Behold! The Manna, the Bread from Heaven that Ever Was

By Simcha Fisher

Having celebrated 35 Passover Seders with my Hebrew Catholic family, I anticipated already knowing most of what Brant Pitre has to say in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. I already knew that Moses prefigured the Messiah to come; that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; that Jesus is both the paschal lamb and the unleavened bread eaten by the Jews, and that we celebrate this same mystery at Mass.

But, the details!

Did you know that the Jews’ Passover lamb was commonly nailed to a cross-shaped board? Did you know that the manna which sustained the Hebrews in the desert was thought to have been created before the Fall, and “had existed ‘on high’ in heaven” until God gave it to the people to eat? Did you know that the Bread of the Presence, which was consecrated and reserved in the tabernacle of the Temple, constituted both meal and unbloody sacrifice, and was offered with wine each Sabbath?

Did you know that temporarily-celibate Jewish priests would elevate this bread on feast days, and proclaim, “Behold, God’s love for you!”

All astonishing and illuminating facts.  But this book is no mere collection of obscure coincidences and historical novelties related to Christ. Pitre sweeps the reader up in his enthusiastic rediscovery of the glorious symmetry of salvation history. It is a gorgeous, persuasive, and enthralling story that you’ve heard bits of here and there, but never with this cohesion. Pitre puts it all together.

The overwhelming sensation I had on reading this book was one of relief. I had fallen into thinking of the New Testament as the half of the Bible that is bright, hopeful, and fresh; whereas the Old Testament is blood and thunder, irrationality and murkiness, with flashes of half-understood prophecies whose fulfillment could only be appreciated in retrospect. As I read Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, I imagined Pitre’s research and exegesis rescuing generations of pre-Christian believers from that terrifying squalor of the half-life of prefigurement. He shows how all the world always has been, and always will be, loved and guided, and nourished most tenderly by the one true God.

A minor quibble – and I offer it mostly to show some balance to my enthusiasm; in his zeal to illustrate how Jesus’ contemporaries would have perceived his words and actions, Pitre occasionally strays into slightly jarring language. He speaks of Christ “expecting” and “hoping for” future events in His own life to fulfill the prophesies and traditions of the Jews. Although Pitre by no means implies that Jesus was not omniscient, this vocabulary sat oddly with me.  It is, perhaps, the natural way to speak about the life of Christ in a book about the fulfillment of promises; but I wish he had made it more clear that the Exodus, the manna, the Bread of Presence, the Passover meal and its fourth and final cup of wine were all ordained expressly for, and in anticipation of, the things to come. Pitre does say this, to be sure (and the evangelist John says the same thing: that Jesus did things “to fulfill scripture”); but his tone occasionally implies that Christ’s actions were cannily calculated to persuade the Jews.

This is, as I say, a very minor and debatable quibble, which is overwhelmed by the true brilliance of the rest of the book.

Although this book is rigorously researched, Pitre’s tone is conversational and appealing. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist began as a lecture, and reading it is like sitting in class with a gentle and intelligent teacher who anticipates questions, reminds us of what he told us before, and even suggests that we mark certain pages for future reference. The book is highly accessible, but by no means light reading. It is insightful, original, and frequently profound. Pitre shows his sources, and he warns the reader when his ideas are speculative.

This is, above all joyful book. And who may appreciate it? Curious Jews who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Protestants who think of the Eucharist as mere symbol. Casual scholars who sanction the mundane dumbing-down of miracles.  Indifferent Confirmation students, whose eyes glaze over when they hear the words “sacrifice” and “covenant.”

And most of all, Catholics who desperately want to be more attentive, more engaged in the mystery of the Eucharist, because every time they go to Mass they know it’s really, really important, but it’s so hard to pay attention after all these years.

Pitre’s book will get your attention.  With his strange and beautiful story of how God brings us the gift we receive every week, Pitre’s book will make you rejoice again — or maybe for the very first time — for what you have.

Simcha Fisher calls herself Hebrew Catholic, as her Jewish parents and siblings all converted to Catholicism when she was a child. She says she is “still sorting out how I ought to be preserving my Jewish heritage, beyond putting horseradish on everything.” A freelance writer and mother of 8, Simcha writes at Inside Catholic and blogs at I Have to Sit Down.

Brant Pitre talks with Patheos about Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.

Read the complete first chapter, here.

  • Katherine

    My kindle is fully charged, waiting for this book. I consider myself to be an adopted daughter of Abraham; I’m looking forward to reading this to explore my “roots”.

    Unrelated, Simcha, I must thank you again for writing, “What I say to Mary.” My family was having one of “those mornings” and I could not drop them off with that entire wrath swirling around their heads. On the way to school I asked if they remembered what Simcha wrote. And it became a call and response, “Hail Mary full of grace” “Down means down!” They folded in our own struggles: “Blessed art thou among woman” “Why couldn’t the dog throw up on the wood floor that’s easy to clean, and not in the nest of computer cables?”

    It saved the day; they were the laughing happy children God intended, not the stressed tense children I had made them into.

    All because of you.


  • Marilyn Prever

    I’m Simcha’s mother and this book is just what I need to read! Thank you, Simmy!

    I’m so sorry about the negative impression she got of the Old Testament. Our family went through several religious conversions and it took me a long time to begin straightening things out, and each of our eight children were born during one phase or another of the straightening process. But “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and I know He’s bringing good out of all the confusion.

  • Simcha Fisher

    Katharine: thank you. Boy, that means a lot to me.

    Ima: Well, gee, not EVERYTHING is your fault. Anyway, I really mostly meant that I always felt so +sorry+ for the OT, pre-Incarnation people. But now it’s easier for me to see how God was nourishing them all along.

  • Sydney Ruth Palmer

    This is a beautiful review, and I can’t wait to read the book.

    On the prefiguration note, a favorite exegete/theologian and another literary scholar speak of how we can (and really need) to use prefiguration in our own lives: prefiguration is about seeing how our lives fit into the stories of all of Scripture. What are the dynamics and patterns that are coming to the fore at any given time (e.g. spousal tension and blame like in Eden, or grim fraternal struggles like with Cain and Abel, etc) and how can the patterns either lead us utterly astray or into magnificent acts of reconciliation and redemption, like when Judah (before he knows who he’s talking to) confesses all to Joseph and Judah’s own growth in understanding their fraternal jealousy finally moves Joseph to stop testing them and himself dive into the whole complex situation out of love. The biblical dynamic of figurative thinking and knowledge (like Noah being portrayed as a second Adam and eventually Christ’s being the second Adam) teaches us to read, interpret, understand, and pray about our lives as participating in figuration with the whole Bible as our guide, not just the NT. Real “prefiguration” or figurative knowledge and love is looking at our lives in relation to the biblical stories that reveal the deepest patterns and slow ways to redemption.

    I’ve said it far less clearly and eloquently, but I hope the basic idea comes across.

    Many thanks for the wonderful review and heads up that such a great book is out there!

  • Alex Philip

    Yes, a wonderful book that has led me to an deeper appreciation of the Eucharist, and has truely helped make Benediction a foretaste of Heaven!

    Horseradish sauce is a jewish thing??? Wow, I’m more abrahamic than I thought:o)

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