Some time ago I finished reading an excellent book on the extant literary sources for the Dormition/ Assumption narratives of the Mother of God, a magisterial work by Stephen J. Shoemaker entitled, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, published by Oxford University Press. Shoemaker makes the case that the various divergent narratives about her death and glorification to paradise all appeared more or less at the same time around the fifth century, though of course they would have had a prehistory prior to their appearance in the forms now extant.
These narratives, which may be grouped into three main literary “families”, have varied details. In some of them, Mary is raised after her death; in others, her body is taken to paradise where it awaits the final resurrection. In some narratives she visits Bethlehem immediately before her final death in Jerusalem; in others she does not. In some stories she dies before the apostles are dispersed; in others, she dies after their dispersal requiring them to be gathered miraculously for her funeral back in Jerusalem. Shoemaker has demonstrated that these narratives all arose at about the same time, so that they do not represent subsequent stages of development. One cannot identify any one of the narratives as more ancient or authoritative than the others. He also has identified them as belonging to what some scholars call “New Testament apocrypha” so that in reading them we are reading legend and not history.
The late arrival on the literary scene of stories of Mary’s death and glorification had become something of a pastoral embarrassment by the time of the late fourth century. Stories of Mary’s childhood of course had been circulating since the mid-second century in the form of the Protoevangelium, but there were no similar works circulating (among the Orthodox anyway) about her death. St. Epiphanius, to name one, was a bit surprised at this, and when the pastoral need arose for information about her death, he made a search to see what he could find. The meagre results of his search are found in his Panarion, written about 375 to refute various heresies.
In this work, he says that he could find nothing authoritative about the end of her life. She may have died and been buried with honour. She may have been martyred. Or she may have been taken alive to heaven without tasting death. Epiphanius will not commit himself to any of these possibilities, and is emphatic that he is simply relating the various opinions. As he himself concluded, “No one knows her end”. That was apparently very disappointing to most people, and it seems that the faithful’s desire to find out more about her end was at the root oF the creation of the narratives which soon after this began to be written.
Shoemaker’s book is about the various literary sources and how they relate to one another. His concern is literary, not historical, and he is debating with other scholars in his field about the various literary documents. But the people in my parish are precisely interested in the historical. I am never asked about the Ethiopic Six Books that relate her story, or the homilies of Evodius of Rome or Jacob of Serug about her death. I am asked what actually happened to Mary and her body, and it is this topic on which I would like to reflect a little.
It is true that the extant stories (including our festal hymns which are based on some of them) have a legendary/ non-historical component. And it is also true that, as St. Epiphanius discovered, there was a deafening silence regarding the details of the end of Mary’s life and the fate of her body. But this silence is, in a way, a fact in and of itself, and if the silence is deafening, it is also significant. Let me try to explain what I mean.
The fact that St. Epiphanius could find no single tradition regarding the death of the Theotokos but only three mutually-incompatible guesses is quite odd. I can think of no comparable situation regarding the deaths of other such figures in the Church. Stories about the apostles, for example, may differ in such details as their exploits, their journeys, and the place of their martyrdom and their grave. But there is no similar debate about whether or not they died. There is no parallel of comparable mystery about (say) the death of St. Paul, no competing stories where in one version he was martyred, and in another version he died in his bed, and in yet another version he was translated to heaven like Elijah. For major saints like Paul, Peter, Polycarp, and Augustine, the basic details of their deaths are all clear. The presence of mystery and of contradictory stories in the case of someone as prominent as the Lord’s Mother cries out for some historical explanation.
If she simply died and was buried like everyone else, there would be no mystery about how she died or what happened to the body afterward. Like other saints, her tomb would become a place of Christian pilgrimage almost immediately, and when the Church’s enthusiasm for relics went into Byzantine overdrive, her relics would be valued above all others and be found in many ecclesiastical centers, as were the relics of other saints. But that is not what happened. Her tomb was perfectly well-known (there is little real debate about that, the attempts of Ephesus to claim her tomb notwithstanding), but despite the known location of her tomb, competing and mutually-contradictory stories about her final fate began to arise. One asks how this was possible, if the Church received a clear tradition that she died and remain buried like everyone else. And when the Church began to look for her relics, no one ever suggested that they possessed them. The best that anyone could produce was some of her left-behind clothing. I repeat: the historical fact of the mystery needs explaining, for clearly something happened to produce the mystery in the first place.
I suggest the following. From His cross the Lord committed His Mother into St. John’s care (John 19:26-27) and when the Church began on the day of Pentecost soon after, Mary was found among the little Jerusalem community, along with the Lord’s brethren (Acts 1:14). It is quite unlikely that a middle-aged or elderly Jewish woman would leave the safety of this community to travel far abroad (such as to pagan Ephesus in Asia Minor), and so it is likely she stayed in Jerusalem under the Church’s care until she died. She was buried locally in the valley of Jehoshaphat (as all the ancient Dormition stories attest), and it is likely that her funeral and burial by the Christians would likely have provoked local Jewish opposition, given Jesus’ status among the Jews of Jerusalem.
Her death was unremarkable, which is why no remarks or stories remained for St. Epiphanius to find. But after her death the local Christians there, upon opening her tomb (whether to venerate her relics or for the purpose of reburial in an ossuary as was customary) found the tomb empty. This embarrassing fact would result in the creation of varied competing explanations and would account for the mystery surrounding her final fate. In response to the empty tomb, some Christians hearing of it second hand would have concluded from this that she never died, but was taken alive into paradise. Some would have concluded that she was buried and then raised to life and taken to paradise. Some would have concluded that her lifeless body was relocated to paradise to await the final resurrection—both of these latter two opinions finding expression is the extant narratives of her Dormition. But it seems clear enough that her tomb was eventually found to be empty, for otherwise it is impossible to explain how stories to the contrary would have arisen in the first place.
Presumably no one at the time of her death expected that anything unusual would occur after she had been buried. The local Church of Jerusalem had every reason to want her body to remain there, so that it could be venerated and become a center of pilgrimage. They would have had nothing to gain by admitting that her tomb no longer contained her body. The admission and perplexity at not having her body was rather embarrassing and damaging, so it is unlikely that the Jerusalem church would say the body was gone if it was actually still there. If the body remained there, as everyone expected it would, they had every reason to say that it did remain there and to squelch rumours to the contrary. If the body remained where it was buried, Jerusalem could be expected to be in the forefront of those opposing legends of her Dormition/ Assumption. But in fact they did nothing to contradict or squelch the rumours or to try to resolve the mystery that puzzled such men as St. Epiphanius—mainly because the body was no longer there.
The details of her final hours and burial and the nature of her life in paradise are not ultimately important. What matters to us is that after her death, the Mother of God was taken by Christ into paradise where she now lives and prays for us. Legends (such as found in some of our hymns) are wonderful adornments of this truth, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. But more wonderful still is the truth that it adorns: the Mother of Christ, a virgin after her birth-giving, remains alive after her death. In falling asleep, she did not forsake the world, and by her prayers she delivers our souls from death.