The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which falls on December 8, is probably the most misunderstood of the mysteries of the Christian faith. But then again, so is Mary herself. She needn’t be and we mustn’t let her be. The model of all discipleship, she is a great grace we need, and she is revealed throughout the Scriptures, as Brant Pitre write about in his new book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah. He talks a bit about the Mother of the Church.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did statues of Mary once bother you and why don’t they anymore?
Brant Pitre: Because I was raised Catholic, statues of Mary did not bother me when I was young. They only started bothering me when I realized that in the book of Exodus, God explicitly forbids making a “graven image” (Exodus 20:4). They stopped bothering me once I read a bit further and discovered that later in the same book, God actually commands the Israelites to make golden statues of angels and to put them on top of the Ark of the Covenant, right in the middle of the Israelite place of worship (Exodus 25:10–22)!
In other words, according to the Bible, God does not forbid the making of any images whatsoever. He simply prohibits the worship of graven images of false gods — that is, idolatry.
Well, that is precisely what Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not do with Mary. We do not worship Mary. We honor her, we ask her to pray for us. But we do not sacrifice to her as if she were a goddess. That would be idolatry.
As I show in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, the worship of Mary was rejected by Catholics as being idolatry way back in the fourth century a.d., when a group of heretics known as the Collyridians were condemned for offering the “loaves” (Greek, kollyra) of the Eucharist to Mary as if she were divine.
In other words, statues of Mary bothered me only because I didn’t understand the ancient Jewish and Christian distinction between graven images of false gods and sacred images like those of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. The latter are meant to help Christians realize that when they enter into a church sanctuary today, they are, in a sense, entering into “heaven on earth,” where Jesus, Mary, the angels, and the saints dwell.
Lopez: Why is it so important to understand the Jewish roots of Mary?
Pitre: The Jewish roots of Mary matter because Mary is not a doctrine or a dogma, but a person. Mary, like Jesus, was a Jew. If you want to understand her on her own terms and in the historical context in which she lived as a human being, you’ve got to try to see her through ancient Jewish eyes.
When you begin to do so, you realize that Mary is much more than just an ordinary Jewish woman. As mother of the Messiah, she is also the new Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, and the Queen Mother of Jesus’ kingdom.
The Jewish roots of Mary are also important because, since the Protestant Reformation, Catholic beliefs about her represent a stark dividing line between Christians. And the stakes are high. If Protestants are right about Mary, then over half of the world’s Christian population — some 1 billion Catholics — are committing idolatry on a regular basis. If Catholic and Orthodox Christians are right about Mary, then Protestants — who represent a little less than half of the world’s Christians — are missing out on what the Bible itself reveals about her.
As I show in the book, the key to unlocking the biblical roots of Catholic beliefs about Mary is found in the Old Testament. You can’t just look at what the New Testament says about Mary in isolation. You have to read what it says about her through ancient Jewish eyes. Once you begin doing this, you suddenly discover that the portrait of Mary in the New Testament is like a tapestry that is woven entirely out of Old Testament threads.
All the controversial Catholic beliefs about Mary — her immaculate conception, her sinlessness, her perpetual virginity, her bodily assumption into heaven — flow directly out of what the Bible says about Mary as the New Eve, the New Ark of the Covenant, the Queen Mother, and her Jewish vow of virginity.
Lopez: Can she help in the wake of the murders at the synagogue in Pittsburgh?
Pitre: I think she can. One of the most unique chapters in the book highlights the parallels between Mary in the New Testament and Rachel in Jewish tradition.
In the Jewish Scriptures, Rachel is described as the sorrowful mother of Israel, “weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15). In later Jewish tradition, it was believed that Rachel continued to pray for her children even after her death, acting as a powerful intercessor with God, especially for those who are suffering.
As several contemporary Jewish scholars have pointed out, the Gospels depict Mary as a kind of New Rachel — a mother who shares the sufferings of her people. If this is right, then it follows that Mary mourns with and prays for the Jewish people, who are her people.
As a Jewish woman, Mary can be a bridge between Christians and Jews today. Especially since Catholics refer to Mary as the Mother of Sorrows (Latin Mater Dolorosa), we can beg for her intercession in a special way for sufferings of the Jewish people and for an end to the scourge of anti-Semitism.
Lopez: Is there something about the Abrahamic faiths and Mary that we had best appreciate about now?
Pitre: Wow, that’s a huge question. I would say that Mary, in a special way, connects Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to one another. For one thing, Mary herself was Jewish, and needs to be understood in her Jewish context.
Moreover, Mary is also regarded by Christians as the first person to believe in Jesus. She is, so to speak, the first “Christian” disciple.
Finally, although it may come as a surprise to many, Mary is also honored in Islam as Maryam, the spotless mother of Jesus, who is regarded as a prophet. In fact, Mary is mentioned more times in the Quran than she is in the New Testament!
In short, Mary provides an important but often forgotten link between the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
That’s one reason that I wrote Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary for anyone—Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, atheist—who is interested in learning more about what the Bible says about the mother of Jesus.
Lopez: Why are Catholics and Mary so controversial?
Pitre: I think it’s because for a lot of people (including some Catholics), the Catholic Church’s teachings about Mary just seem to be downright unbiblical.
Think about it: Where does the Bible ever say that Mary was conceived without sin or that she never committed sin? Doesn’t Paul say, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)? How can Catholics make an exception for Mary? And where does the New Testament ever say that Mary was assumed into heaven? Why shouldn’t I believe that she died and was buried, like all other human beings?
Worst of all: don’t the Gospels explicitly mention Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” (Mark 6:3)? How can the Catholic Church teach Mary had no other children? Why would a married woman remain a virgin anyway? What does it matter?
As I try to show in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, if you only look at Mary in the New Testament, you will never see the biblical roots of Catholic beliefs. You’ve got to look at what the whole Bible — including the Old Testament — reveals. You have to try and see Mary through ancient Jewish eyes.
Once you do this, you’ll discover that all of the controversial Catholic beliefs about Mary flow out of what the Old Testament reveals about Mary — not just the New Testament.
Lopez: How can Mary be the “Mother of God” when God created her?
Pitre: Because when Catholics say that Mary is the “Mother of God,” they don’t mean that she is somehow superhuman, or that she existed before God, or anything like that. Mary is a human being, plain and simple.
When Catholics say “Mother of God,” what they mean is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. If Mary was the mother of Jesus, and if Jesus really was God, then it logically follows that Mary is the mother of God. In other words, what Catholics believe about Mary is based on what they believe about Jesus.
In fact, in ancient Greek, the expression “Mother of God” (Greek theotokos) literally means “God-bearer.” It comes straight from the first chapter of the New Testament, which says that Mary will conceive and “bear” (Greek tiktō) a Son, who will be called Emmanuel, meaning “God (Greek theos) with Us” (Matthew 1:23). Put these two Greek words together, and what do you get? “God-bearer” (Greek theo-tokos), or “Mother of God.”
In sum: if Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” and Mary is his mother, then according to the New Testament, she is the mother of “God with us.”