Brant Pitre, Benedict XVI, And Why The Pope Has It Right

Brant Pitre, Benedict XVI, And Why The Pope Has It Right July 21, 2011

Perhaps it is because I have lived in New Orleans for the past three years, but the name of biblical scholar Brant Pitre has become well known to me.  He teaches at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, and just about every young adult Catholic I know has met him, read him or listened to his tapes.  His recent book signing of “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” was a major event for many of my friends.  The reason seems to be that, like his intellectual mentor Scott Hahn, Pitre has a lively presentation style combined with an active faith life.  The combination is attractive to many.

Yet I have always remained intellectually removed from Pitre as I have from Hahn. Aside from reasons I have mentioned before, Kavin Rowe’s recent negative review of Pitre’s book in “First Things” coupled with the Pope’s “Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two” caused further concern for me about his scholarship.

My problem has to do with the so-called “fourth cup” theory of the Last Supper. I can remember when I was in high school, driving into El Paso, Texas, listening to Scott Hahn’s tape on the meaning of the Eucharist.  You can find the full text here if you want to read it.  Rowe summarizes:

The question naturally arises: If Jesus wanted to declare God’s love by means of this ritual, why didn’t he finish it?  As many scholars have noticed, later Jewish sources tell us that standard practice at the Passover meal included four cups, each one of which was drunk at a specific point in the celebration.  The final cup was to be consumed in conjunction with the reading of the Psalms of praise (Psalms 115-118, the Hallel) and served as both a “thanksgiving sacrifice” and a “cup of praise.”  But there is no fourth cup at the Last Supper.

The rest may be known to you.  The fourth cup, say Hahn and Pitre, was drunk by Jesus on the cross when he says “I thirst.”  After drinking, he says, “it is finished.”  What was finished?  Hahn explains:

They put a sponge full of the sour wine on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine he said the words that are spoken of in the fourth cup consummation, “It is finished.” What is the it referring to? That grammatical question began really bothering me at some point. I asked several people and their response was usually, “Well, it means the work of redemption that Christ was working on.” All right, that’s true, I agree it does refer to that, but in context. An exegete, a trained interpreter of the word is supposed to find the contextual meaning, not just import a meaning from a theology textbook. What is Jesus speaking of when he says, “It is finished?” I mean, our redemption is not completed once he – he’s not yet raised. Paul says, “He was raised for our justification.

A problem, Hahn and Pitre think.  And they think they have found the solution.  This solution is that Jesus finished the Passover meal on the cross by drinking the fourth cup, the “cup of consummation,” thus linking his own sacrifice on the cross to the Passover.  The fourth cup links the Cross to the Passover, thus concluding the first Mass in which the lamb is replaced by the Lamb of God on the cross. Jesus waited to finish the Passover until he was on the Cross.  There, he concluded the New Passover and the first Mass.  So neat.

Now I was skeptical about this interpretation when I was in High School, I was skeptical when I had to teach it out of my Hahn-edited textbook when I taught High School Scripture, and I’ve become pretty convinced that the Gospels simply do not lend themselves to this interpretation.  Why not? I’ll offer three reasons.

First, as Kavin Rowe explains, “[The Gospel of] John is made [by Pitre] to complete a synoptic narrative from which it (deliberately) departs.”  Even back as a teenager this was a problem for me.  John, I knew, wrote much later than the other gospel writers. He had different goals, and he didn’t even include the Last Supper in his gospel.  How could Jesus’ words “It is finished,” found only in John, complete a Passover meal not even mentioned in John?  That seemed weird to me.  While a canonical approach to Scripture remains the most coherent approach in general, that does not mean we can ignore the differences in time and style between the gospels.  Furthermore, we know that in John’s gospel, with its different chronology, Jesus dies on the cross at the hour when the passover lamb was slaughtered.  So how did Jesus die at the hour of the slaughter of the lamb before Passover and also complete the Passover meal by drinking the fourth cup at the end of the Passover?

Second, Benedict XVI himself in his second installment of “Jesus of Nazareth” has argued, convincingly to me, that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal.  Benedict explains:

Yet Meier is right to point out that in the description of the meal itself, the Synoptics recount as little of the Passover ritual as John.  Thus with certain reservations, one can agree with his conclusion: ‘The entire Johannine tradition, from early to late, agrees perfectly with the primitive Synoptic tradition on the non-Passover character of the meal (A Marginal Jew I, p. 398).”  (p. 113)

He continues:

Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly.  It was Jesus’ Passover (p. 114).

In other words, Jesus did not celebrate the old Passover ritual.  Rather, he made a new covenant with a new liturgy, the liturgy of his own Passover.

Finally, what then do the words “It is finished” refer to?  Again Benedict gives a clear contextual explanation, one that sticks faithfully to John’s narrative:

In John’s account, Jesus’ last words are: “It is finished!” (19:30). In the Greek text, this word (tetelestai) points back to the very beginning of the Passion narrative, to the episode of the washing of the feet, which the evangelist introduces by observing that Jesus loved his own “to the end (telos)” (13:1).  This “end”, this ne plus ultra of loving, is now attained in the moment of death.  He has truly gone right to the end, to the very limit and even beyond that limit.  He has accomplished the utter fullness of love — he has given himself (p. 223).

In other words, as is often the case in John’s gospel, the subtle use of chiasm highlights John’s meaning.  Jesus is finishing the offering of himself “to the end,” performing the act of “no greater love” that he had commanded of his disciples.  The meaning of the “It is finished” can be found within John’s gospel without having to fit it into an untenable hypothesis.  Thus, with Kavin Rowe, and following my reading of Benedict XVI, I can only conclude that Hahn and Pitre’s hypothosis, although interesting and neat, does not ring true to John’s text.

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  • Chris Sullivan

    I wonder if we know enough about the details of the Jewish 1sct Century passover meal to know that there was a 4th cup ? That may be an unwarranted projection back of passover details we only know from many centuries later.

    God Bless

    • You’re right, we may not. It is unknown how reliable the later sources are that give us the four cups.

  • digbydolben

    Since yours, along with Benedict XVI Ratzinger’s, is, in some very obvious ways, a “supercessionist” view of Jesus Christ’s relation to the Torah and to the Judaic tradition in which He was raised, why don’t you go ahead and say that “It is finished” means that to Old Covenant is “finished”?

    I think that your view of this is symptomatic of the Wojtylwa-Ratzinger attempt to reverse the spirit of Vatican II and effect a “Restoration” of the Tridentine Church, and I think that Pitre’s position is more in line with the Council’s wisdom that the Old Covenant with the Jews is still in effect. So many of you young theologically Right-wing priests and seminarians read Sacred Scripture as selectively as the Protestants do (which is why I think that, for instance, Benedict Ratzinger’s despairing, “minimalist-Church” spirit is really in the spirit of Luther, rather than in that of orthodox and optimistic Thomistic theology). You want to forget that Christ ALSO said, “I am come only to the lost sheep of the Children of Israel.”

    • Chris Sullivan

      Cdl Ratzinger is on the record as saying that God is not in the business of revoking his covenant with the Jewish people, so I don’t think his view is actually supercessionist.

      On the other hand, a number of recent Vatican moves have not been well thought thru in terms of sensitivity to Jews (eg the new EF Mass Easter prayer for the Jews).

      God Bless

  • Well, basically Pitre is saying that The Old Covenant “is finished.” If you read what I wrote, Benedict claims that what is finished is his “loving to the end.”

    I have no interest at all in a Tridentine Church, so save your rants for someone else.

    • digbydolben

      Sir, Benedict XVI Ratzinger was the ghost writer of a document called Dominus Iesu which preached the “soteriological inefficacy” of the “non-Christian religions.” I was in Sri Lanka when the Buddhist Sangha demanded that the Chandrika Kumaratunga government rescind John Paul II’s invitation to visit that Buddhist country because of that pontiff’s aspersions against Buddhism.

      The whole world knows that the Wojtlywa-Ratzinger papacies have turned their backs on the spirit of “interfaith dialogue” that prevailed in the Catholic Church after Vatican II, and all of your own or Ratzinger’s abstruse theological semantics will not change the fact that the Catholic Church is now seen as having adopted a much more defensive and theologically exceptionalist posture than was indicated by the Council. (You folks call it “ressourcement”, if I’m not mistaken.)

      And then, of course, there’s the fact that Jews are horrified by the spectacle of a former Hitler-youth-created-pope embracing the anti-Semitic Society of Pius X.

  • brettsalkeld

    The idea that Nathan O’Halloran is a “right-wing priest” is not very credible. Neither is the idea that Pitre and Hahn are more centrist than Ratzinger. To call Ratzinger a super-cessionist is simply to say “I’ve never read Ratzinger on the question.”

    Start with Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, The Church and the World.
    Then, read Truth and Tolerance, the first chunk of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Introduction to Christianity etc. etc.

  • Rather than wondering what Jesus meant when he said, “It is finished,” isn’t the question what John meant by having Jesus say, “It is finished”? I have only read the very beginning of the first volume of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, and my understanding is that he believes the Jesus of the Gospels is the historical Jesus, but does he really claim that every saying attributed to Jesus in all four Gospels was actually said by Jesus? I have just read the relevant section of Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah, and certainly Brown does not argue that Jesus, while dying on the cross, said everything the evangelists attributed to him.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    I found this quite interesting. Thank you for posting it. I’m no biblical scholar nor a theologian, but isn’t there also some tie-in to the Essene community of Jews in Jerusalem? Is the traditional location of the Upper Room not in the old Essene neighborhood and they had objections to how the Pharisees and others were observing the calendar, which explains why the Last Supper was on Thursday, but might still have been a Passover meal? I think I read something like that when the Dead Sea Scrolls had a traveling exhibit her a few years ago. I might be mistaken. While it is fascinating, it seems to me the questions might always be debated and the answers are not essential to believing in our Savior.

  • brettsalkeld

    To me the fact that Jesus’ words in John are used to solve a problem in the synoptics is enough to resolve the issue. It just does not sound credible.

    Do Hahn or Pitre have any response to this criticism? It just looks so damning to me that it makes the Hahn-Pitre hypothesis look almost unprofessional. I’d really be happy to see how they justify such a move, if for no other reason than to know that the most influential biblical scholars in the American Church (from a popular point of view) aren’t completely incompetent.

    Am I missing something here?

  • John Schuh

    From reading the foreword to Pitre’s book, I get a different slant than Rowe. Pitre’s book is responding to the difficulties raised in his mind by a literalist Preacher, and unlike most Biblical scholars he gives due credit to the faith of that preacher. I do not say that Pitre is right and the scholars are wrong, but whether the Last Supper was literally a passover meal or not, it was certain celebrated in the context of passover. And it was a validation of the Jewish Passover, and of the faithfulness of the Jews. In a short while the leaders of that nation would reject Him, but that certainly was not break of the Convent but a renewal.

    • My concern is that by straining the limits of credibility, “faithful” biblical scholars ostracize themselves from the community of scholars. The facts seem forced to fit the hypothesis for the sake of an iron-proof biblical theology of the Eucharist. A good end with a flimsy means.

  • TMcCaffery

    A few comments and questions.

    1st, @digbydolben, I assure you, that neither Nathan, Wojtyla, nor Ratzinger, are attempting to “reverse the spirit of Vatican II and effect a “Restoration” of the Tridentine Church.” Grave misread of all 3. In addition to Mr. Salkeld’s recommendations, I’ll throw in Wojtyla’s “Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II,” and Ratzinger’s “Called to Communion.” I’ll also add that Pitre(a personal friend) would find your post offensive, and that the next time you try to defend him, you may want to steer clear of pitting him against either Ratzinger or Wojtyla, knowing that he loves both men, prays for one and through the other.


    As you know, but, for your readers, Brant Pitre is a personal friend. For your knowledge, I will attempt to restrict this post ONLY to his theology, as presented in this book.

    To begin, I must ask, respectfully, did you actually read Pitre’s book before you posted this? I ask for a few reasons. First, the conflation of Pitre and Hahn. I would say that someone who has not read Pitre, could do this for a few reasons, the simplest being how frequently they speak together. However, Hahn has never, on an even barely academic level, presented his fourth cup material. He has the tapes, the awful presentation in Understanding the Scriptures, and a blurb at the end of A Father Who… But that’s really it. Hahn’s argument has lots of holes, unfortunately because he’s always presenting to a popular audience. This book by Pitre is really where I think he begins to distance himself from Hahn. He gives a 30+ page chapter on the cup, in the context of a 30 page chapter on the New Passover. Also, he gives a much more exegetical presentation than Hahn has ever come close to. So, in fairness, with the exception of “Kinship by Covenant,” Hahn has, for the most part, been a popular apologist. Pitre, here, and in a few upcoming books, is attempting to abandon that brand and be what he is, a biblical theologian.

    Second, in fairness to Pitre also, I think it must be stated that he refers to his whole argument as a speculative caveat from the rest of the book, and then he calls his argument a hypothesis(p.148).

    Third, a few quotes from Pitre’s book, I think, show that he’s pretty in line with Jesus of Naz 2. “On that night, Jesus was not just celebrating one more memorial of the exodus from Egypt…he was establishing a new Passover.”(p.49) He says this in the context of Jesus’ words that night not being about the Exodus, but rather about his sacrifice, etc. This section of the book is where he sets the context for the future discussion of the 4th cup hypothesis. While Hahn may very well conclude that Jesus “finished the Passover meal on the Cross,” Pitre makes sure to let the reader know that he is distancing the Last Supper from the old Passover. After stating two similarities between the old Passover and the Last Supper, he goes on for three and a half pages citing the differences, which he calls “radically different.” He uses the context of the old Passover meal to make sense of the Gospel narratives.

    He references an extension of the Last Supper meal(p.168) and then says “by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice.”(p.169) “…he instituted a new Passover liturgy that was directly tied to his death.”(p.170) Again, understanding what Pitre means by this quote, assumes one has read the book. Hahn will typically “topic-jump” for his ADD reader, while Pitre is painting a constantly progressing/developing picture, assuming the reader has read and understands the preceding chapters and notes. He assumes one has already read what he has written on the Eucharist as sacrifice, in this book. When he says “Passover” here, it is in the context of the whole chapter on the New Passover, where he falls straight in line with the CCC and what I’ve read of Jesus of Naz 2(I’ve read ch’s 5-8, the part I was most waiting for). Pitre states that studying the old Passover, which he certainly does in the book, can simply “unlock” some of the mysteries of the last chapters of the Gospels.(p.170) I think the Holy Father is okay with this understanding. As the Pope states in reference to Paul, “the death and Resurrection of Christ have become the Passover that endures. On this basis one can understand how it was that very early on, Jesus’ Last Supper–which includes not only a prophecy, but a real anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection in the eucharistic gifts–was regarded as a Passover: as his Passover. And so it was.”(p.115) I simply think that Pitre’s presentation falls right in line.

    Concluding, what I am not saying is that I totally love and accept all pieces and conclusions of the fourth cup theory. What I am saying, is that I think a bit more fairness is due the scholar in question, particularly on this issue. I think that he may have been taken out of context a bit, and unfairly categorized. Noting that he was criticized in this post by way of Hahn quotes, and none of his own. And so, I remind of my original question.

    Sorry about the long post.

    In Him,

    • I grant that Pitre is only hypothesizing.

      But it seems a weak hypothesis to me. Certain questions remain to me as hard to answer:

      First, “it is finished” seems clearly linked to John’s use of the same Greek word in John 13:1. Why hypothesize that it has a meaning linked to the Passover meal?

      Second, how could John think that Jesus was finishing the Passover if in John’s Gospel, Jesus dies at the hour of the slaughtering of the lamb?

      Third, it seems almost impossible to prove that Jesus was celebrating a passover meal with four cups. So this can only ever remain a hypothesis that is impossible to prove. So why propagate it so widely? (I take special issue with Hahn here for putting in in the Didache series, where it is NOT presented as a hypothesis).

      Thanks for taking the time to respond Timmy. Sorry it took me so long. I’m on a ranch in New Mexico where our horses are faster than our internet. Pax.

  • This I know: Nathan O’Halloran in no right wing priest. Stop name-calling and start making arguments or something like that…


  • WJ

    I don’t think that the phrase “It is finished” is as constricted by the earlier use of teleos as Ratzinger (and his sources) seem to believe. It is interesting that the phrase occurs directly after the drinking of the vinegar upon hyssop–a narrative detail that suggests a connection between that action and the finishing of “it”–whatever “it” happens to be. And, really, “It” can refer to multiple things at once, can’t it?

    About the temporal problem: note that this same problem occurs when trying to explain the institution of the Eucharist itself, which is a memorial of the sacrifice that will happen the next day, and so occurs in advance of the event it commemorates.