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The Life of the Virgin: Maximus the Confessor
Yale University Press, 2012
232 pp., 32.50
How to approach this first English translation of the oldest complete biography of the Virgin Mary, dating from the 7th century, and most likely narrated by one of the finest theological minds of Late Antiquity? Two preliminaries, along with a few corresponding questions, may help with this somewhat unusual challenge.
First, a thought experiment. Imagine the discovery of an ancient treasury of stories about the Virgin Mary, and with it wonderful new details concerning the life of Christ, rescued from the ancient Greek original through its translation into Old Georgian, a language of the Caucasus Mountains, by a monk on Mt. Athos. Would this not be a most exciting event, epochal in its implications? Ah, we might ask, but do we know that these stories are historically accurate? Might not the very emphasis upon the Virgin Mary, rather than Christ himself, even suggest their later and derivative character? Would we, then, take these as stories about the Virgin Mary, or rather as reflections of the time and place of their composition?
In fact, Stephen J. Shoemaker has offered us just such as collection of wonderful stories, stories that were taken so seriously by the ancient Church that it based many of its most important feast days upon them. (This legacy continues, with six of these feast days still shared in common by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, five of which are also recognized by the Anglican Communion, despite the fact that only one of these narratives, the Annunciation, is mentioned in canonical Scripture.) The translator, a professor of religious studies to whom we must be grateful, is clear about his own answer to the question: "Of course there is no reason to assume that these supplements to Mary's biography bear any relation to the historical realities of earliest Christianity." Nevertheless, he adds, these narratives are "invaluable for the insight they offer into how Christians at the end of antiquity had come to remember the mother of their Lord and how ...