On November 1st, 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the doctrine of Mary’s Bodily Assumption – the teaching that her body was taken up into heaven before or after death – to be dogma of the Roman Catholic Church – inarguable and definitional to the Roman faith1.
Naturally this sparked renewed interest in the study of traditions concerning the end of Mary’s life (Her “dormition” – falling asleep). Exhaustive surveys of the existing evidence have been produced*, and although the proper interpretation of the data will continue to be debated, they have at least provided a clear base of evidence for us to analyze.
The Early Church on the Bodily Assumption of Mary
A deafening silence exists on the subject of Mary’s dormition through the first four centuries of the Church. There are no manuscripts from this period which address the subject and no writers of the time, orthodox or heretical, offer any opinion. Indeed, the only mention of Mary’s end is made by Epiphanius of Salamis, writing in the mid-late fourth century:
“The holy virgin may have died and been buried…or she may have been put to death—as the scripture says, “And a sword shall pierce through her soul”…or she may have remained alive, for God is not incapable of doing whatever he wills. No one knows her end.2”
This one reference, scant of detail as it may be, is rather important, as it openly states what the historical record seems to demonstrate – if there was any tradition concerning Mary's death or assumption, the Church knew nothing about it!
The Earliest Evidence for Traditions of Mary's Assumption
In 431A.D. the council of Ephesus was held, its discussions and debates representing the earliest prolonged, formal reflection on Mary in the Church. Although this council in no way addressed the subject of Mary’s death or assumption, it either caused or reflected a renewed interest in the mother of Jesus3,4.
Shortly afterward, an explosion of dormition literature occurs. Forty different dormition texts believed to stem from before the seventh century have been identified5. The sheer number of surviving manuscripts from the late fifth century through the middle ages additionally testifies to their popularity. For instance, Pseudo-John (one of the earliest known dormition texts) is known by at least 100 Greek manuscripts, over 100 Slavonic, and still more Latin and other language versions5.
These are not all identical traditions, however. They agree on much, but some say Mary died and three days later her body was assumed, some say it was over two hundred days later, others say she never died but was taken body and soul up into heaven, and still more claim her body was not assumed at all6! In these assumption-less versions, such as Pseudo-John, Mary died and her body was miraculously transported to a hidden place where it could be preserved till the resurrection.
Where Did the First Assumption Traditions Come From?
The first dormition traditions to appear were undoubtedly developed among heretical sects outside the Church. The earliest texts containing stories of Mary’s death invariably contain heresies ranging from Gnosticism to monophysitism4. Indeed, one of the earliest assumption stories – The Book of Mary’s Repose – was condemned in the Gelasian Decree3!
For this reason, it is generally accepted that dormition traditions crossed over from heretical sects, particularly the monophysites, during a time of rapid Mariological expansion in the mainstream church7. This is inadvertently supported by John of Thessalonica in the seventh century.
John was faced with the task of persuading the people of his city to honor the official celebration of Mary’s dormition7. Since such a practice had not been honored or known by previous generations, there was some reason to wonder why the Church should adopt the practice now**. To address this, John wrote a homily, "Mater Ecclesiae," which rather shamelessly adapts the unapologetically heretical Pseudo-John into a more palatable mainstream form4. It apparently worked, as John of Thessalonica’s “tamed” version became incredibly popular itself, and is known in at least seventy different manuscripts5.
As noted before, the popularity of dormition tales from the end of the fifth century is undeniable. One of the greatest debates over interpreting the data revolves around the sheer number and nature of these texts. Many are interdependent – based on presumably earlier texts or hybridized from each other. Many demonstrate a troubled textual transmission and some scholars point to these facts as evidence of an early development of dormition traditions among sects outside of orthodoxy. Still, the majority of scholars caution that the evidence provided cannot sufficiently prove an origin in the late 4th century, let alone earlier3! That conversation, however, is not in the purview of this article.
* Most notable are Roman Catholic priest and scholar Michel Van Esbroek and Simon Claude Mimouni. More recent to gain some attention is Stephen Shoemaker’s work, “The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption.” – the latter’s post-modernist approach to the subject has had some influence – though it remains to be seen if his arguments will ultimately prove persuasive to the broader historical community.
** It was only in 588 that Byzantine Emperor Maurice established an official day for celebrating Mary’s dormition, since there was no agreement on when the proper day for such a feast was.
1. Pius XII, “MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS,” sections 44-45 http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus.html
2. 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
3. Klauck, The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction
4. 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
5. Shoemaker, "Death and the Maiden," p. 61-62 https://www.academia.edu/1057773/Death_and_the_Maiden_The_Early_History_of_the_Dormition_and_Assumption_Apocrypha
6. 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
7. 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