The Rosary Dissected

Author: T.L. Frazier


T. L. Frazier

Perhaps the most emblematic sacramental in Catholicism is the rosary, that string of beads with a crucifix attached. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart pictured one on the dust jacket of his anti-Catholic book, <Catholicism and Christianity>.1 Swaggart wrote, "The rosary (or prayer beads) was introduced by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1090. This was copied from the Hindus and Muhammadans [sic]. The counting of prayers is a pagan practice and is expressly condemned by Christ (Matt. 6:5-7)."2

Aside from the fact that the rosary consists of prayer beads, Swaggart got nothing right. This is regrettable since such crude misrepresentations frighten away uninformed Christians from a powerful aid to prayer and contemplation.

Tradition links the rosary not to Peter the Hermit but to St. Dominic (1170-1221), who is said to have received it from the Virgin Mary to combat the Albigensian heresy. This legend seems to be derived from the writings of Alan de la Roche (1428-1475), that indefatigable Dominican preacher of the rosary. Modern critical scholarship from Dominicans and others reveals a far more complicated history, though one having nothing to do with Hindus and Muslims.

Medieval monks had a practice of daily praying the 150 psalms. Since lay brothers of the orders were illiterate and couldn't read the psalms, among them arose the practice of reciting the Our Father 150 times. Beads were used to keep track of the prayers. (The word "bede" in Middle English, from which we derive the word "bead," originally meant "prayer.") This practice spread among the laity, and other easily-remembered prayers were added. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the rosary settled into its present form. It now consists of the Apostles' Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Gloria.

The Apostles' Creed appeared first as a second-century Roman baptismal creed, and it took its present form in the 400s. Although this creed wasn't written by the apostles, it's generally agreed it could very well have been of apostolic origin.

The Our Father is prayed on the solitary beads that separate the groups of ten beads (the "decades"). Every Christian is familiar with this prayer, which is found in Matthew 6:9-13. Significantly, it is given in the same passage of Scripture in which Jesus says, "But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Matt. 6:7). This is the verse Jimmy Swaggart says condemns the "pagan practice" of "counting prayers." Though Jesus himself gave us the Our Father, some Fundamentalists try to discourage Christians from using it as anything other than a model prayer because they feel that actually praying it would constitute a "vain repetition."

But let's look at the context of the "vain repetitions" verse. Matthew 6:5-6 deal with the prayer practices of the Jews themselves; Jesus derides these as hypocritical. He doesn't condemn repetitive Jewish prayers, of which there were a countless number. For example, the book of Psalms is a collection of hymns and prayers repeatedly used in Jewish celebrations in which Jesus himself participated. The Passover, celebrated by Jesus before his Crucifixion, had fixed prayers that were repeated annually. Following the Last Supper, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed the same prayer three times in a row (Matt. 26:39-44)—he engaged in repetitive prayer.

In the next pair of verses Jesus warns against the prayer practices of the pagans, who held a magical view of prayer and whose repetitious prayers he <does> condemn. Verse 7 reads, in the King James Version, "[D]o not use vain repetitions [<battalogeo>] as the heathen do." This is a misleading rendering. The Greek word <battalogeo> is better translated as "babbling," and it is so translated in the New International Version. (The Revised Standard Version has "empty phrases.")3 Jesus isn't condemning mere repetition—something he himself engaged in, as did other good Jews—but the babbling of the pagans.

What sort of babbling did the pagans practice? Look at 1 Kings 18:2629, where the pagan prophets on Mount Carmel tried to invoke Baal all day long, repeatedly calling on his name and performing ritual dances: "[They] called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, 'Oh Baal, answer us!' But there was no voice, no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they had made.... And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out of them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the [evening] oblation, but there was no voice, no one answered, no one heeded." Once the pagan prophets had given up, Elijah came forward and called on the God of Israel, and immediately his prayer was answered.

The prayers of the pagan prophets were "vain" because, after spending the entire day frantically calling upon him, Baal never responded. He wasn't a real god, unlike the God of Israel, who always answers sincere prayer. Jesus' point in Matthew 6:7 is that we don't need to spend all day leaping over altars, cutting ourselves, and raving to get our heavenly Father's ear. He hears our prayers no matter what type of prayer is offered: lengthy or short, composed or extemporaneous, group or individual, repetitious or unique.

Thus Jesus says in the next verse: "Therefore do not be like them [the pagans]. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him" (Matt. 6:8). This doesn't mean that, since God already knows our needs, we don't have to pray at all. As Jesus taught in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), we are to be tenacious in prayer, freely and repeatedly (repetitiously) bringing our petition before the seat of grace.

Paul says we are to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17), not "pray reservedly lest we repeat ourselves" (as is inevitable in ceaseless prayer). One of the benefits of the rosary is that it leads naturally to the ceaseless prayer and meditation which Scripture enjoins upon us.

If there should be any lingering doubt that God doesn't look askance on repetition in prayer, note that in Revelation 4:8-11 we find the heavenly host engaging in repetitive prayer ("Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty"), said "day and night" before the throne of the Almighty, followed by repetitious antiphons from the elders.

The Hail Mary is the heart of the rosary and is said on each of the ten beads which are grouped together to form a decade, there being fifteen decades totaling 150 Hail Marys- as many Hail Marys as there are psalms. The first part of the prayer is composed of two Bible verses strung together: "Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee" (Luke 1:28) and "blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" (Luke 1:42).

The remainder of the prayer reads, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." As she was on earth called the object of divine grace (Luke 1:28) and is now in heaven a glorified saint, Mary is called "holy."

The title "Mother of God" (Greek, <Theotokos>, "God-bearer") is an ancient one. A piece of papyrus found in Egypt and dating to 250-270 invokes the intercession of the <Theotokos>.4 Catholics maintain that the person born of the Virgin Mary is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the divine Word (Greek, <Logos>), and is therefore God (John 1:1,14). As Jesus is God, humanity and divinity fully united in one Person, the mother of Jesus is therefore the mother (but not the originator or creator) of God; she is the <Theotokos>.5

Many non-Catholics object to the practice of asking the saints in heaven, including the Virgin Mary, to pray for us. Often cited is 1 Timothy 2:5, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Since Jesus is our only mediator, they argue, Mary (or any other saint) shouldn't be asked to pray on our behalf. By praying "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death," Catholics intrude on the sole mediatorship of Christ. But this idea can be held only if one believes that death creates a chasm between Christians on earth and Christians in heaven.

Catholics believe that Christians aren't separated from Christ or each other at death (Rom 8:38-39). The Body of Christ "is one though it has many parts" (1 Cor. 12:12), and Christians don't become amputated from the Body when they go to heaven. Nor are there two Churches, one in heaven and another on earth, separated by death and thus somehow not in communion with each other. The Church is the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9ff), and Jesus is a strict monogamist. We reject any idea that separates us from one another and consequently destroys the unity of the Church.

As stated in the Apostles' Creed, Catholics believe in "the communion of saints." This means that since we're all one in Christ, we can ask the saints in heaven to pray for us every bit as much as we can ask our brothers and sisters in the Lord here on earth to pray for us. Since we are specifically commanded to pray for each other (1 Tim. 2:1, Eph. 2:1, Heb. 4:16), and since the word of the Lord "stands firm in the heavens" as well as on earth (Ps. 119:89), we don't violate Scripture by asking for the prayers of the saints in heaven. It is precisely because of Christ's mediatorship that Christians in heaven can pray for those on earth.

We know the saints in heaven are aware of what occurs to us (Heb. 12:1, Luke 15:7) and that they offer prayers (Rev. 5:8-10, 8:3), including praying for God's intervention on the earth (Rev. 6:9-10). Hebrews 12:22-24 tells us we approach not only Jesus, "the mediator of the new covenant," but the heavenly Jerusalem and the "assembly of the first-born enrolled in heaven" and "the spirits of the just made perfect." We don't hesitate to ask them for their prayers because the prayers of the righteous "availeth much" (Jas. 5:16b).

Some object that the saints are dead and that the Bible forbids communication with the dead (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, 27) through mediums and other occultic means (necromancy).

But Catholics do not attempt to get information from spirits, as is done in seances. The Church condemns occult practices. Moreover, the saints in heaven aren't "dead"; they're more alive than you or I: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," Jesus quoted from Exodus. "He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. Ye therefore do greatly err" (Mark 12:26-27). If Jesus did not intend the saints on earth to communicate with the saints in heaven, he certainly set a rather poor example in appearing to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor (Matt. 17:1-8).

Sometimes Fundamentalists such as Jimmy Swaggart say that praying ten Hail Marys to every Our Father confirms their worst fears about Catholicism: Catholics prefer Mary to God by a margin of ten to one. This assertion is not only offensive to Catholics, but it's logically awry as well. Looking at a King James Bible, does the fact that Paul's name occurs 126 times in the book of Acts compared with only 68 times for Jesus' name imply that the author of Acts thought Paul twice as important as Jesus? Does the fact that the Protestant translation of the book of Esther contains neither the word "God" nor the word "Lord" mean that the author of that book was an atheist? Such statistical "proofs" prove nothing at all. The rosary is a devotion in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, under divine inspiration, herself prophesied that all generations would call her blessed (Luke 1:48). In such devotions Catholics happily fulfill the prophecy, recalling that God blesses us when we bless those whom he has especially favored (Gen. 12:3, 27:29, Num. 24:9).

After the ten Hail Marys, the Gloria is said on the solitary bead separating the decades. It's a doxology that has been used since the Trinitarian controversies of the early Church: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." It is, like the Apostles' Creed and the Our Father, to be found in most mainline Protestant churches.

Yet there is more to the rosary than "rattling off" prayers. The rosary is a contemplation of the Gospels. With each decade is associated a "mystery," Gospel episode to be meditated upon, the word "mystery" being used in the theological sense of divine revelation. There are fifteen mysteries divided into three groups of five: joyful, sorrowful, and glorious.

The joyful mysteries are the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), Mary's visitation to Elizabeth (Luke 1:3956), the Nativity (Luke 2:1-20), the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38), and the finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52).

The sorrowful mysteries are the agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-53), the scourging (John 19:1; Is. 53:5), the crowning with thorns (Mark 15:17-20), the way of the cross (Mark 15:20-22), and the Crucifixion (John 19:18-30).

The glorious mysteries comprise: the Resurrection (John 20:1-29), the Ascension (Acts 1:6-12), the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13), the Assumption of Mary (Rev. 12:12), and Mary's coronation in heaven (Rev. 12:1-2, 5).

Note that all of the fifteen mysteries, except for the last two, are explicitly taught in the Bible. We'll close with an examination of the two that are present only by implication.

The bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her life is neither explicitly taught nor contradicted by the Bible, though there are precedents (Hebrews 11:5 mentions the assumption of Enoch; 2 Kings 2:113 recounts that of Elijah; Paul admits the possibility of his own bodily assumption in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). There is no indication that Mary's remains were venerated as relics (a customary practice in the early Church), and the belief in her Assumption is held both in the East (Orthodox) and in the West (Catholic).

Mary is perceived in Catholic thought as the proto-Christian and the symbol of the Church as a whole. Hence her Assumption is seen as a sign of the ultimate destiny of the Church: Christ will come at the end in order to take his Bride into the kingdom and to glorify her (2 Thess. 4:16-17). The belief in the Assumption is affirmed by all Christian communities having historic links with the ancient Church—which our Lord promised to lead into all truth (John 16:12-13; cf. Matt. 16:18, 28:20). The belief is very old as well as widespread, and those who deny this teaching do so without scriptural warrant, for Christians are to follow <all> apostolic traditions, whether or not written in the New Testament (2 Thess. 2:15).

The coronation of Mary in heaven should be understood against the Jewish background of early Christianity. In Judah, partly because of the Fourth Commandment (Ex. 20:12), the mother of the anointed king had a function of considerable importance, and her name is with only two exceptions associated with the accession of the king in the official annals.6 The king's mother bore the powerful and prestigious title of Gebirah7 and received honors of the first order. She had an official place at the court, was mistress of the harem, had enough power to seize complete control over the nation (as did Athaliah in 842 B.C., 2 Kgs. 11:1-3), was sent into exile with the king (as was Nehushta in 597 B.C., Jer. 29:2), and could be deposed (as was King Asa's idolatrous grandmother, Maacah, who first became queen mother during the reign of her son Abijam,1 Kgs. 15:2, 10,13, 2 Chron. 15:16). The <Gebirah> was a monarchical institution and had a throne and a crown.8

As Jesus is the ultimate King of the Jews, fulfilling the messianic prophecy in 2 Samuel 7:10-17, it would be strange indeed if Mary did not have this crown as the ultimate queen mother. The monarchical nature of the kingdom of God, complete with queen mother, may be difficult to appreciate for those who live in a democratic culture, but it was something accepted as natural in early Christendom, as witnessed by the art and literature.

In 1 Kings 1:16, 31 we see Queen Bathsheba petitioning King David, her husband, by bowing "her face to the earth, and [doing] homage to the king, and [saying], 'Let my lord, King David, live forever!'" This was common protocol in the court of an Oriental monarch, though the position of the queen seems to have been somewhat higher in other Near Eastern countries than it was in Judah and Israel (but compare Jezebel in 1 Kings 21:7-11).

Contrast this to the next chapter. In 1 Kings 2:13-20 Solomon, the son of David, has come to the throne. Adonijah approaches "Bathsheba the mother of Solomon" with a request and says, "Please speak to King Solomon, for he will not refuse you." Bathsheba promises to intercede with Solomon on his behalf (compare John 2:1-11, where Mary intercedes with Jesus), not seeing through Adonijah's plot to seize the throne. "Bathsheba therefore went to King Solomon, to speak to him for Adonijah." The use of the title "King Solomon" hints that Solomon acts in his official capacity (cf. verse 23).

Instead of Bathsheba scraping her face on the floor before Solomon as previously she had done before David, King Solomon "rose up to meet her and bowed down to her and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king's mother; so she sat at his right hand. Then she said, 'I desire one small petition of you; do not refuse me.' And the king said to her, 'Ask it, my mother, for I will not refuse you'" (vv. 19-20). Solomon wasn't merely being a nice son. It was a custom throughout the ancient world to make the right-hand seat the place of honor and of delegated authority, which is precisely why the New Testament speaks of Christ as being seated at the right hand of the Father. Bathsheba's status in society had changed; she had become the "king's mother."

The Bible teaches that the Old Testament types (such as the Passover lamb, the Flood, Hagar, and Sarah) find their fulfillment in the New Testament (John 1:29, 1 Pet. 3:18-21, Gal. 4:21-31). As Christ is superior to the Passover lamb which foreshadowed him, the fulfillment of the type is always greater than the type itself. Christians have recognized that Jesus Christ, Son of David and King of Israel <par excellence>, is the perfect fulfillment of King Solomon, the original son of David. Christians have also recognized that the Virgin Mary fulfills perfectly the role of Solomon's mother, the original <Gebirah> who foreshadowed the mother of the Messiah.

Catholics believe Jesus rose from his throne in heaven and, like Solomon, came down to meet his mother and elevated her to be with him (the Assumption). He then led her to a throne set up for her at his right hand in a position of authority and special honor (the coronation). Here, like Bathsheba, she intercedes on our behalf as the queen mother of the Church, the spiritual Israel (Rom. 11:17ff, 1 Pet. 2:9). From lowly handmaid of the Lord to <Gebirah> of the kingdom of God: "For he has regarded the lowly state of his maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me.... He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly" (Luke 1:48-49, 52).

Epicetus in the second century said that "if your heart is set upon a crown, make and put on one of roses, for it will make the prettier appearance." "Rosary" comes from the Latin <rosarium>, which means "rose garden" and suggests the presention of a rose wreath to our Lady.

Here is the crowning of the King's Mother (Rev. 12:1) and, more importantly, of the King of Kings himself (Rev. 6:2). It is through persevering in the faith that we hope to be given our own crowns (Rev. 2:10), and no other devotional practice surpasses the rosary in obtaining and strengthening the grace necessary for this end. "Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one" (1 Cor. 9:25).

T. L. Frazier writes from the Los Angeles area, where he prays the rosary regularly.


1. Jimmy Swaggart, <Catholicism and Christianity> (Baton Rouge: Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 1986).

2. Ibid., 160-161.

3. <Battalogeo,> which is a very rare Greek word except in writings dependent on the New Testament, is perhaps connected with the Aramaic word <battal> (idle, useless). <Battal> is used in an Aramaic papyrus from Qumran with the meaning of "without effect." The Sinaitic Syriac manuscript of Matthew renders this verse as "Do not be saying idle things."

4. Papyrus 470 in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England.

5. If a biblical proof-text is wanted for the title <Theotokos>, one should look at the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, who looks at Mary and exclaims, "But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord (Greek: <ha mater tou kyriou mou>) should come to me?" (Luke 1:43). As anyone familiar with the Bible is aware, the title "Lord" is practically synonymous with the God of Israel (Ps. 110:1-4). Indeed, whenever the translators of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) found the word "YHWH" (the Tetragrammaton, "Yahweh") in the Hebrew text, they translated it as Lord (kyrios), though kyrios is really the Greek translation of <Adonai>, the Hebrew word for Lord. Thus what Elizabeth exclaimed could be reworded, "But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my God should come to me?"

6. See 1 Kings 14:21; 15:2,10; 22:42; 2 Kings 8:26; 9:6-7,22; 12:1; 14:2; 15:2,33; 18:2; 22:1; 23:31,36; 24:18.

7. Literally "lady" or "mistress," used six times in the Bible and always as the title of a queen, whether the wife (1 Kgs. 11:19) or mother of a king (1 Kgs. 15:13, 2 Kgs. 10:13, 2 Chron. 15:16, Jer. 13:18, 29:2). It ought to be noted that the title is used only once in reference to the wife of a king, and even there it is used of Tahpenes, the queen of Egypt, and not of a queen of Judah, where the title is associated more with the queen mother.

8. Compare Jeremiah 13:18, where the prophet proclaims to the eighteen-year-old Jehoiachin and the queen mother, Nehushta, "Say to the king and to the queen mother, 'Come down from your thrones, for your glorious crowns will fall from your heads.'"

This article was taken from the September, 1994 issue of "This Rock," published by Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131, $24.00 per year.