Sunday, April 17, 2011

Jesus and the Eucharist 4

We’ve been working our way through Brant Pitre’s recent book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper.

Chapter three presents the subject of the New Passover. You might recall that in his second chapter, the subject of your last post, he made the point that at the time of Jesus many Jews were expecting a “new Exodus”: an end-time deliverance that would outshine the first Exodus out of Egypt. Chapter three builds on this by suggesting that the new Exodus, as with the first one, would be kicked off with a new Passover event, one that would again outshine the first. Why would this be relevant to Jesus and the Eucharist meal? Because Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in the upper room was most likely the Passover meal eaten at the start of the Sabbath on the 14th day of the Jewish Month of Nissan. Brant states,
On that night, Jesus was not just celebrating one more memorial of the exodus from Egypt. Rather, he was establishing a new Passover, the long-awaited Passover of the Messiah. By means of this sacrifice, Jesus would inaugurate the new exodus, which the prophets had foretold and for which the Jewish people had been waiting (49).
Brant believes that knowledge of the Jewish background of the Passover both biblically and in the context of first-century Judaism is crucial for understanding the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. He takes his readers on a very brief and readable survey of the details of the Passover meal.

The Passover ceremony involved five steps as outlined in Exodus 12.
Step 1. Choose an unblemished male lamb.
Step 2. Sacrifice the lamb
Step 3. Spread the blood of the lamb on the home as a “sign” of the sacrifice.
Step 4. Eat the flesh of the lamb with the unleavened bread.
Step 5. Every year, keep a Passover as a “day of remembrance” of the exodus forever.
At the time of Jesus, a few significant changes to the ceremony had taken place. It should be emphasized when studying Jesus it is not the biblical framing of teaching, but how those teachings were interpreted and practiced in the first century that is most important. Brant notes four relevant alternations.

1. The Passover sacrifice was now made in the temple in Jerusalem. In the Bible the lambs were sacrificed and eaten in the home of the Israelites in Egypt, but at the time of Jesus these two activities were split and the sacrifice was required to be done in the Jerusalem temple by the Levites. The implication is obvious: you could only celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. This made for a very busy and bloody day of sacrifice at the temple leading up to the Passover meal. Brant points out impression that would have been left on all those who attended the Passover. This was a brutal sacrifice.

2. The Passover lamb was “crucified” in the process of the sacrifice. Brant appeals to a little known tradition that in the process of the sacrifice two stakes were thrust through the lamb which resembled a crucifixion. This element it must be admitted cannot be historically verified to represent the practice of first-century Jews. Still, if it is correct Brant is right to conclude:This an aspect of the Passover in his day that is neither mentioned in the Bible nor part of the modern-day Jewish Seder, but which as the power to shed light on Jesus’ conception of his own fate (64).

3. The Passover at the time of Jesus became a way to participate in the first Passover. The manner of this contemporizing of the event took shape in traditions that accompanied the Passover meal. The Mishnah, a third-century Rabbinic text, tells us that in the midst of the Passover meal, the son would ask the father, “Why is this night different from other nights?”. This tradition is still practiced today in the Seder. The Passover meal was a way for Jews in every generation to participate in the exodus.

4. Jewish traditions that admittedly date much later than the New Testament but might represent views in the air in the first century, link the Passover feast to the coming of the Messiah and the dawn of the age of salvation. “The Messiah comes on Passover night, and God will redeem his people on that same night” (68).

All of this then forms the frame for seeing Jesus and the Passover meal correctly. Brant suggests that the key is to pay attention to the similarities and differences between the Jewish Passover meal, as described in the Jewish sources, and the meal Jesus had with this disciples recorded in the synoptic gospels. The major observation drawn from a comparison is that Jesus alters the Jewish Passover by placing himself at its center, as the sacrificial lamb. Jesus instituted a “new Passover”.
By means of his words over the bread and wine of the Last Supper, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms, “I am the new Passover lamb of the new Exodus. This is the Passover of the Messiah, and I am the new sacrifice” (72).
Now the pay dirt for Brant in all of this is that according to the ancient biblical tradition, the lamb was to be eaten. Central to the Passover ceremony was the consumption of the flesh of the lamb. As Brant puts it, “the sacrifice of the Passover lamb was not completed by its death. It was completed by a meal, by eating the flesh of the lamb that had been slain” (74).

Brant’s interpretation is very interesting and at many points is profound and instructive. He’s done a great service to us to so clearly spell out the Jewish context of the Passover meal and to draw out connections between Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and the practice of the Passover. Even if not all his connections can be validated, understanding the Eucharist as the Passover of the Messiah is no doubt rich in meaning.

There is one thorny historical issue in all of this that should at least be registered. The question of whether the last supper was the actual Passover meal or a meal on the night before Passover is still a scholarly quandary. John’s Gospel, on the one hand, has the meal on the night before the Passover so that Jesus dies at the time of the sacrifices. On the other hand, the Synoptic Gospels clearly have Jesus’ meal as the Passover. The historical issues are nearly intractable. And while hypotheses have been suggested to harmonize the two accounts no one hypothesis has won the day. What one can say, nevertheless, is that Jesus’ death is associated in all the Gospels with the Passover.

For earlier posts see: Jesus and the Eucharist 1, 2, 3.


John Smuts said...

Why does John have to place the meal the night before the Passover?

Chapters 18 and 19 do not fit into a neat chronology wherever you place the meal.

Unknown said...

I would like to start by asking you two questions. One: Can you can give an accurate definition of the phrase: "Lamb of God"? We all know that this is one of the names used for Jesus, like Messiah, Savior, Son of Man, or Christ.

But exactly what is the importance of the name "Lamb of God"? And why is it important to me as a Catholic? The second question I would like to ask you is: Why the Catholic Church would offer The Holy Eucharist every day at every Mass throughout the world in over 3000 languages.

What knowledge do they have that would make them feel compelled to do this for thousands of years? In answering this question, we'll see why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.'" (CC 1324)

For more information on Jesus New Covenant and how everything ties together -- Passover Meal -> Manna -> Prophecy of the New Covenant -- go to The 4th and watch the video! You can also read along while the video is playing.

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