So far, the earliest known prayer to the Virgin Mary is known as “Beneath thy compassion” (Greek: Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν). The earliest text of this hymn was found in a Christmas liturgy of the third century. It is written in Greek and dates to approximately 250 A.D.
In 1917, the John Rylands Library in Manchester acquired a large panel of Egyptian papyrus including the 18 cm by 9.4 cm fragment shown at left, containing the text of this prayer in Greek.
C.H. Roberts published this document in 1938. His colleague E. Lobel, with whom he collaborated in editing the Oxyrhynchus papyri, basing his arguments on paleographic analysis, argued that the text could not possibly be older than the third century, and most probably was written between 250 and 300. This hymn thus precedes the “Hail Mary” in Christian prayer by several centuries.
On the papyrus:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
we take refuge,
prayers, do not despise
but from danger
only blessed one.
Interestingly, the hymn calls Mary Theotokos (“she who gave birth to God”) two centuries before the Nestorian heresy arose. By the fourth century, the term was already popular in the area of Alexandria (St. Alexander of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Serapion of Thmuis, Didymus the Blind), and also in Arabia (Titus of Bostra), in Palestine (Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Cyril of Jerusalem), Cappadocia (St. Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, Severian of Gabala.)
The term Theotokos may be encountered during the previous century as well in the work of the Alexandrian school. According to the testimony of the ecclesiastical historian Socrates (Hist. Eccl. VII, 32 – PG 67, 812 B), Origen used it in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. This commentary is unfortunately now lost, but Origen’s disciple, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, also used the term Theotokos around the year 250 in an extant epistle to Paul of Samosata. It is interesting to note that the term did not remain a mere theological concept, but was actively and popularly used in public services of prayer.
Of course this hymn is familiar to Orthodox Christians, who still sing it at the end of nearly every Vespers (evening prayer) service during the fasting season of Lent. It is also found prominently in the liturgies of the Oriental churches and in Roman Catholic worship.