(This is an expanded version of a note posted during Holy Week last year)
All four Gospels record Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23ff; John 13:1-30), but with a well-known chronological difference: the Synoptics indicate that it was a Passover meal (Matthew 15:7; Mark 14:12; and esp. Luke 22:7), the 14/15th of Nisan; while John records Jesus’ death during the preparation for Passover, 14th Nisan (John 19:14; also cf. 12:1). A number of solutions have been offered to explain or harmonize the difference between the accounts, none, I should say, entirely satisfactory. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that John records no institution of the sacrament (Lord’s Supper), attention rather being given to Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (13:3-20). In fact, the only mention of the bread and cup would seem to be in the “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6 (vv. 53-57); this has prompted many scholars to ask if perhaps vv. 51-58 have been inserted by the author/redactor into the current location from a traditional Last Supper setting. But this raises an even more significant question: do verses 51-58 in fact refer to the Eucharist (that is, to the material sacrament)? As I will discuss below, I do not think the primary reference is to the sacrament. However, here are some arguments in favor of a sacramental reference:
- Suddenly, in place of Jesus himself (or his words) identified with the Bread from Heaven (“the Bread [which] came down from Heaven”, o( e)k tou= ou)ranou= kataba/$, cf. esp. v. 51), we hear of “eating his flesh” (fa/ghte th\n sa/rka) and “drinking his “blood” (pi/hte au)tou= to\ ai!ma) (vv. 53-56)
- The verb (trw/gw) used in verse 56, conveys a very concrete image of eating (literally “striking” or “crunching” away; in colloquial English it might be rendered “munching”). This would suggest a physical eating (of a material sacrament) and not simply a spiritual appropriation.
- It is most unlikely that the Gospel of John would not have some reference to the Eucharist, and this is the only passage which fits.
- The “embedded” reference to the Eucharist is parallel to a similar reference to the sacrament of Baptism in the Discourse with Nicodemus (see 3:5)
- The Bread of Life Discourse follows the Feeding of the Multitude, which, in all four Gospels, is described using Eucharistic language, and presumably was understood in connection with the Eucharist from earliest times.
- One critical argument is that a redactor of the final version of the Gospel intentionally added in more specific sacramental details in order to modify or qualify an otherwise “spiritualist” teaching.
What about the idea that the author (or redactor) added Eucharistic teachings of Jesus to the discussion of vv. 25-50? One can certainly see how verse 51(b) could have been a connection point with the prior teachings on the “Bread from Heaven” (expounding the Passover theme of the Manna), as well as teaching on the Eucharist. The mention of “flesh” (o( a&rto$ de\ o^n e)gw\ dw/sw h( sa/rc mou/ e)stin u(pe\r th=$ tou= kosmou/ zwh=$, “and the bread which I will give over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world is my flesh“) would lead naturally to discussion of the Eucharist. The real problem, however, is not so much vv. 51-58, but rather what follows: vv. 60-71, especially verse 63: to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin to\ zw|opoiou=n, h( sa\rc ou)k w)felei= ou)den (“the spirit is th[at which] makes live, the flesh profits nothing”). The tone of this portion seems to be at odds with a reference to the material sacrament in vv. 51-58. A number of critical scholars have noted that reading 6:25-50 and 60-71 in sequence makes good sense, while including vv. 51-58 creates an interpretive difficulty. R. E. Brown, in his commentary (Anchor Bible 29 pp. 302-303), takes the precarious step of assuming both that vv. 51-58 were added by a redactor, and that we should read vv. 60-71 as relating to vv. 25-50 but not to vv. 51-58.
In my view, it is important to look at the Gospel as it has come down to us, whether or not sayings of Jesus from different contexts have been combined together to give it its current form. I would outline the chapter as follows:
- 6:1-14: The Miraculous Feeding, which includes Eucharist language and imagery [v. 11-13] + transitional verse 15
- [6:16-21: The traditional episode of the Jesus’ Walking on the Water to meet his disciples]
- [6:22-24: Transitional section which sets the scene]
- 6:25-30: Discussion of the Miraculous Feeding, with a saying of Jesus on the “work of God” (tou=to/ e)stin to\ e&rgon tou= qeou=, i%na pisteu/hte ei)$ o^n a)pe/steilen e)kei=no$, “this is the work of God: that you should trust in the [one] whom that one sent”, v. 29)
- 6:31-59: The Bread of Life Discourse, which I break down into four parts:
a) The Scripture reference (“Bread from Heaven”), and Jesus’ initial exposition: 6:31-33
b) Crowd (“Lord, give us this bread always”) and Jesus’ Response: e)gw/ ei)mi o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$ (“I Am the bread of life…”), 6:34-40
c) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “I am the Bread”/”which came down out of Heaven” and Jesus’ Response, 6:41-51
d) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “The Bread that I will give…is my flesh” and Jesus’ Response, 6:52-58 + concluding note v. 59
- 6:60-71: Discussion of the Bread of Life Discourse (the Disciples’ Reaction), in two parts:
a) The reaction “This is a rough account [i.e. word/saying], who is able to hear it?” and Jesus’ Response, 6:60-65
b) The turning away of many disciples, with Peter’s response (“you have words of life [of the] Age [i.e. eternal life]”), 6:66-71
Here I view vv. 51-58 as integral to the Discourse as we have it. The “flesh and blood” of vv. 53-56 is an intensification and expansion of the imagery in verse 51: the “bread that he gives” is his “flesh [and blood]”—compare verses 51 and 54:
e)a\n ti$ fa/gh| e)k tou/tou tou= a&rtou
(“If someone should [actually] eat out of [i.e. from] this bread…”)
o( trw/gwn mou th\n sa/rka kai\ pi/nwn mou to\ ai!ma
(“The [one] chewing [‘chopping at’] my flesh and drinking my blood…“)
zhsei ei)$ to\n ai)w=na (“…he shall live into the Age [i.e. have eternal life]”)
e&xei zwh\n ai)w/nion (“…has life [of the] Age [i.e. has eternal life]”)
Jesus’ returns to mention just the bread again in the concluding verse 58, which also reiterates the OT scripture (and motif) that began the Discourse: ou!to/$ e)stin o( a&rto$ o( e)c ou)ranou= kataba/$, “this is the bread (which) came down out of heaven”.
Another way to read the core section of the discourse (6:35-58) is in parallel, as though verses 35-50 and 51-58 represented two aspects of the same message. Note the points of similarity:
- Saying of Jesus: “I am the bread of life / living bread” which begins the section (v. 35a / 51a)
- Teaching by Jesus expounding the “bread of life” in terms of “coming/believing” and “eating his flesh”, respectively (35b-40 / 51)
- Question by “the Jews” (grumbling/disputing), reacting (with misunderstanding) to Jesus’ teaching (41-42 / 52)
- Jesus’ Response: second exposition (43-47 / 53-57)
- Concluding “Bread of Life” statement, comparing those who ate manna with those who eat the true bread from heaven (48-50 / 58)
Each of these sections follows the basic pattern of the discourses in the Gospel of John (see the previous day’s note). It is interesting that in vv. 35-50, eating as such is not mentioned (until the conclusion, vv. 49-50); rather the emphasis is on “coming toward” Jesus and “believing in [lit. trusting into/unto]” him, which is part of the initial statement in verse 35:
“The (one) coming toward me, no he shall not hunger; and the (one) trusting into/unto me, no he will not thirst, never”
This is contrasted with vv. 51-58 where the theme is specifically “eating” (Grk fa/gw):
“If (any) one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age; and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world” (v. 51b)
It is also interesting the way that “bread” clearly represents both food and drink in v. 35. This is paralleled in vv. 51-58, where the bread (“flesh”) of v. 51 quickly expands to include “blood” in verse 53ff; it signifies both aspects of human sustenance as well as both primary aspects of the human (physical) constitution, in conventional terms.
How should we relate these two main points of emphasis: “coming/believing” and “eating/drinking”? Is one sapiental (response to Jesus’ words as teaching/wisdom) and the other sacramental (participation in the ritual symbol [eucharist])? Or do they reflect two sets of images corresponding to the single idea of spiritual life in union with Christ? I prefer to regard them as signifying two “levels” for the believer. The first, that of coming/believing (vv. 35-50), is well served by the use of the two prepositions (pro$ “toward”, and ei)$ “unto/into”)—the believer approaches Christ through faith, coming, we could even say, “into” him. At the second level (vv. 51-58), believers commune and nourish themselves—now Christ comes “into” the believer, there is now life in us (cf. the powerful statement in verse 57). But is this second level specifically the Eucharist, in a ritual sense?
In the context of the Discourse, the sacrament of the Eucharist may be implied (a preshadowing), but I do not think it is at all primary to Jesus’ teaching. It is rather the Person of Jesus himself and the Life which he conveys—by means of the Spirit—which is central to the message; and it is this “word” (lo/go$) which the disciples find “rough” or difficult to hear. Too much has been made of verse 63, for it simply gives priority to the Spirit—especially in a sacramental context (Eucharist)—just as the Spirit takes priority in the context of Baptism (3:5-8). In other words, Spirit first, then sacrament; too often in Church history, Christians have made it the other way around, as though only through the tangible sacrament (as a “means of grace”), can one truly experience the Spirit. Consider the fierce fighting over the words of the institution (tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou, “this is my body”, Mark 14:22 par.)—all of the ink (and blood) spilled over the significance of “is” (e)stin)—when it would have been better, I think, to focus on the demonstrative pronoun (“this”, tou=to): that is, not the reality of the sacrament, but the reality of what it signifies. In this regard, it is absolutely necessary to study and meditate carefully on the Bread of Life discourse in John.
(For further notes on the Passion Narratives and the Lord’s Supper, see the first half of an article posted last Easter season.)
The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was perhaps the most contentious issue dividing early Protestants. At the Marburg Conference, Luther refused to shake Zwingli’s hand and stated famously ihr habt einen andern geist denn wir (“you have a different spirit than we [do]”). If a corporal “real presence” remained a ‘line in the sand’ for Lutherans, Bucer of Strassburg and Calvin each sought mediating positions—Calvin spearheaded an agreement with Bullinger and the Swiss Reformed (the Zurich Consensus of 1549), which marks perhaps his finest moment. Calvin’s view of the Eucharist was that Christ is truly present—but only by the Spirit, in a spiritual manner—as believers together partake of the elements. Other Spiritualist Reformers, such as Caspar Schwenckfeld, disgusted by the infighting and the “carnal” view of the sacraments held by mainstream Protestants, advocated a Stillstand, a moratorium on administering the sacrament, along with a clear message: believers partake of the presence of Christ entirely by the Spirit—the material elements, while perhaps useful, ultimately are not necessary.