The title
Mother of god: from ephesus to Vatican II an analysis by a mariologist

Mary the Theotokos

 Maria la Theotokos  DCM-011
03 December 2022

On the evening of  October 11, 431, a jubilant crowd with lit torches welcomed the fathers who, in a meeting in council at Ephesus, albeit in a way that is questionable to our sensibilities, had condemned the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Antiochian Nestorius, for having contested the attribution to Mary of Nazareth of the title of theotokos (she who begets God). For Nestorius, it was preferable to call her anthropotokos, i.e., the mother of the man Jesus, since a human creature could not generate God. His concern was that she not be made into a goddess. In order to settle the controversy, he had also proposed to call her Christotokos (she who begets Christ). Nevertheless, even this had seemed insufficient and inadequate to the fanatical and quarrelsome Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. He had piloted the council and, with a coup de grâce, in the absence of the legates of the Patriarch of the West, who was delayed by a storm, had obtained Nestorius’ excommunication. The legates, who had finally arrived, endorsed his decisions. Today, the inclination is to free Nestorius from the cloak in which Cyril had entangled him. Probably, in this as in other cases, the distance was nominal rather than theological. In short, what opposed them was a vocabulary flaw more than a doctrinal problem. On the other hand, the term theotokos literally, when translated into Latin as deipara, does not mean “mother of God”. In addition, dispelling the impossibility of the creature being an active subject were the theories that considered woman to be absolutely passive in the process of generation. As St Bernard would say centuries later, Mary was a mere “channel”, a pure and singular medium.

Let us say, a kind of incubator that lent itself to the conception, growth and birth of the humanity of the Word.

As the Norwegian theologian Kari Børresen has brilliantly shown in Mary in the Middle Ages, if Marian dogma paid attention to Mary by saying she was “theotokos” and “always virgin” or, later, in the second millennium, by calling her “immaculate” and “assumed”, it was not to celebrate her, but rather her Son, using genetic theories or anthropological suggestions, which are now definitely outdated.

There are two problems that arise. The first is related to Ephesus, the city of the council and the pathos with which its vicissitudes were followed. The other, more important but nonetheless related, concerns the Christological dogma, that is, the need for the believing community to confess Jesus of Nazareth as true man and true God.


Some time ago I was disturbed by a film showing how Mary of Nazareth, after the resurrection of her Son, had followed the disciple John and settled with him in Ephesus. A kind of detailed report on her travels was proposed from the Life of Mary by Katharina Emmerick, a German mystic who lived in the 19th century.

In the 1970s, Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit and theologian spoke about prophecies and visions. To be sure, sincere and in good faith, the visionary gives substance to his experience, while respecting the cultural clichés, piety and feeling of his time. This is the only way to justify some of Emmerick’s assertions about pious practices - via crucis, viaticum, solemn celebrations presided over by the apostle Peter - in use centuries later, not about Mary’s death at the age of 62, according to the visionary. Moreover, in any case, no one’s visions are ever taken as proof of events or statements of faith.

A robust range of apocrypha, known as “assertionists”, place Mary’s death in Jerusalem. This literary tradition, which became common heritage around the 5th century, today also appears to be supported by archaeological evidence.

However, why is the so-called House of Mary in Ephesus still visited today? Perhaps we should recall that it was in that very city that a temple was erected dedicated to the goddess Artemis, which was much venerated. The Acts of the Apostles testify how the new religion preached by Paul appeared so dangerous to those who lived by his cult that, to the cry, “Great is the Artemis of the Ephesians”, provoked the kind of tumult that forced the apostle to hastily leave the city. In addition, since the trophy of the apostle John has always been the object of veneration in Ephesus, it seemed obvious to associate his tomb with the place where he would have lived with Mary and where Mary herself would have died.

Ephesus was indeed one of the sites where the suggestion of the “divine” feminine was most palpable, that is, a representation of divinity according to gender symmetries, an epigone despite everything of the matriarchal goddess religion that was so widespread in the Mediterranean basin.

I would add that the religions of the Bible are strongly patriarchal. Their portrayal of God makes him uniquely male and, where something escapes or remains, there is fury, as in the case of the Koran regarding the so-called “satanic verses”, a remote shadow of a female cult.

Artemis, in the Greco-Roman Pantheon, is a lunar deity. Close to the Diana of the Latins, she is solitary and a bold huntress, a virgin goddess who is indifferent to seduction.

The Ephesian goddess’ simulacrum to this day has no certain interpretation. She is covered up to the waist with rounded protuberances, which have been interpreted either as breasts or bull testicles. The sculpture certainly evokes a powerful and sensual femininity.

It is therefore in this city that a particular devotion to Mary developed. Probably, what is visited and worshipped as her home, was a church dedicated to her. Soon after it became a recognised and accepted cult by the empire, Christianity also dedicated places of worship to the mother of the Lord. Temples dedicated to ancient goddesses often experienced what in cultural anthropology is called “transculturation”.

Put another way, having excluded women from the divine, it had to be remedied somehow. Who better than the mother of Jesus could sublimate this demand? How not to intertwine it with that Mediterranean sea which is orphan and epigone of the Great Mother? How not to acquire it for this purpose, strengthening it out of all proportion? Is it not the Maiden of Nazareth who generated the Son of God in the flesh? And is it not motherhood that gives meaning to women? And who more than she can offer a powerful representation of it? Are not the epithets of Cybele, the ancient Anatolian goddess of nature, and of the Egyptian goddess Isis, passed on to her? Certainly in the festivity that, at Ephesus, acclaims Mary as the theotokos, we should also read the continuation of that connecting thread that calls for a balanced diction in saying God, even from a gender perspective.

At this point, it would seem that the need for a corrective to patriarchy sees theology and popular feeling as synergistic. In reality, this is not the case. Theology internalizes and sublimates patriarchy. Calling Mary “theotokos” does not speak of her in her maternal power, rather it sanctions her functional relationship to the Son, whose incarnation as “born of woman” she guarantees. If the Word had not been generated in the flesh, we could not speak of incarnation and redemption.

The Christological controversy

Obviously, the discourse is not simple. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Mary as the mother of Jesus. A locution that we also find in John who, instead, does not give us her name. It is the Gospel of Luke, above all, which sketches her according to the most authentic canon of discipleship. In his Gospel of the Infancy it is stated that Mary guarded events by confronting them in her heart. Yet as a corrective to the praise directed at her by an unnamed woman - Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you! - Jesus contrasts the physical motherhood exalted there with the values of discipleship by accepting the word of God and putting it into practice. These are precisely the approaches that, according to Luke, characterize Mary of Nazareth.

As the Gospels and the Apocrypha of infancy prove, the focus on the mother of Jesus is not immediate. At first the focus is on the good news of Jesus of Nazareth who announced the Kingdom of God. Crucified and resurrected, he is now at the heart of the Gospel that gathers his words and deeds.

The understanding of Him, Son of God, born of a woman, however, justifies the attention to the one who gave birth to Him and the manner in which He was born. In truth, the Gospels do not tell us very much about Mary; instead, they attest to a kind of rupture between Jesus and his family of origin while offering us very little to tell us who this family is, as if to show the incongruity between those to whom he belongs, the gestures he makes and the words he speaks.

Therefore, it is Christological dogma that brings Mary into play. To contrast Gnosticism and its disregard for corporeity, it is necessary to affirm that Jesus’ is a true birth, inscribed in the power of God, without the concurrence of man. Hence, it is the reading in virginal terms, although it is precisely in an anti-gnostic term that certain Fathers affirm Jesus’ conception as virginal but not his birth even in the 3rd century.

In the struggle to enucleate the Christological tangle, the epithet “theotokos” struggles to be accepted. It is enough to note its absence or its scarce recurrence in the Fathers.  How could human nature generate the divine? In addition, on the other hand, affirming that Mary generates Jesus’ humanity alone risks opposing or juxtaposing humanity and divinity. This is the danger underlying the terms “anthropotokos” and “christotokos”, each in its respective one-sidedness.

Here, I will not go into detail about the different positions. The Christological controversy engaged the Churches throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries at a time of a flourishing of heresies aimed at minimizing the relevance of humanity at the expense of divinity or divinity at the expense of humanity. For Cyril of Alexandria, only the term “theotokos” guarantees the co-presence of humanity and divinity in the one person of the Word. Cyril, however, rides the raw nerve of a primitive and unconditional devotion, of an emphasis that already touches the mother of the Lord, at least in the popular imagination.

In the background - I repeat - are the worships of Isis and Cybele. Whether we like it or not, it is these cultural elements that enliven a very delicate theological querelle, which, on the other hand, is not dissolved at the Council of Ephesus but at that of Chalcedon (451). Here, in fact, despite the distinction of the two natures, it is considered legitimate to attribute to humanity what connotes divinity and vice versa. This is why Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, can be called “theotokos”. A title that is for the first time solemnly incorporated in a conciliar definition. It teaches us that the Son, perfect in humanity and perfect in divinity, true man and true God, of the same substance as the Father according to divinity and of our substance according to humanity, for us men and for our salvation was begotten of Mary, the virgin, the mother of God (theotokos).

From this point onwards, Mary was worshipped and sung as “theotokos”, while pushing the expression beyond the letter in saying “meter theou”, “mother of God”. However, in this we are consistent with the dictate of Chalcedon, that is, with the possibility of using expressions and attributes indifferently, not to confuse humanity and divinity, but to affirm their co-presence in the one person of the Word.

That the torrent of devotion then goes as far as certain emphatic deviations is another matter. However, the Maiden of Nazareth offers a merciful corrective to a religion that risks removing the feminine.

We are sustained by Vatican II, the constitution Lumen gentium and its VIII chapter, entitled The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church. We find in it a balanced vision of Mary, and never a goddess or creature in between the human and the divine, but our sister in the daily struggle of believing, our companion in the “pilgrimage of faith”, blessed because she believed “in the fulfilment of the Lord’s words”.

Theologian, president of the Italian Society for Theological Research (SIRT).


The House of Mary (In Turkish, Meryem Ana Evi) located on Mount Solmissos in present-day western Turkey, in Ephesus, is a holy site for Christians and Muslims. It is considered to be the dwelling where she lived until the end of her earthly days, around 48 AD, entrusted by Jesus to the Apostle John, who stood with Mary at the foot of the Cross.

The foundations of the small building were discovered on October 18, 1881 by the Parisian father and abbot Julien Gouyet. He based his discovery on the basis of information from the diaries of the visions of the mystic and blessed Anna Katharina Emmerick, transcribed by Clemens Brentano, poet and novelist of the Romantic period.

In the 5th century, the first basilica in human history consecrated to Mary was built. On the summit of Mount Solmissus there was a small, cramped grotto, in which the apostles placed the body of the Immaculate Virgin, who was shortly thereafter assumed into heaven.


One of the main places to venerate Mary is the basilica sanctuary of the Holy House in Loreto. Therein are the remains of what is traditionally considered the Holy House of Nazareth, the place of the Annunciation.

According to tradition, in early May 1291, with Nazareth and all of Palestine under the rule of the Mamluks of Egypt, some angels picked up the Holy House and flew it away to the territories of ancient Illyria. Later, in 1294, the angels brought the precious relic to Loreto.  It is a small building measuring 9.50 x 4 meters. The original core of the structure consists of only three walls about three meters high, and is believed to have consisted of a part hewn out of the rock, i.e. the cave that is still in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth today, and a masonry part. The dimensions of the dwelling coincide with those of the “hole” where it used to be.