The subject of Mary has created divisions within the church. The doctrines about Mary have been pushed by the Catholic and Orthodox churches to the point that, if other traditions do not accept the doctrines, they believe these traditions to be erring in the faith and the cause of this division. But is this really the case? Perhaps the doctrines of Mary were read into the Scriptures instead of out of the Scriptures. If so, the proponents of these doctrines would be the ones causing the division
In this article, we want to examine whether the dogma known as the “bodily assumption of Mary” is actually found in Revelation chapter 12 as they claim. I want to show that Revelation 12 is talking about an entirely different scriptural motif, and not about this dogma.
What is the bodily assumption of Mary?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the bodily assumption of Mary in this way:
“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords and conqueror of sin and death.”1Paragraph 966
Is Mary the woman in Revelation 12?
Revelation 12 has served as one of the prooftexts that some Catholics use in an attempt to prove the bodily assumption of Mary. But does the passage actually teach that dogma? Let’s examine it by seeing how much of the information found in Revelation 12 actually correlates with what we know to be true of Mary.
The only correlation between Revelation 12 and Mary is that both Mary and the woman of Revelation 12 give birth to a male child which is certainly Christ. To be fair to the argument, that is a significant correlation, and we might assume that we can simply infer that Mary and this woman are one and the same. However, as I will show in a later section, the text has a number of features that show that it’s not actually a straightforward correlation.
To argue that the woman couldn’t be a symbolic figure for something other than Mary is to ignore the genre in which the book of Revelation is written.
Is there another option for who this woman could be?
First, is there another option for who the woman in Revelation 12 could be? To find out, we’ll start with short commentary on the book of Revelation by Victorinus, an early church writer from around the year 280.
And there was seen a great sign in heaven. A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried out travailing, and bearing torments that she might bring forth. 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, the fruit of its people according to the flesh long promised to it, had taken flesh out of the selfsame people. Moreover, being clothed with the sun intimates the hope of resurrection and the glory of the promise.
If Revelation 12 is so clearly Mary, as the Catholics claim, and if they are the one true church that has continued from the apostles, one would think that Victorinus, as a representative of their church, would have mentioned Mary at least briefly. His silence is evidence against the likelihood of this being Mary.
Victorinus, as we can see by the quote, believes the woman to be not Mary, but the church of the ages—the church which first came in the biblical Fathers and has continued unbroken into the new covenant era. Not as a different church but as a matured church. He puts both the Jewish patriarchs, prophets and then the apostles inside this same unit typified by the woman.
What might have influenced Victorinus’s view?
The woman according to Paul
This is not the first time this idea is mentioned. Victorinus is likely drawing on Paul’s teachings, such as in Galatians 4. Paul says that Abraham had two sons, one of the bondwoman and one of the free woman. This, he said, typifies two covenants. One covenant is of Moses and the other is of Christ. He then commands that the church must cast out the old covenant and fully embrace the new. Some Jews apparently do this, and they are the church. Some don’t, and they are the Judaizers.
So, we now have two groups of people, who Paul then says are typified by two women. The bondwoman and the free woman, Sarah and Hagar. Hagar typifies Jerusalem, which is below and Sarah typifies the church, the Jerusalem from above, which is the “Mother of us all.” Sarah, as a type of the church, the Jerusalem from above, gives birth to the promise child, a type of Christ. Paul’s typological understanding of the story about Sarah and Hagar is very likely a reference for Victorinus and his understanding of Revelation 12. The church of the old covenant gives birth to Christ.
So, as we can see, this was an analogy used by the apostle Paul, and therefore, Victorinus’s interpretation of John would make perfect sense.
Sam Storms said it well when he put it this way:
“the woman is both the community of faith that produced the Messiah and the community of faith that subsequently follows and obeys him. John clearly envisioned an organic continuity between OT Israel and the Church. They are one body of believers.”
The woman according to Isaiah
Many of the prophets refer to both faithful and unfaithful Israel as a woman. One such example is in Isaiah 54:1:
“Sing, O barren,
You who have not borne!
Break forth into singing, and cry aloud,
You who have not labored with child!
For more are the children of the desolate
than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.
2 Clement offers this statement on the verse:
“When he said, “Rejoice, you barren that do not give birth,” he referred to us because our Church was barren until children were given to her.”
This is speaking of the desolate, unmarried woman, the church, in contrast to the married woman, Israel.
2 Clement then offers further commentary stating,
“When he said, “For she that is desolate has many more children than the one that has a husband,” he means that our people seemed to be outcast from God, but now, through believing, we have become more numerous than those who are considered to possess God.”
I quote Clement because, once again, we see the church referred to as a woman. Isaiah prophesies that she will have many children. Similarly, the woman in Rev 12 has more children as spoken of in verse 17. This is very much in the same stream of thought as Paul in Galatians 4. We have a two women. One is ultimately spiritually desolate and one is spiritually fruitful.
In verse 5 of the same chapter in Isaiah provides more information:
“For your Maker is your husband,
The Lord of hosts is His name;
And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel;
He is called the God of the whole earth.”
The Redeemer is the husband of this woman. We can positively know that Jesus is the Redeemer. He is clearly the name through which we can be saved and he clearly has only one bride, the Church. The church being typified as a woman is a motif that runs deep in the text of Scripture.
Later, we see the woman appear as a bride coming to her husband in Revelation 21.
The woman according to Jesus
Thinking of the Jerusalem which is above draws our mind to Jesus’s teachings. He taught much about the Kingdom of Heaven which he was bringing to earth, just as the woman in Revelation 12 came to earth from heaven. The church is depicted as Jesus’s bride in numerous places in Scripture. So we clearly see throughout the Scripture that the church is depicted as a woman figure whose origin is from heaven. This a clear picture of what we see going on in Revelation 12, where the woman figure is shown to be crowned and clothed in great glory in Heaven. Catholics like to proof text this to say that Mary is the queen of Heaven, but who does inspired Scripture says is crowned and clothed in glory in Heaven? Just a few chapters further in the same book of Revelation we see this revealed. Jesus reveals to John a vision of the woman who is the Bride of the Lamb.
But before we look at that Scripture, we should note that Peter, James, and Paul all mention in their letters that a crown shall be given to the church at the appearing of Christ (James 1:12, 1 Peter 5:4, 2 Timothy 4:8).
It is very apparent that the church is referred to as a woman in the New Testament. It is also very apparent that the church shall be crowned. So, this reasonably leads to the crowned woman being the church.
At the culmination of time in Revelation 21, a woman appears adorned as a bride for her husband and she is glorified by her husband and shares his glory
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.(Rev 21:2)
Revelation 21 has a strong resemblance to Isaiah 54. The bride is marrying the Redeemer. We know the bride to be the church. She is Paul’s New Jerusalem, Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven, Victorinus’s church of the ages, who is the bride of the Christ and shares his glory. I ask you to consider carefully who the Scriptures seem to depict as the queen of heaven—Mary or the Church?
The standard monarchical kingdom would indeed have a King and Queen. The queen typically would be the bride of the King. Jesus is indisputably the King in the kingdom of Heaven, so it would logically lead to his bride, the church, being the queen.
Is a double fulfillment possible?
Those who claim that the woman is also Mary may have agreed with all that I just said. Many believe the woman figure is a double fulfillment of both the Mary and the church. But let’s try and see how well this correlates with the Scriptures and other claims that Catholics make about Mary.
1. The woman comes to earth out of heaven.
This is opposite of the course of Mary’s life. The dogma purports that Mary went from earth to heaven. Mary’s life as recorded in the gospels shows her first on earth, just like the rest of humanity with the exception the Scriptures give to Christ. So this does nothing to support the assumption and even leans against this being Mary.
The woman figure in the text lives first in Heaven and is then taken to the wilderness. Perhaps we might debate what the wilderness symbolizes but it certainly isn’t heaven.
There was a church who fled into the wilderness after Satan, the Dragon tried to destroy it. The church at Jerusalem fled the city before the destruction Christ’s prophesied would come to it. I would suggest that once again there is a possible and even plausible interpretation that once again points to the church. While I won’t make the argument here, there has been some good work done on how the destruction of Jerusalem is very much present in Revelation.
A second possible and perhaps even more plausible interpretation is that it points to the new exodus wherein the church is delivered from the bondage and slavery to sin and is now under the protective reign of Jesus wherein no one can take our salvation from us. They can only destroy the body because we have a continuing residency in Christ’s kingdom.
Once again, we have the church realizing the flight and protection in several possible ways while we are not made aware of Mary having personally and exclusively experienced something of this nature.
2. She has more children.
This creates a problem with another Catholic claim which is her perpetual virginity. In verse 17 it says that the Dragon went to make war with the rest of the woman’s seed. This seems to be an easy contradiction. Either give up the claim of double fulfillment or give up the claim of the perpetual virginity. Of course, Catholics and Orthodox could claim that this refers to Mary’s spiritual children, but Scripture doesn’t give such an idea.
To use such an argument would show that Catholics are willing to take to parse this passage either literally or figuratively, in order to make it say what they want it to say. It is insisted upon that the woman cannot be taken strictly symbolically earlier, so why the sudden right to deny a strict literal interpretation of this verse? Some find it unfathomable that the woman giving birth to a male child wouldn’t be a literal birth by a literal woman. So why not stay consistent with that hermeneutic? Why shouldn’t this also be a literal birth of biological children?
Interpreting this chapter to coincide with all the dogmas requires an obvious double standard. It requires an arbitrarily and inconsistent selection on which parts to interpret which way. there is nothing wrong with taking some details literally and some figuratively. But if Catholics and Orthodox agree to this point then they need to give up the argument that the woman has to be taken literally.
3. She has labor pains.
Verse 2 says, “then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.”. Why is this significant?
It is significant because Catholics like to cite Isaiah 66:7 as evidence that Mary had a painless delivery when Jesus was born. This reads as follows; “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; Before her pain came, She delivered a male child.” They believe this to be evidence that she was free from original sin, but Revelation obviously contradicts that, so they really need to decide which they want to keep. They can’t have both.
If it’s the case that Mary didn’t have labor pains then this is strong evidence against the woman being Mary.
Sometimes Catholics and Orthodox claim that it’s referring to the spiritual travail she went through, but once again, there is no evidence for this. A Catholic Answers article says,
“the pain she felt at the Cross, during which she became a spiritual mother to John (and by extension all believers), and the pain experienced by the people of God both before the Messiah’s birth and after his resurrection during Roman persecution.”2This article
But that really doesn’t work. That was when Jesus was dying. The text says she experienced the pain in giving birth to the man child.
All the cases I’ve read of supposed periods of spiritual travail happened to Mary during the ministry of Christ, which certainly all fail to match the text’s claim of it happening at the birth of Christ.
A double fulfillment doesn’t prove the dogmas
Even if this is a double fulfillment and Mary is a type of the church, it still doesn’t get you to any of the dogmas about her.
For instance, the fact that she is a mother that symbolically mirrors the church does not mean that she must therefore share every characteristic of the kingdom of heaven. Types almost never mirror their fulfillment on every point. If Mary were a type of the church, she need not share this detail. King David was a type of Christ. However, he didn’t share many of Jesus’s characteristics. He wasn’t divine. He wasn’t sinless. He wasn’t a man of peace. And he doesn’t need to be. This isn’t demanded of types.
And we don’t get to note Christ’s characteristics and read them into David without any evidence from David’s life that he would have shared them. Everyone knows this about Jesus and David, yet this is the very thing that is being done with Mary and the church. If someone wants to attribute any of the characteristics in Revelation 12 to Mary they need to show evidence for it. It is not an automatic carry over. If someone wants to do an automatic carryover without any evidence they should at least do so with all of them or show a good reason why to do otherwise besides the fact that they distort the narrative they are trying to read into the passage. A standard method of argumentation is to provide evidence for why you believe your proposition to be true.
So, there doesn’t seem to be good reason to believe that Mary, the mother of Christ, cannot share the one symbolic detail of motherhood with the church of the ages while not sharing all the details in the rest of Revelation 12. We could even grant that Mary is referenced in this passage without demanding that all of the details given refer to her. This hermeneutic for reading the passage has the resounding witness of nearly every type in the whole of Scripture.
Even Mary is also indicated in Revelation 12, we can still attribute the qualities about the woman in Revelation 12 to the church and not to Mary.
Does the woman have to be singular figure?
Many times, Catholics claim that the dragon is Satan, the child is Jesus and therefore the woman has to be seen singularly as well. But why would it have to be interpreted this way?
In Scripture, we have singular figures depicting both singular figures and corporate entities in the same story. We see this in the very next chapter of Revelation. The dragon, Satan, is there and gives his power to the beast which is commonly agreed upon to be the Roman empire in its original context. Two singular typological figures, one translating to a single figure, Satan and one to a corporate entity, the empire.
In chapter 17 there is another woman, who rides a beast and is drunk on the blood of the martyrs. Read from a partial preterist persuasion, this is almost certainly drawing on Ezekiel 16, where apostate Israel is compared to a harlot. In this case the harlot, still the apostate Israel, is riding a beast, the empire, and is persecuting the church. This correlates with what we see the book of Acts. The unconverted Jews are trying to get the church in trouble with the empire’s judicial system.
This argument is perhaps only as solid as the argument for a pre A.D 70 dating of Revelation. But whichever way you care to interpret the harlot, she still at least stands for Babylon, which is a corporate entity.
There is no reason to believe that chapter 12 can’t be read with similar rules. The fact is that Scripture doesn’t follow a cut and dried methodology. It can go either way and we simply don’t get to make up our own rules to lead to our preferred interpretation. The woman figure in Chapter 17 typifies a group. The beast typifies a group. This is standard language in Revelation. Single figures typify groups, and sometimes single figures typify groups and singular figures in the same story. To force a different rule on chapter 12 seems to be an arbitrary selection to lead the story where you want it to go rather than where it may want to go.
Where is the bodily assumption?
So the problem with finding the bodily assumption of Mary in Revelation 12 is that we can’t find a verse in the passage that would appear to even possibly teach it. Nowhere is anything said about this woman going to heaven either in body or soul. On the other hand, the correlation between the woman figure and the church is indisputable. As we can see, the wider scriptural usage of the “woman” is applied to the church. The immediate context in Revelation 12 itself doesn’t fit Mary. The church is referred to as a woman by the prophets, by Jesus and by the apostles. The burden of proof lies on the shoulders of Catholic and Orthodox apologists. They need to provide a solid reason on why the Revelation 12 woman figure should be taken outside of its normative scriptural usage.
Evidence must be provided in order to make an argument, but the woman in Revelation 12 shares no characteristics with Mary except for motherhood. The vast majority of the passage openly contradicts what we know to be certain about Mary. In contrast, nearly every detail can relatively easily be seen to fit the church. Mary was certainly a blessed person with a very special calling but this passage doesn’t prove her to be fulfilling any of the dogmas the Catholic and Orthodox churches have produced.