Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.
Dr. Brant Pitre is Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. He earned his Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, specializing in the study of the New Testament and ancient Judaism. The author of several acclaimed books for both popular and academic readers, his latest is Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah (Image Books, 2018). This book details the biblical foundations for devotion to Mary, beginning with Genesis and concluding with the Book of Revelation, showing how both the Old and New Testaments reveal Mary as the New Eve, the Mother the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, and the new Ark of the Covenant.
Dr. Pitre recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, and the importance of a deep understanding of Our Blessed Mother.
CWR: How did the book come about? Was there a specific event that sparked the idea of writing the book?
Brant Pitre: This book arose out of many years of encountering Christians (both Catholic and non-Catholic) who genuinely struggle with Catholic beliefs about Mary’s immaculate conception, sinlessness, bodily assumption into heaven, and perpetual virginity.
In particular, the book was sparked by a conversation with a dear Protestant friend of mine who had begun attending the Catholic Church but was sincerely perplexed by the Catholic practice of asking for Mary’s prayers. I’ll never forget what he said: “It just feels like idolatry to me… Could you recommend a book on Mary in Scripture that explains why Catholics believe what they do?” Of course, there are countless books on Mary. But most of them are written by Catholics for Catholics.
So I approached my publisher with the idea of a book on Mary for anyone—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, non-religious—who had ever wondered about what the Bible really teaches about her. That’s how Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary came to be.
CWR: The title obviously references your previous book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. How did that book influence this one?
Pitre: In Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, I tried to show how the key to unlocking the mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist can be found by looking at three ancient Jewish hopes for the future: the New Passover, the New Manna of the Messiah, and the mysterious Bread of the Presence.
In this book, I take a similar approach to looking at the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament and ancient Jewish tradition, but I apply it to Mary. As I try to show, the key to understanding Mary’s immaculate conception, bodily assumption, and veneration can be discovered by seeing her through first-century Jewish eyes as the New Eve, the New Ark of the Covenant, and the New Queen Mother of the Kingdom of God. In addition, the book explores the controversial doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity and the “brothers of Jesus” mentioned in the Gospels.
CWR: Why is it important to know about and understand the Jewish roots of Mary, and of the Eucharist, and of other aspects of our faith?
Pitre: Because all of the first Christians were Jews. Joseph was Jewish, Mary was Jewish, Jesus was Jewish. All Twelve apostles were Jewish. If you really want to understand Jesus and the New Testament, you’ve got to understand the historical context in which Christianity was born. And that context was first-century Judaism.
Judaism is especially important for understanding Mary. While I was doing research for this book, I kept noticing that that every book on Mary that rejected Catholic beliefs as unbiblical invariably ignored the Old Testament background of what the New Testament says about Mary. Gradually, it dawned on me that the reason so many people can’t see how biblical Catholic beliefs about Mary really are is because they are only looking at what the New Testament says about her, and ignoring the prefigurations of Mary in the Old Testament. Keep looking at the New Testament in isolation, and you’ll never understand who Mary really is. Start looking at Mary through ancient Jewish eyes, and everything becomes clear.
CWR: In the course of writing the book, was there anything you learned or discovered that you hadn’t realized before? Especially anything that changed or developed your views on Mary or your relationship with her?
Pitre: I learned more writing this book than anything else I have ever written! For one thing, until I started researching this book, I had no idea just how much evidence there was for the perpetual virginity of Mary. Many Christians just assume without question that Mary had other children. As I show in the book, however, the Gospels themselves tell you that James and Simon—the so-called “brothers” of Jesus—were the children of another woman named Mary and her husband Clopas, who was Jesus’ uncle (Mark 6:3-4; 15:37-41; John 19:25-27). Also, I discovered that two of Jesus’ “brothers”—James and Simon—went on to become the bishops of Jerusalem, and were widely known by ancient Christian historians to have been his “cousins” (Eusebius, Church History, 3.11.1-2; 4.22). Couple this with some often-overlooked evidence for vows of sexual abstinence being taken by ancient Jewish women—even within marriage (Numbers 30)—and you end up with a powerful explanation for why ancient Christians everywhere believed that Mary remained a virgin her whole life long.
Perhaps the newest discovery for me was the evidence for Mary’s identity as the New Rachel. In the Old Testament, Rachel was the wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. In Jewish tradition, Rachel was seen as the sorrowful mother of Israel, whose prayers of intercession were regarded as extremely powerful. To this day, you can visit Rachel’s tomb in the Holy Land, and there is a Jewish custom of asking Rachel for her intercession. As I show in the book, the New Testament draws a number of striking parallels between Mary, Jesus, and John (the Beloved Disciple) and Rachel, Joseph, and Benjamin in the Old Testament. In fact, one explanation for why John refers to himself “the Beloved Disciple” is because in the Old Testament Benjamin was called “Beloved” (Deut 33:12). In other words, John is the “Beloved Disciple” because like Joseph and Benjamin, John and Jesus have the same mother. But I don’t want to give too much away—you’ll have to read the book!
CWR: Is it important to have a personal relationship with Our Blessed Mother?
Pitre: Jesus apparently thought so. While hanging on the cross, his last words to the Beloved Disciple were: “Behold your mother!” (John 19:27). On one level, Jesus was giving Mary to John to be his mother. But as I show in the book, in the Gospel of John, there is a deeper level of meaning to this action. If the Beloved Disciple represents every disciple, then Jesus is also giving Mary to all who believe in him—all his “beloved disciples.” That may explain why in the Apocalypse of John, the mother of the Messiah is depicted as the mother of all those who “bear witness to Jesus” (Revelation 12:17). If Revelation is right, then Mary is the mother of all Christians—not just Catholics.
CWR: How does understanding Mary bring us closer to Jesus?
Pitre: Because everything the Catholic Church believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Jesus. Once you start to see Mary as the New Eve, it does not take anything away from Jesus; it helps you to understand that Jesus is the New Adam, who comes into the world not just to atone for sin, but to “make all things new” in a new creation. Once you start to see Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant, you begin to see that Jesus isn’t just the Messiah, but the new Bread of Life, who has come down from heaven and was hidden inside the Ark of Mary’s body—the dwelling place of God on earth. Once you begin to realize that Mary is the new Queen Mother, it doesn’t take a single shred of glory away from Jesus the King. Instead, the ancient Christian practices of honoring Mary with royal titles and asking for her intercession make perfect sense. For in the Old Testament, the queen wasn’t the king’s wife, but his mother.
CWR: What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
Pitre: Based on my experience, there are lots of people out there who have thought about becoming Catholic but who have real difficulty with Catholic practices and beliefs about Mary. At the very least, I hope that Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary will help readers understand why Catholics believe what we do about Mary. Even more, I hope that the book would help readers to hear Jesus words on the cross as addressed to them: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Pitre: I would just like to say that if readers out there know anyone—anyone at all—who has ever expressed doubt, concerns, questions, or objections to Catholic beliefs about Mary, to consider buying this book, reading it, and then sharing it with a friend of family member. There are lots of books about Mary out there written by Catholics for Catholics. This book is written for anyone who has ever wondered: What does the Bible really teach about Mary?