The Theotokos: The Temple Not Made by Hands

Scripture scholar James Dunn in commenting on St. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:41-50 before his martyrdom makes special note that St. Stephen makes a bold claim: the temple in Jerusalem is no different than the golden calf made by the Jews in the wilderness or any idol made by human hands.  When the Theotokos enters the Jerusalem Temple (an event commemorated in Orthodoxy on November 21), the Temple made by hands is shown to be what it is, while the Theotokos is revealed as that living temple, a temple not made by human hands but created by God Himself to be His true Temple.

‘The tent of witness in the wilderness’, made by Moses in accordance to God’s direction, ‘according to the pattern that he had seen’ (Ex 25:9, 40), had been brought in to the promised land, and remained the focus and medium of Israel’s worship right up to and throughout the reign of David, ‘who found favour in the sight of God’, Israel’s golden age (vv 44-46).  But David had not been permitted to build a temple; it was Solomon who did so ) vv 46-47).

‘Yet the Most High’ does not dwell in houses made with hands (v48).  That was the word used by Hellenistic Jews to condemn idolatry; Gentile gods were human artifacts, ‘made by hands’.  The idol was by definition to cheiropoiēton, ‘the thing made by human hands’; an implication which any Greek speaking Jew, and Luke too, could not mistake, since the word had already been used with this disparaging overtone in v 41.  For just that word to be used of the Temple would certainly have sent shock waves through any Jewish audience or readership—the Temple itself a breach of that most fundamental axiom of Israelite/Jewish religion, that God’s presence cannot be encapsulated or represented by any physical or man-made entity!—the Temple itself an idol!  (Dunn, James D G, The Partings of the Ways, 89)

John of Damascus wrote:

“Hence it is with justice and truth that we call holy Mary Theotokos.  For this name embraces the whole mystery of the divine dispen-sation.  For if she who bore him is the Theotokos, assuredly he who was born of her is God and likewise also man.  At the same time, the defenders of the icons insisted that “when we worship her icon, we do not in the pagan fashion, regard her as a goddess, but as the Theotokos.” 

The origins of the title Mother of God are obscure.  There is no altogether incontestable evidence that it was used before the fourth century.What is clear is that the first completely authenticated instances of the use of this title came from the city of (St.) Athanasius, Alexandria.  Alexander, his patron and immediate predecessor as bishop there, referred to Mary as Theotokos in his encyclopedia of circa 319 about the heresy of Arius.”   (Pelikan, Jaroslav Jesus Through the Centuries, Mary Through the Centuries, pgs 56-57)