Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist | Brant Pitre

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is a fascinating, meaty-yet-readable book on the Last Supper.

Pitre takes Jesus’ Jewishness seriously as he examines just what his Last Supper would look like through Jewish eyes. In a way, he reminds me of what Kenneth Bailey did in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The Lord’s Supper (or Communion, or Eucharist) has been so ritualized, it’s difficult to see what sort of impact it would have made on a group of disciples who gathered to celebrate the feast of Passover.

Each of these ideas are explored:

  1. The Last Supper was the inauguration of the new exodus. The Jewish people were longing for freedom from Roman oppression—they longed to see the promises of the prophets realized. In order for a new exodus to happen, there had to (presumably) be a new Passover. That’s precisely what the Lord’s Supper is.
  2. The Last Supper was a new Passover. Pitre delved into the Passover story of Exodus 12, explaining how it was celebrated in Exodus, in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, and how it differs from today’s Seder meal. Jesus identified his body and blood with the Passover sacrifice, effectively reinterpreting Passover itself.
  3. The Bread of the Last Supper is like manna—divine food. Here’s one area where the book shines. Pitre made a number of connections between manna and the bread of the new covenant that I had never thought of before. I would challenge his understanding of “daily bread” from the Lord’s prayer (according to Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book, it’s more “Wonderbread” than “supersubstantial bread”). Still, that’s a minor quibble.
  4. The Bread of the Last Supper (and the wine) is related to the Old Testament’s Bread of the Presence. Again, Pitre makes a number of substantial connections here between the Face of God in the Showbread and the body of Jesus in the Eucharist.
  5. Perhaps the most interesting chapter (albeit confessedly the most speculative) was the idea that Jesus didn’t finish the Passover meal until he took the bitter wine just before his death on the cross. The fourth cup was drank after his sacrifice was effectively finished.

These chapters are all very well reasoned. Any pastor would do well to brush up on his Bible by reading this book in advance of Easter. Many of the points have already worked their way into my own preaching.

My only problem with the book is Pitre’s desire to defend the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. In the introduction, he relates a gripping and tragic story about being grilled on this doctrine. Then, throughout the book, there are subtle as well as not-so-subtle interjections on why a Jewish understanding of the Last Supper supports traditional Roman Catholic doctrine.

I’m sure it’s my Protestant sensibilities speaking, but understanding the Jewish roots of the Last Supper is no slam-dunk defense of transubstantiation. Pitre admits near the end that most of these thoughts have been around since the early church fathers. I don’t see any new information in this volume that would sway my understanding one way or another.

Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, this book will inspire your Lenten reflections en route to Easter.

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided at no cost through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program.

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3 Responses to Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist | Brant Pitre

  1. Excelsior May 4, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    I’ve read the book too, and thought it excellent.

    I suppose the question of whether the Bread of Communion has anything supernatural about it is a matter of:

    (a.) Did the Bread of the Presence have anything supernatural about it, or was it just bread? and,

    (b.) Should we expect any fulfillment of an Old Testament type to be more glorious, in some fashion, than its prefigurement?

    If the answer to (a.) is “yes” then I suspect that provides a minimum threshold for what we say about Communion.

    For, even if the answer to (b.) is not “yes,” I think the New Covenant’s Bread of the Presence would need to be at least as good as the Old. It would be a bit of a let down, otherwise! The book of Hebrews lays out our expectations for type-antitype relations between Old and New, and it just wouldn’t be kosher (!) for the Old Covenant to feature bread in which God was mysteriously present to His people, and yet the New Covenant has…Wonderbread.

    And if the answer to (b.) is “yes” then even if the Bread of the Presence was, at the end of the day, mere Wonderbread, the Communion bread would need to be something more than that, in some way.

    For myself, I can see how the doctrine of transubstantiation would fulfill this criterion not only sufficiently but superabundantly.

    But I suppose a lesser form of “Presence” could fulfill it sufficiently well, also. The Catholic understanding of the “real presence” is, so far as I can tell, the maximal understanding: The boldest assertion someone can make without saying Christ has actually come again. If they’re right then “Eucharistic Adoration” is appropriate and probably required; if not, it’s a bit silly. (Did Pitre offer any evidence of the Jews reverencing the Bread of the Presence as God? I don’t remember anything like that.)

    As for Catholic apologetics: Well, Pitre is a Catholic and got memorably hassled by a not-very-fraternal brother Christian about this very topic. I suppose he didn’t need to bring it up, but it did make the book feel more accessible in terms of sympathy for the author.

    It seems to me the stronger argument would be that Communion is ALSO supposed to be the New Covenant Passover…and that in a Passover, the People of God were required to eat the lamb. (Cue the imagery from the book of Revelation, which Catholic theologian Scott Hahn believes is intended in overall outline to depict the worship liturgy of the “heavenly temple” as identical to the Mass/Divine Liturgy, plus John 6 of course.) But that idea isn’t terribly germane to the book.

  2. Stephen Barkley May 5, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to seriously reply to this review.

    Interesting argument—was God present in the “bread of the presence,” and if so, won’t his presence be more real in the new covenant.

    I would say that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the real presence of God with his people. He then ascended and sent his Spirit. The classical doctrine of transubstantiation, I think, diminishes the significance of the outpouring of the Spirit. (Of course, this takes us far outside the book in discussion.)

    In Christ,


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