Book Review: How the early Christians venerated Mary

Book Review: How the early Christians venerated Mary

Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion by Stephen J. Shoemaker, Yale University Press, 289pp, £21.18 reviewed by Guy de Gaynesford
There are many studies, readily available, of how the four key Marian dogmas of the Church developed through the period of the early Church. There is, however, a lamentable lack of research into the growth of Marian devotion and piety during these centuries. This is explained in various ways, not least because popular piety does not leave behind it a well-defined body of evidence, and because what written evidence has survived from this period was focussed on the more pressing need to explain and defend theological doctrine rather than cataloguing the temperature of pious devotions.
The faithful’s devotion
This dearth of patristic witness, and an ideological conviction in the minds of some more recent scholars who have regarded any devotional attachment to the Blessed Virgin as a sign of deviant papistry in the Early Church, has led scholars, as Shoemaker acknowledges judiciously, to overlook or even to dismiss the indicators of a well-established cult of the Blessed Virgin by the year 400 AD – and, having written off the evidence as irrelevant (or unrepresentative), to claim that the Faithful demonstrated no devotion to Our Lady prior to the declaration of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD that Mary was rightfully to be called Theotokos. Shoemaker sets himself the task of establishing how far from reality this academic consensus can be shown to be: he calls upon his many years of research into early Christian texts concerning the Mother of God, and presents this, his most recent book, as the natural successor to his 2002 work the Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption.
Before the Council of Ephesus
In the absence of published works of piety (a Third-Century version of True Devotion to Mary would have been handy!), evidence for a growing cult to the Blessed Virgin will be found somewhat obliquely. There is, for instance, Emperor Julian the Apostate’s revealing complaint, made in 362 AD, that the Christians of his time simply would not cease calling Mary the Theotokos, or the evidence of Churches built in honour of the Virgin in the decades preceding the Council of Ephesus (in Ephesus itself, as well as outside Bethlehem), indicating that the cult of Our Lady was visible and publicly endorsed. More significant are the texts Shoemaker analyses for what they reveal about the Marian cult. The earliest papyrus text of the prayer Sub Tuum Praesidium is dated to the late Third Century and, tellingly, is written in the plural (“despise not our petitions”), suggestive of public, communal, recitation. Its Egyptian origin connects it with the so-called “Anaphora of Egyptian Basil”, dated to the early Fourth Century, in which the congregation is called to invoke the prayers and mercy of “the holy and glorious Mary, the Theotokos”.
A 2nd Century Mariancentric text
Shoemaker argues that the evidence reveals “a remarkably advanced level of devotion” (p192) to Our Lady by 400 AD. Foremost in his presentation is witness evidence from the celebration of the Church’s formal liturgy, in which Bishops and their clergy took prominent part. Thus, for instance, the homilies of St Gregory Nazianzen and St Gregory of Nyssa indicate not only their own personal devotion to the Virgin but also clear evidence of the establishment of liturgical feasts of Our Lady, in Constantinople itself, by 379 AD. St Gregory Nazianzen records his participation in extra-liturgical Marian events, in which apparitions of Our Lady were common. Many will be familiar with the Mariancentric text of the Second-Century Protoevangelium of James but its importance here is not in its record of Marian doctrines but in its popularity: not only do we have evidence that it was known and loved throughout the Christian East, but we also know that it was frequently read in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Evidence of the cult of the Virgin
Most significant, however, is the Six Books Dormition Apocryphon – a Greek translation of a Palestinian text, dated to the mid
Fourth Century and heavily influential in Arabic and Ethiopian Christian circles of the following several hundred years. Not only does the text speak of the Virgin receiving veneration (during her lifetime) from the Apostles, from Christian disciples and
even from the Roman Governor of Judaea, but of her being the focus of the devotion of the angels, of the Patriarchs of the Old
Testament, of King David and the saints of heaven following her assumption – she is welcomed by them, who bow before her and incense her. She is portrayed as the foremost intercessor – the Apostles themselves request her, as she lies dying, to pray for God’s mercy on them, and for a blessing for the entire world: Christ replies to her prayers “Everything you have said to me I will do to please you; and I will show mercy to everyone who calls upon your name.” (p138).
Visions and liturgies
Very wisely, Shoemaker does not get embroiled in a historical-critical debate on whether these events are historical or fictional: he argues that their presence in a Fourth Century document establishes beyond reasonable doubt that the cult of the Virgin not only as the Divine Mother, or as a pattern of holiness or discipleship, but as privileged intercessor (whose prayers are considered more effective even than the Apostles) was in full bloom by the mid Fourth Century. The same text has St John the Evangelist appear in a vision to a group of monks from Mt Sinai, and require that they establish three annual liturgical commemorations of Our Lady – after the feast of the Nativity, in May, and in mid-August: once again, the relevance of the passage is not the reliability of the story of the vision, but that it reveals that Fourth Century Egypt was entirely familiar with the liturgical celebration of the cult of Mary within the Church’s formal liturgy. It is most likely that these feasts are those to which St Athanasius refers in his letters to Epictetus, and to Maximus, in 370 AD.
Recent discovery
Perhaps the most definitive indicator of widespread, well-established, fullyauthorised, and publicly-celebrated veneration of the Blessed Virgin is found in the recently-discovered Tropologion of Jerusalem, a collection of hymns for the celebration of the Morning Office, Evening Office and Eucharist, many of which date from the Fourth Century. They were widely known, not restricted to use in Jerusalem (one is quoted in a sermon delivered in Constantinople by the priest Proclus in 430 AD). Among them are a collection of hymns in praise of Our Lady, and requesting her intercession: “She who gave birth to God, by word and without seed,/ Let us sing to her, the Virgin Mary,/ Who intercedes for the salvation of our souls.” As Shoemaker argues, these hymns give eloquent proof not only of the popularity of Marian devotion, but of the fact that it is not just a matter of individual piety but is also congregational and communal – long before Ephesus, the Faithful were accustomed to organising their expressions of Marian veneration. He is even able to demonstrate that Marian devotion was so widespread that it was not restricted to orthodox Nicene Christians, but was retained within Christian gnostic sects – which suggests they took it with them when they were increasingly distanced from the Church in the Second Century.
Ideological resistance to Mary
Shoemaker makes his case with admirable clarity, and objectivity – and if his conclusion is “provocative”, as one academic has described it, this merely illustrates the degree to which ideological resistance to the devotion of Mary is still capable of clouding the judgement of many of our contemporaries. If Shoemaker is to be criticised, it is for the frankly poor quality of his biblical exegesis in the opening chapter – however, this does not compromise the argument of his thesis, which remains confidently presented, and persuasively demonstrated. This is well worth reading.



Fr. Guy de Gaynesford is Rector of the School of the Annunciation, a Catholic Institute of Higher Education for the New Evangelisation, based at Buckfast Abbey, Devon.

Faith Magazine

July/ August 2019