Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Epiphanius Did Not Affirm The Assumption Of Mary

It's become popular in some Roman Catholic circles to cite Epiphanius out of context in order to make it look as though he affirmed the Assumption of Mary. Somebody in the comments thread following Gavin Ortlund's recent video on the Assumption cited Epiphanius that way. You can click the link just provided to read his comments. Here's the response I posted there:

If you read the larger context, Epiphanius isn't claiming that Mary was assumed to heaven. He goes on, just after what you quoted, to compare Mary to the apostle John, even though she wasn't the same as John in every characteristic of John he mentions (Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion Of Epiphanius Of Salamis, Books II And III; De Fide [Leiden, The Netherlands: SBL Press, 2013], 641). He goes on to say "Elijah is not to be worshiped, even though he is alive. And John is not to be worshiped, even though by his own prayer - or rather, by receiving the grace from God - he made an awesome thing of his falling asleep." (ibid.) Epiphanius also mentions Thecla, a martyr, in this context. It seems that he's comparing Mary to three different figures - Elijah, John, and Thecla - whose lives ended in three different ways, the same three ways he mentions elsewhere when he says that nobody knows how Mary's life ended (ibid., 635). He's not claiming, in the passage you've cited, to know that Mary remained alive and was taken up as Elijah was, which would contradict what he said earlier about how nobody knows what happened at the end of her life. Rather, he's repeating what he said earlier about our ignorance of the end of her life. That's why he goes on to compare Mary to John and Thecla, just after what you misleadingly quoted. Just as his comparing Mary to John and Thecla doesn't require that Epiphanius believed that Mary died, his comparing Mary to Elijah doesn't require that Epiphanius believed she didn't die. Rather, he's repeating his earlier point that Mary's end could have been like the end of any of those three individuals.

Furthermore, his earlier statement about how nobody knows what happened at the end of Mary's life goes beyond merely whether she died. He also discusses other matters related to the end of her life, like whether she died as a martyr and whether she was buried. In an earlier passage, he writes of how in scripture we "neither find Mary's death, nor whether or not she died, nor whether or not she was buried", and he goes on to refer to how scripture is silent about the details of her living with John (ibid., 624). So, Epiphanius seems to be addressing the end of her life in general, not just whether she died. Thus, Epiphanius' statement that nobody knows what happened at the end of Mary's life seems to be a contradiction of Roman Catholicism's claim that Mary's assumption at the end of her life is an apostolic tradition always held by the church.


  1. Epiphanius is tricky in this regard. Seeing that citation after Dr. Ortlund's video brought me to the conclusion that Epiphanius likely held to the Assumption in personal piety but otherwise acknowledged the uncertainty of the historical evidence. But your comments here plus others in private correspondence with Dr. Ortlund have just about convinced me that Epiphanius' likening of Mary to Elijah is not an affirmation of Mary's Assumption.

    1. As far as I know, the closest Epiphanius gets to affirming a view of the end of Mary's life is in 78:11:3, on pages 624-25 of Williams' translation cited above. He refers to the silence of scripture on Mary's end, but goes on to write, "For I dare not say - though I have my suspicions, I keep silent." However, I suspect he's just speaking hypothetically, similar to how Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13, for example (e.g., in verse 1, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."). Paul wasn't saying that he actually doesn't have love and actually is a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Similarly, though less clearly, I think Epiphanius is saying that if he were to have suspicions about Mary's end, he should keep silent. He then goes on to cite Luke 2:35, which he associates elsewhere (page 635) with the view that Mary died as a martyr. And, after going on to cite Revelation 12:13-14 as well, he explains that he's not affirming that Mary was immortal, nor is she affirming that she died. But those are only two options (immortal or died), whereas he cites martyrdom as a third possibility on pages 635 and 641. It could be, then, that his citation of Luke 2:35 on page 624, followed by saying that he doesn't affirm the other two options (immortality and natural death), are meant to suggest that he leans toward the martyrdom view. I think it's more likely, though, that his reference to "having my suspicions" was just a hypothetical. He puts a lot of emphasis on the silence of scripture and how "No one knows her end." (635), so his taking a position on the end of Mary's life on pages 624-25 would be less consistent with the surrounding context. However, if he is taking a position, it seems most likely to be martyrdom. And he cites Thecla to illustrate that position (641). My understanding is that Thecla was at least typically, maybe universally, thought to be buried near where Paul was buried, without any assumption. And Epiphanius doesn't mention any assumption of Thecla. So, if Epiphanius did lean toward the martyrdom option, then that's a position that apparently contradicts the Catholic view.

      Keep in mind, also, that there are some other significant issues here beyond how Epiphanius viewed the end of Mary's life. For example, Pope Pius XII claimed that the Assumption is a belief "based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times" (Munificentissimus Deus, 41). That's significantly different than Epiphanius' remarks about how scripture is silent about Mary's end and his belief that "No one knows her end." (635)

  2. Something else that should be noted is that Epiphanius could have used examples other than John and Thecla to illustrate the circumstances surrounding the end of Mary's life if he believed that she was assumed and was merely discussing the possibilities regarding one or more other matters pertaining to the end of her life. He could have cited Jesus' ascension as an example of somebody being taken up to heaven after dying and rising from the dead. Or if he believed in an assumption of Moses, he could have cited Moses. Why cite John and Thecla instead? Why even discuss three categories (illustrated by Elijah, John, and Thecla) if you're only concerned about the issue of whether Mary died (which Catholics often wrongly claim was Epiphanius' only concern)? If you're only concerned about whether she died, you only need to cite two illustrations, perhaps Elijah and Jesus. After all, Catholics frequently cite Jesus' ascension as a justification for Mary's assumption. Pope Pius XII does it in Munificentissimus Deus, for example. The best explanation for why Epiphanius discusses three categories rather than two is that he was concerned about more than just whether Mary died. And the best explanation for why two of the three illustrations he brought up typically weren't thought to have been assumed to heaven (John and Thecla) is that Epiphanius was allowing for scenarios in which Mary wasn't assumed.