Monday, March 28, 2011

Jesus and the Eucharist 1

My friend and Catholic New Testament scholar Brant Pitre, for whom I have the greatest respect, has just released an interesting, accessible and important book on the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist, for those of us low church folks!). The book is Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper.

I grew up a Protestant low church Baptist so my understanding of the Lord’s Supper has always been very Zwingli-ish. In other words, I have understood the Lord’s Supper as primarily memorial. In the Lord’s Supper we “remember” and reflect on the death of Jesus. Brant’s provocative thesis in the book is that the traditional Catholic view of transubstantiation, which believes that the bread and wine in communion are transformed literally into the body and blood of Jesus, is rooted in Jesus’ own teaching and first century Jewish context. The book presses me, and all readers, to consider a fresh Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. However, this is more than a book about the Eucharist.

In the book, Brant shows the importance of understanding the Jewish context of Jesus. This, for me, is a lesson nearly as important as his thesis on the Eucharist. I will be reflecting on the book in a series of posts.

Brant begins in this introduction with a somewhat darkly comical but yet poignant story of a pre-martial interview with his soon-to-be wife's family's Baptist pastor over 15 years ago. Upon hearing that Brant was a Catholic, the meeting turned from a pre-marital interview into a theological interrogation. As Brant recounts it, the pastor "grilled me on every single controversial point in the Catholic faith". pulled no punches in his questions of Brant over all things Catholic: Mary, the Canon of Scripture, the Pope and the Eucharist.

On the latter topic, the Eucharist, the pastor asked/asserted "How can Catholics teach that bread and wine actually become Jesus' body and blood? Do you really believe that? It's ridiculous!" Brant reflected on the fact that in the moment he was unable to provide a biblical and theological response. He left the meeting devastated. To make matters worse, the pastor said to Brant's fiance that "he has serious concerns about yoking you with an unbeliever".

Brant reflected that this experience was a "major turning point" in his life. He shares that this event became one of the reasons he is a biblical scholar today. Brant writes, "In effect, my exchange with the pastor poured gasoline on the fire of my interest in Scripture". One of the major lessons he learned as he pursued a biblical studies in undergrad, graduate and post-graduate work was this:
If you really want to know who Jesus was and what he was saying and doing, then you need to interpret his words and deeds in their historical context. And that means become familiar with not just ancient Christianity but also with ancient Judaism.


sujomo said...

Hi Mike,

I am sorry I can't resist not making a comment. What you mean from your previous Baptist background is the "so-called Zwinglian view" of the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. Zwingli scholars such as Peter Stephens have demonstrated the marked difference between Zwingli in his earlier years and the later writings of Zwingli. Some of Stephens' work is reflected in my humble blog.


sujomo said...

Hi Joel,

Sorry I thought the post was Mike's!


Joel Willitts said...

I didn't mean to suggest I wasn't still a Baptist ecclesiastically though I pastor in a nondenom church.