Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion

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Stephen J. Shoemaker
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $38.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300217216.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Stephen Shoemaker, in his new book, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, states in the opening that “this book has been in the works for a long time;” indeed, he has published widely on this topic, such as with The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition & Assumption (Oxford University Press, 2006), The Life of the Virgin (Yale University Press, 2012), and several articles. Here, he is interested in investigating the early Christian apocrypha on Mary, which are largely “untapped.” Indeed, Shoemaker is correct in that several new editions and translations of works on Mary’s Dormition and Assumption have been published within the past fifty years, which requires reexamination of this topic.

Methodologically and chronologically, Shoemaker covers the time frame of the second- to the sixth-centuries, seeking primarily to demonstrate the evidence of early Marian piety and veneration before the Council of Ephesus. He claims that past scholars have overlooked the origins of devotion to her, focusing instead on her vis-à-vis doctrinal issues, which is generally true. Past scholarship generally points to the Council of Ephesus as the turning point in the history of Marian devotion. Thus, this book covers several texts written before the ecumenical Council of 431 CE to prove his point.

The first two chapters cover Mary in the New Testament and in the works of third-century figures, such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. Here, Shoemaker sets the scene of Mary’s limited role in the biblical narrative, and demonstrates that these early third-century figures were content with existing second-century ideas about her. A brief discussion of Gnostic and apocryphal texts—Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, the Pistis Sophia, & The Gospel of Bartholomew—end this chapter, demonstrating that some Christians, whether mainstream or heretical, were already venerating Mary in this period.

The next three chapters are perhaps Shoemaker’s greatest contributions given his thesis—to demonstrate Marian piety before the council. Here, he primarily discusses apocryphal works, such as The Book of Mary’s Repose and the Six Books Dormition Apocryphon, third- and fourth-century texts respectively. The former, which only survives in Classical Ethiopian, depicts a rather dysfunctional holy family—Joseph has tirades about Mary’s nurturing of the young Jesus, he accuses her of not guarding her virginity, he has a tendency toward drunkenness, and Mary even admits to sinning once. This text forces the reader to reconsider many traditional notions about Mary in early Christianity. As a Gnostic text, Mary is praised more for her knowledge of cosmic mysteries than her purity; however, the overall work promoted veneration to her, as did the Six Books Dormition Apocpryphon, a fourth-century account that provides evidence of the liturgical practices related to Mary before the Council as well. Chapter 5 bookends this section with references to patristic figures, such as Athanasius and Jerome, who wrote supporting Mary’s perpetual virginity. Shoemaker employs material culture as well to argue that the image of Mary was dispersed throughout the Mediterranean before the Council, showing her importance before the doctrinal issues of the Theotokos debate at the Council, which is the topic of chapter 6.

One slight negative of the book, which is due simply to the limitation of sources, is that the author relies heavily on apocryphal and Gnostic texts to demonstrate the veneration of Mary before Ephesus. Methodologically, Shoemaker directly states this and justifies this in the book. Indeed, he is right in that the existence of such texts does demonstrate some sort of veneration and piety to Mary before the Council. Nevertheless, it is a limitation worth mentioning given the amount of scholarship on the topic of the identity and formation of early Christianity, which Shoemaker is fair to.

Overall, the work is successful in its goals to demonstrate that the cult of the Virgin Mary existed before the Council of Ephesus. A particular strength of this book is Shoemaker’s use of sources beyond Greek and Latin. Indeed, he brings to light several sources and works—some for the first time—that may be little known to researchers in this field. This work furthers the field and is a must-read for graduate students and professors interested in the cult of the Virgin Mary and the origins of piety and devotion to her.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Brazinski is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow at The Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen J. Shoemaker is professor of religious studies at the University of Oregon, specializing in the history of Christianity and the beginnings of Islam. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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