This post was initially a research paper that I wrote for my Church History Class. A copy with footnotes is available upon request.
The Virgin Mary, though minimally spoken of throughout the New Testament, has become the most well-recognized supporting character in literary history. Her likeness may be found among household shrines in India, murals plastered upon the walls of the slum houses of Brazil, and upon the brown scapulars of Carmelite nuns. Likewise, her presence is felt by as many as feel the beads of a Rosary between their fingers, and as many as appeal to her mercy in times of danger and fear. Her names are many: New Eve, Ever-Virgin, Immaculate, Queen of Heaven, Help of the Afflicted, Our Lady of Sorrows, and Mother of God. This last name especially enraptures the mind: “Who was this woman who has so captured the world through her Son?”
Has Mary’s character always possessed this draw on people? Has she always been this popular? Is what Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians teach about Mary the same today as it was yesterday? These questions are worth asking. Much is said of Mary by these groups, but not by John. Much is said by the Bishop of Rome, but not much by Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Comparatively, the Ecumenical Patriarch speaks of Mary far more often than Paul. Thus, there seems, prima facie, to be a great disconnect between what the Bible tells us about Mary and what we hear from many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox clergy. Sacred Scripture speaks of her so little, while the tradition of the church seems utterly obsessed.
This paper will seek to provide an in-depth examination of Marian theology during the first two centuries of the church’s history. Special attention will be given to the earliest extant primary sources, notably the canonical Gospels as well as early apocryphal works. Next, this paper will exhaustively consider the Marian theology of key Apostolic Fathers who lived between 100-200 AD. Finally, a brief conclusion on the state of Marian theology at the beginning of the 200s will be given, comparing the Marian theology present then to what would develop later.
The earliest sources that we have that speak of Mary are the four canonical Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life: the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It would be improper to call these books “Marian literature” however, as their obvious purpose and intent is to introduce the reader to the life of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Despite Mary playing only a side role within these works of literature, they constitute the earliest written accounts of Mary’s character and life, and so they reveal the authentic Apostolic teaching on Mary, giving an “initial” state of Marian theology.
The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels, shows a marked disinterest in the life of Mary, and indeed the infancy of Christ in general. The single explicit and unambiguous reference to Mary found in Marks’ Gospel is Mark 6:3, which reads: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.” A “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses” appears near the end of the Gospel, being present at the crucifixion of Christ, appearing at his tomb, and being a witness of the resurrection. It is possible that this Mary is Jesus’ mother, though this is unclear.
In contrast to Mark, the Gospel according to St. Luke shows a keen interest in recording the life of Christ before he began his public ministry. It is from the Gospel of Luke that we derive the most complete account of Mary’s life within the canonical Scriptures. Within the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke Mary plays an important role. Firstly, Mary receives the annunciation of her miraculous conception of Christ from the angel Gabriel. Secondly, Mary has her conception of Christ confirmed through the leaping of John in the womb of Elizabeth, an event that causes Mary to burst into song and sing the hymn Magnificat. Thirdly, the holy family journeys to Bethlehem to be registered for Quirinius’ census, with the birth of Christ occurring while they are in Bethlehem. The same event sees angels declare the birth of Christ to nearby shepherds, who come to worship the child. Fourthly, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus up to Jerusalem for the sake of a temple ritual. During this trip, the holy family encountered the righteous man Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Fifthly and finally, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus up to the Passover festival and lose the child in the temple. Later he is found to be conversing with the teachers. Tim Perry, writing on the role of Mary in Luke 1-2 says: “In the infancy narrative (Lk 1—2), she is the center of all narrative action. She stands ahead of Joseph (Lk 2:5). Joseph is named after her (Lk 2:16). Although Simeon blesses the family, he speaks directly to Mary (Lk 2:33-34). Mary even speaks for her husband (Lk 2:48). Luke names Mary twelve times and alludes to her two more. Once the birth narrative is finished, however, Luke hurries Mary offstage. Still, careful readers know the important role she plays in Luke’s Gospel.”
The Pauline literature is also notable for its near-total failure to mention Mary. The only occurrence of the name “Mary” within the Pauline corpus is an anonymous woman which Paul commends the Roman church to greet, she being noted for her hard work. There is no good reason to believe that this woman is the same Mary that gave birth to Christ. Only one, seemingly accidental reference is made to Mary in the Pauline corpus in Galatians 4:4 where it says: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Even within this quote, the focus is upon Christ and not Mary.
As for early non-canonical or apocryphal sources, stories about Mary abound. Luigi Gambero writes: “In every age, religious souls have yearned to know Jesus and the other important characters in the story of our salvation. The Virgin Mary has always had a privileged place in this kind of understandable and legitimate curiosity. The silence of the New Testament writings and the Apostolic Fathers concerning her person left a knowledge gap that Christians have been trying to fill since the first centuries. In response to this need, the so-called New Testament apocrypha proliferated—works that, with their sometimes fantastic and picturesque accounts, went overboard in making up for the extremely scarce information in the inspired books of Scripture.”
The chief example of an apocryphal work with a heavy Marian emphasis from the 100s would be the Protogospel of James. This work was most likely written sometime around the middle of the second century, most likely by a non-Jew or by a Jew living outside of Palestine. This work is notable for four unique ideas that it promulgates: Firstly, that Mary herself had a miraculous conception. Secondly, that Mary remained a virgin, both during her pregnancy as well as after the birth of Christ. Thirdly, that Christ’s birth was wholly unnatural, with Mary not pushing Christ through her birth canal, but him being seemingly teleported to her breast. Fourthly, that Joseph’s marriage to Mary was not a normal one, Joseph being more of a protector to Mary than a husband. Due to the rather porous nature of the canon in the very early church, the Protogospel of James would have been read by both the orthodox and the unorthodox, it being only officially declared to be apocryphal in the sixth century. This usage by the orthodox is not speculative, as Clement of Alexandria alludes to the Protogospel in his Stromata, treating it as though it were Scripture. The early date of the Protogospel, it’s late condemnation, and widespread readership doubtlessly contributed to the spread of its unique Marian teachings, normalizing the notion of a spectacular Mary, as opposed to the relatively normal woman we see in the Gospels.
Two other, less important apocryphal works of the 1st century stand out for what they say about Mary, and for their similarities to the Protogospel of James. The first of these is the Ascension of Isaiah. In this book, like in the Protogospel of James, Mary’s birth of Christ occurs unnaturally, with Christ being seemingly teleported outside of her womb, with Mary suffering no birth pain. The second apocryphal work is the Odes of Solomon. The 19th Ode in the book affirms that Mary gave birth without suffering pain, and without seeking a midwife. Both of these works then seem to be furthering the same set of Marian beliefs that are present in the Protogospel of James. Unlike the Protogospel, Mary is not the main focus of these works, but rather a single character amongst many. These works appear to be furthering an already present Marian tradition, possibly beginning with the Protogospel of James itself.
As has been seen above, the earliest extant Christian material shows a noticeable ambivalence towards Mary. Speaking of the presence of Mary in Christian literature from the first couple of centuries of the church, Stephen J. Shoemaker says: “In light of the prominence to which Mary would later rise in the Christian tradition, it is perhaps a bit surprising how little she figures in the New Testament and other early Christian literature from the first century or so.” Those apocryphal works which do possess a strongly Marian element seem to have been influential, though novel in their presentation of Mary. Within these apocryphal works lies much of later Marian theology in seed form, as J.K Elliot argues: “[The Protogospel of James’] stories reflect the developing tradition that was ultimately expressed in Christian teaching regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary. In addition, it gave support and impetus to feasts such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Presentation in the Temple.”
Thus, we see two strands of Marian thinking presented by both the canonical works and early apocryphal works. From the canonical literature, we see a relatively unremarkable woman, greatly blessed by God, whose purpose was to give birth to Christ and raise him amongst his other siblings. Having accomplished this task, she seemingly retires from significance. From the apocryphal literature of the time, we see a very remarkable woman. We see a Mary whose conception greatly mirrors Christ’s, a Mary who was always destined for greatness, a Mary who possessed a most holy and pure demeanor. These two visions for who Mary was would coexist for a time, both being represented in the Apostolic Fathers, though the apocryphally-derived vision would come to dominate in later centuries.
Leaving the earliest periods of the church, it is worth considering the Marian doctrines promulgated by the Apostolic Fathers. For the sake of this paper, an Apostolic Father is a writer or a written document dating between 100-200 AD.
Luigi Gambero, noting the lack of a Marian emphasis during the time of the Apostolic Fathers, writes: “The name of Mary rarely appears in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.” There appears to be a general silence about the life and character of the blessed Virgin. However, when Mary is spoken of by these men, we see a strong divergence in opinion amongst them. Four Apostolic Fathers stand out for what they said regarding Mary: Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Tertullian is also worth investigating, as he presents perhaps the most unique picture of Mary amongst early authors.
As was previously mentioned, Clement of Alexandria cited the Protogospel of James and treated it as Scripture. As The Stromata (where he cites the Protogospel) is one of the earliest pieces of extant theological literature, this means that an affirmation of the perpetual virginity of Mary is present in one of the earliest extant discussions of Marian theology. Clement also makes a parallel between Mary and the church in Paedagogus 1.6, noting that as Mary nourished Christ with the milk of her breasts, so also the church is nourished by Christ. Clement shows no devotional interest in Mary. Not much more can be said regarding Mary in Clement’s thinking, however, as he makes no further reference to Mary in his surviving works.
Ignatius of Antioch, being one of the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers, gives us great insight into early Marian beliefs through his epistles. Ignatius’ epistle To the Ephesians references Mary the most, with her name occurring three times. Firstly, Ignatius says: “There is one physician, both fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both of Mary and God, first subject to suffering and then free of suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Secondly, he says: “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to the plan of God, both from the seed of David and the Holy Spirit, who was born and was baptized so that by his suffering he might purify the water.” Thirdly he says: “And the virginity of Mary and her giving birth escaped the notice of the ruler of this age; likewise also the death of the Lord. Three mysteries to be loudly acclaimed which were accomplished in the silence of God.” In his epistle To the Trallians, Ignatius makes reference to Mary when he says: “Therefore be deaf whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, the one of the family of David, the one of Mary, he who truly was born, both ate and drank, truly was persecuted by Pontius Pilate, truly was crucified and died, being seen by those in heaven and on earth and under the earth…” Finally, in his epistle To the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius writes: “Having been fully convinced about our Lord that he is truly from the family of David according to the flesh, the Son of God according to the will and power of God, having been born truly of a virgin…” Speaking of Ignatius’s Marian doctrine, Tim Perry says: “For Ignatius, Mary is first of all the guarantor of the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus’ person.” In Ignatius, we see a very simple understanding of Mary as the mother of Christ. Her purpose was to provide the human nature of Christ, something eminently necessary for the salvation of all mankind. In this regard, Ignatius stands in perfect conformity to the picture of Mary given to us in the canonical Scriptures.
Justin Martyr is the next significant Apostolic Father who speaks of Mary. Two of his works stand out for their comments regarding Mary: his First Apology, and his Dialogue with Trypho. In his First Apology, Justin examines Isaiah 7:4 and the prophecy of the virginal conception contained therein. In this work, Justin strongly stresses that Jesus was not conceived through normal intercourse, but instead by the Spirit. The second work that speaks of Mary is more intriguing, however. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin conceives of Mary’s life as a recapitulation of Eve’s fall into sin. He parallels the disobedience of Eve with the obedience of Mary. Notably, however, though Justin seems to have a high view of Mary, he shows no devotional appreciation for her.
The fourth Apostolic Father of significance is Irenaeus, who goes further than Justin in his association of Mary as the new-Eve. Speaking of Ireneaus’ thoughts on Mary, Tim Perry says: “Mary is no mere passive instrument in Irenaeus’s thought. She actively, if subordinately, assists Christ in the accomplishment of salvation. She is ‘that pure womb which regenerates men unto God, and which he [Jesus] himself made pure.’ This exalted language clearly exceeds the restraint of both Ignatius and the New Testament.” Jaroslav Pelikan notes that Irenaeus’ matter-of-fact assumption of the Mary/Eve parallel strongly suggests that it was a widespread opinion during his time, as he does not seek to prove it, but rather asserts it. However, just like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus never ventures into a devotional appreciation of Mary. Stephen Shoemaker notes: “For Irenaeus, then, as for Justin, Mary seems to be a figure primarily of dogmatic rather than devotional concern.”
Tertullian is also worth examining, as he seems to sharply disagree with many of his contemporaries, especially with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Though Tertullian affirms the Mary/Eve parallel as taught by Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, Tertullian seems to strongly reject any notion of Mary remaining a virgin after the birth of Christ through his belief that the “brothers” of Jesus in the Gospels were in fact blood relatives. Tertullian consistently shows a low view of Mary, even going so far as to include Mary as an opponent of Christ before the resurrection. Commenting on Tertullian’s Marian theology, Stephen J. Shoemaker makes the observation: “In Tertullian, we meet the opposite end of the spectrum from the Protoevangelium [of James].” Needless to say, Tertullian also lacks any devotional appreciation for Mary.
The Letter to Diognetus has one reference to the Virgin Mary in 12:8, where it reads: “Bearing this tree and picking its fruit, you will always harvest the things desired by God, which the snake cannot touch and deceit cannot defile, and Eve is not corrupted but a virgin is trusted.” This implicit reference to Mary appears to be paralleling Mary to the character of Eve, yet another manifestation of this trend.
Besides the above-cited works, there are no other references to Mary in the literature of the Apostolic Fathers. There are no references in other works such as the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter of Polycarp, the Letter of Barnabas, or the Martyrdom of Polycarp.
Thus, having given the testimony of the Apostolic Fathers, what can be said? It would seem that the two previously mentioned visions of Mary still stand in contest with each other. On the one side, the apocryphally-derived picture of Mary seems to be gaining strength amongst the orthodox authors, especially in places such as Egypt, where several of the noted authors resided. On the other side rests the canonically-derived picture of Mary, represented by a minority of orthodox authors. The apocryphally-derived picture seems to be best represented by Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and the Letter to Diognetus. However, men such as Ignatius of Antioch and Tertullian seem to best represent the canonical image of the Virgin Mary. Despite this split of opinion, all of the authors are united in their lack of appreciation of Mary as a devotional figure.
In conclusion, the first two centuries of Christian thought show a remarkable disinterest in the person of Mary, especially when compared with the later medieval era. Early apocryphal literature, best represented by the Protogospel of James, shows a keen interest in Mary, especially regarding her own conception and the supernatural birth of Christ, as well as her perpetual virginity. Belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary appears to be common, though not absolute nor universal. The beginning of the search for Mary in the Old Testament was well underway, stemming from an allegorical method of interpretation. Mary’s role in salvation was greatly restricted, being limited to the role of her being the mother of Christ, providing the humanity of Christ, and (amongst some authors) paralleling Eve’s disobedience through her own obedient response to the angel Gabriel. There seem to be no hints of any devotional value attached to Mary, though she was greatly respected by all, with the notable exception of Tertullian. The doctrine of the immaculate conception appears to be completely absent, though the basis for such a doctrine was beginning to be set. The bodily assumption of Mary also appears to be totally absent from the first 200 years of the church.
This situation would rapidly deteriorate within a few centuries. Tertullian’s interpretation of “brothers” as referring to the biological children of Mary would have its last champions under Jovian and Helvidius in the west, who would be rebuked by Jerome, who himself rejected the Protogospel of James and sought to prove the perpetual virginity of Mary from the canonical Scriptures. The earliest extant prayer to Mary, Sub Tuum Praesidium, would be written in Egypt, dating from the end of the 3rd century. Gregory Nazianzus would be found writing prayers to Mary for protection during the 4th century, demonstrating the widespread nature of the practice of praying to Mary. Augustine would affirm that Mary was free from personal sin during the 5th century. As for the doctrine of the assumption of Mary into heaven, Miri Rubin writes: “By the year 500 Mary was endowed with an end in a variety of narratives that emerged in parallel.” Finally, in the 12th century, Eadmer, a pupil of Anselm of Canterbury, would become the first advocate of the immaculate conception of Mary. This doctrine would be disputed by men such as Albert the Great, though resistance was weak.
And so in the first two centuries of the church what is seen is a Marian theology begotten from apocryphal sources owing to the porous nature of the early canon, sustained through allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, and left to come unto its own in later centuries in alienation from the Scriptures. The first two centuries would plant the seed, so to say, of later Post-Nicene and Medieval doctrines, something that would only begin to be appraised at the time of the Reformation, when a truly canonical vision of Mary would again be sought.