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Book review: Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist

Book review: Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist

On the Roots of the Eucharist in the History of Salvation

A review of: Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist. Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, by Brant Pitre; Image (Penguin Random House LLC), New York, 22016. Foreword by Scott Hahn.

Christianity is not only a doctrine but, above all, a relationship to Jesus Christ our Saviour. This relationship is not only face to face as, for instance, in a conversation. In his Bread-of-Life sermon at the synagogue of Carpharnaum, which is the solemn announcement of the Eucharist, our Lord says the mighty words ”Truly, truly, I say to you: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jn 6,53.54). That is to say, Jesus goes beyond a face-to-face relationship and reaches an absolutely novel sort of coexistence, of being one in the other. Many of Jesus’ listeners were shocked by his words to the degree that they did no longer follow him, as the Gospel of St. John reports (Jn 6,60.66). However, in the same passage St. John reports also Peter’s answer to the question Jesus puts before the Apostles: ”Do you want to leave, too?” Essentially, Peter replied, ”Lord, I don’t fully grasp what you just said, but I do know, who you are. I trust you.”

The axis of the book: The First and the Second Exodus

Jesus’ words just quoted were decisive for Brant Pitre, author of the book to be reviewed. A Catholic from childhood, Pitre began his existential contact with these words and the whole announcement of the Eucharist during the visit he made with his protestant fiancée to the pastor of her church in order to prepare their wedding. The conversation went over a number of topics, including the Catholic belief that bread and wine are really converted, in the consecration of the mass, into the body and blood of Christ, respectively. Many of Jesus’ listeners seem to have thought and until today many seem to continue thinking that this would be tantamount of cannibalism. Pitre was stirred up so profoundly that he not only began to review what he had learned earlier about the Eucharist. This event became a major turning point for his life. He got married and became a Biblical scholar teaching at Notre Dame Seminary at New Orleans.

The book rests on the academic work of Pitre and many others, but is written for the educated general public. As the authors explicitly states, he does not try to present novel ideas. On the contrary, he is at pains to show throughout the book that Jesus’ announcement and institution of the Eucharist is in accord with what most probably have been the religious expectations of a great many of his contemporanean Jews: the promised new Moses, the Messiah and, more or less explicitly, also a new exodus foreshadowed by the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. And with that new exodus, also a new Passover, a new Manna, a new Tabernacle.

For this purpose, he not only extensively draws on the Old Testament, but also on Jewish extra-biblical sources such as the Babylonian Talmud (200-500 A.D.), the Jerusalem Talmud, the Mishnah (50 B.C.-200 A.D.), the Dead Sea Scrolls (200 B.C. – 70 A.D.), and the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (50 A.D.). Of course, also a number of Church Fathers render testimony to these expectations of many first-century Jews. The Gospels as well as the letters of St. Pauls often permit to read between the lines these same expectations. Additionally, he quotes a number of Jewish scholars and, occasionally, also Protestant scholars. And all this in a living way that also takes into account that his readers might not be familiar with parts of the Christian Faith.

True, part of the Jews of Jesus’ time were in fact only waiting for political deliverance from the Roman occupation and, therefore, were expecting a political Messiah. Chief among these were the Zealots, who were so called – in Pitre’s words – ”because of their zealous love for the land of Israel and their equally zealous hatred for Rome”. In fact, that sect might have been the cultural home of one of the twelve apostles, Simon the Zealot (Lk 6,15), before he bedame an apostle of the Messiah. And the two disciples of Emmaus might have nurtured similar ideas (Lk 24,21), so that Jesus had to correct their views (Lk 24,25-27).

The mentioned expectations of believing Jews until Jesus’ time were based substantially in that God himself had initiated the exodus from Egypt. Jesus – God again – was to bring these bases to their fulfillment (cf. Mt 5,17). Accordingly, Pitre devotes one chapter to each of the pilars of the first exodus and their fulfillment in the second one: the passover meal foreshadows the new passover in the Last Supper, the manna in the desert foreshadows the bread from Heaven announced by Jesus, and the bread of the presence (cf. Mt 12,4; which has often unhappily been translated with ’showbread’) would be the same bread from Heaven, but now containing the full divinity and humanity of Jesus himself. Let us have a brief look at each one of them.

The New Passover

The first passover is connected with the ten plagues inflicted by God through Moses to Egypt, because the Pharaoh did not let the people leave (Ex 7-12): water turning into blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. The last plague was the death of all firstborn sons of humans, including the Pharao’s firstborn son. The Israelites were preserved from all these plagues by God, without any particular external signs. But for the Israelites’ protection from the last plague, God prescribed something very particular, namely the celebration of the so called passover meal, that the Israelites would have to perform in the very night the last plague would take place. The name ’passover’ means, in the wording of the Book Exodus, that the Angel of death would pass by the houses of the Israelites where the passover meal was eaten, and would instead bring to death the first born sons of the Egyptians.

The passover meal had to be done exactly according to the following guidelines:

  1. Choose an unblemished male lamb (Ex 12,1-6);
  2. Sacrifice the lamb (Ex 12,6);
  3. Spread the blood of the lamb on the door jambs as a ”sign” of the sacrifice (Ex 12,7; 12,21-23);
  4. Eat the flesh of the lamb with unleavened bread (Ex 12,8-12);
  5. Every year, keep the Passover as a ”day of remembrance” of the Exodus forever (Ex 12,14.24-27). The place to celebrate the Passover is Jerusalem and is linked to the Temple (Dt 16,5-7). The remembrance is also somehow a making present the deliverance from Egypt.

The Gospels do mention the fact that Jesus ate the Passover with the Apostles. But no lamb is mentioned. Instead the Gospels report that Jesus took bread, which was also part of the passover meal, and put himself at the place of the lamb by the words of Consecration over the bread. They are the same words that a priest repeats in the mass in order to perform exactly what Jesus did, according to his command: ”Do this in memory of me.” Furthermore, Pitre devotes another chapter for presenting an argument for the link between the Eucharist instituted the night before and his death at the cross. This argument is, without doubt, the speculation of theologians. It is taken from what Jesus did and what we know about the exact performance of the passover meal. Its course was marked by four cups of wine, and Pitre suggests that Jesus left the passover meal unfinished and completed it in the last moments before dying.

The New Manna

Jesus announces the new Manna in his Bread-of-Life sermon in the synagogue of Capharnaum. Part of his listeners were from those 5000, whom he fed miraculously the day before in a desert place. Somehow, they have in mind to make him king, because he seems to be able to solve their day-to-day problems. Jesus instead directs their attention by reminding them that the most important thing is to enter eternal life. The people counter that exhortation by challenging Jesus to give a sign ”What sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? … Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ’He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

For Jesus, this is the starting point of the extended announcement that his body is the bread of life: ”Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (Jo 6,30-34). And: ”I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bead, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jo 6,48ff.)

The manna was the miraculous nourishment for all the Israelites on their forty-years way through the wilderness after having left Egypt, where they had stayed for 430 years. In order to have an idea how powerful Jesus’ words must have been in the ears of many of his listeners, it is good to recall some properties of the manna:

  1. The manna was no ordinary bread, it was miraculous, because it ”rained from heaven” (Ex 16,4-5), every morning and that for forty years and for a huge number of persons. The Israelites did not know what it was, whence they called it ’manna’ – What is it? The wording ”bread from heaven” is echoed in Psalm 78,23-25, where it is called ”bread of angels” – panis angelicus – as well as in the Book of Wisdom, where is added ”from heaven” and ”providing every pleasure and suited to every taste” (Wis 16,20-21).
  2. No matter how much or how little manna each Isrealite gathered, it always measured out a certain small meaure, and it never lasted more than a day (Ex 16,16-20). The manna stopped when the Israelites entered the promised land (Joshua 5,10-12): ”The manna ceased on the next day”.
  3. The manna of the Exodus had a distinctive flavour. ”it was like coriander seed, white, and tasted like wafers made with honey” (Ex 16,31). It could easily be understood as a foretaste of the promised land, ”the land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3,8).
  4. The Manna every morning was accompanied by flesh from heaven every evening: ”He rained flesh upon them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas” (Ps 78,27).

The Israelites not only consumed the manna as their daily food, they also preserved it, by placing it into the Tabernacle. God had ordered Moses to build a ”tent of meeting” (Ex 40,34-38), which would be – during the Israelites’ journey through the desert – the place of God’s dwelling on earth in particular way: the Tabernacle (Ex 25-40). It was – so to speak – the itinerant forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem. In particular, God had ordered that a small quantity of the manna ”be kept throughout your generations that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex 16,32-34).

For the new exodus, which would not be from one territory (Egypt) to another (the promised land, Canaan), but from the exil of sin to the kingdom of Heaven, the expected new Manna would not be less than the first manna. Indeed, Jesus’ words already quoted mark the degree of fulfillment: God himself would be the new manna.

The New Bread of the Presence

The Tabernacle, which God had instructed Moses to build, had three parts: (i) the Outer Court with the Bronze Altar of sacrifice, (ii) the Holy with the golden Lampstand with seven arms, the golden Altar of Incense and the golden table of twelve pieces of bread, the so called Bread of the Presence (Ex 25, sometimes uncorrectly named ’Showbread’), (iii) the Holy of Holies with the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, as well as an urn of manna and the staff of Aaron (cf. Hebr 9,1-5).

The Tabernacle was the prototyp for a permanent place of worship in the promised land, i.e. the Temple of Salomon (1 Kings 6-8) [destroyed in 587 B.C.. (2 Kings 25). Rebuild 539 B.C. (Ezra 1, Ezra 3,10-13; in the rebuilt Temple, the Holy of Holies of that Temple was empty.] The demolition of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans A.D. 70 had a great impact on all subsequent generations of believing Jews. The Temple was never be reconstructed again and, as a consequence, the passover and all the sacrifices have ceased, together with the bread of presence.

According to Pitre, the Bread of the Presence stood at the very centre of Israelite worship. Alongside the Ark of the Covenant and the golden Lampstand, it was one of the three most sacred objects in the Holy of the Tabernacle. Taking into account that the Sabbath was very important in ancient Israel; the Bread of the Presence was the sacrifice each single Sabbath. This is corroborated by the fact that it was shown to the pilgrims to Jerusalem on three feast days a year: Passover, (the Jewish) Pentecost and the feast of Tabernacles. The passover meal, as a contrast, was celebrated only once a year.

According to a well documented tradition for these three feast days, the Levitian priests would take out the bread of the presence from the Holy of Holies in order to show it to the people. They elevated it and proclaimed ”Behold, God’s love for you!”. While the presence of God linked to the bread of presence is mysterious and difficult to capture in human words, it is clear that the real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is by far superior. In this context, it is important to recall that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is with his glorious body, i.e. after his resurrection.

The way Jesus gives to understand that he is the awaited Messiah, that he gives himself as the real bread from heaven, for the new exodus, perfectly corresponds with the expectations of most practicing Jews up to his time. In particular, the eating of the lamb’s flesh of the old passover corresponds perfectly to that Jesus gives his own body – now in a glorious state – as spiritual food – the new manna – on the way to heaven.


Thanks to the author’s expertise, the different issues are well distinguished, and the reader is taken from one to the next in an organic way. For those who are already familiar with many of these topics, but want to deepen their faith by understanding more details, and who additionally can read fluently an easy and pleasant English, Pitre’s book is an excellent read. It is made even more efficient by means of a Study Guide for every chapter, with a Summary of Key Points, Important Bible Passages and Questions for Reflection and Discussion. Also an ample bibliography is given. Therefore, it is recommendable for teachers of religion and all those who want to achieve a level of religious instruction that is somehow comparable to the level of their professional qualification.

Rev. Rudolf Larenz

Tietoja kirjoittajasta


Katolinen hiippakuntalehti Fides on Helsingin katolisen hiippakunnan viestintäosaston julkaisu. Se ilmestyy osin paperisena ja osin pelkästään nettiversiona. ISSN 0356-5262.



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