Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Assumption Of Mary And Early Silence

It's often said that the early church was silent on the issue of Mary's bodily assumption, but we should keep in mind what that alleged "silence" involved. The church fathers of the earliest centuries repeatedly cite Enoch and Elijah as examples of people who didn’t die, were translated to Heaven, etc. (Clement of Rome, First Clement, 9; Tertullian, A Treatise On The Soul, 50; Tertullian, On The Resurrection Of The Flesh, 58; Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5:12; Methodius, From The Discourse On The Resurrection, 14; Apostolic Constitutions, 5:7; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 3:6; John Chrysostom, Homilies On The Gospel Of John, 75; Jerome, To Pammachius Against John Of Jerusalem, 29, 32; etc.), yet they never say any such thing about Mary or include her as an example. Irenaeus, for instance, writes about the power of God to deliver people from death, and he cites Enoch, Elijah, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2) as illustrations of people who were "assumed" and "translated", but he says nothing of Mary (Against Heresies, 5:5). An opponent of Augustine summarized Augustine’s beliefs on this subject:

"Besides that, it is not only Elias, but Moses and Enoch you believe to be immortal, and to have been taken up with their bodies to heaven." (cited in Augustine, Reply To Faustus The Manichaean, 26:1)

Why no mention of Mary?

On another occasion, Augustine mentions that people sometimes ask where humans who have been bodily removed from earth would go (On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:27). He mentions that people ask about Enoch, Elijah, and Paul, but, once again, Mary isn’t mentioned. The same is true of John Chrysostom when he discusses the same issue Augustine addressed (Homilies On Hebrews, 22).

Catholics claim to see references to an assumption of Mary in Biblical passages like Revelation 12. Yet, Hippolytus, Methodius, and other early fathers comment on such passages without saying anything of an assumption.

How likely is it that all of these writers, commenting in so many different contexts, would all refrain from mentioning Mary’s assumption, even though they knew of it? Though Catholics give Mary so much attention and claim that Mary is God’s greatest creation, the apocryphal assumption of Moses receives more attention among the ante-Nicene fathers than Mary’s assumption (which isn’t mentioned at all). It isn't that nobody wrote in any context in which an assumption of Mary might be mentioned. Rather, it's that sources wrote in such contexts frequently, and those sources repeatedly mentioned Enoch, Elijah, and Paul, yet they didn't mention Mary.

Furthermore, some of the earliest post-Nicene sources to comment on Mary's death in particular deny that any tradition had been handed down from the apostles regarding her death. Here are some references to the evidence we have, from various secular, Protestant, and Roman Catholic sources:

"Furthermore, the notion of Mary's assumption into heaven has left no trace in the literature of the third, much less of the second century. M. Jugie, the foremost authority on this question, concluded in his monumental study: 'The patristic tradition prior to the Council of Nicaea does not furnish us with any witness about the Assumption.'" (Raymond Brown, et al., Mary In The New Testament [Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978], p. 266)

"It [the Assumption of Mary] rests, however, on a purely apocryphal foundation. The entire silence of the apostles and the primitive church teachers respecting the departure of Mary stirred idle curiosity to all sorts of inventions, until a translation like Enoch's and Elijah's was attributed to her. In the time of Origen some were inferring from Luke ii. 35, that she had suffered martyrdom. Epiphanius will not decide whether she died and was buried, or not. Two apocryphal Greek writings de transitu Mariae, of the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century, and afterward pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Gregory of Tours († 595), for the first time contain the legend that the soul of the mother of God was transported to the heavenly paradise by Christ and His angels in presence of all the apostles, and on the following morning her body also was translated thither on a cloud and there united with the soul. Subsequently the legend was still further embellished, and, besides the apostles, the angels and patriarchs also, even Adam and Eve, were made witnesses of the wonderful spectacle." (Philip Schaff, here)

"In a later passage, he [Epiphanius] says that she [Mary] may have died and been buried, or been killed - as a martyr. 'Or she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God and he can do whatever he desires; for her end no one knows.'...A Palestinian with opportunity for some research, E. does not speak of a bodily resurrection and remains noncommittal on the way Mary's life ended. He nowhere denies the Assumption, or admits the possibility of Assumption without death, for he has found no sign of death or burial. He suggests several different hypotheses and draws no firm conclusion." (Michael O'Carroll, Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988], p. 135)

"Epiphanius's approach suggests strongly the absence of a fixed tradition on Mary's final lot....Isidore of Seville (d. 636) breaks the general silence, but only to attest profound ignorance on the way Mary left this earth. A century later, the English Bede confessed his ignorance of the final disposition of Mary's body." (Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], pp. 134-135)

"The genesis of the Transitus Mariae [apocryphal] accounts is unclear. They apparently originated before the close of the fifth century, perhaps in Egypt or Syria, in consequence of the stimulus given Marian devotion by the definition of Mary as 'mother of God' at the Council of Ephesus (431). At least a score of such accounts are extant in Coptic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. All recount the death of Mary. All postulate some kind of divine intervention: a translation of Mary's body to a presumably earthly paradise, where it is preserved incorrupt under the Tree of Life; or a genuine assumption, a reunion of soul and body that entails Mary's entrance into heaven....The more ancient accounts exercised a perceptible influence on the establishment of the eastern feast of the Dormition or of the Migration of the Mother of God....The first express witness to a genuine assumption occurs in the (possibly sixth-century) apocryphal Transitus of Pseudo-Melito." (Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], pp. 134-135)

"As historical accounts, the Transitus literature [where the concept of a bodily assumption of Mary is first mentioned] is valueless." (Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 134)

"With this background, it is not surprising to find the first orators on the feast of August 15 in the west consistently wary of pronouncing on Mary's corporeal resurrection; not surprising to find in Spain, as the eighth century closes, some Asturians denying Mary's assumption (perhaps the first to do so); not surprising to see develop in the ninth century, beside the tradition favorable to an assumption represented by Pseudo-Augustine, another current of thought represented by Pseudo-Jerome and hostile, if not to the doctrine, at least to its unequivocal affirmation as somehow binding." (Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 135)

"It is now generally agreed that the belief [Assumption of Mary] was unknown in the earliest ages of the Church. St Ambrose (Exposit. Evan. sec. Luc. 2. 35; PL 15. 1574) and St Epiphanius (Haer. 79. 11; PG 42. 716) were apparently still ignorant of it. It is first met with in certain NT apocrypha dating from the later 4th cent. onwards, some of them Gnostic in sympathy....It appears that one such work was condemned in the Decretum Gelasianum, though the condemnation may have been directed against its Gnostic teachings rather than specifically against the doctrine of the corporal assumption. A homily attributed in most MSS to Timothy of Jerusalem (prob. 4th-5th cent.) may imply the alternative belief that the BVM was assumed in body and soul during her natural life. The doctrine of the corporal assumption was first formulated in orthodox circles in the W. by St Gregory of Tours (d. 594), who accepted as historical the account attributed [falsely] in MSS to Melito." (F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary Of The Christian Church [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], p. 117)

"The doctrine first emerged in various New Testament apocrypha of the 4th cent., and on the strength of a passage in pseudo-Dionysius became accepted in orthodox circles by the 7th cent. Finally in 1950 Pope Pius XII, in the decree Munificentissimus Deus, defined it as a divinely revealed dogma, making claims that have little historical support: 'This truth is based on Sacred Scripture,...it has received the approval of liturgical worship from the earliest times, it is perfectly in keeping with the rest of revealed truth.' What is clearly true is the recognition that it is 'deeply embedded in the minds of the faithful' (or at least many of them), and on this basis it was declared and defined as a dogma revealed by God" (John Bowker, editor, The Oxford Dictionary Of World Religions [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999], p. 101)


  1. Great post Jason!!

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