The study of early Christianity is sadly not an objective enterprise. It is tainted like all of scholarship. In order to get research grant money, one needs new ideas (in Christian jargon we call new ideas “heresies.”) To have the support of one’s faith community, one must arrive at the conclusions that they already adhere to. Conservative Protestants are loathe to find any verification of Roman Catholic beliefs. Roman Catholics are looking for proof of the Papacy and Marian veneration in every feint mention in the writings of the fathers. Secular historians are simply all over the place on the topic.
Now enter Shoemaker’s book on Marian veneration. He claims that his book is literally the first study to truly focus on the origins of Marian veneration. Shoemaker has much peer-reviewed research on the subject and teaches at a university setting. Though in the book he identifies as a Christian, his work within a traditional university setting means that his colleagues are secular historians. This puts him squarely in the “liberal” camp in the spectrum of Christianity. This begs the question–what kind of thesis will he put forward being that he is not in either traditional camp?
Being that I left the ECLA years ago, my firsthand experience with liberal theology and the perspectives of secular historians is starting to become dated. When I first became a Christian I devoured my Harper Collins Study Bible (which Dr. Bill Cook boasts contains “the best” Biblical scholarship from “Protestants, Catholics, and even Atheists”) and read books from liberal theologians. I was interested in textual criticism and so I often went to the website EarlyChristianWritings.com and read up on the topic wherever I was able to.
From this limited experience, pardon me the following stereotype–secular historians and liberal theologians are at their core contrarians. They seek to discredit the views of conservative camps, whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant, and present a “new” perspective. Often, their “insightful” research is often a rehashing of long disproven speculations from Germany in the 1800s. This is why we still have “academics” seriously entertaining late first and early second century datings for the Gospels and the New Testament epistles–though this is completely untenable even with the most cursory reading of the Apostolic Fathers and the internal evidence of the New Testament texts themselves.
Hence, with this understanding of secular historians’ take on things, we must understand Shoemaker’s history of Marian veneration.
Due to the contrarian nature of secular historians, one may be inclined to think that Shoemaker would offer research that would discredit the views of a standard Orthodox Christian. This would be only true in part, and in fact, his research actually does much to prove out historically the traditional, pre-Protestant understanding of the origins of Marian veneration.
Shoemaker’s thesis can be distilled down to this: Marian veneration is early–way early. It is the result in a growing fascination with the Virgin Mary beginning approximately a few decades after Paul penned his epistles. Saint Paul (allegedly) was at odds with the “Jerusalem faction” in Christianity and therefore downplayed the role of Jesus’ family, including His mother. After the diaspora of the Jews in 70 AD, the dispute between the Gentile and Jerusalem factions dissipated and this led to a renewed interest in Jesus’ family in the Gospels of Luke and John.
For no specific reason, this increased interest in Jesus’ family at large had a disproportionate emphasis on the Virgin Mary. Shoemaker finds this emphasis in the creedal statements in Saint Ignatius’ letters, in the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus; and then finally in explicit assertions of Mary’s sinlessness and perpetual virginity in second century “proto-orthodox” Christian works.
Where Shoemaker’s thesis gets a little more “hazy” is in how this developing fascination with Mary evolved into outright veneration. The “proto-orthodox” sources are largely silent in the third century, which Shoemaker speculates is the result of their popularity among Gnostic heretics. Shoemaker never takes a firm stand on what he actually thought was happening during this time, but his speculations appear to imply that the “proto-orthodox” and Gnostics shared the same Marian doctrines and devotion to her. As cults to the martyrs increased, an increased appreciation for the greatest human being to ever live (Mary) evolved over time. The silence of proto-orthodox sources in the third century is either (1) the result of not having an encyclopedic amount of sources from the third century or (2) lay/local practices being out of step with established theological norms among the proto-orthodox intelligentsia.
Shoemaker appears to prefer the latter of the two possibilities. As evidence for the latter, he pulls from highly disparate sources: namely ancient liturgies, hymnals, and Gnostic Gospels. Interestingly enough, the ancient liturgies and hymnals are “proto-orthodox.” The implication is that the ancient version of “the man”/”the establishment” (i.e. the church fathers and the Bishops) were initially wary of Marian veneration (neither affirming nor denying it) while “the people” (i.e. the laity and local priests) greatly revered the Theotokos. Further, Shoemaker postulates (though not always explicitly) that the line between proto-orthodox and heterodox was often blurred among “the people.”
Hence, Marian veneration was a bottom-up innovation, albeit a very early one by Shoemaker’s own estimation. This sort of 21st century Marxist-lite version of historical interpretation is what philosophically undergirds the entirety of the research presented in the book.
To Shoemaker’s credit, he does present some evidence of his conjecture. Simply labeling his interpretation as “Marxist” is not sufficient to discount it. Nevertheless, what is lacking in his study is a serious look into Gnosticism and their doctrines. While we have compelling evidence that veneration of the saints was a Jewish practice predating the birth of Christ Himself, what we do not have is similar evidence of the Gnostics doing the same before “proto-orthodox Christians.” Irenaeus, for example, fails to mention the Gnostics conducting such a scandalous practice.
Ultimately, a more over-arching study of Judaism’s veneration of the saints, Hellenistic hero-cults, Roman imperial/Lares/Manes worship, and Christian saint-veneration at large would be necessary in order to give a firm, historical answer to the question as to how Marian veneration “developed.” Sadly, Shoemaker’s work is too narrow in its focus and hinges upon simple conjecture (“look, a few Gnostic books about Mary which I assume is Mary of Nazareth and not Mary Magdalene!”)
Ultimately, what is sorely needed in both academia and in ecumenical dialogue is a serious cross disciplinary study of the veneration of saints. Shoemaker’s work admittedly is not this broad, but it helps further the dialogue and is fairly comprehensive on the topic of the Theotokos–which in itself praiseworthy.
One final and off-topic note is worth making. Shoemaker’s book, in his discussion of Marian veneration, gives a succinct but comprehensive overview of early Christian art. Not surprisingly, much of it is Marian-focused or at least debatably so, as sometimes it is hard to discern precisely who is being presented in the art. What may surprise some Protestant readers is that amongst secular historians and archaeologists, it is taken for granted that Christian iconography was widespread and very ancient (second and third century.)
Most laymen who take to the internet to research and argue out this topic are often going over well-trodden ground (Saint Epiphanius’ iconoclasm, the art in the catacombs, etcetera) but are otherwise unaware that there is a ton more ancient Christian art discovered by archaeologists throughout the Mediterranean world which pretty much proves that the iconoclasts were outliers from the beginning. However, because much of the research on this topic was published after the 80s, it does not figure heavily on the internet, which over-emphasizes research that is available open-source instead of the peer-reviewed literature.
Conclusion. Despite some of its weaknesses, Shoemaker’s work on Marian veneration is relatively comprehensive and easy to follow. It should be required reading for all seminarians due to the recent nature of the research and laymen should not shy away from it, as it is accessible and not biased for or against the traditional sides of the debate.