Briefly Reviewed: November 2019
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah
By Brant Pitre
Review Author: Hurd Baruch
The first teaser question on the dust jacket of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary asks: “Are Catholic teachings on Mary really Biblical?” If you aren’t sure of the answer or are afraid it might be “no,” this is the book for you. Even if you accept the Church’s doctrinal teachings about Mary without understanding their bases, the disbelief of this age — and the disbelievers you know — can put you on the defensive with charges that those doctrines are unbiblical or, worse, idolatrous. So, let yourself be taught, or reassured, by this clear and convincing work by Brant Pitre, a Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute.
Dr. Pitre has delved deeply into three wells of knowledge inaccessible to the ordinary Catholic: Jewish scriptures and rabbinic commentary on them, Jewish customs at the time of Jesus, and writings of the early Church Fathers in Greek. His book’s 27 pages of endnotes in small type would choke a horse, but fortunately, his writing is so clear and well organized, and his argumentation so compelling, that the general reader need not go there. For us he has drawn on these hundreds of sources to explain how the biblical passages about Jesus and His mother were understood in those times — with concepts and meanings that have long since been lost.
Consider the common objections to Catholic teaching: We believe that Mary remained a virgin and that Jesus had no blood brothers or sisters, while Protestants say otherwise, citing Mark 6:3-4 (“Is he not…the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?”). Pitre notes that early Christian historians identified two of these supposed “brothers” (the first two bishops of Jerusalem) specifically as cousins of Jesus, and he identifies all four as sons of another Mary — Mary Clopas. And, drawing on his knowledge of Jewish customs, Pitre makes a conclusive point: “If Mary would have had any other children at the time of the crucifixion, it would have been unheard of for Jesus to give his mother to one of his disciples.”
Similarly, the words in Matthew 1:25 that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” do not mean that, after that event, he did have relations with Mary. “The Greek word ‘until’ simply describes a certain period of time,” Pitre writes, “and does not imply anything about what happens afterward.” And he cites two verses from the same Gospel, and one from 2 Samuel, demonstrating that limited meaning.
I could add other examples, especially the convincing explanation for why Jesus referred to His mother as “woman,” but Pitre did not write a book of rebuttal arguments for apologetics. Rather, he presents a montage of pictures of Mary in her various roles — as the New Eve, the New Ark of the Covenant, the Queen Mother, the Perpetual Virgin, the Mother of the Messiah, the New Rachel, and the Queen of Heaven. These are not “pretty pictures” for our amusement; they go to the heart of who Mary was and is, and they help us appreciate the role she played — and plays — in the economy of salvation.
Take the title and role of Mary as “Queen of Heaven.” We know that Jesus reigns as “King” in Heaven, but He was never married, so how could there be a queen? Is the title “Queen of Heaven” something cooked up by churchmen as just another expression of honor? In explanation, Pitre begins with a reality that was of extreme importance to the people of Jesus’ time: the fact that they were subjects of a king and, “as any first century Jew would have known, under the reign of David’s royal family, the kingdom was ruled by both a king and a queen. Unlike in modern-day kingdoms, however, the queen of Israel was not the king’s wife but his mother.” She was known as the “queen mother,” and that position gave her intercessory power. Pitre cites Old Testament books to show that the queen mother held a rank second only to the king, being entitled to wear a crown and sit at the king’s right hand. Thus, “Old Testament scholars agree” that in the phrase “at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir” (Ps. 45:6-9), the queen mentioned is not the king’s wife but his mother. Had Jesus come to earthly power, Mary would have been the queen mother of Israel. Of course, He did not come to rule on earth in that way, so where does this “queen mother” concept take us?
The answer comes from studying passages of Scripture, including the Book of Revelation, with its vision of a woman who is to be the mother of a son who is destined to rule all nations with an iron rod (cf. 12:1-2, 5). This “woman” could be identified with both the Jewish people as a group (and now the people of God) and Mary as an individual, due to God’s promise to David that the “throne” of his kingdom would be established forever (cf. 2 Sam. 7:13) and the angel’s promises to Mary that God would give to the Son she would bear the throne of His father David, and that His Kingdom would never end (cf. Lk. 1:30-33).
The Angel Gabriel related that Mary was to be the mother of the ultimate heir to the throne of David — the Son to be born of her through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. And Mary’s cousin Elizabeth recognized Mary as “the mother of my Lord” — a deference to her younger relative that implied at least the recognition of royalty. Moreover, if you accept, as some scholars do, that “my Lord” (kyrios in Greek) was a divine title, then Elizabeth was recognizing Mary as the mother of the divine Lord.
Now, the woman in Revelation wears a crown of 12 stars (an obvious reference to the 12 tribes of Israel), and she is clothed with the sun, while the moon is under her feet. Clearly, in this vision, she is in Heaven. When you put these texts together, you come out with a scripturally based understanding that Mary is the queen (mother) of the Kingdom of Heaven and, thus, a person of great intercessory power with her Son, the King.
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary admirably fulfills the author’s hope that it will help the reader to realize that “everything the Bible teaches about Mary is really based on what it teaches about Christ” — something “Christians have believed since ancient times.”
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