The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: An Interview with Author Brant Pitre
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!
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