Assumption: Not a Question of History

 
The Church's doctrine on the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is usually treated with scorn by Protestants, who of course do not acknowledge the unique role of Mary in salvation history. There are many objections: the doctrine is "not biblical"; it was "invented" in 1950; in makes Mary into a rival of Christ for our affection, etc...Before I came back to the Church, I used to be skeptical of this doctrine; "Assumption? It sure is one giant assumption, since the Bible says nothing about it," I used to say to myself.

It is not the concept of an Assumption that is so problematic - Protestants of course acknowledge that both Enoch and Elijah were assumed alive into heaven, as the Scriptures state. The problem is not with the concept of an assumption, as much as whether or not one specific individual - Our Lady - was in fact assumed body and soul into heaven. The Church's doctrine on the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is usually treated with scorn by Protestants, who of course do not acknowledge the unique role of Mary in salvation history. There are many objections: the doctrine is "not biblical"; it was "invented" in 1950; in makes Mary into a rival of Christ for our affection, etc. We are all familiar with these standard canards. Before I came back to the Church, I used to be skeptical of this doctrine; "Assumption? It sure is one giant assumption, since the Bible says nothing about it," I used to say to myself.

When you really dig into it, it is not the concept of an Assumption that is so problematic - Protestants of course acknowledge that both Enoch and Elijah were assumed alive into heaven, as the Scriptures state. The problem is not with the concept of an assumption, as much as whether or not one specific individual - Our Lady - was in fact assumed body and soul into heaven.

This question of fact is where I think the only strong objection to Our Lady's Assumption is found; and by "strong" I only mean that it is the only objection that is really intelligent. On the surface, this argument has some merit because the simple fact is that, when we look back on evidence for belief in the Assumption in the patristic period, the writings are silent for the first several centuries. St. Epiphanius around 377 suggests the Assumption as a possibility; the first clear references we have to it come from the mid-5th century. There are many apocryphal works purporting to be from the pre-Nicene era, but my understanding is that none of these can be established with certainty before the 5th century, or maybe even the 6th. But if we look to the pre-Nicene era, we find zero references to the doctrine of the Assumption. This is problematic if we are asserting the Assumption of Our Lady to be a real, historical event based upon a constant historical testimony.

This at least is a real objection; it is based upon actual history and the lack of reference to a doctrine that Catholics believe is part of the deposit of faith. How can we believe a doctrine is apostolic if it is not mentioned in the apostolic or pre-Nicene periods? Indeed, even from 400 to 500 references to it are scarce; it is only in the period from around 550 to 700 that the doctrine comes into full light. This begs the question: If Mary truly was assumed bodily into heaven, would not the apostles have known about it and told others? Wouldn't news of such a miraculous occurrence be spread abroad fairly early on throughout all the churches? Wouldn't we have a clear testimony to its historicity, like we do with regards to Peter's martyrdom in Rome? Wouldn't someone before the 5th century have mentioned something about it?

Let us look at a corollary: the doctrine of Christ's Resurrection. Like the Assumption of Mary, this was a supernatural event that occurred within history. However, in the case of the Resurrection, we have a constant testimony from the apostolic period onward; in fact, no historic point of the Faith is stressed so clearly in patristic literature. And the fact that it is stressed so clearly and constantly is precisely because it was a real historic event; it was witnessed to by the Apostles, who told others and which therefore passed into the preaching and teaching of the early Church. Hence, if someone were to say that the Resurrection were invented or concocted by later generations of Christians, we would have witnesses going right back to the Apostles to contradict this assertion.

This is not the case with the Assumption, however. With Mary's Assumption, we have very little by means of historical evidence, and as we stated above, this does not come until centuries later. If we are looking at the Assumption from a historical angle then, the evidence seems to be wanting.

These objections may seem formidable until we call to mind one simple fact that dispels them all: Belief in the Assumption is not based on historical observation; it is not a question of history. The Assumption is a historical event, but its truth is not based on historical premises. Let's look at what I mean by this, since I certainly do not mean to imply that the event never happened or that it is "unhistorical."

Of course, the act of the Assumption was historical; I wouldn't deny that for a moment. But what we need to understand is that the Church does not believe in the Assumption because of some historical observation that was passed on from generation to generation. In other words, our faith concerning this dogma does not depend upon that somewhere in mid-1st century Palestine or Ephesus, somebody actually saw Mary's body assume into heaven and then went and told others about it. It is not based on any historical witness or observation. Indeed, how could it be, since there is no unanimity on even how this event happened?

In this sense, it is quite different from the Church's belief in our Lord's Resurrection, which was believed by the early Church because it had in fact been witnessed by many. Our Lord took great pains to make sure that many witnessed His Resurrection because He wanted the faith of the primitive Church to draw its source from this one, clearly historic event that was seen by numerable eyewitnesses. Mary's Assumption, on the other hand, might very well have been witnessed by no one. Suppose she died and was buried, and then her body was taken into heaven - who would have witnessed that? We do have that old story about the twelve apostles coming together to look at Mary's body one last time and upon opening the tomb finding her body gone, but I don't know of any scholar who accepts these Transitus Mariae narratives as strictly historical, though they do reflect the pious beliefs of Christians in the late patristic period, who though they acknowledged that Mary was Assumed into heaven, were unclear on the details. Were Mary assumed into heaven, as the Church believes, it most likely would have been in obscurity and secrecy, not witnessed by anyone.

Rather than an historical event that was observed and related, the Assumption is a theological conclusion we arrive at based on our belief in Mary's sinlessness. The doctrine of the Assumption is implied in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Corruption, of course, is one of the effects of sin, as we are told in Romans 6:23 and in the Psalms, where King David writes, "Therefore my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover, my flesh also shall rest in hope. Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; nor wilt thou give thy holy one to see corruption" (Ps. 16:9-10). This is quoted by St. Paul in Acts 13:34-35 with reference to the Lord's Resurrection, where the Lord's "holy one" who is blameless is justified in His words by being freed from the corruption common to the sons of Adam.

Mary, because of her sinlessness, also shares this prerogative; the fact of the Assumption is deduced from the reality of her Immaculate Conception. The two doctrines are linked; the latter leads us to conclude the former, just as the innocence and justice of the Messiah means His Resurrection, since death and corruption are punishment for sin. Therefore, we do not believe in the Assumption because some person two thousand years ago witnessed it and ran around the ancient churches saying, "Man, you'll never believe what I just saw over in Ephesus!" No; rather, it is a theological deduction which logically flows from our belief in the Immaculate Conception - and Mary's freedom from sin is clearly taught in the pre-Nicene period, all the way back to the sub-apostolic generation. There is no Father who at any time suggests that Mary was a sinner; they all clearly teach her freedom from sin.
 
Therefore the Assumption is inferred from the Immaculate Conception. Just like we say that belief in the Trinity is part of the deposit of faith even though it was not worked out in its details by the apostolic fathers, we can assert likewise about the Assumption. The Trinity is inferred by Christ's declaration of equality with the Father in the Gospels (along with many other of His words and actions), and the Assumption is inferred by the primitive belief in Mary's sinlessness.

Pius XII, when defining the dogma in Munificentissimus Deus, after relating different evidences of late patristic liturgies, iconography, and statements of the later Fathers (St. John Damascene, et al), goes on to say that belief in the Assumption is ultimately based on Sacred Scripture: "All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation" (MD, 38). Of course, Pius XII is here referring to a specifically typological reading of the Bible, though he admits that sometimes theologians of the past were "rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption" (26). This is not a critique, however, but an endorsement of an interpretive method that wedded the mystical to the literal to gain insight into the truth.


The primary reason for belief in the Assumption, according to Pius, is "the filial love" of Christ for His mother (25). Note that it is a theological argument, not a historical one. He goes on to explain this filial love in terms of Mary's close unity with her Son:

"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" (MD, 40).

 
All of this comes from the data of revelation as found in the Scriptures, and therefore does Pius say the pious beliefs about Mary's Assumption are "based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation." Pius XII goes on to explain the importance of the later Fathers and early medieval liturgies as evidence for belief in the doctrine, but the doctrine itself deduced from the sinlessness of our Lady, which is found in the Scriptures and the pre-Nicene Fathers.
 
Of course, Protestants would not acknowledge this, as they read the Bible differently than we. But is important for us that we understand, and can explain that this doctrine does not depend upon a witness of history, although that does lend credence to a very ancient belief in the Assumption; rather, it exists in seed form along with the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness and is inferred from it. This is true whether or not there were Christians alive in the patristic age who could elaborate on it, and thus the lack of written evidence for the Assumption prior to the late 4th and early 5th centuries is not only not problematic but is actually irrelevant.