BMCR 2004.01.07

Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption

Stephen J. Shoemaker, Ancient traditions of the Virgin Mary's dormition and assumption. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xiv, 460 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199250758 $125.00.

“Dormition” is the term commonly used for the variety of traditions concerning the end of the Virgin Mary’s life (in this world). A calque of the Greek κοίμησις, the term can be used to designate Mary’s death as well as the various alternative narrative explanations for her translation out of this world, whether it be by “assumption” — that is, after a temporary death entailing a separation of body and soul, she is reconstituted and taken to heaven like her son — or without an “assumption” — that is, she dies and her soul and body are taken off to separate places for safe keeping until the end of time. As Stephen Shoemaker argues in his learned survey of the literary, archaeological, and liturgical sources for early traditions of the Dormition, much of the confusion in the contemporary scholarship on the topic and on other related areas derives from a simplistic, dogmatic bifurcation in the secondary literature, which is also applied to the sources, between the “assumptionist” and “assumptionless” camps in the debate on the origins of the Dormition tradition. This debate reflects both the buildup to and especially the aftermath of the Catholic dogma promulgated in 1950 concerning the Assumption of the Virgin.

Shoemaker states in his preface that “this is a book that I had hoped not to write” (vii). What he means by this is that his primary interest lies in how the early Dormition traditions fit into the culture and society of the early Byzantine Near East. However, before this larger cultural study could be produced the nuts and bolts of the Dormition tradition had to be examined. What was required, and what he offers in this book, is “a detailed study of the basic facts of these narratives, including such matters as the relations among these highly variegated traditions, their approximate dates, their relations to the emergent cult of the Virgin, and their theological positioning within the diversity of late ancient Christianity, among other details” (ibid.). In addressing this material, Shoemaker also fully integrates the secondary literature, especially the standard works of Martin Jugie, Simon Mimouni, Antoine Wenger, and Michel van Esbroeck (the scholarly community mourns the latter, who recently passed away; see, e.g. the Institute of Advanced Studies website).

I note Shoemaker’s engagement with the secondary literature because his work is also a plea for the acceptance of the diversity of early and late ancient Christianity as it is and thus for not forcing the various sources into a tight and improbable stemma. Therefore, much of this book consists of negative argument. Whereas earlier scholars attempted to make everything fit into a diachronic scheme, Shoemaker promotes a synchronic approach, in which divergent literary and theological traditions exist side by side. This approach fits the evidence better since what is stricking about the wealth of the early Dormition traditions is not only their diversity but — and this factor is all the more significant — their synchronous emergence, which makes it more difficult to show the simple dependence of one tradition upon another.

Although he does not make it explicit, Shoemaker’s approach is clearly a post-structuralist literary analysis in practice. His rejection of a simple genealogical stemma for understanding how the sources relate to each other immediately brings to mind other recent work, such as Stephen J. Davis’s “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men,” JECS 10.1 (2002), 1-36. However, Shoemaker is certainly explicit about his historiographical agenda. While regularly identifying the theological interests of the scholars whose work he critiques, he simultaneously makes manifest his own presuppositions about the diversity of early Christianity and the after-the-fact-ness, if you will, of orthodoxy.

The first chapter (“The Earliest Dormition Traditions: Their Nature and Shape,” 9-77) begins by addressing previous work on the many Dormition texts. Shoemaker embraces the conclusions of Antoine Wenger, who determined “that the strikingly diverse traditions of Mary’s Dormition and Assumption arise from ‘a great variety of original types’, rather than being the result of a progressive modification of a single, original tradition” (18). Shoemaker limits his study to texts from the pre-Islamic period (and some early Islamic period texts), and then begins with the testimonia before going through each of the different textual types. Throughout, he emphasizes the contemporaneousness of the evidence: the various Dormition traditions come into sight at approximately the same time in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The different types are: the ‘Palm of the Tree of Life’ traditions, the Bethlehem traditions, the Coptic traditions, the atypical traditions, the late apostle tradition, and the tradition of Constantinople and the rather late, yet perhaps most well-known, tradition of Ephesus. The parts of each group cohere in heterogeneous ways, and Shoemaker provides the stemma for each where possible.

Shoemaker focuses on the liturgical and archaeological evidence in the second chapter, which is an examination of the ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin (78-141). He is especially concerned with incorporating the rather recent “(re)discovery of the ancient church of the Kathisma, or ‘Seat’, of the Theotokos, a large fifth-century Marian church that excavators have gradually brought to light over the course of the past decade” (79). The Kathisma stands where, according to the Protevangelium of James, the Virgin purportedly dismounted from her ass and sat to rest prior to giving birth to her son. The problem is that the church has been “discovered” twice, once at Ramat Rahel, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in the 1950s and again in 1992 only a few hundred meters away. Shoemaker addresses the different arguments for and against each one being the Kathisma church, as well as the possibility of regarding “both churches as having been the church of the Kathisma, one an older church and the other more recently built” (95). He wisely refrains from making any excessively definitive statements about this ongoing debate, but makes an interesting suggestion about the conflation of two separate traditions about Mary in Surah 19 of the Qur’an (97-8). After also introducing pilgrims’ tokens into the discussion, he addresses “the primitive Marian shrines of Palestine, the related feast of the Memory of Mary, and the relation of both to the emergence of a liturgical commemoration of Mary’s Dormition” (116), the main sources for which are extant only in Georgian. Finally, he describes the emergence of a stational Marian liturgy in Jerusalem, “a mobile form of worship, in which services are held at a designated shrine, in or near a city, on a designated day” (132).

Chapter Three (142-204) returns to literary analysis, and Shoemaker again addresses the theologically-driven scholarship he argues against. In contrast to those “hypotheses” that “understand the different narrative types as evidence of a linear, typological progression, in which one sort of narrative grows out of and replaces an earlier type” (142), Shoemaker employs “a polygenetic understanding of the earliest Dormition traditions, which views the different narrative traditions as products of multiple and distinct origins” (143). Space is devoted to refuting Mimouni’s position regarding the priority of an assumptionless Dormition tradition. He then rejects scholars’ attempts to employ a linkage of liturgical and archeological data in order to identify an original Dormition tradition. In the last section of this chapter, Shoemaker provides a whole new paradigm for the material that he has displaced from the restricting, anachronistic, theologically-motivated “Assumptionist” / “Assumptionless” dichotomy. He argues rather that “the Dormition legends reflect a variety of eschatological opinion that is witnessed more broadly in the religious traditions of late antiquity” (179). More specifically, he argues “that the diversity of eschatological belief in the early Christian tradition, rather than any kind of ordered dogmatic development, can account for the theological differences regarding Mary’s final state that are encountered in the earliest Dormition traditions” (179).

Shoemaker finally turns to the prehistory and origins of the Dormition tradition in Chapter Four. The Palm tradition provides the best evidence for these earlier developments, especially the Ethiopic Liber Requiei, which contains the only complete version of the earliest surviving narrative. Shoemaker devotes some space (212-32) to laying out and rejecting the arguments that this literature arose out of so-called “primitive Jewish Christianity,” a scholarly construct developed by several Italian and French scholars, perhaps most commonly known from the work of Jean Daniélou. (It should not be confused with the broader term “Jewish Christianity,” a category which certainly remains useful.) In lieu of a Jewish-Christian milieu Shoemaker argues for contact with a gnostic milieu at an early stage in the history of the Palm tradition. He wisely qualifies his usage of the term “gnostic,” defining it as having “both a demiurgic component and an emphasis on hidden, salvific knowledge, or gnosis” (238). However, his attempt to engage with Michael A. Williams’s Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, 1996) seems insufficient and perhaps better left out of the book (especially since this is an ongoing issue; see Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism? (Harvard, 2003)). Shoemaker rightly points out that many of the characteristics attributed to “primitive Jewish Christianity,” such as Angel Christology, heavenly books, and esoteric knowledge, can be found in the early Palm tradition. However, perhaps his distinction between gnostic traditions and Jewish-Christian material more broadly defined is too stark. For example, we might contradict the old-fashioned spectrum of gnostic on the left, Jewish-Christian on the right, and (proto-) orthodoxy in the middle, with the evidence of Mani’s Jewish-Christian upbringing. After providing various examples from “gnostic” literature that shed light on the certain characteristics of the early Palm tradition, Shoemaker turns to refuting the commonly expressed opinion that the emergence of the Dormition traditions was tied to resistance to the council of Chalcedon (256ff). In contrast to this position, Shoemaker maintains that the Dormition traditions — occasionally explicitly, but more often implicitly through their silences — “adopt a largely irenic tone, emphasizing the Virgin’s catholicity and joining her to a rather bland Christology that deliberately avoids entering into the disputes over Chalcedon” (270-1). The “conciliatory milieu” (271) in which these traditions developed after Chalcedon will no doubt be analyzed in Shoemaker’s future study of how “the Dormition traditions presented Mary as a potential site of unity in an increasingly divided society” (279).

This book would have been a significant scholarly contribution if it had ended here. However, Shoemaker has also appended translations of many of the relevant texts. I am not qualified to judge his knowledge of Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, or Georgian, but certainly he has made a number of obscure texts accessible, as well as encouraged their further study.1

A survey such as this that attempts to synthesize the many sources and the large secondary literature is bound to run into myriad controversies and move into realms of uncertainty. For example, the question of the evidence for translation of Syriac into Ethiopic cannot be resolved by citing Ullendorf’s vague and now obsolete position (39). (See the discussion in Michael A. Knibb, Translating the Bible: The Ethiopic Version of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1999), 22-35).) Also, I doubt that Jacob of Serug attended a church council in Nisibis in 489 CE and, moreover, I have no idea what council this would have been (63, 287).

One broader criticism I have is that in his discussion in the first chapter of the different “types” of traditions, it was not always obvious to me how the instances of each type related to others in its category. This may merely be a result of the author having to compress such a wealth of evidence into such a small space, but it may also be that the “polygenesis” he speaks of in the third chapter is disrupting the possibility of even creating a typology for this material. Related to this issue, I was especially struck by the Palm tradition, or, to be more specific, the designation of the palm tradition. In the Greek sources for this tradition the word used is βραβεῖον, which usually refers to the baton given to a victor but is commonly translated as “palm” in Dormition texts.

Shoemaker acknowledges that “this is a somewhat unusual usage of the word βραβεῖον, which is commonly used in reference to the ‘prize’ … awaiting Christians in the next life or for the martyr’s crown. In the context of the early Dormition traditions alone, however, the term has been interpreted as a ‘palm’, for which one would normally expect to find the word φοῖνιξ” (40). Shoemaker states in a footnote to this last sentence “The only lexicographical indication that the word can mean ‘palm’ is given by Lampe, and he cites only John of Thessalonica’s homily on the Dormition as evidence of this usage” (n. 80).

The non-Greek texts in the Palm tradition show that many of the translators did not know what to do with this somewhat obscure Greek word. However, it seems that the “palm” meaning is standard only in the Western tradition. This is not because of the original meaning of the Greek βραβεῖον, but rather because “palm” (i.e. palma) is a standard classical Latin word for prize. See, for example, Catullus 62.11, Cicero, de Oratore 3.142 (4.33), Virgil, Aeneid 5.339, 5.519, 7.655, and 10.594. Schoemaker fails to point this out. Thus the estern tradition is not drawing out or articulating the obscure and singularly exceptional meaning of “palm” in the tradition’s usage of βραβεῖον, but rather simply translating the Greek with a Latin equivalent. Quite simply, I suspect if “pine” instead of “palm” had been the standard victory branch or frond for the Romans, βραβεῖον would have been translated as “pinus.”

The Greek text of John of Thessalonica, a late instance of the Palm tradition, employs the phrase θαλλεῖον ἐκ τοῦ βραβείου. This, according to Lampe (and Shoemaker) justifies the “palm” reading of βραβεῖον, but I think not. What were βραβεῖα made of in antiquity? Presumably, the “prize” could have been made out of wood and thus a “sprout” could have come out of it, like the budding of Aaron’s staff. This issue becomes quite complex if we introduce all the sources, and this is certainly not the place to go into it. My criticism is that had Shoemaker set this material out more clearly he would have come to a different conclusion. (For example, some of the discussion is relegated to a footnote to one of his appendices; see footnote 2 pp. 351-3.) In some ways, the only issue is whether we should call the palm tradition by this name.

Certainly, the more the author decides to address, the more likely he leaves himself open to criticism.2 However, the minor, picayune details should not deter any reader from delving into this volume. Kudos to Shoemaker: may he continue with his project.


1. With regard to his translation of Jacob of Serug, Shoemaker makes a horrible Hebraizing error in his translation of the accusative marker as a dative preposition in some lines quoted on p. 64, a mistake repeated in the full translation of this text at the end of the book. I did not check the body of the text for further errors.

2. The press clearly relies more on spellcheck than on a copy editor. There were few, if any, typos but at least a score of missing definite and indefinite articles and other errors a careful editor would find.