Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Confecting Evidence

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Confecting Evidence

Article excerpt

Confecting Evidence Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist BY BRANT PITRE DOUBLEDAY, 240 PAGES, $21.99

A vibrant reception of the deposit of faith today requires serious, good argumentation about the way Scripture, doctrine, and church praxis are inseparably related and mutually illuminating. Brant Pitre 's new book on the Jewish roots of the Eucharist recognizes this need and attempts to connect the biblical presentation of the Last Supper and the Catholic Church's doctrinal teaching of the "real presence."

Pitre, a professor of sacred Scripture at Notre Dame seminary in New Orleans, begins with a story about his wife's Southern Baptist preacher, who has doubts about the coherence of Catholic teaching with biblical testimony. The preacher is "fresh out of seminary" and "aflame with the fire of the Gospel." He cannot understand why Pitre believes many of the things he does, and he ignorantly questions him about the direct biblical basis for everything from Mary to the pope to the Eucharist. "What about the Lord's Supper?" the unsophisticated man asks. "How can you Catholics teach that bread and wine actually become Jesus' body and blood? Do you really believe that?" Pitre's whole book is an effort to show that, yes, he really does.

Though he does not agree with the fresh graduate's reading of the Bible, Pitre has no trouble at all accepting the most basic assumption of his Baptist accuser: The Bible either directly supports contemporary Catholic teaching or it doesn't. Where the Baptist would say "No," Pitre inserts a "Yes." The result is an approach to the Bible that sets aside the crucial role that development of doctrine has played in Catholic thinking about ways in which biblical testimony serves as the basis for Church teaching and practice.

Turning to face the Baptist on his own turf, Pitre claims to offer history that appeals to all fair-minded seekers of truth based on evidence that is admissible in any intellectually serious court: "So whether you're Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Gentile, believer or nonbeliever, if you've ever wondered Who was Jesus really? I invite you to come along with me on this journey. As we will see it is precisely the Jewish roots of Jesus' words that will enable us to unlock the secrets of who he was and what he meant when he said to his disciples, 'Take, eat, this is my body.'" We are thus promised an objective historical-Jesus essay that will seamlessly connect the firstcentury Jewish man to contemporary eucharistie doctrine, putting to flight all doubt about the biblical basis for Church doctrine.

The structure of the book follows Pitre's promise. We are told that, because Jesus was Jewish, it is important to interpret his words and actions through "Jewish eyes." But as the argument progresses, Pitre places sources such as the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud in direct relationship with the New Testament. Never mind that these sources are notoriously difficult to date-and never mind that even the most conservative dating schemes place only bits and pieces of traditions in these texts anywhere near the first century - when they speak about the Passover, Pitre treats them as immediately relevant to the actual words of Jesus.

Subsequent chapters claim that the Jewish people still believed themselves to be in exile during the first century, that the expected "new exodus" would be accomplished by some kind of Messiah, and that Jesus himself believed that he was celebrating the new Passover as the inauguration of this new exodus, thereby fulfilling at least some Jews' expectations for their Messiah.

Next comes a discussion of the Jewish longing for the return of the supernatural, heavenly manna, and we learn that "when the Messiah finally came, he would finally bring back the miracle of the manna." Unsurprisingly, Jesus saw himself as the bringer of this manna. Keeping his eye on much later sources, Pitre finds support for his view in Jerome's Latin translation of a notoriously difficult word in the Lord's Prayer: epiousios, traditionally rendered as "daily. …

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