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Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper

by Jesse Martin | April 28, 2011

Dr. Brant Pitre is one of the brightest up-coming Catholic biblical scholars in this generation. He has an unprecedented grasp of ancient Judaism and current biblical scholarship which is reflected in his latest book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.

Now, Pitre does not set out to prove the real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, but he does use historical and exegetical motives of credibility that lay the foundation for that belief. That foundation lies partly within the Jewish history and tradition of our faith. So often as Catholics we forget the Jewish roots of our faith and do not tap into the richness of that tradition. This book also helps shed light on what the Jewish people were waiting for in the Messiah. Most people would simply say, “The Jewish people were waiting for an earthly political Messiah to free them from the Romans…etc. While that is true, it’s only a half-truth – Jewish tradition on the coming of the Messiah is much deeper and much more exciting! 

One of the most interesting chapters of the book discusses the mysterious bread of the presence that is so little discussed, but played an integral role in Jewish Sabbath worship. Pitre shows how the bread of the presence was vital for Jewish Sabbath worship. It was not merely a part of the sacrifice, it was the sacrifice. This idea of the bread of the presence lays a firm foundation for our understanding of the Holy Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the Christian faith.

Pitre carefully uses later rabbinic sources such as the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud to give the reader insight on what Jewish traditions may have been at the time of Jesus. All of the arguments put forth could be made by looking at the New Testament text and comparing it in light of the Old Testament, but Pitre does a great job at keeping both lines of argument (rabbinic tradition and Old Testament) clear and distinct from each other allowing them to complement each other. This unlocks and illuminates the inter logic of the New Testament because some texts in the New Testament are simply puzzling – the writers assume certain things that may not be clear to modern readers.

For example, in John 6, when Jesus performs the feeding of the five thousand and then the crowd comes and meets him, they challenge him by saying, “What work do you perform?  Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"This begs the question, why do they ask him to perform that miracle? Why not say, raise the dead, cast out demons, move this mountain? Why do they challenge him this way? But when we look at rabbinic tradition and see that rabbis were saying the Messiah will bring back the manna, that tradition seems to shed light on the presupposition in the New Testament. This is the method Dr. Pitre uses and he is successful in this methodology.

This book is a great achievement because the tone is very charitable to people of other faith backgrounds such as Protestants, Jewish readers, and even non-believers. He gives the reader their due and lets them know that he understands this may be a “hard teaching.” In fact it's scandalous!

But, if you are looking to increase your personal devotion to the Eucharist, this is a great and exciting read to affirm in you how strong a foundation we have for our Catholic faith. God has been working in history to give us himself. It’s not how much Jesus suffered that redeems us, it’s in his total self offering, and he was already doing that in the upper room at the last supper.

The Catechism tells us: “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life” (CCC 1394). “Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body – the Church” (CCC 1396). There are people in this world, who have nothing of their own, but they have the Eucharist, and in it they have everything. Whatever our struggles are in this life we can give them to Christ on the altar. He will give us his entire self, because he wants to abide in us. We have everything, because we have Christ in us.

 “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)

Author information Jesse Martin

Jesse attended the Catholics on Call conference in 2009 and graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in 2010. He attends Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, working towards his MA in Theological Studies. He currently works as a chef at a small restaurant in his hometown in southeast Louisiana. 

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