Monday, September 11, 2006

The Assumption Of Mary In The Earliest Sources

Many people are aware of the evidence pertaining to the assumption of Mary in the later centuries of the patristic era. They've heard of the apocryphal literature in which the concept first appears, they've heard of Epiphanius' comments about how nobody knows what happened at the end of Mary's life, etc. I'll be addressing that later evidence in a future post, but in this post I want to address the earlier evidence, including some that isn't often discussed.

The conservative Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott, when discussing the concept of Mary's bodily assumption, acknowledged that "Direct and express scriptural proofs are not to be had." (Fundamentals Of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 208) Passages like Psalm 132:8 and Revelation 11:19 are sometimes cited in support of the doctrine, but the ark in both passages can reasonably be seen as some entity other than Mary, and neither passage would require a first century bodily assumption of Mary even if we did conclude that the ark is Mary. If Mary is spiritually in Heaven, her presence there wouldn’t prove that she was bodily assumed in the first century. Even if Psalm 132 and Revelation 11 were referring to Mary being bodily in Heaven, how would we know when it occurred? No Evangelical denies that Mary is currently spiritually in Heaven and that she’ll someday have a resurrected physical body. There isn’t any way to arrive at a first century bodily assumption of Mary as a probable conclusion to any passage of scripture.

A group of some of the leading Roman Catholic and Lutheran scholars in the world concluded:

"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)

People often argue that we would know where Mary's bodily remains are, and that early sources would have claimed more Marian relics, if she had remained in the grave, since she's such an important person. But did the earliest Christians think Mary was as important as some people suggest? David Farmer comments:

"in the early church, as in Christ's ministry, she [Mary] remained so much in the background that it is difficult to know where she lived or even where she died. Both Ephesus and Jerusalem claimed to be the place of her death, with the Eastern Fathers generally supporting Jerusalem." (Oxford Dictionary Of Saints [New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], p. 336)

And the claim that early sources would surely have discussed Mary's grave and relics if she hadn't been bodily assumed is dubious. There are many well known Biblical figures and figures of later church history whose graves and relics aren't discussed much or aren't discussed at all in the earliest sources. Concern over such issues increased over time, as concepts such as the veneration of relics developed into their later forms, but even somebody living as late as John Chrysostom could comment:

"Tell me, are not the bones of Moses himself laid in a strange land? And those of Aaron, of Daniel, of Jeremiah? And as to those of the Apostles we do not know where those of most of them are laid. For of Peter indeed, and Paul, and John, and Thomas, the sepulchers are well known; but those of the rest, being so many, have nowhere become known. Let us not therefore lament at all about this, nor be so little-minded. For where-ever we may be buried, 'the earth is the Lord's and all that therein is.'[Psalm 24:1]" (Homilies On Hebrews, 26:2, v. 22)

It doesn't seem that John Chrysostom thought that every significant figure of Christianity had a known grave site and known relics. It's understandable that people would refrain from making claims about Marian relics in later centuries, when the concept of a bodily assumption began circulating. A bodily assumption would be one possible explanation for a lack of claims about Marian relics, but other explanations are plausible, and the other evidence involved is contrary to the concept of an apostolic tradition of a bodily assumption.

If the early sources were refraining from mentioning Marian relics because they thought she was bodily assumed to Heaven, then why didn't they ever mention that bodily assumption? Wouldn't they be likely to mention such an unusual occurrence, especially if they held as high a view of Mary as the groups arguing for her assumption tend to?

Dionysius of Alexandria, a bishop of the third century, wrote:

"Chaeremon, who was very old, was bishop of the city called Nilus. He fled with his wife to the Arabian mountain and did not return. And though the brethren searched diligently they could not find either them or their bodies." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 6:42:3)

This passage illustrates some points relevant to an assumption of Mary. First, it's an illustration of the absurdity of the idea that Christians for hundreds of years would have known about a bodily assumption of Mary, yet would never have said anything about it in their extant writings, even when they're commenting on Mary. If both Dionysius and Eusebius thought it significant that this bishop and his wife couldn't be found, that their bodies were missing, don't you think a bodily assumption of Mary would have seemed even more significant to them? Don't you think it would be mentioned sometime in these early centuries?

Secondly, this passage from Dionysius illustrates the absurdity of concluding that a bodily assumption has occurred just because the whereabouts of a person's body aren't known. What if we were to conclude that Mary's remains weren't kept by the early Christians, that her tomb was empty, etc.? Would such evidence, by itself, prove that an assumption occurred? No. It would be consistent with an assumption, but it wouldn't, by itself, prove an assumption.

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, 3:2:14), 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).

People 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 Roman 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).

1 comment:

  1. But Rome can "remember" what is needed when lacking actual warrant for something from where it should be found.

    Before Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers' answer was emphatically negative. What here became evident was the one-sidedness, not only of the historical, but of the historicist method in theology. “Tradition” was identified with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Wurzburg…had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the 5C; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the “apostolic tradition. And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand “tradition” strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts…But if you conceive of “tradition” as the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent “remembering” (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it has not caught sight of previously and was already handed down in the original Word,” J. Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius, n.d.), 58-59.

    And Webster's THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY has more.