Mother Jesus: The Contribution of Maternal Imagery to the Soteriology and Christology of First Peter

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2021

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Abstract

First Peter uses the metaphor of new birth as a way to communicate what happens when someone becomes Christian. While I am not the first to suggest that in this extended new birth metaphor Christ is presented as the nascent Christian’s mother, I aim in this dissertation to both renew the argument for this conclusion and to explore further how this metaphor impacts the soteriology and Christology of the letter. The chief methodology employed is to examine a broad range of references to mothers (both “real” and metaphorical) in texts popular around the time of First Peter.

The introduction orients the reader to the metaphor theory that undergirds the remainder of the dissertation, provides an overview of basic Einleitungsfragen concerning to First Peter, and summarizes the contributions of previous scholarship to this question. The first chapter examines two aspects of the text of First Peter. Firstly, it treats basic philological and intertextual questions concerning every verse that mentions new birth directly, or mentions something closely associated with birth, such as blood, seed, or milk, also situating these verses in their immediate literary context. Secondly, it considers the broader ecosystem of metaphors that co-exist in First Peter, especially soteriological and Christological metaphors.

In the second chapter, I turn to medical literature concerning human reproduction, from the Hippocratic corpus to Soranus. The third chapter treats Greco-Roman texts featuring mothers from outside the corpus of medical writings. The fourth chapter begins by repeating the study of the previous two chapters with Jewish texts. I then treat the use of parental metaphors in Paul, whose writings I take to have been a source for First Peter. Paul uses maternal imagery for apostolic work, and I show that Peter has a general tendency to take Paul’s apostolic language and use it to describe Christ. Finally in chapter four, I read First Peter comparatively with other early Christian writing roughly contemporary with First Peter that uses birth imagery. The fifth chapter continues the strategy of comparative reading, turning to much later Christian texts that employ maternal imagery for Christ in more explicit and developed ways.

Starting with chapter two, in each chapter I explore how the material treated so far can enrich a reading of First Peter. In the synthetic conclusion, I draw these threads together, gathered under four headings. Firstly, the maternal metaphor presents Christ and the Christian as being in a close, intimate relationship, in which Christ plays both a protective and a disciplinary role. Secondly, recognizing the maternal metaphor helps to give a more nuanced account of what it means to say that Christians are brought to resemble Christ. Children were seen as resembling their mothers, but various texts put different emphases on “nature versus nurture” in terms of how this resemblance is wrought. This allows readers to understand their resemblance to Christ as more or less inchoate. Thirdly, various ways in which motherhood was viewed as a form of suffering that led to honor or health allow the maternal metaphor to communicate how Christ passed through suffering to heavenly glory. Finally, the infantilization of the readers and promise of resemblance to Christ that are part of the new birth metaphor help make sense of Peter’s ethics.

Christology and soteriology in First Peter are ultimately at the service of the letter’s paraenetic aims. The maternal metaphor is but one thread in an expansive Christological / soteriological tapestry. Paying more attention to this thread, though, has surprisingly rich pay-off for interpreting the letter.

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Booth, Adam David Patrick (2021). Mother Jesus: The Contribution of Maternal Imagery to the Soteriology and Christology of First Peter. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/22971.

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