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Bearer of the Word

12 August 2016

John Binns considers early developments in Marian thinking


Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion

Stephen J. Shoemaker

Yale £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50



MARY is a familiar, much loved, and much revered figure across many traditions of Christianity. Surprisingly, as the author of this book points out, there has been little attention given to the history of how this happened and how her place in the Christian faith developed. This book fills this gap, discussing evidence for the growing veneration of Mary up to the time when the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that she should be honoured with the title Theotokos, or the one who gave birth to God.

We are concerned here not with the dogmatic statements of theologians but with the worship of communities. Popular texts and fragments of prayers show a gradually developing practice of devotion to Mary of Nazareth. She meant different things to different groups: a witness to resurrection and a teacher of the Church; an imparter of esoteric wisdom; a warrior and protector in times of need; an example of virginity to ascetics and monks; a compassionate and effective intercessor for those in trouble; and a model and precedent for women taking leadership positions in the Church.

Veneration of Mary belongs within the practice of remembering the saints and martyrs. The martyr Thecla, the companion of St Paul, was an early example of a woman who was venerated, and her cult developed alongside that of Mary. Mary also appears in apocryphal texts from a Gnostic background, such as the Gospel of Mary. The Mary of this document has been identified with Mary Magdalene, but we discover that it was just as likely that these texts referred to Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.

By the time of the Council of Ephesus, veneration of Mary was well-established, and it is argued here that the Council confirmed an existing tradition of worship rather than initiated a novel practice. These are just some of the suggestions of this study which correct previously held assumptions.

The style of the book is leisurely and conversational, and we are guided in an accessible and informative way through texts that will be unfamiliar to many readers, and through the widely different assessments of them by scholars from different church traditions.

The evidence collected here takes us behind partisan doctrinal views of the place of Mary to a flexible and versatile developing tradition of popular prayer which recognises the place of Mary in the life of the whole Church.


The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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