Our next possible candidate for the earliest use of the term “Theotokos” is Pierius of Alexandria, who died “after 309 AD”. Our source isn’t great for this, for it is some fragments, which may or may not be by Philip of Side (ca. 380-431+), whose vast history of the early church has otherwise perished.
Back in 2010 – gosh isn’t that a long time ago – Andrew Eastbourne kindly went through the mess of fragments of Philip of Side and translated the lot for us. It’s online here. Among them is this:
Fragment 4.7. Pierius, a presbyter of Alexandria, flourished at this time, and in Pontus, Meletius the bishop—men who were amazing with respect to their learning. And Pierius too, in his first discourse of those On the Pascha, asserts strongly that Paul had a wife and dedicated her to God for the sake of the Church, renouncing his association with her. And I also read quite a number of his other indispensable works and especially the one Concerning the Mother of God and the one On the beginning of Hosea. And Theodorus, a certain court-pleader in Alexandria, writing in epic verse, says in his 13th book that Pierius and Isidorus his brother suffered martyrdom and have a very large shrine in Alexandria. And in his discourse On the Life of the Holy Pamphilus, Pierius himself provided very much help in the divine Scripture.
111. Or “book” (Gk. λόγος); but from Jerome, De viris illustribus 76, this work appears to have been homilies on Hosea orally delivered at Easter; and Photius (Bibl. cod. 119) speaks of 12 λόγοι (of which he particularly mentions the one “on the Pascha and Hosea”) contained in one βιβλίον.
112. Gk. διά (Cf. Sophocles, Lexicon s.v. διά 3).
Since these are “fragments”, where does this come from? Well, from manuscripts full of miscellaneous extracts of this and that. In this case, these are found in MS Oxford Bodleian Barocci 142, on fol. 212r-216r; and in MS Oxford Bodleian misc. 61 (= Auct. E.4.18), on fol. 136r-143r (which material is, however not published anywhere).
Now Barocci or Barozzi was a Cretan Greek who collected manuscripts and sold his collection to an Englishman.
Dr Eastbourne noted:
In the translations below, the italicized material is directly from Eusebius, whether verbatim or paraphrased; the normal text represents the additions made by our author to Eusebius’ history.
The Greek text for this material, taken from that Barocci manuscript, was printed by C. de Boor, “Neue Fragmente des Papias, Hegesippus und Pierius in bisher unbekannten Excerpten aus der Kirchengeschichte des Philippus Sidetes,” TU 5.2 (1888), pp. 169-71. Thankfully a list of the volumes of Texte und Untersuchungen is on German Wikipedia here. Vol. 5, p.170-171 is:
There’s “theotokou” nice and clear at the start of p.171 line 2.
De Boor’s preface says that the series of historical extracts runs from the birth of Christ to the close of the Church History of Socrates, i.e. in 439 AD. Scholars have tended to suppose that these are from Philip of Side, since this lost 5th century church history is the obvious source for early material. Philip is the last writer to know Papias, for instance. But the manuscript does not name the compiler, and we don’t know who he was or when he wrote. The Bodleian website states that the manuscript itself is 13-14th century and the material in it was compiled by Nicephorus Callistus as source material for his own Ecclesiastical History.
Sadly I find the book-hand completely impenetrable. I presume the red headings are for each extract?
So… what do we make of this? Is this a valid witness?
I’m slightly inclined to feel that it is. The extracts come from someone with genuine access to early material. The fact that the extracts terminate in the 5th century suggests that the source work did also. Whether it is indeed Philip of Side, or some other, now forgotten compiler of the period, is not of importance, really, compared to the date.
But the compilation cannot date prior to the toxic Nestorian disputes, in which the use of – or failure to use – the word “theotokos” suddenly became a matter to kill for. A reference to a book title – we’re told that Pierius wrote On the Theotokos – is something less than knowing the content of the book. Ancient book titles are fluid things, more about indicating content, in many cases. This may not be the original title either. There’s plenty of room for zealous tampering, if the title did not please the copyist or excerptor, or needed to be “improved”.
But in the end, the negatives are just speculation. We do have an ancient source that Pierius wrote a book “On the Mother of God”. Perhaps indeed he did.
What it said, of course, is another matter.