One need not be a self-proclaimed 'skeptic' to find the apocryphal stories of Mary's early life before the conception of Jesus somewhat fabulous. However, even to those familiar with the Marian birth and childhood tradition, the fantastical quasi-scriptural imagery of Mary's death narratives must strike most modern readers as completely ridiculous. Moreover, consider the fact that there are numerous versions in various languages from multiple regions, each with its own twist or flavor, and one must wonder how anyone ever truly bought into this stuff. However, regardless of the offense it may cause to our historian sensibilities, these very stories inspired countless Christians of every sort to fervent Marian devotion throughout Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and beyond. Despite its complete lack of scriptural foundation, the tradition of Transitus Mariae profoundly and effectively catalyzed the development of various liturgical and doctrinal innovations in the increasingly rigid dogma of the fifth century Church, including not least of all the designation of a special feast day still celebrated enthusiastically today.
My aim in the present post is not to ridicule or challenge the personal beliefs of Mary's devotees, past or present, but merely to question from where such an extra-scriptural tradition could have arisen and how it gained such widespread acceptance, especially within a Christian climate characterized by McCarthyist-style investigation and persecution of anything perceived to flirt with heterodoxy. This is clearly not the forum for in-depth examination of each death narrative and its possible background, but there are several prominent features of most of them that may be drawn out and addressed. Generally, the plot goes something like this: Mary receives notice from an angel or a vision that she is going to die, the disciples are teleported to Palestine from the various locations of their ministry and visit with her in her final hours/days, her soul is taken up by Jesus (usually into his bosom), the disciples carry her body to a tomb, en route they are attacked by Jews who are immediately stricken by divine punishment, the body is interred, and within three days it has disappeared. The presence of these key features in several distinct texts indicates that there must have been some original common tradition, but where might we find the roots of such a legend?
The process of Mary's dormition and assumption has been described as a kind of 'rebirth,' similar to Jesus' resurrection and ascension after three days in the tomb. But she is not exactly 'resurrected' in the Transitus tradition; her soul is first removed from her body, as if her spiritual element could be simply drawn out, and only afterward is the physical aspect 'assumed' into heaven. And even then we do not hear of the body being revived in any way, since it simply disappears. As we discussed in class, this is not even the way that Jesus' death transpired in the gospels, since there is no explicit description of his soul departing from his body in any way until much later traditions (i.e. the "Harrowing of Hell," but even that is ambiguous on whether his corporeal elements were left behind on earth or went down to the underworld too). Furthermore, when Jesus does ascend into heaven, his whole being is taken up together, physical and spiritual aspects intact. So why the emphasis on the unique separation of Mary's soul from her body, and why the need to explain the disappearance of her physical remains?
In Andrew of Crete's first Homily on the Dormition, he attempts to broach the question, asserting, "She who turned dust into heaven today strips the dust away, lays aside the veil of this world of change, and gives back to the earth what belongs to it." So he appears to believe that her physical elements were left behind to be reassumed into the earth, decaying like every other body into the dust from whence it came. But doesn't this directly contradict the traditional narrative on which he bases the Homily? Continuing, he qualifies his statement: "She who bestowed life ascends to the transformation which is rebirth, and enters the place where life begins and never ends, a place far from all the conditions and complications of matter and the passions. Now, finally, her visible frame rises up from the visible world and is joined to the spiritual in a spiritual way: something only he understands who first joined matter and spirit together, then separated them to rejoin them again—if I may speak boldly and touch upon the intangible!" (§5, trans. Brian E. Daley). He presents the imagery of rebirth, but seems to portray it as a reunion of her body with her soul, not a resurrection of her body per se. So she first gives her body back to the earth, but then it is reborn soulless and rejoined to her spirit? Even Andrew himself recognizes how confusing and illogical this process seems, and claims that only God could possibly understand how it actually happened.
Before we join Andrew in throwing in the towel, let us consider the scriptural examples of others assumed into heaven. Next in the Homily, he invokes the traditions of Elijah and Enoch, "who both appeared above the visible world, having put sensation to rest and been released from this world of flesh—the one carried off in a chariot, the other raised up in the air. Their human parts were not separated, did not decay..." Indeed, that is just about all the scriptures say about the assumption of Enoch; God simply took him (Genesis 5:24). Elijah's ascension provides somewhat more detail: a chariot of fire seizes him from the earth and carries him into the heavens, leaving behind only his mantel for Elisha to show the people (2 Kings 2:11-13). In the narrative attributed to Joseph of Arimathaea, Mary's girdle is thrown down to Thomas as she ascends to heaven, so that he might present it to the other apostles as proof. This could be a pretty clear allusion to the Elijah story, but any precedent for the division of Mary's soul and body remains unattested. As Andrew points out, neither Enoch nor Elijah undergoes any sort of spiritual separation during their assumptions.
So much for possible scriptural foundations; let us briefly resort to hypotheticals. Mary had become a monumental figure in the Church by the time of these narratives' composition, but like her birth, there were no scriptural references whatsoever discussing her death. In the views of contemporary ancient Christians, such a holy figure as the Theotokos, the very conveyor of the Messiah to the world, surely could not have suffered a regular human death, and her flesh must not have merely rotted like everyone else's. If the spiritual giants Enoch and Elijah had been taken up before their physical expirations, Mary must have as well. No one could indicate with any certainty where her remains had been interred, and the tomb of such an important saint would certainly have been remembered; therefore, there must not have been any remains. As for the separate assumptions of her soul and body, the story mirrors the developing tradition that Jesus descended into hell for a time before appearing risen on earth; it would only be one step further to imagine his soul alone traversing into the underworld before returning to his physical body. This indeed would have set the example for Mary's spiritual departure and subsequent physical assumption, even if all the details had to be imagined. Perhaps then the most effective way to approach the question is to place ourselves in the position of those Marian devotees: how would you have imagined the death of the mother of your savior, if not like this?