AFB B-Sides: Dormition of Mary

Apocrypha for Beginners is meant to cover many representative works, but I was only able to include so many. There are, of course, myriad more. This is part of a series of “B-sides”: posts about apocrypha that weren’t included in the book.

Dormition of Mary

Facts

Also known as: Assumption of Mary, Book of Rest, Passing of Mary

Author: Unknown; attributed to the apostle John in some versions

Date written: Between the second and fifth centuries CE

Language: Probably Greek, possibly Syriac; the version that is likely earliest survives in full form only in Ge‘ez, with close parallels in fragmentary texts in Syriac, Georgian, and Coptic

Canons: None, but popular in various Christian communities

Discovery

Knowledge of this work in Eastern Christianity begins in the fifth century and continues to the present, and it was well known across Christian communities East and West. Although various versions in many languages exist, William Wright published the earliest witnesses in Syriac fragments in 1865.

Summary

Many different versions exist of the “Dormition” (“falling asleep”) or “Assumption” (“taking up”) of the Virgin Mary. The earliest stories emerged sometime between the second and fifth centuries, and others were adapted and remixed from those. The earliest texts (in Ge‘ez and fragments in Syriac, Georgian, and Coptic) relate the “Palm of the Tree of Life” narrative, which is the focus here. While details differ, the stories follow the same plot about the end of Mary’s life.

An angel appears to Mary on the Mount of Olives and tells her about her coming death, offering her a palm from the Tree of Life. The angel also relates various other pieces of wisdom–about human fate after death and, in some versions, including narratives about the holy family’s Flight into Egypt when Jesus was an infant. Mary returns home to Jerusalem and gathers her friends and family to say goodbye before she dies. Miraculously, all of the apostles are divinely transported to her home from their missions to the far corners of the earth. John is first, and Mary imparts secret wisdom to him in some versions; Peter and the others follow, with a dialog between them indicating Peter as chief among them. Peter preaches to everyone gathered during the night, and Mary prepares for death the following morning. Everyone then falls asleep except for a group of virgins attending to Mary.

Jesus descends from heaven and speaks to Mary, taking her soul from her body and giving it to Michael to transport to heaven. When they awake, the apostles put Mary’s body on a bier and carry it to a tomb near the Mount of Olives. The Jewish high priests in Jerusalem plot to destroy Mary’s body, but they are stricken blind when they try to carry out their plan. One Jew who was not blinded, named Jephonias, attempts to disrupt the procession and his hands are cut off by an angel. He returns to Jerusalem and reports what has happened and many of the Jews repent and have their sight returned.

Meanwhile, the apostles place Mary’s body in the tomb. Afterward, they devolve into a debate about the true way to preach the Gospel. Several days later, Jesus returns with a host of angels and directs them to follow Paul’s teachings about the Gospel. Michael takes Mary’s body and ascends into heaven to rejoin it with her soul. Jesus takes the apostles as he follows. Mary and the apostles are then taken on a tour of heaven and hell, and the apostles return to the earth. Mary remains in Paradise.

Analysis

At the core of this narrative is a veneration of the Virgin Mary that seeks to explain her end of life as miraculous and special. This apocryphon sits among others (like the Protevangelium of James and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew) that center Mary in the narrative of salvation and the early church. The Dormition texts also represent veneration of Mary as one of the core deeds of the apostles after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

The different versions have various digressions in the forms of prayers, speeches, parables, and expositions on parts of the Hebrew Bible. In this way, the Dormition texts contain compilations of extra-biblical stories and teachings from early Christianity. These pieces of the Dormition texts share many features related to other apocrypha, such as the episode about Jesus commanding the palm tree to bend down to Mary in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the tour of heaven and hell in the Apocalypse of Paul.

Much of the narrative surrounding the apostles situates the text within debates about the teachings of the apostles and the primacy of certain Petrine and Pauline authority. Ultimately, Peter is posed as the first apostle but Paul’s teachings are posed as the correct interpretation of the Gospel. The text therefore claims these doctrines as orthodox and authoritative, in distinction from competing claims circulating among early Christians.

Extra Bibliography

In addition to the sources I cite in the “Further Reading” section of Apocrypha for Beginners, for this post I’m especially indebted to Stephen J. Shoemaker’s book Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), which includes English translations of several of the earliest versions (in Ge‘ez, Syriac, Georgian, Coptic, and Greek) of the Dormition narratives.


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