Monday, May 22, 2006

Assumptions About The Assumption #3


Why Did Pope Gelasius Condemn Apocryphal Stories About Mary's assumption?

Condemned apocryphal material is the earliest historical substantiation for Mary's bodily assumption. the Transitus Beatae Mariae of Pseudo–Melito’ dates from the end of the fifth century. Giovanni Miegge gives an excellent summation of the story contained in this material, which i've quoted in detail:

After the death of Jesus, Mary stayed for twenty-two years in the home of John's relatives, which was close to the Mount of Olives. One day as she was praying to be reunited with her Son, an angel appeared to her who gave her a palm from God's paradise, telling her to carry it to her bier because in three days she would be dead. Mary asked to be attended by the twelve apostles in that supreme moment. The angel vanished, Mary dressed herself in her festal clothes, took the palm and went to the Mount of Olives. There she addressed a prayer to Jesus asking to be saved from the assaults of the infernal powers during her passage. Then she returned home.

In that same instant the apostle John, who had been caught up by a cloud at Ephesus as he was praying, appears on the threshold. Then all the other apostles similarly caught up and carried find themselves at Mary's door to the amazement of all. Paul also is there and Peter invites him to offer a prayer to God in the name of all that He will make His will known. But Paul demurs, declaring the primacy of Peter. (The writing of Pseudo-Melito is Latin.) The apostles are pleased with the humility of Paul. Peter prays and as he says "Amen" the apostle John comes out of the house where Mary has told her vision. All go in. Mary tells the apostles that the Lord has sent them to comfort her in the anguish of the last passage and asks them to watch.


The three days pass in devout converse and prayers. At the third hour of the day all those present in the house fall into a deep sleep except the apostles and the three virgins who are attending Mary. Jesus appears with a multitude of angels and asks Mary to come with Him into the rest of eternal life. Mary repeats her desire not to see the infernal spirits and Jesus tells her that He has had to bear their assault on the cross and that she too will see them, for such is the condition of humanity, but the demons can do nothing to her and she will be defended by the hosts of heaven. Then the Holy Virgin lies down upon her bed and renders up her spirit while the apostles see a dazzling light. Jesus entrusts her soul to the archangel Michael, prefect of paradise and head of the Hebrew nation, and orders the apostles to bury her body. While the heavenly train mounts to the supernal regions the virgins prepare Mary for the funeral.

She has turned white as a lily and from her comes a perfume of incomparable sweetness. Then the funeral cortege starts on its way, preceded by John who carries the heavenly palm in his hand. The coffin is carried by Peter and Paul, the former at the head, the latter at the foot. All sing, In exitu Israel de Egypto, alleluia! A crown of light appears on the coffin and the angels sing with surpassing sweetness.


At the sound of the heavenly music a multitude of fifteen thousand people comes together, for the Jews have sworn to burn Mary's body. One of them, the chief priest, filled with fury, flings himself upon the coffin to overturn it. But the hands and forearm of the evil man become shriveled and he remains fastened to the bier. The cortege goes on while the Jew leaps up and down howling with pain. The other Jews cannot come to his help because they are blinded by the angels. Finally Peter tells the Jew that if he will confess Jesus Christ he will be healed. He not only confesses but eloquently praises Jesus Christ, with quotations from the books of Moses. Then, recovered, he receives from Peter the heavenly palm carried by John and is told to go back into the city and preach to those who have been made blind. Those who will confess Christ will be healed and the others will stay blind. And so it comes to pass.

Meanwhile the apostles, having come into the valley of Jehoshaphat to the place the Lord showed them, place Mary in a new tomb and seat themselves at its entrance. And then, unexpectedly, the Lord Jesus comes down from heaven with an innumerable company of shining angels. He greets the apostles, "Peace be with you." They answer, "Let thy mercybe upon us, 0 Lord, as our hope is in thee." Then Jesus, reminding them that according to His promise they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel, asks them to decide what Mary's future is to be. Peter answers for all, "Lord, thou hast chosen her, thy servant, that thy dwelling should be immaculate. As for us, thy poor servants, thou hast taken us into thy service. From all eternity Thou knowest all things, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, with whom Thou art one divinity only, a power equal and infinite. Here, then, is what has seemed right to us Thy servants: as Thou dost reign in glory after having conquered death, so let the body of Thy Mother be given life again and be brought with Thee into celestial joy." Jesus said, "Let it be according to thy word." He orders Michael to take the soul of Mary. The archangel Gabriel opens the sepulchre, Mary emerges from the tomb and embraces Jesus, who gives her into the care of the angels who carry her into paradise. Then Jesus embraces the apostles and disappears caught up by a cloud. Other clouds carry the apostles away to their fields of work
.”

Source: Giovanni Miegge, The Virgin Mary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 86-88.

Stories like these about Mary’s death and Assumption were specifically condemned by Pope Gelasius. What’s ironic, is that Roman Catholics argue for the validity of the Assumption in these condemned stories (in a roundabout way). For example, note the response of Robert Sungenis to this material presented by James White:

James White: “Roman historians admit that the first historical reference to the concept [of Mary’s Assumption] is not found in orthodox Christian writings, but in the writings of heretics, specifically, in the Transitus literature of the late fifth century. This literature was condemned as heretical by the bishop of Rome, Gelasius, in A.D. 495.”

Robert Sungenis: Dr. White also tries to cast doubt on the viability of Mary's Assumption by referring to the Transitus Mariae (Passage of Mary) documents of Pseudo-Melito. Granted, in the Decretum Gelasianum, Gelasius rejected these documents, since some of them contained fanciful stories similar to other apocryphal literature. But that is not the issue at stake here. The issue is that these documents show a undying concern with the Assumption of Mary in the early church, since the Transitus Mariae documents have been dated as early as the second or third century. The interesting fact that Dr. White does not reveal about the Transitus Mariae is that much of it claimed that Mary had actually died and was not assumed into heaven. Perhaps this was why it was rejected by Gelasius, either because it denied the Assumption, or because its contents contained conflicting accounts of what occurred."

Source: Answering James White on the Bodily Assumption of Our Lady

I don’t know exactly what Sungenis means when he claims much of the Transitus Mariae claims Mary actually died and was not assumed into Heaven. The stories I have read all contain some version, though differing in details on Mary’s death and Assumption. Sungenis speculates it may have been the “conflicting accounts”. But yet, Gelasius never says this. Here we find Catholic private interpretation telling us what the condemnation means.

Along these lines is an interpretation offered to me by a Catholic layman:

Pope Gelasius rightly condemned this writing because it was obviously fictional, NOT because it contained an account of Mary's assumption, which it does. After all, other apocryphal writings condemned by early popes contain accounts of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Does that mean the popes rejected the idea of the resurrection and ascension of Christ? No. It just means that errors and fabrications are usually mixed with truth in apocryphal writings.”

This response differs from that given by Sungenis, though one thing is consistent- it is again the private interpretation of a Roman Catholic layman. First, its essential to see exactly what was said in the condemnation by Gelasius. Here is the relevant section:

The remaining writings which have been compiled or been recognized by heretics or schismatics the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church does not in any way receive; of these we have thought it right to cite below a few which have been handed down and which are to be avoided by Catholics:

-snip-….

the book which is called the Assumption of holy Mary

-snip-…

These and those similar ones, which Simon Magus, Nicolaus, Cerinthus, Marcion, Basilides, Ebion, Paul of Samosata, Photinus and Bonosus, who suffered from similar error, also Montanus with his obscene followers, Apollinaris, Valentinus the Manichaean, Faustus the African, Sabellius, Arius, Macedonius, Eunomius, Novatus, Sabbatius, Calistus, Donatus, Eustasius, Jovianus, Pelagius, Julian of Eclanum, Caelestius, Maximian, Priscillian from Spain, Nestorius of Constantinople, Maximus the Cynic, Lampetius, Dioscorus, Eutyches, Peter and the other Peter, of whom one disgraced Alexandria and the other Antioch, Acacius of Constantinople with his associates, and what also all disciples of heresy and of the heretics and schismatics, whose names we have scarcely preserved, have taught or compiled, we acknowledge is to be not merely rejected but eliminated from the whole Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and with their authors and the followers of its authors to be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever.”

Now, let's apply the Roman Catholic reasoning offered above. I don’t find anything in the above where Gelasius says,

“I reject the book about Mary’s assumption because it’s obviously fictional.”

“Mary’s bodily assumption is true, but the book is rejected for other reasons.”

“The book about Mary’s assumption contains some true statements, these we accept, and the false statements we reject.”

In order to grant the validity of the reasoning, one has to have some knowledge as to what content provoked the pope to condemn Transitus Mariae. So far, the reasoning given is speculation in the guise of absolute knowledge. Do they have any evidence to back up their arguments? Do they have some other writing from Pope Gelasius in which he explains in greater detail why he rejected particular books?

Let me counter speculate: The statement from the decree says, the “...Apostolic Roman Church does not in any way receive” the book Transitus Mariae. It also says that he who wrote it “we acknowledge is to be not merely rejected but eliminated from the whole Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and with their authors and the followers of its authors to be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever.” Now, this decree isn’t fooling around. Whatever was taught in the book “The Assumption of Mary” must have really ticked off Gelasius.

Since there is no counter-evidence to suggest that the early church taught and believed in Mary’s assumption, it is probably more likely that the Pope was calling the Assumption a heresy by his above condemnation. I think the evidence points to the notion that Mary’s Assumption was being condemned by Gelasius, simply because the church had never believed in Mary’s Assumption. The earliest church fathers say “no one knows what happened to Mary.” This is much different from “We know Mary was Assumed”- which they did not say.

1 comment:

Robbie said...

Hi James,

An excellent series. I really do think two words sum it up best: sola ecclesia.

Once more, thank you for the book recommendation. I wish I could speed up the delivery!

Robbie