The meaning of Jesus in the context of Judaism

By Brant Pitre
Published by Doubleday, $21.99

Brant Pitre, a young conservative Catholic scripture scholar who is already a full professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and has been on the lecture, retreat and blog circuits for some five years, has published his first popularly oriented book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. It will not be his last.

He writes clearly, briefly and with just enough endnotes to assure the careful reader that he has indeed done his homework. This book will find a place in parish book-discussion groups and adult education programs, as well as serving as a resource for preachers and teachers.

Since the Second Vatican Council, it became much more common for average lay Catholics to realize that not only was Jesus Jewish (a fact not exactly emphasized in many parishes as late as the 1950s), but that his Jewishness was at the heart of his life, his understanding of God and his understanding of himself. The realization that ignorance of the Tanakh is ignorance of Christ is no longer rare. Yet the Jewish background and context -- the Jewish roots -- of what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper have not been widely explored at the popular level.

Most Catholics know that the Mass has its roots in the Last Supper, which has its roots in the Seder, which has its roots in the Passover. But a more detailed examination of these roots has a lot of fresh insights to offer to our thinking about what it is that we do every Sunday (well, almost every).

Pitre explores the Exodus, the Passover, the manna and the bread of the presence, not only in the Jewish scriptures, but also in the Targums, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Midrashim. He provides not only citations but also ample quotations (always helpful and greatly needed in a popular work), and he brings to light texts from the post-biblical literature that many non-specialists, even among the preachers-and-teachers category, may not have seen before. Some were new to me, and I like to think that I keep up fairly well for a humble parish priest.

So there is much to like about this book and many reasons to recommend it. And yet I find myself with some substantial reservations.

Pitre adopts an almost pre-critical stance to the texts of the New Testament. He explains in an endnote that he treats the Gospels as “reliable historical witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus,” and he cites Vatican II’s Constitution on Revelation for this idea. But as anyone with some knowledge of the Vatican II text is aware, the words of the council’s text were carefully chosen both to affirm the fundamental historicity of the Gospels and to leave room for the sort of critical scholarship then recently endorsed by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The council fathers wanted to combat the idea that the Gospels are mythical accounts without historical value and at the same time avoid endorsing the proposition that everything in the red type is exactly what Jesus really said.

The author further cites “Pope Benedict XVI’s work Jesus of Nazareth” as a precedent for this approach. It may sound like nitpicking, but Pope Benedict XVI did not write Jesus of Nazareth. It is not an encyclical. Joseph Ratzinger, the private theologian, is the author, not Benedict XVI, the pope, as he himself emphasizes in the book’s opening pages. Ratzinger is a systematic theologian, and systematic theologians enjoy some liberty in how much scripture scholarship they choose to reflect in their attempts at pulling things together into systematic theology.

Scripture scholars, on the other hand, should (one would think) adhere a little more closely to the standards of that profession. To cite scholars such as Raymond Brown and John Meier as authorities in the endnotes and then to fundamentally disregard their methods as well as their conclusions without more than one endnote’s explanation does not seem to me to be a paragon of responsible scholarship.

Because his work is aimed at a popular audience, Pitre says, he will choose not to enter into scholarly debates about the authenticity of various Gospel passages. But could it not be argued that in writing for the popular audience, who may not have the background to make subtle distinctions for themselves, an author should take more and not less care in this regard?

To cite but one example, after taking as literal quotations Jesus’ words as reported in John 6, 8 and 10 and related texts, Pitre concludes that one cannot understand Jesus’ claims about the Eucharist “without first grasping his claims about his divine identity.” He even quotes C.S. Lewis’ statement that such words are those of a madman, a demon or the Lord himself. Surely all orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is, as the councils confessed, the Incarnate Word of God.

But to state without qualification that Jesus, during his lifetime on Earth, thought and spoke of himself in that way is far from the consensus of modern scripture scholars and theologians. I would think that a book intended for a popular audience would take some note of that fact.

For those who are prepared to take Pitre’s ahistorical reading of the Gospel texts with the appropriate-sized grain of salt, this is a very interesting and useful book that I can gladly recommend.

[Fr. Richard T. Lawrence is pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, Baltimore.]

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