Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, by Brant Pitre, Doubleday, New York, 2011. 202 pages. Nihil Obstat, Impramatur, with a foreword by Scott Hahn and amply footnoted.
“The message of Jesus is completely misunderstood if it is separated from the context of the faith and hope of the Chosen People.” Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, March 15, 2006.
In his book, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist“, Dr. Brant Pitre, Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, gives us a number of insights into Jesus actions and words at the Last Supper. His work, subtitled “Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper” does just that, putting things together for us in much the same way as Jesus did for two disciples in Emmaus.
Starting with Sacred Scripture, and judiciously using extra-biblical Jewish sources such as the Mishnah, the Targums, the Babylonian Talmud, and Midrashim, as well the writings of a number of Church Fathers and even the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Pitre gives us a glimpse of Jewish expectations of the Messiah in the time of Jesus and how those expectations help us to understand Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, as well as some of the more puzzling aspects of the Last Supper narratives of the Gospels and the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.
Pitre convincingly demonstrates that a significant number of Jews of the time were looking for far more in the coming Messiah than just a political hero to save them from their enemies. Many, in fact, inspired in part by the prophecy in the book of Deuteronomy, were looking for a new Moses to lead them on a new Exodus to a new Promised Land. Starting with that premise, Pitre demonstrates that the words actions of Jesus at the Last Supper were perfectly consistent with these expectations and that this new Exodus would be proceeded by a new Passover sacrifice and meal, and center on a new Covenant.
Pitre proceeds to highlight many “keys” to unlocking the mystery of the Last Supper, which are just some of the signs or “types” in the Old Testament that point to the messianic age of Christ. Three of these are: the Passover, the Manna, and the Bread of the Presence.
While this is not the place to reproduce all of Pitre’s arguments, let’s just sketch out one very briefly: the Passover. Many of us think of the Passover as a meal that memorialized (or rather memorializes) the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to the Promised Land, but it was much more than that. It was, rather, a sacrifice of an unblemished lamb which was consummated by a ritual meal in which the sacrificed lamb was eaten. (See Exodus 12). The sacrifice and the eating of the lamb were inseparable. After providing the reader with plenty of biblical and extra-biblical proof, Pitre asserts that Jesus revealed that he understood his own death in terms of the Passover sacrifice. By means of the Last Supper, Pitre says, Jesus transformed the cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice (p. 169). St. Paul certainly believed this too, as one can see from this passage from his first letter to the Corinthians:
Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Cor. 5:7
As I said, this is just one of the many keys to the Last Supper presented in this wonderful book, which helped to unlock “the secrets” of the Eucharist and the Last Supper for me. I’m confident this very readable book will do the same for you.