REVIEW: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

REVIEW: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist February 14, 2011

From the title alone I was intrigued to read Brant Pitre’s new book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. As a Christian minister, who is married to a Jewish woman and who is writing his dissertation on the topic of Communion, I have a vested interest in the Jewish roots of the Eucharist. While reading, I was continually struck by the dual realization that, on one hand, the book is interesting and internally consistent; but, on the other hand, I could hardly disagree more with many of the foundational assumptions and conclusions.

One of the strengths of the Patheos website on which this review is being published is that diverse religious perspectives are regularly put into respectful dialogue. As a progressive Protestant Christian, it is healthy for me to be challenged with a perspective on the Eucharist that is markedly different than my own. However, it occurs to me that one angle for approaching the difference between my view of the Eucharist and Pitre’s view is actually to show a contrast between two Roman Catholic scholars. In a 1994 New York Times article, former Dominican monk and world-renown New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan characterized the difference in how he and another world-renown New Testament scholar and priest, Father Raymond Brown, approach the biblical texts — known as the Passion narratives — that tell the story of Jesus’ death. Crossan quipped that “Basically the issue is whether the Passion accounts are prophecy historicized or history remembered…. Ray Brown is 80 percent in the direction of history remembered. I’m 80 percent in the opposite direction.”

In his book Pitre writes “Through this study, I will treat the four Gospels as reliable historical witnesses to the words and deed of Jesus” (206). Notice here that Pitre is staking out a position even more conservative than the late Father Raymond Brown, who was known as a moderate. Essentially, Pitre is saying that 100 percent of the Gospels are history remembered.  In contrast, how I understand the Bible, the historical Jesus, and the history of the Christian practice of Communion are heavily influenced by the work of mainline scholars like John Dominic Crossan and liturgical historians like Paul F. Bradshaw, who I should add teaches at Notre Dame, the same Roman Catholic institution from which Pitre earned his Ph.D. Accordingly, I find much less of the Gospel accounts to be simply history remembered. Instead, as I understand the scriptures, the vagaries of time and the influences of the writer’s own decades-later historical context enter into the respective renderings of the story.

Pitre is a smart scholar and lucid writer. Some sections, such as his interpretation of when Jesus drank the fourth Passover cup, are both clever and captivating (170). I especially appreciate his general interest in the Jewish roots of the Eucharist, in particular that he acknowledges his debt to my favorite Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine (8). However, because we have such different starting points, our approach to the historical study of the Eucharist (or Communion) launches us in such different trajectories that our understandings are virtually non-intersecting.

My question for Pitre would be if he has read Paul F. Bradshaw’s 2004 book Eucharistic Origins, and, if so, how he accounts for Bradshaw’s argument that the Eucharist’s origins involved full meals (not small wafers and sips of wine), improvisation of the Eucharistic prayers, and many other diversities from the very beginning.

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