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.