Everybody has been reviewing this book by Brad Pitre, and I hear that copies are flying off the shelves. It really is a great read. At first I was a bit put off by Pitre’s style–what a friend of mine has called, “The breathless with excitement school of Catholic apologetics.” You know what I mean…the convert says, “So I was seated in the stillness of the Catholic Church. It was my first time at Mass. I had been taught that it was idolatry. I was prepared for the worst! I had my Bible open on my lap. I wasn’t going to be taken in by the incense or the priestcraft! Then I heard the words of the Agnus Dei! It was from the Bible! Omigosh! My heart started to beat more rapidly. I remembered what I had learned in Greek class. It all came together. I immediately knelt. Hot tears gushed from my eyes. I knew at once that all the Holy Father said had to be true…I heard the sound track from Chariots of Fire ringing in my ears. I knew that I too had to run the race and complete the course…”
OK. I’m exaggerating–but Pitre being the scholar that he is soon shakes off that style and delivers a solid, fascinating description of the Jewish background for the Last Supper. Locked into the Passover celebrations, he shows how the establishment of the Eucharist is rooted in the Jewish world of the first century. As he does he sets up a totally Catholic understanding of the Eucharistic and the subsequent theology.
What I love about Pitre’s approach is that he digs into the Jewish background of Jesus like liberal scholars–ex priest and Jewish revert Geza Vermes and ex priest Dominic Crossan and the ‘Jesus Seminar’ and beats them at their own game. They like to show Jesus the Jew–and do a good job of it, but they neglect the obvious links between first century Jewish worship and assumptions and the development of the Catholic faith. For them it is a disconnect because they want Jesus’ divinity and the whole package of Catholic theology to be a ‘later invention.’ Happily, Pitre shows how the whole Catholic package concerning the Eucharist is rooted in the Jewish experience.
Because it is rooted in the Jewish experience, it is a natural outgrowth of 2000 years of developing Jewish tradition. Showing these roots within Judaism also show how the theories that Catholicism was simply warmed up ancient paganism are rubbish. It’s simple. The first Catholics were Jews. Their worship was an outgrowth not only of Jewish worship, but Jewish world view Jewish understandings of Scripture and Jewish understandings of God himself. Part of the Jewish understanding of religion was its strict and total antagonism to anything pagan.
To suggest that Catholicism was warmed up paganism therefore is simply too much of a stretch. These people died because they would not compromise with paganism. They wouldn’t even burn one grain of incense to the pagan gods. Shall we believe that just a few decades later they would adopt beliefs and practices from paganism wholesale? Not likely. Instead we see that Catholicism developed naturally from Judaism, and the roots of not only the Eucharist, but the whole dogmatic, liturgical and ecclesial structure of Christianity came from Judaism.
I’ll follow up on this shortly with a review of Taylor Marshall’s book on St Paul because his book complements Pitre’s neatly–and both complement the Holy Father’s new book on Jesus of Nazareth which also continues to explore in a scholarly, but accessible way the beautiful connections between Jesus (and therefore the church) and the Jews.