Praying to the saints is a custom originating not in paganism, but in ancient Judaism, and it was no doubt part of the oral apostolic tradition.
In the Prayer of Azariah, verse 64, which is found in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, the righteous departed are called upon to praise the Lord:
O ye spirits and souls of the righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
In the Book of Enoch, which Jude quotes in his epistle, prayer to the angels in heaven is described:
And then Michael, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel looked down from heaven and saw much blood being shed upon the earth, and all lawlessness being wrought upon the earth. And they said one to another: ‘The earth made without inhabitant cries the voice of their crying up to the gates of heaven. And now to you, the holy ones of heaven, the souls of men make their suit, saying, “Bring our cause before the Most High.”’ – 1 Enoch 9:1-3
To this day, Hasidic Jews visit the graves of the tzaddikim or “righteous ones” to seek their intercession. Indeed, the tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem, the third holiest site in Judaism, is visited by thousands of Jewish pilgrims every year who seek her intercession. This is rooted in the rabbinic traditions set down in the Genesis Rabbah:
AND RACHEL DIED, AND WAS BURIED IN THE WAY TO EPHRATH (35:19). What was Jacob’s reason for burying Rachel in the way to Ephrath? Jacob foresaw that the exiles would pass on from thence, therefore he buried her there so that she might pray for mercy for them. Thus it is written, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah… Rachel weeping for her children…’
The second century Acts of Paul and Thecla describes the apostle addressing the saints in prayer at his martyrdom:
Then Paul stood with his face to the east and lifted up his hands unto heaven and prayed a long time, and in his prayer he conversed with the fathers in the Hebrew tongue, and then stretched forth his neck without speaking.
While this is an apocryphal (but not Gnostic) work, it clearly indicates that the practice was known and accepted among second century Christians.
Origen of Alexandria explains the propriety of offering prayer to saints:
Now supplication and plea and thanksgiving may be offered to people without impropriety. Two of them, namely pleading and thanksgiving, might be offered not only to saints but to people alone in general, whereas supplication should be offered to saints alone, should there be found a Paul or a Peter, who may benefit us and make us worthy to attain authority for the forgiveness of sins. – On Prayer
The catacombs are also replete with inscriptions from the ante Nicene era, both epitaphs and graffiti, asking for the intercessions of the departed.
Some examples from the third century:
- “Blessed Sozon gave back [his spirit] aged nine years; may the true Christ [receive] your spirit in peace, and pray for us.”
- “Gentanius, a believer, in peace, who lived twenty-one years, eight months, and sixteen days, and in our prayers ask for us, because we know that you are in Christ.”
- “Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days.”
- “Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins.”
And this from the early 4th century
Anatolius made this for his well-deserving son, who lived seven years, seven months, and twenty days. May thy spirit rest well in God. Pray for thy sister.
Also, in the Catacomb of St Sebastian where the relics of Peter and Paul were hidden during persecutions in the mid third century there are some 600 graffiti inscriptions asking for the intercessions of the two apostles.
Regarding prayers addressed to Mary, in the Grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth there is an inscription which has been dated from the first to third centuries.
“Under the holy place of M[ary?]I wrote there the [names] The image I adored Of her…”
This inscription is difficult to decipher because the letters are worn. But it indicates a belief in the veneration of the Virgin Mary in the early Church.
Another inscription at the same location reads “XE MAPIA” (Hail Mary).
Again, the veneration of Mary and prayers asking her intercession is a universal practice in the apostolic churches. There is one particular prayer called in the West, the Sub Tuum Praesidium which is used both east and west to this day. Formerly, the oldest manuscript containing the prayer was from a Roman liturgy of the 9th century. However, in 1917 the prayer was discovered in an Egyptian Papyrus dating to 250 AD. The prayer reads:
Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Theotokos!
Our prayers, do not despise in necessities,
but from danger deliver us,
only pure, only blessed one.
This of course was a decade before Constantine was even born, and the prayer is no doubt much older.
Origen speaks of those who with sound mind “extol” the ever-virgin Mary in his commentary on the Gospel of John. The Greek word Origen uses is doxazo, to glorify – the same word used in the New Testament of glorifying God. He also demonstrates how Mary is the mother of Christians:
We may therefore make bold to say that the Gospels are the first fruits of all the Scriptures, but that of the Gospels that of John is the first fruits. No one can apprehend the meaning of it except he have lain on Jesus’ breast and from Jesus has received Mary to be his mother also. He who is to be another John must become such a one, and must have shown to him, like John, by Jesus Himself, Jesus as He is. For if Mary, as those declare who with sound mind extol her, had no other son but Jesus, and yet Jesus says to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ (John 19:26) and not, ‘Behold you have this son also,’ then He virtually said to her, ‘Lo, this is Jesus, whom you bore.’ Is it not the case that every one who is perfect lives himself no longer, but Christ lives in him; and if Christ lives in him, then it is said of him to Mary, ‘Behold your son Christ.’
And Methodius of Olympus, in his Oration on Simeon and Anna, writes at the beginning of the 4th century:
Therefore, we pray you, the most excellent among women, who glories in the confidence of your maternal honors, that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away.