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Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: A Review

By Dr. Paul Owen

It is always a pleasure to read the works of biblical scholars which are devoted to the edification of Christ’s Church. And that is precisely what we find in this elegant little volume by Dr. Brant Pitre (Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at The Augustine Institute). Through reverent biblical interpretation informed by a masterful blend of rabbinic and patristic tradition, Pitre’s work shows that the Church’s historic understanding of the Eucharist as the supernatural presence of the resurrected Lord is found in the teachings of the historical Jesus, who as the master Teacher drew upon the best Jewish traditions of his day to interpret the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures—traditions which are still preserved in the Talmud and other rabbinic sources.

The book consists of eight chapters of well-presented and readable material, the heart of which is found in three through five. The opening chapter first puts the teachings of Jesus in their proper historical setting and notes how scandalous the central idea of the Eucharist would be in Jewish ears, given the strong prohibition in the Law of Moses against the consumption of blood (Gen. 9:3-4; Lev. 17:10-12; Deut. 12:16). But does this then mean that the message of Jesus was antithetical to the Hebrew Scriptures? That becomes the problem which Pitre explores in the pages of this volume, showing that in fact the message of Jesus was the fulfillment of the hopes embedded in the prophetic symbols of the Jewish Bible. He does so with corroborating evidence drawn from the ancient Jewish sources themselves, which are given a concise introduction in accessible terms in this first chapter (pp. 19-20).

Then Pitre continues with a look at Old Testament hopes for the future age of the Messiah. What is it that the Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for, and what did they expect to happen once the messianic age had arrived? This is summarized under four main headings. The Jews were waiting for a new Moses (pp. 25-28), a new covenant (pp. 28-32), a new Temple (pp. 32-37), and a new promised land (pp. 37-42). Pitre shows how these hopes are rooted in the expectations of the biblical prophets and repeated in later rabbinic traditions.

There are many interesting observations to be made along the way. For example, Pitre shows how in rabbinic commentary the hope of a new Moses in Deuteronomy was linked with the expectation that the Messiah would one day come riding upon a donkey as predicted by the prophet Zechariah (p. 27). He highlights the way the old covenant was “sealed” in the sprinkling of blood and solemnized in a family banquet, thereby establishing kinship (an adoption and familial bond) between God and Israel (pp. 29-30), which in turn explains why new covenant ceremonial properly reaches its conclusion in a sacred meal. He notes that the rabbis not only prayed for the restoration of the Temple but also expected their future Messiah to be the Temple builder (p. 36). And he shows how the hope of a restored inheritance in the land was understood in Jewish eschatology as a metaphor of sorts for the “new world of the age of salvation” (p. 41)—and thus not a mundane hope for the reoccupation of earthly Canaan. Like all the types of the Old Testament, Jerusalem would be taken up and transformed into a new and more glorious reality in the messianic age.

But how exactly would these images come together in one synthetic reality? Pitre explains that biblical prophecy anticipates a new exodus to be accomplished by the new Moses, in which all of these expectations would find their realization (pp. 42-47). Evidence is cited from the Jewish historian Josephus and the New Testament Gospels to show that both Jews and Christians stood on common ground in linking the work of the Messiah to the Old Testament exodus story—the physical redemption of Israel from Egypt being a type of the greater redemption of the Christian Church through the blood of Christ.

This brings the reader into the heart of Pitre’s presentation, contained in chapters three through five. Chapter three discusses the Passover meal and how it finds its rich fulfillment in the work of Christ on the cross:

“As any ancient Jew would have known, if there is going to be a new exodus, then it would seem that there would need to be a new Passover as well” (p. 48, italics original).

Pitre first discusses the biblical material as it pertains to the Jewish celebration of the Passover (pp. 50-59) and then describes the shape of the Passover ritual as it would have looked in Jesus’ first-century Judean context (pp. 59-68). Fascinatingly, he cites evidence from the Mishnah (the earliest collection of Jewish tradition outside the Bible) and Justin Martyr (a second-century Christian writer) in support of the probability that the corpses of the Passover lambs were pierced with sticks in a manner which resembled crucifixion (pp. 63-64). This provides a cruciform shape to the words: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Chapter four discusses the manna which fed the children of Israel in the wilderness and was stored inside the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. One detail that Pitre notes is the taste of the manna, which is said to have the flavor of honey (Exod. 16:31), which he then connects to the promise of the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8), making the manna a “foretaste” of the inheritance. “In other words, by means of the manna, God was calling the Israelites to place their trust in his ability to provide for them and to see them home” (p. 84). Jewish sources from outside the Bible are cited to demonstrate that the Jews of Jesus’ day expected the miraculous heavenly manna to return in conjunction with the arrival of the Messiah (pp. 90-92).

On pages 93-97 Pitre presents a fascinating excursus of sorts on the meaning of the Greek word epiousios, which appears in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” The word literally means “above substance,” which Jerome translates (p. 95) as “supersubstantial” or in other words “supernatural.” As Pitre sees it, “any ancient Jew who heard a prayer for bread that was both daily and supernatural would have immediately thought of the manna of the exodus” (p. 96, italics original). Although I would not disagree with the point Pitre makes, nor its applicability to the Mass, I would caution against drawing too tight a connection between this “supernatural” bread and the Eucharistic bread itself, as if this petition were suggestive of the Roman Catholic definition of the miracle of the Real Presence (as Pitre comes close to saying on p. 187). Rather, I think Jesus is making a broader point about the nature of discipleship and how believers are to prioritize the kingdom of God over this world (Matt. 6:33-34). After all, as Our Lord taught us, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). In other words, it is more important each day to feed on Christ by faith (something we especially do in the Mass) than to concern ourselves with the cares of this physical world.

In any event, no sensible Anglican could take exception to Pitre’s broader point in this chapter concerning the relationship of manna as a Jewish type to the Eucharist as the new bread from heaven:

“If a first-century Jew believed that the old manna was supernatural bread from heaven, then could the new manna be just a symbol? If the old manna was the miraculous ‘food of the angels,’ could the new manna be just ordinary bread and wine? If so, that would make the old manna greater than the new!” (p. 103, italics original).

Chapter five looks at the Bread of the Presence which was kept in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle and eventually the Jerusalem Temple. Pitre highlights a number of important details about this sacred symbol. First, the bread was consumed with wine by the priests (p. 120). Second, the bread is best understood as a physical sign of the face (or we could say Real Presence) of God (p. 121). And third, the Bread of the Presence was understood not only as a symbol but also as an unbloody sacrifice, and as such the sign of God’s “everlasting covenant” (pp. 123-24). As Pitre puts it:

“Significantly, the unbloody sacrifice offered each week was nothing other than the Bread and wine of the Presence. It was only after the Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70—that is, after the time of Jesus—that the offering of all sacrifices ceased” (p. 125).

Also in this chapter, we find rich discussions of Melchizedek (a symbolic type of Christ), who, as priest of God Most High, offers up the sacrifice of bread and wine in Genesis 14, which was connected in Jewish tradition with the Bread of the Presence in the Temple (pp. 126-28), as well as the Talmudic tradition that at the yearly feasts in Jerusalem the priests would bring the Bread of the Presence out of the Holy Place and present it to the gathered worshippers, saying, “Behold, God’s love for you” (pp. 130-31). Pitre puts it beautifully:

“As the visible sign of this everlasting covenant, the Bread of the Presence was also the visible sign of the divine Bridegroom’s love for his Bride” (p. 131). And again, “this holy bread was a living, visible sign of God’s love for his people, the way his earthly people could catch a fleeting glimpse of the ultimate desire of their hearts: to see the face of God and live, and to know that he loved them” (p. 133).

Pitre rounds out his presentation by discussing the story of David in 1 Samuel 21 (pp. 135-41) and the connections between the Bread of the Presence and the Last Supper ritual (pp. 141-44). Both “meals” involving the symbolic number twelve are consumed in God’s presence as a sign of God’s covenant, for a remembrance, as an unbloody sacrifice, to be eaten at a sacred Table (p. 143).

In chapter six Pitre discusses the structure of the Passover liturgy, as it is recorded in the Mishnah and other sources of early Jewish tradition stemming back to the time of Jesus. He highlights the sequence of four cups of wine which would be consumed over the course of the meal and takes note of the fact that there is no record of Jesus taking the expected fourth cup in the Upper Room with his disciples. Pitre suggests that the fourth cup, which is what brought the Passover meal to its liturgical conclusion is to be identified with the sip of wine which Jesus took on the cross just before he uttered the words, “It is finished” (John 19:28-30).

“By refusing to drink of the fruit of the vine until he gave up his final breath, he joined the offering of himself under the form of bread and wine to the offering of himself on Calvary. . . . In short, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice” (p. 169, italics original).

Chapter seven concludes the discussion by noting how the spiritual understanding of the Passover, the heavenly manna, and the Bread of the Presence, which Pitre pieces together from the Bible and ancient Jewish sources, is in fact already richly present in the commentary of the early Church Fathers and the theology of the Catholic Church to this day. In truth, the historic shape of the Liturgy itself presents the spiritual meaning of all these Old Testament types and symbols to those who have eyes to see. The key to understanding the Eucharist is spiritual illumination, something which is brought out in Pitre’s final discussion of the Road to Emmaus episode in Luke 24 (pp. 196-202). Once again it would be difficult to improve upon Pitre’s own words:

“In short, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus fulfilled what he set out to accomplish at the Last Supper. That Sunday was the first Eucharist after the Resurrection, and Jesus was the principal celebrant. . . . And while the disciples may not have realized it at the time, on that day, Jesus answered their prayer outside the village of Emmaus, when they said to him: ‘Stay with us’ (Luke 24:29)” (p. 202, italics original).

It would be difficult to recommend this volume too warmly. Pitre’s discussion of the Eucharist against the backdrop of Jewish sources is simply biblical scholarship at its very finest. It is a learned, spiritual, godly, and informative volume that will bless the souls of all who patiently read it, no matter what their level of theological training might be. I gladly recommend it to all Anglican Christians, and indeed to all who desire to press more deeply into the mystery of Our Lord’s sacrifice at Calvary.

Paul Owen is Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College, and a Lay Reader at All Saints Anglican Church in Mills River, NC.


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