The term “Theotokos” (“Mother of God”) becomes the subject of fierce controversy in the 5th century AD. The dispute was perhaps more political than religious – Constantinople versus Alexandria – but was fought with great ferocity, and lavish bribery, and ended in the victory of Cyril of Alexandria and the exile of Nestorius and indeed a great number of others. Failure to use the term for Mary was a sign of Nestorianism, which could be fatally bad for you. The use of the term is still held with passion by Eastern Orthodox even today.
Therefore, when searching the TLG for the earliest usages of this word, it was something of a surprise to find it in Greek patristic texts from 300 onwards. It appears in Athanasius, but also before. Of course there is no reason why the word might not be used, and it need not imply any of the doctrines associated with it in the 5th century. But all the same it seems odd.
Could these usages be later interpolations? How could we tell?
I am very much opposed to alleging interpolation as a way to dispose of inconvenient evidence. In general the texts that have reached us from antiquity do so in a very reasonable state, as far as we can tell. The main reason for this is, of course, the prosaic one. Anybody who put himself to the considerable trouble of copying a literary text did so precisely because he wanted a copy of that text.
But once politics and bigotry appear, then the incentive to forgery appears. Cyril of Alexandria himself refers, in letters 39 and 40, to tampering with a letter of Athanasius:
8. But when some of those accustomed “to pervert what is right” turn my words aside into what seems best to them, let your holiness not wonder at this, knowing that those involved in every heresy collect from the divinely inspired Scripture as pretexts of their own deviation whatever was spoken truly through the Holy Spirit, corrupting it by their own evil ideas, and pouring unquenchable fire upon their very own heads. But since we have learned that some have published a corrupt text of the letter of our all-glorious father, Athanasius, to the blessed Epictetus, a letter which is itself orthodox, so that many are done harm from it, thinking that for this reason it would be something useful and necessary for our brothers, we have sent to your holiness copies of it made from the ancient copy which is with us and is genuine. – Letter 39 (FOC 76 translation), p.152
25. … For the most God-fearing Bishop of Emesa, Paul, came to me and then, after a discussion had been started concerning the true and blameless faith, questioned me rather earnestly if I approved the letter from our thrice-blessed father of famous memory, Athanasius, to Epictetus, the Bishop of Corinth. I said that, “if the document is preserved with you incorrupt,” for many things in it have been falsified by the enemies of the truth, I would approve it by all means and in every way. But he said in answer to this that he himself had the letter and that he wished to be fully assured from the copies with us and to learn whether their copies have been corrupted or not. And taking the ancient copies and comparing them with those which he brought, he found that the latter have been corrupted; and he begged that we make copies of the texts with us and send them to the Church of Antioch. And this has been done. – Letter 40 (FOC 76 translation), p.166-7.
Much later, at the Council of Florence, the Greeks and the Latins arguing over the filioque found examples on both sides of interpolation.
This is human nature. Once a behaviour is incentivised, through advantage or fear, then it will appear.
We know something of “forced speech” in these days. If you look at a job advertisement from most official or academic sources, each and every one will include some reference to “diversity”. The word is pretty much meaningless of itself; but we all know that it is a code-word, indicating loyalty to a particular political agenda. A job advertisement that did not contain it might be dangerous! It might leave the clerks open to an accusation of failure to endorse this policy or that. Far safer to murmur the code-words.
In the 5th century, failure to use “theotokos” might carry the same risks for any writer. Once certain views are obligatory, and failure to conform is dangerous, then it becomes important to use the code-words. “Theotokos” was most certainly a code-word.
A little while ago I was looking at the catena fragments which preserve bits of Origen. These use the word “theotokos”, but I gather that scholars do not think this part of Origen’s text. This is not unreasonable. A catena is a literary work of itself, composed of chains of quotations from the fathers, adapted to form a continuous commentary on a passage of scripture. I really do not see why a writer would not introduce “theotokos” when composing his catena. It wouldn’t be wrong, or misrepresentation. Rather it would be a case of adapting the older writer to contemporary needs.
Likewise a copyist of an integral work might add “theotokos” in the margin, as a note. Because omissions were also written in the margins, this could easily be mistaken for a copyist omission, and become part of the text when next copied.
But all of this is speculation. We need to ask whether there is any actual evidence that this did actually happen? Did later copyists introduce “theotokos” into 4th century texts? How can we tell?
One obvious way to assess this is to find copies of the patristic texts prior to 400 AD, and look.
This leads to the next question: do we have any copies of the writings of patristic writers like Athanasius prior to 400? How could we find out?
I’m not sure that this is a very easy question to answer. For Latin texts we have E.A.Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores. But to the best of my knowledge this is safely offline and inaccessible. And anyway we need Greek. There might be papyri. These might be safely dated; or not. But how do we find out? A critical edition of a specific work ought to tell us at least something. Probably that’s the way to go.
But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we had no 4th century manuscripts of 4th century fathers. Surviving 4th century manuscripts are few.
So how can we detect any such process of interpolation of “code-words” into patristic texts?
At the moment, I suspect, all we can do is be cautious in this area.