Jewish Keys to Understanding the Lord’s Supper?

I just finished reading Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (New York: Image, 2016). The men’s group at our Anglican church is currently going through this book together, and I actually found it engaging enough that I plowed through the whole thing already.

Pitre, a Catholic scholar, argues that a close examination of first-century Jewish traditions sheds important light on how we should understand the Christian Eucharist/Lord’s Supper. What’s more, he asserts that Jewish expectations regarding a coming Messianic fulfillment of three specific Old Testament elements (the Passover meal, the manna from heaven, and the Bread of the Presence) actually support the belief that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are indeed the real body and blood of Jesus Christ made present to his worshipers (as Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and in some sense Lutherans, all take it to be).

As someone who has always held a high view of the Lord’s Supper, I didn’t come into this book in much need of convincing. Personally, the unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers for 1500 years is sufficient for me to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But Pitre certainly brought up a great deal of useful insights on first-century Jewish practices, and I thought he did an admirable job of applying good biblical theology in summarizing the Jewish expectations of a future “New Exodus” and in showing how Christ fulfills the Passover. To my mind, the strongest point to be drawn here is the fact that the Passover sacrifice/ceremony wasn’t complete until the flesh of the sacrificial lamb was eaten! This was how the benefits of the atoning sacrifice were applied to worshipers.

Also helpful was his chapter on the Bread (and wine!) of the Presence (which I’ve always found interesting) and its significance as an “everlasting covenant” to be eaten weekly in the Lord’s presence, as well as the chapter on the four cups of the Passover. His chapter on the “hidden manna from heaven” and the bread of life discourse in John 6, while also interesting, had one weakness. On pg. 101, Pitre simply asserts that “It is widely recognized” that Jesus’ speech here is about the Eucharist, and that “any attempt to insist that Jesus was not speaking about what he would do at the Last Supper here is a weak case of special pleading.” But even if this strong assertion is correct, it must still be argued and not simply asserted, since there is in fact significant debate over this. I expected at least an endnote citing sources that actually give the arguments for why this is the case. Pitre is careful to document his research/sources with endnotes otherwise, so I was taken aback by the lack of one here.

Still, on the whole Pitre’s book is quite good and also very readable, since it’s designed for a broad audience. Anyone interested in the topic of the Lord’s Supper or Jewish traditions will find plenty of fascinating insights. If you already have a high view of the Eucharist, this would still make a great study (and it even includes a guide in the back for small group discussions). If you don’t, it might not convince you but it’s still worth considering, especially for grasping a biblical theology of the Passover or expanding your understanding of first-century Jewish beliefs and practices. Recommended.



Categories: Book Reviews, Judaism

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3 replies

  1. This book is new to me so I’m grateful for your drawing attention to it.

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  2. Based not upon tradition or “popular belief” but The Torah and New Testament the Bible clearly states that eating flesh is AGAINST the law. (Genesis 9:4; Acts 15:28, 29) Yet this could not be, for Jesus would never instruct others to violate God’s law regarding the sacredness of blood.​—John 8:​28, 29. Think about all the metaphors Jesus used when preaching. Passover is a foreshadow of the cross. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying this is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me”. Breaking the bread points to his body on the cross. Everything is symbolism. He would not have meant for the bread to be his body. He technically could have, as He is God, but He would have broken his own law (above) making him not clean, therefore not the Messiah. Notice no doctrine was used, just Bible references.

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    • I don’t disagree, and the more I’ve thought about Dr. Pitre’s arguments since reading his book, the more I see that his treatment of John 6 is the weakest point of his case. Jesus’ words there make clear that the partaking of his flesh he describes is a spiritual partaking by faith, since the flesh is of no help (John 6:63). We do not literally consume his physical body (this error was called “Capharnaism” in the early church), and so I, too, don’t think the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation is the best explanation. However, Paul does make clear in 1 Corinthians 10:16 that in Communion we do, indeed, partake of Christ’s blood and body by means of the bread and wine. I take it to be a spiritual appropriation of Christ, based on John 6 and in agreement with what you point out about the absurdity of literally eating his flesh. But I do think Paul’s words are sufficient basis for understanding Communion to be sacramental in nature and not a bare symbol.

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