The Jewish Roots of the EucharistOur 21st-century understanding of Jesus' words and teachings is greatly enhanced when placed into the context of 1st-century JudaismBy Elizabeth Scalia
FEB. 15, 2011 (www.patheos.com
) - Author Brant Pitre is a professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He received his Ph.D. in New Testament and ancient Judaism from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and is the author of Jesus, the Tribulation and the End of Exile. In anticipation of our Book Club discussions on his just-released Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Pitre and Catholic portal managing editor Elizabeth Scalia discuss a few of the startling and fascinating aspects of Judaism in the first century, and how directly they speak to and enhance our experience of Holy Communion.Mr. Pitre—let me begin by telling you that I love this book. It provides exciting and fresh perspectives into the Eucharist that will promote deep conversation, contemplation and, I pray, conversion in the hearts and minds of many. Your effort to consider Jesus' teachings on the Eucharist within context of his life in 1st century Palestine has yielded some fascinating information and insights. Reading, for example, that Passover lambs were placed into a quasi-cruciform position at the sacrifice was a stunner. What particularly surprised you in your research, and how did it affect/change your overall understanding of the Eucharist?
I'm glad you found it as fascinating as I did! For my part, two discoveries stand out.
First, there was the one you mentioned—the 'crucifixion' of the Passover lambs in the Temple after they were sacrificed. Discovering this entirely transformed the way I hear the Gospel account of Jesus sending Peter and John into the city of Jerusalem on the day the lambs are sacrificed to "prepare the Passover" (Lk. 22:7-13). The thought of Jesus himself, year after year, seeing thousands of crucified lambs, and, in his final year, knowing that he would suffer the same fate as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world took my breath away. What must have he thought when looked upon the slaughtered lambs?
Second, my personal favorite is the chapter on the Bread of the Presence. This mysterious bread, which was kept in the Tabernacle of Moses and later in the Jerusalem Temple, is consistently overlooked by Christians, because it's tucked away in the dreaded book of Leviticus! Yet it is easily one of the most transparent foreshadowings of the Eucharist in the Bible. I will never forget the day when I was reading the Jewish Talmud and discovered that the priests in the Temple used to take out the Bread of the Presence at the festivals, elevate it in the sight of the pilgrims, and proclaim: "Behold, God's love for you"! Could you ask for a clearer parallel with the elevation of the Eucharist in the Mass, what Pope Benedict has called the "Sacrament of Charity"?The whole section on the Bread of the Presence is riveting, but when I read that the golden table and the Bread of the Presence would be displayed to the people, it matched so perfectly the experience of the Holy Eucharist being elevated at Mass—and especially at Benediction—that I experienced a thrill of recognition and a sense of how Eternal is this notion of "Real Presence," and even of "bread before time" in relation to the Logos. In discussing the manna from heaven you do a good job of responding to modern conjecture about this heavenly food "occurring in nature" but you also bring up ancient rabbinical writing suggesting the manna has always existed, since before Eden. Can you briefly explain what that means, in light of John 1 and John 6?
Yes. Among the Jewish rabbis, there was an ancient tradition that the manna was not only given to Israel during the time of the exodus; it was also reserved for the righteous in heaven since the beginning of creation. The reason this is important is that Jesus uses this Jewish belief about the eternal manna to set the stage for revealing the fact that he himself has existed since the beginning, that he has "come down from heaven" (Jn. 6:38). In other words, he is no ordinary man, but the divine, preexistent Son of God. As he says elsewhere: "Before Abraham was, I AM" (Jn. 8:58).
In this sense, Jesus does not reject Jewish tradition in order to reveal his divine identity; he draws upon it and transforms it to reveal that in him, so to speak, 'something greater than the heavenly manna is here'. The eternal Word that is made flesh in the Incarnation has not only existed since the beginning (like the manna), but before the world was made (Jn. 1:1-14)."The Bread of the Presence" or "The Bread of the Face," might be a term unfamiliar to many, and you discuss this in relation to the Ark, and you go all the way back to the priest Melchizedek and to the idea of continual ritual and of a common thread that joins us to our origins. Everything that has passed, and everything that is to come seems geared to bring us "back to Eden." Can you elaborate a little?
One of the great themes of the Bible, recently being rediscovered by biblical scholars, is the importance of the Jewish expectation of a new creation. From a Jewish perspective, God's plan of salvation is not only focused on the salvation of the souls of his people. It also includes the restoration of the cosmos, and the advent of a "new heavens and a new earth" (Is. 64-65). This is directly related to what happens in the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine of this creation are taken up by the priest, offered to God as a perfect offering, and then transformed in the body and blood of the risen Christ, who is "the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15).
Sometimes Catholics tend to forget that the Eucharist is not just the crucified body of Jesus; it is the crucified and resurrected body of Jesus. In his risen Body, Jesus is no longer bound by space or time; he can appear when he wills, where he wills, under whatever appearances he wills (think Road to Emmaus), because he is the beginning of the new creation. As he says in the book of Revelation: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21). This 'making new' of all things takes place at every single Mass, with every single host, and every single chalice, and every person who receives them, until Christ becomes "all in all" (1 Cor. 15). It is no wonder that all of the ancient Christian Church Fathers spoke of the Eucharist as the "fruit of the Tree of Life," which Adam and Eve were prohibited from eating, but which we, in the Eucharist receive. Just as with the fruit of the Tree of Life, "whoever eats this bread will live forever" (Jn. 6:51).
Changing gears a little, your details on how the Passover evolved up to Jesus' time were particularly instructive, as were your vivid descriptions of Jerusalem and the activity of the temple priests during the ritual sacrifice—the casting of the blood upon the altar. One gets a sense of Jerusalem literally awash in blood—the image is so dramatic it repulses any notion that we were ever intended to think of blood as metaphor. It is difficult not to imagine the smell, the stickiness of blood that would bind it, in a manner of speaking, to the Jewish people. This is so primitive and fantastic and yet we still, as it were, "live" this reality today. Can you talk a little about this preponderance of blood in relation to covenant, both then and now?
Sure. For ancient Jews (like many other religions), blood stood at the center of religious worship and sacrifice. The reason is simple. As the book of Leviticus states: "the life is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11). The shedding of blood is how the covenants were made and maintained—the sacred family bonds between God and his people that mark key moments in salvation history. At the time of Jesus, there was no festival more marked by blood than that of the Passover, when literally hundreds of thousands of lambs would be offered in sacrifice, and the channel that ran from under the altar into the river Kidron would be full of blood and water.
For Catholics, blood still stands at the center of our worship. Though the Temple was destroyed long ago (A.D. 70), and the pouring out of the lamb's blood has long since ceased, to this day, on every altar, at every Mass, the blood of the new Passover lamb is poured out, so we might receive his life: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you," says Jesus (Jn. 6:53).
Think of it this way: If the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, then how much blood has flowed from his side since that first Good Friday, over 2000 years ago? How many Masses have been offered? How many millions of chalices have been poured out? How much of his Precious Blood? When we see it this way, we realize that however much lamb's blood was poured out on the altar in the Temple, these are but a shadow of the Eucharistic blood that would be "poured out for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt. 26:28).
In your introduction, you related the circumstances that put you on the path to writing this book. Did you find it frightening to undertake this—any worries that in trying to make the strongest argument you could in support of John 6, you might inadvertently discover something to shake your faith?
Good question! No, I have to confess, that I never really was afraid that I would discover anything that would shake my faith. It always seemed to me, since that first time I really opened up John 6 and read it, that there could be no clearer teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist than that text. Finding out that other people disagreed only made me investigate the matter more closely. And the more I learned about Jesus and his Jewish context, the more convinced I was that the Church's take on the whole matter was correct.
This is, after all, what one would expect, since all the first Christians—the Apostles, the Blessed Mother, etc.—were Jewish Christians. Indeed, to a person, every single interpreter I came across who argued against the Real Presence in John 6 invariably did so by ignoring the context of Jesus words: his feeding of the 5000 in the desert (like Moses), his repeated references to the miraculous manna in the desert, and his emphasis on the bodily resurrection from the dead. More than ever before, it became clear to me that if the old manna of the old exodus was miraculous bread from heaven, then the new Manna of the Messiah—the Eucharist—could be nothing less than what he said it was: his "flesh" and "blood," given to us as "real food" and "real drink" (Jn. 6:55).Brant Pitre, thank you for taking some time to talk about a book I think should be on everyone's reading list for this Lent. In Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, you've given us a meticulously-researched and accessible examination of the New Exodus, the New Moses, the New Manna from heaven. I think this will be an intriguing read for believers, but also for the non-believers who wonder how it is that dignitaries and dishwashers can gather together as one, to reverence what appears to be mere bread. This is a gift. I hope it gets widely read.
Thank you Elizabeth, it was my pleasure!Visit the Patheos Book Club for more resources, including an excerpt and roundtable discussion, related to Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.