Some thoughts about interpolation in patristic texts

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.


Theotokos: A review of the scholarship on the paleographical date of P.Ryl. III 470 (“Sub Tuum Praesidium”)

In 1929 papyrologist C.H. Roberts published a papyrus fragment from Egypt.[1]  The text is in Greek, and is a Christian prayer, containing the word “theotokos”.  The fragment is held by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, where it has the shelfmark P.Rylands 407 (online here).  Here is the excellent image from that site:

P.Rylands III 470, via Manchester Digital Collections.

The statements made by Roberts have dominated all subsequent discussion of this papyrus.  Here is a page-grab of it.

This is a catalogue entry, not a journal article, so it is inevitably concise, and the details are provisional.  Roberta Mazza (2019) adds to this description:

The manuscript in question was purchased in Egypt by J. Rendell Harris in 1917 and published by C. Roberts in 1938.3 It is a small fragment that presents many aspects of interest for its material shape and the text it carries. In his edition, Roberts proposed a date in the fourth century with a question mark due to the many doubts the papyrus raised. Roberts’s discussion in the introduction addressed both the handwriting and the material features of the object, as well as the textual content. Written along the fibre of a leaflet, the back of which is blank, was clearly a hymn or prayer to the Mother of God, as indicated by the vocative θεοτόκε at line 4. The shape of the capital letters – tall and compressed, adorned by decorative serifs – was briefly discussed and compared to the chancellery style of that used in a letter of the prefect Subatianus Aquilas, securely dated to 209 CE (SB I 4639).[2]

The letter of Subatianus Aquila dates to 209 AD, and looks like this (this wonderful image from Berlin, online here):

P.Berl.11532. Edict of the prefect, Subatianus Aquila, and signed by him personally.

I would have liked to add images of the other papyri mentioned below, but I have not found these online.

This “chancellery style” mentioned here is referred to by Stegmüller, below.  Likewise the “peculiar Alpha found in 470” mentioned by Roberts is something that Hans Förster was later to pick up on.  It is clear that cautious old Colin Roberts is not at all comfortable with the date insisted on by E. Lobel.

Before we examine how this publication has been received down the years, it is probably best to say something about methodology.

The process of assigning a date to a papyrus fragment, or indeed any manuscript, relies on two independent pieces of data.

  • The first is the paleographical date.  The trained paleographer consults handbooks filled with examples of papyri where the text itself contains a date, or where the papyrus can certainly be assigned a date on some other grounds.  He then compares these with the papyrus under inspection, and assigns it a date based on similarities of letter shape, abbreviations, and so on.  It is inevitably a subjective process, but rewarding if done carefully.
  • The second is the historical date that emerges from the text, and particularly the history of doctrine.  The Christian religion has elaborated its teachings considerably since the looser apostolic age, in response to various pressures and indeed fashions, while proceeding to the very careful language of Trent.  Texts may therefore be placed somewhere along that timeline, based on whether they are similar to other doctrinal expressions characteristic of a period of history.

In both cases, it is necessary to start from what is certainly known, and assess the undated object against it.  The undated object should not be dated before the earliest evidence of something, nor after the latest evidence of it.  It is generally wisest to place it closer to the middle of the bell curve, in the absence of any other evidence, rather than close to an outlier.

A Bell Curve for probability, showing occurrences over time.

Following the 1938 Roberts publication, the next step came in 1939 from Father F. Mercenier O.S.B., who recognised – there are advantages to having priests in papyrology – that the text was an early version of the Marian prayer, “Sub Tuum Praesidium” (“Under thy Compassion”).  But on the date Mercenier, like so many since, merely repeated the judgement of Lobel and Roberts.[3]

1940 featured an over-excited claim by Ortiz de Urbina, S.J., stating, “we also note that ἀειπαρθένος – still rare – appears in Didymus of Alexandria and in the Sub Tuum Praesidium,” although in fact the fragment does not contain it, nor is it part of the earliest text, but a later addition.[4]  Again this simply accepted the date given by Roberts and Lobel.

The first reassessment of the paleography of Lobel appeared in 1952 from Otto Stegmüller.  It reads as follows (via Google translate – German in the footnote).  I have added emphasis.

Our joy at finding the Sub tuum praesidium on an old papyrus is dampened by the difficulty of dating the piece. The date of origin of the papyrus is of great interest to us, especially as evidence of the veneration of the Mother of God before the Ephesinum is very sparse. Are we coming back with our fragment much beyond that point in time? The editor, Mr. Roberts, first acquaints us with the judgment of the paleographer Lobel. “Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could he written in the third century”. Roberts concludes that our papyrus cannot have been written before the second half of the 4th century.  P. Mercenier brings in his work the dating of Lobel and that of Roberts, without deciding on one. All further mentions of the papyrus therefore place it in the third or fourth century.

Is this dating justified?  In the first instance, the paleography must be heard. But it must be explained from the outset that it cannot give a reliable judgement. The writing belongs to the so-called chancellery style, which has remained essentially the same over the centuries. The firm starting point for the dating is the letter of the governor Subatianus Aquila of the year 209 AD. Our writing certainly belongs to this style, which was developed and practiced in the Alexandrian chancery. Individual letters, especially some ornaments, suggest that our writing is a little later than the Subatian letter. We know very similar writings from the Book of the Iliad in the Morgan Collection (end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th century; Schubart, Paleography fig. 95) and from the Stockholm forgers’ book (first half of the 4th century; Schubart fig. 96 ). These writings, originating in Egypt, give us a justification for taking the beginning of the 4th century as the earliest point for our writing. Paleography has to be content with that. To this day, it is unable to decide whether the script was written in the 4th, 5th or 6th century. The Coptic liturgy gives us a certain term ante quem. Texts that exist in the Byzantine and Coptic liturgy must be dated before the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, since no Greek text was included in the Coptic liturgy after this point in time.[5]

In 1969 there was a paper by G. Giamberardini, “Sub tuum praesidium” e il titolo “theotokos”, in: Marianum: Ephemerides Mariologiae 31 (1969) 324-362, often referenced in the literature.  This criticises severely the reconstruction of Mercenier, but there is no attempt at a paleographical dating.  Instead it merely endorses that of Lobel, and supporting it by a non-paleographical argument from supposed early uses of the word “theotokos”; where himself admits (p.352):

“Having suspected the authority of Origen, the tendency has arisen to consider interpolated and spurious all the documents prior to the Athanasian period, in which the Θεοτόκος appears.”[6]

In 1995 the first of two papers by Austrian papyrologist Hans Förster appeared, which form the first serious study of the papyrus.[7]  I cannot very well give this excellent paper in full here, but it is quite difficult to access, and I thought that it would help if I translated a few sections into English and put them here.  Unlike all previous papers, there is a section (p.186-7) specifically to the paleography.  I’ve run it through Google Translate (the original German is in the footnote):

Digression on the Exact Dating of the Manchester fragment13:

The first thing that catches the eye is the comparatively narrow and tall way the letters are written. The streaks of the ε, for example, are so short that in line 10 Roberts reads a ρ instead of an ε. Despite the uncial handwriting, the μ is not written like a capital Latin “M”, but rather resembles two adjacent “1”s in Latin cursive; the crossbar of the η is in the upper third of the letter.  The υ, like the α, is very peculiar and corresponds to a Latin “V”, while the λ corresponds to an upside down “V”; the usual extension of the right diagonal to the top left does not take place.  The κ consists of two independent parts. There is a noticeable gap between the vertical downstroke and the two diagonals, which are drawn in one sweep.  This form of the κ can be found, for example, in a psalm fragment from the first half of the 8th century, P.Amst. I 2114.  The crossbar of the η written very high up is also found in a liturgical calendar from the year 535/6, the P.Oxy. 135716.  The form of the μ on that papyrus also resembles the form found in P.Ryl. III 470.  The  κ in this papyrus, however, in contrast to P.Ryl. III 470, is written as a continuous letter.  The δ in P.Oxy. 1357 has a diagonal stroke to the top left, while in the fragment P.Ryl. III 470 it is written like a triangle.  The previously mentioned form of the κ, an identical form of the π, the above-mentioned form of the μ and an ε with similarly short strokes can also be found in P.Berol 13269, which is assigned to the 7th/8th Century16.  P.Lond. 1817, dated in the 6th century, still alternates between the uncial and the above-mentioned form of the μ, and similarities to the Manchester fragment exist with regard to the ε and the κ, because the gap between the two parts of the κ in P. Lond. 1817 is not as large as in P.Ryl. III 47017.  In summary it can be said that a dating to the 3rd or 4th century must be regarded as very improbable. Based on the comparative texts cited, P.Ryl. III, 470 belongs between the 6th and 7th centuries. The 5th century is unlikely as the date of origin, but cannot be completely ruled out. The use of brown ink, of which there is no evidence prior to the 4th century, also points in this direction18.

13.  As for paleographic dating, it should be noted that majuscule manuscripts, as Roberts himself writes in his commentary, are extremely difficult to date. At the ends of the strokes of κ, λ, ι, ε, and σ are small dots of ink that give the writing an artificial, or, as Lobel put it, decorative appearance. For a similar phenomenon in magical texts, cf. p. 7 col. 17; pt 10; p. 36 col. 2; P. 36 Col. 7 in: K. Klassendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri (=The Greek Magical Papyri) II, Stuttgart 2nd ed. 1974. Lobel cites the letters ο, ι and ε as the important comparative letters for his dating.

14.  H. Maehler, G. Cavallo, Greek Bookhands of the Early Byzantine Period. A. D. 300-800, London 1987, 188.

15.  Maehler, Cavallo, Bookhands (see note 14) 68.

16.  See R. Seider, Paläographie der Griechischen Papyri II 2: Literarische Papyri, Stuttgart 1970, 179.

17.  Seider, Paläographie II 2 (see note 16), 175f.

18.  I am indebted to H. Harrauer for the discussion. See also V. Gardthausen, Griechische Paläographie 1: Das Buchwesen im Altertum und im byzantinischen Mittelalter, Leipzig 2nd ed. 1911, 203-217. He writes (p.205) that around the 5th century AD “a brownish, also metallic ink came into use” and quotes Schubart in this context in note 5 on the same page, who speaks of a brownish-red ink , which can be found in the papyri from the 4th century AD. At the same time, the more valuable brown ink was only used for important texts.[8]

The paper is full of relevant material.  Förster notes that there are folds in the papyrus, which mean that originally it was folded into a very narrow strip.  This, he infers, together with the “almost monumental” letters and decorated form, the brown ink, the folds, and the blank reverse, suggests that it was an amulet.  This would explain the “unique script” observed by Roberts.  Note 8 discusses the form of the alpha, which Roberts felt was characteristic of inscriptions:

8.  This form of the α is common in inscriptions. An example of a template for an inscription showing an α with a broken crossbar is P. Vindob. G. 26.013, cf. Sijpesteijn, P.J., Wiener Melange, II. Christliches, a) Ein Trishagios-Hymnus, ZPE 40 (1980) 92-95. However, the form of the μ on the inscriptions is not identical to that shown on the Manchester papyrus. C. M. Kaufmann, Handbuch der altchristlichen Epigrafik, Freiburg i. Br. 1917; this form of the α has, for example, a grave inscription from the 5th century (p. 75), an inscription above the burial chamber door of Abbess Thekla (p. 290f), the writing samples from Antioch from the 5th and 6th centuries on p 413 and the Greek inscriptions on pp. 414ff. The Coptic Shenute epitaph, which is cited on p. 75f, also has an α with a broken crossbar. However, all the inscriptions cited show a form of the μ, which corresponds to a capital Latin “M”, while there are magical papyri in which the α has the form described. See P. Mil. Vogl. 127 from the 2-3rd century: I. Gazzaniga, M. Vandoni, Papiri della Universitä degli Studi di Milano, Milan 1965, pp. 59f. This also speaks against its use as a template for an inscription and more for its use as an amulet.[9]

He ends with this summary:

After new paleographic study of P.Ryl. III 470, the early dating of this fragment – to the 3rd century -,  which has hitherto been generally accepted in theological scholarship, cannot be maintained. The dating to the 6th or even 7th century means that its value as a source of historical evidence that has often been assigned to this fragment falls apart. A Viennese fragment that transmits the same text means that the previously considered possible supplements are almost entirely based on the Byzantine form of the antiphon constricted. The question arises as to whether this antiphon could possibly have found its way into the Eastern liturgy from the Western liturgy. The variety of forms known in the West[47] supports this, while only two Greek forms of this antiphon are known, each of which shows only marginal deviations from one another. The papyrus from Manchester was used as an amulet. A sometimes assumed use as a template for an inscription is ruled out.

47.  See on this Giamberardini, „Sub tuum praesidium“ (note 10), 331-336.[10]

The paper was noted in the review of recent publications, C. Römer, “‘Christliche Texte II”, in: Archiv für Papyrusforschung 44 (1998), 129-39, which said (p.138):

“A new dating to the 6-7th century of P. Ryl. III 470 (not convincing to me) attempted by H. Förster…”

983 Eine Neudatierung auf das 6.-7. Jh. n. Chr. des P. Ryl III 470 (für mich nicht überzeugend) versucht H. Förster, Zur ältesten Überlieferung der marianischen Antiphon “Sub tuum praesidium”, Biblos 44,2, 1995, 183-192”

Ten years later, in 2005, Förster returned to the subject in a further paper, this time taking account of paleographical evidence from Coptic papyri.[11]  Here is an extract, p.106 f.:

On the Paleographical Dating

Lobel uses only a few letters to justify his dating. However, the overall impression of the text seems to contradict its dating. Of course, the “singular alpha”, which is said to be used primarily in inscriptions, is a particular problem in paleographical dating.  In this respect, a look beyond the Greek texts is required: such an alpha can be found in a whole series of Coptic texts, where it is found primarily in Greek of Greek. Reference need only be made to Brit. Mus. Or. 6782, fol.1.  The inscriptions of the depiction of Saints Theodoros and Mercurius in Vat. Copto 66, fol. 210 and 287 also offer an alpha within the Greek passages, as is also found in the Greek text that contributed to the early dating of the origin of the antiphon Sub tuum praesidium.[27] However, this alpha is neither recorded in the Paläographie by Cramer[28] or in Stegemann’s Paläographie.[29] This does not mean, however, that this particular alpha is only found in the Greek passages of Coptic literary texts.[30]  The inscription of the depiction of Mary on Pierpont Morgan Lib. M. 597 also offers the “strange” Alpha in a Coptic context[31]. The same Alpha form can also be found on a mummy tablet  from the Coptic period.[32]

In this context it is noticeable that a whole series of other “noteworthy” aspects in the manuscript of the papyrus from Manchester can also be explained by a closeness to the Coptic manuscript tradition.  We neeed only refer to the point-like thickening of the ends of many strokes.  For Greek literary texts from the period mentioned, this can rightly be described as eccentric, but for Coptic literary texts a large number of documents can be found, especially from the 8th and 9th centuries[33]. Also the Upsilon and the Mu can probably be better explained by their closeness to this writing tradition than by assigning the text to the 2-3, or 4th century. In this context, it must be particularly emphasized that, for example, the alpha of the comparative texts cited by Roberts could not be more different. In the case of the comparative texts cited for the early dating, one can therefore only speak of very selective points of contact, but this does not seem sufficient for an early dating, if at the same time the points of contact with the Coptic scribal tradition of the 8th and 9th centuries are so conspicuous that this must be described as a close relationship.

So if you take the overall impression of the text, a later date does not seem unjustified, the parallels to the Coptic manuscripts leave a date of the 8-9th century as more probable than the dating of the manuscript to the 2-3, or even the 4th century.

As a consequence of these considerations, it must be stated that not only circumstantial evidence, but very clear parallels can be cited against the often over-enthusiastic classification of the Manchester papyrus as the oldest witness of the antiphon Sub tuum praesidium.  In this respect, the Vienna copy of this antiphon[34], which is from the 6/7 century, must considered to be the oldest copy.[12]

27. See J. Leroy, Les Manuscrits Coptes et Coptes-Arabes illustres. BAH 94. Paris 1974, plate 105.
28. See M. Cramer, Koptische Paläographie. Wien 1964. Table I
29. See Stegemann, Koptische Paläographie. 25 Tafeln…, Heidelberg, 1936.
30. For example, P. Vindob. K. 7589. The edition of which is currently being prepared by the author is such an alpha: cf. the corresponding section of the parchment on Plate 4.
31. See Leroy, Manuscrits, plate 35.
32. See H. Froschauer, “Tradition im koptischen Bestattungswesen. Ein christliches Mumientafelchen aus den Beständen Tamerit in der Papyrussammlung der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek.” Eirene 40 (2004) 91-100; 96: “The […] Alpha is […] characterized by a jagged middle branch with a descender. When the letter is rotated 180°, it takes on the shape of an omega. However, whether this spelling was consciously intended as a ligature of alpha and omega and thus perhaps even connected to the sign of the cross of the Christian symbolism of beginning and end, is rather doubtful and cannot be treated as more than speculation.” But the letter is also part of a Greek word in the passage quoted by Froschauer – in this respect it cannot represent the sign of the cross with “Alpha and Omega”; the cross is also very often to be found at the beginning of the text on a small mummy tablet; the “strange” alpha described above is usually not to be found in the vicinity of a sign of the cross; and, ultimately the rotation of an entire codex or an inscription on a tombstone, required for the recognition of the speculatively possible ligature in the first place, is rather impractical. So this alpha must be taken solely as a decorative variant of this letter, which is typical of the Coptic period, and is therefore of interest as a help in dating an undated text. On the Viennese parchment leaf, too, the alpha is to the left of the column and is somewhat enlarged, so here the decorative character of the letter is obvious.[13]
33.  Cramer. Palaographie, table 13
34.  This is P. Vindob. G. 17.944; see K.Treu and J. Diethart, Griechische literarische Papyri christlichen Inhaltes II. Wien 1993, 56 and plate 16, there listed as fragment 29.

This seems to be the latest paleographical discussion.  There are many other papers which repeat the Lobel dating, always in passing, but none of them seem to be aware of Förster’s arguments.

In 2014 Anne-Marie Luijendijk, Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2014, p.30, n.87 mentions the question thus:

87. P.Ryl. Gr. III 470 (ed. Roberts). … The best edition is Stegmuller, “Sub tuum praesidum”. The date of the papyrus is disputed. Stegmuller (ibid., esp. at 82) places it at the end of the fourth century. Förster proposes a much later date in several publications: „Zur altesten Uberlieferung“, idem, „Fruheste Zeugnisse der Marienfrommigkeit“, and idem, „Die alteste marianische Antiphon“. Romer („Christliche Texte“, 138) deems Förster’s arguments “not convincing” („fur mich nicht uberzeugend“). …

A collection of papers in 2015, Presbeia Theothokou: The Intercessory Role of Mary across Times and Places in Byzantium (4th-9th Century), (online here) contained two relevant papers.

Theodore de Bruyn wrote (p.116, n.18):

18. Förster’s article of 2005 has, to my knowledge, not been considered in any of the more recent studies of the origins of the cult of Mary. Some studies also do not take his article of 1995 into account, e.g., Johnson, “Sub tuum praesidium,” 254–55; Price, “The Theotokos,” 89 n. 4 (corrected in Price, “Theotokos: The Title,” 56 n. 1, but without substantial discussion). A full consideration of Förster’s arguments is beyond the scope of this paper; I hope to discuss them elsewhere. Suffice to say, however, that any argument for a third- or fourth-century date for the antiphon must take as its point of departure the paleographical considerations of Förster (as well as Stegmüller) allowing for a later date for P.Ryl. III 470. Lobel’s brief paleographical remarks in P.Ryl. III 470 intro. cannot remain the principal basis for assigning the papyrus an early date. The issue is now no longer whether a prayer referring to Theotokos can be assigned to the third century; Roberts’ argument on that point has, obviously, been refuted. The issue is whether an antiphon whose earliest witnesses may be assigned to the sixth or seventh centuries or later originated in the third century.[14]

And Arne Effenburger wrote (p.50) that Förster had ‘convincingly explained, the papyrus – in the present material form probably a “protective amulet – can only have been created “between the 6th and the 7th century” due to paleography and the use of brown ink, which is why “a dating to the 3rd or 4th century as very improbable”’.[15]

A 2021 paper in Polish by P. Towarek, “Prayer „Sub Tuum praesidium”: Time of Origin, Place in Liturgy and Reception in Musical Culture. Outline of the Issues,” Vox Patrum80, 239–268 (online here, with English abstract).  The abstract states:

In the discussion on the question of its dating, many researchers pointed, for example, to the 3rd century (Giamberardini, Starowieyski). It turns out, however, that in the light of the latest palaeographic research, this time should be moved to the 6th/7th or even 8th/9th century (Hans Förster, Theodore de Bruyns, Arne Effenberger).

The Trismegistos website for the papyrus here gives it the reference TM 64320 / LDAB 5541 with a date of AD 700-900, and references the Förster 2005 paper, “followed by Mihalyko, p. 353”.  The latter is A. T. Mihálykó, The Christian Liturgical Papyri, Studien zur Antike und Christentum 114, Tübingen (2019), p. 353 no. 267:

A. T. Mihálykó, The Christian Liturgical Papyri (Studien zur Antike und Christentum 114) p. 353 no. 267

The most recent paper known to me is H. Munoz, “Papiro griego Rylands 470: notas a una de las más antiguas oraciones a la Virgen / Greek Papyrus Rylands 470: Notes to One of the Oldest Prayers to the Virgin”, in: Estudios Clásicos 163 (2023), 59-67 (online here with bibliography) which is not paleographical.  It mentions the Förster dating, and adds (n.4) that it is “contested by Römer 1998 and Luijendijk 2014,” which rather misleads the reader.

It seems that it may be a while before knowledge of the question-mark over the date of P.Ryl.III 407 becomes general.  Let us hope that the question will attract more professional paleographers to examine the date again.

  1. [1]C. H. Roberts , Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library Manchester, Volume III, Theological and Literary Texts (Nos. 457-551), Manchester: Manchester University Press, (1938), p.46-47 (p.62 of the PDF).  Downloadable from here.
  2. [2]R. Mazza, Dating Early Christian Papyri: Old and New Methods – Introduction, “Journal for the Study of the New Testament” 42/1 (2019), p. 49-50.  She also calls the Lobel dating “a shaky provisional date”.
  3. [3]P.-F. Mercennier, “L’Antienne mariale grecque la plus ancienne.,” Le Muséon, 52 (1939), pp. 229-233.  Unfortunately I have not been able to access this, so am reliant on the account given by Stegmüller.
  4. [4]I. Ortiz de Urbina S. J., “Lo sviluppo délia Mariologia nella Patrologia Orientale,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 6 (1940), 54: “Notiamo inoltre che ἀειπαρθένος — ancora raro — fa capolino in Didimo Alessandrino e nel Sub tuum praesidium”.  Again I have not been able to access this, so rely on Stegmüller.
  5. [5]Otto Stegmüller, “Sub tuum praesidium. Bemerkungen zur ältesten Überlieferung.,” Zeitschrift für Katholische Theologie, 74 (1952), pp. 76-82: “Die Datierung. — Unsere Freude darüber, daß wir das Sub tuum prae sidium schon auf einem alten Papyrus finden, wird durch die Schwierigkeit der Datierung des Stückes gedämpft. Die Entstehungszeit des Papyrus ist für uns von größtem Interesse, zumal Zeugnisse einer Muttergottesverehrung vor dem Ephesinum sehr spärlich sind. Kommen wir mit unserem Stück wesentlich über diesem Zeitpunkt zurück? Der Herausgeber, Mr. Roberts, macht uns zuerst mit dem Urteil des Paläo graphen Lobel bekannt. „Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third Century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could be written in the third Century”7. Roberts kommt zum Schluß, daß unser Papyrus nicht vor der zweiten Hälfte des 4. Jahrhunderts geschrieben sein kann. P. Mercenier bringt in seiner Arbeit die Datierung von Lobel und die von Roberts, ohne sich für eine zu entscheiden. Alle weiteren Erwähnungen des Papyrus setzen diesen daher ins dritte oder vierte Jahrhundert. Ist diese Datierung berechtigt? Als erste Instanz ist die Paläographie zu hören. Aber sie muß von vornherein erklären, daß sie kein sicheres Urteil abgeben kann. Die Schrift gehört zum sogenannten Kanzleistil, der über Jahrhunderte hinweg im wesentlichen gleich bleibt. Der feste Ausgangspunkt für seine Datierung ist der Brief des Statthalters Subatianus Aquila vom Jahre 209 n. Chr8. Unsere Schrift gehört sicher zu diesem Stil, der in der alexandrinischen Kanzlei ausgebildet und geübt wurde. Einzelne Buchstaben, besonders einige Verzierungen legen nahe, unsere Schrift etwas später als den Subatianusbrief anzusetzen. Ganz ähnliche Schriften kennen wir aus dem Iliasbuch der Sammlung Morgan (Ende des 3. oder Anfang des 4. Jh.; Schubart, Paläographie Abb. 95) und aus dem Stockholmer Fälscher buch (erste Hälfte des 4. Jh.; Schubart Abb. 96). Diese aus Ägypten stammenden’ Schriften geben uns ein Recht, den Anfang des 4. Jahrhunderts als frühesten Terminus für unsere Schrift anzunehmen. Damit muß sich die Paläographie begnügen. Mit ihren Mitteln kann sie bis heute nicht entscheiden, ob die Schrift im 4., 5. oder 6. Jahrhundert geschrieben ist. Einen gewissen Terminus ante quem gibt uns die koptische Liturgie. Texte, die in der byzantinischen und in der koptischen Liturgie vorhanden sind, müssen vor der Wende des 5. und 6. Jahr hundert angesetzt werden, da nach diesem Zeitpunkt kein griechischer Text mehr in die koptische Liturgie übernommen wurde9.”
  6. [6]Messa in sospetto l’autorità di Origene, si è creata la tendenza a ritenere interpolati e spuri tutti i documenti anteriori al periodo atana- siano, nei quali si nomina la Θεοτόκος.
  7. [7]H. Forster, “Zur ältesten überlieferung der marianischen Antiphon Sub tuum praesidium”, in: Biblos:  Osterreichische Zeitschrift fur Buch- und Bibliothekswesen 44 (1995) 183-192.
  8. [8]Exkurs zur genauen Datierung des Fragmentes aus Manchester13:  Zunächst fällt die vergleichsweise schmale und hohe Schreibweise der Buchstaben auf. Die Ausstriche des ε beispielsweise sind so kurz, daß Roberts in Z. 10 anstelle eines ε ein ρ liest. Trotz der unzialen Handschrift ist das μ nicht wie ein großes lateinisches „M“ geschrieben, sondern ähnelt eher zwei nebeneinanderliegenden „1“ in der lateinischen Schreibschrift; der Querbalken des η findet sich im oberen Drittel des Buchstaben. Das υ ist, ebenso wie das α, sehr eigen und entspricht einem lateinischen „V“, während das λ einem umgedrehten „V“ entspricht; die sonst übliche Verlängerung der rechten Diagonale nach links oben findet nicht statt. Das κ besteht aus zwei unabhängigen Teilen. Zwischen dem vertikalen Abstrich und den beiden Diagonalen, die in einem Schwung durchgezogen werden, findet sich ein merklicher Zwischenraum. Diese Form des κ findet sich zum Beispiel in einem Psalmenfragment aus der 1. Hälfte des 8. Jh., P.Amst. I 2114. Der sehr weit oben geschriebene Querbalken des η findet sich auch in einem liturgischen Kalender aus dem Jahr 535/6, dem P.Oxy. 135715. Auch die Form des μ auf diesem Papyrus gleicht der Form, wie sie sich in P.Ryl. III 470 findet. Das κ wird in diesem Papyrus jedoch im Gegensatz zu P.Ryl. III 470 als zusammenhängender Buchstabe geschrieben. Das δ hat im P.Oxy. 1357 einen Ausstrich der Diagonalen nach links oben, während es bei dem Fragment P.Ryl. III 470 wie ein Dreieck geschrieben wird. Die angesprochene Form des κ eine identische Schreibung des π, die beschriebene Form des μ sowie ein ε mit ähnlich kurzen Ausstrichen findet sich auch in P.Berol 13269, der in das 7./8. Jh. eingeordnet wird16. P.Lond. 1817, in das 6. Jh. datiert, wechselt noch zwischen der unzialen und der beschriebenen Form des μ, Ähnlichkeiten zum Fragment aus Manchester bestehen hinsichtlich des ε und des κ, wobei der Spalt zwischen den beiden Teilen des κ in P. Lond. 1817 nicht so groß ist wie bei P.Ryl. III 47017. Zusammenfassend läßt sich sagen, daß eine Datierung in das 3. bzw. 4. Jh. als sehr unwahrscheinlich zu gelten hat. Aufgrund der angeführten Vergleichstexte dürfte P.Ryl. 111,470 zwischen dem 6. und dem 7. Jh. entstanden sein. Das 5. Jh. ist als Entstehungszeitpunkt unwahrscheinlich, kann jedoch nicht völlig ausgeschlossen werden. Die Verwendung von brauner Tinte, für die es keine Belege aus der Zeit vor dem 4. Jh. gibt, weist ebenfalls in diese Richtung18.
  9. [9]8.  Diese Form des α ist bei Inschriften verbreitet. Ein Beispiel für eine Vorlage für eine Inschrift, die ein α mit gebrochener Querhaste aufweist, ist P. Vindob. G. 26.013, vgl. Sijpesteijn, P. J., Wiener Melange, II. Christliches, a) Ein Trishagios-Hymnus, ZPE 40 (1980) 92-95. Allerdings ist auf den Inschriften die Form des μ nicht identisch mit der, die der Papyrus aus Manchester zeigt. Vgl. hierzu C. M. Kaufmann, Handbuch der altchristlichen Epigraphik, Freiburg i. Br. 1917; diese Form des α hat zum Beispiel eine Grabinschrift aus dem 5. Jh. (S. 75), eine Inschrift über der Grabkammertür der Äbtissin Thekla (S. 290f), die Schriftproben aus Antiochien aus dem 5. und 6. Jh. auf S. 413 sowie die griechischen Inschriften auf S. 414ff. Auch die koptische Schenute-Grabschrift, die auf S. 75f angeführt wird, hat ein α mit gebrochener Querhaste. Alle angeführten Inschriften weisen jedoch eine Form des μ auf, die einem großen lateinischen „M“ entspricht, während sich magische Papyri finden, in denen das α die beschriebene Form hat. Vgl. hierzu P. Mil. Vogl. 127 aus dem 2/3. Jh.: I. Gazzaniga, M. Vandoni, Papiri della Universitä degli Studi di Milano, Mailand 1965, S. 59f. Auch das spricht gegen die Verwendung als Vorlage für eine Inschrift und für eine Verwendung als Amulett.
  10. [10]Nach einer erneuten paläographischen Untersuchung des P.Ryl. III 470 ist die bisher in der theologischen Wissenschaft allgemein vertretene Frühdatierung dieses Fragmentes in das 3. Jh. nicht zu halten. Der historische Zeugniswert, der diesem Fragment häufig zugesprochen wurde, fällt mit der Datierung in das 6. oder sogar 7. Jh. Durch ein Wiener Fragment, das den selben Text überliefert, werden gleichzeitig die bisher erwogenen Ergänzungsmöglichkeiten fast vollständig auf die byzantinische Form der Antiphon eingeengt. Es ist zu fragen, ob diese Antiphon möglicherweise aus der westlichen in die östliche Liturgie Eingang gefunden haben könnte. Dafür spräche die Vielfalt der Formen im Westen47, während nur zwei griechische Formen dieser Antiphon bekannt sind, die jeweils nur marginale Abweichungen voneinander zeigen. Der Papyrus aus Manchester wurde als Amulett verwendet. Eine bisweilen angenommene Verwendung als Vorlage für eine Inschrift scheidet aus.
  11. [11]Hans Förster, «Die älteste marianische Antiphon – eine Fehldatierung? Überlegungen zum “ältesten Beleg” des Sub tuum praesidium», in: Journal of Coptic Studies 7 (2005), pp. 99-109.
  12. [12]Lobel verwendet nur einige wenige Buchstaben, um seine Datierung zu rechtfertigen. Allerdings scheint der Gesamteindruck des Textes seiner Datierung eher zu widersprechen. In besonderer Weise ist natürlich das “singuläre Alpha”, das ja angeblich vor allem bei Inschriften Verwendung findet, ein Problem bei der paläographischen Datierung. Insofern ist der Blick über die griechischen Texte hinaus geboten: Ein derartiges Alpha lässt sich für eine ganze Reihe koptischer Texte belegen, dort findet es sich vor allem in griechischen Passagen. Es sei hierfür nur auf Brit. Mus. Or. 6782. fol. 1 verwiesen. Auch die Beischriften der Darstellung der Heiligen Theodoros und Merkurios auf Val. Copto 66. fol. 210 und 287 bieten innerhalb der griechischen Passagen ein Alpha, wie es sich auch in dem griechischen Text findet, der zur Frühdatierung der Entstehung der Antiphon Sub tuum praesidium beigelragen hat27. Allerdings wird dieses Alpha weder in der Paläographie von Cramer28 noch in der Paläographie von Stegemann verzeichnet29. Dies bedeutet jedoch nicht, dass dieses besondere Alpha nur in den griechischen Passagen koptischer literarischer Texte zu finden wäre30. Auch die Beischrift der Darstellung der Maria auf Pierpont Morgan Lib. M. 597 bietet innerhalb eines koptischen Textzusammenhanges das “merkwürdige” Alpha31. Auch auf einem Mumientäfelchen aus koptischer Zeit findel sich die beschriebene Form des Alpha32.

    In diesem Zusammenhang fällt auf. dass auch eine ganze Reihe anderer „merkwürdiger“ Aspekte in der Handschrift des Papyrus aus Manchester durch eine Nahe zur koptischen Handschriftentradition erklärt werden kann. Es sei nur auf die punktartigen Verdickungen der Enden vieler Hasten verwiesen. Für griechische literarische Texte aus dem angesprochenen Zeitraum darf dies wohl mit Recht als exzentrisch bezeichnet werden, für koptische literarische Texte lässt sich jedoch eine Vielzahl von Belegen vor allem aus dem 8. und 9. Jahrhundert finden33. Auch das Ypsilon oder das My kann durch eine Nahe zu dieser Schrift-tradition wohl besser erklärt werden als durch eine Einordnung des Textes in das 2/3. bzw. 4. Jahrhundert. Besonders betont werden muss in diesem Zusammenhang, dass zum Beispiel das Alpha der von Roberts angeführten Vergleichstexte wohl nicht unterschiedlicher sein kann. Man kann also bei den für die Frühdatierung angeführten Vergleichstexten nur von sehr punktuellen Berührungen sprechen, dies scheint jedoch für eine Frühdatierung nicht ausreichend, wenn gleichzeitig die Berührungen mit der koptischen Schriftüberlieferung des 8. und 9. Jahrhunderts so auffällig sind, dass dies als Naheverhältnis bezeichnet werden muss.

    Wenn man also den Gesamteindruck des Textes nimmt, so scheint eine Datierung in spatere Zeit wohl nicht ungerechtfertigt, die Parallelen zu den koptischen Handschriften lassen eine Einordnung in das 8/9. Jahrhundert als wahrscheinlicher gelten als die Datierung der Handschrift in das 2/3. oder selbst das 4. Jahrhundert.

    Als Konsequenz dieser Überlegungen muss damit festgehalten werden, dass nicht nur Indizien, sondern sehr eindeutige Parallelen gegen die oftmals begeisterte Aufnahme des ältesten Zeugnisses der Antiphon Sub tuum praesidium angeführt werden können. Insofern darf ab sofort der Wiener Beleg dieser Antiphon34, der aus dem 6/7. Jahrhundert stammt, als der älteste Beleg gelten.

  13. [13]Vgl. Froschauer. „Tradition“. 96: „Das […] Alpha ist durch […] eine gezackte Mittelhaste mit Unterlänge gekennzeichnet. Diese erhalt bei Drehung des Buchstabens um 180° die Form eines Omega. Ob mit dieser Schreibweise allerdings bewußt an eine Ligatur von Alpha und Omega und damit vielleicht sogar im Zusammenhang mit dem Kreuzzeichen an die christliche Symbolik von Anfang und Ende gedacht wurde, ist eher zu bezweifeln und kann über den Status einer Spekulation nicht hinausführen.“ Da der Buchstabe auch an der von Froschauer zitierten Stelle Teil eines griechischen Wortes ist — insofern kann er nicht das Kreuzzeichen mit „Alpha und Omega“ repräsentieren —, da ferner das Kreuz sehr häufig am Anfang des Textes auf einem Mumientafelchen zu finden ist, da darüber hinaus das beschriebene, „merkwürdige” Alpha meistens nicht in der Nähe eines Kreuzzeichens zu linden ist und da Letztlich die Drehung eines ganzen Kodex oder auch einer Inschrift auf einem Grabstein, die überhaupt erst zum Erkennen der spekulativ für möglich gehaltenen Ligatur führt, eher unpraktisch ist, wird man dieses Alpha einzig für eine dekorative Variante dieses Buchstabens halten müssen, die für die koptische Zeit typisch und damit als Datierungshilfe eines undatierten Textes interessant ist. Auch auf dem Wiener Pergamentblatt steht das Alpha links neben der Kolumne und ist etwas vergrößert, der dekorative Charakter des Buchstabens ist also offensichtlich.

  14. [14]T. de Bruyn, “Appeals to the intercessions of Mary in Greek Liturgical and Paraliturgical texts from Egypt” in: L. Peltoma etc, Presbeia Theothokou: The Intercessory Role of Mary across Times and Places in Byzantium (4th-9th Century), Wien (2015), p.115-129; p.116 and n.18.  Online here (PDF), and at JSTOR here.
  15. [15]A. Effenburger, “Maria als Vermittlerin und Fürbitterin”, in: L. Peltoma etc, Presbeia Theothokou: The Intercessory Role of Mary across Times and Places in Byzantium (4th-9th Century), Wien (2015), 49-108; p.50 f.

From My Diary

I intend to write a post about the often repeated date of a papyrus, R.Ryl. III 407, which uses the word “Theotokos”.  As part of this, I’ve been collecting journal articles in order to find out what the actual arguments are, and what scholarship has been done.  It begins to look very much as if only three people have ever made a serious attempt at a paleographical dating – E. Lobel in the original publication in 1929, Otto Stegmüller in 1952, and above all Hans Förster in 1995 and 2005.

But retrieving the literature is not a simple task, even though most of the articles are decades old.  Indeed I have rather given up attempting to access two articles:

  • F. Mercennier, “L’Antienne mariale grecque la plus ancienne.,” Le Muséon, 52 (1939), pp. 229-233
  • G. Giamberardini, “Sub tuum praesidium” e il titolo “theotokos”, in: Marianum: ephemerides Mariologiae 31 (1969) 324-362.

Mercennier’s paper is today of no importance, I believe.  Hopefully Giamberardini does not contain anything essential.  A kind colleague supplied me with Stegmüller.  But I was obliged to write to Dr. Förster last year in order to obtain his second article.  The first article – I didn’t know it existed when I wrote to him – just cost me $20 for a PDF containing 6 page-scans, courtesy of a research library.  At least they scanned and sent it within 24 hours.  There’s a way to go before scholarship is available to us all.

But reading through what I have, I find that none of the other papers sometimes cited qualify as serious discussion.  This is because they just do not carry out the serious comparison of letter forms and dated/dateable manuscripts.  Indeed I have just read one article in which the author casually asserts a random dating without troubling to offer either reference or argumentation.  This won’t do.  How many dates for papyri rest on very slender scholarship?

One of the articles that I could obtain was not really useful, but the author cited the scholarship on this very papyrus as an example of how the paleography of Greek papyri is mostly rubbish and all the dates need to be completely rethought.  The author will not want for examples, I am sure.  There may be something in this, but as a non-paleographer I cannot know.  But unfortunately I do know that the author is one of a small group of US academics making this demand whose motives are less than scholarly.  Indeed I can think of two people involved – there are probably others – who fairly seethe with partisan hatred.  It’s easy to destroy, but hard to build.

It sometimes seems to me almost as if there are many people in the humanities, especially in the USA, who should not hold teaching posts.  They just do not seem to love scholarship for its own sake.  They do not seem concerned to advance scholarship, nor to increase knowledge, or even to uphold the reputation of the humanities.  Rather they behave like wreckers, or else researchers for some political-religious agenda.  The universities themselves seem to be in the hands of administrators rather than scholars, which leads to strange distortions of all kinds, many of which work to the disadvantage of researchers and indeed students.  The financial side seems horrific, of wealthy clerks and starving scholars.  But I see nothing of the desire for improvement anywhere; only to apportion the spoils of office differently.  The younger generation seem likely to be the victims.  It makes me very glad to be retired!  These are strange times, aren’t they.

But we are also blessed in ways unimaginable.  This morning I went into search of my old Thesaurus Linguae Graecae disks, and fired up Diogenes, and did a word search for “theoto/ko”.  It produced a huge number of results, mostly late, of course.  It produced the catena fragments of Origen on Luke that I was talking about a few days ago.  I wish that I’d thought of it then!

I don’t intend to spend an endless amount of time on the theotokos issue, but I’d like to verify the date of the papyrus. I’m not a paleographer, and I don’t intend to dabble.  But it should be possible to report what the scholarship actually is.


Theotokos: Pierius of Alexandria

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[111] of those On the Pascha, asserts strongly that Paul had a wife and dedicated her to God for the sake of[112] 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.

Barocci 142 is online, so we can inspect the folios ourselves.  Here’s folio 216r:

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.


Theotokos: ps.Dionysius of Alexandria’s Letter to Paul of Samosata

In my last post we looked at whether Origen used the word “Theotokos” (Mother of God) for the virgin Mary.  Let’s continue this by looking at another supposed 3rd century use of the term, in Dionysius of Alexandria, Letter to Paul of Samosata (CPG 1708).

Dionysius died in 264 AD, and the text does indeed use the term Theotokos:

How do you say that a man is a superior Christ, and not really God, and adored by every creature with the Father and the Holy Spirit, incarnated from the holy virgin and Mary the Mother of God?

But is the text authentic?  Well a little further on, we read:

You call him abandoned who was Lord by nature, and the Word of the Father, “through whom the Father made all things,” (John 1) and whom the holy fathers called “homoousion” of the Father, for they taught us about God…

That is a pretty overt reference to the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), and, by itself, tells us that the text is not 3rd century.

The work itself is full of arguments about Christology.  These were analysed by N. Bonwetsch and G. Bardy in the early 20th century, who concluded that they were clearly directed against the school of Antioch, and especially Diodorus of Tarsus and his pupil Theodore of Mopsuestia.  The tone was somewhat monophysite, and in fact somewhat Apollinarian. They concluded that the text was composed by an unknown Apollinarist in the late 4th-early 5th century.

Ed. Schwartz, who produced a critical edition in 1927, called the writer a “bungler”:

Ein weiteres, bisher, wie es scheint, nicht benutztes Argument für die Unechtheit liefert die Sprache, über die allerdings ein sicheres Urteil erst möglich ist, wenn die willkürlichen Glättungen von de Torres beseitigt sind. Der ‘große’ Dionysius war einer der elegantesten und glänzendsten Stilisten nicht nur seiner, sondern der Kaiserzeit überhaupt; der Verfasser der drei Schriften ist ein Stümper, dessen sprachliche und schriftstellerische Kenntnisse und Fähigkeiten in umgekehrtem Verhältnis zu seinem frommen Eifer stehen.

Another argument for inauthenticity, which it seems has not been used up to now, is provided by the language, about which, however, a reliable judgment is only possible if the arbitrary smoothings by de Torres are eliminated. The ‘great’ Dionysius was one of the most elegant and brilliant stylists not only of his time but of the whole of the empire; the author of the three writings is a bungler whose linguistic and literary knowledge and skills are in inverse proportion to his pious zeal.

The Apollinarians were notorious for forging texts in the names of earlier respected fathers, under which they advanced their own beliefs.  Indeed Leontius of Byzantium even wrote a book “Against the frauds of the Apollinarists”.  They also seem to have interpolated the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, creating the “long version” of 15 letters.

Others have looked at the text since, and given it an even later date, possibly 6th century.  See for instance in Lang, John Philoponus, p.110, n.355, online here:

The forger of the spurious Letter to Paul of Samosata, attributed to Dionysius of Alexandria and most likely written in the sixth century, also adduces Col. 2:9: Ps.-Dionysius of Alexandria. Resp. 7 ad Paul. Samos. 261.3-10: Schwartz. This passage is a good example of how the forger uses the Letter of the Six Bishops and adopts its themes. De Riedmatten (1952). 123-6. shows that Ps.-Dionysius of Alexandria develops the thought of the earlier letter in an Apollinarian direction, pace Schwartz (1927), 55. who dismisses both documents as spurious.

H. De Riedmatten, Acta de Paulo Samosateno seu Disputatio inter Paulum ac Malchionem (fragmenta), (1952).

The last bit is from the bibliography: but I think there must be something wrong with that reference, for I can find no such volume.  It is perhaps:

Henri de Riedmatten, Les Actes du procès de Paul de Samosate. Etude sur la christologie du IIIe au IVe siècle (= Paradosis. Études de littérature et de théologie anciennes, VI). Fribourg en Suisse, Éditions Saint-Paul, 1952. In-8°, 171 p.

This used to be online here, but is no longer.

To summarise, we cannot use Dionysius of Alexandria as a witness for the use of “Theotokos” in the third century.

Just for fun, I pasted the 1608 Latin translation (byTurrianus) of the Greek into Google Translate, and cleaned it up a bit.  I frankly don’t understand all the theological noodling, so it may well contain crass errors.  But I place it online anyway:

I’ve also placed it at here.  It has no scholarly value, of course, but it might save someone the effort of doing the same, merely in order to read it.  As ever, I make it public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational, or commercial.


From my diary

We take for granted the availability of so much on the internet, that it can come as a shock when we need to go and physically find articles and books.  Of course even 20 years ago, that was routine.  But not every language group has kept up.  German articles in particular are very hard to obtain online.  Finding myself in need of three of these, today I drove 200 miles to my nearest research library in order to photocopy them.  I’m feeling frankly very stiff from the journey, even though it was a good journey!  The physical pain of scholarship is quite something!

These days the “photocopier” is a multi-function device (MFD).  I had to work out how to use it but it was much quicker than the old photocopiers.  Usefully it had a feature to email scans to me, picking up my email address from my user account.  In days of yore I had to type in the email address with a very awful on-screen keypad, and in practice any more than 3 pages just conked out.  There was a small notice telling the user that files over 50 pages would probably not send!  I only saw this after doing one!  Of course the scan went to my spam box.  But it was really very good.  And … they don’t seem to charge for scans, only for photocopies.

They used to have a room full of photocopiers, but this has closed and the machines are scattered around the building.  This meant a long walk to find a free MFD.  In busy times I would imagine that you’d get very fit!

I’ve started to look at all the references given online for the use of “theotokos” – “mother of God” in 3rd century literature.  I dealt with Origen in a previous post.  I’m currently working on Dionysius of Alexandria’s “Letter to Paul of Samosata”.  The letter seems to be spurious; possibly an Apollinarian forgery of the late 4th century, possibly later still.  I’ll know more when I have read today’s trove of articles.

I had trouble finding the Greek text, and I found it in Mansi’s Concilia vol. 1.  This states that the facing Latin translation is that of Turrianus.  Turrianus is Francisco Torres, in the 16th century, but I had a devil of a time trying to identify the work in which he made this translation.  After a huge amount of searching online, I did find the details, and found the book itself on Google Books.  It turns out that his book was pretty much reprinted literally in Mansi, and in collections like Labbe in between.  What they did not print was his endnotes – “scholia” as he called them – which will be interesting to look at.

On a whim I have decided to run Turrianus’ translation through Google translate, polish it up, and make it available online.  I’m about halfway through.  The modern Latin is not difficult as such.  If there was a Google translate for ancient Greek, and if there was OCR for ancient Greek, then one could do that.  Sadly there is not.  We do what we can.

The scripture references are reprinted in every case from Turrianus, and always very small and blob-like.  Turrianus is quite happy to offer “Philipp. 2” for an allusion, so I am looking up each of them in the Vulgate.  Most are just vague similarities.  It is amusing to see that nobody before me has made them more precise: such as “Philippians 2:7-8”!

The critical text was printed by E. Schwartz in the 1920s, and this was one of the items that I got today.  I have just checked, and he gives proper scripture references.  That will save me pain.  His remarks on text should also be interesting.


Theotokos: Did Origen use the term “Theotokos” for Mary?

There are many websites online that suggest that Origen used the word “theotokos”, “Mother of God”, to refer to Mary the mother of Jesus.  Often the same references float around, or none are  given.  The term “theotokos” was a controversial one in the 5th century, and the determination of some people to use it was responsible for the Nestorian dispute that came to a head in the Council of Ephesus in 433 AD.

One lengthy example of the genre by E. Artemi may be found here. This is valuable because it does include some sort of references for the claims to ancient sources.[1]

The primary authority for the claim that Origen used the term “theotokos” is not in fact Origen himself.  The works of Origen are poorly preserved anyway.  Instead we have a passage in the 5th century writer Socrates.  In his Historia Ecclesiastica book 7, chapter 32, we read as follows (NPNF translation online here):

Origen also in the first volume of his Commentaries on the apostle’s epistle to the Romans,108 gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotocos is used.

108. Cf. Origen, Com. in Rom. I. 1. 5.

This sounds good.  Origen’s Commentary on Romans (CPG 1457) is extant, but poorly preserved.  The majority of it is in the ancient Latin translation of Rufinus.  There are also extracts of the Greek text, and a chunk that was found in a papyrus at Tura in 1941.   But if we go to the text as we have it, we find no such use of the term.  In the Fathers of the Church 103 translation, p.17, we find the plain statement by the editor in n.73:

The quotation is from Book 1 of the Commentary but does not correspond to Rufinus’s translation. Socrates is discussing the Nestorian controversy and claims that Origen had used the title theotokos, “mother of God” with reference to Mary in his Commentary. To Socrates this was proof of two things: The tradition supported the controversial title for Mary and Nestorius was not very well read in ecclesiastical literature.

Indeed book 1, chapter 1, has nothing at all about Mary.  Likewise if we look at the Sources Chrétiennes 532 edition, and examine book 1, chapter 1, section 5, there is nothing about Mary.

Yet the Artemi article states:

Origen also in the first volume of his Commentaries on the apostle’s epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotokos is used.8

8. Origen of Alexandria, Commentary in Romans, I, 1. 5. See Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastic History, 7, 32, 2.

The reference given derives, no doubt, from the NPNF translation.  The same reference is often given.  But plainly it is false.

But Artemi is not done.  She then goes on to offer another reference, in a different work.

Origen underlines that the name Mariam is the name of Mary, who will be called Theotokos.6

6.  Origen of Alexandria, Homily on Luke, fragment 26,1, 41,1, 33, 2

This looks like it refers to three fragments rather than one.  The reference seems to be to CPG 1452, the Commentarii in Lucam which is fragmentary, and the CPG says that the material may be found in found in the PG 13:1901-1909, and PG 17:312-369, with modern Latin translation.

The CPG helpfully adds that “Fragment 26” is Eusebius, PG23:1341D-1344A.  PG 23 is Eusebius’ Commentary on the Psalms.  Here is the passage, in the commentary on Ps. 109, with the modern Latin parallel translation:

There is no mention of Origen in this.  Indeed whether this material is even by Eusebius may be questioned, for it is assembled out of catena fragments by a pre-modern editor.  Only the material on Ps.51-100 is certainly Eusebian.

Aliquo autem narrante novi, Hebraicam vocem hic Mariam meminisse: nam illud, “Mariam”, Mariae nomen significat; ita ut his nominatim Deipara commemoretur.

But I know in saying this, that we must keep in mind the Hebrew word “Mariam”: for that “Mariam,” signifies the name of Mary; so that the Mother of God should be remembered in this by name.

The last clause, referring to Theotokos, does seem a bit tacked on, subjectively.

The CPG tells us that Rauer in his GCS 49 edition of Origenes Werke IX (2nd ed., 1959), p.227-336, collected the fragments. Unfortunately I have no access to this.

But I did have access to the first edition (1930).  This was mainly concerned with the homilies – not the commentary – on Luke, preserved in an ancient Latin translation by St Jerome.  So I looked up “theotokos” in the list of words on p.320, and it gave me two references; to page 44. line 10 – which turned out to be the very same passage as  before, here assigned to Homily 6 (!); and p.50, line 9, where a chunk of Greek in homily 7 again does include the word.  In neither case does the passage appear in the parallel ancient translation by Jerome.  So it looks as if, for each homily, the editors have started by extracting Latin material from the manuscripts preserving Jerome’s translation, and then included whatever catena material parallelled it.  In both cases they have continued the catena extract beyond the end of the Latin version, because it may belong.

The edition is very hard to follow: what bit comes from what source?  I hope the second edition is better, but as I say, I don’t have access to it.

What do we make of this?  Well, very little.  This is the problem with catena fragments: they were extracted at a date not earlier than the 6th century, and adapted to fit into the “chains” of quotations.  The authorship of every one is doubtful, and it is often very unclear where the quote ends and another writer begins.  Also the catenas were edited at precisely the period when using the word “theotokos” was a mark of loyalty and failure to do so made a writer suspect.

To conclude, as far as I can see, there is no reliable evidence that Origen referred to Mary as the “Mother of God”.  The references offered are either non-existent, or based on texts composed from the 5th century onwards.

Update (21 Aug. 2023): Post title modified to link it to the other “Theotokos” posts.

  1. [1]Eirini Artemi, “The Modulation of the Term THEOTOKOS from the Fathers of 2nd Century to Cyril of Alexandria”, International Journal of Social Science and Humanities Research 2 (2014), 27-30.  Online here.  The “journal” looks like a fake journal to me, but we are not using this as an authority, but a witness to the claims being made.”