THE PASSING OF MARY September 8, 2013

And, behold, the archangel Michael rolled back the stone from the door of the tomb; and the Lord said: Arise, my beloved and my nearest relation; thou who hast not put on corruption by intercourse with man, suffer not destruction of the body in the sepulchre. And immediately Mary rose from the tomb, and blessed the Lord … And kissing her, the Lord went back, and delivered her soul to the angels, that they should carry it into paradise.

I have been reading some alternative gospels that in their day were enormously influential, but have since largely fallen into undeserved oblivion. In terms of understanding Christian history, they are enormously important. In this particular case, though, I need to offer a rationale as to why they merit that attention!

The passage above is from a fifth century text called The Passing of Blessed Mary, De Transitu Virginis. Its date is misleading, as it was by no means the first work to present the passing or death of the Virgin Mary in terms very close to that of Christ himself. Such stories were circulating from the third and fourth centuries, and were reported in a series of works like the Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose) and the Six Books Apocryphon, which today survive in Syriac or Ethiopic, and the account of the Dormition credited to John the Evangelist. The De Transitu was so important because many of its predecessors were associated with heretical opinions, and this tried to reclaim this Mary tradition for orthodoxy. Also, the work’s translation into Latin meant that it would be easily available to the regions that would become central to the faith in the Middle Ages.

All these works recount a similar body of stories. After the Crucifixion, Mary devotes herself to the new church, but one day she receives an angelic visitation that recalls the original Annunciation. Knowing she is to die, she asks that the apostles be gathered from the corners of the world, and they duly appear. They accompany her at her death and join the funeral procession, which is marked by various miracles, mainly directed against the evil Jewish authorities. Christ appeared to take Mary’s soul to heavenly glory.

Throughout the various works, the analogies to the canonical stories of Christ are frequent and explicit. Apart from the second Annunciation, she features in a new Pentecost, a new entry into Jerusalem and, most spectacularly, her own Resurrection. These works are, very clearly, alternative gospels starring Mary. They are also substantial pieces: in English translation, the Six Books Apocryphon alone runs to some twelve thousand words.

As the core story was passed on, it acquired even more miracles, and still closer analogies to Christ’s experience. According to one widespread medieval legend, all the apostles gathered to witness Mary’s ascension to glory, except for Thomas (who was also inconveniently late for Christ’s Resurrection appearance). Mary, however, generously appeared to him personally, and as a token of proof left her Girdle or Belt, which became a famous relic. The scene was much used in Renaissance art, and it appears in the Golden Legend.

This literature had an enormous impact in giving pseudo-scriptural foundation to the very widely held church doctrine of Mary’s Assumption or Dormition. Assumption is the Western and Catholic term, suggesting that she was taken to heaven prior to death; the Orthodox accept Dormition, namely that after her bodily death, her body was raised as the first sign of the general Resurrection. Whichever version we consider though, these ideas were very widespread in Christian art through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era, and shaped the Eastern icon tradition.

At least in official doctrines, those ideas are still, today, firmly held by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches – think of perhaps two-thirds of the world’s Christians. As recently as 1950, Pope Pius XII stated that “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.” Catholic and Orthodox alike mark the date of the Assumption, August 15, as a great feast of the church.

Given the later impact of those ideas, we might think that works like the De Transitu would be worth intense study, especially given the fascination with ancient apocryphal and alternative gospels. Oddly, though, they have been badly understudied, even in the standard works on New Testament Apocrypha. (The great exception is the work of Stephen J. Shoemaker, in books like The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, 2002).

One reason for this, of course, is that for most Protestants (and some Catholics), the ideas I am describing – the whole Marian lore – is so bizarre, so outré, so sentimental, and so blatantly superstitious that it just does not belong within the proper study of Christianity. If anything, it’s actively anti-Christian. Even scholars prepared to wrestle with the intricacies of Gnostic cosmic mythology throw up their hands at what they consider a farrago of medieval nonsense.

As I’ll argue in a forthcoming post, that response is profoundly mistaken. If we don’t understand devotion to Mary, together with such specifics as the Assumption, we are missing a very large portion of the Christian experience throughout history. It’s not “just medieval,” any more than it is a trivial or superstitious accretion.

By the way, September 8 is celebrated in Catholic countries around the world as the feast of Mary’s Nativity. For a few hundred million fellow-Christians, that’s an important date.


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  • gregmetzger

    Wonderful. Often as a Catholic I am hesitant to embrace some of the Marian dogmas and see them as modern add-ons. This kind of article always helps to remind me of the historic background. Great stuff!

  • philipjenkins

    Thank you!

  • bdlaacmm

    Protestants can safely stop worrying about the so-called dangers of Marian devotion. No one – and I mean NO ONE – “worships” Mary. Meditating on her life and on the Mystery of the Incarnation only brings us closer to her Son – Jesus. Which is all that really matters, right?

    Among he earliest extant Christian prayers outside of the New Testament is a prayer to Mary. It dates back to the 2nd Century.

    Original Greek:
    Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν,καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε.Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας,μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει,ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς,μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη.

    Latin version (dates to 3rd Century):
    Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei genitrix: nostras depracationes ne despicias in necessitatibus, sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper, Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.

    English translation:
    We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God: despise not our petitions in our necessities; but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

    Christians who personally knew the Apostles and were taught by them were the authors of that prayer. So “modern add-on”? No, it goes back to the very beginning.

  • frjohnmorris

    It is important to understand that Orthodox and Roman Catholics have devotion to Mary as the Theotokos or Birthgiver of God as an expression of their belief in the Incarnation of Christ as God and man united in one person. It is also important to remember that Mary is the Second Eve whose yes to God made our salvation from the sin and death that came into the world after the sin of the first Eve. Mary represents all humanity accepting God’s offer of salvation. The Virgin Birth is not just a miracle. It is much more important than that, it is the means whereby God the Son united Himself to humanity. It is this union which led to the deification of Christ’s human nature that makes our salvation which is also deification possible. Because Mary carried God in the flesh in her womb, she too was deified and therefore ascended into heaven after her death.

  • Joseph M

    Dr. Margret Barker’s recent book “The Mother of The Lord:The Lady in the Temple” isa fascinating exploration of differences between first Temple and Second Temple doctrine that were part of the schism between the Pharisees (latter Rabbinical Judaism) and early Christianity which are sources for Marian devotion in the early church.

  • bdlaacmm

    I would strenuously object to your use of the term deification here – both times that you use it.
    Firstly, Christ’s human nature was not “deified” by the union of His two natures. They remain distinct – wholly God and wholly Man.
    Secondly, we cannot speak of Mary having been “deified”, unless it is in the sense that we all will be when we have “put on Christ”. Otherwise, that word is totally out of bounds.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “As I’ll argue in a forthcoming post, that response is profoundly
    mistaken. If we don’t understand devotion to Mary, together with such
    specifics as the Assumption, we are missing a very large portion of the
    Christian experience throughout history. It’s not “just medieval,” any
    more than it is a trivial or superstitious accretion.”

    I agree. So much basic Christian folklore taken for granted arose in these 3rd-6th century texts and elements of those stories became widely embraced during the medieval period as if they had been part of the canon (see also Infancy Gospel of Thomas). To see that development over time I find fascinating, and that appreciation certainly doesn’t require adherence to believing in Marian lore or whatever other extra-canonical components we’re talking about.

    Sometimes it seems like Protestants want to just pretend that the centuries between Nicaea and Luther never happened, but MUCH of the theology of that period is part and parcel of Protestantism today (in fact, Reformed/evangelical theology would be unrecognizable without the contributions of Augustine and Anselm).