04 April 2011

review: Jesus and the jewish roots of the eucharist

Brant Pitre. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. New York: Doubleday, 2011.

Ever since I read through Brant Pitre's published thesis, Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of Exile, I knew that this was going to be a scholar worth watching. Having interacted with him on a few occasions, I know that he is a great person to have written this book. This study is a solid combination of academic rigor, scholarly precision, and ecclesiastical heart.

The primary objective of this book is to explore the mystery of the biblical account of the Last Supper, as well as the ongoing practice of Eucharist (or Lord's Table, Communion, etc.). Through an examination of the first century Jewish context of the Last Supper, Pitre seeks a better understanding of what Jesus was trying to say and what his disciples would have heard. This then serves as the foundation for understanding of modern Christian belief.

There is both shock and mystery in the Christian faith, as is evidenced by the challenges of understanding what Jesus said and did. The simple fact of the Eucharist is, in and of itself, a shock and mystery. Pitre includes a quote from scholar Geza Vermes, "The imagery of eating a man's body and especially drinking his blood . . . even after allowance is made for metaphorical language, strikes a totally foreign note in a Palestinian Jewish cultural setting" (17).

Alright, but then just how did the disciples understand this?

Pitre's exploration covers a variety of themes within the background and context of The Last Supper. Jesus comes as a new Israel which experiences God's new exodus, thus infusing the common Passover meal with powerful symbols of this new reality (chs 2-3). It has been widely understood that Jesus deliberately alters the typical Jewish Passover meal (73), in order to demonstrate his sacrifice and God's salvation.

Points that most modern readers probably have not seen are the implications of Jesus as a new manna (ch 4), or as the Bread of the Presence (ch 5). Both of these are steeped in Jewish tradition and Hebrew Scripture more than the typical modern evangelical is aware. But, the imagery, as Pitre demonstrates, is ever-present throughout Jesus' teaching and context.

It should be noted that Pitre makes no attempt to hide his own Roman Catholic beliefs on the Eucharist, making a strong biblical case for understanding transubstantiation - the belief that the bread and wine become, supernaturally, the body and blood of Christ. I would love to explore this, but will do so in a later post. Those who are unfamiliar with the Roman Catholic understanding of this should read through Pitre's book for this reason as well.

Jesus is intentionally taking the symbols of bread and wine and making them about himself. He takes the Bread of Presence (lit., Bread of the Face (121)) which was present in the Tabernacle/Temple and defines it with his own body. Jesus now places powerful symbol on the fact that something greater than the Temple is with us - as though God has now tabernacled among us (cf. John 1:14). Pitre quotes the ancient words of Cyril, "Jesus once in Cana of Galilee turned the water into wine, akin to blood; is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood?" (146).

Regarding the wine (ch 6), Pitre explores the four main cups around which Jewish Passover feasts are structured. In the gospel accounts we can account (via Luke 22:19) that Jesus reached the third cup during the Last Supper (158-159). He makes the third cup (berakah, the cup of blessing) the symbol of his blood, gives it to his disciples, and then vows not to drink of the fruit of the vine until he comes again in God's kingdom. Thus, a point drawn out by Pitre, Jesus does not complete the Passover Meal because he does not drink the fourth cup (which is hallel, or praise).

Coming to his crucifixion, Jesus does not accept the first offer of wine - probably an offer given to the condemned as a means of dulling their senses to the pain. As he prepares to die he says, "I am thirsty" (John 19:23), at which point he is offered wine vinegar. Once this is done he declares the work to be finished and dies. It is perhaps best understood, advocates Pitre, that this is the fourth cup of praise, given after the Lamb has been sacrificed at the coming of God's kingdom (166-168). It was the Last Supper which gives the sacrificial context to the execution (168).

Chapter 7 brings together various ideas regarding transubstantiation, with the notion of Jesus' body and blood being supernaturally found in the bread and wine. Pitre has done well to show reason for Jesus to have believed that this was 'supernatural bread' (182), along with the support of early church fathers.

The concluding chapter (ch 8) serves well to illuminate the current participation in the Eucharist. Many churches do not participate in the weekly participation of bread and cup, and are greatly missing the power of this ritual. The bread and wine are typically brought out at Maundy Thursday-Good Friday services, but what about Easter? What about Pentecost? What about the third Sunday of September? The Eucharist is not only a participation in the death of Christ, it is a participation in the resurrection (197). Pitre brings this out with a brief examination of the post-resurrection encounter in Emmaus.

This book is a tremendous resource for any who are interested in a better understanding of the body and blood of Jesus. Thus it should be a resource close to all believers, for the sad truth of the matter is that we have lost the context of the Last Supper and are lacking the power of Jesus' symbolic retelling of a new exodus.

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