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
“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 the Pre-Nicene Fathers which say that Mary defeated death
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; 180 A.D.)
“[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; 180 A.D.)
“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; 190 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, 165 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; ~A.D. 207)
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.
A passage that calls Mary’s flesh imperishable
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; ~A.D. 235)
The importance of this passage lies in his designation of Mary as the “imperishable wood” of which the Savior’s flesh was made. The operative word here is imperishable, sometimes translated incorruptible, which seems to exclude death and/or decomposition. Now Mary’s body is not still here on earth lying incorrupt somewhere; therefore, if this author really believed her flesh was incorruptible, he must have thought it was taken 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.
BTW I’d love to add to this. Does anybody else know of any pre-Nicene data that can be used to support Mary’s assumption?