Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is taken from Brant Pitre’s presentation on Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist. This is one of many Eucharistic reflections that will be published by Catholic San Francisco magazine as part of the U.S. Catholic Church’s Eucharistic Revival ( that began on June 19, 2022, on the feast of Corpus Christi, and continues through Pentecost 2025.

I’d like to begin our exploration of the Jewish roots of the Eucharist by asking you a question, a historical riddle that scholars have wondered about for a long time.

How is it that the first generation of Christians, who were Jewish Christians, came to believe so quickly and in such a universal way in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist?

The reason it’s a riddle or a puzzle is because if you know anything about ancient Judaism, you’ll know that in the Old Testament, there’s a prohibition that’s very prominent. The Jewish people were absolutely forbidden from drinking blood. The Book of Leviticus says you shall not drink the blood of any animal or any creature. It was a taboo among the Jews, and yet we find a rabbi scholar like St. Paul writing in his First Letter to the Corinthians in a matter-of-fact fashion in chapter 10 stating, “Do you not know that the bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ?” And he states, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ?”

How is it that St. Paul could go from being a rabbi, a Pharisee, a Jewish expert in the law who would have considered the drinking of any blood, much less human blood, to be an abomination, to being an apostle of Jesus Christ who will proclaim without hesitation that the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Jesus? How did he get from A to Z? How did any of the Jewish Christians in the first century come to believe in the Eucharist given what they would have received from their Jewish tradition?

What I want to suggest to you is that it’s precisely their Jewish faith, tradition, practices and beliefs that lay the foundation for their belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. If you understand what the Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah to do and what they were waiting for the Messiah to be, you can understand how St. Paul got from A to Z. Once he realized that Jesus was the Messiah, he also was able to realize that the Eucharist is really the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. That’s the puzzle that I want you to keep in mind as we look at three key images from ancient Jewish practice and the Scriptures that shed light on the mystery of the Eucharist. The three images are: 1. The Jewish Passover; 2. Jewish beliefs about the manna from heaven, and 3. The mysterious Jewish bread of the presence, which the Jews kept in the tabernacle of Moses and then later in the Temple of Solomon. When you look at Jewish hopes for what the Messiah would do connected with these three images of the Passover, the manna and the bread of the presence, we’re going to see how it was their Jewish faith that led them to their Catholic faith in the real presence.

Fast Forward:
3. The Jewish bread of the presence

Let’s look at our third and final image from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, and that is the mysterious bread of the presence. During the exodus from Egypt, the worship of God was centered on a special place, a sanctuary known as the tabernacle. Many Christians are familiar with a tabernacle, but many are not familiar with what went inside the tabernacle of Moses. One of the most important things that was in the tabernacle was the bread of the presence, which is described in chapter 25 of the Book of Exodus.

Immediately after God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments, the first thing He wants them to do is to learn how to worship Him, so He gives Moses instructions on building the tabernacle and what to put inside. God commands Moses to put three key symbols of His presence in the tabernacle: 1. The Ark of the Covenant, which is a large box covered in pure gold with two long handles for holding the box, and on top of it were two statues of golden cherubim; 2. A golden lampstand, which the Jews called the menorah with seven branches and seven tongues of fire, and: 3. The golden table on which they placed the bread of the presence.

Do these three symbols in the tabernacle of Moses strike you as significant: the Ark of the Covenant, the menorah with tongues of fire and the bread of the presence? Does this make you think of the Trinity? We have the ark of the invisible God the Father, the golden table of the bread of the presence, the Son, and the menorah with the tongues of the fire, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity was hidden in the tabernacle of Moses waiting to be revealed by Jesus. Our Catholic faith is so rich, and it’s all there in sacred Scripture waiting to be unveiled.

The bread of the presence is described in more detail in the Book of Leviticus. There would be 12 unleavened cakes of bread that would represent the 12 tribes of Israel. The bread of the presence was offered on behalf of Israel each Sabbath day by the priests. It was not just bread. It was a kind of a Sabbath sacrifice, and it had to be offered continually before the Lord as an everlasting covenant. There was never a time when the bread of the presence wasn’t in the tabernacle and always had to be before the Lord. The lampstand candles (the menorah) had to be “kept burning continually” in the tabernacle along with the bread of the presence. Does that sound familiar? In the Catholic Church, we have the sanctuary lamp, which is lit whenever the true bread of the presence, the Eucharist, is in the tabernacle. Why do we do that? It is because of the Jews; it’s in the Scriptures. Things in Catholicism that are strange or puzzling almost without a doubt come from Judaism. It comes from the Old Testament. It’s mysterious. That’s why our modern world doesn’t understand the Church. Whenever the Jews would take the bread of the presence out of the tabernacle, do you know what they would do? They would cover it with a veil. Have you been to benediction lately? What does a priest do in the solemn ceremony of benediction? He veils the bread of the Eucharist because it’s holy.

Additionally, we know from the Book of Exodus that it was not just a sacrifice of bread; it’s a sacrifice of bread and wine: “And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour libations…. And you shall set the bread of the presence on the table before me always.” (Ex 25:29-30)

What kind of drink offering would they pour? I’ll give you a hint: it was not Kool-Aid or grape juice; it was wine. So, they had the bread and wine of the presence. Most interestingly, the Hebrew word for bread of the presence can be translated in two ways; it has a double meaning. It can mean “bread of the presence” or “bread of the face.” Whose face? You might say Jesus, but this is the Old Testament, so Jesus was not on the scene yet. The rabbis tell us that the bread of the presence was seen as a visible sign of the face of Almighty God.

At the time of Jesus, whenever the Jews would go to the temple to celebrate Passover, there was a custom to gather for a special event. At Passover time, the priests would take one of the sacred items in the temple out of the holy place that only the priests could go into, and they would show it to the people. Do you know which one they took out? It wasn’t the ark; it wasn’t the menorah; it was the bread of the presence. According to the rabbis in the Talmud, the bread of the presence, the golden table, would be taken out by the priests and brought to the people, and they would lift up the golden table of the bread of the presence so that everybody could see it. Do you know what the priest would say to the people? They would say these words: “Behold God’s love for you!”

The Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinic traditions, records: “They used to lift up and exhibit the bread of the presence on it to those who came up for the festivals, saying to them, ‘Behold God’s love for you!’” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahoth 29a).

When was the last time you saw the bread of the presence lifted up? It was when you came to the true temple of the true lamb and the true manna in Mass. Every time the priest takes the bread of the presence, consecrates it and lifts it up during the elevation, he’s fulfilling what was prefigured at the time of Christ. He’s lifting up the bread of the presence so that we can all see God’s love for us in the Word made flesh.

Did Jesus ever mention the bread of the presence? He does in Matthew 12:1-8. You’ve probably heard this story before, but let’s look at it again to see the connection and the significance. Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of grain and to eat. This was against the custom of the Pharisees, so when they saw it, they said to Jesus, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Jesus said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with them, how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the presence which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath, the priests in the Temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?”

What was Jesus referring to? What did the priests in the Temple do on the Sabbath? How did they work in the Temple on the Sabbath? They would prepare and offer the bread of the presence. It was the Sabbath day sacrifice that they had to do while everyone else was resting. Jesus then ends with these words, “I tell you something greater than the Temple is here.”

From a Jewish perspective, that’s like a bomb that Jesus just set off right in their midst. What is the Temple to the Jews? It’s the dwelling place of God on earth. What then could be greater than the dwelling place of God on earth? Only God Himself, tabernacling in the flesh. Jesus just told them that He was the divine son of God, but He did it with Jewish words and with Jewish beliefs.

Now, back to our original question. Why did the first Jewish Christians believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? It’s simple; they not only knew that it was the new Passover and the new manna, but they also knew it was the new bread of the presence. Several things follow from that. If the Eucharist is the new bread of the presence, then it’s going to be not just a symbolic shadowy presence like in the Old Testament, but His real presence.

Where did Jesus get the idea that bread and wine could be signs of a person’s presence? We don’t usually think of bread and wine as symbols of a person. He got that idea from the Jewish bread of the presence. So, what we have today is the real bread of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Notice that Jesus has laid claim to the priesthood for Himself and for His followers just as David did. What are the disciples plucking on the Sabbath? They are plucking grain. What do you make with grain? You make bread. So what is Jesus saying? He’s saying, I am the true Temple, my disciples are the true priests, and just like the priests and the Temple can work on the Sabbath, my disciples can work on the Sabbath. What are they going to do on the new Sabbath? They’re going to offer the new bread of the presence in the new Temple, which is the body of Christ. That’s why the early Christians knew that the Eucharist was His true body.

Sometimes, we think of Judaism and Christianity as opposed to one another. Yet it is precisely the Jewish faith of the early Christians that enabled them to come to faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — that it really is His body, blood, soul and divinity. What Catholics receive in every Mass is the flesh of the new Passover lamb. At every Mass, we are taken back in time to the hour of Jesus’ passion, when the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world loved me and gave Himself up for every one of us. The Mass not only points back to Calvary; it also points forward to the resurrection; not just to Jesus’ resurrection but to our resurrection at the end of time.

Visit to view Dr. Brant Pitre’s presentations.

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