Some thoughts about the term “theotokos”, used for Mary the mother of the Lord

In the 5th century an Egyptian priest was disciplined by Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, for describing Mary the mother of Jesus as Θεοτόκος, “theotokos”.  Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, decided to use this as a pretext for a bid for supremacy in the eastern church.  After much wrangling, a council was scheduled at Ephesus in 431.  This was held before Nestorius’ supporters could arrive, and duly pronounced that Cyril was right and Nestorius was wrong.  When the other side did arrive, they held their own council and voted the opposite.

Both sides then appealed to the emperor, Theodosius II, who was in fact a cypher.  The imperial government was in the hands of the eunuch Chrysaphius.  Chrysaphius responded as any rational man would, and sent both combatants into exile.  Cyril then carried out a campaign of bribery of important individuals in Constantinople, to be allowed to return.  Incredibly a list of bribes is preserved among his correspondence.  A vicious political struggle followed, from which Cyril emerged victorious.

Thereafter this word became a watchword, that none might contradict, and to which all must subscribe as a test of loyalty.  These days we know something about the use of language to demonise your enemies and seize power.  In the jargon of 20th century communist society, Nestorius and his supporters were purged.  This word, Θεοτόκος, was the tool used to force them out, to seize their positions and property.  They’re still out there, fifteen centuries later.   As for Cyril’s supporters, drunk with power and their victory, they ran rampant for a decade, even going so far as to threaten the emperor’s sister, Pulcheria.

But when Theodosius died in 450 AD, Pulcheria married a general named Marcian, who convened the council of Chalcedon.  Payback time!  Chalcedon duly used the same technique to purge the extreme Cyrillians, and this led to yet another fifteen centuries of schism.

This distasteful series of events is one reason why the councils after Nicaea are never really taken seriously in the English-speaking world.  It is one reason why Cyril of Alexandria is regarded with distaste.  Nothing about this business has any meaning other than the ambition of a few reckless and greedy people.  The word Θεοτόκος is not scriptural, and if it had been, it was plainly simply a pretext for injuring others.

In English Θεοτόκος is usually rendered as “Mother of God”.  This does not help its case in any way.  The mind instinctively recoils from the idea that God, who is uncreated, has a mother!

But searching the web, I came across something interesting.  Is it possible that this is simply a very bad translation of the idea?

The following remarks (here) made me think:

Theotokos derives from the Greek terms: Theos / ‘God’; and tiktein / ‘to give birth’. Mary is the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. This single word sums up the meaning of Luke’s phrase: ‘Mother of the Lord’ (Lk 1:43) and represents a counterpoint to John’s teaching that the ‘Word was made flesh’ (Jn 1:14).

I find in Latin, likewise, Dei genetrix, rather than mater dei.

These may seem like small differences, but there is quite a difference between the idea of “one who gave birth to God” and “mother of God”.  The first merely summarises that Mary was the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God the Son incarnate.  The latter implies that God did not exist before Mary gave birth to him, any more than you or I existed before we were brought into the world.

If so, possibly we should all stop translating Theotokos as “mother of God”.  Whatever it may say in Greek, or may have said at the time, in English it is  a huge obstacle to most people.

One thing is certain, from all this.  The word Theotokos is a terrible word to describe Mary.  By its fruits you shall know it.  It is not biblical.  It can only be used by the logical reasoning of fallible men.  The doctrine is the product of the work of an ambitious fifth century bishop whom none of us like much, and who used it for the most evil purposes possible.  It became part of church dogma through a corrupt council and a process of bribery and corruption.  Let’s get rid of it.


8 thoughts on “Some thoughts about the term “theotokos”, used for Mary the mother of the Lord

  1. Thank you for this. Interestingly, the differences between the Orthodox and Nestorian views on the nature of Christ were specifically addressed in a historic meeting between John Paul II, Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, and His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (the official name of the Nestorian Church) that occurred in November of 1994. A joint statement was issued explaining that the controversy was largely a misunderstanding.

    “The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself. That is the reason why the Assyrian Church of the East is praying the Virgin Mary as “the Mother of Christ our God and Saviour.” In the light of this same faith the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as “the Mother of God” and also as “the Mother of Christ.” We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety.

    “This is the unique faith that we profess in the mystery of Christ. The controversies of the past led to anathemas, bearing on persons and on formulas. The Lord’s Spirit permits us to understand better today that the divisions brought about in this way were due in large part to misunderstandings.” – COMMON CHRISTOLOGICAL DECLARATION BETWEEN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE ASSYRIAN CHURCH OF THE EAST, Given at Saint Peter’s, on 11 November 1994,

  2. That’s a bold move, Cotton.

    Theotokos was a title used first by the normal Christian people, and it defends the Christology that Jesus was true God and true man. Cyril came late to the party on this.

    It is really not hard to understand. I knew how the title “Mother of God” worked before kindergarten, because it is a big part of Christmas and the Feast of the Annunciation. People scandalized by it are hard to understand.

  3. “These days we know something about the use of language to demonise your enemies and seize power.”
    Yes, we know. And the Victorian attitude to Greek…
    Olivia Smith
    The politics of language, 1791-1819

  4. The Biblical term would be Elizabeth’s title for her, “the mother of my LORD” (YHWH).

    Mater Theou is also a Greek term, and you see it in abbreviated form on lots of icons.

  5. Hi Roger,
    Theotokos literally means ‘God-bearer’ rather than ‘giving birth to God.’
    To complain that the term is not Biblical is to use a criteria those in the early church would not have used. Theotokos existed as a pious term well before the Council of Ephesus in 431. After that it became a dogmatic term.

    While the wrangling around the Council of Ephesus is less than edifying it just shows you that history is messy. We tend to idealise the past. I totally agree that there is a substantial political element to the dispute as Alexandria was jealous of Constantinople. Despite this, it was Nestorius who started the whole thing – as you note at the start of your post.

    However the decree was quickly adopted by everyone. In 433 the Antiochian Christians (who had arrived late to Ephesus so held their own council) reconciled with Cyril and rejected Nestorius.
    Even though you call the events ‘vicious’ nobody died.

    The only reason the ‘Nestorians’ rejected it in the long run was that the Persian King wanted the Christians in his lands to be separate from the ones in the Roman Empire so he encouraged them to reject Ephesus so they weren’t in communion with the Imperial church.

  6. Hey, are you okay?

    Thank you for focusing attention on this, as the distinction between Greek “meter” and “tokos” was not secure in my.mind before this.

  7. Wow! would you mind pointing out to more reference works on the topic? i am very intrigued about this chapter on church history.

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