Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
© 2011 Brad Pitre
Although Christianity and Judaism have grown far apart over the millennia, in the beginning this was not so. The breaches between the two religions, so exaggerated now, are bridged when first-century Judaism is delved into fully. While modern Jews hold that the Messiah is an earthly king, come to establish a temporal kingdom, rabbinic commentators within the Mishna and Midrash were looking for a successor to Moses; a prophet who would lead another exodus, this one spiritual, and establish a new covenant. It is the legacy of Moses that much of the book is built on; the exodus he led and the tradition he founded.
Belief in the power of the Eucharist is not required to appreciate Pitre’s argument, which demonstrates how the central Christian practice has well-established Jewish antecedents. Among them: widespread belief in the eventual establishing of a new covenant, installed in blood, one in which the chosen people would feast on the presence of God, not ordinary food; a corresponding belief that the manna which fell from heaven during the Exodus was a sample of that extraordinary food; the veneration of that manna, accomplished by its presence in the Ark, and the regular use of unleavened bread in Jewish sacrifices. Kept in the tabernacle, and referred to as the Bread of the Presence, it symbolized God’s abiding with the people of Israel. and finally, the Christian retelling of the Last Supper — the first communion — in which the fourth ritual cup of wine, ‘the cup of salvation’, is not consumed within the Upper Room — but is referred to during the Passion when Jesus pleads to let ‘this cup’ pass from him, and later consumes wine on the Cross. This last one is is somewhat stretched, but altogether it’s a compelling case that the Gospel authors believed this, that they structured their telling of the Last Supper to connect it with the Passover, to link Jesus’ life with Moses. Even if one regards Jesus as nothing but a apocalyptic prophet, the argument is no less compelling because it demonstrates what the early church made of Jesus’ life as they struggled to find meaning in it, increasingly removed from that promise that the end of days was imminent. At the very least, the ritual consumption of bread and wine in celebration of the presence of God is made a common bond between Temple Judaism and Christianity, the unbroken thread.
There are still some minor quibbles; varying gospels place the execution of Jesus at different spots during Passover, some after the sacrifice of the lamb and some during it; obviously, the connective imagery is most strong if one regards Jesus as being crucified at the same hour that lambs were being roasted crossways on spits. The objection Jews would have against drinking blood and eating ‘human flesh’ is noted, and Pitre points out that many of Jesus’ followers simply couldn’t take it. The rest were swayed by the notion that they weren’t eating fleshy flesh, they were partaking in a resurrected body, a ‘glorified’ one, and it wasn’t the same. It’s a hard sell (“a hard saying”, to quote their biblical reaction). The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is altogether a most effective revealing of how Christian traditions simply grew intact from older Jewish ones. It’s not a novel idea; Christians from churches high and low consider Passover and Eucharist linked, but Pitre demonstrates the depth of their connection and makes plain that Christianity’s Jewishness runs deep.
The Crucified Rabbi, Taylor Marshall. This also examines Judaism’s role in shaping Christian (specifically Catholic) spirituality, though it’s more of a general survey and not nearly as powerfully argued.
Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman. Though I haven’t reviewed it here, dualism is an important piece of the puzzle that is Christianity’s origin.