Friday, August 15, 2008

The Resurrection of the Lost Ark and the Assumption of Mary

In honor of the feast of Mary’s Assumption (today, August 15), I thought I would post something I recently discovered regarding the Jewish roots of the ancient Christian belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into Heaven. In an a first-century writing known as the Lives of the Prophets, there is an ancient Jewish tradition that the lost Ark of the Covenant would be the first to be resurrected. Here’s the exact text:

[The prophet Jeremiah said:] "The Lord has gone away from Zion into heaven and will come again in power... And in the resurrection the Ark will be the first to be resurrected and will come out of the rock and be placed on Mount Sinai, and all the saints will be gathered to it there are they await the Lord… (Lives of the Prophets 2:15; trans. Charlesworth, OTP 2:388).

What is the meaning of this mysterious oracle? And what does the “resurrection” of the lost Ark have to do with the Assumption of Mary? Allow me to explain.


Many people wonder: Where is the lost Ark of the Covenant? What happened to it? Is it somewhere in Egypt, as the Discovery Channel would have us believe? Or perhaps in a government warehouse, as Harrison Ford clearly showed us all those years ago?

The answer to this question is actually quite simple. According to the Bible, the location of the Ark is no mystery: it was hidden in Mount Nebo, east of the Jordan, where the prophet Jeremiah put it. Although little known by readers unfamiliar with the Catholic Old Testament, 2 Maccabees not only gives an account of where the Ark is hidden, but a prophecy of when it will be found again:

It was also in the writing that the prophet [Jeremiah], having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and seen the inheritance of God [Mount Nebo]. And Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked…” (2 Maccabees 2:4-8)

As anyone familiar with this blog will know, what Jeremiah is saying here is that the Ark of the Covenant will remain hidden until the eschatological restoration of Israel (“when God gathers his people”) and the return of the Glory-cloud, known as the Shekinah (“the glory of the Lord and the cloud”), to God’s Temple. But when does this happen?


When the New Testament is read in light of the Old, a case can be made that the Ark is in fact an Old Covenant type that points forward to a new Ark, and that this new Ark of the Covenant is the Virgin Mary. Although we don’t have the space to go into detail here, suffice it to say that numerous Catholic commentators have noted that Luke’s account of the Annunciation bears striking parallels with the Old Testament accounts of the consecration of the Ark (Exodus 40) and the bringing of the Ark by David into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6; 1 Chronicles 15). Compare the following:

1. The Descent of the Glory Cloud
The glory of the Lord and the cloud cover the Tabernacle (containing the Ark) and “overshadow” (episkiazen)them (Exod 40:34-35, cf. v. 3).

The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and the power of the Most High “overshadows” (episkiasei) her (Luke 1:35).

2. The Ark Goes into the Hill Country
David “arose and went” to the hill country of Judah to bring up “the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:2).

Mary “arose and went” into the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39).

3. How Can the Ark Come to Me?
David admits his unworthiness to receive the Ark by exclaiming: “How can the ark of the Lord“ come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)

Elizabeth admits her unworthiness to receive Mary by exclaiming: "And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)

4. Leaping and Shouting Before the Ark
David “leaped” before the Ark as it was brought in “with shouting” (2 Samuel 6:15-16)

John “leapt” in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and Elizabeth cried “with a loud shout”: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:41-42)

5. The Ark Stays for 3 Months
The Ark remained in the hill country, in the house of Obed-Edom, for “three months” (2 Samuel 6:11)
Mary remained in the hill country, inElizabeth's house, “three months” (Luke 1:56)

In light of these startling parallels, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke is highlighting the parallels between Mary and the old Ark of the Covenant to suggest that she is New Ark. Just as glory cloud had overshadowed the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, so that God might dwell among men, so now the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, so that the Word becomes flesh and “tabernacles” among us (John 1:14). The New Ark is Mary's body. Just as the old Ark housed the 10 Commandments, the Manna, and the Priestly Rod of Aaron, so too the New Ark houses the Word of God, the Bread of Life, the True Priest.

Now, should there be any doubt that these parallels between the Old and New Testaments in the Gospel of Luke are drawing a connection between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant, it should be recalled that these are not the only texts in the New Testament that connect the Ark and Mary. In another famous text, the revelation of the location of the Ark—in heaven—is juxtaposed with a vision of the Mother of the Messiah—also in heaven:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… (Revelation 11:19-12:2)

Clearly, there appears to be some connection between these two figures: both the Ark and the Woman appear in God’s Temple “in heaven.” Moreover, a strong case can be made that the woman—who is an individual, just like the “child” (Jesus) and the “dragon” (Satan) mentioned in the same passage are (Rev 12:3-4)—is indeed Mary, the Mother of the Messiah.

In light of passages such as these, Mary was revered in the ancient Church—and continues to be revered today in the Catholic Church—as the new “Ark” of the Covenant.


But what does any of this have to do with the bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven? And how does Mary’s identity as the New Ark illuminate the Jewish tradition about the resurrection of the Ark that I cited at the beginning of this post?

In short, the evidence suggests to me—others may differ—that one reason ancient Christians may have believed in the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven is that they recognized her as the New Ark of the Covenant.

The Church continues to teach that “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 966). The resurrection, our hope, is at the heart of this dogma. If ancient Christians identified Mary as the Ark and knew about the Jewish tradition that the Ark would be the first to be “resurrected,” then it may have provided theological support for their belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into the heavenly Temple. In fact, they would not even have had to know the Jewish tradition, since the Psalms themselves describe the “ascent” of the Ark into the Temple alongside a prophecy that was interpreted by ancient Christians as referring to the resurrection of Jesus:

Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place,
You and the Ark of your might

For your servant David’s sake,
Do not turn away the face of your messiah. (Psalm 132:8-9)

With these words, our reflection comes full circle: Where else could the Ark belong, but in the Heavenly Temple?

Before closing, I should make one final point. Guess what the biblical readings are for today’s Feast of the Assumption?

1 Chronicles 15 (David’s Bringing of the Ark Up to Jerusalem)
Psalm 132 (The Arising of the Lord and His Ark)
Revelation 11-12 (the Ark and the Woman Clothed with the Sun)
Luke 1 (The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth)

The Church remembers, even when we forget. Happy feast of the Assumption!

Foederis arca,
Ora pro nobis!


Taylor Marshall said...

That Lives of the Prophets quote is POWERFUL.

I love it.

Aren't you coming to Dallas next week?

I can't afford the conference, but I'd love to meet you.

Would you want to grab a beer together?

If so, shoot me an email at:


Anonymous said...

Very cool post, professor. For someone struggling with his Faith, especially the marian aspect of it, this was a refreshing read.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Kepha,

Happy to oblige! Feel free to email me or Michael any time if you have questions about the Faith--including the Marian aspect. For more reading on the biblical roots of Mariology, see my good friend Edward Sri's book, Queen Mother (Emmaus Road, 2003), in which he explores the role of queen mother in the Davidic kingdom and how Mary is depicted as the new Queen in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 12; Luke 1, etc.) This typology combined with the New Ark goes a long way toward explaining Catholic devotion to Mary as well as Mariology.

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting new book out from Continuum called The Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary which has a paper by Margaret Barker looking at Wisdom imagery in relation to Mary in antiquity. (In that connection see
some essays by C.T.R. Hayward on Sirach 50 et).

P.S. If you can ever get hold of the Englsih translation (by the Earl of Bute: it was a long time ago!) of the old pre-Pius X breviary do take time to mull over the Marian sections, and much else as well.

Dale Rudiger said...

I thought that the woman in Rev. 12referred to the nation Israel. And the references to Satan's attempts to destroy Israel as God's chosen people.

I didn't think it referred to Mary (especially in Catholic teaching), since this woman experienced pain in childbirth, and since Mary was sinless she would not be subject to the curse, and thus would not experience pain in childbirth.

The language being symbolic, and the context of Rev. 12, combined with historical persecution of the Jews seems to support the woman representing Israel.

Rucker said...

Check out Edward Sri's book Queen Mother. It goes into the interpretation of Revelation 12 and gives excellent insight to this text. Well worth the read.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, I have always seen the ascension of the Ark to have been typologically fulfilled in Jesus' ascension in Acts 1.