Dating the Sub Tuum Praesidium – Is Marian Veneration Apostolic?

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:

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).

(Rylands Library Catologue of Greek and Latin Papyri – Entry 470, including the text transcription, a photo of the manuscript, and some notes on the text)

Likewise, in “An exhibition of Greek and Latin papyri in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester: arranged on the occasion of the XIV International Congress of Papyrologists,” (Compiled by Frank Taylor, Glenise A. Matheson) (John Rylands Library, 1974):

Greek. 18 x 9.4 cm. Probably fourth century.
This fragment (No. 470), which cannot be later than the 5th century and is most probably 4th, is the earliest example of a prayer addressed to the Virgin and the oldest text of the famous prayer “Sub tuum praesidium”.

In short, the dating to 250 we sometimes see RC apologists use, is based on Lobel’s comparison of the handwriting to that of the letter of Subatianus Aquila, but Roberts (himself a papyrologist) rejects that dating, and points out that the term Θεοτόκος wasn’t widely used in that time period and orthodox prayers to Mary were unknown in that time period (the Kollyridians might be mentioned as an early heretical sect who worshiped Mary, although it seems unlikely that they would have used the term Θεοτόκος).

Furthermore, the later dating is what was maintained at Rylands when dealing with papyrologists, despite the obvious incentive Rylands would have for asserting an earlier date. That is not to say that other scholars always follow the later dating, merely that the later dating is better.

Even Maxwell E. Johnson, who is critical of the argument based on the usage of “Theotokos,” acknowledges: “But even if the text of the Sub tuum praesidium is no older than the early fourth century, it remains the earliest marian prayer in existence ….” (Praying and Believing in Early Christianity: The Interplay Between Christian Worship and Doctrine, pp. 79-80; see also “Sub Tuum Praesidium: The Theotokos in Christian Life and Worship and Worship before Ephesus,” in The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer: Christology, Trinity, and Liturgical Theology, pp. 243-67, by the same author saying the same thing in virtually identical words) Similarly, Luigi Gambero in “Mary and the Fathers of the Church,” acknowledges “It was in Egypt that the first Marian prayer known to us was composed, in the third century.” (p. 69)

Moreover, note carefully what Roberts points out about the handwriting: it is unique. There is some speculation about why it might have the shape it does, but the fact that the writing is unique makes paleographic dating less reliable. It’s one reason for doubting that a mid third century dating is wrong, and when coupled with the content, suggests a significantly later date.

Furthermore, 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.

Examples of Advocates/Apologists Relying on this Papyrus
– Fred Noltie at Called to Communion (link to his post)(does not mention dating issues, and links to a now dead page at “Catholic Concepts” which likewise doesn’t mention the controversy over the date)
– “Fr. Seraphim Beshoner,” a Franciscan priest and history professor at University of Stubenville, on the Catholic Under the Hood podcast (link to podcast)(misrepresents the controversial status of the dating, apparently based on relying on an article he read by Henri de Villiers, as per his accompanying blog post)
– William Albrecht (in his recent debate on the Immaculate Conception)