“One stone thrown by the “Christians stole their teachings from paganism” crowd features the Blessed Virgin Mary.
They claim Catholic beliefs about Mary are founded on ancient pagan myths. These attacks usually center on her virginity, the conception and birth of Jesus, and whether the titles “Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven” have pagan origins. There is even an outlandish claim by the mythicist D.M. Murdock that “the Virgin Mary is, like Jesus Christ, a mythical character, founded upon older goddesses”[emphasis in the original].”
Atheists are not the only ones who attack Marian teachings. Fundamentalist Jack Chick, in his tract “Why Is Mary Crying?” declares that Mary was substituted by the Catholic Church for pagan goddesses. Chick’s tract portrays her standing before God the Father, crying, telling him she is a sinner, and bemoaning Catholics’ “worshipping” her by bowing to her statue.
Chick alleges that Catholic Marian teachings are the work of Satan, who wants to confuse Christians by inducing them to worship a “counterfeit virgin.” So when the Catholic Church was created in the year 300 (according to Chick), under the influence of the Evil One, it created the cult of the Virgin to more easily convert the masses, who were used to worshipping pagan goddesses such as Diana, Aphrodite, Venus, and Isis. This is just one of Chick’s many bizarre theories about the Church.
The supposed similarities between ancient pagan myths and the Christian belief that Jesus was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary are greatly exaggerated.
In pagan myths, miraculous conceptions and births always involve mythical gods, not historical persons like Jesus, and their births are either through a sexual encounter or some type of miraculous creation not involving a virgin mother. One oft-cited example of a pagan myth with supposed similarities to the Virgin Birth is that of the Roman god Mithras, who was born not of a virgin, but out of rock. A second example is the Indian god Krishna, who was, as it were, telepathically transmitted from the mind of the god Vasudeva into the womb of the goddess Devaki.
On the surface this appears similar to Jesus’ conception and birth until the full story is revealed that Devaki and Vasudeva had seven previous children!
The early Church recognized the Blessed Mother’s unique role in salvation history, as is evidenced by the writings of the early Church Fathers, who clearly believed in Mary’s virginity, her role as the mother of God, and her exalted status as Queen of Heaven. In the fifth century, however, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, questioned those beliefs. An eloquent preacher, on Christmas Day in 428 AD Nestorius gave a homily questioning whether Mary was the mother of God:
They ask whether Mary may be called God-bearer. But has God, then, a mother? . . . Mary did not bear God . . . the creature did not bear the Creator, but the man, who is the instrument of the Godhead. He who was formed in the womb of Mary was not God himself, but God assumed him.
For Nestorius, Mary was the Christotokos (Christ-bearer), the one who bore the “fleshy garment” of Christ, not Theotokos (God-bearer, or Mother of God).
St. Cyril of Alexandria (375-444 AD) took great offense at Nestorius’s teachings and wrote a letter exhorting him to teach the orthodox belief that Mary is the mother of God. When Nestorius refused to turn from his heresy, Cyril wrote letters to the emperor as well as to Pope St. Celestine I (r. 422-432 AD), who confirmed that Nestorius’s teachings were heretical.
In a letter to his monks, Cyril succinctly captured the essence of Nestorius’s heresy and its far-reaching effects if embraced: “I am astonished that the question should ever have been raised as to whether the Holy Virgin should be called the mother of God, for it really amounts to asking, is her son God, or is he not?”
Eventually, at the ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, Nestorius’s heresy was condemned and he was deposed and excommunicated. The title Mother of God is not borrowed from pagan myth but rather reflects the reality of who Mary’s son is and what the Church has taught about both of them from the beginning.
Those who try to link Marian teachings to pagan myths also look to her title as Queen of Heaven for proof. Protestant critics in particular point to the episode in the book of Jeremiah (Jer. 44:1-17) wherein the prophet warned the Jews living in Egypt to turn from their idolatrous ways. The Jews did not listen, and said they would continue to burn incense to the “queen of heaven,” usually identified as the Assyrian-Babylonian fertility goddess, Ishtar.
These Protestant critics contend that Catholics are like those Jews of old, worshipping a pagan deity by using the same title in reference to Mary. But the use of a title in one setting does not imply acceptance of that title’s connotation in another setting. Queen of Heaven applied to Mary is not rooted in pagan goddesses but in the Davidic kingdom. In that kingdom, the queen was the king’s mother, not his wife (primarily because the Jewish kings were polygamous).
So the title refers to Mary’s royal dignity as mother of the King of Kings. Pope Pius XII taught in his encyclical on Mary as Queen of Heaven that the title was used from the “earliest ages” of the Church, and is deserved by virtue of her share in Jesus’s salvific mission (her Fiat ushers in the Kingdom of God); her role in the economy of salvation (as intercessor and Mediatrix); and her share in Jesus’s royalty (as the Queen Mother of the king).
The Real Story: The Church’s Marian teachings are rooted in Scripture and Tradition; they do not derive from pagan myths. Pagan stories of virgin births, and goddesses referred to as queens or mothers of a god, are not proof that Catholic beliefs about Mary were copied. The Church recognized Mary as the mother of God from its beginnings and when Nestorius questioned that belief in the fifth century it was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. And Catholics do not worship Mary, as many Protestants believe, but she holds a unique place in salvation history, as her “yes” (…fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. -Lk 1:38) to the Incarnation was essential to God becoming man.”
n.b. Editor: it is important to mention, in pagan myths, there is no consent, rather rapine/deception/disguise. Only in the Annunciation does the Divine God, ask. Free will is respected. It’s about relationships.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God [Against Heresies, 5:19:1 (c. a.d. 189)].
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus
For Luke, in the inspired Gospel narratives, delivers a testimony not to Joseph only, but also to Mary the Mother of God, and gives this account with reference to the very family and house of David [Four Homilies 1 (c. a.d. 256)].
It is our duty to present to God, like sacrifices, all the festivals and hymnal celebrations; and first of all, the Annunciation to the holy Mother of God, that is, the salutation made to her by the angel, ‘‘Hail, thou that art highly favored!’’
St. Methodius of Philippi
While [Simeon] was thus exultant, and rejoicing with exceeding great and holy joy, what had before been spoken of in a figure by the prophet Isaiah, the holy Mother of God now manifestly fulfilled [Oration on Simeon and Anna 7 (c. a.d. 300)].
Hail to you forever, you Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for unto you do I again return… Hail, you fount of the Son’s love for man…Therefore we pray you, the most excellent among women, who boast in the confidence of your maternal honors, unceasingly to keep us in remembrance. O Holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate your memory, which will ever live, and never fade away.
St. Peter of Alexandria
[ T]hey came to the church of the most blessed Mother of God, and Ever-Virgin Mary, which, as we began to say, he had constructed in the western quarter, in a suburb, for a cemetery of the martyrs [The Genuine Acts of Peter of Alexandria (a.d. 305)].
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
The Father bears witness from heaven to his Son. The Holy Spirit bears witness, coming down in the form of a dove. The archangel Gabriel bears witness, bringing the good tidings to Mary. The Virgin Mother of God bears witness [Catechetical Lectures 10:19 (c. a.d. 350)].
St. Athanasius of Alexandria
The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is he that is born in time here below of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God [Incarnation of the Word 8 (c. a.d. 365)].