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The earliest known prayer to St. Mary is called Beneath Thy Protection (Sub tuum praesidium), and it is commonly dated around mid third century (~250 AD), or as late as fourth century.

From the Wikipedia link are four translations. This is the one taken from the Greek:

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

What do Protestant Churches make of this fact? How do they explain the early apparition of the prayer?

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    This is a great question. I gave you an up vote! It made me think. My response kind of falls apart if one views historic pre-millennialism as being an authentic passed on apostolic teaching. If the Roman Catholic Church ever changed their position on that issue, than the argument from early tradition would have a lot more compelling force.
    – Jess
    Jan 11, 2022 at 1:03
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    Was the word "Theotokos" ever used to refer to anyone or anything else? I.e. how do we know that it was first used as a title for Mary? Oct 1, 2022 at 2:35

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It’s interesting that the prayer is not just asking for Mary’s intercession, but asking her to intervene in an angelic manner. It’s a request for her to “Save us from every danger.”

This prayer request appears to parallel early Jewish prayers invoking angels for protection. In Jewish tradition Elijah was considered in charge of the angels. He was also actively engaged in earthy affairs. For example, the Jewish Encyclopedia states:

To the pious, Elijah is in many cases a guardian angel, for whom no place is too remote, and who leaves nothing undone to help them in their distress or to save them from misery. (1906 Jewish Encyclopedia)

That being said, the intercession of saints in Jewish tradition is still being debated. For example, in wikipedia, the following statement is given:

In modern times one of the greatest divisions in Jewish theology (hashkafa) is over the issue of whether one can beseech the help of a tzadik – an extremely righteous individual. The main conflict is over a practice of beseeching a tzadik who has already died to make intercession before the Almighty. This practice is common mainly among Chasidic Jews, but also found in varying degrees among other usually Chareidi communities. It strongest opposition is found largely among sectors of Modern Orthodox Judaism, Dor Daim and Talmide haRambam, and among aspects of the Litvish Chareidi community.

They conclude:

Those who oppose this practice usually do so over the problem of idolatry, as Jewish Law strictly prohibits making use of a mediator (melitz) or agent (sarsur) between oneself and the Almighty. Those Jews who support the use of intercessors claim that their beseeching of the tzadik is not prayer or worship, or alternatively that they are still praying to God and through God, but secondarily communicating with the tzadik. The conflict between the groups is essentially over what constitutes prayer, worship, a mediator (melitz), and an agent (sarsur).

It is interesting how, in the late 16th century, the Patriarch Jeremiah of Constantinople wrote about the Lutherans in Northern Europe being influenced by Jewish (Hebrew) views:

The schisms of the Lutherans there, which are many and various, were indeed caused and spread by some Hebrews, as it has been broached abroad feigning piety. (Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the Tubingen Theoligans and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession, p. 306)

Rightly or wrongly, in light of certain early Jewish practices, it is likely that Mary replaced the role of Elijah in charge of the angels. It makes theological sense, as Elijah must decrease and the blessed mother of Jesus must increase. That would explain the early apparition of the prayer.

My response, as a Lutheran, is to point out that many of the early 2nd century church fathers also taught historic pre-millennial eschatology. This idea was also, rightly or wrongly, taught in Jewish tradition. See the Jewish Encyclopedia article here.

So, to be entirely consistent, Roman Catholics & Eastern Orthodox folks need to take that into account.

From what I have read, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (676) rejects the teaching of pre-millennial eschatology. In the 1940’s the Holy Office judged that premillennialism “cannot safely be taught,” though the Church has not dogmatically defined this issue.

From what I have also read, the Eastern Orthodox Church tends to teach against pre-millennial theology. Although, in that Church, it appears to be more of an open question. For example, the late charismatic theologian Archimandrite Eusebius A. Stephanou taught pre-millennial theory. He noted that the church father, Ireneaus, appears to have held to a pre-tribulation pre-millennial rapture.

The point being, especially for Roman Catholics, is that if one can allow for one alleged error (pre-millennialism) to creep into early tradition, how can one appeal to other early church traditions as necessarily reflecting a passing on of apostolic teaching?

Lutherans would feel that invoking Mary directly to provide angelic assistance could lead to supplanting Jesus as the focus in prayer. But if people do invoke Mary, it’s not for us to judge that it’s idolatry. She might very well be involved with the angels in helping rescue people or just interacting in general for some Kingdom purpose. It’s just to be on the safe side, of avoiding the temptation to idolatry, that it’s not done in a liturgical setting.

As far as I can tell, the argument about an absolute prohibition on calling upon the departed saints for prayer was not raised by early Lutheran reformers, but first by Zwingli and then by later Reformed Protestants. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession article 11, states:

Since neither a command nor a promise nor an example can be produced from the Scriptures about the invocation of saints, it makes sense that conscience remains uncertain about this invocation.  Since prayer should be made from faith, how do we know God approves this invocation?

In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (12:3, 4), the early Lutherans admitted that the angels pray for us, and the saints, too, "for the Church in general"; but this does not imply that they are to be invoked.

Perhaps the earliest testimony about such an event after the apostolic era is recorded in The Martyrdom of Ignatius. This is an eyewitness account concerning Saint Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, who was thrown to the lions by the Romans in about A.D. 110.

The writers of this account relate:

Having ourselves been eyewitnesses of these things [his martyrdom] . . . we spent the whole night in tears within the house, and having entreated the Lord, with bended knees and much prayer . . . it came to pass, on our falling into a brief slumber, that some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labor, and standing by the Lord. When, therefore, we had with great joy witnessed these things, and had compared our several visions together, we sang praise to God.

There is a helpful comment from the year 1530. It can be found in the minutes of an early meeting (August 16th & 17th) in which the representatives of Rome heard from the representatives who subscribe to the Augsburg Confession in the 16th century. The quote comes from the book, Confessing One Faith: A Joint Commentary on the Augsburg Confession by Lutheran and Catholic Theologians. It runs as follows:

They agree in the first place that all the saints and angels in heaven intercede for us with God. Secondly, that it is both pious and right to remember the saints and observe festivals on which we pray God to let the intercession of the saints avail for us. But whether the saints are to be invoked by us was not agree on. Indeed, they say that they do not prohibit it, but since Scripture does not teach the invocation of the saints they themselves do not wish to invoke them, not only because Scripture does not teach it, but also because it seems to them to be a dangerous abuse.

As a final thought, there are a number of other practices that were done in the early 2nd century church that are no longer practiced in liturgical settings - e.g. baptisms done without clothing, praying to be filled with the Holy Spirit along with praying for charismatic gifts, flashy charismatic gifts like prophecy uttered in a Mass, etc. The later does happen in Catholic charismatic contexts, but my point remains that there has been and will be a lot of diversity.

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    Not only was baptism performed sans clothing but it was 3 separate dunkings; one each for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. +1 Jan 11, 2022 at 1:04
  • But was it forwards or backwards?
    – Jess
    Jan 11, 2022 at 1:08
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    Good you mention Elijah, I think Elijah & Mt.Carmel are link together, and and Our Lady of Mt.Carmel can be link too. Jan 11, 2022 at 22:50
  • JR, Ah yes, that's an interesting connection. I read that there is a tradition that claims the Carmelite Order's informal beginnings can be traced to the prophet Elijah. catholicnewsagency.com/saint/our-lady-of-mount-carmel-523
    – Jess
    Jan 11, 2022 at 23:27
  • If some Jews argued that Elijah was "in charge of the angels" and "actively engaged in earthy affairs," which side of the debate did Jesus take in Matthew 17:3?
    – qxn
    Jan 12, 2022 at 14:46
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What do Protestants make of the earliest Marian prayer?

As there are many Christian groups calling themselves Protestant, the answer will depend on the particular Protestant denomination you are asking from.

The further away a particular Protestant Church is from Catholicism’s Marian teachings, the chances are they will see this prayer as taking something away from Jesus and thus will not invoke Mary in prayer and thus will not have any Marian devotion.

Some Protestant Christians see any Marian devotion as worshiping Mary and thus Marian prayers would be seriously frowned upon.

Protestants can be differentiated according to how they have been influenced by important movements since the Reformation, today regarded as branches. Some of these movements have a common lineage, sometimes directly spawning individual denominations. Due to the earlier stated multitude of denominations, this section discusses only the largest denominational families, or branches, widely considered to be a part of Protestantism. These are, in alphabetical order: Adventist, Anglican, Baptist, Calvinist (Reformed), Lutheran, Methodist and Pentecostal. - Major branches of Protestantism

This mentioned some Protestant denominations seem in favour of praying the Sub tuum praesidium.

Here follows an Anglican perspective:

Greetings as we celebrate with joy the “birthday” of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the One chosen by God to be the Mother of His Incarnate Son. After Jesus Himself, His Mother the Virgin Mary has been the focus of Christian prayer from the beginning with the oldest surviving prayer seeking her help and intercession, the Sub Tuum Praesidium, still in use today, coming to us from the early third century;

We fly to thy protection, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.

“Mary is revered for the awesome responsibility of her role in the Incarnation and for the personal holiness which equipped her for that unique task…and her supreme dignity as the most glorious of all God’s creatures and as the Mother given to believers….To venerate the Mother of God is not merely to venerate the noblest of human beings as a miracle of God’s grace, but to celebrate God’s mercy and love in taking human flesh in the Incarnation….and to celebrate the destiny of redeemed humanity, which will one day be glorified as Mary is glorified.” (Eamon Duffy)

Rejoice on this the day of Mary’s birth for from her has been born a Savior.

This coming Sunday, September 11th, marks the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attack on New York City with the destruction of the World Trade Towers which once dominated that city’s skyline. May it be a part of your Mass intentions to remember those whose lives were taken in this act of hatred and madness along with those who continue to grieve such loss. Call upon Mary under her titles of “Queen of Peace” and “Help of Christians” requesting her intercession for all who suffer innocently being caught up in the violence that continues to rage in the Middle-East, those whose lives are taken for bearing the Name of Her Son, and for the welfare of the Christian community struggling in the midst of such hatred. Pray for those who have not heard or received the Gospel of Christ that they might be brought into the Light and Mercy of Him who is their Savior and ours that they may be converted and live. - Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

While the Anglican Church upholds many of the customs of Roman Catholicism, it also embraces fundamental ideas adopted during the Protestant Reformation. In recent years, the Church of England has been viewed as one of the more progressive sects of Christianity and is known for its relatively liberal policies.

Protestant Lutherans have a certain Marian devotional aspect to their teachings.

Even Martin Luther composed a number of venerational poems, which focus on Mary's virginity. He also translated old devotional Latin hymns on Mary into German.

The Lutheran views on the veneration of Mary were interpreted differently by different theologians over time. Key is his interpretation of the Magnificat of Mary, which to some is a relic of the Catholic past, but to others a clear indication that he maintained a Marian piety. Luther states in his Magnificat that one should pray to Mary, so God would give and do, through her will, what we ask. But, he adds, it is God's work alone. Some interpret his Magnificat as a personal supplication to Mary, but not as a prayerful request for mediation. An important indicator of Luther's views on the veneration of Mary are not only his writings but also approved practices of Lutherans during his lifetime. The singing of the Magnificat in Latin was maintained in many German Lutheran communities. The Church Order (Kirchenordnung) of Brandenburg, Bugenhagen Braunschweig and other cities and districts decreed by the royal heads of the Lutheran Church maintained three Marian feast days to be observed as public holidays. It is known that Martin Luther approved of this. He also approved of keeping Marian paintings and statues in the Churches. He also advocated the use of the pre-Trent version of the Hail Mary (that is, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.") as a sign of reverence for and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The 1522 Betbüchlein (Prayer Book) retained the Ave Maria. - Lutheran Mariology

Lutherans are more removed from Catholicism or Orthodoxy, than Anglicanism in their views of Marianology. It is more doubtful that they would pray the Sub tuum praesidium. They do use however use form of rosary, yet it is somewhat different than that which Catholics say as the following articles shows: How to Pray the Lutheran Rosary.

For centuries, the Hail Mary prayer was somewhat different than the one employed nowadays. The Black Plague changed everything. The older version is the one that Martin Luther used.

The prayer of the Hail Mary (Ave Maria) is a prayer of petition, in which the faithful implore the intercession of the Mother of Jesus for the two most important moments of our lives: now and at the hour of our deaths. It is that simple.

The “Hail Mary” prayer that Christians have been praying for centuries is composed of two main parts. The first part of the prayer is derived from the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel greeted Mary by saying, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28) The next part of the prayer is taken from the Visitation, when Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42)

At first the prayer was known as the “Salutation of the Blessed Virgin,” and only consisted of the two verses joined together. However, during the Black Plague (also known as the “Black Death”) the prayer was further developed and a second part was added to it.

This second part (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death”) is believed by many to have been added during the plague to ask for the Blessed Mother’s protection from the fatal disease.

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen explains this origin in his book The World’s First Love.

Since it seizes upon the two decisive moments of life: “now” and “at the hour of our death,” it suggests the spontaneous outcry of people in a great calamity. The Black Death, which ravaged all Europe and wiped out one-third of its population, prompted the faithful to cry out to the Mother of Our Lord to protect them at a time when the present moment and death were almost one.

An expert in Marian devotion, Fr. Donald H. Calloway, confirms this conclusion in his book Champions of the Rosary and explains how, “After the Black Death, the second half of the Hail Mary began to appear in the breviaries of religious communities, especially those of the Mercedarians, Camaldolese, and Franciscans … the people of the 14th century greatly needed the ‘hope-filled’ dimension of the second half of the Hail Mary prayer.”

The prayer took various forms during this bleak period in Europe, but was officially recognized after the publication of the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the full prayer was then included in the Roman Breviary of 1568. How the Black Plague changed the “Hail Mary” prayer

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    'Anglo-Catholics' are on the fence : neither one thing nor another. Calling them 'Protestant' is somewhat of a contradiction in historical terms.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 9, 2022 at 18:10
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    Every major encyclopedia includes Anglicans as being Protestant. Thus it seems opinion based to affirm the opposite.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 10, 2022 at 15:47
  • While there are lots of insincere Anglicans, true Anglo-Catholics maintain key Protestant positions such as opposition to the Pope and a rejection of the Mass. Those who accept those things have mostly already left the Anglican Church and become Catholics.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 11, 2022 at 0:09

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