What did the Earliest Church Fathers teach about the Woman of Revelation 12?
While the Catholicism recognizes the "woman" as part of the polyvalent symbolism that is found in the Book of Revelation in four ways: Israel, the Church, Eve, and Mary.
Saint Victorinus of Pettau (died in 303/304) saw this passage as referring to Israel:
- And there was seen a great sign in heaven. A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried out travailing, and bearing torments that she might bring forth. The woman clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars upon her head, and travailing in her pains, is the ancient Church of fathers, and prophets, and saints, and apostles, which had the groans and torments of its longing until it saw that Christ, the fruit of its people according to the flesh long promised to it, had taken flesh out of the selfsame people. Moreover, being clothed with the sun intimates the hope of resurrection and the glory of the promise. And the moon intimates the fall of the bodies of the saints under the obligation of death, which never can fail. For even as life is diminished, so also it is increased. Nor is the hope of those that sleep extinguished absolutely, as some think, but they have in their darkness a light such as the moon. And the crown of twelve stars signifies the choir of fathers, according to the fleshly birth, of whom Christ was to take flesh. - Commentary on the Apocalypse (Victorinus)
One Early Church interpretation of the woman as the “church” is Hippolytus of Rome (170-235) who states said interpretation in On Christ and Antichrist:
Now, concerning the tribulation of the persecution which is to fall upon the Church from the adversary, John also speaks thus: And I saw a great and wondrous sign in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And she, being with child, cries, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man-child, who is to rule all the nations: and the child was caught up unto God and to His throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has the place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. And then when the dragon saw it, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man-child. And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. And the serpent cast (out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast) out of his mouth. And the dragon was angry with the woman, and went to make war with the saints of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus.
By the woman then clothed with the sun, he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father's word, whose brightness is above the sun. And by the moon under her feet he referred to her being adorned, like the moon, with heavenly glory. And the words, upon her head a crown of twelve stars, refer to the twelve apostles by whom the Church was founded. And those, she, being with child, cries, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered, mean that the Church will not cease to bear from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the world. And she brought forth, he says, a man-child, who is to rule all the nations; by which is meant that the Church, always bringing forth Christ, the perfect man-child of God, who is declared to be God and man, becomes the instructor of all the nations. And the words, her child was caught up unto God and to His throne, signify that he who is always born of her is a heavenly king, and not an earthly; even as David also declared of old when he said, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool. And the dragon, he says, saw and persecuted the woman which brought forth the man- child. And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. That refers to the one thousand two hundred and threescore days (the half of the week) during which the tyrant is to reign and persecute the Church, which flees from city to city, and seeks conceal-meat in the wilderness among the mountains, possessed of no other defense than the two wings of the great eagle, that is to say, the faith of Jesus Christ, who, in stretching forth His holy hands on the holy tree, unfolded two wings, the right and the left, and called to Him all who believed upon Him, and covered them as a hen her chickens. For by the mouth of Malachi also He speaks thus: And unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings.“
While It is true that commentators generally understand the whole passage as applying literally to the Church, and that part of the verses is better suited to the Church than to Mary. But it must be kept in mind that Mary is both a figure of the Church, and its most prominent member. What is said of the Church, is in its own way true of Mary. Hence the passage of the Apocalypse (12:5-6) does not refer to Mary merely by way of accommodation, but applies to her in a truly literal sense which appears to be partly limited to her, and partly extended to the whole Church. Mary's relation to the Church is well summed up in the expression "collum corporis mystici" applied to Our Lady by St. Bernardin of Siena.
St. Epiphanius of Salamis saw the Virgin Mary in this chapter of Revelation:
The identification of Mary as the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12 finds support in the Fathers of the Church. The first extant patristic source on the Marian identification of the woman of Revelation 12 is St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403). He wrote:
“But elsewhere, in the Apocalypse of John, we read that the dragon hurled himself at the woman who had given birth to a male child; but the wings of an eagle were given to the woman, and she flew into the desert, where the dragon could not reach her” (Rev. 12:13-14). This could have happened in Mary‟s case.”
Steve Puluka, a liturgy, church history and patristics teacher at Manor College comments that:
“This passage merely mentions the association exists without really endorsing theview wholeheartedly himself. He qualifies the identification with [Mary] dare not affirmthis with absolute certainty. But this silence of the early evidence is as much a reflectionof the dearth of material interpreting Revelation at all from the time period. Thereferences to any aspect of the book are few and far between in the extant literature. Butthe tepid mention by Epiphanius demonstrates that the existence of a Marianidentification of the woman in the same time period was widespread enough that he couldnot pass the text without comment on it .” (underscoring supplied)
Mariologist Michael O’Carroll notes that “[t]here is in the same age a vague reference in Andrew of Caesarea to people who identified the woman with Mary.”
Both Epiphanius of Salamis and Andrew of Caesarea both record that some „some people‟ identified the woman clothed with the sun as Mary the mother of Jesus; but they do not say who those people were. Hence, it can be said that the opinion was known inthe fourth century.
In 430 A.D., Quodvultdeus, a disciple and friend of St. Augustine of Hippo ,made the first overtly Marian identification of the woman of Revelation 12:
“None of you is ignorant of the fact that the dragon was the devil. The woman signified the Virgin Mary.”