Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: a review

by frankbeswick

Brant Petrie writes theology in a lucid style and makes a strong case for Catholic devotion to Mary.

Some theological writers are abstruse and difficult to read, which explains why many lay Christians do not read theological texts. But none could ever accuse Brant Petrie of this linguistic turgidity, for Petrie writes in clear style, but his clarity is never at the expense of depth. Writing simply and clearly is the mark of one who really understands his subject matter. This Louisiana professor is an asset to the Catholic tradition in the Christian church.

Picture:creative commons, courtesy of WikiImages

The Motivation of the Book

Pitrie's motivation in writing this book was generally to support and promote Catholic teaching, but his motives are rooted in an incident in his personal history. When preparing for marriage he had to attend some meetings with his Baptist wife-to-be's pastor, which was supposed to be marriage preparation. Well,most of the meetings were the standard sort of preparation given to Christian couples. Except one! The young theological student was completely taken aback by the pastor's sudden attack on Catholicism. Catholic beliefs on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the Catholic practice of devotion to Mary were subjected to a well-prepared onslaught to which the wrong-footed student could not find adequate reply. Hardly the way to conduct pre-marriage counselling. However, fortunately the relationship survived.

Pitrie was also motivated by an awareness that there is a general failure among Catholics to understand the theological basis of the Catholic devotion to Mary, and the awareness of this failure was like fertiliser on the seed of his subjection to attack.  

But the onslaught was a lesson in how not to conduct religious discourse, which  needs a gentle and non-confrontational approach. The attack formed the basis of Pitrie's decision to think about the basis of the Catholic practices that came up in the onslaught. I hope that the pastor is still alive and has read Pitrie's book. Whoever laughs last laughs longest. 

A key point in the theology of this book is that teachings about Mary are integrally linked to teachings about Jesus. This is  a vital point of Catholic theology that Evangelical thinkers rarely grasp. But an important element in this work by this research professor of Scripture and Theology is that Mary's role is well-grounded in Scripture, a fact that challenges the Protestant objection that it is non-scriptural. By careful analysis of Scripture Pitrie demonstrates that Mary represents certain Old Testament figures and therefore fulfils in herself certain messianic prophecies. His theological researches draw on early Christian sources to show that rather than being a borrowing from paganism, as certain historians of ideas have claimed, Marian devotion in Catholicism is  rooted in the thinking and praxis of the early church.  

 

Female Figures in Scripture

Pitrie does good work in collating certain important and significant feminine images from the Old Testament.  These are: Mary as the ark of the covenant, the new Eve, the new Rachel and a theological concept that was new to me, Mary as the queen mother, the mother of the king. We also get a thoughtful investigation of the woman in the book of Revelations [Apocalypse in Catholic usage.]  

Some of these themes are well-known. Christians have long thought Jesus the second Adam, who reverses the effects of the primal fall in which Adam sinned.  Mary is seen as the new Eve, whose obedience to God at the incarnation reverses Eve's disobedience. He uses the concept of Mary as the new Eve to justify the Catholic claim that Mary was sinless, for he claims that if the old Adam and Eve were sinners, the new Adam [Jesus] and by implication Mary would have to be sinless. But the sinlessness of Mary would be impossible to prove. 

Mary as the ark of the covenant, the bearer of God's presence,  is a point about which I have written before, and it is a well-known Scriptural theme grounded in Luke's infancy account of the visitation, but a Scriptural point that was new to me was Mary as the queen mother. Pitrie reveals that in ancient Israel the queen and second to the king was not the king's wife [which one anyway?] but the king's mother, who had a special right of intercession with the king. That the king's mother had a special role in the old Israel would, Pitrie believes, lead Christians to think that in the New Israel, the church, there would be a role for a queen mother who would enjoy a special place as an intercessor with Christ, and this would be Mary. It is very clear that Pitrie is  on strong ground in locating the foundations of the Christian cult of Mary in Judaism. That paganism had a an influence on the adoption of the Marian cultus should not be taken as grounds for thinking it a pagan intrusion, but as a legitimate confluence of two streams of thought, which allowed the sacred feminine to achieve its due recognition in the Christian church. 

Pitrie extends his analysis of the sacred feminine represented by Mary to the concept of Mary as the new Rachel. Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob, is known as the mother of Israel. Though she is dead the prophet Jeremiah depicts her mourning for her suffering children as they go into exile. Mary, who mourned her son at the foot of the cross, is representative of Rachel in the new community of Israel, the church. 

The author does a good job of showing how in the life of Mary significant Old Testament themes converge, just as they do in Jesus. Mary is therefore not an unnecessary addition to the life of the Christian church, but an element integral to the sacred drama that is played out in the life of Christ.  

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Virginity

Traditional Catholic piety has held that Mary not only conceived Jesus virginally through the power of the Holy Spirit but also remained permanently a virgin after marriage. This belief has come under fire from many sources. Hans Kung, writing in "On Being a Christian" regards the belief as a second century Roman legend, and many Protestant scholars along with several Catholics have  asserted the belief that permanent virginity had no place in Jewish devotional life. Pitrie does some good work in analysing a range of sources wider than Kung does and in particular identifies a minor and little used Jewish tradition that allowed for perpetual virginity [which was possibly useful in  society  that allowed polygamy.] He also makes the case that Jesus' dying words "Son behold your mother." make sense in the context of her having no children of her own other than he.  But this  case is weakened by the fact that in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 1 verse 14 Mary and Jesus' brothers are reported as being at Jerusalem, so they must have been looking after her.  

I do think, though, that he makes his case with more confidence than can be warranted.He deals with the biblical evidence that Jesus had brothers, James and Joset, by identifying them as children of Mary wife of Cleopas, St Joseph's brother. This may be so, but Jesus also had brothers, Jude and Simeon. They are not listed as sons of the other Mary. The historical information seems a little confused here and so we must analyse carefully. Certainty cannot be had.  Furthermore, Pitrie overlooks the sermon delivered by St John of Damascus on the feast of the Dormition [an ancient festival remembering the day of Mary's death] in which he states that the traditions of the Palestinian church were that St Joseph was a widower with children when he wed Mary.  This is a lacuna in Pitrie's account.

But critically important is the fact that any statement about Mary's keeping her virginity is a historical statement, and therefore it is never able to be made with certainty. While some strands of theology may lead to an affirmative conclusion other theological approaches may not do so and so  the question cannot be answered with any certainty. For some it is a matter of faith.

Conclusion

This is a well-written book that will  inform readers.  It is a book from which I certainly learned some new ideas. Like all scholarly books there is scope to disagree with the author on some contentious points, but the main thrust of Pitrie's thought is sound. I was pleased that when dealing with the issue of Mary's assumption into heaven he argues that her assumption was a physical resurrection, just as Jesus was resurrected. This is an idea that I have held for some time. I am also pleased that he writes Christian theology from the standpoint of a strong personal faith, unlike some other scholars who seem to be too secular for the subject about which they are writing.  

I will read more of this author's work.      

Updated: 03/09/2019, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick on 03/09/2019

My first encounter with this issue was when a priest said that the word for brothers in the gospel text was phratres,which can be taken as cousins.When I checked my Greek New Testament I found that he spoke falsely,for the word was adelphoi, which denotes brothers,though usage might be loose. When I checked against the story of the visitation, when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, I found that the word for cousin is syngeneis,which means from the same clan. There is a clear distinction between brother and cousin. But many cultures do not make a distinction between brother and half brother, so if Joseph was a widower, as John of Damascus says, Jesus' brothers could have been his half brothers.

I have never found any evidence that cousins might be classed as brothers, and considering that there was a word for cousin that I have already mentioned such a word was not needed.

frankbeswick on 03/09/2019

Jennifer, you are exactly and completely right.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/09/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the backstories and products. Have you come across information to the effect that at the time of Our Lady Mary it was common to refer to first cousins as brothers and sisters?

jptanabe on 03/09/2019

Enjoyed your review - if I come across the book I will look into it! Very true that a strong personal faith provides a good foundation for writing about such matters, which are matters of faith. Otherwise theology really does just become the scholar's critical analysis of what theologians think God might be all about. A scholar with faith allows God in!

frankbeswick on 03/09/2019

It is good to hear from you again, Mira.

BSB, you are quite right.

Mira on 03/09/2019

Nice review. I also like the icon you chose for the article :)

blackspanielgallery on 03/08/2019

You point out the impossibility of proving historical facts not documented, nor can matters of faith cannot be proven. Thus the need for calm discussion on matters of religion. Since those not of the same belief would not accept a hypothesis or universal starting point, there is no possibility of a logical argument. Those of us of common belief need not be convinced.

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