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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Förster, Hans [Hrsg.]


Transitus Mariae. Beiträge zur koptischen Überlieferung. Mit einer Edition v. P. Vindob. K. 7589, Cam­bridge Add 1876 8 und Paris BN Copte 12917 ff. 28 und 29.


Berlin-New York: de Gruyter 2006. 277 S. m. Abb. gr.8° = Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte (CGS). Neue Folge, 14: Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, II. Lw. EUR 74,00. ISBN 978-3-11-018227-9.


Stephen J. Shoemaker

Hans Förster has done a great service to scholars of early Christian apocrypha in publishing the three Coptic Dormition fragments that appear in this volume, together with critical textual analysis. While two of these narrative segments and their contents had long been known, neither had yet received a proper critical edition, and it is most welcome to have these new and authoritative editions available through F.’s study. The volume’s most important contribution, however, lies in a heretofore unknown Coptic Dormition fragment that F. has published from the Vienna papyrus collection. Not surprisingly, this new text is the focus of the monographic study that accompanies F.’s textual editions. This study, compris­ing roughly three-fourths of the book’s contents, aims at situating the Vienna fragment within the context of both the early Dormition traditions and early Christian literature more broadly. Unfortunately, however, F. overreaches in his efforts to locate this newly dis­covered text rather early in the development of Christian apoc­ryphal literature. According to his analysis, the Vienna fragment is not only the earliest extant Dormition narrative, but its considerable antiquity would make it rival to the Protevangelium of James for status as the earliest extra-biblical traditions about the Virgin Mary.
F. argues that the Vienna fragment’s narrative originated with­in a proto-orthodox milieu sometime during the second half of the second century. With this conclusion he hopes to demonstrate the origins of the Dormition traditions both at this early stage and within a proto-orthodox setting. He proposes that the Vienna fragment was originally part of a second-century »apocalypse of Mary« of Egyptian provenance, from which the other Dormition traditions collectively take their origin. Although it was produced with­in a proto-orthodox milieu, this text was later rejected in favor of other Dormition narratives on account of its »naïve modalism« and the active role that it ascribes to Mary, thus accounting for its survival only on this stray Coptic folio. F. positions this hypothesis in part against my own work, which represents as arguing for a singularly heterodox origin to the Dormition traditions. Yet he seems to overlook that I have argued for a polygenetic model of their beginnings involving multiple »origins«, only one of which appears to reflect a heterodox milieu.
In his commentary on the new fragment, F. identifies a number of literary features that he presents as signs of the narrative’s considerable antiquity. These variants, however, are much more easily explained either by the extreme brevity of the narrative or by various tendencies within the broader tradition and thus cannot secure such an early dating. The Vienna fragment is in fact ex­tremely brief and terse, surviving on a single parchment folio, whose paleography dates to the middle of the ninth century. Originally, the leaf belonged to a codex, whose precise nature and content is presently unknown, and damage to the folio has eliminated roughly one-fifth of the text, making appeals to the absence of certain motifs especially problematic.
F. seeks a dogmatic basis for his early dating in proposing to have identified a »naïve modalism« lurking behind the Vienna frag­ment’s opening words, »the Virgin gave birth to Emmanuel, the Living God.« Yet the claim that the title »the Living God« is reserved for the Father alone in »orthodox« Christianity is unfounded, and thus the passage cannot secure the fragment’s narrative to the later second century, allegedly »die Blütezeit des naiven Modalismus«. To the contrary, this initial phrase would appear to be a mundane, if somewhat unusually worded, declaration of Mary’s role as Theotokos, indicating composition sometime after the Third Council.
The monograph’s most interesting argument centers on the fragment’s representation of Mary as going forth to preach initially alongside of the apostles. This depiction, F. argues, is so dissonant with mounting prohibitions against women’s leadership in early Christianity that it must signal the narrative’s composition sometime before these norms had become established. Nevertheless, a number of Marian texts from late antiquity describe the Virgin as having authority over the apostles and their missions, and one even relates that she initially went forth with one of the apostles to preach. Although F. is aware of these traditions, he does not con­vinc­ingly demonstrate that the Vienna fragment reflects a separate, earlier tradition that is distinct from this early medieval tendency.
Despite F.’s often interesting and insightful analysis of the text, it seems much more likely that this fragment originally belonged to a medieval liturgical codex and had been composed as a reading for the feast of either the Dormition or Assumption: the highly abbreviated nature of its narrative particularly suggests this Sitz im Leben.