In Part One, I retold the major tradition associated with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This tradition is attributed to various sources depending upon where the writer first encountered it.
The most widespread version was that told (twice) by Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend. This lengthy chapter in the Legend shows various signs of elaboration that develop from long meditation and preaching on the subject. The Golden Legend was primarily a preaching aid, and Jacobus tends to identify elements he believes may be merely legendary. Jacobus draws other sources into his account, citing both St. Jerome and Dionysius the Areopagite.
The problem is that both of the sources cited by Jacobus are pseudepigraphal. His quotes from St. Jerome are actually from a later writer, now designated Pseudo-Jerome. And Dionysius, whose writings are hugely important in medieval mysticism, was once believed to be the same figure mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. However, now he is generally regarded as having written in the 5th century rather than the 1st, and therefore these writings are attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius. (To be clear, this does not represent a “fraud,” since attributing works to important figures was commonplace, and the writing of Pseudo-Dionysius remains a vital witness to an important strain of Neoplatonist-influenced thought in orthodox Christianity.)
Most references, including Jacobus, tend to regard St. Melito as the sources of this story, and thus the tradition is attributed to him.
If it is by St. Melito, we’re dealing with an important figure from the early days of the Church. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (died circa 180 AD) compiled the earliest Christian canon of the Old Testament after visiting the library at Caesarea Maritima in Judea. He’s the man who actually coined the name “Old Testament.” St. Jerome and other Church Fathers held him in the highest esteem. If Melito wrote this account, then it must be taken seriously.
So, did Melito write this account?
Melito was so respected that pseudepigraphical works were written in his name. There are many forms and versions of this story attributed to Melito, with texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Arabic. This particular account was written specifically to counter heterodox beliefs about the last days of Mary, which means it had to have been late enough for heterodox beliefs to develop and propagate.
Indeed, it’s possible the work dates not to the Second Century, when Melito lived and worked, but to the Fifth. Thus, in the versions of the story that circulated beginning in the Fifth Century, the writer is probably a Pseudo-Melito, and not the saint himself.
That’s not as much of a deal-breaker as some might think. Assigning a work to a notable name was not at all unusual, and doesn’t indicate an attempt to deceive. It’s possible the account was based on an earlier tradition with Melito as its real or supposed or source.
It’s worth noting that St. Gregory of Tours, who lived in the Sixth Century, considered it to be authentic. By this time, the tradition of the Assumption was accepted, and we start seeing more references to it as the centuries pass.
St John Damascene (c.660–c.750) writes that at the Council of Chacedon (451 AD), Juvenal (Patriarch of Jerusalem in the Fifth Century) was told that Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria wanted the body of the Virgin Mary. At that time, Juvenal told the Emperor that the apostles had witnessed her death and laid her in the tomb, but when they returned the body was gone.
Juvenal brings us to the issue of Mary’s Tomb, which remains a difficult one. Tradition identifies it as being in the Kidron Valley (the “Valley of Jehoshaphat”), as discussed in the first part. This aligns with the tradition that Mary completed her life in Jerusalem.
Another tradition places her in Ephesus, with John in his later years. I’m not going to go through the case for Ephesus versus Jerusalem since it’s of limited historical relevance to the actual fate of Mary. (There’s also a Bethlehem tradition which is even more spurious.) The Catholic Encyclopedia has the pertinent quotes and citations under the section “Post-Pentecostal Life of Mary” in their entry on the BVM. Evidence for Ephesus mostly amounts to an exegetical assumption based upon the life of St. John. All other evidence points to Jerusalem. (There is a house in Ephesus called the House of the Virgin Mary, identified from a vision by Anne Catherine Emmerich. The tradition is a late one, and I don’t believe she was in Ephesus. )
It’s worth noting that the valley of Jehoshaphat was a necropolis of Jerusalem, and is regarded in some traditions as the future location of the last judgment.
The problem is that the Bordeaux Pilgrim, who traveled to the Holy Land in 333 AD and passed through the valley on his way from Jerusalem to Mt Olivet, makes no mention of either tomb or house. He mentions a rock marking the spot where Judas betrayed Christ, vineyards, palm trees where children had plucked palms to lay before Christ as entered the city, and “two notable tombs of wondrous beauty”: those of Isaiah (possibly what today we call the Tomb of Absalom) and Hezekiah.
The Venerable Bede (writing in the 7th/8th centuries) almost certainly did not go to Jerusalem, but he read widely and had many correspondents, and has this to say about the valley:
Here was the tower of King Jehoshaphat, containing his tomb; on the right side of it was a separate chamber, cut out of the rock of Mount Olivet, containing two hollow sepulchres, one of the old Simeon, the other of Joseph the husband of Saint Mary. In the same valley is the round church of Saint Mary, divided by slabs of stone; in the upper part are four altars; on the eastern side below there is another, and to the right of it an empty tomb, in which Saint Mary is said to have reposed for a time: but who removed her, or when this took place, no one can say. On entering this chamber, you see on the right hand side a stone inserted in the wall, on which Christ knelt when he prayed on the night in which he was betrayed; and the marks of his knees are still seen in the stone, as if it had been as soft as wax.
Here, Mary’s Tomb is mentioned, but the tradition of the Assumption is not (“but who removed her, or when this took place, no one can say”). Depending on what sources Bede used, the church is either the one built by Juvenal or a replacement.
Juvenal’s church was first destroyed by the Persians in the 6th century, but was rebuilt (and destroyed) many more times. The crusaders rebuilt it as part of a walled monastery complex in the 12th century. That one was destroyed by Saladin. And so on, and so forth. The current shrine is under the control of the Greek Orthodox church, and is also honored by Muslims.
Archaeological excavations on the site show that it was, indeed, part of a much larger necropolis, and the location included a three-chambered tomb. The tomb was carved into the rock (see my series on Burial in Ancient Israel for more on rack-carved tombs in this period), because it appears as though the surrounding rock was cut away to leave the tomb itself standing as a single structure. The exposed tomb became a shrine and then, a few hundred years later, Juvenal build his church on the spot.
This still leaves us with a conflict between the archaeological evidence for a 1st century tomb and shrine in the Kidron Valley, and the textual evidence (the Bordeaux Pilgrim) which fails to mention it. For now, it will have to remain an unanswered question.
Maximus the Confessor’s Life of the Virgin
In 2012 an important, but almost complete unnoticed, event took place in publishing: the translation into English, for the first time, of the unedited The Life of the Virgin by St. Maximus the Confessor, who lived in the 7th century. Maximus, like Melito, is too important a figure to ignore, and if he did write The Life of the Virgin, we may be looking at a lost tradition for the life of Mary.
The book was ignored for many years for a couple of reasons. First, the complete text only survived in a manuscript written in Old Georgian, and reading Elvish is easier. Second, the discoverer, a Georgian scholar named Korneli Kekelidze, dismissed it as pseudepigraphal.
It now appears fairly clear that the book is not pseudepigraphal but was actually written by Maximus, which would make it the earliest biography of Mary and one from a strong source incorporating traditions know to him.
Does that mean Life of the Virgin is history?
Not as we know it, no, but that doesn’t mean it’s not built on real traditions. Since those traditions were either oral or were in writings now lost to us, we can’t make any strong claim to treating Life of the Virgin as “the biography of Mary.” But at the same time, we shouldn’t dismiss it outright, particularly in the broad contours of the story it tells.
I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of the book yet, but I know that in this version of her life, she is depicted heading out with the other apostles after Pentecost when a vision of her son instructs her to return to Jerusalem, where she will aid James in his ministry. According to Maximus, she becomes an important figure in the church in Jerusalem, instructing and inspiring others until some time her late 70s, when the Assumption takes place.
The book was later rewritten by Symeon the Metaphrast (meaning “reteller”), eliminating the unique post-Pentecost material, which would not appear in modern languages until a French translation in 1984, and the new English translation in 2012.
Does this tradition of Mary change how the church views the role of the Virgin in the life of the Church? Some might be tempted to seize upon it to show a “suppressed” tradition of early female leadership in the Church, but that misses the point entirely.
We already knew that Mary remained at the heart of the apostolic mission. It says as much in Acts. What Life of the Virgin does–if we choose to treat it as having some measure of historical value–is fill in the details of that role. It gives us a Mary who is important to the Church in Jerusalem, and who teaches and inspires. We already venerate her for those roles as the first and most perfect Christian.
Did anyone imagine that the mother of Jesus wouldn’t have been an important figure for the early Christian community?
But where does this all leave us?
Historically, it leaves us in the realm of tradition. I value tradition, and I have common sense, and I know the dogmas of my faith, so I believe that, after the death of her son, Mary remained important to the early Christian community, perhaps teaching and inspiring others. I imagine people coming to visit her, and asking her about what she remembered.
One of these visitors would have been a doctor and artist named Luke, to whom she told many stories as he wrote them down.
And when she was finished telling him all she remembered, she told him how she kept all these things in her heart, and pondered them often.
There are many versions of these stories and texts. I’ve compressed the Jerusalem tradition, guided by Melito and Jacobus, into the retelling in Part 1. I’ve not touched on the Bethlehem tradition because it’s not something to take seriously. The various texts can be found in translation here.