Theotokos: Meaning, Theology, and Origin

Theotokos is the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother, who had conceived Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Theotokos, also called the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, or Our Lady is one of the most important and influential women in traditional Christian theology. Despite her centrality to Christianity’s most sacred account (that of Jesus Christ), contemporary art, literature, or cultural discourse rarely mentions her. 

In this post, let’s dive deeper into Mary’s importance within the religion itself and how it has influenced its followers over the centuries.

What is the Meaning of Theotokos?

The word Theotokos is Greek for “God-bearer” (Theos = ‘God’ and tiktein = ‘to give birth’). It refers to Mary, who gave birth to God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Theotokos

Who is Theotokos?

Theotokos is the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother, who had conceived Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, had cared for her. He took her and Jesus into his home as his own. Mary is also called “All-Holy” or Panagia, signifying her closeness to the Lord because of her obedience. 

The title Theotokos

In Greek, the title Theotokos (“God-bearer”) refers to Mary as ‘the one who gives birth to God’ or, more literally, ‘she who carries God.’ It is the title given to Mary by the early church and was used extensively in early Christian literature and liturgy.

The term was prevalent in Byzantium, where Orthodox Christians denote Mary’s role as the mother of Jesus Christ.

The term sums up the meaning of Luke’s phrase: ‘Mother of the Lord’ (Luke 1:43) and depicts a contrast to John’s teaching that the “Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). Usually, it is interpreted as  ‘Mother of God’ in English. However, Greek-speaking Christians also used the similar term “Meter Theiou.”

Ever-Virginity

One of the most puzzling aspects of Christianity for modern believers is the teaching that the Virgin Mary is an Ever-Virgin (Aeiparthenos). It means she remained a virgin before, during, and eternally after the birth of Jesus Christ.

The title “ever-virgin” does not imply that she is somehow more special than other people, nor should she be worshiped like the Creator. Instead, it simply states what theologians believe about her – that she remained a virgin even after giving birth to Jesus. 

The Orthodox Church teaches this to honor her and to show our love for God. Because through her, He became incarnate in the flesh.

Mary’s ever-virginity depicts Jesus Christ as an affirmation of who He is. It signifies a natural characteristic of such an awesome reality. Because God took on flesh in her womb and she was chosen as His mother, we understand her as a dwelling place for God.

Theology of Theotokos

In theological terms, the titles “Mother of God” or “Mother of the Incarnate God” do not imply that Mary is the source of Jesus’ divine nature. Despite the love and adoration felt toward Mary, it is essential to remember that the origin of Christ’s divinity can only be attributed to God.

According to the title “Theotokos,” Mary is not understood to be God’s eternal mother. The Christian church believes that God is the cause of everything, with no origins or sources, thus without a mother.

What the Bible Says About Theotokos

Because Jesus is God, and Mary is His mother, she is considered the “mother of God.” John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh, which talks about Jesus. And Matthew 1:18-25 gives an account of how the birth of the Messiah through Mary came about. 

We should tell the difference between the term Theotokos from “mother of God” because there is a slight yet significant distinction. The term Theotokos is specific and simply implies that Mary carried God in her womb and gave birth to Him. Jesus took on a human body and a human nature through Mary, the human agent through which God’s eternal Son entered the world.

In the Bible, the term Theotokos expresses the teaching of the incarnation briefly, and that’s what the Council of Ephesus used. Mary was a “God-bearer” because God’s Son adopted human nature and took on a preexisting divine nature within her body. In the sense that Jesus is entirely both God and man, it is correct to say Mary carried or “bore” God.

Where Did Theotokos Originate?

The term Theotokos or mother of God goes back to the third century. Some liturgical churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, still use it.

Etymology and Translation

As we previously discussed, Theotokos is a combination of two Greek words, θεός = “God” and τόκος = “childbirth.” It means or translates as “God-bearer” or “the one who gives birth to God.” 

However,  the term is often just paraphrased or changed to “Mother of God” because many Orthodox that speak English find the Greek word awkward. 

Protevangelion Story

The life of Mary is not described in the Gospels or other books of the New Testament, but it can be found in a book known as the Book of James or Protevangelion. This is a work or book that dates back to the second century. 

The Protevangelion tells of how young Mary entered the Temple. She had dwelt there for nine years until she reached the age of marriage. This entrance and dwelling in the Temple signify her complete dedication to the Lord. It also prepared her for her future role as the bearer and mother of Christ. 

Theotokos during the Early Church

Many early Christian leaders called Mary the Theotokos (God-bearer), at least as early as the third century. In the 4th century, the term was definitely in use. 

It is commonly claimed that Origen (died 254 CE) is the first person to use the title Theotokos for Mary; however, the text quoted to support this is uncertain. (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 7.32, where he cited Origen’s “Commentary on Romans”)

Dionysios of Alexandria also used the term in an epistle to Paul of Samosata, in about c. 250. 

Gregory the Theologian in c. 370, John Chrysostom in c. 400, Athanasius of Alexandria in c. 330, and Augustine used Theotokos.

In c. 436, Theodoret wrote that calling Virgin Mary Theotokos was an apostolic custom.

Theotokos in the Third Ecumenical Council

In 431, the Third Ecumenical Council affirmed the use of Theotokos about Mary, Jesus’ mother. Nestorius, then Patriarch of Constantinople, argued that Mary should be called Christotokos (“Christ-bearer”). It means “Mother of Christ,” limiting her role to the mother of Christ’s humanity only and not His divine nature.

Cyril of Alexandria, the leader of Nestorious’ opponents, disagreed with this and saw this as separating Jesus into two distinct persons. One was the Son of Mary, and another was the divine nature. The idea was unacceptable since, in the Orthodox view, destroying the perfect union of divine and human nature in Christ cancels the fullness of the incarnation and, in effect, the salvation of humanity. 

Nestorius’s view was perceived by the Council as heresy, and the name “Theotokos” for Mary was accepted.

Nestorian Schism

The Nestorian Church is also known as the Church of the East within the Syrian tradition. This church disagreed with the Council of Ephesus’ decision to affirm Theotokos. It rejected the confirmation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. 

In 544, the schism ended when patriarch Aba I approved the decision of Chalcedon. After this, there was no longer any church following the doctrine of Nestorianism. Although legends persisted that some churches still exist like those associated with Prester John.

Reformation

Lutheran tradition continues to use the title “Mother of God.” The term was embraced by Martin Luther. It is also used in the Formula of Concord, which the Lutheran World Federation accepts.

On the other hand, John Calvin objected to calling Mary “the mother of God.” He said, “I cannot think such language either right or becoming. To call the Virgin Mary ‘the mother of God’ only serves to confirm people in their superstitions.”

20th Century

The Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II signed an ecumenical declaration in 1994. This declaration mutually recognizes the legitimacy of “Mother of God” and “Mother of Christ.”  The agreement also reiterates the Christological foundations of the Council of Chalcedon. It’s a theological expression of the faith shared by both Churches.

Theotokos

The Iconography of Theotokos

Iconographers have always tried to portray the Theotokos with the beauty and dignity they can imagine. She is sometimes painted in grief and sorrow but always filled with spiritual strength and wisdom.

The Most Pure Lady is usually depicted with her head covered by a veil and her clothing colored blue. Her veil drops to her shoulders, following Jewish tradition. The hue red symbolizes her suffering, as well as her acquired holiness.

The Virgin is depicted in art with three stars on her forehead and shoulders. These are symbols of her virginity before, during, and after Christ’s birth. The three stars also symbolize the Holy Trinity. Sometimes the third star is covered by an image of the infant Jesus, representing the second Person of the Trinity.

How the Church Celebrates Theotokos

In the Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox churches, Theotokos is used in Mary’s hymns. The most common is Axion Estin (it is truly meet), used in almost every service.

Other examples include Sub tuum praesidium, a hymn used in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Hail Mary in its Eastern form. Then, there’s also “All creation rejoices,” sung at the Divine Liturgy on the Sundays of Great Lent. Bogurodzica is a medieval Polish hymn that may have been composed by Adalbert of Prague (d. 997).

The Orthodox Church also celebrates the life of the Theotokos with feast days. These feasts are celebrated at the beginning and end of the Liturgical Year. 

Nativity of the Theotokos

Celebrated on September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. 

Vespers is served on the eve of the feast. It contains three Old Testament readings that have New Testament meanings. On the morning of the feast, Matins is sometimes done. This is a reading of the Gospel from Luke 1:39-49, 56.

On the day of the feast, Divine Liturgy is served. There is an epistle reading which is from Philippians 2:5-11

Presentation of the Theotokos

The Presentation of Theotokos or the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is celebrated on November 21. 

Vespers is served on the eve of the feast. It contains readings from the Old Testament that are signified as symbols of the Mother of God. On the morning of the feast, Matins is sometimes served. Same with the Nativity, there is a reading of the Gospel from Luke 1:39-49, 56.

On the day of the feast, Divine Liturgy is served. There is an epistle reading which is from Hebrews 9:1-7. There is also a gospel reading from Luke 10:38-42 and 11:27-28 together.

Annunciation to the Theotokos

The Annunciation or The Evangelismos (in Greek) to the Theotokos is celebrated on March 25. This date was selected nine months ahead of the Nativity of Our Lord by the Church Fathers. It indicates that Christ was conceived without sin, which is stated in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The feast of the Annunciation is typically celebrated during Great Lent, but it’s still a day of celebration. The fast is relaxed on this day, allowing people to enjoy fish.

Dormition of the Theotokos

The Dormition or Falling Asleep of the Theotokos is celebrated on August 15. 

The feast is also called the Assumption of Mary. It is a Christian holy day that celebrates God’s taking Mary’s body and soul into Heaven at the end of her life.

According to Orthodox tradition, Mary died like all human beings. She fell “asleep” because she died as all people die – not voluntarily as her Son did, but by the necessity of her mortal human nature. The celebration was included in the Roman calendar during the seventh century as the Dormitio. Later in the eighth century, it was changed to the Assumptio.

Before the feast of the Dormition, a fourteen-day fast is observed, except when fish is eaten on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6). On weekdays before the feast, either the Small Paraklesis or the Great Paraklesis (service of supplication) is observed.

Theotokos

In Summary

Theotokos and its related expressions, including the Virgin Mary and Mother of God, are expressions of reverence for Jesus Christ’s mother. Though there may be theological arguments against using them in the 21st century, poetic beauty stems from these titles. Being the mother to the literal son of God, Mary is, without a doubt, a significant figure in Christianity. 

She is an incredible woman and a powerful icon to many people in the Christian faith. But she is also, as we have seen throughout this piece, a woman with a rich and varied history. She remains an influential figure for Christians and anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of Christianity. 

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Alex Shute
EDITOR
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.