Israeli archaeologists working in the Jezreel Valley recently announced that they found an ancient description of Jesus dated to the fifth century. It was found in the remains of a Byzantine Church located near the village of et-Taiyiba. Curiously, the phrase, “Christ, born of Mary,” may hint of a great theological battle that raged in the early church a couple of centuries earlier.
The Greek inscription, that was carved on stone and appeared on top of the entrance, reads in full:
“Christ, born of Mary. This work of the most God-fearing and pious bishop [Theodo]sius and the miserable Th[omas] was built from the foundation… Whoever enters should pray for them.”
According to Dr. Leah Di-Segni who works at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem the phrase “Christ, born of Mary” was used by the people to ward off curses associated with an evil eye. As part of this, people often included this phrase in letters they were sending to friends.
One of the persons mentioned in the greeting was Theodosius, the archbishop for the area around 480 AD. He probably oversaw the church’s construction and though no one knows who “miserable Thomas” was, it is suspected he provided all or part of the funding.
But the phrase “Christ, born of Mary” may also hint of a theological battle that took place in the early church during the first three centuries. In many ways it also explains why the Roman Catholic Church has such an emphasis on Mary today.
One of the first great heresies in the early church was Gnosticism, that was prominent until around 300 AD. The Gnostics combined Greek philosophy with Christian teaching that resulted in a heresy that all matter was evil and the spirit was good.
One of the spinoffs of this belief is that it didn’t matter how much you sinned, because that was flesh and all that really mattered was man’s soul or spirit that was uncontaminated by how we lived.
Some believe that the Apostle Paul may have been addressing this growing belief when he wrote “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1 NASV).
But this theory that the flesh was evil and the spirit good led to another heretical anomaly. According to the Gnostics, since Jesus was sinless, this meant He couldn’t have appeared as evil flesh, and instead the Lord must have been a spirit who only appeared as human to the disciples.
And in his first letter, the Apostle John seems to focus on this when he wrote that “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:2-3).
Some wonder if this was a test used to sort out the Gnostics whose influence was steadily growing.
As this battle with the Gnostic heresy raged, by the second century the church was responding by emphasizing Jesus’ human nature, specifically that the Lord was born of a human mother, Mary. This meant that Jesus was very much flesh, not a spirit.
However, by the time Gnosticism started fading away, Mary’s prominence in the church was solidified.
Over the centuries, this initial elevation of Mary, for legitimate reasons, led to the veneration of Mary beyond the Biblical record. According to Catholic teaching, after Christ’s birth Mary remained a perpetual virgin despite the Bible stating Jesus had brothers (Matthew 12:46). The phrase Immaculate Conception used to describe Mary refers to another Catholic dogma, that as the Mother of God, Mary never sinned.