The Jewish Roots of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord

A few small notes before I begin. As most of you know, we’re back in the States after several months in Ethiopia, on the recommendation of a number of people whose counsel we value. Please join us in praying that we can return soon, i.e., that both the U.S. and Ethiopia recover quickly from the impact of COVID-19 itself and from both governments’ attempts to implement policy that will help.

Last summer, I began to explore a book entitled The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church, by Ephraim Isaac. Shortly thereafter, we had baby number four, and my intention to work through this book fell to the wayside as we navigated our new addition and our move to Mekelle. That book is now on my shelf in Mekelle, awaiting our return, at which point I will endeavor to astound you with the insights I glean from Chapter Two. In the meantime:

When Kristen and I began attending Orthodox Church services (at All Saints in Chicago) in 2009, there were many aspects of worship that stood out as vastly different than anything we had experienced in the churches of Christ or other non-denominational (broadly Evangelical) churches with whom we had worshipped in the past. Incense, chanting, icons. . . it was a lot to take in. The most challenging characteristic of the Orthodox Church’s worship for us, however, was the attention given to Mary, frequently referred to as the Theotokos (Greek for “God-Bearer”). Her icons were prominent throughout the church, and prayers and honor were given to her at all services (though in hindsight, the proportion of prayers to Mary compared to prayers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is quite small).

This was Kristen’s greatest challenge as we inquired into the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church, and it was only through seeing the role of Mary lived out in the faith of other Orthodox Christians (especially mothers) over the course of the next two years that Kristen was able to reconcile her discomfort with this new way of understanding and approaching the Mother of God.

I recently finished a book entitled “Perception and Identity: A Study of the Relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia,” in which the author, Seblewengel Daniel, describes the history of encounter between these two entities. In this book, she asserts that the two greatest points of contention between Orthodox and Evangelical Christians in Ethiopia are 1) the way that the Scriptures are approached and understood; and 2) the place of Mary in the life of the Church and believers. The author asserted that the Orthodox Church’s veneration of Mary is often perceived as unbiblical and even idolatrous.

Her description of the difficulties that evangelicals have with the Orthodox Church’s treatment of the Theotokos reminded me of a book that I read earlier this year, published in 2018, called “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah” by Brant Pitre. This book does an incredible job showing how the ancient church’s understanding of and approach to Mary is rooted in Scripture, especially when read in light of the way that Jews read the Scriptures at the time of Christ (i.e., the way that Christ and the Apostles read the Scriptures).

Recognizing that how we approach Mary can be a stumbling block for Protestant Christians (and others), and having recently encountered this outstanding resource, I’ve decided to work through Pitre’s book on this blog, which may be of interest to some readers, but which will also help me better retain the wonderful biblical themes and connections found in Pitre’s work.

I should note up front that Pitre is a Roman Catholic scholar, and there are a few places where the Orthodox Church’s approach towards Mary differs from the Roman Catholic understanding. However, the premise and goal of the book make it well worth examining in depth despite these differences.

Pitre begins the book by discusses how, although he grew up a devout Roman Catholic, praying the rosary as a child and teenager, in college he was challenged by his then-girlfriend’s Southern Baptist pastor to examine the Scriptures for indications that Mary should be honored as she is in the Catholic Church. He struggled to find any Scriptural indications, and while he remained in the Roman Catholic Church, his devotion to Mary essentially dwindled to nothing.

However, when he began his doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame, he discovered three key things that completely changed the way he understood the place of the Mother of God in Christian life. First, he discovered that doctrine about Mary, including approaching her for intercession, was both very ancient and found everywhere throughout the world where Christ was worshipped. Next, he learned about the direct and absolutely necessary connection between the Church’s teaching about Mary and the Church’s teaching about Christ. Mariology is part and parcel with Christology. Finally, and most importantly, he discovered ancient Jewish and early Christian methods of reading the Scriptures that demonstrate how ancient Christians actually received their understanding of the person and role of Mary from the Old Testament.

The rest of the book shows various ways in which the Old Testament reveals teachings about Mary. Pitre shows how we find these teachings by reading the Bible typologically – looking at Old Testament prefigurations and New Testament fulfillments (like how in 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul tells us that the rock in Exodus 17:6 was Christ). He argues that “You simply cannot understand Mary without looking at her in her first-century Jewish context,” and that this is where the Church gets its teaching about Mary.

I plan to do a blog post about each chapter:

  1. Introduction (discussed above)
  2. The New Eve
  3. The New Ark
  4. The Queen Mother
  5. The Perpetual Virgin
  6. The Birth of the Messiah
  7. The New Rachel
  8. At the Foot of the Cross

I welcome your thoughts and feedback, either where I share my posts on Facebook or at my email address (found here).