“A Pre-History of the Lord’s Table”
A Review of
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
By Brant Pitre.
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon.
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist:
Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper.
Hardback: Doubleday Religion, 2011.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
It was the first Sunday of the month, which meant it was time for communion at the non-denominational church my family attended at the time. At best, our once-a-month communion of broken matzo and plastic thimbles-full of syrupy grape juice on was usually treated as a postscript to the service. At worst, it was a rushed affair that made the church service a few minutes longer. I think church leaders spent more of their platform time recruiting volunteers to fill those little cups than they did explaining why we “remembered” Christ in this way each month.
Is this really what Christ had in mind when he offered the matzo and cup to his friends during the final Passover Seder he celebrated with them and said, “Do this in remembrance of me?”
My former congregation was at one end of the theological spectrum when it came to their understanding about the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. The predominant doctrinal understanding of Communion tends to fall into a few categories: the strictly memorial stance our non-denominational church held; a belief that there is a real, spiritual presence involved at the Meal; the conviction that the substance of Christ’s body and blood are at the Table alongside the physical substance of wine and unleavened bread; and transubstantiation, the view held by Catholic and Orthodox believers, who affirm that the substance of the wine and wafer are transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood.
I am a Jewish believer, a layperson with a keen interest in theology. I could cite basic information about each of these theological positions, and had done some reading about the first three in the wake of my frustration with the begrudging and infrequent approach to Communion I’d experienced at the non-denominational church. However, I’d never spent any time with a teacher who could provide a compelling, clear and engaging explanation of transubstantiation. I was familiar with the arguments from those from the other camps against the doctrine/dogma. I’d never found a source defending transubstantiation that was accessible to non-Catholics and was layperson-friendly until I read Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.
Pitre, a scholar who teaches at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, is an engaging and enthusiastic guide to his subject matter. He is passionate about helping both Catholics and non-Catholic readers embrace the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. He does so with awe and reverence as he reaches into the Old Testament in order to create context for the Meal.
The book opens with his account of an awkward conversation the Catholic Pitre and his fiancé (now wife) had years ago with her “Communion-is-strictly-memorial” Baptist pastor. The experience launched him into theological study. And what he discovered in those studies formed the foundation for the book: “According to Pope Benedict, to the extent that you separate the words of Jesus from the faith and hope of the Jewish people, you risk ‘completely misunderstanding’ him…this is precisely what has happened with various interpretations of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.”
Citing both Biblical and Rabbinic literature, Pitre begins by laying out his case for the Jewish messianic hope of a new exodus. This deliverance would be initiated by a new Moses, the Messiah, and would come with a new covenant, a new temple, and a new promised land. The deliverance would come in the form of a new Passover:
How is it that Jesus, an observant Jew, could have ever commanded his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood?…The context of his words is quite clear: it is the Jewish Passover…In the Old Testament, was it ever enough simply to sacrifice the lamb? No. Did the actual flesh of the lamb have to be eaten in order for the sacrifice to be complete? Yes. Could a symbol of the lamb’s flesh suffice? By now, we know that the answer is negative. In other words, Jesus knew full well what any first-century Jew would have know: when it came to the Passover, you did not only have to kill the lamb; in order to fulfill God’s law, in order to be saved from death, you had to eat the lamb.
He then expounds on the Eucharistic linkage found in God’s provision for his exile children’s journey, the supernatural gift of manna and quail, which the Israelites had to eat to survive each day. Pitre also points to the Bread of the Presence, or Showbread, that God required on the tabernacle, then temple altar (Exodus 25:23-24, 29-30). He makes a case for the way in which the bread was transformed into a sacred item after it had been used as a sacrifice to God in worship, and then argues that this Bread of the Presence foreshadows Christ. According to Pitre, the early church fathers well understood this connection, but it has been diluted over time:
Unfortunately for us, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not ever link the Old Testament Bread of the Presence to the Eucharist. The Catechism only mentions it in passing, as part of the Temple worship of the Israelite people. Nevertheless, it is significant that the Church, when explaining the mystery of the Eucharist, chooses to use the language of Jesus’ real presence.
He revisits the ceremonial Passover Seder meal before making his final case for transubstantiation by pointing to the appearance of the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-35). “Until Jesus sat down with the disciples and repeated his actions from the Last Supper, their eyes were kept from seeing him…And then, as soon as they did see him, he vanished. Why? Jesus was pointing them to the way he would be present with them from now on.”
I grew up celebrating Passover, and can still remember how stunned and overjoyed I was after coming to faith to discover how each element of the Seder proclaimed Jesus as my Messiah. A Seder brings God’s deliverance to active remembrance as we participate in the Story. God was there, delivering Israel from Pharaoh, and He is here, now, present with us, continuing that same ministry of deliverance in our lives through His Son. The Jewish roots of Communion is not solely my birthright as a daughter of Abraham – it is a powerful foundation and promise fulfilled that should change the way each one of us comes to the Table as often as we gather round it together.
I most appreciated Pitre’s take on the Seder, and valued the variety of Old Testament images and stories he used to challenge us to think more deeply about the nature of Communion. I didn’t agree with some of his conclusions about the nature of the Eucharist, because some of the images of presence, such as the Showbread, simply aren’t a part of the Seder-based context of the Lord’s Supper. But he provided me plenty to ponder as I come to the Table this week, and for that, I’m grateful.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com