Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper

by Brant Pitre

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



The author provides us with his understanding of the Eucharist, he states: “The English word Eucharist comes from the Greek eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving” as in Jesus’ act of “giving thanks”. According to the Catholic faith, when a Catholic priest takes the bread and wine of the Eucharist and says the words of Jesus from the Last Supper, “This is my body…This is my blood,” the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Although the appearances of bread and wine remain, the taster, the touch, etc., the reality is that there is no more bread and wine. There’s only Jesus: his body, his blood, his soul, and his divinity. This is called the doctrine of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the Eucharist. You can see why this might be difficult for anyone to believe. Jesu writes: “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. (John 6:53-54)


The author identifies the Jewish writings that He draws on over the course of this book. The author stresses that he is not suggesting that Jesus himself would have read any of these, some of which were written drown long after his death. What he is arguing is that many of them bear witness to ancient Jewish practices and beliefs. After the Old Testament itself, some of the most important Jewish sources He draws on are as follows: The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Works of Josephus, The Mishnah, The Targums, the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrashim.(p. 19-20)


With all of this background in mind, we can now focus our attention on those ancient Jewish beliefs about the coming of the Messiah that may shed light on the Eucharistic words of Jesus. Unfortunately many modern readers are only vaguely familiar with Jewish beliefs regarding the coming of the Messiah. In fact, a good deal of what most Christian readers have learned about Jewish messianic ideas is often oversimplified, riddled with exaggerations, or even downright false. In order to situate Jesus’ teachings in their historical context, we need to back up a bit and answer a few broad questions: What were first-century Jews actually waiting for God to do? We know that many were expecting him to send the Messiah, but what did they think the Messiah would be like? What did they believe would happen when he finally came?


The entire account of Jesus’ transfiguration suggests that this new exodus, although based on the old, would be both similar and radically different. In the old exodus, God had identified Israel as his son:” Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me’”(Exodus 4:22). In the new exodus, spoken of during the Transfiguration, God say of Jesus: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” (Luke 9:35) In other words, Jesus is not just a new Moses. He is also the new Israel, the chosen Son of God, who will undergo the new exodus in his own person. By means of his passion and death, his departure in Jerusalem, Jesus himself will lead the people of God to the new promised land of the “new creation” (Matthew 19:28). Of course if these connections are correct, they raise more questions than answers. The first is this: If Jesus expected there to be a new exodus, how exactly did he think it would begin?


Just as the ancient Jews saw their Passovers as a participation in the exodus from Egypt, so, too, Saint Paul and other early Christians saw the Eucharist as a real participation in both the Last Supper and the death of Jesus. The Passover is not the only key that unlocks the mystery of the Last Supper. Nor does it answer every question we might ask. For one thing, if we grant that Jesus saw himself as the Passover lamb, how could he actually give his disciples his flesh to eat? Wouldn’t this be cannibalism? And what about the Mosaic Law against drinking blood? To be sure, the Passover lambs’ blood was poured out on the altar, but it was never drunk. In order to answer these questions, we’ll need to turn to the next chapter. For Jesus spoke of the Last Supper not only as a new Passover, but as the new manna from heaven. For all this to be true, Jesus’ action at the Last Supper would have to have been a miracle, and not just a sign or symbol. But as Saint Cyril himself also points out, this isn’t really a problem, given Jesus’ record of performing miracles of supernatural transformation. As Cyril say: “Jesus once in Cana of Galilee turned the water into wine, akin to blood; is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood?”


On the road to Emmaus, Jesus fulfilled what he set out to accomplish at the Last Supper. That Sunday was the first Eucharist after the Resurrection, and Jesus was the principal celebrant. On that day, he ate and drank with his disciples in the joy of his kingdom. In that day he gave them his crucified and risen body and blood. And while the disciples might not have realized it at the time, on that day, Jesus answered their prayer outside the village of Emmaus, when they said to him: “Stay with us” (Luke 24:29) In the “breaking of the bread,” in every Eucharist, he answers their prayer, saying to them and to all of us, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”