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The Jewish roots of the Mass
Jean-Baptiste Nadler
by NA4

published by 'éditions de l Emmanuel' 


“Father Jean-Baptiste Nadler's work reminds us of what some would unfortunately tend to forget, namely that all the first Christians were Jews, practicing Jews. This proximity explains another historical truth: the kinship between Jewish and Christian rites.


This great common heritage of Christians and Jews does not prevent differentiation between the two religions. It is the characteristic of human history that each one finds his own way. But it is also the greatness of man to know how to find points of convergence and to overcome differences in order to find hope that is always shared, just as the branch knows how to find its renewal in the sap of the tree of which it is one of the branches.”


Thus expressed the great Rabbi Haim Korsia, forewording "The Jewish Roots of the Mass", published in 2015. We have chosen to present excerpts from this work, showing to what extent the New Covenant draws on the sources of Jewish tradition for its most fundamental life, the celebration of the liturgy and sacraments at the foundations of the Church.


The Early Christians: Practicing Jews

"We may at times tend to forget that all early Christians were Jews, and practicing Jews. From the formal point of view, this historical truth explains the link between Jewish and Christian rites.


Even after the resurrection of Jesus, we see the first disciples performing the rites of the Temple liturgy, frequenting the synagogue and observing the daily prescriptions more or less faithfully, as the controversy about ablutions before meals shows.


The early Christians did not create their liturgy ex nihilo, they gradually transformed from within their Jewish way of praying.

"The Jews have worship" writes St. Paul (Romans 9:4), and this worship of the Old Covenant has given its form to that of the New Covenant, with Christians celebrating Mass regularly from the beginning.


[Here are two examples showing the proximity of Christian and Jewish rites]:


Offering gestures

Some liturgies have developed the habit of replacing the word "offertory" with the expression "presentation of gifts". The priest receives the bread and wine in his hands, presents them to the Lord holding them slightly elevated, then places them on the altar. Now this gesture, which constitutes the essence of the rite of offertory, is the same as that performed by the cohen in the Temple: "You shall put everything on the palms of Aaron and his sons, and you shall make them present it with the gesture of elevation before the Lord" (Ex 29:24). It is therefore important that it is not the deacon himself who places the offerings on the altar, but that he places them in the hands of the bishop or priest, who will make the gesture of offertory. An altar is a place of sacrifice: to place offerings there is thus reserved only for the depositories of the priestly ministry. Moreover, during the celebration of this rite, it is very important that each member of the assembly really offers himself with a prayer from the heart. Indeed, we remember that the twelve offering loaves placed on the golden table in the hekhal of the Temple symbolically made the twelve tribes of the people of Israel constantly present before the Lord.  


Offering wine

By offering the cup of wine, accompanied by the blessing: "Blessed are you God of the universe, you who give us this wine, etc.", the Church follows the Jewish tradition of Kiddush, a rite of sanctification of a holy day by means of a blessing pronounced on a cup filled with wine. When kiddush is celebrated at home, the food on the table must be covered with a veil during the blessing. Kiddush is followed by ritual hand washing. 


On the other hand, some of the early Christians were also true specialists in Jewish worship. In this respect, the book of Acts of the Apostles teems with small details rarely found. For example, it specifies that "a great multitude of Jewish priests achieved obedience to the faith" (Acts 6:7), that is, became Christians by receiving baptism; therefore, when they entered the Church, they brought with them their intimate knowledge of the Temple liturgy. Others were Levites, like Barnabas, "Levites from Cyprus" (Acts 4:36). Still others were synagogue leaders. On this subject, the personality of the beloved disciple mentioned many times in the Gospel of Saint John is very interesting. It has sometimes been pointed out that this former disciple of the cohen John the Baptist also seems to be a descendant of Aaron from a priestly family.


Several clues tend to show this, especially if one considers - this is the traditional opinion – that this "beloved disciple" is the apostle John himself, the author of the fourth gospel. First of all, he is "known to the high priest" (John 18:5). This familiarity gives him not only to enter the high priest's house, but even to give orders to the servant who guards the door so that he lets Simon Peter in. No doubt it is he who will tell the other apostles the details of Jesus' trial before Anne. He knows the name and relatives of the high priest's servant who had his ear cut off by Simon Peter in the Garden of Olives (John 18, 10 and 26). On Easter morning, although he was the first to arrive at the tomb, he did not enter it until Peter had entered and assured him that the tomb was empty. "It was then that the other disciple entered, he who had arrived first at the tomb" (John 20:8). Why? Because a Jewish priest cannot come into contact with a dead person, under penalty of ritual impurity (Leviticus 21:1). The extent to which the presence of a priest from the Temple, perhaps even a member of the high priest's family, could have influenced the nascent liturgy of the Church, the apostles having celebrated Mass from the beginning, can be measured (Acts 2:42).


According to tradition, John would then settle in Ephesus, the town from which Irenaeus, future bishop of Lyon, would emerge a few decades later.


Several characteristics of the Lyon liturgical rite, which goes back in part to Saint Irenaeus, certainly have their origin in the influence of the Jewish liturgy of the Temple, notably the insistence on the number seven, as in the book of Revelation: seven candlesticks at the entrance to the sanctuary of the primatial of the Gauls until the eighteenth century, seven candlesticks carried by seven acolytes, seven sub-deacons, seven deacons.”


These short excerpts are an invitation to continue to explore the reminiscences of Jewish tradition in the books of the New Testament, to discover in a new perspective, still too little updated, these texts so well known.