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John 6:51-58

One controversial aspect of Biblical Criticism has to do with determining how the original text came to be in its current, or final, shape—that is to say, how the various historical traditions were pieced together, in the case of the Gospels, to form a continuous narrative from start to finish. This is sometimes referred to as composition criticism, or redaction criticism—analyzing the work of the author or editor (redactor) in composing the text. Even traditional-conservative commentators recognize that a considerable amount of editing of traditions, sayings, and narrative episodes has taken place in the composition of the Gospels. Critical scholars have pointed out many apparent seams in the text, where originally separate material has likely (or possibly) been joined together.

We have been exploring the Gospel of John in this series, and one particular portion of that Gospel has continued to challenge commentators—the great Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6. I have discussed this long and complex discourse in a number of earlier notes and articles, including the most recent daily note. There are many ways to analyze and outline the discourse. You will find one presented in the aforementioned note; I give a slightly different outline, covering the entire chapter, further below.

An especially difficult question of interpretation involves the relationship of verses 51-58 to the earlier portion of the discourse (vv. 22-50), and also to what follows in vv. 60-71. A major difficulty has to do with the apparent eucharistic language and imagery Jesus uses in vv. 51-58. In some ways, it seems out of place. Would his fellow Jews at the time have understood these motifs of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” at all? Critical commentators have often questioned whether the eucharistic allusions genuinely come from Jesus, or if they are the product of early Christians relating the “Bread of Life” and Passover themes to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.

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 26:17; Mark 14:12; and especially Luke 22:7), the 14/15th of Nisan; while John records Jesus’ death during the preparation for Passover, 14th Nisan (John 19:14; also see 12:1). A number of solutions have been offered to explain or harmonize the difference between the accounts, none, I should say, being 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 a different kind of symbolic and ritual act—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 earlier “Bread of Life” discourse. 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 of interpretation: 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:

  1. Suddenly, in place of Jesus himself (or his words) identified with the Bread from Heaven (“the Bread [which] came down from Heaven”, ho ek toú ouranoú katabás, see especially verse 51), we hear of “eating his flesh” (phág¢te t¢¡n sárka) and “drinking his “blood” (pí¢te auoú to haíma) (vv. 53-56)
  2. The verb (trœ¡gœ) 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)
  5. The Bread of Life Discourse follows the Feeding of the Multitude, which, in all four Gospels, is described using Eucharistic language (see my earlier note on this), and presumably was understood in connection with the Eucharist from earliest times.
  6. 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” (ho ártos de hón egœ¡ dœ¡sœ h¢ sárx mou estin hyper t¢¡s toú kosmoú zœ¢¡s, “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 situation is complicated when one looks at what follows vv. 51-58—namely, verses 60-71, especially verse 63: to pneúma estin to zœopoioún, h¢ sárx ouk œpheleí ouden (“the Spirit is th[at which] makes live, the flesh benefits nothing”). The tone of this portion seems to be at odds with a reference to the material sacrament—that is, a ritual partaking of bread and wine—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 a whole, as follows:

  • 6:1-14: The Miraculous Feeding, which includes Eucharist language and imagery [vv. 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” (toúto estin to érgon toú theoú, hína pisteú¢te eis hón apésteilen ekeínos, “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: egœ¡ eimi ho ártos t¢¡s zœ¢¡s (“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:

eán tis phág¢ ek toútou toú ártou
(“If someone should [actually] eat out of [i.e. from] this bread…”)
ho trœ¡gœn mou t¢¡n sárka kai pínœn mou to haíma
(“The [one] chewing [‘chopping at’] my flesh and drinking my blood…“)

z¢¡sei eis tón aiœ¡na (“…he shall live into the Age [i.e. have eternal life]”)
échei zœ¢¡n aiœ¡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 scriptural motif that began the Discourse: hoútos estin ho ártos ho ex ouranoú katabás, “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. 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 phágœ):

“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)

“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: (1) “coming/believing” and (2) “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:

  1. The first, that of coming/believing (vv. 35-50), is well served by the use of the two prepositions (pros “toward”, and eis “unto/into”)—the believer approaches Christ through faith, coming, we could even say, “into” him.
  2. At the second level (vv. 51-58), believers commune and nourish themselves—now Christ comes “into” the believer, there is now life in us (see the powerful statement in verse 57).

But is this second level specifically the Eucharist, in a ritual sense?

Within the overall 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” (lógos) which the disciples find “rough” or difficult to hear. Too much has been made of verse 63, in a sacramental setting (Eucharist), for in that context it simply gives priority to the Spirit—just as the Spirit takes priority in the context of Baptism (if such is alluded to in 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 (toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou, “this is my body”, Mark 14:22 par.)—all of the ink (and blood) spilled over the significance of “is” (estin)—when it would have been better to focus on the demonstrative pronoun (“this”, touto): that is, not the reality of the sacrament, but the reality of what it signifies.

How would you relate verses 51-58 to the Bread of Life discourse as a whole? If we regard these as authentic words of Jesus, what would they have meant to people at the time? to his disciples? Is there a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper as it would be understood by accepted by believers, or is the reference entirely spiritual (v. 63)? Consider these questions and study chapter 6 again in detail. Then go back and examine the parallels between the “Bread of Life” and “Living Water” in chapter 4 (vv. 10ff). Begin to think about what the author is trying to convey by combining these episodes and discourses together as he has done. Pay close attention to the various keywords, motifs and themes which run through the chapters. Then proceed to study the next discourse, beginning in chapter 7, and which most commentators regard as continuing on through the end of chap. 8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). Note any similarities you see, both in structure, and in theme or language, between chs. 7-8 and the previous discourses (especially the Bread of Life, ch. 6).

And I will see you next Saturday.

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