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Is the Bodily Assumption of Mary a 3rd Century Tradition?

Updated on December 17, 2019
A depiction of Mary's Dormition from 1265
A depiction of Mary's Dormition from 1265 | Source

Introduction

The Bodily Assumption of Mary – the teaching that the Virgin Mary’s body was taken up into heaven before or after her death – was established an official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1950. Naturally, this sparked much renewed interest in the subject, and scholars have dedicated no small amount of energy to studying the origins of traditions concerning the end of Mary’s life (Her “dormition” – falling asleep).

There are two models currently embraced by the vast majority of scholars. The first is that dormition traditions were the result of a rapid expansion of Marian Piety in and around the fifth century – particularly after the Council of Ephesus in 431A.D.. The second model (which has gained some notoriety especially due to the efforts of Stephen Shoemaker who has written extensively on the subject) is that these traditions stem back as far as the third century, if not earlier.

The Early Development Model for Bodily Assumption Traditions

The early development model is sadly often misunderstood, or simply misused, so it is important to understand the details of the proposal before addressing its strengths and weaknesses.

Those scholars who propose an early development of dormition traditions do not typically suggest it was a belief held by the Church*, but rather that it burgeoned among the Pseudo-Christians sects and crossed over sometime around the fifth century1. Indeed, this origin is necessary for the overall validity of the hypothesis. The argument is as follows:

As early as the second century, we see evidence of an expanding Mariology in the Protoevangelium of James and certain detached legends thought to stem from the same period. Although none of these address the end of Mary’s life, it is presumed likely that there must have been traditions developed which did.

Since these developed among heretical sects which were increasingly isolated form mainstream Christianity, they suffered from intentional censorship and neglect among the early Christian writers (at least no surviving documents reference them). This explains the lack of evidence until the late fifthcentury.

In the late fourth or fifth century, interest in Mariology surged, and the Church found a readily available framework for dormition/assumption traditions in documents held by the Pseudo-Christian sects. This is supported by the decidedly heretical nature of the earliest dormition stories extant and the subtle excision of these heretical elements by orthodox writers1.

Support for the Early Development of Assumption Traditions

There are some aspects of the historical evidence which lend credence to this early model. As noted above, the Protoevangelium does demonstrate an early expansion of Marian traditions which, true to the model, contains unorthodox elements** and certainly found favor among Docetic sects outside mainstream Christianity.

When texts concerning the end of Mary’s life do emerge at the end of the 5th century, they appear in several divergent forms which disagree on different aspects of her dormition. Some profess she died and her body was assumed 3 days later, others it was over 200 days later, still others she was resurrected and then taken up into heaven, and in some there was no bodily assumption at all, but rather her body was miraculously taken to a secret place to be preserved till the resurrection2. Since these cannot be proven to have evolved linearly, it is possible they are the product of multiple tradition lines which presumably would have taken some time to develop.

A large number of manuscripts are extant from the fifth-seventh centuries, demonstrating great popularity even from the earliest part of this time period. Some are represented in multiple language versions, and many demonstrate a troubled textual history. On these grounds, Shoemaker hypothesizes that at least one of these dormition texts – the Book of Mary’s Repose – originated in the third century3. Additionally, other later texts demonstrate some interdependence which might suggest they were based on earlier forms no longer extant – perhaps from the third century as well.

True to form, all the earliest dormition texts are heretical in nature and indeed one is condemned by the Gelasian Decree4. For this reason, it is generally agreed that these Dormition Traditions did indeed cross over into the mainstream from heretical sects5.

Problems With the Early Development Model

All that being said, there are some objections to this early development model which must be addressed.

The first, and most glaring, is that of the absence of any reference to Mary’s dormition throughout the first four centuries of the church. Proponents, such as Shoemaker, sweep this aside with a somewhat vague claim of neglect and censorship on the part of the orthodox church, but this can hardly be considered satisfactory. The church was in no position to actively censor their theological opponents at least till the reign of Constantine, and even then it remains to be demonstrated that they could be so successful in suppressing heretical works that we would have no record of them. Even the Roman Empire, with three centuries of often violent attempts to eradicate the Church and its texts, could not accomplish such a thing.

Additionally, the church was never averse to discussing the claims of heretics, and much of our knowledge of Pseudo-Christian sects we owe to orthodox writers refuting them. In light of this, it is significant that Epiphanius, the only church writer to mention Mary’s dormition prior to the fifth century, could only say “No one knows her end.6

As to the link between early Mariology and Dormition texts, this again remains to be demonstrated. Early Mariology focused on her life before and during Jesus’ ministry for obvious reasons. It is fair to assume legends about her death developed, but a stretch to assume they included miraculous accounts of her body being miraculously hidden or assumed into heaven. Epiphanius seemed only to know three possibilities as to her fate: first she may have died and been buried, second she may have been martyred, or third she may have still been alive! (since God can do what He wills)6. These would seem more likely traditions to develop at an early date, rather than more grandiose Dormition tales.

Interpreting the Dormition Literature Manuscript Data

Finally, there is the matter of the Dormition Texts and the manuscripts we possess of them, which is where the debate of interpretation truly rages.

It should be conceded that the manuscript data could suggest a long history. However, they might merely prove a very loose one. Hans-Josef Klauck, for instance, cautions it would be impossible to prove even a late fourth century provenance, let alone a third4.

Many argue that we should see in the diverse kinds of Dormition Traditions demonstrated in these texts as representing a distinct evolution, rather than a multiplicity of traditions all coalescing at once4,5. If this is so, then this evolution can be seen to take place over a very short period of time (only two centuries), which would demonstrate it is not remotely out of the realm of possibility that dormition traditions are entirely a product of the fifth century – a time when Mariology was explosively growing in the mainstream Church.

Conclusion

Scholarly debate is the lifeblood of learning. Without it, there can be no hope for accuracy and balance. For this reason, the reader should consider the evidence first, then the arguments and counter arguments, and then come to their own conclusions (which he should hold very loosely!)

For this particular writer, there is some validity to portions of both models. It is simply inconceivable that dormition traditions could have gone unnoticed or been wiped out of the historical record for several centuries without so much as a reference. However, the manuscripts themselves do demonstrate some development, and a linear evolution cannot be definitively proven. For these reasons, perhaps the most likely and balanced conclusion is that dormition traditions in varying forms have their origin in heretical sects of the fourth century and entered into the Church sometime in the fifth.

Footnotes

* If we can use these terms, since proponents of the early development model such as Stephen Shoemaker are of the post-modernist school, which views the early church as largely amorphous. In their terms, Dormition Traditions were embraced by sects outside the “Proto-Orthodox Church” (the church which would become the orthodox church). For Shoemaker's own explanation of his approach, see footnote 43 in Death and the Maiden, p. 75-76

** c.f. Protoevangelium of James, section 19 – note the docetic aspect of Jesus’ “birth.” This was further exaggerated in later adaptations of the Protoevangelium, demonstrating its theological appeal to Docetic sects.



1. Shoemaker, "From Mother of Mysteries to Mother of the Church," https://www.academia.edu/3535665/From_Mother_of_Mysteries_to_Mother_of_the_Church_The_Institutionalization_of_the_Dormition_Apocrypha

2. Shoemaker, "Death and the Maiden, p.68 https://www.academia.edu/1057773/Death_and_the_Maiden_The_Early_History_of_the_Dormition_and_Assumption_Apocrypha

3. Shoemaker, "Death and the Maiden, p.65 https://www.academia.edu/1057773/Death_and_the_Maiden_The_Early_History_of_the_Dormition_and_Assumption_Apocrypha

4. Klauck, The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction

5. Panagopoulos - 16th International Conference on Patristic Studies, Oxford 2011. https://www.academia.edu/868632/The_Byzantine_Traditions_of_the_Virgin_Mary_s_Dormition_and_Assumption

6. Epiphanius, Panarion, section 78 (Against Antidicomarians), subsection 23.8 – see Williams’ translation, “The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and II de fide,” 2nd edition, p. 635 - http://preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/2013_williams_the-panarion-of-epiphanius-of-salamis_02-03.pdf

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