Dating the FIRST PRAYER TO MARY ‘Sub Tuum Praesidium’ — Despite the eagerness of Roman Catholic apologists to establish that their veneration of Mary has ancient precedent, marian veneration is a merely human tradition, one that begin to flourish in the FOURTH CENTURY
Dating the Sub Tuum Praesidium – Is Marian Veneration Apostolic?
Posted on January 9, 2015
Despite the eagerness of Roman Catholic apologists to establish that their veneration of Mary has ancient precedent, marian veneration is a merely human tradition, one that begin to flourish in the fourth century and expanded significantly after the term “Theotokos” was used at the Council of Ephesus to describe Mary as the “God-Bearer,” which she really was in the sense of carrying in her womb one who is both God and man in two distinct natures and one person.
To try to push the date of marian veneration back into the third century, some Roman Catholic apologists (some examples appear below) have appealed to the Sub Tuum Praesidium. That’s an early prayer to Mary. A few scholars have dated this prayer to the mid third century, based on the handwriting. Other scholars have noted that there are two major problems with this idea: (1) the prayer uses the term “Theotokos,” which became popular after the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) and wasn’t very popular before then; and (2) the idea of praying to Mary is unknown amongst orthodox Christians in the 3rd century.
Depending on the source, one can find this issue identified in scholarly works that cite this papyrus. For example, The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images, Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham editors, “Melkite Syriac Hymns to the Mother of God (9th-11th centuries): Manuscripts, Language and Imagery,” by Nataliaa Smelova (section author), p. 118:
Arguably the earliest and certainly one of the most famous Marian hymns, ‘Υπὁ τἡν σἠν εὐσπλαγχνίαν’ is found in the fourth century (?) papyrus 470 from the John Rylands Library (University of Manchester) as well as in the papyrus P. Vindobon. G 17944, dated to the sixth or seventh century, from the Austrian National Library in Vienna.[fn 3]
[3 C.H. Roberts, Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, Manchester (4 vols, Manchester, 1911-52), vol. 3 (1938): Theological and Literary texts(nos. 457-551), 46-7, pl. 1; K. Treu and J.M. Diethart, Griechische literarische Papyri Christlichen Inhaltes, Mitteilungen aus der Papyrusssammlung der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, n.s. 2 (Vienna, 1993), 56, pl. 16.]
Similarly, Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary, by Sarah Jane Boss, Note 1 at page 41:
1. The prayer is written in Greek on a fragment of Egyptian papyrus which is now in the possession of the John Rylands Library, Manchester. (C.H. Roberts (ed.), Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, Manchester vol. III, Theological and Literary texts (Nos. 457-551) (1938) no. 470. It is a Greek version of the prayer which occurs in Latin as the Sub tuum praesidium. The papyrus dates from the fourth or fifth century, and may be reconstructed to yield the following translation: ‘Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Mother of God. Do not ignore our supplications in our necessities, but deliver us from danger: alone chaste, alone blessed.’
See Th. Koehler, ‘Maternité spirituelle, maternité mystique’ in Hubert du Manoir (ed.), Maria tom. VI (1961), pp. 571-2, n. 77; Michael O’Carroll,Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1982), p. 336.
As you can see from these examples C.H. Roberts’ work is the primary reference. He was a lecturer in papyrology in the University of Oxford and fellow of St. John’s college, and is the one who published this papyrus. The entry for papyrus 470 in his catalog is as follows:
470. CHRISTIAN PRAYER.
Aquired in 1917. 18 x 9.4 cm. ? Fourth century.
This prayer, written in brown ink on a small sheet of papyrus (the verso is blank), is probably a private copy ; there are no indications that it was intended for liturgical use. The hand, tall, upright, and pointed, with small blobs at the top and bottom of vertical strokes, is of a peculiar type to which I know no exact parallel. The α is of a kind more common in inscriptions than in papyri, and Dr. Bell suggests that the peculiarity of the script might be explained on the ground that it was a model for an engraver.
Mr. Lobel has pointed out to me that the hand resembles somewhat that of the letter of Subatianus Aquila (Schubart, Papyri Graecae Berolinenses, 35; cf. id. Paeleographie, p. 73) with its large and narrow characters; the ο, ι, and to a less extent the ε, are similar in both texts, but the peculiar [hand drawing of character] found in 470 is missing in the other, which on the whole is less decorative. 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. The Virgin was spoken of as Θεοτόκος by Athanasius ; but there is no evidence even for private prayer addressed to her (cf. Greg. Naz. Orat. xxiv. II) before the latter part of the fourth century, and I find it difficult to think that our text was written earlier than that (cf. art. ‘Mary’ in Hastings, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics).
..regardless of whether it is third or fourth century, it is the first such example of prayer to Mary. From this, we can reasonable infer that prayer to Mary is not an apostolic tradition – it is a human tradition that arose centuries after Christ’s resurrection.