Book Note | Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion

by Sr. Maria del Fiat Miola in


Stephen J. Shoemaker. Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 

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Did Mary hold a particular place in the minds and hearts of the early Christian faithful? In this book, Stephen Shoemaker answers with a resounding yes and challenges both scholarly opinions and ideological prejudices to show that Marian piety and devotion was an integral part of Christianity from its origins, not an invention of medieval theologians or even the Council of Ephesus. Shoemaker’s prodigious command of ancient languages and his careful study of little-known texts and manuscripts over the course of nearly two decades make this volume a unique contribution to the debates over early Marian devotion and dogma.

In a useful introduction, Shoemaker lays out the problem and the gap he wishes to solve and fill: scholars have tended to look at doctrinal texts on Mary and have all but ignored the presence of Marian piety in the first centuries. By charting a devotional rather than theological survey about the Virgin Mary, he aims to create a new narrative about her import in the early Church. He also clarifies his methodology, proposing to examine Marian devotion “from the inside” rather than as an external and foreign element, situating the cult of Mary within the larger context of the cult of the saints (11-14).

The body of the book is organized clearly and chronologically in six chapters. Shoemaker shines brightest when he presents texts that are virtually unknown from Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Slavonic manuscripts. At the same time, he re-interprets old sources and revisits familiar controversies in the light of Marian piety, like the Nag Hammadi codices and Pulcheria’s role in the Nestorian controversy (73-4, 87-9; 210-22). Throughout the book, Shoemaker strives for clarity and eschews all obfuscation, repeating his thesis when necessary, prefacing unfamiliar texts and concepts, and summarizing complex debates. He manages to maintain a careful balance between robust scholarship and general readability and accessibility.

His first chapter recounts the devotion to Mary in the first two centuries, most especially in the canonical biblical books and in the Protoevangelium of James. He shows how Mary’s virginity was a key belief in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of Luke, which also presents Mary as a model of belief and discipleship. His explanation of the relative absence of the Virgin Mary in Mark and Paul –due to their theological interest in the evangelization of the Gentiles—fails to convince wholly (39-43). He more successfully presents Marian devotion in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus under the guise of the New Eve, and then rightly highlights the Protoevangelium as the first Marian biography and liturgical and quasi-canonical text that laid the foundations for Marian piety. In this section he particularly demonstrates his prowess in the extensive manuscript tradition (49-50) and in his careful reading of a variant that emphasizes Mary’s sacred purity (56-7).

In the second chapter, Shoemaker turns to the third century, in which the virginal conception becomes universally upheld and the title “Theotokos” apparently first comes into use. Though the Church fathers don’t have much more to say about Mary during this time period, Shoemaker shows how the Marian lex orandi (“law of praying”) goes before the lex credendi (“law of believing”); in other words, Marian popular devotion is ahead of doctrinal formulation. He extends this hypothesis through other chapters as well. He dates the famous Rylands papyrus 470, which contains the extraordinary Sub Tuum Praesidium (“Under Your Protection”) prayer in Coptic, to the third century. He then tackles a wide range of apocryphal texts, showing that during the second and third centuries the Christians emphasized two aspects of Mary in particular: her possession of esoteric knowledge and her divine maternity. He boldly proposes a reinterpretation of certain texts like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Sophia of Jesus Christ, and Dialogue with the Savior by claiming that the Virgin Mary is more likely to be the unspecified “Mary” than Mary Magdalene. Here Shoemaker disrupts the usual scholarly assumptions about these gnostic and heterodox texts, and claims convincingly that the contemporary Christian reception of the texts would have been as least as likely, if not more likely, to identify the figure as Mary of Nazareth as Mary of Magdala.

In chapters three and four, Shoemaker appropriately centralizes the fruit of his most extensive research, which concerns the oft-neglected ancient Dormition and Assumption narratives of the third and fourth centuries. These traditions about the departure of Mary from this earth have been preserved in about forty scattered texts in nine different languages. First he discusses the older tradition found in the exemplar Book of Mary’s Repose, which he dates to the third century. This bizarre narrative contains heterodox and esoteric varieties of Christianity such as angel Christology and a dysfunctional holy family; at the same time, there are very important passages regarding Mary’s intercessory power, even on behalf the damned, as well as the miraculous power of her relics. He then turns to the second tradition of Dormition narratives as exemplified in the Six Books Dormition Apocryphon, an account probably from the middle of the fourth century preserved in five early Syriac manuscripts. This more orthodox text found a place in early liturgy and had a wide circulation in abridged versions of various languages. This text shows a fully developed Marian piety: she receives many acts of veneration by apostles and angels, she effects miraculous healings, she mediates on behalf of those awaiting judgment. Furthermore, it is here that we have perhaps the earliest witnesses to Marian apparitions and, even more significantly, to liturgical commemorations in the form of three annual feasts. In a long excursus in this section, Shoemaker affirms how belief in Mary’s Assumption and the ritual practices of the Kollyridians (a dissenting group accused by Epiphanius of Salamis of offering bread to Mary and permitting women clergy) were almost certainly linked, and thus how Marian veneration historically also took place in heterodox circles. The latter theme is repeated throughout the monograph to explain the puzzling patristic silence on Mary.

The fifth chapter, which focuses on the fourth century, is the most varied and perhaps the most intriguing; in it Shoemaker engages the material culture and archaeological record alongside more traditional textual sources. In Alexandria, Mary is frequently addressed as the “Theotokos,” and in the Cappadocians (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus) we find perhaps the earliest patristic witness to the practice of Marian intercession and Marian apparition (174-6). Fathers like Athanasius, Ambrose, and Jerome would hail her as an ascetic model, and use her in the theological debates about the superiority of the virginal state. Shoemaker bolsters the liturgical evidence for early Marian feasts from Athanasius and Proclus with two important and overlooked sources, the Jerusalem Armenian Lectionary and Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook, and late ancient Jerusalem emerges as primary for the cult of the Virgin. He also examines the archaeological evidence for the Kathisma of Theotokos between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the holy spot where Mary rested before giving birth. Shoemaker proposes that the smaller church and annexed monastery be interpreted as the earliest site of an annual Marian commemoration, built in the late fourth or early fifth century (182-4). A comprehensive list of images or possible images of the Virgin follows from catacombs, gold glass, Gallic tombstones, and doors of Santa Sabina, and Shoemaker is admirably attentive to other kinds of Marian piety found in amulets, papyri texts, and even the frequent appearance of the name of Mary in Egypt. After such a rich chapter, his controversial claim (respectfully submitted against Stephen Davis) that the cult of the Virgin Mary enjoyed more universal popularity in the early Church than that of Thecla, leaves little room for counterarguments.

With chapter six, Shoemaker finally arrives at the Council of Ephesus, a watershed event in Marian piety. He shows how the definition of Mary as Theotokos was not simply a logical consequence to a theological debate; rather, existing devotion to Mary as Theotokos was instrumental in deciding popular opinion against Nestorius. He thus posits that scholars should not think of the Council of Ephesus as the primary cause and inspiration for the cult of the Virgin, but a culmination of centuries of popular devotion for the Mother of God. He thus finishes turning the usual narrative about Marian piety on its head.

In conclusion, Shoemaker wears his formidable learning lightly and presents his material in a fresh, engaging manner that invites rather than intimidates. He has produced an authoritative volume that is even-handed and non-confessional in its treatment of the controversial topic of Marian devotion. Even more broadly, Shoemaker has given an excellent example of how to examine historical issues in antiquity afresh, incorporating archaeological and material evidence and diving into obscure manuscripts of the East to unearth hidden pearls. 

Sr. Maria del Fiat Miola, SSVM is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Catholic University of America

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