Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
by brant pitre
doubleday, 240 pages, $21.99

A vibrant reception of the deposit of faith today requires serious, good argumentation about the way Scripture, doctrine, and church praxis are inseparably related and mutually illuminating. Brant Pitre’s new book on the Jewish roots of the Eucharist recognizes this need and attempts to connect the biblical presentation of the Last Supper and the Catholic Church’s doctrinal teaching of the “real presence.” 

Pitre, a professor of sacred Scripture at Notre Dame seminary in New Orleans, begins with a story about his wife’s Southern Baptist preacher, who has doubts about the coherence of Catholic teaching with biblical testimony. The preacher is “fresh out of seminary” and “aflame with the fire of the Gospel.” He cannot understand why Pitre believes many of the things he does, and he ignorantly questions him about the direct biblical basis for everything from Mary to the pope to the Eucharist. “What about the Lord’s Supper?” the unsophisticated man asks. “How can you Catholics teach that bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body and blood? Do you really believe that?” Pitre’s whole book is an effort to show that, yes, he really does.

Though he does not agree with the fresh graduate’s reading of the Bible, Pitre has no trouble at all accepting the most basic assumption of his Baptist accuser: The Bible either directly supports contemporary Catholic teaching or it doesn’t. Where the Baptist would say “No,” Pitre inserts a “Yes.” The result is an approach to the Bible that sets aside the crucial role that development of doctrine has played in Catholic thinking about ways in which biblical testimony serves as the basis for Church teaching and practice.

Turning to face the Baptist on his own turf, Pitre claims to offer history that appeals to all fair-minded seekers of truth based on evidence that is admissible in any intellectually serious court: “So whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Gentile, believer or nonbeliever, if you’ve ever wondered Who was Jesus really? I invite you to come along with me on this journey. As we will see it is precisely the Jewish roots of Jesus’ words that will enable us to unlock the secrets of who he was and what he meant when he said to his disciples, ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’” We are thus promised an objective historical-Jesus essay that will seamlessly connect the first-century Jewish man to contemporary eucharistic doctrine, putting to flight all doubt about the biblical basis for Church doctrine.

The structure of the book follows Pitre’s promise. We are told that, because Jesus was Jewish, it is important to interpret his words and actions through “Jewish eyes.” But as the argument progresses, Pitre places sources such as the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud in direct relationship with the New Testament. Never mind that these sources are notoriously difficult to date”and never mind that even the most conservative dating schemes place only bits and pieces of traditions in these texts anywhere near the first century—when they speak about the Passover, Pitre treats them as immediately relevant to the actual words of Jesus.

Subsequent chapters claim that the Jewish people still believed themselves to be in exile during the first century, that the expected “new exodus” would be accomplished by some kind of Messiah, and that Jesus himself believed that he was celebrating the new Passover as the inauguration of this new exodus, thereby fulfilling at least some Jews’ expectations for their Messiah.

Next comes a discussion of the Jewish longing for the return of the supernatural, heavenly manna, and we learn that “when the Messiah finally came, he would finally bring back the miracle of the manna.” Unsurprisingly, Jesus saw himself as the bringer of this manna. Keeping his eye on much later sources, Pitre finds support for his view in Jerome’s Latin translation of a notoriously difficult word in the Lord’s Prayer: epiousios, traditionally rendered as “daily.” “Give us this day,” Jerome wrote in his translation of Matthew’s version of the prayer, not our “daily bread” but our “supersubstantial bread” (Matthew 6:11). Jerome here agrees with Jesus, Pitre argues.

Pitre simply ignores that Jerome renders the same word in Luke’s version of the prayer as the more typical “daily” (Luke 11:3). Jerome himself, as it turns out, was likely referring to the salvific power of God’s provision more generally. But no matter: Pitre holds that in the first century, epiousios bread could mean only one thing, the supersubstantial heavenly manna. It is this supersubstance that Jesus himself offers and for which the disciples are to pray.

Pitre discovers still more connections. The bread of the presence—the consecrated “shewbread” kept perpetually in the tabernacle in the books of Exodus and Leviticus—and the wine of Melchizedek’s sacrifice in Genesis 14 were both used by Jesus at the Last Supper to frame the significance of his own life: In the new exodus he brought, the Supper instituted “the new bread and wine of the Presence, the bread of Jesus’ own presence.”

A later Talmudic tradition, Pitre asserts, helps us to understand Jesus’ reasons for framing his life in this way: In the first century, such gestures would clearly be understood as proclaiming “God’s love for you.” In short, once we know something about the special bread and wine of the Old Testament and of ancient and medieval Judaism, we can see that Jesus himself used bread and wine at the Last Supper to signify and declare God’s love.

The question naturally arises: If Jesus wanted to declare God’s love by means of this ritual, why didn’t he finish it? As many scholars have noticed, later Jewish sources tell us that standard practice at the Passover meal included four cups, each one of which was drunk at a specific point in the celebration. The final cup was to be consumed in conjunction with the reading of the psalms of praise (Psalms 115–18, the Hallel) and served as both a “thanksgiving sacrifice” and a “cup of praise.” But there is no fourth cup at the Last Supper.

At this point Pitre’s ongoing exegetical speculations veer more toward outright invention, as he argues that Jesus forwent the final cup in order to dramatize that his own crucifixion and resurrection were themselves the culmination of the Passover meal—the sacrifice of thanksgiving and the cup of praise. According to Pitre, we learn this from the Gospel of John: Jesus’ words on the cross, “I thirst,” are the call for the fourth cup; his subsequent “It is finished” means the meal has been completed (John 19:23–30). This is a surprising suggestion, especially since John’s Gospel does not narrate the scene of the Last Supper at all. There is, of course, a theological reflection on Jesus as the “bread of life” in John 6, but there is no Passover meal to complete. Indeed, according to John, the crucifixion itself takes place at the time the lambs were slaughtered (i.e., before the meal).

Pitre’s use of the Gospel of John is indicative of the book as a whole. The sources are adjusted toward readings that suit the hypothesis. Narrative trajectories, details large and small, and simple but significant discrepancies are all flattened as John is made to complete a synoptic narrative from which it (deliberately) departs. Elsewhere, not only are Jesus’ words in John frequently taken as literally spoken sometime in the first three decades of the first century, the Gospel narrative is ignored in favor of speculative or tendentious history. Commenting on the “body and blood” language of John 6, Pitre notes that some early followers abandoned Jesus because “they took his Eucharistic teaching literally. But did he back down? No.”

This reading puts the would-be disciples in a somewhat awkward epistemological position. How could they accept eucharistic teaching before the Last Supper? What could they possibly have in mind to accept? Or if we simply stay within John itself: Pitre forgets once again that there is no Last Supper at all in the Fourth Gospel—what are the disciples supposed to know about an event that does not happen? Yet, if he were to acknowledge that John 6 already presupposes extensive Christian reflection on the Eucharist, and if he were to see that the fourth gospel was not, therefore, to be read in a kind of strict chronological order, he would need to complicate considerably his historical account of what words John’s Jesus might have actually said before his resurrection—and thus abandon much of his procedure and the resultant, errant speculation.

Pitre’s book will only convince the already convinced. Its basic argument is that an objective investigation by an honest researcher will discover a thoroughly Jewish first-century Jesus with a penchant for present-day Catholic teaching on the real presence. This is exceedingly difficult to swallow and shows an altogether naive confidence in the ability of modernist historical methods to deliver Christian doctrine.

In fact, Pitre’s book is not a work that makes a compelling argument but one that uses some words from the New Testament and relatively or very late Jewish sources to re-present Catholic teaching for non-scholarly Catholics. Excavating the roots of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist is an important task, but it is not helped by books that use historical scholarship so naively.

Pitre’s book demonstrates how much is lost when a kind of simplistic historicism is made to do the work of doctrinal proof. The biblical texts have to be adjusted to fit the requirements of the historicism, and teaching becomes more about reducing spiritual anxiety in the face of criticism than about elucidating the interconnections of Christian life through time. If the Church is going to read Scripture well in conversation with sophisticated historical scholarship, and thereby deepen its exegetical reception of the faith, it will need to recover a more robust sense of the interdependency of church doctrine, history, and practice.

One of the most important ways in which Christian thinkers have tried to articulate a central feature of this interdependency is with the language of development. By speaking of development, such thinkers make the simple but crucial point that biblically formed doctrine takes time. Doctrine is not simply there in the Bible for the taking, as it were, but instead develops in the historical unfolding of the interplay between biblical interpretation and church practice.

To say that doctrine is developed through time does not mean, however, that we should avoid reading Scripture in light of later doctrine—as if Pitre’s concern to connect church teaching to the Bible is somehow misplaced. In this case at least, acknowledging doctrinal development means, rather, that to know what the Bible teaches about the Eucharist we will have to take account of how the Church’s teaching took shape through time. Tracing such development will allow us to see not only how the Church moved from the Bible to contemporary eucharistic doctrine but also how eucharistic doctrine deepens and extends our understanding of Scripture’s theological logic.

For Christians, the development of true doctrine is understood as the work of the Holy Spirit and is, therefore, God’s work no less than Scripture itself is. Reading Scripture with the guidance of its true doctrinal explication is thus nothing less than reading inside the unity of God’s Word and Spirit through time. In short, interpreting the Bible in light of later ecclesial doctrine makes perfect theological sense, but it will not be what Pitre offers in this book: a return to Scripture to prove that a full-fledged doctrine that was worked out much later in the Church’s life can in fact be found directly on the lips of yet another historical Jesus.

C. Kavin Rowe is associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.