Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Review of Brant Pitre's "Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist"

Jesus+and+the+Jewish+Roots+of+the+Eucharist.jpgBrant Pitre's book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist has now reached the status of run-away best seller! Over the past couple of days it has reached the #1 and #2 position in a number of key categories on Amazon.com ("Books on Catholicism," "History of Religions," "Judaism," etc.).

Some of the reviews are embarrassing--to the reviewers (though they seem to fail to realize it).

The reaction to the book has exposed the fact that anti-Semitism is alive and well. One reviewer who trashes the book, promotes another in its place: 
Judaism Discovered: A Study of the Anti-Biblical Religion of Racism, Self-Worship, Superstition and DeceitThe Traditions of the Jews.
Seriously. . . stop beating around the bush and tell me what you really think! 

The book is likely to also upset other people harboring other kinds of prejudices (see below).

Anyways, here is the review of the book I posted up at amazon.com. It is aimed at popular readers. I suppose I ought to write another to encourage academics to pick it up as well.

Brant Pitre's book, "Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist", is a tour-de-force of biblical scholarship and theology.

Although Jesus clearly stated that "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22) and although he told his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you" (Matt 23:2-3), far too often the Jewish roots of Christianity have been ignored. 

While such neglect of the Old Testament roots of Christian faith is not characteristic of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church--Jerome studied with Jewish rabbis before translating the Vulgate and Thomas Aquinas regularly drew from rabbis such as Maimonides in works like the Summa Theologiae--too many Christians today fail to see the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, too many modern Jews mistakenly suppose Christianity represents a denial and rejection of their tradition.

This book successfully attempts to remedy these problems by, as I explain at the end of this review, challenging some common stereotypes.

First, it is worth noting that Pitre's unimpeachable credentials as a scholar. Among other things, Pitre studied archaeology in Israel and received his Ph.D. from Notre Dame where he worked under world-class scholars such as John P. Meier and David Aune. His roughly 600-page doctoral dissertation ("Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile") has been published by the prestigious German publisher Mohr Siebeck. It was later reprinted for American audiences by Baker Academic. The back cover of this edition contained endorsements by numerous leading historical Jesus scholars (Dale Allison, Scot McKnight, etc.). Yet, despite his first-rate training, Pitre has somehow figured out how to remain accessible to all audiences. Without oversimplifying, Pitre engages the reader with an easy-to-read style.

The book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, displays his incredible grasp of scholarship. For example, in one end-note (12: "Jesus lived in an ancient Jewish context") Pitre draws from 12 independent sources, bringing together works written by Catholics (Pope Benedict XVI, John P. Meier, Ben Meyer), non-Catholic Christians (N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, E.P. Sanders) and Jewish scholars (David Flusser, Geza Vermes, A.J. Levine, Joseph Klausner). His familiarity with scholarship is stunning. In this one footnote alone Pitre lists works written from 1925 to 2009! Yet, because these notes are at the back of the book, they never muddle Pitre's lucid presentation.

(The complaint made by a few of the other reviews here that the book is poorly researched is, simply put, laughable. Perhaps such reviewers were derailed by the fact that the notes are found only at the back of the book. Indeed, anyone who finishes the book finds a treasure-trove of bibliographic references. The only way to miss them is to fail to read the whole work--that might explain some of the other reviews.)

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is Pitre's careful use of rabbinic sources such as the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud. His appeal to such sources in a book on the Eucharist might at first be surprising. Not only were these works written after the time of Jesus, they also contain some problematic historical claims and even some shockingly anti-Christian messages. Yet (again contrary to what other reviews have claimed) Pitre is not oblivious to such problems. He writes, "I want to stress here that I am not suggesting that Jesus himself would have read any of these, some of which were written down long after his death" (p. 19).

Nonetheless, Pitre shows that these sources contain material strikingly similar to what we find in the Gospels (not to mention earlier Jewish sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). Pitre thus shows an incredible continuity between ancient Jewish expectations and Christianity--i.e., the New Testament seems to describe the coming of what many Jews were looking to arrive in the Eschatological Age, i.e., the age of the Messiah. In other words, even anti-Christian rabbis expected the Messiah to look like Jesus in many ways and to do the kinds of things he did. In other words, studying the Old Testament hopes, the rabbis came to believe in a future age which, strikingly, looks like what Jesus came to proclaim as arriving.

For example, as Pitre shows, such sources envision the future Messiah as a "New Moses" who will give "bread from heaven". Amazingly, this is also how the Gospels depict Jesus: he is like Moses (e.g., he fasts for forty days and forty nights, like Moses did in Exod 34:28) and he promises to deliver the true manna (cf. the Bread of Life discourse in John 6). What emerges from all of this is a clear impression that those who studied the Hebrew Bible would have recognized its hopes being fulfilled in Jesus' ministry--often in unexpected and striking ways.

In fact, Pitre goes on to show how thoroughly saturated the New Testament is with such allusions to Jewish hopes. Even passages that are familiar to Christians, such as the Our Father, contain Old Testament imagery that is often overlooked. One of the most exciting sections, for example, examines the petition, "Give us this day our daily bread." Drawing on the work of other biblical scholars, Pitre shows how the redundancy in language here (this day. . . our daily) seems to evoke imagery of the manna in the desert--i.e., the bread which provided for the "daily" needs of Israel in the desert (Exod 16).

Indeed, anyone with any familiarity of scholarship knows that these sources are--when used carefully--a valuable aid in understanding the Jewish world of the Gospels. One should not attempt to use them uncritically as previous scholars did, but at the same time one cannot dismiss them as completely irrelevant as, for example, anti-Semitic authors might advocate. While written down at a later time, they clearly contain ancient traditions that go back to the time of Jesus. As Pitre writes, "What I am arguing is that many [of these sources] bear witness to ancient Jewish traditions that may have circulated at the time of Jesus and which demonstrate the remarkable power to explain passages in the New Testament that reflect Jewish practices and beliefs" (p. 19). The power of such an approach is in the pudding.

Here then is a brief overview.

Chapter 1: Introduction to some of the problems (i.e., how could Jesus tell the disciples to eat his body when such a command clearly violated Old Testament laws).

Chapter 2: The reader is introduced to some of the key texts in Scripture and later Jewish sources which detail what ancient Jews were expecting: a New Exodus, namely, (1) a New Moses, (2) A New Covenant, (3) A New Temple, and (4) A New Promised Land.

Chapter 3: Pitre shows how Jesus is presented as the New Passover Lamb, offering a careful look in particular at the Gospel narratives of the Last Supper and Jesus' death. One thing that especially stands out in this section is Pitre's use of recent Jewish scholarship which has shown that in the first century Passover lambs appeared to be "crucified," a tradition also attested in the early writing of Justin Martyr. The implications for understanding Jesus' death--e.g., why he chose the Passover as the context for his climactic confrontation with Jewish leaders that led to his death.

Chapter 4: Pitre looks at Jesus' teachings which appear to relate to hopes for the coming of a New Manna, i.e., "bread of the angels" (cf. Ps 78:23-25, 29). In particular, Pitre examines the Bread of Life Discourse where this imagery is clearly alluded to by Jesus. The Eucharistic connection of the sermon is clear not only by the fact that the language ("eat my flesh. . . drink my blood") is especially similar to that used at the Last Supper ("Take. . . eat . . . this is my body. . . Drink . . . This is my blood"), but also by the fact that the sermon follows a miracle in which Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples--actions early Christians would have clearly identified as Eucharistic.

Chapter 5: Pitre looks at the mysterious Bread of the Presence in the Old Testament. At the end of the book the reader discovers that this element of Jewish worship was linked by the early Christians to the Eucharist. Pitre here makes sense of how this connection was made.

Chapter 6: Pitre admits that this chapter is more "speculative" than the rest of his book (p. 148), however, his careful argumentation is entirely persuasive. Specifically, Pitre shows that in ancient Judaism the Passover meal was structured around four "cups" of wine. Pitre, drawing on other scholars such as Daube, shows that this structure seems attested to in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:17, 20 which makes reference to multiple cups). Interestingly, in Jewish tradition the third cup seems to have been identified as the cup of blessing--the title St. Paul assigns to the Eucharistic cup (1 Cor 10:16). With these and other observations, Pitre concludes with other scholars that the Eucharistic words of Jesus were pronounced over the "third" cup. Pitre then looks at a number of passages in the Passion Narrative where the "cup" imagery is played out, e.g., Jesus vows not to drink wine until the coming of the kingdom, he prays that he will not have to drink the cup in the Garden, and he finally dies after drinking from a sponge. Speculative, perhaps; convincing, very much so--you'll just have to read it to find out.

Chapter 7: Pitre demonstrates that nothing in the book is really all that new. Pitre demonstrates that the "ground-breaking" connections he has described throughout the book between Jewish images and the Last Supper were seen long ago in the writings of the early Christians. This ending is breath-taking--the incredible insights of the book are shown to be completely consistent with the approach of the earliest Christians, who clearly saw the Eucharist in terms of Passover imagery, Manna imagery, and the Bread of Presence, just as Pitre has argued.

As another reviewer mentioned, Pitre is working on another book--an academic monograph devoted to the Last Supper. This book is a promising down-payment on that project.

In sum, "Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist" challenges many stereo-types. It definitely puts to rest the lie that Catholics are ignorant of the Bible. It may be uncomfortable for those who wish Jesus were nothing more than a Protestant preacher opposed to all forms liturgy (unlike ancient Jews!). It may also be problematic for radical traditionalists who cling to the idea that Judaism and Christian faith are diametrically opposed to one another (contrary to what Vatican II taught). But for those eager to delve deep into Scripture and the Eucharistic theology of historic Christianity with an open mind, it will not disappoint. In fact, it will likely change the way you look at Christian worship.


Anonymous said...

What about the supposed "antisemitism" in the Gospels which some people complain about? I would like a book on that. ^^

MichaelP said...

Dr. Pitre owes you big time for your review. Maybe he will cut you in on the profits. :)

God bless!

Nick Norelli said...

Michael: You're right about the embarrassing nature of some of those reviews. Would that they'd be as sober as yours!

I thought the book was great, so much so that I couldn't wait to write my review after reading it in a single sitting. I generally don't ever sit still long enough to read through an entire book but Brant's was fascinating and very well laid out. It really helped to reinforce some things I already believed and to introduce me to a few things I've missed in my own reading.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

Your review was absolutely awesome and hopefully will help sincere people from the general audience who might be confused by all the anti-Semitic reviews.

Doug Chaplin said...

If that's your verbatim review on Amazon, don't you think you should have declared that the author is a friend of yours, with whom you have long collaborated on a blog. I know when I read reviews I like to see a proper interest or bias declared.

Michael Hoffman said...

In order to get a cheap laugh, in your mockery you have misstated the title of my book as "Judaism Discovered: A Study of the Anti-Biblical Religion of Racism, Self-Worship, Superstition and Deceit: The Traditions of the Jews.”

The actual title is "Judaism Discovered: A Study of the Anti-Biblical Religion of Racism, Self-Worship, Superstition and Deceit.”

It is not anti-semitic and contains not a single line of Jew hate. Your need to libel this writer because I am critical of Prof. Pitre’s book is pitiable.

According to your Amazon review of Pitre’s book, those who dismiss the Talmud as irrelevant to proving the Eucharist are “anti-semitic.” This is perhaps one of the most far-fetched definitions of “anti-semitism” I have yet encountered, yet you feel free to toss around so grave an accusation on that basis.

Steve said...

Michael, Dr. Pitre's book is so powerful. I felt grafted into the faith like never before. I've made so many marginal notes that I need to go back and re-read what I've marked. This book has made deep impressions on me as a Catholic father and I am so excited to pass on the knowledge to my children.

Howard said...

I'm glad Michael Hoffman clarified that the title his book only calls Judaism an anti-biblical religion of racism, self-worship, superstition and deceit. If his title had included the word tradition, I might have thought he harbored anti-Semitic feelings.

Caspar Ignatius said...

"First, it is worth noting that Pitre's unimpeachable credentials as a scholar."

My inner proof reader wanted that fixed.

"The power of such an approach is in the pudding."

Mixed metaphor...

"Protestant preacher opposed to all forms liturgy"

Needs an "of".