Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
© 2011 Brad Pitre
240 pages

Communion, the eating of bread and wine regarded as the body and blood of Jesus, is the heart of liturgical worship. Its place in Christian history holds such awe that even the most anarchic Protestant sect pays homage to it, if only once a year.  Where did it come from? What could have possessed a group of first century Jews into organizing an elaborate ritual around small fragments of bread, and regarding its consumption as the key to eternal life, as Paul wrote?  Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Christian Eucharist examine ‘the great Thanksgiving’ in the light of Passover. The work of a Notre Dame religious scholar, it draws not only from the Bible but from the broader Jewish religious tradition to place the Eucharist firmly within it.

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.

The first Exodus was lead by Moses, after a series of plagues delivered against the land of Egypt convinced its Pharaoh that releasing the Hebrews from slavery might be the wisest course of action. Though bothered before by p boils, locusts,  bloody rivers, and dead cows, the coup de grâce came in the form of an angel of death that slew every first-born son in the land, including the Pharaoh's own boy. The night the angel was at work, the Hebrews engaged in a ritual dinner that was instituted as their salvation.  Shortly after the Hebrews had left Egypt and received the Law of Moses, they were ordered to reenact that ritual dinner every year thereafter.  Passover, that reenactment, the yearly remembering of their rescue from slavery, is the origin of the Eucharist, its antecedent. The Eucharist is in fact the new passover; just as the first provided rescue from physical bondage, the second offered redemption from spiritual bondage and death.

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.

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