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The History of the Term Theotókos

Updated: May 30, 2020

Theotókos (a Greek word meaning God-bearer) is the ancient Eastern title for Mary, Mother of God, prominent especially in liturgical prayer in the Orient down to our time (1). It was formally sanctioned at the Council of Ephesus (2). It makes into one word the Lucan title "Mother of the Lord" (1:43) with 2:12, where Lord is taken in a transcendent sense; it is the counterpart of John’s "the Word was made flesh" (1:14). From the second century, Mary’s Son was called God by the Fathers; a Christian interpolation in a Jewish book of the Sibylline oracles reads "a young maiden will bear the Logos of the highest God." The precise origin in time of the word itself is difficult to establish. It is attested by a unique piece of evidence: the papyrus fragment in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, on which, in the vocative case, it is clearly discernible (3). If this papyrus can be dated in the third century, the title must have existed for some time, possibly a generation, before. A word of such significance would not be invented in a popular prayer.

Since Egypt was the homeland, Christian thinking, or verbal composition, may have been influenced by the existence of the title "Mother of god" for Isis in regard to Orus; the adaptation was possibly first made in Coptic. The differences between Mary and Isis were well clarified: she was "the handmaid of the Lord," the chaste virgin whose Son was true God and true man, whereas Isis was seen as a goddess, one who conceived her son in passion, entirely removed from the mysterious destiny of the Incarnation.

Texts from Hippolytus of Rome and Origen showing Theotokos are controverted, and at present the first certain literary use of the title is attributed to Alexander of Alexandria in 325 (4). Thereafter it is found widely, especially with St. Athanasius and the Alexandrians, in Palestine with Eusebius of Caeserea and Cyril of Jerusalem, with the three Cappadocians, with Eustathius of Antioch and the Council of Antioch in 341, Apollinarius of Laodicea, Diodorus of Tarsus, Severian of Gabala—even Arians like Asterius the Sophist used it.

The late Fr. O’Carroll wrote widely on theological and ecumenical topics and was an internationally known Mariologist. He was a member of the Pontifical Marian Academy, the French Society for Marian Studies, and an Associate of the Bollandistes. This article was excerpted from Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Michael Glazier Inc., 1983.


(1) Cf. V. Schweitzer, "Alter des Titels Theotokos," Der Katholik, 28 (1903), 97-113; Cl. Diltenschneider, C.SS.R., Le sens chrétien et la maternité divine de Marie au IVe et Ve siècles (Bruges, Beyaert, 1929); G. Jouassard, Maria, I, 85-86, 122-36; A. Grillmeier, S.J., Christ in Christian Tradition (London, 1965), 73-74, 244; G. Giamberardini, O.F.M., Il culto mariano in Egitto nei primi sei secoli: Origine-Sviluppo-Cause (Cairo, 1967), ch. 6, art 4; id., "II ‘Sub tuum praesidium’ e il titolo ‘Theotokos’ nella tradizione egiziana," MM 31 (1969), (6. L’Origine del titolo ‘Theotokos’) 350-58; id., "Nomi e titoli mariani," EphMar 23 (1973), (5. Madre di Dio) 214-17; R. Laurentin, Traité, V, 170-71; R.H. Fuller, "New Testament roots to the Theotokos," MSt 29 (1978), 46-68.

(2) See O’Carroll’s entry on St. Cyril of Alexandria.

(3) See O’Carroll’s entry on the Sub Tuum Praesidium.

(4) PG 18, 568 C.

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