The earliest known prayer to the Theotokos (Greek, Θεοτοκος, meaning “Bearer of God”) is a prayer found on a fragment of papyrus dating back to approximately AD 250. In 1917, the John Rylands Library (1) in Manchester, England, acquired a large panel of Egyptian papyrus. The prayer is located on the fragment recorded as reference number Greek Papyrus 470. The prayer appears to be from a Coptic Christmas liturgy or vespers written in Koine Greek although the fragment in question may be a private copy of the prayer. The prayer is still chanted in the Orthodox Church to this day at the end of nearly every Vespers service during Lent. It is also found in the worship services of the Roman Catholic and Oriental Churches.
The early date of this prayer is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that it supports our understanding that the term Theotokos was not just a theological concept defended at the Third Ecumenical Council in AD 431, but was already in popular use and well-known several centuries before the Nestorian heresy. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus stated in AD 379, “If someone does not uphold that the holy Mary is Theotokos, he is separated from divinity.” (Letter 101, PG 37, 177C) Early Christians recognized the Theotokos as a powerful intercessor for those who are suffering and in need of protection. Christians have been seeking her intercessions from the time of the ancient Church and well over a thousand years up to this very day.
Hear the hymn in Greek: Υπο την σην ευσπλαγχνιαν καταφευγομεν Θεοτοκε. τας ημων ικεσιας μη παριδης εν περιστασει, αλλ’ εκ κινδυνων λυτρωσαι ημας, μονη αγνη, μονη ευλογημενη.
See also our video on “The Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos” and the video on “Our Pilgrimage to Where the Theotokos Fell Asleep”.
An excerpt from “The Significance of the Term Theotokos” from The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century (Fr. Georges Florovsky) June, 1987.
“The term Theotokos — Θεοτοκος — does not mean the same as “Mother of God” in English or the common Latin translation. In English one must translate Theotokos as “Bearer of God.” The correct Latin would be deipara or dei genetrix, not Mater Dei. Had Nestorius been more prudent he would have realized that the term Theotokos had a comparatively long usage — it had been used by Origen, by Alexander of Alexandria, by Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril. In the Latin West Tertullian had used the term Dei Mater in De patientia 3 and Ambrose also used it in his Hexaemeron V, 65 (Patrologia Latina. 14, 248A). More significant is that the Antiochene theologian Eustathius (bishop of Antioch from c.324 to 330), so often considered a forerunner of Nestorius, had some remarkably un-Antiochene tendencies in his Christology, one of which was the use of the term Theotokos.”
1. Image Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester. For more information on the fragment, visit: http://tinyurl.com/kh3fy5d
2. “The Significance of the Term Theotokos” from The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century (Fr. Georges Florovsky) June, 1987.