A reader named of Canterbury Tales Erick asks:
"I was wondering if you could recommend any resources that would justify Marian devotion in the first three centuries of the Church?"
That is a good question and certainly you need to know the answer to this question if you are going to engage with Protestants who generally object to devotion to Mary as subtracting from the glory of Christ her Divine Son.
Yes there is much evidence for Marian devotion in the first three centuries. There are three levels of evidence:
1) Biblical. The Holy Bible speaks of the powers and dignities of Mary though in a muted and mystical manner
2) Patristic. The Catholic Church Fathers speak of devotion to the Mary.
3) Archeological. A recent discovery has shown that early Christians not only hailed Mary as "Mother of God" but prayed to her for protection.
Biblical Support for Marian Devotion
I want spend too much time here since I have previously written hundreds of posts on this topic. Please use the search bar to the left. Basically, you need to focus on the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. Also, the Apocalypse of John. Most importantly, you need to become an expert on Ecclesiasticus 24. I recently did a Youtube video on how important Ecclus 24 is to Marian theology.
I'll be in Kansas City this coming weekend (Dec 8) at the Mary Help of Christians conference discussing Mary in the Liturgical Tradition as related to Ecclesiasticus 24. If you're in the KC area, please join us.
Church Fathers on Marian Devotion in the First Three Centuries
The Protoevangelium of James written in about AD 150 provides profound witness to the growing awareness that the Blessed Virgin Mary was uniquely holy and a powerful advocate of Christians. I recommend reading the entire document here at NewAdvent.org.
Another example is found in the writings of Saint Irenaeus around AD 180:
"For as Eve was seduced by the word of an angel to flee from God, having rebelled against His Word, so Mary by the word of an angel received the glad tidings that she would bear God by obeying his Word. The former was seduced to disobey God, but the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. As the human race was subjected to death through [the act of] a virgin, so it was saved by a virgin." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V:19,1.
Archeology of Marian Devotion in the First Three Centuries
If you are looking for irrefutable proof that the early Christians venerated and prayed to Mary. Look no further than the Rylands Papyrus P 470. This is a piece of paper found in Egypt dating to AD 250. It reads in Greek as:
ΥΠΟ ΤΗΝ ΣΗΝ ΕΥΣΠΛΑΓΧΝΙΑΝ
ΤΑΣ ΗΜΩΝ ΙΚΕΣΙΑΣ ΜΗ ΠΑΡΙΔΗΣ ΕΝ ΠΕΡΙΣΤΑΣΕΙ,
ΑΛΛ' ΕΚ ΚΙΝΔΥΝΩΝ ΛΥΤΡΩΣΑΙ ΗΜΑΣ,
ΜΟΝΗ ΑΓΝΗ, ΜΟΝΗ ΕΥΛΟΓΗΜΕΝΗ.
Under thy compassion
we take refuge, O Mother of God (Theotokos).
Do not despise our petitions in time of trouble,
but from dangers ransom us,
Singularly Holy, Singularly Blessed
Also, there are numerous examples of early Christians referring to Mary as the Mother of God or Theotokos. Examples: Hippolytus of Rome and Origen in the second century, also Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria.
So there are three ways to go after at. Personally, I've been using the P470 papyrus lately because it so irrefutable. It demonstrates that Christians in Egypt were already using highly devotion language in prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary by AD 250. Some scholars even push the date back further. Perhaps AD 200.
Please remember, it is more important to pray to Our Lady and ask for graces than it is to argue with others. Ave Maria.
Holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions.