In 1950, when Pope Pius XII promulgated the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, the Anglican scholar R. L. P Milburn scoffed that “something has been solemnly stated as assured historical fact that has no other strictly historical basis even pretended than a Coptic romance.”
Now, Stephen J. Shoemaker of the University of Oregon has returned to the sources for Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, a hefty study of the ancient traditions regarding the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life. He takes full advantage of what he calls “the efflorescence of diverse traditions, both narrative and liturgical, all celebrating the Virgin’s departure from this world.” Not only does he provide exhaustive and technical analysis of the patristic paper trail, he mines the archeological record, too, to describe the relics of popular Marian devotion of the early Church. The book concludes with a fifty-page anthology of primary Marian material from the age of the Fathers — full texts, not just excerpts — including works from the Ethiopian, Syriac, Greek, Latin, and (yes) Coptic traditions.
The book is a demanding read, but rewarding. Both Catholics and Protestants should appreciate an historical study not refracted through the lens of the Reformation or Counter-Reformation. Shoemaker’s own religious affiliation is nowhere apparent in this study, as he trains the same critical faculties upon both the ancient texts and recent Vatican pronouncements.
This paperback is actually the second edition — the first appeared in 2003 — but it’s the first to come within the price range of mere mortals. Shoemaker’s study should be required reading for anyone who professes Marian doctrine and anyone interested in the faith of the Fathers.