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.