Mary's Assumption in the Doctrine of the Pre-Nicene Church

This is a compilation of passages from pre-Nicene Christian literature along with arguments for the Assumption of Mary based on these passages. I wanted to make this compilation because I often see non-Catholics arguing that there is no evidence that Mary’s Assumption was part of the tradition of the early Church. As we will see, there is at least one explicit reference to it from the pre-Nicene period and there are many statements in the pre-Nicene Fathers which we can use as implicit support for the Assumption.

The Transitus Mariae literature

~200s A.D. - “And our Lord said to them: ‘Let them bring the body of Mary into the clouds.’ … And when they arrived together in Paradise, they placed the body of Mary beside the tree of life. And they brought her soul and placed it upon her body. And our Lord dismissed his angels to their places.” (Liber Requiei Mariae 89, as it appears in Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 163-164)

The Transitus Mariae literature is a set of early apocryphal writings that mention Mary’s Assumption. The earliest of them may be the Ethiopic Liber Requiei Mariae, or Book of the Repose of Mary, quoted above. The English translator of this work argues that it was written by the fourth century, probably in the third century, and possibly earlier, which places it very probably before the Nicene Council. (Shoemaker, Stephen J. Ancient Traditions of the Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. p. 38-46, 146-68, 232-56)

Passages from St. Gregory Thaumaturgus

262 A.D. - St. Gregory the Wonderworker - “Come, then, you too, dearly beloved, and let us chant the melody which has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, Arise, O Lord, into Your rest; You, and the ark of Your sanctuary. For the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary. ... Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline your ear, and forget your own people and your father's house; so shall the King greatly desire your beauty: for He is the Lord your God, and you shall worship Him. Hearken, O daughter, to the things which were prophesied beforetime of you, in order that you may also behold the things themselves with the eyes of understanding.” (Homily 1 on the Annunciation)

This passage quotes two prophecies about Mary's Assumption: one in which David tells the Messiah to “Arise” with His ark (Psalms 132:8), which Gregory says is Mary, and a second which is about the vision of the Queen of Heaven standing at the right hand of the Messiah (Psalms 45:9-11). By saying that Mary “arose” and implying that she is now in heaven, St. Gregory is a possible early witness to the belief in Mary’s Assumption.

~262 A.D. - “For you have been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne. You shine as the very brightness of light in the high places of the kingdoms of intelligence; where the Father, who is without beginning, and whose power you had overshadowing you, is glorified; where also the Son is worshipped, whom you bore according to the flesh; and where the Holy Spirit is praised, who effected in your womb the generation of the mighty King.” (Homily 2 on the Annunciation)

Some manuscripts of Eusebius of Caesarea

~325 A.D. - Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a chronological table of history in about this year. There is a blank space in his book at the year corresponding to 46 A.D. in some manuscripts, and in other manuscripts of his book there is this entry: “The virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, is taken up to her son in heaven, as some write had been revealed to her.” (Chronological Tables Year 46 A.D. in some manuscripts.)

I include the reference in this document for several reasons. One is: Eusebius lived most of his life before the Nicene Council and, if he wrote the words that refer to Mary's assumption, then it seems likely that he learned the doctrine from the pre-Nicene period. Also, the entry mentions that other people wrote about this event, which suggests that older works were available to him and referred to Mary's assumption.

Passages from the Pre-Nicene Fathers which say that Mary defeated death

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “[J]ust as the human race was bound to death because of [Eve], so it was set free from death by [Mary], since the disobedience of one virgin was counterbalanced by a Virgin's obedience.” (Against Heresies Book V Chapter 19 Paragraph 1)

And: “[Eve]...having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; [but] Mary...by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.” (Against Heresies Book III Chapter 22 Paragraph 4)

190 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “And just as through [Eve] man was stricken down and fell into death, so through [Mary] man was reanimated and received life. ... For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching Paragraph 33)

165 A.D. - St. Justin Martyr - “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy.” (Dialog with Trypho Chapter 100)

~207 A.D. - Tertullian - “The ensnaring word had crept into [Eve] which was to build the edifice of death. Into a virgin's soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation.” (On the Flesh of Christ Chapter 17)

~262 A.D. - St. Gregory the Wonderworker - “Where death came forth, there has life now prepared its entrance. By a woman came the flood of our ills, and by a woman also our blessings have their spring. ... Hail, thou that hast sunk in your womb the death (that came) of the mother (Eve)! Hail, thou animate temple of temple of God! Hail, thou equal home of heaven and earth alike!” (Homily 3 on the Annunciation)

Two arguments from these passages

What we can gather from the above is that, under the pre-Nicene doctrine of Mary as New Eve, Mary “set [the human race] free from death,” saved “herself” and all mankind from death; helped “reanimate” man; gave life in place of death; contributed to the “swallowing up” of mortality by immortality; recovered salvation and life for mankind; and received faith and joy instead of sin and death. All of that seems to imply that she did not just die and decompose. If she truly defeated death, she cannot have been overcome by it; she must either have lived immortally, or been resurrected.

But there is a second significance in the comparison of Mary to Eve. Before the Fall, Eve was not subject to death. By linking Mary to Eve in that state, there is a direct implication that Mary was also not subject to death. Thus there are two ways these passages can be used to support Mary’s Assumption: they say that she defeated death, and they say she was like Eve before she was subject to death.

Two passages that call Mary imperishable

~235 A.D. - St. Hippolytus of Rome - “The Lord was without sin, made of imperishable wood, as regards His humanity; that is, of the virgin and the Holy Spirit inwardly, and outwardly of the word of God, like an ark overlaid with purest gold.” (Commentary on Psalm 22, as quoted in Haffner, P. The Mystery of Mary. Gracewing Publishers, p. 77)

~262 A.D. - St. Gregory the Wonderworker - “A bulwark of imperishable life hath the Holy Virgin become unto us, and a fountain of light to those who have faith in Christ; a sunrise of the reasonable light is she found to be.” (Homily on the Mother of God)

The importance of these passage lies in their designation of Mary as “imperishable.” Sometimes translated incorruptible, this word seems to exclude death and/or decomposition. Now Mary’s body is not still here on earth lying incorrupt somewhere; therefore, if these authors really believed her flesh was incorruptible, they must have thought she was taken bodily into heaven: the Assumption.

Other Early Evidence of Mary’s Assumption

One other pre-Nicene piece of evidence for Mary’s Assumption is the argument from relics. The argument from relics is that we possess no relics of Mary’s body. We know from books like the Martyrdom of Polycarp (and the Acts of the Apostles) that relics of the early Church leaders were considered very venerable. Relics of Mary, therefore, would be specially prized. The Apostles’ bones and relics are visible in various places today, but no bodily relics have ever been claimed of Mary. This indicates that everybody knew her body was in heaven.

Timeline of Supporting Data for the Assumption from the Pre-Nicene Period

If we were to assemble all of this into a timeline of pre-Nicene contributions to Mary’s assumption, it would look like this:

~50 A.D. - Mary dies. No early Christian communities claim to have her body.

165 A.D. - St. Justin Martyr - “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy.” (Dialog with Trypho Chapter 100)

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “[J]ust as through [Eve] man was stricken down and fell into death, so through [Mary] man was reanimated and received life. ... [M]ortality [was] swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve [was] summed up in Mary...” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching Paragraph 33)

~200s A.D. - Liber Requiei Mariae - “And our Lord said to them: ‘Let them bring the body of Mary into the clouds.’ … And when they arrived together in Paradise, they placed the body of Mary beside the tree of life. And they brought her soul and placed it upon her body. And our Lord dismissed his angels to their places.” (Liber Requiei Mariae 89)

~207 A.D. - Tertullian - “[W]hat had been reduced to [death] by [Eve was] by [Mary] recovered to salvation.” (On the Flesh of Christ Chapter 17)”

~235 A.D. - St. Hippolytus of Rome - “The Lord was...made of [the] imperishable wood...of the virgin and the Holy Spirit.” (Commentary on Psalm 22)

~262 A.D. - St. Gregory the Wonderworker - “A bulwark of imperishable life hath the Holy Virgin become unto us, and a fountain of light to those who have faith in Christ; a sunrise of the reasonable light is she found to be.” (Homily on the Mother of God)

And: “Where death came forth, there has life now prepared its entrance. By a woman came the flood of our ills, and by a woman also our blessings have their spring. ... Hail, thou that hast sunk in your womb the death (that came) of the mother (Eve)! Hail, thou animate temple of temple of God! Hail, thou equal home of heaven and earth alike!” (Homily 3 on the Annunciation)

And: “Come, then, you too, dearly beloved, and let us chant the melody which has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, Arise, O Lord, into Your rest; You, and the ark of Your sanctuary. For the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary. ... Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline your ear, and forget your own people and your father's house; so shall the King greatly desire your beauty: for He is the Lord your God, and you shall worship Him. Hearken, O daughter, to the things which were prophesied beforetime of you, in order that you may also behold the things themselves with the eyes of understanding.” (Homily 1 on the Annunciation)

And: “For you have been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne. You shine as the very brightness of light in the high places of the kingdoms of intelligence; where the Father, who is without beginning, and whose power you had overshadowing you, is glorified; where also the Son is worshipped, whom you bore according to the flesh; and where the Holy Spirit is praised, who effected in your womb the generation of the mighty King.” (Homily 2 on the Annunciation)

~325 A.D. - Some manuscripts of Eusebius - “The virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, is taken up to her son in heaven, as some write had been revealed to her.” (Chronological Tables Year 46 A.D. in some manuscripts)

BTW I’d love to add to this. Does anybody else know of any pre-Nicene references to Mary’s assumption?