What does the Bible really say about Mary, the Mother of the Messiah?

“Keep looking at the New Testament in isolation, and you’ll never understand who Mary really is,” says Dr. Brant Pitre, author of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary. “Start looking at Mary through ancient Jewish eyes, and everything becomes clear.”

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?


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About Paul Senz 47 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

21 Comments

  1. I once had the good fortune to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Providentially, at the time there was a display consisting of various artifacts from very early Christianity. There were ancient liturgical utensils, like chalices and censers, and works of art of various kinds.

    Two things struck me. One was that it was obvious that Christianity from its infancy and at its core, had a Eucharistic liturgy. I couldn’t help but wonder what effect this display had on Christians from denominations that don’t have a Eucharistic liturgy as the heart of their worship services, when it was made so obvious that Christianity began that way.

    The other striking thing was that references to Mary, through symbol and image, were all over these artifacts. It was obvious that Mary was revered, venerated and loved in the Early Church. I also wondered what effect that had on the Protestants who had seen the display.

    Dr. Pitre is right. Those who saw Mary “through first-century Jewish eyes” must have understood and eventually passed on to their gentile brethren what the Catechism now puts this way:

    967 By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity. Thus she is a “preeminent and … wholly unique member of the Church”; indeed, she is the “exemplary realization” (typus) of the Church.

  2. The phenomenon (an inadequate term) and the mystery of Mary shows us that the infinite God loves his creation boundlessly. He cannot-not fully enter His own creation. Above the world, and yet pervading the world. Finally, a freeing invitation and a simple “fiat”.

    Using our often-misleading spatial imaginations—Mary contains the universal Christ even as Christ contains the entire universe; He sustains His creation while Mary sustains Him. A marriage made in heaven, within the Holy Spirit and with Mary, the nuptial Christ and his eucharistic Church.

  3. I cannot understand why a scholar such as Paul can get his exegesis so wrong. He must have been looking at the Bible using denominational glasses.The danger in using denominational glasses is that you get scriptures out of context. You base scriptures on one verse rather than a whole passage or on perceived customs etc. This is so easy to do. The Bible tells us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.Now it did not say all except Mary. She was blessed but not sinless.
    In Luke 8:19 ¶ Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd.
    Luke 8:20 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”
    Luke 8:21 ¶ He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”It did not say your cousins are waiting to see you?
    Praying to Mary is Idolatory ! There is only one mediator between God and man.1Tim. 2:5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
    Paul would do well to read the homily by Archbishop Mueller on the need to maintain sound Biblical doctrine and the dangers of Relativism. Catholicism has made too much of Mary.. but on the other hand Protestantism has made too little of Mary possibly caused by excesses of the Church.

    • “I cannot understand why a scholar such as Paul can get his exegesis so wrong. He must have been looking at the Bible using denominational glasses.”

      Unlike you, who are always unbiased and above the fray, and who are able to judge whether “Paul” (I assume you actually mean Brant Pitre, who is the subject of this article)gets his exigesis right or wrong — ummm, why, exactly? By what authority do you claim to be the one to decide?

    • We pray not to Mary (or Saints) but through saints! The meaning on Immaculata of Mary check in a Th.Dictionary,for ex.K.Rahner or probably any new one. Theological statements have a meaning only if properly understood as in science when you use terms and symbols to express some truth not seen directly by senses(eyes).

  4. I haven’t read the book, but I am much impressed.I wondered if the author pursued the angle that when Jesus refers to his mother in the Gospel of John, he calls her “woman” — she is thus the New Eve, but Eve before the sin (which is why Adam was inspired to change his wife’s title). Jesus thus recognized his mother as sinless, virgin,and destined to avoid that death which is caused by sin. The fact that it is the sound of “her greeting” that causes John to leap for joy in the Holy Spirit also needs to be studied. Elizabeth’s description here is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Then there is the fact that in the epistle of Jude, he feels he needs no introduction other than being the brother of the famous James who must be the bishop of Jerusalem and also “brother of the Lord” like Jude himself. Some of the books the Protestants dropped from the OT also have Marian applications as well.

    • yes, Jacob. And the Jews in public were very formal regarding their mother. It was a title of reverence to refer to one’s mother as “Woman” in public address. As in English we might say “Lady”, or even “Sir” for a man who is our father. As you say Mary is “the Woman” of Genesis and Apocalypse.

  5. I have seen many of Dr. Brant Pitre’s video presentations, which are available for sale. They have all been excellent. He has free videos posted on YouTube as well.

  6. There is another angle that requires further study. Gal 1:19 describes James “the brother of the Lord” as also being an apostle. From the context, it is clear that Paul means one of the Twelve. Mark 15:40 describes the son of the aunt of Jesus as being “the younger James.” This raises the question of which other James is he being compared to? There were two men named James listed among the Apostles. One is clearly the son of Alphaeus. The problem is then if Mary of Clopas is his mother, she is apparently not the wife of Alphaeus. However, among the Apostles themselves we see that they could be identified by more than one name: e.g. Bartholomew and Nathaniel, Jude and Thaddeus. It could be that Clopas was also called Alphaeus. One might add that Jude did remark in his letter that he was the brother of James, and in the list of the twelve, under the name of Thaddeus, he is listed right next to James. In many “translations” Jude is called “son” of James, but the text simply says “of” James without being specific. A final idea: what if “Mary of Clopas” is the village name of her childhood and she is actually the daughter of Clopas in the same way that some interpret “son” of James? Then she could clearly have been the mother of James of Alphaeus and his brother Jude (Thaddeus). Both would be cousins of Jesus in our way of speaking.

    • Gal 1:19 has “brother of Jesus”- adelphos (Gr.) and not “brother” or “cousin”(anepsios in Gr.).James is the biological brother of Jesus (also in J.Flavius writings).

  7. Sorry,the brothers(anepsios-Gr) in Bible are not “brothers”(or cousins/adelphos(Gr).J.P.Meier or Raymond E.Brown,both top Catholic biblical scholars write on it. Anyone can check in Greek itinerary NT. Do not ridicule ..theology! I see the call of JPII in Fides et Ratio,1998 is in vain! JPII was an actor and ethicist but he understood the need for the perfect philosophy in the service of Gospel and that has been completely ignored by the …Church!Yes, and the Church(es) pray for…unity (J17) when they do not understand properly Bible or do not know at all the newest logic achievements of mathematical logic that resolve all past controversies and paradoxes in science and theology; only in A.D.1933 the world learned about …semantics from A.Tarski (Warsaw-Lvov School of Logic). Apply the strict logic: rules, laws, names: individual, general, and relational, and especially “descriptions”(definition by B.Russell,1910) to…Christological controversies and they ..evaporate; already St. Athanasius used just the classical material implication in the dispute with Arius but how many …in Akademia knows it? Rememeber that Jerusalem Temple was not eternal and the (now) Church is also the same if it does not serve the (absolute)truth but only an infancy Tradition

  8. Sorry,the brothers(adelfos-1Cor9:5,Gr) in Bible are not “brothers”(or cousins/anepsios(Col4:10,Gr).J.P.Meier or Raymond E.Brown,both top Catholic biblical scholars write on it. Anyone can check in Greek itinerary NT. Do not ridicule ..theology! I see the call of JPII in Fides et Ratio,1998 is in vain! JPII was an actor and ethicist but he understood the need for the perfect philosophy in the service of Gospel and that has been completely ignored by the …Church!Yes, and the Church(es) pray for…unity (J17) when they do not understand properly Bible or do not know at all the newest logic achievements of mathematical logic that resolve all past controversies and paradoxes in science and theology; only in A.D.1933 the world learned about …semantics from A.Tarski (Warsaw-Lvov School of Logic). Apply the strict logic: rules, laws, names: individual, general, and relational, and especially “descriptions”(definition by B.Russell,1910) to…Christological controversies and they ..evaporate; already St. Athanasius used just the classical material implication in the dispute with Arius but how many …in Akademia knows it? Rememeber that Jerusalem Temple was not eternal and the (now) Church is also the same if it does not serve the (absolute)truth but only an infancy Tradition.ps.there was a mistake in the previous post on the meaning of “brother” and “cousin” in Greek.Now it is OK

    • The problem with your theory is that it was already proposed in the fourth century by a man named Helvidius. Up until that time, no one had any problem with the fact that these “brothers and sisters” were not children of Mary. In fact, St. Jerome rejected the theory of Helvidius as a “new idea” which was mistaken. Of course, Jerome and his contemporaries were much more familiar with the usages of their times than scholars for whom these languages are not known the same way as someone who uses them everyday. Even Luther and Calvin rejected the idea that these “brothers are sisters” were children of Mary. Neither of these men were afraid to oppose what had been believed by previous generations. Calvin in fact was quite rude in his description of those who proposed the theory you are now advocating.

      • you can check by yourself in the Bible on internet or take the itinerary on with Greek version. There is a dictionary at the end@uses of terms in Bible. Educate yourself (1P3:15)!

  9. Actually my reply is contained in the posting you are replying to, especially in this line: “Of course, Jerome and his contemporaries were much more familiar with the usages of their times than scholars for whom these languages are not known the same way as someone who uses them everyday.” That is really what you have to refute if you want to be convincing in your reply.

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