Do we know of any uses of the title "Theotokos" from the second century? Wikipedia claims that the title has been in use only since the third century.


2 Answers 2


Nestorius was born after 381 A.D. and "was almost certainly not a Nestorian" according to the book I now quote from. He said that although such clergy as Origen (circa 185 to 254) and Athanasius (293 to 373) had used the term theotokos, it had not been incorporated into either the Nicene Creed of 321 or the Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. That Greek word meant 'God-bearer' and was applied to Mary, but it's important to note that initially it did not mean what it later came to mean. To give the background here, let me quote from this scholar:

"[Nestorius] did, however react badly to the situation he found in Constantinople on his appointment to the See in 428. The prevailing Christology appeared to represent the incarnation as a blending of the two natures of Christ, human and divine, to the confusion of both. At the same time, popular use of the word theotokos ('Mother of God') had reached the point where men dared to regard the Virgin 'as in some kind of way divine, like God'.' [Source J.F. Bethune-Baker, Nestorius and his teaching: a fresh examination of the evidence, p.17 Cambridge University Press 1908)]

"At this distance in time it is not easy to decide how, exactly, Nestorius responded to the situation. His works were burned by Imperial decree and only fragments survive... It seems clear, however, that although he did not altogether condemn the term theotokos he strongly disliked it and showed little tact in saying so.

"The reason for his aversion to the term was not primarily its tendency to encourage Mariolatry, but the threat it posed to the deity of Christ. If Mary were proclaimed as the Mother of the Word of God, would that not open the door to the old Arian notion that the Logos was a creature? On the other hand, it was important, according to Nestorius, to insist that the humanity which Christ assumed was complete." The Person of Christ, p 182, Donald Macleod, IVP 1998. (See pages following re. the attack on Nestorius by Cyril of Alexandria, who had great suspicion of the See of Constantinople and a paranoid aversion to the Antiochene Christology of Theodore and Nestorius. He succeeded in getting Nestorius declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431.)

Around 428 this controversy boiled up when supporters of the Arian heresy tried to use initial use of the word theotokos to emphasize the humanity of Christ in order to detract from his deity. Out of a desire to protect the full deity of Christ, Leo, Bishop of Rome, settled the matter. This was at the Council of Chalcedon, 451, when he ratified the one personality of Christ and the authenticity and perfection of both his natures - human and divine. This clearly showed that Mary was theotokos [God-bearer] only as to the manhood of Christ. The populace, however, took this title of theotokos as an uplifting of Mary's status and began venerating her. Clergy, like Nestorius, objected, pointing out that the Bible never says that God was born of the virgin. It only speaks of the incarnation of the Logos, not of his birth. Therefore, when the likes of Origen and Athanasius used the term theotokos, it was never with the idea that Mary should be called 'Mother of God' in the sense that the Catholic populace do, who do not grasp the critical distinction between bearing the human baby who also had a divine nature, and bearing God.

The Chalcedonian definition added the words "as to the manhood" immediately after theotokos, which should have put paid to erroneous thinking, but it didn't work out like that among the Catholic populace. This is explained in Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey O.P., pp76-77, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985. Read the whole section, please: this is just a small snippet:

“…in Tertullian’s treatise On the Flesh of Christ… in a number of places we can see an admirable balance established between Christ’s humanity and divinity. This is the case, for instance, with the great confession of faith that was subscribed to at the Council of Chalcedon in 451…

[quoting] Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the same perfect in divinity, the same perfect in humanity, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a reasonable soul and a body, consubstantial with the Father according to divinity, the same consubstantial with us according to humanity, like us in all things except sin; begotten of the Father before the ages according to divinity, but the same for us in the last days, born for us and for us for our salvation from the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer, according to humanity…” [quote ends]

So, although I cannot pinpoint any sources where Origen and/or Athanasius wrote about the theotokos in the 2nd century, if Nestorius (end of 4th century, start of 5th) said they had used the term, then that could well be true. Even so, that does not bring the term into general use from the 2nd century, and certainly not with the later meaning that grew away from the clarity of the 451 definition that she was theotokos only as to the manhood of Christ.

  • "Theotokos only as to the manhood of Christ" is a contradiction, it makes no sense. The word used for Mary as mother only of the human nature of Jesus is "Christokos." Why would such an oxymoron as "Theotokos only as to the manhood" be used then?There is also no citation for the canon of Chalcedon that allegedly says so.
    – user54757
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:58
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    @SupportiveDante That point is fully covered by the quotation from Donald MacLeod, I believe. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 26, 2022 at 21:01
  • No it isn't @NigelJ
    – user54757
    Jul 26, 2022 at 21:33
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    @SupportiveDante Thank you for flagging up my omission as to a citation. I have now added an edit from a Catholic source. However, the question is not asking for sense (or lack of sense) with 'theotokos'. It wants to know if the word was used around the 2nd century. A fresh question would be required to explore any contradictions associated with that word. Also, Mcleod's book does say more and I've now italicised that point.
    – Anne
    Jul 27, 2022 at 11:02

Scripture Itself (First Century)

There are so many fallacies surrounding the meaning and origin of this term. First, it simply means "God-bearer" in Greek. Second, it is plainly found in Scripture in its fundamental components, making denial of its orthodoxy, a straight up rejection of Scripture itself. This is because tokos meaning bearer, and theos meaning God, occur in Scripture with reference to Mary—that is, Scripture calls Mary the bearer of God: "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [God with us]." There is no way to reject the truth that Mary is theotokos because Scripture explicitly states such. Arguing that we aren't allowed to coin a term for it is pedantic and not Scripturally warranted. It's like claiming that if St. Peter hadn't used the word "Christian" we would not be permitted to use the word—which clearly, and validly conveys the idea of a "follower of Christ."

The key dogma underlying the term, which makes it necessary to admit its orthodoxy, is that in Christ there is only one Person: the Word. The Word was made flesh, not joined to a human person. That is, there are not people, Jesus, and the Word, but rather the Word was just as much the Creator, and also He who died on the Cross, and was born of Mary, and was taught how to walk and talk by Mary and build by Joseph. This is called the Hypostatic Union (a fancy term meaning unity or oneness of person), which teaches that Christ is only one Person, with two natures, each complete and full in itself. Such that when Jesus' body and pierced and He dies on the Cross, it must be admitted that God ascended Calvary in the flesh, and God died in the flesh. But God nonetheless. No less so because in the flesh, in other words.

This is why God can say, "I am the First and the Last, and the Living One, who was dead, and behold I live forever." This is why the Fathers praise Mary as the one who bore Him whom nothing can contain. It's paradoxical yet true, because of the Hypostatic Union—that the Word became flesh.

It's also why it is heresy to deny that Mary is the mother of God, because if God was not conceived and born of Mary, then neither did God walk the streets of Nazareth or appear on earth. Neither did the soldiers kill "the Lord of Glory," neither did "the First and the Last" truly die. Nor is Mary the mother of God with us, but the mother of one who might be said to be "with God."

Luke 1:43 Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Whether this is meant in the divine sense of Lord, or the human lord sense (i.e. the Messiah as a ruler and king), it either way must be taken to refer to only one Person, namely the Son of God who is both God and man, such that for Mary to be the mother of "the man Christ Jesus" is to be the mother of God for this very reason.

Put as simply as possible, to be the mother of someone who is God (read: Christ) is to be the mother of God. It really is as excruciatingly simple as that. And let no one deceive you into thinking that it has EVER been used to mean anything else (e.g. that Mary created the Divine Nature of Jesus), since this is a lie—the problem of such people is not with a 'change of meaning' intended to 'elevate Mary' but with God's so honoring Mary as to humble Himself to be her son! In other words, Mary cannot fail to be honored by us for being so honored by God, since honor or no honor, she was, in fact, made the mother of God. As proven by Scripture above. The "according to the flesh" part of the definitions are there to safeguard against the idea that Mary bore God's divine nature, instead of bore God in the flesh. Not to say that Mary is the mother of the flesh of Jesus, since you cannot be the mother of "something," but someone, instead no human offspring is a something, but a person. In this case, a pre-existent person, but a person nonetheless.

So, thus, in the first century, the concept is found in Scripture. We therefore only expect to find the term in discourses specifically about:

  1. this truth about the divinity of Christ (as questioned)
  2. specifically as a passing honorific for Mary
  3. in prayers to Mary
  4. e.g. a Council like Ephesus using it as a 'proof' of something used in the universal church which precludes the heresy being true or admitted

So I would be rather shocked to see this occur with any kind of frequency, or really even at all, in the second century.

For example, when does the first instance of "trinity" arrive, and yet who will claim the doctrine underlying the term was not believed and taught, as we see it was?

The instances of people in the second century writing that Mary bore God in the flesh are probably too many to count, and would be pointless.

For example, St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5:19:1, circa 189):

The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God

Now what sane person will argue that there is a difference between being bearer of God, and someone who bore God, without proving themselves an absolute fool? Therefore, to seek the coined term itself instead of the substance, makes the question 'invalid' in a sense (even though it has the right to be asked, and can't really be 'wrong').

That said, what is considered second century, exactly? If Hippolytus wrote in 217 (Discourse on the End of the World 1):

[T]o all generations they [the prophets] have pictured forth the grandest subjects for contemplation and for action. Thus, too, they preached of the advent of God in the flesh to the world, his advent by the spotless and God-bearing Mary in the way of birth and growth, and the manner of his life and conversation with men

Isn't that a doctrine and term which clearly predates the third century, and is thus second century in origin?

Again, it was used in 250 by Dionysius of Alexandria, so does that make it 50 years off second century? Or do we admit that it was used 43 years prior by Hippolytus and thus shows a backward-looking trajectory that forces us to consider its second century origin?

But again, seeking the term itself in the second century specifically, when there is profuse use at the early third century, for example, is a bit like expecting the word Trinity to be used in the second century or first century specifically, rather than the concept. Which was clearly present.

  • Can you clarify what you mean by "build by Joseph" in your phrase "and was taught how to walk and talk by Mary and build by Joseph"? Jul 31, 2022 at 18:50
  • I concur with the general tradition that Jesus was taught the trade of his father, who was a tekton, which means builder or architect or artificer of some kind. I don't intend to reduce or fix the range of meaning by that choice of word. Thanks for the edit by the way. Jul 31, 2022 at 19:03
  • "seeking the term itself in the second century specifically, when there is profuse use at the early third century, for example, is a bit like expecting the word Trinity to be used in the second century or first century specifically, rather than the concept. Which was clearly present." - And yet my question was exactly about the term, not the concept. Given the fact that this term later gave way to so many erroneous interpretations of it, there is sense in why early Christians, while feeling free to say "who bore God", yet were still reluctant to jump from there to the term "God-bearer"
    – brilliant
    Aug 1, 2022 at 4:44
  • "Arguing that we aren't allowed to coin a term for it is pedantic and not Scripturally warranted" - There is nothing wrong with treating the Scriptures as carefully as possible. "It's like claiming that if St. Peter hadn't used the word "Christian" we" - Wait a moment. Didn't Peter use that noun in 1 Pet. 4:16?
    – brilliant
    Aug 1, 2022 at 4:51
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    Anything predicated of the human or divine nature is still predicated of the one Person, the Word. So the Word created all things, and came down to suffer for our sins in the flesh. But there aren't two people in question, only one. This is why it can never be orthodox to oppose the notion that Mary bore, gave birth to, and is the mother of, God. Because it denies that Jesus is God. I also addressed the fallacy that elevating Mary based on this truth is a separate understanding or interpretation of the term. It's not. There is no other definition or sense possible or used... Aug 1, 2022 at 13:31

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