This post brings our series of interactions with Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper to a conclusion. In his sixth chapter, “The Fourth Cup and the Death of Jesus”, which amounts to the last new idea before a couple of concluding chapters, Brant pursues a “somewhat more speculative” proposal.
In this chapter he seeks to show that Jesus didn’t complete the Passover meal with his disciples in the Upper Room—Jesus didn’t finish the “fourth cup” of wine. Brant believes this hypothesis can help explain three puzzling facts: (1) Jesus’ vow at the Last Supper not to drink wine until the coming of the kingdom; (2) his description in Gethsemane of his impending death as “drinking” a cup; and (3) Jesus’ unexpected act of drinking wine at the last moment before his death on the cross. Brant argues that Jesus finished the fourth cup, and the Passover meal, on the cross when he drank the wine. The Gospel of John records: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished”; and bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:23-30). Brant explains John’s point:
It means Jesus did in fact drink the fourth cup of the Jewish Passover. It means that he did in fact finish the Last Supper. But he did not do it in the Upper Room. He did it on the cross. He did it at the moment of his death (168).
This thesis is predicated on an exact correspondence between the Last Supper and the Jewish Passover meal we know from later Jewish tradition (Mishnah and Tosefta). This meal is most often referred to as the Seder. The bulk of the chapter is given over to showing the links.
While I won’t summarize these in detail here, the relevant point is that Jewish tradition stipulates that four cups of wine be consumed during the Passover meal. It appears that the meal was structured around these four cups. The fourth cup was considered the most significant as it was called the “hallel” cup, or cup of praise; once this cup was drank the meal was complete.
Brant thinks that the Synoptic Gospels, especially Luke, reveal that the Jewish tradition does give us a valid depiction of what Jesus and the disciples experienced during the Last Supper with one exception. In his analysis Jesus did not finish the fourth cup.
When we put these two things together—Jesus’ vow not to drink wine again and the silence about him drinking the fourth cup—a compelling case can be made that Jesus both referred to the fourth Passover cup and refused to drink it at the Last Supper . . . In other words, when the Last Supper is viewed through Jewish eyes, Jesus did not actually finish his last Passover meal (162).
Brant draws three implications from this observation:
- Jesus extended the Passover meal to include his own suffering and death.
- Jesus understood his own death in terms of the Passover sacrifice.
- Jesus united the Last Supper to his death on the cross – “Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice” (169).
By refusing to drink the final Passover cup until his dying moments, Jesus gather up everything that would happen to him between Holy Thursday and Good Friday—his betrayal, his supper, his agony, his passion, his death—and united it to the Passover that would be celebrated “in memory” of him. As the memorial of his new Passover, the Eucharist therefore not only makes present the actions of Jesus of the Upper Room; it also makes present the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary (170).
What do you make of this argument?
Brant is right to call his proposal speculative, not least because of the uncertain nature of the Jewish evidence on which Brant’s comparison is based. Nevertheless, whatever one thinks of the details, there is something worthy of notice here. Clearly the Gospel writers and the other New Testament voices in addition to the early church fathers and the tradition of the Great church have seen a close connection between the Last Supper and the Passover. Thinking of the Last Supper as a new Passover is indeed how the New Testament wishes its reader to conceive of the event.
Brant’s book undoubtedly gives one a deeper appreciation of the Lord’s Supper no matter from what theological tradition you hail. I’m a Baptist and about as low church evangelical as you find. Still, we will be celebrating Communion this morning at my church and I will have these ideas swirling around in my mind as I partake “in remembrance” of him. Brant’s book has deepened my understanding and appreciation of the Lord’s Supper. I look at it differently. I’ll eat the bread and the drink the . . . grape juice! . . . more reverently and be more aware of Jesus’ presence in the act.