an awful lot popularly for praying to Mary until something else happened. So from the 500 to 1500 or so there was for various reasons a tragic decline in the knowledge of God. The gospel became increasingly cloistered. Knowledge of it became restricted to monasteries. People weren’t being well taught. And as the knowledge of God declined so Christ receded into heaven. People felt they simply couldn’t approach him. They didn’t know of him as a Savior. And so that being the case, if you can’t approach Christ as a compassionate and faithful high priest who will intercede for us, we need mediators between us and Christ himself. So the thought grew: Well, if I can’t approach Christ, I will approach his mum who will put in a good word for me to Christ. And so people would begin to pray to Mary who would pray to Christ who would intercede with the Father

So is that true? Is it only after 500 A.D. or so that we see people turning towards Mary?

Not at all. I was pleasantly surprised, in this past week, to discover the world’s oldest recorded Marian prayer. It’s the Sub Tuum Praesidium, and it goes like this:

Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God [Theotokos]:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.

Different languages have slightly different variations. The oldest version of it that we have is on a little scrap of papyrus called the Rylands Papyrus 470. The scrap reads, “Mother of God [Theotokos] (hear) my supplications: suffer us not (to be) in adversity, but deliver us from danger. Thou alone….” and it’s clearly the Sub Tuum. (For the probable reconstruction of the rest of the Greek prayer, I’d refer you here).

I. How Old is It?

So how old is this scrap of papyrus? Based on the handwriting, it’s probably from about 250 A.D. If that answer is good enough for you, feel free to skip down to part II. Otherwise, I’ll explain. The University of Manchester, which houses the papyrus, dates it to the 3rd – 4th century, which is to say a good deal before the 6th-16th century timeframe that Reeves gave for the rise of Marian prayer.

However, there are some (like this Reformed blog) that reject the early dating of c. 250. The reasoning is generally based on two arguments: (1) it’s too early for Christians to be praying to Mary; and (2) it’s too early for Christians to be calling her Theotokos, Mother of God. The later-dating argument is made clearly by C.H. Roberts:

Mr. Lobel has pointed out to me that the hand resembles somewhat that of the letter of Subatianus Aquila (Schubart, Papyri Graecae Berolinenses, 35; cf. id. Paeleographie, p. 73) with its large and narrow characters; the ο, ι, and to a less extent the ε, are similar in both texts, but the peculiar [hand drawing of character] found in 470 is missing in the other, which on the whole is less decorative. Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could be written in the third century. The Virgin was spoken of as Θεοτόκος by Athanasius ; but there is no evidence even for private prayer addressed to her (cf. Greg. Naz. Orat. xxiv. II) before the latter part of the fourth century, and I find it difficult to think that our text was written earlier than that (cf. art. ‘Mary’ in Hastings,Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics).

So the writing style would suggest the third century, but the theology seems (according to Roberts) like it must be later… no earlier than the late fourth century. How should we resolve this?

Well, look at the two reasons that Roberts gives. First, that Mary is referred to as Theotokos, Mother of God. This term becomes widespread after it’s endorsed at the the Council of Ephesus in 431. But it was in use before then. As Roberts notes, we find Mary referred to by this title by St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373), but the evidentiary trail goes back even further. The (Protestant) historian Philip Schaff notes that

It has not been unfrequently assumed that the word Theotocos was coined to express the peculiar view of the Incarnation held by St. Cyril. Such however, is an entire mistake. It was an old term of Catholic Theology, and the very word was used by bishop Alexander in a letter from the synod held at Alexandria in a.d. 320, to condemn the Arian heresy (more than a hundred years before the meeting of the Council of Ephesus)

Alexander of Alexandria’s statement was that “we receive the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead, of which Jesus Christ our Lord became the first-fruits; who bore a body in truth, not in semblance, which he derived from Mary the Mother of God (ἐκ τῆς Θεοτόκου Μαρίας).” But we can go even earlier than 320. Much earlier, in fact. the fifth-century Church historian Socrates Scholasticus relates that “Origen also in the first volume of his Commentaries on the apostle’s epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotocos is used. ” We no longer have the Greek version of this Commentary, but Socrates Scholasticus speaks of it with a degree of familiarity, and writes as if it is still existent. Thus, we can confidently trace Theotokos back at least to the lifetime of Origen (184-254 A.D.), which is to say that Roberts’ first objection is answered.

What of the second objection, that we don’t have early examples of private prayers to Mary? I’d first note that we don’t have a lot of private prayers of any kind from this period. That’s not because people weren’t praying, but because the documentary record is somewhat scarce, and people are much more likely to record theological writings than their personal prayers. The former are ways of leading other people to God and to greater knowledge of the truth (and thus, the kind of thing you copy and distribute). The latter are private conversations between the believer and God and the Saints. That said, where we do see written private prayers, like the inscriptions on the tombs in the Catacombs, we do see prayers to the departed.

But we can say a bit more than this, because there are homilies calling upon Christians to honor and pray to Mary, lik ehtis one by St. Gregory the Wonderworker (213-270):

20. Great is the mystery. Thou hast learned, O Mary, that which till now was hidden from angels. Thou hast known that which deaf prophets and patriarchs heard not; and thou hast heard that which the choirs of the God-clad were not ever held worthy to hear. David and Isaiah, and all the prophets foretold in their preaching about the Lord’s becoming man. But do thou alone, O Holy Virgin, receive the mystery unknown by them, and learn and be not perplexed as to how this shall be unto thee. For He that fashioned man out of virgin soil, the Selfsame shall even now do as. He will for the salvation of His creature.

21. New radiance now of eternal light gleams forth for us in the inspired fitness (or harmony) of these words. Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: “Be thou glad and rejoice”; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him who carries along all by His word.

22. And not only is it meet to marvel at the beauty of the Holy Mother of God, but also at the excellence of her spirit. Wherefore were addressed to her the words: “The Lord with thee”; and again also, “The Lord from thee.” As if this: ” He will save him that is in His image as being pitiful.” As purse of the Divine mystery the Holy Virgin made herself ready, in which the Pearl of Life was enveloped in flesh and sealed; and she also became the receptacle of supramundane and Divine salvation.

23. Therefore let us also come, O my friends, and discharge our debt according to our ability; and following the voice of the archangel, let us cry aloud: “Be thou glad and rejoice; the Lord with thee.” Nor any heavenly bridegroom He, but the very Lord Himself, the Father of purity and the guardian of virginity, and the Lord of holiness, the creator of inviolability, and the giver of freedom, overseer of salvation, and ordainer of true wisdom and bestower thereof—-the Lord Himself with thee; for as much as even in thee the Divine grace reposed [and] upon thee, in order to make alive the race of men like a compassionate Lord.

Here we see Gregory offering praise to Mary, the Mother of God, and encouraging us to do the same… and he’s doing this in the mid-third century, at the point that Roberts claims these things weren’t happening. All of this is to say that the Sub Tuum fits in nicely with the rest of what we know about third century Marian theology and prayer, and that the arguments favoring a later dating are unpersuasive or wrong.

The final point on the dating of this is that we’re talking about the dating of the papyrus here, not the dating of the prayer itself. The prayer itself is older than the papyrus (nobody seriously holds that we happen to have the very first copy of this prayer), so however old this papyrus is, the prayer is still older. And unless the Sub Tuum was literally the first Marian prayer, there were probably still-older prayers that are now lost.

Why Does This Prayer Matter?

There are four reasons that it matters that the pre-Nicene Christians prayed the Sub Tuum.

(1) It shows that this Marian spirituality existed before the Council of Ephesus, before the Council of Nicaea, and even before Constantine legalized Christianity. That is, this Marian prayer is part of the spirituality of the early persecuted Christian Church, and this is the type of prayer that would have been on the lips of the Christians being martyred. The very same Christians praying to Mary were the ones who lost their lives over their faithful refusal to engage in idolatry.

(2) This is the strongest testimony against the ugly lie that Marian prayers were instituted by Constantine (who, bear in mind, wasn’t born until 272) when he legalized Christianity in 313. Here’s an example of the sort of false history I’m talking about, from GotQuestions:

Constantine found that, with the Roman Empire being so vast, expansive, and diverse, not everyone would agree to forsake his or her religious beliefs to embrace Christianity. So, Constantine allowed, and even promoted, the “Christianization” of pagan beliefs. Completely pagan and utterly unbiblical beliefs were given new “Christian” identities. Some clear examples of this are as follows:

(1) The Cult of Isis, an Egyptian mother-goddess religion, was absorbed into Christianity by replacing Isis with Mary. Many of the titles that were used for Isis, such as “Queen of Heaven,” “Mother of God,” and theotokos(“God-bearer”) were attached to Mary. Mary was given an exalted role in the Christian faith, far beyond what the Bible ascribes to her, in order to attract Isis worshippers to a faith they would not otherwise embrace. Many temples to Isis were, in fact, converted into temples dedicated to Mary. The first clear hints of Catholic Mariology occur in the writings of Origen, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, which happened to be the focal point of Isis worship.

As we’ve seen, this account is false. Constantine, a Roman, didn’t practice Egyptian religion. Titles like Theotokos were never used for Isis. Constantine didn’t make everyone become Christian. That’s a common mistake: he legalized it; it wasn’t made the official imperial religion until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, long after his death (Constantine himself only became a baptized Christian upon his deathbed). Constantine had literally nothing to do with the theology or spirituality of Origen, who died more than twenty years before Constantine’s birth. Constantine also had literally nothing to do with the Christian practice of calling Mary the Mother of God. Christians call Mary the Mother of God for the same reason Elizabeth called her “the Mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43): because she is the mother of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ (John 20:28).

Even a rudimentary understanding of Christian history should point out the stupidity of GotQuestions’ theory. Why were the Romans were viciously persecuting the Christians? Because the Christians refused to budge on monotheism (for which reason, the Romans declared them “atheists”). And we’re supposed to believe that the Romans then legalized Christianity on the basis that it incorporate paganism, and the Christians said okay? After all that bloodshed, all the Romans had to do to get Christians to become pagans was to tell them that paganism was Christianity? And nobody noticed?  No, all of that is pure rubbish, and texts like the Sub Tuum bear that out.

(3) The Sub Tuum is a strongly Marian prayer. It’s not just asking Mary to pray for us. The prayer tells her that we take refuge in her, and asks her to rescue us. It also calls her the “only pure, only blessed one,” a reference to her Immaculate Conception and perpetual sinlessness. So this prayer reveals quite a bit about what the early Christians believed about the Virgin Mary.

(4) Ultimately, this prayer (and the rest of the evidence pointing to the beliefs of the early Christians) leads us to an obvious question: were they heretics? Is GotQuestions right that the people who died for Christianity were actually pagans and just didn’t know it? If so, that certainly compromises their Christian witness, doesn’t it? It also compromises other things, like their reliability in preserving Christianity or the core elements of the Gospel. If they can’t be trusted to distinguish Christianity from paganism, why would we trust that they got the books of the Bible right, or the teaching of Christ?

On the other hand, if we do trust the early Christians, if we do hold to their faith, the faith that they preserved with their blood, let us honor that by praying with them: 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.

47 Comments

  1. I don’t want to make a storm here, this is an issue of historical inquiry, please let me make the following comment purely as a quasi-historian:

    CH Roberts IS the guy who actually published the manuscript, giving it a 4th century or older dating. That should count for something!

    [3 C.H. Roberts, Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, Manchester (4 vols, Manchester, 1911-52), vol. 3 (1938): Theological and Literary texts (nos. 457-551), 46-7, pl. 1; K. Treu and J.M. Diethart, Griechische literarische Papyri Christlichen Inhaltes, Mitteilungen aus der Papyrusssammlung der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, n.s. 2 (Vienna, 1993), 56, pl. 16.]

    I think “handwriting evidence” is perhaps dubious in dating this work, and to say that Protestants are being contrarians for denying a 3rd century dating when the guy who actually published it rejects a date that early is perhaps disingenuous now that this issue has been pointed out.

    Personally, I’d be more convinced by carbon-dating, which even is not exactly the best method, but at least it is less biased and subjective.

    The Mary prayer here sticks out because it asks for a specific saint to make intercession herself. Other prayers, such as St. Methodius in the Oration on Simeon and Anna among others are much more generalized with petitions such as “unceasingly keep us in remembrance” (Chapter 14). They are not asking the saints to tackle specific problems. This to me suggests a dating at least in the 5th century, as I cannot find any prayers earlier than that point which address a saint in the sense as this short prayer does.

    My $0.02. I appreciate any input on parallels between the Sub Tuum Praesidium and other prayers.

    1. Craig

      You’re plucking at straws – your Protestant paradigm blinds you to the full Truth – you continuously call into question Roman Catholic belief and practice because it seems that you try to mould everything to your personal belief system.

      Carbon dating won’t alter the historical facts presented in Joe’s excellent article, further reinforced by Rico’s reply below.

      How about carefully considering some very clear Scripture: (Luke 1:46-49) [Douay-Rheims]

      [46] And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord. [47] And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. [48] Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. [49] Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.

      Can modern Protestantism explain why Mary is ignored or even denigrated, completely contrary to v48 above – the so called reformers (Luther et al) certainly didn’t.

    2. Craig,

      To my knowledge, nobody goes as late as “at least in the 5th century.” The papyrus is written in Koine Greek (standard from 300 B.C. – 330 A.D. or so) rather than the Byzantine (or Medieval) Greek that becomes standardized after Constantine. Robert Decker, in his book on Koine Greek: “Following the Koine period is Byzantine Greek, from the fourth century AD to the fall of Byzantium/Constantinople in AD 1453.” So I understand Lobel’s analysis to be about the writing style (not just a handwriting analysis in the modern sense), and that these third century findings are consistent with it being in Koine rather than Byzantine Greek. I’d add that both Roberts and the University of Manchester treat this analysis like it’s probative, even though I also have questions about its accuracy (and certainly don’t think it could place a precise date of 250 A.D., obviously).

      As for Roberts himself, I certainly mean no disrespect to him as a scholar. It just happens that in this particular case, he’s relying on two assumptions (that we wouldn’t see Theotokos that early, and that people wouldn’t be praying to Mary that early) that we have good reason to believe are false.

      1. “As for Roberts himself, I certainly mean no disrespect to him as a scholar. It just happens that in this particular case, he’s relying on two assumptions (that we wouldn’t see Theotokos that early, and that people wouldn’t be praying to Mary that early) that we have good reason to believe are false.”

        And I honestly appreciate you pointing that out. These scholars are not above reproof and if you hop over to my blog, my latest post is where I take issue with a Protestant scholar for totally misunderstanding the Donatist heresy and messing up citations and stuff. So, I am not trying to be picky per se.

        Now, when dating a fragment, the use of older terms (i.e. Koine Greek) does not make the document as old as the words used. The Bible uses Koine Greek, but we have a plethora of manuscripts dated much older than its composition!

        So, this is why for dating I prefer other methods.

        On a side note, what kind of Greek did Chrysostom write in? I know it is hard to say one or the other, modern Greeks can still read Koine Greek. It isn’t an entirely different language where we can easily pick one or the other.

        God bless,
        Craig

        1. This is a long passage, but I think it’s worth the read, because it explains why there was such a dramatic shift from Koine to Byzantine Greek. It’s from Greek Literature in the Byzantine Period, (Volume 9 of Gregory Nagy’s Greek Literature series):

          “From the middle of the fourth century onwards Christianity made rapid headway among the urban population of the Greek world. From being the religion of an inward-turned minority it became that of the dominant group. The problem of communication within the church changed in scale and nature. The new leaders of the church, men like Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil and John Chrysostom were faced with a choice of the linguistic medium to be used for their pastoral, dogmatic and polemical works and for their preaching. One might have expected that they would decide on Koine in one of its more literary forms. It was certainly more easily understood than Atticist Greek. It was not linked, as was the classicising language, with the defence of paganism and traditional culture. It was the language used for three centuries by the Christians in communicating with one another: Athanasius (295-373) still wrote his copious theological and polemical works in Koine. But in fact the late fourth century Fathers chose the classicising conventional literary language. It was appropriate for texts addressed to an audience of the social elite. It affirmed and enhanced the dignity of hte occasion – which might well be an address to a vast congregation in one of the great basilicas which the now rich Christian church was building. Above all, the new church leaders belonged themselves to the upper class of urban landowners and had received a long and rigorous training in grammar and rhetoric. John Chrysostom was a pupil of the great pagan rhetorician Libanius; Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil had studied in the schools of Athens. Their minds were formed by a traditional education. It was probably psychologically impossible for such men, had it ever occured to them, to make a public utterance on matters of importance in what they had been taught to regard as an undignified and even contemptible linguistic register. They had to give of their best, and their best meant the classicizing Hochsprache. A special place, however, had to be made for those Koine words and phrases which had been sanctified by use in the Septuagint or the New Testament. They were given full right of citizenship in the language of the Fathers.

          “The great age of the Fathers at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth set a pattern which imposed itself on much of Byzantine literature for the next thousand years. Henceforth the church spoke in classicizing Atticist Greek. The Fathers themselves became classics, studied, commented on and imitated by succeeding generations. They took their place alongside of Lysias and Demosthenes in handbooks of rhetoric and brought with them the lustre of their own immense prestige.”

          The text goes on to note two partial-exceptions: that there was probably oral preaching that occurred in Koine (particularly amongst less well-trained clergy) and that hagiographies still included Koine in recording court documents. But neither of those applies here, of course. So Chrysostom certainly wrote in the sort of stylized Atticist Greek that would come to be called Byzantine or Medieval Greek.

          And this text does a good job of showing what the shift was so profound: it was tied to the dramatic difference between what Christianity looked like in before 300 from what it looked like after 400.

          In the course of the century, Christianity goes from being an illegal sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire; Christianity goes from being associated with the poor to being embraced by all classes; churches go from being in catacombs to enormous basilicas; and a whole world of opportunities for training the clergy open up. All of these seem to have contributed to the marked shift in Greek. And it also shows why it seems extremely unlikely that a prayer in Koine dates to the late fourth (much less the fifth, etc.) century.

          1. Thanks for the info. Quick point. If Atticist Greek became the language of public preaching and apologetics, would that be true for hymns and prayers? Especially if Koine continued on in use which the above said it did, a heartfelt prayer might not have been put in such formal language. Being that I am not a linguistics expert, I do not know which parts of the Marian prayer are Koine to begin with 🙁

        1. My prayer is that Craig spends so much time here arguing against the Church because he is being drawn toward Her….and like so many of our separated brethren, the Truth is at war with so many things he has been taught about the Lord.

          If anyone can educate him and bring him to the fullness of truth and grace in the Church, it is Joe!! I am a cradle Catholic who needs no convincing, but I learn something every time I read something that my favorite seminarian and recovering attorney has written!!

      2. You should go to the catacombs and learn from there and study it, it will teach you a lot and how the early Christians venerated saints and martyrs .

  2. CH Lewis may be the author who published the manuscript, but in the light of other facts, it is difficult to hold on to his 4th century dating. His conclusion is based on an erroneous presupposition (ie, the term “theotokos” cannot be earlier than the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD). And these are the controverting facts:

    1. Bishop Alexander used “theotokos” in a letter from the Synod of Alexandria (320 AD) to condemn the Arian heresy. This is at least a hundred years before the Council of Ephesus.

    2. Origen used “theotokos” in the first volume of his “Commentaries” to the Romans. He died in 254 AD. That pushes the date backwards by no less than 180 years from Ephesus.

    3. St. Gregory the Miracle Worker was contemprary with Origen, and he also used “theotokos” in a sermon.

    Once these facts are considered, the dating of 4th century by Roberts is no longer tenable. Again, as Joe pointed out, it is just the date of the scrap we are talking about, the belief itself is much, much older. It predates Constantine’s legalization of Christianity (Edict of Milan, 313 AD).

    So, even if carbon dating (or any other method) puts the scrap date at the 4th century or later, that will not overturn the three facts we have above. Early Christian belief in the “theotokos” will still predate the Edict of Milan.

    This is why the former Anglican minister, turned Catholic convert, Cardinal Newman conceded: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

    1. Rico, I am merely pointing out that CH Lewis is not some random guy. He published the manuscript, as well as other famous one, and some professional deference is needed if he gives his opinion. I think Joe dropped his name like he was some scholar with just another opinion, which in this case would not be appropriate.

      As for Joe’s argument, it is one from handwriting and drawing vague parallels with other references to Mary. Simply having the word “God bearer” is not sufficient evidence of dating.

      This is why in my own reply, my rationale is that the nature of the prayer is very much unlike other known prayers to the dead in the sense that it asks the specific saint to perform intercession on behalf of those who pray to her. All the ancient payers that I have seen to the dead lack that element, but rather ask the Saint to remember them or something to that effect.

      Now, being that no one is arguing that the papyrus in the picture above is the original copy of the prayer, all of these arguments over whether or not the thought in the manuscript or not is 3rd century are not entirely relevant. Perhaps the ORIGINAL prayer was 3rd century, but that’s not the question the historian is seeking to answer when it comes to manuscript dating. The question is what the date is for that SPECIFIC piece of papyrus in the picture.

      When trying to answer this question, Joe’s arguments really are not entirely relevant. As for handwriting evidence, I am not entirely convinced by this and would be interested to see how someone would make this case. Having actually studied some of the original papers of William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, I can tell you that handwriting DOES stick out for certain periods of history. It has a certain look. So, it is not a completely incredible criteria. But it is hardly a smoking gun that I would hang my hat on historically, and for the sake of the unbiased study of the field, must be careful not to.

      I am trying to be charitable here. I am making purely historical arguments and I am being attacked for being Protestant. Does anyone actually want to respond to the history of it?

      1. Craig,

        I can see you are being charitable that’s why I apologize if we sound like manhandling you. I assure you nobody here wants to be mean. I actually appreciate hearing contrarian views but I also know that some may not share the same sentiment. Seeing people argue ideas back and forth can be distressing for those who aren’t used to it. I guess I am guilty too for adding to their stress, so I apologize to them as well…

        Anyway, i hope you stick around for a while because you challenge us to think. I planned on responding to your comments but I decided to hold it off for now. I see that others are ready to jump in and join the fray, so let me retreat to the bench… 🙂

      2. Craig said:

        When trying to answer this question, Joe’s arguments really are not entirely relevant.

        The fact that you don’t understand the arguments does not make them irrelevant. They are perfectly relevant to the rest of us. They are irrelevant to you because, as has been said, your Protestant paradigm blinds you to the truth.

      3. In my opinion, this little sliver of papyrus containing the ‘Sub Tuum’ prayer, is only the tip of the iceberg detailing the importance that the Blessed Virgin Mary held in the hearts of Christians as early as 150 AD, if not even much earlier. We can easily understand this if we include the apocrypha Gospels as evidence of the abundance of early Christian Marian devotion in these regards. The ‘Protevangelium of James’ is one example that focuses particularly on the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s very existence, as early as 145 AD, and it’s great popularity in a large segment of the Roman Empire, are proofs that the Blessed Virgin was the focus of a lot of attention, and devotion, for those early Christians. Whether or not the ‘Protevangelium’ was considered apocryphal, or not, by later Christians, or Councils, does not erase the truth of the widespread interest that it attracted in the early Church, and covering a number of centuries of Early Church History. So, such ‘Infancy Gospels’ as is the Gospel of James, are probably the actual ‘sources’ of prayers such as the ‘Sub Tuum’, and so should be considered by any who are interested in the history of Marian theology.

        For a sample from the ‘Protevangelium of James’, scroll down a few comments, as there is a block quote containing Chapters 5 and 6. It might be long, but is well worth reading.

        Also, on a secondary note, because of the great variety of such ‘Apocrypha’ works circulating in the early Church, the ‘closing of the canon of Sacred Scripture’, was a very important, and ecclesiastically significant, event of the early 5th century. The ‘closing of Scripture’ tended to draw particular focus in the Early Church to the most important of the many Early Church writings, wherein at that time, ‘the closing’, ‘fixed’ in, or ‘guaranteed’ the status of certain writings as ‘Sacred Scripture’. This was accomplished particularly by the Council of Carthage which was mostly led by St. Augustine and held over a few years period. before this ‘closing’ that Catholic Church was not completely convinced which Early Christian books might be ‘apocrypha’ and ‘spurious’, and which were not. So, again, the ‘closing’ of the canon of scripture was a significant event in Church History.

  3. Protestants have a problem with Marian veneration because they don’t believe it is possible for a created being to be sinless. Original sin and Grace have a different meaning to them.

  4. Craig, I appreciate your question and the query for parallels, which to me absolutely does make sense. I think however that if you were first to seek out those early Church saints who would have naturally been considered parallels to the Theotokos you could maybe find already an answer to what you ask/challenge. The presence of this woman throughout all of scripture in symbol and in the NT in person is quite unparalleled, except naturally by that of her Son, the source of her own dignity.
    That her estimation in the early Church should also not be as simply one more amidst the apostles or prophets also seems to be a natural consequence of her scriptural dignity.
    I hope that makes some sense in the direction of your question.

    1. Pete, I guess in my limited study (and God, I wish I had more time to do so without it impeding on my ability to work and be a loving husband), the part of the prayer that sticks out to me is not the Theotokos part, but the petition to her specifically to act on the petitioner’s behalf. I have not seen early parallels of this in early prayers, so to me, this puts it back the 4th century at the very least.

      However, let’s be honest with ourselves. What if we happened upon the earliest known example of the sort? THere would not be other equivalent prayers to compare it to.

      Oftentimes, historical inquiry does not give us perfect conclusions. I would be interested in carbon-dating and if at all possible, finding out if the papyrus is recycled (if so, what languages were in the old papyrii?) This way, we can nail down a region it was written in, a more precise time, and get a firmer idea of its date.

      1. Craig,

        I think you make a very important point here. We need to be careful to avoid a certain sort of circular logic. Some prayer has to be the first recorded one, and we can’t deny the authenticity of the first one just because there’s nothing else before it. Above, you seemed to be making that argument (that this prayer couldn’t exist until other prayers like it exist), but here you seem much clearer in rejecting it.

        1. We are always making conjectures based upon liklihood. On the top of my head, let me just surmise the following:

          + for early date, – against early date

          + Prayer has portions that are in Koine Greek
          – No comparable, known prayers dated from the period
          + Hand writing looks similar to known third and fourth century hand writing samples
          N/A No known carbon dating performed
          – Prayer not quoted in any portion in any other works until (I’m guessing) 5th or 6th century?

          Now, how do we interpret the above? The prayer has Koine elements, does that mean it was written when it was in wide usage or was it used for other reasons (i.e. “sounds more religious,” or to “preserve” religious language. The Oriental Orthodox used Syriac for centuries for this reason, and to a degree so did the RCC with Latin.)

          A lack of comparable prayers does not mean that it was the first. How many pieces of handwriting for the third century do we have to compare. Have the other pieces we are comparing to verified? What regions are they from?

          When something like this is not attached to a historical name in which we can cross dates, things like the above can make setting a date very difficult.

          Don’t get me started on carbon dating and how we have to presume how much Carbon 14 was in the atmosphere 1800 years ago…

          1. We’re definitely making conjectures based on likelihoods. That’s how historical enquiry works. Both of the arguments you raise for the “late” camp are based on a simple lack of evidence. But we know for a fact that (a) people in the early Church prayed, (b) we don’t have many records of their prayers (in general, not just their Marian prayers).

            The evidence that we do have includes both St. Gregory’s homily (encouraging prayers honoring Mary, not just asking for her intercession) and the Sub Tuum. There’s also St. Gregory of Nyssa’s account of St. Gregory the Wonderworker’s apparition of the Virgin Mary (more on that in the next comment).

            It’s also worth noting that the argument from silence cuts the other way. We know that we see Marian prayers early on, and that the latest dating we really see for the Sub Tuum is around 400. What we don’t see are warning that this is idolatry or an unhealthy innovation, etc. To amplify this point, remember that this prayer was present in the Liturgy in both the East and the West. Is it really credible that a heretical (or even questionable) prayer should be inserted in the various Rites of the early Church without protest? It’s not just one speculative theologian or something. All of the Christians in these areas were praying these prayers.

            It strikes me as implausible that this sort of Marian devotion would be born overnight (imagine going on vacation for a few years and returning to find the Baptist Church has gone fully Marian, and you’ll see how implausible that is). So therefore, we should conclude that some form of Marian devotion predates even our earliest evidence of its existence (since our earliest evidence shows a highly-developed Mariology).

          2. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a biography of St. Gregory the Wonderworker (Gregory Thaumaturgus). It’s a particularly interesting account, since it’s based not on Thaumaturgus’ writings, but upon the testimony of Nyssa’s own grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, who had been a student of Thaumaturgus. For this reason, Nyssa has all sorts of details that would be otherwise unknown to us. For example, Nyssa explains how Thaumaturgus’ creed (the earliest confirmed Asian Creed) was the result of an apparition of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle:

            “As he laid awake, there appeared to him in a vision an aged person in human form adorned with solemn raiment and [M.912] whose countenance was striking by great virtue and kindness in addition to the integrity his form. [Gregory] was struck by fear at this sight and rising up from bed, realized who he was and why he came. After quieting his fear, he said in a soft voice that a divine order bade him to appear, the reasons of which were obscure to [Gregory], in order to reveal the truth of correct belief and to encourage him to speak while gazing upon him with both joy and respect.

            “Then the old man suddenly extended his hand and with his finger [J.17] pointed to something which appeared near him which was a splendid female form instead of a male one. Once again [Gregory] was terrified and turned his face away, unable to bear its sight. The vision was especially amazing since the night was gloomy, for it resembled something like a light illuminated by another light. Since he could not look upon this spectacle, he heard from those who appeared to him speaking in detail about what he was seeking.

            “Not only was he revered with regard to true knowledge of faith but recognized the names of each man who appeared when they called each other by their respective names. It is claimed that this vision of a female form told [Gregory] that the evangelist John was exhorted to manifest the mystery of truth to a young man, saying that she was chosen to be the mother of the Lord whom she cherished. He also said that this fitting vision had vanished again from his sight. He was immediately ordered to write down this divine revelation and later proclaim it in the church. In this way it became for others a divinely given legacy through which the people might repulse any evil of heresy.”

            If we trust St. Gregory of Nyssa’s account, at least in the main, that certainly changes how we might imagine the Marian spirituality of the third century Church (and the view that the third century Church took of the intercession of the Saints). This answers the first of your objections (that there are no comparable prayers from this period).

          3. Craig Truglia says:
            December 14, 2015 at 12:01 pm
            How is the appearance of a ghost “proof” that intercessory prayers should be made to her on your behalf? I am not sure how this answers my historical objection.

            If you would set aside your Protestant pride for one instant, you might consider that neither the dreamer nor the one relating the dream object to the appearance of Our Lady. Nor do they proclaim this a nightmare from hell. But a favor from God which imparted knowledge and blessing.

            St. Gregory Thaumaturgus lived between AD 213 – 270.
            St. Gregory of Gnyssa between AD 335 – c. 395

            The apparition itself is a form of intercession. And it is far from the first. Mary was already spiritually interceding for us while she was alive. Look up, “Our Lady of the Pillar”.

            http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/saint.php?n=622

          4. Thanks Al! Love your comments, too. The Catholic Apocrypha are such a hidden treasure. So many historical gems in there, if one would only use wisdom and discernment when reading them. Unfortunately, some folks can’t get past the errors.

            1 Thessalonians 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

          5. Yes, De Maria, everything written from the first centuries of Christianity has something to teach, even heretical teachings and literature. What is written does not necessarily need to be believed, but can still provide circumstantial insights into the workings and customs of the early Christian believers back then.

            When reading the Didache, for instance, one can sense sort of a ‘wild west’ element to early Church growth. The latter part of this writing teaches specific tests on how to distinguish fraudulent ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’ from authentic ones. And that they even use the term ‘apostle’ in such a loose fashion is also revealing. It seems, as if after St. Paul termed himself an ‘apostle’, others also took liberties with this term. I have read that the term was used by anyone during that time who might have discoursed with Jesus in person, and who then went out to tell their accounts as eye witnesses, and lightly termed themselves ‘apostles’ for their physical proximity to the Lord at that time.

            But that there were actually ‘frauds’ abusing the early Christian communities, and thus a test needed to reveal their trickeries, is actually a little humorous. It’s kind of like what we have today in modern Christianity, with many televangelists, and other unscrupulous Christians, trying to use religion principally for the purpose of enriching themselves. The ‘Didache author(s) boldly termed these types: “Christ mongers”.

            So, yes, Apocryphal literature is a treasure for those who love the history of our Holy Church.

          6. This may account for why Jesus kept telling the ones that He healed, not to mention it to anyone. He was specifically training one group of men to go out and Teach all that He commanded.

            These people who were healed, were not catechized. And thus, were not qualified to Teach what He wanted Taught.

            Just speculating though.

          7. I think you are absolutely right. Jesus often spoke in parables, and said Himself that it was for the apostles to understand what they meant. It also took him 3 years to teach them, living day and night and providing countess examples to them. He named them ‘disciples’ which by it’s very definition means ‘discipline’, which insinuates custom and action, fasting and prayer.

            And most importantly, no amount ‘scripture’ could substitute for true catechesis. This is because scripture is inherently like a parable, and needs much wisdom, and experience, to understand it well. The Pharisees and Sadducee’s had plenty of scripture, but look how they still didn’t understand the majority of it after centuries of detailed study!

            Just think what the early Fathers would say if you told them that all that was needed was ‘sola scripture’. They would have thought that you were crazy. They would have said “Everyone already has scripture, it’s taught everywhere to the Christians, everyone memorizes it, and we still need catechesis. We need people to teach what the scripture means! Why do you think that the Church is filled with heretics, fringe groups and brain washing ‘cults’, if all we need is scripture?! Why do you think bishops are exiled and churches are burnt down, and all that by other Christians! What is needed is BOTH scripture and wisdom. scripture AND unity of doctrine. This is why we spend countless hours writing creeds, and commentaries of creeds! We have to teach the world what scripture actually means. Would it be that “sola scripture” was the answer! I might need to bring you to an asylum if you keep talking like that.” 🙂

      2. Craig said,

        Oftentimes, historical inquiry does not give us perfect conclusions.

        In your case, inquiry of any sort is not perfect unless it agrees with your opinions.

        That is not meant as an insult. Just calling it as I see it.

        1. But is does provide some reference points that move from opinion to factual. This would include a couple of recent finds over the past 15 years:

          Finding of the Pool of Bethesda, with the 5 porticoes. John’s gospel notes that they were still standing at the time of his writing. This was destroyed in 70 A.D., and provides strong evidence of John’s Gospel being written, at least an early draft, within about 40 years after the Crucifixion,(BAR Sept/Oct 2011),

          Finding of the royal seal of King Hezekiah, just south of the temple mound.
          http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/03/middleeast/king-hezekiah-royal-seal/index.html

      3. Craig said,


        Pete, I guess in my limited study (and God, I wish I had more time to do so without it impeding on my ability to work and be a loving husband), ….

        That’s why God, in His Wisdom, established the infallilble Catholic Church. So that you wouldn’t have to. She has done all the studying. All you have to do is believe Her Doctrines.

  5. The Sub Tuum is actually a hymn which has been used in the Liturgy from earliest times.

    When that is taken into consideration, reasonable men will conclude that it had to have been universally accepted by the Church, since the Church does not add anything to the Liturgy without due consideration.

  6. I don’t have any difficulty asking a living person to pray for me, what’s the big deal with asking those who have died in Christ for their prayers? Our God is the God of the living.

      1. God alone is omnipresent. But that doesn’t mean that he alone hears our prayers. The Communion of Saints, as members of the mystical Body of Christ, in union with our Lord Jesus, intercede for us (just as we intercede for one another). If Jesus hears our prayers, then those who are completely and perfectly united to Him can also hear and respond with intercession to our prayers as well.

      2. Are you forgetting about the event that occurred on Mt. Tabor, wherein The Apostles heard the discussion occurring between Jesus, Moses and Elias? If these OT Saints had the abilities to appear to, and communicate with Jesus and the Apostles, why wouldn’t some one greater than Moses, such as the Mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary ? Moses never prophesied “From this day ALL GENERATIONS will call me Blessed”. He was not even allowed to enter into the ‘Promised Land’.

        Then you can also consider the parable of the ‘rich man’ and ‘poor man Lazarus’, in the exquisite teaching that Jesus gave us, wherein the rich man in Hell begs favors from ‘Father Abraham’. Even though there is a great ‘chasm’ between them, they hold a very relaxed conversation.

        So, if we mortals can communicate via technology even into space via cell phones and radios, who are you to say what God provides for communication when we have entered into the Kingdom of Heaven?

        Moreover, the account of Saul conversing with Samuel, in the Book of 1 Kings, is another example. Saul prophesies Samuel’s imminent death in the account, the same which came true the following day. So again, saying that those in Heaven cannot hear us is contrary to these scriptures.

  7. Although the presently discussed ‘Sub Tuum Praesidium’ manuscript reveals some insights into early Christian devotion and prayer to Mary, there are other Early Church sources on Mary that also should be considered for study. Since we are presently considering ‘non canonical’ sources, we should also include an apocryphal Gospel from about 145AD called “The Infancy Gospel of James”, or “the Protevangelium of James”. This work includes items concerning the birth of Mary, as well as her early upbringing.

    I think this apocryphal Gospel, as ancient as it is (about 145 AD), should not be left out of the present conversation. Below is a short sample of it’s contents derived from: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob05.htm

    ****************************************************************************************************

    CHAP. V.

    2 Mary ministered unto by angels. 4 The high-priest orders all virgins of fourteen years old to quit the temple and endeavour to be married. 5 Mary refuses, 6 having vowed her virginity to the Lord. 7 The high-priest commands a meeting of the chief persons of Jerusalem, 11 who seek the Lord for counsel in the matter. 13 A voice from the mercy-seat. 15 The high priest obeys it by ordering all the unmarried men of the house of David to bring their rods to the altar, 17 that his rod which should flower, and on which the Spirit of God should sit, should betroth the Virgin.

    BUT the Virgin of the Lord, as she advanced in fears, increased also in perfections, and according to the saying of the Psalmist, her father and mother forsook her, but the Lord took care of her.

    2 For she every day had the conversation of angels, and every day received visitors from God, which preserved her from all sorts of evil, and caused her to abound with all good things;

    3 So that when at length she arrived to her fourteenth year, as the wicked could not lay anything to her charge worthy of reproof, so all good persons, who were acquainted with her, admired her life and conversation.

    4 At that time the high-priest made a public order. That all the virgins who had public settlements in the temple, and were come to this age, should return home, and, as they were now of a proper maturity, should, according to the custom of their country, endeavour to be married.

    5 To which command, though all the other virgins readily yielded obedience, Mary the Virgin of the Lord alone answered, that she could not comply with it.

    6 Assigning these reasons, that both she and her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord; and besides, that she had vowed virginity to the Lord, which vow she was resolved never to break through by lying with a man.

    7 The high priest being hereby brought into a difficulty,

    8 Seeing he durst neither on the one hand dissolve the vow, and disobey the Scripture, which says, Vow and pay, 1

    9 Nor on the other hand introduce a custom, to which the people were strangers, commanded,

    10 That at the approaching feast all the principal persons both of Jerusalem and the neighbouring places should meet together, that he might have their advice, how he had best proceed in so difficult a case.

    11 When they were accordingly met, they unanimously agreed to seek the Lord, and ask counsel from him on this matter. 2

    12 And when they were all engaged in prayer, the high-priest, according to the usual way, went to consult God.

    13 And immediately there was a voice from the ark, and the mercy seat, which all present heard, that it must be inquired or sought out by a prophecy of Isaiah to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed;

    14 For Isaiah saith, there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall spring out of its root,

    15 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, the Spirit of Counsel and Might, the Spirit of Knowledge and Piety, and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him.

    16 Then, according to this prophecy, he appointed, that all the men of the house and family of David, who were marriageable, and not married, should bring their several rods to the altar,

    17 And out of whatsoever person’s rod after it was brought, a flower should bud forth, and on the top of it the Spirit of the Lord should sit in the appearance of a dove, he should be the man to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed.

    CHAP. VI.

    1 Joseph draws back his rod. 5 The dove pitches on it. He betroths Mary and returns to Bethlehem. 7 Mary returns to her parents’ house at Galilee.

    AMONG the rest there was a man named Joseph, of the house and family of David, and a person very far advanced in years, who drew back his rod, when every one besides presented his.

    2 So that when nothing appeared agreeable to the heavenly voice, the high-priest judged it proper to consult God again,

    3 Who answered that he to whom the Virgin was to be betrothed was the only person of those who were brought together, who had not brought his rod.

    4 Joseph therefore was betrayed.

    5 For, when he did bring his rod, and a dove coming from Heaven pitched upon the top of it, every one plainly saw, that the Virgin was to be betrothed to him:

    6 Accordingly, the usual ceremonies of betrothing being over, he returned to his own city of Bethlehem, to set his house in order, and make the needful for the marriage.

    7 But the Virgin of the Lord, Mary, with seven other virgins of the same age, who had been weaned at the same time, and who had been appointed to attend her by the priest, returned to her parents’ house in Galilee.

    *******************************************************************************************

  8. It seems strange that we will ask others, among the living, to pray for us, like for a successful surgery.

    What is so different to ask those in heaven to pray for us, unless one believes they have no existence.

    In Mark 12:27 & Matt. 22:32, Jesus notes that God, is God of the living, not the dead.

    1. Those who don’t have believe that God is God of the living, won’t pray to those who they think are dead. They, in essence, don’t have enough faith. If you ask them, as Jesus asked Martha:

      John 11:26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

      They answer, “No.” Because they don’t truly believe. They just make empty claims of faith alone.

      1. J_Bob,

        You see, He can create something out of nothing, have shadows of the Apostles heal, but He can’t give those in heaven the ability hear our prayers. God is almost all powerful.

        1. ” but He can’t give those in heaven the ability hear our prayers”.

          It sounds like a rather large assumption on your part.

          Remember the parable of Lazarus & the the rich man. after their demise? Seems father Abraham knew more then a few things happening on earth.

          1. I’m with you J_Bob. I just asked the Blessed Mary to pray for me not 10 minutes ago. I was just pointing to a common Protestant argument (in a tongue and cheek way) that it’s impossible for those in heaven to hear our prayers or for them to hear many prayers would make them omnipresent but then they turn right around and say that with God anything is possible or some such thing. They twist logic into a pretzel in order to deny the Communion of Saints.

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