THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY
A Roman Catholic Dogma Originating with Heretics and Condemned as
Heretical by 2 Popes in the 5th and 6th Centuries.
By William Webster
The Roman Catholic doctrine of the assumption of Mary teaches that she was assumed body and soul into heaven either without dying or shortly after death. This extraordinary claim was only officially declared to be a dogma of Roman Catholic faith in 1950, though it had been believed by many for hundreds of years. To dispute this doctrine, according to Rome’s teaching, would result in the loss of salvation. The official teaching of the Assumption comes from the decree Munificentissimus Deus by pope Pius XII:
All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation. These set the loving Mother of God as it were before our very eyes as most intimately joined to her divine Son and as always sharing His lot. Consequently it seems impossible to think of her, the one who conceived Christ, brought Him forth, nursed Him with her milk, held Him in her arms, and clasped Him to her breast, as being apart from Him in body, even though not in soul, after this earthly life. Since our Redeemer is the Son of Mary, He could not do otherwise, as the perfect observer of God’s law, than to honour, not only His eternal Father, but also His most beloved Mother. And, since it was within His power to grant her this great honour, to preserve her from the corruption of the tomb, we must believe that He really acted in this way.
Hence the revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages.
For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God Who has lavished His special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honour of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
Hence, if anyone, which God forbid, should dare wilfully to deny or call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic faith…It is forbidden to any man to change this, Our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul (Munificentissimus Deus, Selected Documenst of Pope Pius XII (Washington: National Catholic Welfare Conference), 38, 40, 44-45, 47).
This is truly an amazing dogma, yet there is no Scriptural proof for it, and even the Roman Catholic writer Eamon Duffy concedes that, ‘there is, clearly, no historical evidence whatever for it …’ (Eamon Duffy, What Catholics Believe About Mary (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1989), p. 17). For centuries in the early Church there is complete silence regarding Mary’s end. The first mention of it is by Epiphanius in 377 A.D. and he specifically states that no one knows what actually happened to Mary. He lived near Palestine and if there were, in fact, a tradition in the Church generally believed and taught he would have affirmed it. But he clearly states that ‘her end no one knows.’ These are his words:
But if some think us mistaken, 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 … Scripture is absolutely silent [on the end of Mary] … For my own part, I do not dare to speak, but I keep my own thoughts and I practice silence … The fact is, Scripture has outstripped the human mind and left [this matter] uncertain … Did she die, we do not know … Either the holy Virgin died and was buried … Or she was killed … Or she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God and He can do whatever He desires; for her end no-one knows.’ (Epiphanius, Panarion, Haer. 78.10-11, 23. Cited by juniper Carol, O.F.M. ed., Mariology, Vol. II (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1957), pp. 139-40).
In addition to Epiphanius, there is Jerome who also lived in Palestine and does not report any tradition of an assumption. Isidore of Seville, in the seventh century, echoes Epiphanius by saying that no one has any information at all about Mary’s death. The patristic testimony is therefore non-existent on this subject. Even Roman Catholic historians readily admit this fact:
In these conditions we shall not ask patristic thought—as some theologians still do today under one form or another—to transmit to us, with respect to the Assumption, a truth received as such in the beginning and faithfully communicated to subsequent ages. Such an attitude would not fit the facts…Patristic thought has not, in this instance, played the role of a sheer instrument of transmission’ (Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M., ed., Mariology, Vol. I (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1955), p. 154).
How then did this teaching come to have such prominence in the Church that eventually led it to be declared an issue of dogma in 1950? The first Church father to affirm explicitly the assumption of Mary in the West was Gregory of Tours in 590 A.D. But the basis for his teaching was not the tradition of the Church but his acceptance of an apocryphal Gospel known as the Transitus Beatae Mariae which we first hear of at the end of the fifth century and which was spuriously attributed to Melito of Sardis. There were many versions of this literature which developed over time and which were found throughout the East and West but they all originated from one source. Mariologist, Juniper Carol, gives the following historical summary of the Transitus literature:
An intriguing corpus of literature on the final lot of Mary is formed by the apocryphal Transitus Mariae. The genesis of these accounts is shrouded in history’s mist. They apparently originated before the close of the fifth century, perhaps in Egypt, perhaps in Syria, in consequence of the stimulus given Marian devotion by the definition of the divine Maternity at Ephesus. The period of proliferation is the sixth century. At least a score of Transitus accounts are extant, in Coptic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. Not all are prototypes, for many are simply variations on more ancient models (Juniper Carol, O.F.M. ed., Mariology, Vol. II (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1957), p. 144).
Thus, the Transitus literature is the real source of the teaching of the assumption of Mary and Roman Catholic authorities admit this fact. Juniper Carol, for example, writes: ‘The first express witness in the West to a genuine assumption comes to us in an apocryphal Gospel, the Transitus Beatae Mariae of Pseudo–Melito’ (Juniper Carol, O.F.M. ed., Mariology, Vol. l (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1957), p. 149). Roman Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, likewise affirms these facts when he says:
The idea of the bodily assumption of Mary is first expressed in certain transitus–narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries. Even though these are apocryphal they bear witness to the faith of the generation in which they were written despite their legendary clothing. The first Church author to speak of the bodily ascension of Mary, in association with an apocryphal transitus B.M.V., is St. Gregory of Tours’ (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), pp. 209–210).
Juniper Carol explicitly states that the Transitus literature is a complete fabrication which should be rejected by any serious historian:
The account of Pseudo-Melito, like the rest of the Transitus literature, is admittedly valueless as history, as an historical report of Mary’s death and corporeal assumption; under that aspect the historian is justified in dismissing it with a critical distaste (Juniper Carol, O.F.M. ed., Mariology, Vol. l (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1957), p. 150).
It was partially through these writings that teachers in the East and West began to embrace and promote the teaching. But it still took several centuries for it to become generally accepted. The earliest extant discourse on the feast of the Dormition affirms that the assumption of Mary comes from the East at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth century. The Transitus literature is highly significant as the origin of the assumption teaching and it is important that we understand the nature of these writings. The Roman Catholic Church would have us believe that this apocryphal work expressed an existing, common belief among the faithful with respect to Mary and that the Holy Spirit used it to bring more generally to the Church’s awareness the truth of Mary’s assumption. The historical evidence would suggest otherwise. The truth is that, as with the teaching of the immaculate conception, the Roman Church has embraced and is responsible for promoting teachings which originated, not with the faithful, but with heretical writings which were officially condemned by the early Church. History proves that when the Transitus teaching originated the Church regarded it as heresy. In 494 to 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius issued a decree entitled Decretum de Libris Canonicis Ecclesiasticis et Apocryphis. This decree officially set forth the writings which were considered to be canonical and those which were apocryphal and were to be rejected. He gives a list of apocryphal writings and makes the following statement regarding them:
The remaining writings which have been compiled or been recognised by heretics or schismatics the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church does not in any way receive; of these we have thought it right to cite below some which have been handed down and which are to be avoided by catholics (New Testament Apocrypha, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed. (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1991), p. 38).
In the list of apocryphal writings which are to be rejected Gelasius signifies the following work: Liber qui apellatur Transitus, id est Assumptio Sanctae Mariae, Apocryphus (Pope Gelasius 1, Epistle 42, Migne Series, M.P.L. vol. 59, Col. 162). This specifically means the Transitus writing of the assumption of Mary. At the end of the decree he states that this and all the other listed literature is heretical and that their authors and teachings and all who adhere to them are condemned and placed under eternal anathema which is indissoluble. And he places the Transitus literature in the same category as the heretics and writings of Arius, Simon Magus, Marcion, Apollinaris, Valentinus and Pelagius. These are his comments. I have provided two translations from authoritative sources:
These and the like, what Simon Magus, Nicolaus, Cerinthus, Marcion, Basilides, Ebion, Paul of Samosata, Photinus and Bonosus, who suffered from similar error, also Montanus with his detestable followers, Apollinaris, Valentinus the Manichaean, Faustus the African, Sabellius, Arius, Macedonius, Eunomius, Novatus, Sabbatius, Calistus, Donatus, Eustasius, Iovianus, Pelagius, Iulianus of ERclanum, Caelestius, Maximian, Priscillian from Spain, Nestorius of Constantinople, Maximus the Cynic, Lampetius,Dioscorus, Eutyches, Peter and the other Peter, of whom one besmirched Alexandria and the other Antioch, Acacius of Constantinople with his associates, and what also all disciples of heresy and of the heretics and schismatics, whose names we have scarcely preserved, have taught or compiled, we acknowledge is to be not merely rejected but excluded from the whole Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and with its authors and the adherents of its authors to be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever (New Testament Apocrypha, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, Ed., (Cambridge: James Clark, 1991).
These and [writings] similar to these, which … all the heresiarchs and their disciples, or the schismatics have taught or written … we confess have not only been rejected but also banished from the whole Roman and Apostolic Church and with their authors and followers of their authors have been condemned forever under the indissoluble bond of anathema (Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (London: Herder, 1954), pp. 69-70).
Pope Gelasius explicitly condemns the authors as well as their writings and the teachings which they promote and all who follow them. And significantly, this entire decree and its condemnation was reaffirmed by Pope Hormisdas in the sixth century around A.D. 520. (Migne Vol. 62. Col. 537-542). These facts prove that the early Church viewed the assumption teaching, not as a legitimate expression of the pious belief of the faithful but as a heresy worthy of condemnation. There are those who question the authority of the so-called Gelasian decree on historical grounds saying that it is spuriously attributed to Gelasius. However, the Roman Catholic authorities Denzinger, Charles Joseph Hefele, W. A. Jurgens and the New Catholic Encyclopedia all affirm that the decree derives from Pope Gelasius, and Pope Nicholas I in a letter to the bishops of Gaul (c. 865 A.D.) officially quotes from this decree and attributes its authorship to Gelasius. (See Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (London: Herder,1954), pp. 66-69; W. A.Jurgens, TheFaith of theEarlyFathers, vol. I (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1970), p. 404; New CatholicEncyclopedia, vol. VII (Washington D.C.: Catholic University, 1967), p. 434; Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), vol. IV, pp. 43-44). While the Gelasian decree may be questioned by some, the decree of Pope Hormisdas reaffirming the Gelasian decree in the early sixth century has not been questioned.
Prior to the seventh and eighth centuries there is complete patristic silence on the doctrine of the Assumption. But gradually, through the influence of numerous forgeries which were believed to be genuine, coupled with the misguided enthusiasm of popular devotion, the doctrine gained a foothold in the Church. The Dictionary of Christian Antiquities gives the following history of the doctrine:
In the 3rd of 4th century there was composed a book, embodying the Gnostic and Collyridian traditions as to the death of Mary, called De Transitu Virginis Mariae Liber. This book exists still and may be found in the Bibliotheca Patrum Maxima (tom. ii. pt. ii. p. 212)….The Liber Transitu Mariae contains already the whole of the story of the Assumption. But down to the end of the 5th century this story was regarded by the Church as a Gnostic or Collyridian fable, and the Liber de Transitu was condemned as heretical by the Decretum de Libris Canonicis Ecclesiasticus et Apocryphis, attributed to pope Gelasius, A.D. 494. How then did it pass across the borders and establish itself within the church, so as to have a festival appointed to commemorate it? In the following manner:
In the sixth century a great change passed over the sentiments and the theology of the church in reference to the Theotokos—an unintended but very noticeable result of the Nestorian controversies, which in maintaining the true doctrine of the Incarnation incidentally gave strong impulse to what became the worship of Mary. In consequence of this change of sentiment, during the 6th and 7th centuries (or later):
1)The Liber de Transitu, though classed by Gelasius with the known productions of heretics came to be attributed by one…to Melito, an orthodox bishop of Sardis, in the 2nd century, and by another to St. John the Apostle.
2) A letter suggesting the possibility of the Assumption was written and attributed to St. Jerome (ad Paulam et Eustochium de Assumptione B. Virginis, Op. tom. v. p. 82, Paris, 1706).
3) A treatise to prove it not impossible was composed and attributed to St. Augustine (Op. tom. vi. p. 1142, ed. Migne).
4) Two sermons supporting the belief were written and attributed to St. Athanasius (Op. tom. ii. pp. 393, 416, ed., Ben. Paris, 1698).
5) An insertion was made in Eusebius’s Chronicle that ‘in the year 48 Mary the Virgin was taken up into heaven, as some wrote that they had had it revealed to them.’
Thus the authority of the names of St. John, of Melito, of Athanasius, of Eusebius, of Augustine, of Jerome was obtained for the belief by a series of forgeries readily accepted because in accordance with the sentiment of the day, and the Gnostic legend was attributed to orthodox writers who did not entertain it. But this was not all, for there is the clearest evidence (1) that no one within the church taught it for six centuries, and (2) that those who did first teach it within the church borrowed it directly from the book condemned by pope Gelasius as heretical. For the first person within the church who held and taught it was Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem (if a homily attributed to John Damascene containing a quotation from from ‘the Eutymiac history’…be for the moment considered genuine), who (according to this statement) on Marcian and Pulcheria’s sending to him for information as to St. Mary’s sepulchre, replied to them by narrating a shortened version of the de Transitu legend as ‘a most ancient and true tradition.’ The second person within the church who taught it (or the first, if the homily attributed to John Damascene relating the above tale of Juvenal be spurious, as it almost certainly is) was Gregory of Tours, A.D. 590.
The Abbbe Migne points out in a note that ‘what Gregory here relates of the death of the Blessed Virgin and its attendant circumstances he undoubtedly drew…from Pseudo-Melito’s Liber de Transitu B. Mariae, which is classed among apocryphal books by pope Gelasius.’ He adds that this account, with the circumstances related by Gregory, were soon afterwards introduced into the Gallican Liturgy…It is demonstrable that the Gnostic legend passed into the church through Gregory or Juvenal, and so became an accepted tradition within it…Pope Benedict XIV says naively that ‘the most ancient Fathers of the Primitive CHurch are silent as to the bodily assumption of the Blesseed Virgin, but the fathers of the middle and latest ages, both Greeks and Latins, relate it in the distinctest terms’ (De Fest. Assumpt. apud. Migne, Theol. Curs. Compl. tom. xxvi. p. 144, Paris, 1842). It was under the shadow of the names of Gregory of Tours and of these ‘fathers of the middle and latest ages, Greek and Latin,’ that the De Transitu legend became accepted as catholic tradition.
The history, therefore, of the belief which this festival was instituted to commemorate is as follows: It was first taught in the 3rd or 4th century as part of the Gnostic legend of St. Mary’s death, and it was regarded by the church as a Gnostic and Collyridian fable down to the end of the 5th century. It was brought into the church in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries, partly by a series of successful forgeries, partly by the adoption of the Gnostic legend on part of the accredited teachers, writers, and liturgists. And a festival in commemoration of the event, thus came to be believed, was instituted in the East at the beginning of the 7th, in the West at the beginning of the 9th century (A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, Ed., (Hartford: J.B. Burr, 1880), pp. 1142-1143).
R.P.C. Hanson gives the following summation of the teaching of the Assumption, emphasizing the lack of patristic and Scriptural support for it and affirming that it originated not with the Church but with Gnosticism:
This dogma has no serious connection with the Bible at all, and its defenders scarcely pretend that it has. It cannot honestly be said to have any solid ground in patristic theology either, because it is frist known among Catholic Christians in even its crudest form only at the beginning of the fifth century, and then among Copts in Egypt whose associations with Gnostic heresy are suspiciously strong; indeed it can be shown to be a doctrine which manifestly had its origin among Gnostic heretics. The only argument by which it is defended is that if the Church has at any time believed it and does now believe it, then it must be orthodox, whatever its origins, because the final standard of orthodoxy is what the Church believes. The fact that this belief is presumably supposed to have some basis on historical fact analogous to the belief of all Christians in the resurrection of our Lord makes its registration as a dogma de fide more bewilderingly incomprehensible, for it is wholly devoid of any historical evidence to support it. In short, the latest example of the Roman Catholic theory of doctrinal development appears to be a reductio ad absurdum expressly designed to discredit the whole structure (R.P.C. Hanson, The Bible as a Norm of Faith (University of Durham, 1963), Inaugral Lecture of the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity delivered in the Appleby Lecture Theatre on 12 March, 1963, p. 14).
Pius XII, in his decree in 1950, declared the Assumption teaching to be a dogma revealed by God. But the basis upon which he justifies this assertion is not that of Scripture or patristic testimony but of speculative theology. He concludes that because it seems reasonable and just that God should follow a certain course of action with respect to the person of Mary, and because he has the power, that he has in fact done so. And, therefore, we must believe that he really acted in this way. Tertullian dealt with similar reasoning from certain men in his own day who sought to bolster heretical teachings with the logic that nothing was impossible with God. His words stand as a much needed rebuke to the Roman Church of our day in its misguided teachings about Mary:
But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things, suppose that He has actually done what He has not done. But we must inquire whether He has really done it … It will be your duty, however, to adduce your proofs out of the Scriptures as plainly as we do…(Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Vol. III, Tertullian, Against Praxeas, ch. X and XI, p. 605).
Tertullian says that we can know if God has done something by validating it from Scripture. Not to be able to do so invalidates any claim that a teaching has been revealed by God. This comes back again to the patristic principle of sola scriptura, a principle universally adhered to in the eaerly Church. But one which has been repudiated by the Roman Church and which has resulted in its embracing and promoting teachings, such as the assumption of Mary, which were never taught in the early Church and which have no Scriptural backing.
The only grounds the Roman Catholic faithful have for believing in the teaching of the assumption is that a supposedly ‘infallible’ Church declares it. But given the above facts the claim of infallibility is shown to be completely groundless. How can a Church which is supposedly infallible promote teachings which the early Church condemned as heretical? Whereas an early papal decree anathematized those who believed the teaching of an apocryphal Gospel, now papal decrees condemn those who disbelieve it. The conclusion has to be that teachings such as Mary’s assumption are the teachings and traditions of men, not the revelation of God.