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Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion
by stephen j. shoemaker
yale, 304 pages, $28

The Virgin Mary is a shibboleth. Whatever one thinks of Jesus, it is impossible to be neutral about her place in Christian doctrine and devotion. Either Mary is essential to the faith as the Mother of God, or she is a mere woman, or (perhaps) she is a quasi-pagan goddess who endangers the dignity and prerogatives of her son as Creator and Lord. There is no middle ground, no shared pronunciation by which Mary might be both the glorious Virgin Mother and the historically humble mother of Jesus. There is no historiography by which she might be both theologically necessary as the creature in whom the Creator took on flesh and historically recoverable as the Jewish peasant from Galilee. Either she is the Woman seen and foreseen in the Scriptures to become the Mother of God or she is a later historical invention who distracts from the singularity of Christ.

Of course, most scholars of Marian devotion do not put the dichotomy in such stark terms, instead leaving the reasons for Mary’s presence in Christianity open to debate and the early history of her cult unresolved. Stephen Shoemaker is one of the few historians brave enough to tackle the question head-on, and his book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion is almost the only recent attempt at anything like a comprehensive study of the development of the cult of the Virgin in late antiquity. Byzantinist Averil Cameron called for such a reassessment more than twenty-five years ago, but thus far only disparate studies, as for example those collected by Chris Maunder in Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary (2008), have appeared. In his earlier scholarship, Shoemaker has concentrated on the apocryphal stories associated with the traditions of Mary’s death, resurrection, and Assumption into heaven. In the present book, he brings together more than twenty years of studies of the evidence for Mary’s cult from the centuries before the Council of Ephesus (a.d. 431) recognized her formally as “Mother of God” (Theotokos) to argue for a new version of how Mary emerged in these early centuries as a focus for Christian devotion as one of a number of non-martyr saints.

Typically, scholarship on Mary has broken down along confessional lines, with Catholic scholars looking to the early evidence for traces of modern Mariological dogmas, and Protestant scholars and their secular confrères looking rather to demonstrate that Marian devotion did not quite belong in the early Church but became a significant feature of Christian piety only after the Council of Ephesus. Neither tradition of historiography, in Shoemaker’s view, considers the evidence properly on its own terms. I would agree. The question is whether Shoemaker himself is able to avoid making a similarly bounded confessional claim.

Against the Catholics, Shoemaker argues that there is little evidence that early Christians had formulated answers to the kinds of questions that modern theologians would ask about Mary, whether about her conception, her Assumption, or her role as Mother of the Church. Nor, he insists, does looking to the early sources for these kinds of formulations do justice to the historical reasons for the emergence of Mary’s cult.

Against the Protestants, Shoemaker argues that the evidence for devotion to Mary in the centuries before the Council of Ephesus (generally viewed as the beginning of widespread Marian devotion) is much richer than previously believed. More to the point, it is more abundant and earlier than that for the development of devotion to other female saints like Thecla, often invoked as counterexamples to the idea of Mary’s priority in early Christian devotion. Nor, Shoemaker says, is there any need to go outside the Christian tradition in order to explain Mary’s presence in early Christian devotion, as many scholars inspired by the Protestant skepticism about Mary have done. Mary was not some exotic add-on to Christianity, a pagan goddess imposed upon or co-opted by Christians dissatisfied with their own tradition. Rather, in Shoemaker’s words, “the basic principles undergirding those . . . beliefs and practices [associated with Mary] . . . arose from a logic that was native to the early Christian tradition itself”—that of devotion to the saints. In Shoemaker’s view, Mary was

effectively a saint among other saints who was revered for her exceptional purity and holiness as well as her intimacy with her son, a much more modest status that she retains, more or less, in much of the Christian East up until the present day. . . . Her veneration and intercession were not different in kind from that of other saints, but rather in quality.

It is at this point that Shoemaker makes his own confessional position clear. To be sure, he contends, Mary had a more significant place in early Christian piety than most Protestants would accord her. But she did not have the status of “super-saint” that she acquired later in the history of Christianity, when, in Shoemaker’s words, she “sometimes came to be regarded as almost superhuman and was elevated dangerously close to an equal footing with her son.”

Shoemaker thus ends up following the usual Protestant view. By his reading, Mary figures but little in the New Testament and hardly at all as a “figure in her own right.” It was only in the second century with the Protevangelium of James that early Christians seem to have taken a real interest in her, and even then, he says, there is little evidence of actual devotion to her until the third century, when prayers for her intercession like Sub tuum praesidium seem to have become the vogue.

Much here depends on one’s definition of devotion. Because he defines devotion as an appeal for intercession, Shoemaker is able to bracket some of the more astonishing indications of reverence in early texts about Mary. For example, as Mary Foskett has observed, in the Protevangelium the Virgin appears as a kind of “sacred object dedicated to the Lord.” Shoemaker himself notes: “Mary is portrayed [in the Protevangelium] as possessing a unique holiness that distinguishes her from other human beings, not in the sense of her observance of personal piety, but rather as one who embodied the sacred itself in her own person.” Why is this not a sign of early Christian devotion?

Throughout the Protevangelium, Mary is described as someone—or something—specially prepared by God for a specific purpose. She is miraculously conceived after her parents, hitherto childless, pray for a child. They send her at age three to be raised in the Temple. When she reaches puberty, she is betrothed for her own protection to Joseph, and when the angel Gabriel comes to her with news that she has been chosen by God to bear the Son of the Most High, she is spinning the purple and scarlet threads used in the weaving of the Temple veil.

Shoemaker comments: “Although the typology of Mary as the Temple of the Lord would not develop into its mature form for several more centuries, clearly the Protevangelium envisions Mary as a physical embodiment of holiness much in the same way that the Temple served as an unmatched locus of divine sanctity on earth.” For Shoemaker, however, this exalted status accorded Mary is not evidence of early Marian devotion, but instead an anachronistic puzzle. It is an anomaly rather than a clue.

Shoemaker places similar brackets around the evidence in subsequent early apocryphal accounts. Only insofar as they attempt to establish Mary as a historical figure in her own right does he view them as contributing to her role as saint. Whenever they present her as something other than a simple historical figure—a teacher of the sacred mysteries necessary for salvation, as she appears in several of the Nag Hammadi texts; the mother of the Great Cherub of Light, as she appears in the third-century Book of Mary’s Repose—she remains outside the province of devotion proper. Shoemaker says that the Book of Mary’s Repose, on which he has worked extensively, “reveals only the most basic elements of Marian veneration.”

This book, now extant in full only in Classical Ethiopic (Ge’ez) and in fragments in Syriac (Christian Aramaic) and Old Georgian, represents the earliest version of the narrative of Mary’s death, resurrection, and Assumption into heaven—a tale that was well-known in the medieval Christian West. The story opens with Mary hearing from the Lord that she is about to die. A “great angel” appears to her and gives her a book, which he instructs her to give to the apostles at her death. In good Lukan fashion, Mary challenges the angel: Why had he only brought one book, and what is his name? The angel answers her: “Why do you ask me my name? For it is a great wonder to be heard. . . . Go then to the Mount of Olives, and you will hear my name.” When Mary goes up on the mountain, the trees bow and venerate the book that she is carrying in her hands. At once, Mary recognizes the angel as her son, Jesus. “I am he,” he tells her, “who is in the trees and who is in the mountain.”

After her encounter with the great angel on the mountain, Mary returns to her house to prepare for her death. The apostles arrive seated on clouds to pray with her, at which point Mary blesses “the Great Cherub of Light, who dwelt in my womb.” Mary’s womb as a source of light would become a standard image in later medieval devotion to her, as, for example, in the fifth-century Akathistos hymn where she is hailed as “a torch full of light, shining upon those in darkness . . . [who] guides all to divine knowledge, illuminating the mind with brilliance.” In the same vein, in the Book of Mary’s Repose, Peter prays: “Thus the light of our sister Mary’s lamp fills the world and will not be extinguished until the end of days, so that those who have decided to be saved will receive assurance from her. And if they receive the image of light, they will receive her rest and her blessing.”

The climax of the story comes after Mary has spent several days in the tomb, when the Lord returns with innumerable angels to bear her body away into the clouds. Angels carry her to the East to paradise and place her body beside the tree of life (an image associated with the ancient temple, taken up with enthusiasm by the author of the Book of Revelation), where they place her soul back into her body.

The apostles, who have come along for the ride, ask Jesus if they can witness the torments of the damned as he promised, at which the clouds snatch them up along with Mary, Michael, and “Our Lord,” and carry them over Gehenna. Along with Michael, the angels of the waters and the winds and the clouds plead for mercy on those in torment, who cry out to Mary when they see her: “Mary, we beseech you, Mary, light and the mother of light; Mary, life and mother of the apostles; Mary, golden lamp, you who carry every righteous lamp; Mary, our master and the mother of our Master; Mary, our queen, beseech your son to give us a little rest.” After Mary’s intercession, the Lord offers them “nine hours of rest on the Lord’s day.”

The apostles and Mary are then carried to paradise, where they sit under the tree of life with the patriarchs and all the souls of the good. Then the Lord leads them up to the seventh heaven, “where God sits.” Thereafter, Mary appears to the apostles seated at the right hand of God, and Christ appears with his wounds, while ten thousand angels surround Mary on her throne, singing.

For Shoemaker, there is very little in this story that suggests orthodox devotion to the Virgin. In his words, “Here, instead of the passive, obedient Virgin celebrated by the Protevangelium and the early church fathers, we find Jesus’ mother revered not for her purity but for her knowledge of the cosmic mysteries and her influence with her son. . . . This Mary is not the Mother of God; instead she is the mother of the Great Cherub of Light.” But this Mary is Mary as the Mother of God, not, to be sure, as she is depicted in most modern descriptions of her, but most certainly as she appears throughout the Middle Ages, as well as in the early Christian period, beginning with the New Testament.

Again, the mystery depends upon how we read. In the Book of Revelation, we read that “a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” who gives birth in anguish to a child who is “to rule all the nations.” In modern Bibles, this passage comes at the beginning of chapter 12, but, as Margaret Barker has pointed out, the ancient text would have had no such divisions. Rather, the woman appears “in heaven” because, as it says in Revelation 11:19, “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” Mary was that woman in Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of the Lord.

“Imagine,” Scott Hahn invites his readers in Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God,

that you are a first-century reader [of Revelation], raised as a Jew. You have never seen the ark, but all your religious and cultural upbringing has taught you to long for its restoration in the temple. John builds anticipation, so that he almost seems to be teasing such readers by describing the sound and fury accompanying the ark. The dramatic tension becomes nearly unbearable. The reader wants to see the ark, as John sees it.

Like Barker, Hahn reads John as here revealing Mary as the longed-for ark, the woman who would give birth to the Christ who, anointed by God, would sit upon the throne and rule over the kingdom of God. Hahn also reads Luke as signaling a similar correspondence between Mary and the ark through the parallels the evangelist makes between the ark’s journey to Jerusalem as recounted in 2 Samuel 6 and Mary’s journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” King David exclaimed (2 Sam. 6:9). “Why is this granted me,” Elizabeth cried out on seeing Mary, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Likewise, Hahn adds:

we read further that David “danced” for joy in the presence of the ark (2 Samuel 6:14, 16), and we find a similar expression used to describe the leaping of the child within Elizabeth’s womb as Mary approached (Luke 1:44). Finally, the ark remained in the hill country for three months (2 Samuel 6:11), the same amount of time Mary spent with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56).

For the better part of two centuries, Christians and scholars of Christianity have been engaged in a quest for the historical Jesus, the man behind the stories told about the Lord Jesus Christ. In searching for Mary as she was revered “in her own right,” Shoemaker is on a similar hunt. He tries to imagine Mary not as she appears in the late antique or medieval sources, as a figure of glory and power, but rather as the “Jewish peasant from Galilee.” But this is to apply our own criteria of interest, not those of the earliest Christians. Rather than asking why the New Testament authors and other early Christians said “so little” about Mary, we ought to ask why they mentioned her at all. It is true, as Shoemaker and almost every other scholar who has written about the early devotion to Mary have pointed out, that the earliest Christians seem not to have seen Mary as a person “in her own right” so much as an object—in Foskett’s words, “a sacred object dedicated to the Lord.” But what a sacred object she was!—as even the sources cited in passing by Shoemaker make clear.

“O womb more spacious than a city!” the eponymous apostle of the third-century Gospel (Questions) of Bartholomew exclaimed, when Jesus granted him and the other apostles the opportunity to behold the devil in chains. Invited to tread upon the devil’s neck, Bartholomew invoked the Virgin Mary for courage.

O womb wider than the span of heaven! O womb that contained him whom the seven heavens do not contain. You contained him without pain and held in your bosom him who changed his being into the smallest of things. O womb that bore, concealed in (your) body, the Christ who has been made visible to many. O womb that became more spacious than the whole creation.

Shoemaker comments: “It is an unusual prayer, given the circumstances. One might expect instead a more direct request for [Mary’s] aid and protection.” But it is a prayer, as he rightly notes, foreshadowing what would become one of Mary’s most popular titles in the Orthodox liturgy for her feasts, where she would be hailed as “wider than heaven,” her womb containing him “who could not be contained.”

“Hail, Mary the Theotokos,” Cyril of Alexandria is said to have exclaimed following Nestorius’s condemnation at the Council of Ephesus. Cyril continued by praising Mary as “the revered treasure of the whole world, the inextinguishable lamp, the crown of virginity, the scepter of orthodoxy, the indissoluble temple, the container of the uncontainable, mother and virgin.” If Mary was exalted by the council as the one who gave birth to him who was both God and man, it was not because the council had recently discovered Mary’s importance as a historical person. It was because, within the tradition to which Christianity was heir, the Lord was expected to be enthroned in his temple, seated upon the cherubim, his face shining with the light of ten thousand suns (Ezek. 1).

This was Mary as she was celebrated on her feast days in the earliest liturgies we have. These feasts were celebrated from as early as the fourth century in both Constantinople and Jerusalem. “Arise, O Lord,” the people sang the words of Psalm 131:8 at the feast of Mary in Jerusalem (kept by the early fifth century on August 15), “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou has sanctified.” They then read from Isaiah 7:10–16: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” If we, as modern scholars and Christians alike, have difficulty finding any early Christian devotion to the Virgin to whom the people of Jerusalem sang, perhaps it is because, like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we have been digging in the wrong place.

Only an over-narrow definition of devotion can prevent us from seeing agreement between early Christian liturgies, apocryphal texts, and the biblical canon—all of which present Mary as a sacred vessel worthy of veneration. This, in turn, cannot help but reshape our view of Christ, who no longer appears as a mere man, or modern-seeming personal savior, but instead as the Lord who became visible through his Mother, his holy temple. 

Rachel Fulton Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago.

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