Theotokos (Greek Θεοτόκος) is a title of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This term is used especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church and related traditions within the Catholic Church.

Etymology and translation

Theotokos is a compound of two Greek words, θεος "God" and τοκος "parturition, childbirth." Literally, this translates as "God-bearer" or "One who gave birth to God." However, since many English-speaking Orthodox find this literal translation is awkward, in liturgical use, "Theotokos" is often retained in Greek or translated as "Mother of God." This last is not precisely synonymous, as it does not have the same connotations of physical childbearing. Furthermore, "Mother of God" (Greek Μητηρ Θεου) has an established usage of its own in certain hymns, but especially on icons of the Theotokos, in which case it is usually abbreviated as ΜΡ ΘΥ


The expression "Mother of God" or "Birth-giver of God" should not be understood in the eternal sense; that is, Mary is not understood as having eternally given birth to God the Son in the same way that he is eternally begotten by God the Father (see Holy Trinity and Nicene Creed). Rather, in the Incarnation, the divine person of God the Son took on a human nature in addition to his divine nature, and it is through Mary that this takes place. Since Jesus Christ is seen as both fully God and fully human, to call Mary the Birth-giver of God is to affirm the fullness of his Incarnation, and by extension, the salvation of humanity.

This stands in contrast to classical Greco-Roman religion in particular, where a number of divine female figures appear as mother of other divinities, demi-gods, or heroes. For example, Juno was revered as the mother of Vulcan; Aphrodite, the mother of Aeneas.

Use of "Theotokos" in the early Christian Church

Many Fathers of the early Christian Church used the title Theotokos for Mary, at least since the third century AD.

The first documented use of the term is in the writings of Origen in 230 AD.

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

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

Theodoret wrote in 436 that calling Virgin Mary Theotokos was an apostolic tradition.

Third Ecumenical Council

The use of Theotokos was formally affirmed at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. The competing view (advocated by Nestorius, then Patriarch of Constantinople) was that Mary should be called Christotokos, meaning "Mother of Christ," to restrict her role to the mother of Christ's humanity only and not his divine nature.

Nestorius's opponents, led by Cyril of Alexandria, viewed this as dividing Jesus into two distinct persons, one who was Son of Mary, and another, the divine nature, who was not. Such a notion was unacceptable, since (in the Orthodox view) it sabotaged the fullness of the incarnation and, by extension, the salvation of humanity. Nestorius's view was anathematised by the Council as heresy, (see Nestorianism), and the title "Theotokos" for Mary was affirmed.

By the end of his life, Nestorius had agreed to the title Theotokos, stating the apparent communication of the attributes (idiomata).


Calling Mary either Theotokos or "Mother of God" (ΜΡ ΘΥ) was never meant to suggest that Mary was coeternal with God, or that she existed before Jesus Christ or God existed. The Church acknowledges the mystery in the words of this ancient hymn: "He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos."

The title "Theotokos" continues to be used frequently in the hymns of the Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and Oriental Orthodox churches.


  • Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, John Anthony McGuckin, trans. ISBN 0-88141-133-7
  • McGuckin, John Anthony, St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy (1994, and reprinted 2004) ISBN 0-88141-259-7 A full description of the events of Third Ecumenical Council and the people and issues involved.

See also





Study of the Mother of the Lord the All-Holly Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary by St. Nectarios (in Greek)

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