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

“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?

Thanks for this :slight_smile:

I have heard this argument too from non-Catholics.
I wish I would have had this info at my disposal back then, but now I will!

God bless!

I think these passages from St. Gregory the Wonderworker should be added:

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, 262 A.D.)

This passage quotes two texts of Mary: 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.

“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, ~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, ~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, ~262 A.D.)

I don’t think the Assumption is incompatible with death. The argument is simply that if Mary wasn’t resurrected and assumed, then she didn’t really defeat death. I’m guessing she did die, though the Fathers who called her “imperishable” are possible witnesses to the tradition that she did not die.

Your argument from lack of relics is reasonable.

Thank you. :slight_smile:

OK, though even what you say above is not really supportable as the texts you quote do not plainly say that Mary herself defeated death - but rather she helped her Son do this by allowing the Incarnation.
e.g.“so it was set free from death by [Mary], since the disobedience of one virgin was counterbalanced by a Virgin’s obedience.”
This plainly means that Jesus set us free and Mary indirectly participated in that by her fiat. Nothing more need be implied here.
“Mary…by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation.” Same thing. Jesus is the Salvation (Conquerer of death) and Mary’s fiat caused (ie allowed) that to happen.
"and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor.” Mary “intercessed” for Eve (ie her Fiat/obedience) allowed the Incarnation/Resurrection to happen.
"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.”
Again its all about Mary’s fiat/obedience to God in “receiving the Word” into her womb. Nothing to do with Mary directly herself, but all about Jesus and his Incarntation/Resurrection which she allowed to happen.

I’m guessing she did die, though the Fathers who called her “imperishable” are possible witnesses to the tradition that she did not die.

This is not quite right. “Imperishable” cannot be readily squared with “did not die”. It cannot be presumed to mean any more than that her body remained incorrupt after her death - as was the case with Jesus. Phrases that refer to her imperishability/incorruption are indeed suggestive of her Assumption (though perhaps not finally conclusive as many saints are known to have incorrupt bodies as well).

There is no guessing that Mary died … it has been a constant tradition in the Church until the 17th century. Only in the last few hundred years has the erroneous notion crept in amongst the Western faithful that she may not have died before her Assumption.

Please check this thread for Pope JP II’s public teaching on the matter and his understanding of the Dogma of the Assumption defined by Pius XII.

Calvin’s treatise on relics corroborates this and is interesting to read, if you can handle his, um, attitude. There were second class relics but no first class Marian relics.

Blue Horizon :: I appreciate your critical analysis and I’m glad you can disagree with my interpretations so amicably and intelligently. Although I admit that most of these texts do not explicitly state the Assumption, I still think they can be used as implicit support for it.

In my opinion, to say that Mary helped the Son defeat death is to say that Mary defeated death with Him, and implicates her in the effects of that action. Therefore, if it included a resurrection and Ascension for the Son, it would include a resurrection and Assumption for the Mother. Of course, I don’t think anyone is bound to conclude the same way I do, but I think it is worth pointing out that that the papal document Munificentissimus Deus adopts a similar line of reasoning in paragraph 39, and argues that the Assumption is implicit in the second-century doctrine of the New Eve because “as the new Eve, [Mary] is most intimately associated with [Christ] in…[His] most complete victory over the sin and death.” It is in paragraph 44 that the Assumption is defined as dogma.

There is no guessing that Mary died … it has been a constant tradition in the Church until the 17th century. Only in the last few hundred years has the erroneous notion crept in amongst the Western faithful that she may not have died before her Assumption.

In the fourth century, St. Epiphanius mentions that we do not know if she died or not. He says that “if she was slain…her blessed body…dwells among those who enjoy the repose of the blessed,” or else she must have “continued to live,” immortally. (Panarion, Heresy 79, 23, as quoted in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Ignatius Press, p. 126)

I don’t think it is wise to get dogmatic about something that the Fathers and the Magisterium have left undefined. As I said earlier, I think the tradition that she died has stronger evidence, but I don’t think the tradition that she lived immortally has no evidence.

I suppose the problem at bottom is that it is really the terms of your own 20 century question that will ultimately logically force you to the position I am maintaining.

What you seek to do below is really an anachronism, like trying to spot that rolex watch on the chariot driver in the Ben Hur movie. You can only spot a rolex in Roman times because…a movie is not actually from Roman times. There were no rolex watches in Roman times and its fruitless trolling through historical documents to see if they existed then.

This is really what you are doing. “Evidence” is the downfall in your approach. You are seeking “evidence”. This is a rolex watch, only “invented/accepted” in the Enlightenment as an accepted tool of historical enquiry. Even then it took a couple of hundred years before the common people like you and me took it fro granted that something is only to be true and lived by if their is strong “evidence” (we usually mean material evidence, convincing logical proof). And when we say “logical” we don’t mean Aristotelian logic, we mean Enlightenment logic. Empiricism, scientific method. This logic was largely anathema (or of no consequence) to wise men before the Enlightenment.

That is why Aristotle’s famous example of a horse with x number of teeth (used to explain some point of philosophy) was handed down for generations…until one day a student like you from the country told his lecturer that Aristotle was wrong. The teacher was flabbergasted. Of course the boy wasn’t talking directly about the philosophical point but the example used to “prove it”. Aristotle was wrong, it seems he had never actually counted the number of teeth that a horse actually has. Armchair ancient "logica"l methods no-longer works today, only detailed scientific enquiry and method.

In short, the ancients had a completely different approach to what was for them 'evidence".
They used “the allegorical method” or the method of “congruence” and to like minds it is convincing.

The Magisterium still does a lot of this today because its philosophic outlook is still predominantly Aristotelian rather than post-Enlightenment. But to modern minds it is no longer convincing. This is not what we call strong 'evidence".

WRT the Magisterium faithful Catholics don’t mind what weak paths they sometimes use to arrive at a truth. If it is proclaimed formally we believe by the Holy Spirit they got it right in the end even if the means, the “reasons”, are silly or weak.

But for you to push the above simply by using the same method of congruence used by the Fathers… well nobody post enlightenment is going to be convinced by those olf forms of “reasoning”. And rightly so as Aristotle’s horse would agree.

However for me, as a believer, if my reason does not strongly rebell then the method of congruence/harmony does have some weight and insight.

dmar198, this is a great compilation of implicit evidence for Mary’s Assumption. As you have already stated, these are not a dead ringer and don’t ‘prove’ anything, but they are stong support for the logical consistency of the Catholic position, especially when coupled with our understanding of the Scriptures, the typology of the Arc of the New Covenant, and a complete lack of a contrary position.

In past arguments I have found that when I offer implicit evidences and ask where the outcry was, from those who rejected the notion of the Assumption, the subject will change and there’ll be a comment about the Vatican “hiding historical documents” that no one has access to. :rolleyes:

BlueHorizon, I think in your above post you are confusing “evidence” for “proof”. The OP has not claimed that the evidence is “proof”, and these two things are very different.

I appreciate your comments and your criticism, and, although you do not sound as though you are trying to praise my methods of proof and persuasion, I am flattered that you would count them as the kinds of arguments used by Aristotelians and Scholastics, even if it is unconvincing to moderns.

In my opinion, I do not see incompatibility between the use of analogy/congruence and the use of observation/empirical data, though if you see it then be my guest to explain it. If I could be optimistic for a moment, I think there is grounds for hoping that Aristotelian analogy can still be quite persuasive in our time, if there is a well-established causal relationship where similar causes will produce similar effects. And if people will not accept this kind of reasoning, I think we should agree not to give up on it, but to persuade people to give it another look.

If you look, I think you will find occasional uses of analogical/congruence thinking in modern and Enlightenment literature, just as you can find occasional empirical and observational argument in pre-Enlightenment literature. The key is to know how to use each form of proof effectively, and I humbly submit that if my effort proves a failure to use analogy to convince, perhaps someone after me will find a better way to use it. And I thank you for bringing it up.

You may be right but I am taking the OP on his original statement, " I often see **non-Catholics arguing that there is no evidence **that Mary’s Assumption."
was part of the tradition…"
Now if I was a Protestant who only believes what is plainly stated (usually only in the Bible) “arguments” from logical consistency and congruence prob wont really do it for me.

If the Bible of Fathers only said: 1,2, …
does that mean the next “logical” number is 3?
or would be just as logical to say 4?

Congruence or “is consistent with” probably won’t satisfy.

I agree with Blue Horizon. We are trying to apply a modern method of thought to authors who simply did not think that way.

In Protestantism, truth is sought after as through a looking glass. The Bible is scrutinized and examined for truth… but that is not how the first Christians came to understand the truth. Now we do the same thing with the Fathers… as if everything had to be spelled out explicitly, say, before Niceae. Whose criteria is this? Who came up with that idea? What if the Body of Christ simply can’t err in these matters? It is a mystery, we can’t understand it, like an organism that grows… a body recognizes what is whole, healthy and of itself, and rejects what is foreign, noxious, alien (i.e., sickness). The Church is no different. Even if some Fathers said contradictory things… the Truth resides not in their individual statements, but in the growth, the overall progress of this Body of Christ throught history.

I also have difficulty intellectually with the Marian dogmas especially — I suppose because I’ve been raised, like everybody else, in this Enlightenment-inherited culture of empiricism. How can it be part of the Deposit if nobody mentions it for the first few centuries? But then again, how could it be any other way? The Church taught it, the faithful accepted it… A few bishops today may teach that it’s okay for re-married Catholics to receive the Eucharist, but the faithful do not accept it. The criteria for truth is what the Body of Christ believes as a whole. (And Ignatius of Antioch showed us, as St. John showed him, how to recognize who is of that Body: those who stay with their bishop. If he is a heretic, they pray for him, and they “stay” with him the same, not breaking off to “make new churches.”) It is a mystery.

I saw once a Catholic in a debate with a Protestant. The Protestant was very good and had done his homework. The Catholic did too, and tried valiantly, but he used only the Scriptures; he vowed he would not mention any outside sources. I cringed. Why limit yourself so much? He does not have to abide by sola scriptura. Naturally, the Protestant won the debate. No one, as you said, Blue Horizon, is going to be convinced by little snipets of Scripture (or of the Fathers, for that matter) that remotely suggest the Assumption or any other dogma but could also mean a thousand other things on top of that. The Protestant said (rightly so!) that if you make such a heavy statement, you need more than speculations to back it up with: “well judging by this passage, it could mean so and so.” That’s not how the first Christians arrived at Truth. They simply followed what the Church taught. They didn’t make themselves into judges of Truth, into investigative detectives, into their own magisterium. They followed their bishops. Christ is alive in His members, and the gates of hell have not prevailed against them.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense, but I hope these paragraphs add something useful to this discussion.

This thread is a year old.

Thank you for the critical response, I want you to know that I don’t think your criticism is bad, though I am surprised that so many people who “share my mind,” so to speak, have turned such a critical eye to this resource. But criticism isn’t a bad thing as long as it’s helpful and true.

I certainly don’t intend to suggest with this resource that everything in our faith must be explicit in the writings of the Fathers. By no means. I think I mentioned in the OP that many of the Fathers, in my view, “imply” the Assumption, without explicitly stating it. Our faith certainly is in the pre-Nicene Church, it’s not a later addition, but there is no need for us to find explicit references to all our doctrines. This material is, I think, some of the seeds which would later bear fruit in the tradition of the Assumption.

I’m not alone in seeing an implication of the Assumption in the doctrine of the New Eve. Bl. John Henry Newman saw the same thing, and Pope Pius XII cited these writings as evidence for the Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus 39. I merely collected the passages that I think show this link the strongest.

You seemed to say the passages I quoted “could also mean a thousand other things on top of that.” Do you mean these quotes are ambiguous? Because I don’t think they really are. Most of the quotes simply say that Mary helped defeat sin and death and/or that she is now glorified in heaven. A few of the quotes say that Mary fulfilled some Biblical prophecies that other Fathers cited as evidence of the Assumption.

I don’t think I’m trying to suggest as much explicitness as perhaps readers of this thread were looking for. I’m just saying these are glimpses of the Assumption as a doctrine implicit in the writings of these Fathers. And a couple of them are more explicit than others. I’m not claiming much, I don’t think.

I hope that makes sense.

Thank you,

No, I meant these things in a more general way: sometimes I see well-meaning Catholics quote Bible passages or some of the Fathers to back up Catholic teaching, when in fact it is not evident in the text at all. For example, I don’t see how one could deduce all the Marian dogmas from a few texts like Gn 3:15 and Lk 1:28; and in fact I don’t think that’s what the Church did at earlier times. If one tried to convince a Protestant using these texts alone I think they’d have a hard time. These doctrines were not formulated using these texts as though in a vacuum, with nothing else going on. The Marian dogmas developed over time, in both oral and written Tradition, and that’s perfectly fine: truth takes time to understand.

One has to come to these texts with his or her Catholic baggage. That’s all I really meant.

I know it’s an old thread and I invited myself in; I hope it’s not out of place… I am seeking answers and looking around… especially as regards a doctrine like the Assumption, which I still have a hard time reconciling with the notion of Development of doctrine. We can gain more profound insight in dogmatic truths over the centuries (e.g. the Blessed Trinity, the Humanity of Christ, the Eucharist…) but something like the Assumption refers to a historical event; it is not something that is logically deduced, in my mind. And if it is deduced I still trust the Church and don’t believe she would bind it upon the conscience of her children without a very good reason. I’m coming to a better understanding as time goes on. I came across this thread, I don’t remember how, but I very much appreciate all the intelligent things people said here. I guess I just wanted to share what I had learned also.

Thank you for responding! God be with you.

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