By Keith Thompson
Defining the Doctrine
The doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary was defined as dogma by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950. In his bull Munificentissimus Deus he declared,
“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” (Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 1950).
Biblical Case Against the Doctrine
The biblical case against this doctrine is that it is not to be found in Holy Scripture. It is not part of the faith which was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It is admitted by many Roman Catholic scholars and writers that this doctrine is without scriptural support. For example Roman apologist Karl Keating said,
“Still, fundamentalists ask, where is the proof from Scripture? Strictly, there is none . . . The mere fact that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Assumption as something definitely true is a guarantee that it is true” (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, [Ignatius Press, 1988], p. 275).
This attitude is all too common in Rome. It shows their blind faith in Rome as well as their disregard for having support from God’s revelation for their teachings. Moreover, concerning this doctrine, Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott conceded,
“Direct and express scriptural proofs are not to be had” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, [TAN Books and Publishers, 1960], p. 208).
Likewise, the Catholic scholar Elizabeth Johnson remarked,
“Scripture holds no clear evidence for this belief, although the woman clothed with the sun (Rev 12) is interpreted as a significant pointer” (Elizabeth Johnson, “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” ed. Richard P. McBrien, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, [HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995], p. 104).
Such a concept is never even discussed in the Scripture. What I will do is refute the “arguments from logic” and the few misused biblical texts certain Romanists misuse, such as the one Elizabeth Johnson mentioned (i.e., Revelation 12).
Refuting Rome’s Biblical Arguments for the Doctrine
There are typically three main arguments Catholics raise in regards to the alleged assumption of Mary:
(1) Catholics, such as Ludwig Ott, argue from Matthew 27:52-53:
“Its probability is suggested by Mt. 27, 52-53 : ‘And the graves were opened : and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose, and coming out of the tombs after his Resurrection came into the holy city and appeared to many.’ According to the more probable explanation, which was already expounded by the Fathers, the awakening of the ‘saints’ was a final resurrection and transfiguration. If, however, the justified of the Old Covenant were called to perfection of salvation immediately after the conclusion of the redemptive work of Christ, then it is possible and probable that the Mother of the Lord was called to it also” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, [TAN Books and Publishers, 1960], pp. 208-209).
There are several problems with this argument. First, Rome is claiming the apostles definitely taught this teaching and handed it on, that it is dogmatic, and that if one wants to be a member of the Church of God one must believe it. So arguments that assert a text is “possibly” or “probably” teaching the assumption are insufficient.
Second, it is a fallacy in logic known as the “inappropriate generalization fallacy” to say that because these saints may have been transfigured and assumed, therefore Mary was. That is like saying “because my car is blue, all cars must also be blue.” It does not necessarily follow.
Thirdly, we see that when Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11 (the same thing we see in Matthew 27:52-53), he still occupied his old body and thus could die again (see John 12:10). Hence, it is not necessary to claim the saints in Matthew 27:52-53 were transfigured and then eventually assumed to heaven just because they were raised from their graves.
Fourthly, when Ott and those like him claim it would have been fitting for God to assume Mary since saints in Matthew 27:52-53 allegedly were, this is merely Eadmer’s erroneous argument he used when arguing for Mary’s Immaculate Conception known as “the argument from convenience.” This argument says, “God (or Christ) could do something; it was fitting that he should; therefore, he did it.” The problem is it is dangerous to argue that way since doing so assumes man can come to doctrinal truth apart from divine revelation using fallen human faculties. The danger is the radical effects of the fall and their implications on autonomous human reasoning. Indeed, man’s mind is naturally corrupted and unreliable doctrinally (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:4, 11; 1 Corinthians 1:21; 3:18-21; 1 John 3:20). Ott’s imperfect thoughts resulting from his imperfect mind were not subjected to God’s pure and reliable revelation when he made his argument. His argument depends on his reasoning and not any clear truth found in God’s revelation. And, since God’s thoughts are not ours (Isaiah 55:8), Ott’s rationalistic argument here is not a reliable source for doctrine. The divinely revealed Scripture’s are. Proverbs 3:5 says “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
Catholics sometimes also note that in the Old Testament, Enoch and Elijah were assumed or ascended (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:1). However, the same applies in regards to the problem of induction fallacy and the erroneous nature of the “argument from convenience.”
(2) Another argument is that since Mary was allegedly free from original and actual sin, she did not experience the results of sin including death. As Roman apologist Dave Armstrong claims,
“The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin flows of necessity from the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s actual sinlessness. Bodily death and decay are the result of sin and the fall (Gen. 3:19; Ps. 16:10). Thus, the absence of actual sin and Original Sin ‘breaks the chain’ and allows for instant bodily resurrection” (Dave Armstrong, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, [Sophia Institute Press, 2003], pp. 190-191).
However, in my other material on this site, I already demonstrated without question the idea Mary was preserved from original sin and was sinless is unbiblical and contradicted by much of the early church material. The Immaculate Conception was not even being affirmed by Christians until the fifth century. Also, before those like Armstrong wish to maintain Mary did not die, they must refute the arguments of modern and past Catholic writers who said she did die before her alleged assumption. That is after all the majority position of Catholics in history according to Catholic mariologist Mark Miravalle (Mark Miravelle, Introduction to Mary, [Mark I. Miravalle, S.T.D., 2006], p. 224).
(3) The third argument concerns the Roman Catholic misuse of Revelation 12 which focuses on the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head. Roman apologist Patrick Madrid claims this passage “hints at her [Mary’s] Assumption” (Patrick Madrid, Where is that in the Bible?, [Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2001], p. 72 brackets mine). However, it is clear the woman here is not Mary but the people of God. There are three main characters in Revelation 12: the woman, the child (Jesus), and the dragon (Satan). And there are also three episodes: the birth of the child (vv. 1-6), the expulsion of the dragon from heaven to earth (vv. 7-12), and the dragon’s war against the woman and her children (vv. 13-17). The following are reasons why the woman here is not Mary, but instead the people of God:
First, the woman being clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and having a crown of twelve stars (v. 1) proves she is God’s people. For, these heavenly symbols are metaphorical for Israel. As G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough remark: “The picture of the woman is based on Gen. 37:9 (cf. T. Naph. 5:3), where sun, moon, and eleven stars are metaphorical respectively for Jacob, his wife, and the eleven tribes of Israel. All these bow down to Joseph, representing the twelfth tribe” (G. K. Beale, Sean M. McDonough, Revelation, eds. G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, [Baker Academic, 2007], p. 1122). As the context will show, the woman here is true or ideal Israel, the people of God, who metaphorically gave birth to, that is, produced Jesus, the Son. As Mounce remarks, “it is out of faithful Israel that the Messiah will come” (Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation: Revised, ed. Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997], p. 232).
Second, it’s germane to note although v. 2 says the woman is pregnant and v. 5 shows she gives birth to Jesus, the fact is Israel, or the people of God, being depicted as a pregnant mother who gives birth is a very common motif in the Old Testament literature. For example, Isaiah 66:7-8 says, “7Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. . . . For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children” (Isaiah 66:7-8; cf. Isaiah 54:1). Also, Galatians 4:26 says, “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26).
Third, in Revelation 12:17 the woman is said to have seed, that is, individual, persecuted Christian believers. It says, “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her seed, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. . .” (Revelation 12:17). That the woman here symbolizes not Mary but the people of God is evident from the fact that in the Old Testament Israel is also described in this way over and over. As Beale and McDonough note, “Zion is viewed as a mother with ‘seed’ [sperma] in Isa.54:1-3; 61:9-10; 65:9, 23; 66:10, 12)” (G. K. Beale, Sean M. McDonough, Revelation, eds. G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, [Baker Academic, 2007], p. 1122).
Fourth, In Revelation 12:2 the mother is described as “crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.” That this further proves the woman is not Mary but instead the people of God who went through great travail and anguish (i.e., birth pains) before Messiah came, we see in Isaiah 26:17: “Like a pregnant woman who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near to giving birth, so were we because of you, O LORD” (Isaiah 26:17; see also 66:7-8; Micah 4:10; 5:3). The same way the people of God are said to anguish before child-birth (i.e., before Messiah comes) in Revelation 12:2, the new covenant Christians will also anguish before the second coming of Jesus, as Revelation 12:17 shows. The early extra-biblical Qumran text 1QHa XI, 7-12 likewise depicts the people of God as a woman going through agonies before the anticipated arrival of the messianic deliverer.
Fifth, in Revelation 12:5 the son, that is, Jesus is said to be caught up to God and His throne after his birth. This refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Then v. 6 says after Jesus’ ascension the woman runs to the wilderness where she is nourished for 1,260 days. There are three reasons why this can’t be Mary. First, Craig Keener notes, “One may also doubt that Mary was specifically persecuted after Christ’s enthronement, requiring protection for 1,260 days” (Craig S. Keener, Revelation, ed. Terry Muck, The NIV Application Commentary Series, [Zondervan, 2000], p. 314). Indeed, there is no evidence Mary fled to the wilderness from persecution after Jesus’ ascension. Second, fleeing into the wilderness being protected and nourished by God is common Old Testament language which is applied to Israel. Beale and McDonough note, “Israel fled to Egypt into the wilderness and was protected by Yahweh (Exod. 16:32; Deut. 2:7; 8:3, 15-16; 29:5; 32:10; Josh. 24:7; Neh. 9:19, 21; Ps. 78:15, 19; 136:16; Hos. 13:5). . . . The woman’s flight into the wilderness also recalls the end-time exodus or restoration when Israel would return in faith to the Lord and again be protected and nourished by him in the wilderness (Isa. 32:15; 35:1; 40:3; 41:18; 43:19-20; 51:3; Jer. 31:2; Ezek. 34:25; Hos. 2:14)” (G. K. Beale, Sean M. McDonough, Revelation, eds. G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, [Baker Academic, 2007], p. 1124). Third, the woman, that is, the people of God, will, according to Revelation 12:14, be given eagle’s wings to fly away from Satan into the wilderness for time, times and half a time, which refers to a three-and-one-half-year period (Alan F. Johnson, Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Volume 12, [Zondervan, 1981], p. 503). Mary never ran from Satan after Jesus’ ascension into the wilderness with metaphorical eagle’s wings for three-and-one-half years. The church on the other-hand did. In A. D. 66 the Palestinian Church fled to Pella during the outbreak of the Jewish war for three-and-one-half years. Moreover, in Exodus 19:4 God is said to take the people of God out of Egypt on eagle’s wings, the same thing which is said to happen to the woman in Revelation 12:14. The woman is clearly the people of God.
Sixth, further evidence the woman is not Mary is that although the “Son” is identified as Jesus in v. 10, and in v. 9 the “dragon” is identified as Satan, John never identifies the woman with the name “Mary” in the text.
The point of Revelation 12, then, is that God’s people, ideal Israel, anguish prior to the coming of Messiah. They then give birth to him metaphorically (i.e., produce him). Satan is then angry at this time and wants Jesus dead. Jesus is then ascended at the end of His ministry and after a war Satan is cast down to earth to pursue the woman (i.e., ideal Israel or mother church). The devil realizes his time is short before the return of Jesus so he launches a war against the woman. God protects mother church for time, times and half a time. The serpent then attacks again but is unsuccessful and so makes war with mother church’s offspring (i.e., individual Christians who obey Christ). Thus, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Mary. As even the liberal Catholic professor Richard McBrien realizes: “Pious commentaries notwithstanding, the ‘woman’ here is not Mary” (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition, [HarperOne, 1994], p. 1080).
Seventh, in his commentary on Revelation, Robert Mounce observes, “the early church fathers did not interpret the woman to be Mary” (Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation: Revised, ed. Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997], p. 231 n. 2). This is indeed the case. This shows it was not a tradition handed on by the apostles to view the woman of Revelation 12 as Mary. Instead the earliest church fathers interpreted the woman to be the church just as we do. Hippolytus (A.D. 170-235) said, “By the woman then clothed with the sun, he meant most manifestly the Church” (Hippolytus, On Christ and the Antichrist, 61). Victorinus (d. A.D. 303) remarked, “The woman clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars upon her head, and travailing in her pains, is the ancient Church of fathers, and prophets, and saints, and apostles, which had the groans and torments of its longing until it saw that Christ” (Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse, From the Twelfth Chapter, 1). Primasius (d. A.D. 560) stated, “The period of three years and six months signifies that time up to the end of the world during which the church increases and flees the worship of idols and every error of the serpent” (Primisius, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 12.14, CCL 92:187-88). Up until the fourth century and even into the 6th century Christians interpreted the woman of Revelation 12 as the church. It wasn’t until the fourth century that we see evidence of people starting to deviate from this primitive interpretation and interpret the woman to be Mary. For example Epiphanius (A.D. 320-403) suggests it as a possibility in his Panarion 78, 11 (although he denied Mary’s assumption in the same work). Tychonius (late 4th cent.) in Cassiodorus, Complexiones in Apocalypsin, n. 16, PL 70:1411; and Quodvultdeus (d. A.D. 450) in his De Symbolo, 3 also claimed the woman was Mary. The evidence shows the earliest interpretation of this text from Christians was not the Roman Catholic one. This is again evidence the apostles did not hand on the idea Mary was the woman of Revelation 12.
Historical Examination of the Doctrine
For the first three centuries of Christian history there is not one witness to Mary being bodily assumed. As Catholic writer Father Mateo admits, “Many writers have noted the absence of historical record for the Assumption of Mary. Explicit historical and, indeed, liturgical testimony for the belief is lacking. . .” (Father Mateo, Refuting the Attack on Mary, [Catholic Answers, Inc., 1999], p. 28). It’s not until the third century when a heretical narrative called The Book of Mary’s Repose presents something of relevance. This narrative, however, as Stephen Shoemaker notes, is a “heterodox apocryphon” (Stephen Shoemaker, Death and the Maiden: The Early History of the Dormition and Assumption Apocrypha, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 50:1-2 (2006) 59-97, p. 65). This means it’s an unorthodox heretical text with opinions not accepted by Christianity at the time. Moreover, the narrative does not actually teach Rome’s dogma of the bodily assumption. Instead it says Mary’s soul was taken to heaven first, and then sometime later her body was as well. Modern Rome on the other-hand claims she was taken both body and soul to heaven at the same time. Hence, one cannot claim the ideas of this heretical document came from the apostles.
Despite the existence of this fringe third-century document, belief in Mary’s alleged assumption remained absent in the church for hundreds of years. As Catholic scholar Elizabeth Johnson remarks: “Patristic writings are likewise silent” (Elizabeth Johnson, “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” ed. Richard P. McBrien, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, [HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995], p. 104). Around A. D. 375 Epiphanius said “for her end no one knows” (Epiphanius, Panarion, Haer., 78, 23; PG 42, 737), in regards to her either possibly dying or remaining alive. In another text he denies the idea of her having a bodily assumption (Epiphanius, Panarion, Haer., 42, 12; PG 41, 777 B.). This is truly amazing since it shows Christians all the way into the late 300’s A.D. were not saying Mary being assumed was a true teaching handed on by the apostles. How could this be if it was known by the church that the apostles handed on this teaching? Romanist scholar Ludwig Ott concedes, “The idea of the bodily assumption of Mary is first expressed in certain transitus-narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, [TAN Books and Publishers, 1960], p. 209). These transitus-narratives are forgeries written by later dishonest people in the name of earlier church writers. The aim was to try to make it look as though early Christians were writing things they hadn’t written. You have, as John Haldane notes, what are known as,
“Pseudo-John the Theologian The Dormition of the Holy Mother of God (fifth century); Pseudo-Melito of Sardis, The Passing of Blessed Mary (fifth century); Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem, Discourse on Mary the Mother of God (fifth/sixth century); Pseudo-Evodius of Rome, Discourse on the Dormition of Mary (sixth century); Theodosius of Alexandria, Discourse on the Dormition of Mary (sixth century); and Pseudo-Joseph of Arimathea, The Passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary (seventh century)” (John Haldane, Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical, [Routledge, 2004], p. 97).
During and after this period, the teaching found its way into the church. So what we have gathered is Rome’s idea comes not from the Bible or earliest Christians carrying the tradition of the apostles, but instead a heterodox third century apocryphon. Then late fourth century Christians like Epiphanius say no one knew Mary’s fate and that an assumption did not happen. After that, fifth and sixth century forgeries composed by dishonest people promoted the doctrine. Then finally the teaching found its way into the church eventually being defined as dogma by Romanism in 1950.
Nothing could more clearly demonstrate that Rome does not care about affirming the faith which was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) in the first century. She is content with defining teachings which have no basis in scripture or early history. Every dogma Rome defines is claimed by her to be “revealed doctrine,” that is, teachings which God revealed to Jesus and the apostles who then allegedly handed them on to the church. However, the historical evidence we covered demonstrates Mary’s assumption was not handed on by them. Instead it appears very late in church history as a result of the corrupt minds of fallen men. Commenting on this teaching’s infiltration into the church, liberal Roman Catholic scholar Richard P. McBrien admits,
“From the beginning of the sixth century various churches celebrated Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. The belief originated not from biblical evidence nor even patristic testimony, but as the conclusion of a so-called argument from convenience or fittingness. It was ‘fitting’ that Jesus should have rescued his mother from the corruption of the flesh, and so he ‘must have’ taken her bodily into heaven” (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition, [HarperOne, 1994], p. 1085).
Indeed, in medieval Romanism rationalism took precedence over divine revelation, and this is very dangerous, shaky ground to base a doctrine on. In sum, and in regards to the eventual definition of this dogma, historian Jaroslav Pelikan observes,
“So traumatic was the effect of the dogma of papal infallibility that the pope did not avail himself of this privilege for eighty years. But when he finally did, by proclaiming the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on November 1, 1950, he confirmed the suspicions and misgivings of the dogma’s critics. Not only is Scriptural proof obviously lacking for this notion, but the tradition of the early Christian centuries is also silent about it” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, [Abingdon Press, 1960], pp. 78-79).