I was driving home one evening, listening to a local Evangelical talk show on my radio, “Bible on the Line,” when a young lady called in to the program. She said she was thinking of joining the Catholic Church, but there were questions she needed to resolve, many having to do with the Virgin Mary. For example, the Catholic Church teaches a doctrine known as the Assumption, which states that when Mary completed her earthly life she was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. What’s the basis for this belief?
The talk show host was charitably disposed toward Catholics, but he was, after all, an Evangelical and gave the standard Evangelical position on the Assumption. He accurately stated that the doctrine was formally defined for the Church in 1950 by Pope Pius XII in the Apostolic Constitution entitled Munificentissimus Deus (the broadcaster didn’t pronounce it correctly, but I didn’t hold that against him; most Catholics can’t pronounce it either). The talk show host said there was no basis for the doctrine in either Scripture or Church history.
While Catholics have never claimed that the Assumption is explicitly taught in the Bible, I was amazed at his comment about Church history. Churches have been named after the Assumption for the past millennium and a half. If that doesn’t say something about Church history, what does?
The incident led me to recall my own experience as an Evangelical/Fundamentalist wrestling with this question. Whatever happened to the Mother of the Lord? As a Protestant I believed that Mary remained with the apostle John after Jesus’ death on the cross (John 19:25-27). After our Lord’s Ascension, we find her present at the conception of the Church, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and the apostles (Acts 1:14, 2:1-4; cf. Luke 1:35).
Beyond that it was simply my assumption that Mary, as the poet Dylan Thomas put it, went “gentle into that good night.” I did not admit in any way the possibility of Mary’s bodily Assumption. Mary died, her body decomposed, she remained in the grave, and that was that. Did I believe this for any scriptural reasons? No, it was simply an assumption, nothing more.
The Bible is mute either way as to what happened to Mary after Pentecost. Is the Bible silent because the fate of Mary is unimportant? I didn’t believe so, just as I didn’t think my own fate is unimportant merely because I am not directly mentioned in Scripture. Still, it seemed to me that if God had worked a big miracle in Mary’s life, somehow it should have ended up in the Bible.
But does God record all his miracles in the Bible? The apostles were given the authority to perform many miracles in Jesus’ name (Mark 16:17-18), even performing greater miracles than the ones Jesus himself performed (John 14:12), yet we hear nothing of the fate of most of these apostles after Pentecost. Surely not all of their miracles are recorded in the Bible. Indeed, not even all of Jesus’ own miracles are recorded in the Bible (John 20:30). No, there seemed to be more to the question of the Assumption than simply whether or not it is recorded in the Bible.
I had misconceptions about the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption, the biggest being that I tended to confuse “Assumption” with “Ascension.” I believe part of the reason for this confusion is that the Assumption of Mary and the Ascension of Christ are portrayed identically in artistic representations (except that it is Mary floating in the air and not Jesus). Consequently I perceived the doctrine of the Assumption as part of a Catholic conspiracy to deify Mary: As Christ ascended into heaven, so did this pagan-Catholic goddess named Mary.
To be assumed into heaven is to enter heaven both body and soul, meaning complete personhood and not the soul alone, by a direct act of God. Thus “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him away” (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5). Elijah was assumed into heaven, though in a more grandiose style (2 Kings 2:11). Catholics believe that Mary entered heaven in this same manner, though they generally believe that she died before being assumed. Mary is seen not as a petty goddess, but as a redeemed Christian granted a special privilege through the love of Christ.
On the other hand, to ascend into heaven is to enter heaven by one’s own power, and “no one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Only Jesus, being God, could ever ascend into heaven. Once I understood this distinction, I came a long way toward understanding the Catholic belief in the Assumption.
I began to see it was very similar to the Evangelical doctrine of the rapture where, at the end of time, Christ snatches living Christians off the face of the Earth, glorifies them, and transports them both body and soul into heaven. The same idea of being physically snatched away into heaven before the general resurrection lies behind both the Assumption and the rapture. There seemed little reason to say that the rapture was scripturally feasible while maintaining the Assumption wasn’t.
But I did try to find objections. Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor. 15:22-23). As a Protestant I was taught that these verses precludes the possibility of Mary’s bodily assumption. Yet if this verse rules out the possibility that Mary could be taken bodily into heaven before the Second Coming, then wouldn’t it also rule out the possibility of a rapture occurring seven years before the Second Coming?
I concluded that I could find no refuge in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23. It doesn’t invalidate belief in the Assumption because with Christ’s death the Redemption was accomplished and the final dispensation of grace, the “end times” (e.g. 1 John 2:18), was initiated. Consider Matthew 27:52-53: At the death of the Lord, “the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Dorcas was raised to life by Peter (Acts 9:40), and Eutychus was resurrected by Paul (Acts 20:9-12).
Obviously these incidents occurred before the Second Coming. As to a bodily assumption, Paul admits the possibility of his own bodily assumption: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows–was caught up to Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:2-4a). Who could label the generic concept of assumption “unbiblical” after reading that?
Yet another objection: I thought of John’s vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, which was written around A.D. 95, well after Mary’s alleged Assumption. Why don’t we see Mary in heaven in the book of Revelation?
Actually, the twelfth chapter of Revelation, in which a woman appears in heaven giving birth to a child, has been seen by Catholics as a vision of Mary in heaven. The child she gives birth to is Jesus because he is “to rule all the nations” and ascends “up to God and to his throne” (v. 5). The woman flees into “the desert” in verse 6 because of the enmity of the “dragon” who pursues her (cf. verses 13-14), even as Mary fled into the deserts of Egypt to escape Herod (Matt. 2:14). The dragon wars on the “rest of her offspring” (v. 17), which evokes the image of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew 2:17. The entire vision of John is reminiscent of Genesis 3:15, where there is predicted a great enmity between the serpent and the mother of the Messiah.
As an Evangelical/Fundamentalist, I saw the issue of Mary’s bodily Assumption as a simple question of historical fact. Either she was or she was not physically assumed into heaven at a specific point in time. If she was not, the doctrine was a superfluous accretion to the historic Christian faith and must be rejected as having no value. No lie can come from the truth (cf. 1 John 2:21). If Mary was in fact assumed into heaven, then I understood that I was obliged to accept the doctrine because knowing and living the truth is liberating and makes us disciples of Jesus (John 8:31-32).
For lack of clear scriptural or theological warrants to reject the doctrine of the Assumption, it was the question of history that most led me to consign Mary to the grave. Like the talk show host, I too assumed the doctrine of the Assumption was a myth (and a foolish one at that) without any ground in the historic Christian faith. If the Assumption had been a historical reality, the early Christians would have known about it and believed it. The early Christians didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t even a dogma officially defined by the Church until 1950. End of report.
These assumptions were to change into the Assumption as I began to school myself in the subject. I began by studying the popular fiction enjoyed by early Christians, and I discovered a whole genre devoted to just this single theme of the Assumption of Mary. Called the Transitus Mariae (Passage of Mary) literature, these are popular novels and reflect the piety of the Christians who wrote and read them.(The book I read was The Apocryphal New Testament by Montague R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924; reprinted 1980). Pages 194-224 contain Transitus accounts taken from the Coptic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac texts.)
The Transitus exploded onto the scene after the Council of Ephesus in 431. This council had ended over a century of Christological controversy by unambiguously stating that the person born of Mary was the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, and was therefore God (cf. John 1:1, 14). As Jesus was God, humanity and divinity being fully united under the Logos, the mother of Jesus was therefore the Mother of God (Theotokos).(The Council of Ephesus didn’t “invent” the title “Mother of God.” It merely employed a title long in use among the faithful. In 1917 there was discovered in Egypt a piece of papyrus dating to about A.D. 250. Its ten lines of Greek included this: “Under cover of your motherly heart we flee for refuge, Mother of God [Theotokos]; do not brush aside our entreaties in our distress, but rescue us from danger, you, peerlessly holy and blessed.” This ancient version of the Sub Tuum is now housed in the John Rylands Library (Papyrus 470) in Manchester.) Adopting the title Theotokos into official dogma sparked an intense Marian devotion, out of which grew the Transitus Mariae literature.
Since we have texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic (Egyptian), and Arabic, there would seem to be little doubt that the Assumption was a catholic (i.e. universal) belief among early Christians. While popular Christian literature has never been entirely reliable historically or theologically (it rarely is even today), yet there is much to be learned from the Transitus about the faith of the average Christian sitting in the pew. For example, all the Transitus literature agrees that Mary was assumed after having died a natural death and was neither martyred nor immortal. No doubt if we could talk to a fourth or fifth century Christian today, this is what he would tell us about Mary.
Behind legends there is often some basis in fact. Even a small detail can be revealing. For example, take this detail from the Pseudo-Melito account of the Assumption: “Then the Savior spake, saying: Arise, Peter, and take the body of Mary and bear it unto the right-hand side of the city [Jerusalem] toward the East, and thou wilt find there a new sepulchre wherein ye shall place it, and wait till I come unto you….[T]he apostles carrying Mary came into the place of the valley of Jehosha-phat which the Lord had showed them and laid her in a new tomb and shut the sepulchre.”
Excavations in 1972 around Jerusalem strongly support this traditional site as the burial spot of Mary. It is near Gethsemane and tends to substantiate the ancient belief that Mary’s tomb is in the Kidron Valley (traditionally identified as the Valley of Jehoshaphat), which is also near Gethsemane (cf. John 18:1). Jerusalem also happens to be the starting point for the feast of the Assumption, though there was originally considerable diversity as to its name, it being called variously the feast of the Dormition (falling asleep), the Passing, and the Assumption.
What does the Transitus literature teach us? It teaches that the Assumption didn’t just pop up out of nowhere in 1950, which is often the vague assumption of non-Catholics. Indeed, the belief was so widespread in the fifth century that it is hard not to conclude that it must have originated at a much earlier date. Many scholars place the Syriac fragments of the Transitus stories as far back as the third century, and noted Mariologist Michael O’Carroll adds, “The whole story will eventually be placed earlier, probably in the second century–possibly, if research can be linked with archaeological findings on Mary’s tomb in Gethsemani, in the first [century].”(Michael O’Carrol C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington: Glazier, 1982) s.v. “Assumption Apocrypha,” 59.) This conclusion would seem to be supported by the fact that the doctrine flourished without anyone, especially the bishops, protesting against a growing “superstition.”
While Pope Pius XII didn’t refer to the Transitus accounts in his promulgation of the dogma, I felt they constituted a powerful testimony to the antiquity of the belief among the early Christians. But aside from the early development of the Transitus, were there any other indications that the Assumption was a general Christian belief during the first 400 years of the Church? Or, contrariwise, was there anything which pointed toward my belief that the ante-Ephesian Church believed Mary remained in the grave awaiting the general resurrection of the dead? Yes, there was: the issue of her relics.
Early Christians were known to be nearly fanatical about preserving the relics of the saints. Look, for example, at the Martyrdom of Polycarp, written by the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium around A.D. 156. In discussing the brave martyrdom of Polycarp, who was made bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John, the Church there gives a typical example of the widespread veneration of relics:
“But the jealous and envious Evil One…took care that not even his poor body should be taken away by us, though many desired to do this, and to claim our share in the hallowed relics. Accordingly he put it into the head of Nicetas…to make an application to the Governor not to release the body, ‘in case,’ he said, ‘they should forsake the Crucified and take to worshiping this fellow instead’…Little do they know that it could never be possible for us to abandon the Christ who died for the salvation of every soul that is to be saved in all the world–the Sinless One dying for sinners–or to worship any other. It is to him, as the Son of God, that we give our adoration, while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher….So after all, we did gather up his bones–more precious to us than jewels and finer than pure gold–and we laid them to rest in a spot suitable for the purpose. There we shall assemble, as occasion allows, with glad rejoicings, and with the Lord’s permission we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom” (17-18). I found this to be the common attitude toward relics among the early Christians.
Relics of all the apostles and other New Testament saints emerged very early in Christian history. Churches were built on the graves of the apostles, and their bones were eventually distributed to other churches for veneration.(For an interesting treatment of the subject of relics and the source of the following information, see Joan Carroll Cruz’s book Relics (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1984). Cruz is also the author of the bestseller The Incorruptibles.) The remains of Mary Magdalene, one New Testament saint, are kept in the monastery at Villalata, France, where she is supposed to have died. The remains of Lazarus were originally kept in the church which maintained his tomb on the isle of Cyprus.
Relics became enclosed in large shrines and were the objects of pilgrimages, which could become quite lucrative for the city possessing the shrine (not unlike a city hosting the Olympic Games in today’s post-Christian world). Sometimes, through varying traditions or outright greed, two different cities would claim the same relic.
Whether genuine or not, anything which could be said in any way to be connected to the mother of Christ was highly prized because of the strong devotion to her throughout the Church. A piece of green ribbon which is believed to have been worn by Mary as a belt is claimed today by the cathedral of Prato in Italy. For over a thousand years the cathedral of Chartres, France has owned a piece of fine material which is said to be a piece of Mary’s veil. The cathedral of Aachen in Germany even claims to possess the shroud that Mary was buried in. Both the ancient cities of Ephesus and Jerusalem claim to have the tomb of Mary, and pilgrimages to both cities have been common.
Yet among all the relics there is not to be found a single one said to be a relic of Mary’s actual body. This is especially significant when it is kept in mind how hard the Church at Smyrna worked to obtain the body of Polycarp. If the ante-Ephesian Church believed that Mary rotted and remained in the grave, as I believed, then we should expect to find some mention of the veneration of her remains somewhere in the Church, as we do of the apostles and other New Testament saints. Yet not even the powerful motivator of greed could elicit so much as one attempt at a claim to a relic of Mary’s bodily remains. It is almost as though no one dared to claim such a relic out of fear of immediately being accused of fraud–quite understandable if the common belief was that she had been assumed into heaven.
An argument from silence? Yes, but what a profound silence! How is it that in the 400 years before the Council of Ephesus not one Christian was so obliging as to venerate one bone and thus imply belief in something other than what is recounted in the Transitus Mariae literature?
Yet there is the patristic silence as well, I countered. The earliest patristic mention (around 600) of the Assumption in the East is from Theoteknos, bishop of Livias on the left bank of the Jordan, who speaks of the feast of the Assumption of Mary and not of her Dormition (falling asleep). In the West Gregory of Tours is the first Church Father to discuss Mary’s bodily Assumption in his In Gloria Martyrum, written about A.D. 590. Usually when talk show hosts speak of the “paucity” of historical evidence for the Assumption, it is this lack of patristic evidence before the sixth century which is being referred to. Evangelicals, though, are unaware of the vast Assumption literature which predates these patristic references. If a few of them are aware of the Transitus, they dismiss it with question-begging epithets and then attempt to reaffirm the charge that there is no historical evidence for the belief in the Assumption before the sixth century!
Evangelicals rarely present the full picture. Investigating my own belief that Mary lay in the grave, I found that the earliest recorded doubt about the Assumption was a comment by Adamnan (625-704). In De Locis Sanctis he describes the two-storied church dedicated to Mary in the valley of Jehoshaphat: “In the eastern portion of [the lower church] is an altar, and at the righthand side of the altar is the empty stone sepulchre of holy Mary, where she was once laid to rest. But how and when or by what persons her holy remains were removed from this sepulchre and where she awaits the resurrection no one, it is said, can know for certain.” This one doubt influenced the Venerable Bede, who then echoed it.
The next stage in the development of the Protestant doctrine came from a sermon claiming the authorship of Augustine (Sermon 208: Adest nobis) which was forged by Ambrosius Autpertus (d. 784) and which advocated pious ignorance on the whole question. In the ninth century the Abbot of Corbie, Paschase Radbert (d. 865), forged a letter which claimed to be written by Jerome (Epistle 9: Cogitis me) and in which the Assumption is called into question (though not explicitly denied and maintaining the incorruptibility of her body). This forgery inadvertently became part of the readings in the Divine Office, and the ball was rolling.
A monk named Usuard (d. 875) was even more abusive of the idea of the Assumption, which he seemed to feel was “frivolous.” Usuard’s comments remained in the martyrology used in many monasteries and chapters during choir prayers, and Radbert’s forgery remained in the breviary until the Tridentine reforms of Pope Pius V during the sixteenth century, raising doubts for nearly seven hundred years! Radbert’s work finally found its full fruition in the Reformation, when the Assumption was outright denied for the first time. If the Catholic belief suffered from lack of patristic evidence before the sixth century, my own beliefs looked altogether dubious.
Scripture instructs us not only to believe what is written in the Bible itself, but also the oral tradition (paradosis) of the faith (1 Cor. 11.2; 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6) as it has been passed down (Luke 1:2; 1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3; 2 Pet. 2:21) by the Christian community. The Assumption of Mary appeared to qualify as one of those traditions which was believed from the beginning (cf. 1 John 2:24, Jude 3).
While the evidence I found could not prove the Catholic doctrine in a scientific sense, I was compelled to conclude that the Assumption had been part of the Christian faith from the second century and probably had its origins in the first. The historical case for my position as an Evangelical/Fundamentalist, on the other hand, looked decidedly unimpressive. I simply could not document anyone disbelieving in the Assumption prior to the Reformation. It was when the burden of proof had finally been laid upon me that I realized my assumption about Mary had been insupportable. The Catholic had reasons to offer for what he believed, and I had no reasons which could justify what I believed. It was that simple.
Around 1983, three years before leaving the Baptist Church, I decided my belief that the Mother of Christ moldered in the grave was completely without biblical foundation, lacked theological justification, and had absolutely no basis in the Christian history. Interestingly, to believe that Mary was assumed into heaven in a way similar to Enoch and Elijah contradicts nothing in fundamental Evangelical theology, only Evangelical prejudice and man-made tradition (see Matt. 15:1-9). In fact, I was able to function within the Baptist Church quite well without my belief in the Assumption opposing any Baptist doctrine.
Nearly ten years later, I still have not found any scriptural, theological, or historical basis for the Evangelical belief that Mary remains decomposed in the grave. Do I exaggerate? I believe not.
Look, for example, at the recent article by Elliot Miller in the Christian Research Journal, “The Mary of Roman Catholicism.”(Summer, 1990, 14-15. The Christian Research Journal is the publication of the Christian Research Institute, which produces the nationally-syndicated “Bible Answer Man” radio program.) Miller does not even attempt any justification of his beliefs. In his examination of the Assumption, does he provide one Scripture citation upon which to base the Evangelical doctrine? No, he never refers to the Bible at all, not even in assessing the Catholic position. Does he find any basis in Church history for the Evangelical belief? He offers none because there is none. Does he have any overriding theological considerations which can substantiate the Evangelical belief? He offers none because there are none.
Miller never explicitly states that Mary remains in the grave. Like Radbert and Usuard before him, he merely appeals to a latent skepticism toward the supernatural and then invites us to make the assumption that Mary rotted and remains in the grave. As an ex-Protestant, I ask Elliot Miller this open question: Where is the scriptural proof that Mary rotted and remains in the grave?
If he can’t quite manage this at the present moment, then perhaps he could offer us something concrete of a historical or theological nature. Unless he can offer something other than the same tired Evangelical prejudice, I extend to him instead the historic Christian belief in the Assumption of Mary.
Pope Pius XII, alluding to John 16:12-14, wrote in Munificentissimus Deus that “Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a doctrine of divine and Catholic faith(Out of 1181 residential bishops consulted by Pope Pius XII as to whether the Assumption should be defined as dogma, only 22 replied negatively. Of the 22, only six doubted that the Assumption was a divinely revealed truth, the rest feeling that the time was not yet appropriate for such a definition.)…we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived” (41).
The moment has already arrived, and it is a Catholic moment, a moment of proclamation and witness. Across the centuries the Body of Christ has explicitly, implicitly, and overwhelmingly witnessed to the truth of the Assumption in its popular piety, in its solemn feasts, and in its theology. This is the witness of the sensus fidelium, the witness of which the Good Shepherd spoke when he promised that the Holy Spirit would forever guide his flock. Jesus did assume his Mother into his kingdom, and to assume anything else is simply to make the wrong assumption.