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The oldest known Marian prayer is from Egypt

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The Sub tuum praesidium is probably the oldest Christian prayer dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This prayer was long used in both Eastern and Western rites, even if numerous variants existed at the time. In 1917, the John Rylands Library in Manchester managed to acquire a large panel of Egyptian papyrus -- the exact area where they were discovered is unknown -- including an 18 cm by 9.4 cm fragment containing the text of this prayer in Greek.

C.H. Roberts published this document in 1938 (cf. Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, III, Theological and literacy Texts, Manchester 1938, pp. 46-47). Roberts then dated this piece of papyrus back to the fourth century, thinking it was impossible to find an invocation to the Theotokos before this century (we will however see below, that the expression Theotokos was already in use in Alexandria before 250).

However his colleague E. Lobel, with whom he collaborated in editing the Oxyrhynchus papyri, basing his arguments on pure paleographic analysis, argued that the text could not possibly be older than the third century, and most probably was written between 250 and 280. A contributor to Roberts, H.J. Bell, even said that this document might be a "model for an engraver" considering the beauty of the uncials. The Sub tuum praesidium thus precedes by several centuries the Ave Maria in Christian prayer.

On the papyrus, we can read:
.ΠΟ
ΕΥCΠΑ
ΚΑΤΑΦΕ
ΘΕΟΤΟΚΕΤ
ΙΚΕCΙΑCΜΗΠΑ
ΕΙΔΗCΕΜΠΕΡΙCTAC
AΛΛΕΚΚΙΝΔΥΝΟΥ
...ΡΥCΑΙΗΜΑC
MONH
...HEΥΛΟΓ
That is this greek text:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν
εὐσπλαγχνίαν
καταφεύγομεν
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς
μόνη ἁγνὴ
μόνη εὐλογημένη.
A literal Latin version might be:
Sub tuam
misericordiam
confugimus,
Dei Genitrix ! nostras
deprecationes ne des-
picias in necessitatibus
sed a perditione
salva nos
sola pura,
sola benedicta.
And an English translation could be: 
Under your
mercy
we take refuge,
Mother of God! Our
prayers, do not despise
in necessities,
but from the danger
deliver us,
only pure,
only blessed.

II. A Prayer of Great Value

Like all ancient liturgical prayers, the Sub tuum praesidium has a noble simplicity and conciseness of expression, combined with a fresh spontaneity.

Several biblical references may be seen, the last term, "blessed", referring to Elizabeth's salutation: Benedicta tu in mulieribus - Blessed art thou among women (Luke I, 42).

Historical Value

The supplication to the Virgin Mary by the Christian community in danger places, without doubt, the invocation in the context of persecution (of Valerian or of Decius).

Theological Value

A first remarkable point resides in the fact that the Egyptian Christian community turns directly to Mary and asks for her protection. Christians have realized that the Virgin is close to their suffering and asked her help explicitly, thereby recognizing the power of her intercession.

Three fundamental theological truths are admirably synthesized:

1. The special election of Mary by God ("only blessed").
2. The perpetual Virginity of Mary ("only pure").
3. The Divine Motherhood ("Mother of God"; "Mother" may be considered as a poor translation of Genitrix).

The designation of Mary as Theotokos during the third century, therefore two hundred years before the arguments linked to the theses of Nestorius -- an issue resolved by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 -- already created problems for C.H. Roberts, the editor of the Egyptian text as stated above. One must realize that the term Theotokos ("Dei Genetrix") is not an invention of the fifth century.

During the fourth century, the term was already quite popular in the area of Alexandria (St. Alexander of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Serapion of Thmuis, Didymus the Blind), and also in Arabia (Tite of Bostra), in Palestine (Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Cyril of Jerusalem), Cappadocia (St. Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, Severian of Gabala) and even among the Arians (Asterius the Sophist).

Moreover, the term may be encountered during the third century, precisely in the work of the Alexandrian school. According to the testimony of the ecclesiastical historian Socrates (Hist. Eccl. VII, 32 - PG 67, 812 B), Origen would have used it in his commentary -- unfortunately lost -- on the Epistle to the Romans. His disciple, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, also used the term of Theotokos around the year 250 in an epistle to Paul of Samosata. It is interesting to note that the term did not remain a mere theological concept, considering that it received a liturgical dimension in Egypt during the same period. However, it is difficult to determine if it is the theological discourse that influenced the liturgical prayer, or vice versa.

Still, one can better understand the extraordinary pugnacity of St. Cyril of Alexandria against the Nestorian theses in the fifth century, since obviously, the term Theotokos was already part of the deposit of the faith lived and sung in the liturgy of Alexandria for quite some time.

The rest of the article written by Henri de Villiers, Paris may be read on the New Liturgical Movement website.

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