- Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion by Stephen J. Shoemaker
Marian scholarship has gained much new ground in recent years. It is an oft-repeated point that ever since Averil Cameron's articles from the late seventies on the cult of the Virgin, scholars have increasingly turned their attention away from Mariological doctrine and towards Marian cult and devotion. Despite this fact, Stephen Shoemaker is actually the first one to write a monograph entirely dedicated to the Virgin of early devotion. His book provides a comprehensive survey of Christian commitment to Mary in the centuries before the Council of Ephesus (431). For this reason alone, Shoemaker's book constitutes a watershed.
There is an obvious lack of sources regarding Marian devotion in the first [End Page 344] Christian centuries. Shoemaker speaks—with a twinkle in his eye, I imagine—of "a Marian 'dark age'" (23). The canonical gospels give no clear image, and the earliest church fathers had relatively little to say about her. Thus, Shoemaker has to search elsewhere. He starts from the fact that some important Marian sources—like the second-century Protevangelium of James—stand out as strikingly early and strikingly developed. What can this mean? And how can we fill the gap between these few important sources? One of the many assets of Shoemaker's Marian scholarship (including this book) is his ability to draw attention to new or understudied sources. He explores hagiographical texts, prayers, and liturgical literature, as well as archeological material. By considering texts that have previously been interpreted as too popular or too heterodox, he is able to develop a more complex picture from the obscure darkness as he tries to imagine who Mary was for the Christians in the first four centuries and how believers related to her.
The chapters move semi-chronologically forward, and so Chapter One treats the canonical gospels and the Protevangelium. Chapter Two explores the Sub tuum praesidium papyrus as well as the figure called "Mary" in the Nag Hammadi corpus and other non-canonical gospels. Although this character has often been interpreted as the Magdalene, Shoemaker points out that it may just as well be Jesus's mother—it may, in fact, be both at the same time. In Chapters Three and Four, he turns to the dormition narratives. Chapter Five comprises a broader survey of fourth-century liturgical practices, hymnography, and material culture. Finally, Chapter Six revisits the Nestorian crisis and Empress Pulcheria's much-debated role therein.
For twenty years, Shoemaker has published on questions related to representations of and devotion to the Virgin Mary in late antiquity, and hence he has established himself as a leading Marian scholar. Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion summarizes his work on the earliest period. Shoemaker's underlying thesis is that the Marian figure played a much more important role in early Christianity than what he calls "the Marian minimalism" (229) that previous scholarship has allowed for; Marian piety cannot be reduced to an offshoot of the christological debates around the Ephesus Council and its decree that orthodox Christianity should rightly call Mary Theotokos.
Devotion to Mary had its roots in popular beliefs and practices, Shoemaker concludes, rather than in the intellectual writings of theologians. Additionally, the circles that would later be written out of the mainstream ("gnostics") by ecclesiastical authors were more interested in the mother of Jesus than the milieus we sometimes call proto-orthodox. These are indeed important insights. Yet there may also be an unresolved tension in this twofold argument, since Nag Hammadi hardly represented the most popular expression of Christianity.
Another point that Shoemaker makes is that during the pre-Ephesian period and throughout late antiquity, Mary was not primarily perceived as the Mother of God. She ranked among the "ordinary" saints and was not fundamentally different; the divinely privileged woman by Christ's side represents a later development. I find this part of Shoemaker's argument a bit puzzling, since he so lucidly shows what a unique role Mary had from a very early date...