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Collyridianism was an alleged Early Christian heretical movement in pre-Islamic Arabia, whose adherents apparently worshipped the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, as a goddess. The existence of the sect is subject to some dispute by scholars, as the only contemporary source which describes them is the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, published in approximately 376 AD.
According to Epiphanius, certain women in then-largely-pagan Arabia syncretized indigenous beliefs with the worship of Mary, and offered little cakes or bread-rolls. These cakes were called collyris (Greek: κολλυρις), and are the source of the name Collyridians. Epiphanius states that Collyridianism originated in Thrace and Scythia, although it may have first travelled to those regions from Syria or Asia Minor.
Theologian Karl Gerok disputed the existence of the Collyridians, describing it as improbable that a sect composed only of women could have lasted for as long as Epiphanius describes. Protestant writer Samuel Zwemer pointed out that the only source of information about the sect came from Epiphanius.
In his 1976 book The Virgin, historian Geoffrey Ashe puts forward the hypothesis that the Collyridians represented a parallel Marian religion to Christianity, founded by first-generation followers of the Virgin Mary, whose doctrines were later subsumed by the Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Historian Averil Cameron has been more sceptical about whether the movement even existed, noting that Epiphanius is the only source for the group, and that later authors simply refer back to his text.
Collyridianism in Christian–Muslim dialogue
The Collyridians have become of interest in some recent Christian–Muslim religious discussions in reference to the Islamic concept of the Christian Trinity. The debate hinges on some verses in the Qur'an, primarily [Quran 5:73], [Quran 5:75], and [Quran 5:116] in the sura Al-Ma'ida, which have been taken to imply that Muhammad believed that Christians considered Mary part of the Trinity. This idea has never been part of mainstream Christian doctrine, and is not clearly and unambiguously attested among any ancient Christian group (including the Collyridians). But there has been some modern speculation that Muhammad might have confused heretical Collyridian beliefs with those of orthodox Christianity. There is no evidence that Collyridianism still existed in Muhammad's time (the 6th and 7th centuries AD), but perhaps the idea of the divinity of Mary might have been associated with Christian belief in Arabia because of the heritage of the Collyridian heresy.
Some scholars reject the interpretation according to which the Qur'an is said to assert that Mary was part of the Trinity, since the relevant statements can be seen as emphasizing the purely human nature of Mary to reinforce the Islamic belief in the purely human nature of Jesus, whilst also serving as a general restatement of the central Islamic doctrine of Tawhid, the pure oneness of God.
- Cameron, Averil (2004). "The Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity: Religious Development and Myth-Making". Studies in Church History. 39: 1–21.
- Block, Corrie (2013-10-08). The Qur'an in Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Historical and Modern Interpretations. Routledge. p. 186. ISBN 9781135014056.
- "The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III. De Fide". Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies (Second, revised ed.). 79. 2012-12-03 – via Brill.
- Saint Epiphanius (2013) [c. 375]. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: De fide. Books II and III. Translated by Williams, Frank. Leiden: Brill. p. 637. ISBN 9004228411.
- Carroll, Michael P. (1992-05-05). The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins. Princeton University Press. p. 43. ISBN 0691028672.
- Cameron, "The Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity," 6–7.