A greek term meaning “God-bearer.” This title of the Virgin Mary was used by Greek and especially Alexandrian church fathers and writers from ORIGEN on and perhaps even by Hippolytus of Rome. In any case, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 110-c. 220) used the expression Marias tes metros tou kyriou (Mary the of the Lord [of God]) (Stromateis 1.21). From theological speculation, this title entered slowly but surely into popular devotion. Despite the effort to find evidence of it elsewhere, there is reason to believe that it originated in Alexandria, where it seems to have been in harmony with the general tradition.

The earliest incontestable occurrence of the term “Theotokos” was in the encyclical letter of I of Alexandria, which he issued against ARIANISM in 324 and which became the official position of the Alexandrian patriarchate. Relating to the liturgy and popular devotion, in an earlier Greek version (written in Coptic characters) from the third century, we have the troparion “Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, sancta Dei Genitrix . . .” ( 476, John Rylands Library, Manchester), the fourth line of which contains the term Theotoke (vocative case) for the first time. It is also known that Pope Theonas (282-300) built the first church in Alexandria and dedicated it to the Holy Virgin Mary as theometor.

The term was quietly accepted in the church until 429, when it was refused by NESTORIUS, patriarch of Constantinople, and his supporters as incompatible with the full humanity of Christ. According to his Christological doctrines, Nestorius proposed to substitute for Theotokos the new term Christotokos. The term Theotokos, however, found a formidable champion in CYRIL I OF ALEXANDRIA, who secured its formal and dogmatic status in the liturgy at the Council of EPHESUS in 431; this was reconfirmed at the Council of CHALCEDON in 451.

This was a major Christological victory for the See of Saint Mark through the centuries. It has remained the accepted Alexandrian doctrine of the COMMUNICATIO IDIOMATUM as applied to Mariology- Christology. Writing to the in defense of the Theotokos, Saint Cyril of Alexandria counseled them to follow in the steps of the holy fathers who preserved the faith as it was handed down by the apostles. Henceforward the orthodoxy of the Alexandrian apostolic see in the East and the West was undisputed in the church, and the Alexandrian term Theotokos has remained the accepted dogmatic Christological truth.


  • Dölger, F.-J. “Zum Theotokos-Namen.” Antike und Christentum 1 (1929):118-23.
  • Giamberardini, G. Il culto mariano in Egitto, Vol. 1. Jerusalem, 1975.
  • Rahner, H. “Hippolyt von Rom als Zeuge für den Ausdruck QeotÒkoj.” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 59 (1935):73-81; 60 (1936):577-90.