Mary Christine ATHANS, BVM. In Quest of the Jewish Mary: The Mother of Jesus in History, Theology, and Spirituality. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. pp. 210. $19.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-004-4. Reviewed by Mary Joan LEITH, Stonehill College, Easton, MA 02357

This absorbing book is the product of a lifetime of personal, intellectual and spiritual ecumenism.  In the first three chapters, Mary Christine Athans explains the Virgin Mary’s role in scripture, doctrine and spirituality, primarily from a Roman Catholic perspective, but with sensitive remarks about the Orthodox, Protestant and even Muslim Mary. These three chapters richly reflect Athans’ familiarity with current scholarship.

There are, of course, many good “Virgin Mary survey” volumes on the market. What distinguishes this volume is its attention to the Jewishness of Mary and by extension the abundant spiritual resources that attend an awareness of this fact. The first chapter acknowledges “obstacles and detours” on the journey to recover a Jewish Mary, including the wholesale separation of Mary from her scriptural persona and the impossibly perfect humble and submissive “Nordic” Mary of mid-twentieth-century Catholicism.  Athans credits the recovery of Jewish Mary to the Catholic embrace of scripture scholarship after Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) and to the ajournamento of Vatican II: “It is my belief that…Lumen Gentium with its chapter on Mary and Nostra Aetate with its Article 4 on the Jewish People contributed to a new appreciation of Mary as a Jewish woman in the life of the church.” The concurrent appearance of second-wave feminism and improved Jewish-Christian relations after Vatican II  “created the atmosphere for women to explore Mary in a new light.”

Chapter 2 begins with the early Church and discusses key second-century Mary-related texts like the Protevangelium of James as well as doctrinal developments such as Mary’s perpetual virginity and Immaculate Conception, while also considering Mary in art and in relation to ancient goddesses. Continuing into the Middle Ages the chapter covers Luther’s affection for and Calvin’s suspicion of Mary before a section on Erasmus, Catholic Reform, Ignatius of Loyola and the Council of Trent. Over the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, “despite her Jewish roots, Mary took on the figure of the most exalted woman of each era,” and “there was little concern for her Jewish roots until the late twentieth century.”

Athans opens Chapter 3, which covers the period from Trent through Vatican II, with a reference by the late Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, to “Protestant minimalism and Catholic exaggeration over Mariology” and proceeds to follow the historical and devotional trends around Mary through the Enlightenment, the Catholic revivals of nineteenth-century Europe and in the thinking of some American Protestant women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Twentieth-century Marian topics include apparitions, the doctrine of the Assumption and three popular Marian movements: the Sodality of our Lady, the novena movement and anti-communist devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. The chapter ends with the drama preceding the proclamation of Lumen Gentium at Vatican II and consequently “new opportunities for insights into the Jewish Mary.”

The overriding purpose of this book, however, comes into focus in Part 2. The search for the “Historical Mary” climaxes in Chapter 6, “Jewish Spirituality and Hebrew Prayer,” with a remarkable series of Ignatian spiritual exercises grounded in an imaginative recreation of the life and prayer of the Jewish mother of Jesus. Thus, although after Vatican II,  “study and reflection on Mary moved, for the most part, from a doctrinal and devotional emphasis to a historical one,” for Athans, doing history carefully can guide and enrich one’s spiritual journey.  Chapter 4 surveys post-Vatican II approaches to the historical Mary, with special attention to feminist scholars such as Marina Warner, Rosemary Ruether and Elizabeth Johnson and the ecumenical group led by Raymond Brown that produced the ground-breaking volume, Mary in the New Testament. Athans also provides respectful critiques of the Mariology of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.  Chapter 5 introduces the reader to the historical Jesus and outlines the striking parallels between the spirituality of Jesus and the Pharisees. This perspective may be surprising to lay readers who know the Pharisees only as the “bad guys” of the Gospels. This awareness, however, is firmly grounded in the scholarship of Geza Vermes, Anthony Saldarini and Rabbi Harvey Falk, among others, and offers opportunities for bridge-building between Christians and Jews, since Rabbinic Judaism as it is practiced today is rooted to a large degree in Pharisaic religious thought and practice.  

This reviewer has a few quibbles. Athans disingenuously suggests that since Mary helps Jews in the often viciously anti-Jewish thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria, Jews would have considered Mary an ally in distress; Miri Rubin, whose work Athans cites elsewhere, has exposed the sad irony, given Mary’s Jewishness, that in the Middle Ages, anti-Judaism and Marian devotion are inseparable. And Athans grasps a bit too eagerly at tenuous evidence for the role of women in Pharisee community.  Nevertheless, this book is quite a package in just 162 pages (not counting notes, bibliography and index). University and seminary students as well as for lay reading groups will profit from Athans’ sensitive questions and answers about the Jewish Mary.