Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
by Brant Pitre
A fascinating read!
Pitre draws on material from the different sources in ways that we may not have heard the Eucharist explained before. His study situates Jesus’ life and teaching within the Jewish culture of His day and this gives us a fuller understanding of the meaning of His words and actions.
His sources are the Old and New Testaments, writings of the Church Fathers, as well as Jewish writings not found in the Scriptures – the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of the historian Josephus, the Mishnah, the Targums, the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrashim.
The Messiah whom the Jews were waiting for
We are often told that the Jews were expecting a Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman occupation – a political-military sort of leader.
Pitre says that indeed, there were Jews who just wanted to be free of the Romans. From the Old Testament and other Jewish sources, however, he shows that beyond this, the expectation was for a “new Moses” (Deut 18:15-18) who would lead Israel in a “new exodus”. They were expecting a prophet and a “miracle worker” who would provide new manna, one who would bring them into a new Covenant (e.g. Jer 31:31-33), a new Temple (e.g. Mic 4:1-2) and a new Promised Land (e.g. 2 Sam 7:10), which he points out would not have referred to the territory of Israel since they were already living there at the time.
Many Jews who heard Jesus’ teaching were drawn to Him and what He was offering and, Pitre argues, recognised in Him the signs of the Messiah. However, the idea of eating His flesh and drinking His blood was a hindrance as it was understood to be “directly against” what was taught in the Scriptures.
How the Jews understood “bread”
Manna was seen as “bread from heaven” (Ex 16:4-5, 11-15; God also rained down “flesh” from heaven) and “bread of angels” (e.g. Ps 78:23-25, 29), and the “eternal bread in the heavenly temple” (various Jewish sources). The miraculous bread was one of the holy items to be kept in the Holy of Holies.
Bread of the Presence
The Tabernacle was the centre of worship, the “visible sign of the invisible heavenly place of God”, and in it, Moses was instructed to keep: the Ark of the Covenant, the gold Lampstand (Menorah) and the golden table of the Bread of the Presence, which was also called the Bread of the Face of God, recalling when Moses, Aaron and the other leaders ate on the mountain and saw the Face of God (Ex 24:9-11).
Every Sabbath, the priests were to offer the holy Bread in the Temple. It was a sign of the “everlasting Covenant” (Lev 24:5-7) and was also a sacrificial offering (Ezek 41:21-22). When the Bread of the Presence was in the Tabernacle, the Menorah was to be kept burning (Lev 24:1-4) and when the priests took the golden table out of the Tabernacle, it was to be veiled (Num 4:1-5).
During the holy festivals which the Jews celebrated in Jerusalem, the priests would display and lift up the holy Bread, saying “Behold, God’s love for you.”
Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse (John 6:35-58)
Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life:
- comes after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand;
- is spoken in connection with the manna of Moses’ time – He begins by addressing the Jews’ question about what sign He was going to perform, after they stated that their ancestors were given “bread from heaven”.
Jesus then explained that He is the bread of life and they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood: “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (Jn 6:58)
In response, the Jews said, “this is a hard saying”. Pitre argues that it was not because they did not understand what Jesus was saying; they did understand but could not accept it and “murmured”, just like the Israelites “murmured” about the manna. He compares this with other instances when Jesus explains what He said when people did not understand Him, such as the meaning of parables or about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 16:5-12). However, in this situation, He did not have to explain it to them.
This is also the only instance in the Gospels when disciples left Him because of His teaching. He let them go.
The Last Supper as a new Passover
Technically, there are points where Jesus’ last Passover with the twelve looks like the standard Passover – it was celebrated at night (after the time of the sacrifice of the lambs) in Jerusalem, having the unleavened bread and wine that other Jews would also have, with Jesus their leader presiding over the meal as a father would in the family Passover meal, and with the hymns of the Passover.
The annual Passover then required: the sacrifice of unblemished lambs by the Levitical priests in the Temple in Jerusalem (in the 1st century A.D. the lambs were skewered “in a manner which resembled crucifixion”), pouring of the blood of the lambs (collected in containers during the sacrifice) by the priests, then eating the flesh of the lamb in the family meal during which the father would explain the significance of the Passover and of eating the flesh of the lamb (it was never a “symbol” that was eaten but the actual flesh of the lamb).
We know that Jesus instituted a “new Passover”.
What exactly was “new” in Jesus’ Passover?
- He spoke about the bread and wine as His Body and Blood instead of explaining the flesh of the lamb.
- He was the unblemished Paschal Lamb, Whose Body and Blood were offered in sacrifice.
- He spoke of a new Covenant instead of recalling the Covenant of Moses.
- He told His apostles to “do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor 11:25), thus instructing them to keep His memorial and also handing over to them the duty of the Temple priests.
The cups of wine
During the Passover meal, four cups of wine were mixed: the first cup (sanctification) accompanied the introductory rites; the second cup (proclamation) was followed by the proclamation of Scripture; the third cup (blessing) started the actual meal; the fourth cup (praise) accompanied the concluding rites and the singing of the rest of the Hallel Psalms. The Passover meal was completed when this fourth cup was drunk.
Pitre suggests that Jesus and His disciples did not finish the Passover meal as they went out after singing the hymns but before finishing the final cup of wine. It was only when His sacrifice was “complete” and His blood “poured out like that of the Passover lambs” that Jesus drank the final cup (Jn 19:23-30). Thus, the “new Passover” concluded with His Passion and Death.
How does the Eucharist reflect all this?
For the Jews, a proper sacrifice requires a priest, an offering and a liturgy. All of these are embodied in Jesus and this is exactly what the Eucharist “makes present” for us – it is the memorial of Jesus’ words and actions in the Last Supper and His sacrifice on the Cross.
A re-look at a couple of familiar passages, in relation to Jesus the Bread of Life
The Our Father
Pitre discusses the line “Give us this day our daily bread”. Why the repetition – “this day” and “daily”? Was Jesus asking us to pray for “ordinary food and drink” (when He also teaches us not to worry about food but instead “seek first the kingdom of heaven”)? How does this line fall in place with the other petitions of the prayer, which are “focused on things spiritual”?
The Greek word that has been translated into “daily” is “epiousios” but there is no way now to know if it was a literal translation of the original Hebrew or Aramaic, and its use in the Gospels is the first known use of the word! There are some possible meanings, such as “for the coming day”, “for existence” [making it something like “bread for sustenance”, which is found in some translations], or it could also mean “supernatural” (“on, upon or above” + “being, substance, nature”). The Latin Vulgate done by St. Jerome renders the line as “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread” (Mt 6:11).
[I read elsewhere that this Greek word is “obscure” and has been translated in different ways. A number of the early Church Fathers did see this line as referring to the Eucharist. The Douay-Rheims Bible also uses the word “supersubstantial”.]
The Disciples on the Road to Emmaus
Most of us would know that the two disciples realised it was Jesus when they recognised the pattern of Jesus’ “breaking of the bread” – He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. Pitre points out a detail that I have overlooked all this time – that Jesus did this after they invited Him to “stay” with them.
He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. (Lk 24:28-29)
The breaking of bread was His response to the invitation to “stay with us”.
That is such an interesting way to look at this passage and we all thought we knew it inside out, right?
Pitre reminds us that the “Old Testament prefigurations (types) are never greater than their New Testament fulfilments.” Jesus is greater than the Old Testament Temple of God; He is the “very presence of God”, the Lord of the Sabbath Who is greater than the Sabbath. He is the Bread of Life that is greater than the manna and the Bread of the Presence.
The book fittingly ends with Jesus’ words: “I am with you always, even to the end of time.” (Mt 28:20)
♫ What else should I be listening to but Panis Angelicus
[what’s in the square brackets are things I added]; the rest of the content is summarised from the book