What the Early Christians Believed About Mary

The Roman Catholic and ethnic Orthodox Christian churches are known, among other things, for their distinctive views on and veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are prayers offered to her asking for her intercession, processions in her honor, and a rosary dedicated to her. On the other side of the equation are the Protestants who, for the most part, have little to nothing to say about Mary. So, what did the ancient Christians believe about her?

Her Obedience
Mary is esteemed because of her obedience and faithfulness, thereby making it possible to reverse the effects of Eve's disobedience. Mary is an example of Christian womanhood in her submission to the will of God even under the most difficult of circumstances, and in the fact that she was declared by the angel to be "full of grace" and therefore potentially in a state of entire sanctification.

"He (Jesus) became man by the virgin, in order that the disobedience which began with the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her."- Justin Martyr

"Mary the virgin is found obedient, saying, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word." In contrast, Eve was disobedient. For she did not obey when she was still a virgin...Correspondingly, Mary, who was also a virgin....by yielding obedience became the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race...So it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary."- Irenaeus

"Virginal disobedience has been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience."- Irenaeus

Her Virginity and Children
Mary was not considered to be a perpetual virgin. There is a potentially dangerous association between the concepts of Mary as a perpetual virgin and her being without sin. Many promote the concept that Mary was a perpetual virgin because of an underlying Gnostic theology of sex which labels the procreative act as intrinsically sinful. This concept must be rigidly opposed, because God, the author of sexual intimacy, designed humanity with this function, and pronounced it good. (In other words, sex itself is a positive thing, only its misuse is gravely sinful). It is also a very clear Biblical fact that Mary had other children. 

"While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him."- Matthew 12:46-47

"Is not His mother called Mary? And his brothers, James, Joses, Simon and Judas?"- Matthew 13:55

"There still survived some of the kindred of the Lord. There were the grandsons of Jude, who according to the flesh was called His brother."                                                                  - Hegesippus

"As it appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child (Jesus), as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not."- Clement of Alexandria

"Jude, who wrote the catholic epistle, was the brother of the sons of Joseph." - Clement of Alexandria

Mary as Theotokos
Early on in the history of the church (by the 4th century), we find the first mention of Mary as Theotokos- Greek for "God-bearer". The Biblical evidence and the consensus of the undivided church demonstrate that she is the Theotokos- the "God Bearer". To suggest she is not the Theotokos is to suggest there is a division in Christ's humanity and divinity, which is a grave heresy. 

"The Spirit could not abide upon all men, but only on Him who was born of Mary, the God-bearer."
                      - Disputation of Archelaus and Manes

"Our Lord Jesus Christ in very deed (and not merely in appearance) had a body, which was of Mary, mother of God."- Alexander

As we can see, the ancient Christians possessed a healthy respect for the Blessed Mother. However, we find no hint of the dogma of Mary's "Immaculate Conception", nor of  the "Assumption". We find no evidence of prayers or devotionals in her honor, nor of titles such as the "Queen of Heaven", nor "Co-Redemptrix".


  1. Interesting quotes :-) May I share my essay on the development of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary here? :-)

    1. Certainly, as long as you're open to critique. Having read your paper I can say your conclusion isn't shared here.

  2. Origen was the first to use the term Theotokos.

  3. Origen's comment on the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was the one that fully persuaded me that that doctrine had not been handed down from the apostles, since he locates the root of the doctrine in that pseudopigraphal book, and simultaneously demonstrates that the doctrine was not universally held:

    "The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity."

  4. Yes, it was based on a non-canonical writing, written well after the time of the apostles. And, as noted, the idea itself seems to be inspired by a gnostic view of human sexuality as somehow lesser than ideal, if not outright evil.

  5. You must know that the word adelphos refers to brothers and half-brothers throughout Scripture. The fact that Jesus had adelphoi does not prove that Mary had sons, only that Joseph had sons. Since the adelphoi of Jesus were alive and of known location when He was crucified, why did He turn His mother over to the care of John? The ancient tradition (researching this is your specialty) is that Joseph was an older man with children from an earlier marriage and that that is why we no longer hear of him after Jesus was 12. Mary and Joseph were not "Joe & Mary." They were honored in the early church and didn't just disappear. Their history is what we today call tradition, but that doesn't make it any the less history. Those of us, and I am a conservative Lutheran, who still refer to the Blessed Virgin as "Sempervirgine" have at least as strong a case as the other side, which mainly relies on deductions. But deductions are not doctrines.

  6. I disagree. Your position is based on faulty deduction, as the premise is in error. If you start from a false premise- in this case that Joseph had children by another woman- then of course you can arrive at the desired deduction. The premise is indeed false, since nowhere in the Greek text is there any hint that these are anything other than the natural children of Mary. The Greek word used is consistent throughout the New Testament, and always refers to the natural children, or offspring, of a person. The only exceptions being where it is used to denote members of the church or in reference to the 12 apostles by Christ. The context in those cases make it self evident that this is not to imply physical relationship, but spiritual, while those referring to Mary and her other children contextually demand a natural understanding of the verses. There is also no hint anywhere in the N.T. of Joseph having previously been married and having children. The very core of such mythology is, as noted in the article, a gnostic view of human sexuality. Appealing to non-canonical myths and/or writings for the formulation of dogmatic statements such as this, that impact hamartiology, anthropology, and the historical veracity of scripture is a very dangerous practice, and one I reject.

  7. the gnostic view may have motivated the focus of the doctrine instead of it being merely an aside about her hardly noted as important. But her response to the angel is odd. A normal girl who was betrothed would figure this announcement was referring to some time in the future after the marriage was consummated, but Mary responds as if knowing not a man was a permanent situation. Supporting the idea that Joseph was an aged man is that he disappears early on from the Gospels. we don't hear of him after the time Jesus stayed behind in the Temple.

  8. Why would she assume it was sometime in the future when the angel's statement is clearly present tense? Nor does her response at all merit any conclusion that her virginity was a permanent situation. Neither of those claims are born out by Sacred Scripture in any way. Also, just because Joseph isn't named after Jesus was aged 12 does not mean Mary had no other children. One can procreate prolifically in 12 years time, and, as already noted, scripture is unambiguous that she had other children.

  9. Of course Christ didn't even look at his mother in the light that the Catholics do.
    He replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at those seated in a circle around him, he said, “See! Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does what God wants is my brother, sister and mother!”
    Mark (Mrk) 3:33‭-‬35 CJB

    1. You're correct. Thanks for reading and contributing.


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