We continue our deep dive into the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

…in this excerpt from my book MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON (which you can conveniently get on Kindle from the link I just helpfully provided):


This curious combination of fuzziness about historical details coupled with rock-solid certainty about the core memory of the Church—the “prodigy” of her Assumption—is well reflected in the testimony of Epiphanius, who wrote in a.d. 377:

Let them search the scriptures. They will not find Mary’s death; they will not find whether she died or did not die; they will not find whether she was buried or was not buried. More than that: John journeyed to Asia, yet nowhere do we read that he took the holy Virgin with him. Rather, Scripture is absolutely silent [on Mary’s earthly end] because of the extraordinary nature of the prodigy, in order not to shock the minds of men. . . . Neither do I maintain stoutly that she died. . . .

Did she die? We do not know. At all events, if she was buried, she had no carnal intercourse. . . . Or she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God and he can do whatever he desires.[1]

Similarly, Ephraim, who died in a.d. 373, records a tradition that Mary was glorified by Christ and carried through the air to heaven.[2] And notably, none of the contemporaries of either Epiphanius or Ephraim take issue with this basic tradition.

Finally, various apocryphal and spurious works such as the De Obitu S. Dominae and De Transitu Virginis, as well as various Fathers of the early Church, bear witness to the Assumption. The interesting thing is that the Church was aware that apocryphal books like the Transitu were spurious, since they are listed and condemned by Pope Gelasius in his Decretum (a.d. 494). So why mention them? Because even highly fictional books can sometimes bear witness to real historical facts. For instance, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is not shown to be “unhistorical” just because a science fiction novel might revolve around a story of time travelers who tried to stop it. Rather, it would show that the sci-fi novelist and Civil War historians are both tapping into a common historical memory. In the same way, New Testament passages such as Hebrews 11:36 cite real historical traditions that also happened to be reflected in spurious works like the Ascension of Isaiah. And in much the same way, the Transitu and similar works may mention the Assumption together with all sorts of fictions, but that doesn’t make the Assumption fictional. It just means the author of the Transitu is aware of the same tradition as the rest of the Catholic Church.

So there are basically two ways of looking at this rather messy assembly of evidence. One is to say, “The witnesses disagree on details, therefore the whole thing is rubbish.” This is often done—by skeptics who deny the Resurrection because of the imperfect unanimity of detail in the Gospels. The other approach is to say, “When there is a broad consensus on something having happened, that’s probably an indication that something, rather than nothing, happened.” The early witnesses agree whenever they speak to the central matter: Mary was assumed into heaven. The main problem is that they don’t speak to the matter very often.

The Non-Controversy of the Assumption

Paradoxically, the reason for this relative “silence” appears to be that the Assumption was not controversial. The early theological controversies in the Church tended to be about Jesus, not Mary. So you find enormous amounts of ink spilled over the exact nature of Jesus, for example, while you find the Church blithely celebrates a rite called the “Memory of Mary” that memorialized not just her death but a tradition that she had been taken up into heaven.[3] Shortly thereafter, the Church established a Feast of the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of Mary that likewise remembers her Assumption into heaven. So popular was this feast that, by the end of the fourth century, it was celebrated throughout the entire Eastern Church.[4]

That can slip under our radar because we don’t think too much about feasts. But the early Church thought about them a lot. For in the early Church (like the modern Church), the main way to grasp the Church’s faith was through her feasts and liturgies. The formula is lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of worship is the rule of belief. Therefore, it was a huge thing to enshrine something in the life of the Church by establishing a liturgical feast. Christians didn’t do it lightly. For whenever you see a feast celebrated, you’re looking at the tip of an iceberg, since it means the belief being celebrated was already a deeply rooted part of the faith.

Remarkably, the Assumption is a feast that was promulgated without much controversy at all. Recall that the fourth century was a time, and the Eastern Church was the place, where minute disagreements about the faith consumed everybody’s attention. For instance, at the height of the Arian controversy, Gregory of Nyssa groaned that the whole world was overrun with amateur theologians, all dogmatically certain of the most picayune details of the most complex and abstruse questions:

Every thing in the city is full of it—the lanes, the markets, the avenues, the streets, the clothiers, the bankers, the dealers in provisions. When you ask one how much a thing costs, he will favor you with a discourse about the Begotten and the Unbegotten. When you inquire the price of bread, he replies, “The Father is greater than the Son, and the Son is subordinate.” If you ask, “Is the bath ready?” he declares, “The Son was created from nothing.” I know not by what name, whether frenzy or madness or other kindred term, this evil which has come upon the people may fitly be called.[5]

Yet curiously, in the same era when everybody was obsessing over the finest points of Trinitarian theology, the hypostatic union, and the divine and human wills of Christ (as well as lots of other questions), nobody saw a problem with the promulgation of the Feast of the Dormition of Mary. It was taken for granted as an ancient part of the Gospel, not quarreled over as if it were a recent invention.

[1] Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion, haer. 78, nn. 10–11,23: G.C.S., 37, 461–462, 474.

[2] Ephraim the Syrian, De nativitate domini sermo 12, sermo 11, sermo 4; Opera omni syriace at latine, vol. 2, 415.

[3] Father Clifford Stevens, “The Assumption of Mary: A Belief since Apostolic Times,” Catholic Heritage (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, July-August 1996). Link available as of June 22, 2023.

[4] Jason Evert, “How to Argue for Mary’s Assumption,” This Rock (San Diego: Catholic Answers, May-June 2001). Link available as of June 22, 2023.

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, Orat. de Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti.


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