John 6:51-58; 13:1-38
It now remains to examine how the “Last Supper” Passover scene is presented in the Gospel of John. Here, as is often the case, we are dealing with an entirely separate line of tradition, though one which shares certain elements and details with the Synoptic.
The first point to consider is the identification of the “Last Supper” as a Passover meal. This is all but certain in the Synoptic tradition (cf. the last three notes), but not so in the Gospel of John. Indeed, the Gospel of John has rather a different chronology for the Passion narrative, which will be discussed in more detail in a separate note. As we shall see, there are other prominent differences between the two (John and the Synoptics); and yet certain elements would seem to confirm that they are drawing upon a common historical tradition. The common features may be outlined as follows:
- If not on the eve/day of Passover proper (Mk 14:1, 12ff par), clearly there is a general Passover setting for this meal (John 13:1, cf. also 11:55; 12:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14).
- It is a meal shared between Jesus and his disciples (Mk 14:12ff par; Jn 13:1-2ff).
- It is connected with a narrative introduction referencing the betrayal by Judas (Mk 14:10-11 par; Jn 13:2).
- Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, including the identification of the betrayer (Mk 14:18-21 par; Jn 13:18-30 [note the greatly expanded tradition in John]).
- The prediction of Peter’s denial, following the scene of the meal (Mk 14:27-31 par; Jn 13:36-38).
The main differences in John’s account, compared with the Synoptic tradition, may be summarized:
- The meal does not occur on the evening which marks the start of Passover proper (Nisan 15), but some time before this (Jn 13:1).
- There is no account of the “Lord’s Supper” and its institution (cf. the previous note).
- In its place we find a different sort of symbolic, sacramental act—Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (vv. 3-17).
- Judas features more prominently in the episode (vv. 2, 25-30; cf. also 12:4-6).
- In between the Last Supper meal and the Gethsemane/Garden scene (18:1-11) there is an extensive collection of teaching by Jesus—the “Last Discourse” (13:31-17:26).
Items #1 and 4 will be discussed in separate upcoming notes; today, and in the note following, we will examine #2, 3, and 5.
The Absence of the “Lord’s Supper” (cf. Jn 6:51-58)
As discussed in the prior note, the Lord’s Supper, with Jesus’ words of institution, features prominently in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:22-25; Matt 26:26-29; Luke 22:17-20). It is all but certain that the Gospel writers, in various ways, have shaped this portion of the narrative to reflect early Christian ritual and practice regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:20), which came to be known by the technical term of Eucharist (from the verb used by Jesus, eu)xariste/w, eucharistéœ). There is nothing of this at all in John’s version of the scene, a fact which has perplexed commentators throughout the years. However, as it turns out, there is a scene in the Fourth Gospel which seems to relate in some way to the Eucharist—in Jn 6:51-58, part of the great “Bread of Life” discourse (6:25-59). I have discussed these verses several other times on this site, most recently in the notes on the Feeding Miracle (6:1-15) in the current series (cf. the note on Jn 6:22-59). There is general similarity between verse 51 and Mk 14:22ff par (note the words in bold):
- ”taking bread…and giving it to the disciples (he) said, ‘Take (it and) eat—this is my body‘” (Matt 26:26 [very close to Mk])
- “taking bread…he gave (it) to them, saying, ‘This is my body th(at is be)ing given over you‘” (Lk 22:19 MT)
- “if any one should eat this bread…the bread which I will give is my flesh (given) over the life of the world” (Jn 6:51)
Moreover, there are other instances of strong Eucharist language or allusions in the verses which follow (esp. vv. 52-56):
- The people ask “how is this (man) able to give us [his] flesh to eat?” (v. 52)
(the four statements by Jesus in response clearly have a parallel structure, set in tandem):
- “If you would not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in your(selves)” (v. 53)
- “The one chomping [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 54)
- “For my flesh truly is food and my blood truly is drink” (v. 55)
- “The one chomping [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me and I in him” (v. 56)
- The people ask “how is this (man) able to give us [his] flesh to eat?” (v. 52)
Commentators continue to debate how one should interpret these references in the context of the Bread of Life discourse. There are a number of possibilities:
- Option 1: The statements are all part of an authentic discourse given by Jesus at the time indicated in the narrative, and that he is referring to the Lord’s Supper—i.e. the Christian Eucharist.
- Option 2: The narrative setting is authentic, but Jesus is not primarily referring to the Eucharist, but to a symbolic/spiritual “eating” of his words (and the power/presence of his person), as indicated in vv. 35-50 and vv. 60-63ff. A Eucharistic interpretation is secondary, but applicable.
- Option 3: Eucharistic words by Jesus, from an original Last Supper (Passion) setting, have been “relocated” and included within the earlier discourse by the Gospel writer (or the tradition he has inherited).
- Option 4: Vv. 51-58 represent an early Christian interpretation (by the Gospel writer?) of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse/teaching, so as to tie it in with the Eucharist.
- Option 5: Vv. 51-58, along with much of the discourse as a whole, are essentially an early Christian production, derived (in some fashion) from Jesus’ actual words. As such, they definitely refer to the Eucharist.
In my view, only the middle three (2nd, 3rd and 4th) options have any real chance of being correct. Traditional-conservative commentators (especially Evangelical Protestants) would perhaps opt for the second; and, it must be said, the overall tone of the discourse (and Johannine thought) favors a spiritual/symbolic interpretation of vv. 51-58. Critical scholars would probably tend toward option 4—i.e., that vv. 51-58 represent a distinctly Christian ‘layer’ of interpretation that has been added to the discourse, which otherwise would have been a Passover exposition (given to Jews in the Synagogue, v. 59) on the “Bread of Life” motif from Exodus. However, there is much to be said for option #3—that the Gospel writer(?) has included Jesus’ Eucharistic words and teaching, originally given to his disciples in the context of the Last Supper and his impending Passion. Arguments in favor of this view are:
- The lack of any reference to the Eucharist at the “Last Supper” (cf. above). The author certainly knew of this tradition, and it is hard to image that he would not have included it, or a reference to it, somewhere in the Gospel.
- The general similarity here to the words (and essential thought) presented by Jesus at the Last Supper in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:22ff par, cf. above).
- The fact that, in the chapter 6 setting, such references to eating/drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood would have been virtually incomprehensible to people at the time (including interested but uncommitted followers). They are more intelligible when spoken to Jesus’ close disciples at a time closer to his death.
- The Passover setting in chapter 6 might have made it possible, in the mind of the author, to “transfer” the Eucharistic words from one Passover to another, so as to take advantage of the “Bread of Life” motif (which involves ‘eating’ Jesus).
A careful examination of the structure of vv. 51-58 may help us to interpret the passage more clearly. Consider:
- V. 51a: I AM saying of Jesus (“I am the Living Bread stepping down out of Heaven”); this connects vv. 51-58 with the earlier portions of the discourse (vv. 26-34, 35-50).
- Vv. 51b-52:
Exposition by Jesus (v. 51b)—The need to eat this Bread, which is identified with Jesus’ flesh
Reaction/Question by the people (v. 52)
- Vv. 53-56:
Exposition by Jesus (four statements)—Eating/drinking his flesh and blood
- V. 57:
Exposition by Jesus—Feeding on him (the Son)
- V. 58: Concluding statement by Jesus (“This is the Bread stepping down out of Heaven”)
There is a definite chiasmus involved in this structure:
- Bread coming down out of Heaven (v. 51a)
- Bread coming down out of Heaven (v. 58)
It appears that the Eucharistic motif in vv. 53-56 has been carefully set or ‘inserted’ into the conceptual structure of the Bread of Life discourse—with the sudden (and rather unexpected) shift from bread/flesh to flesh and blood. Only in these verses is there any mention of drinking in the discourse, which otherwise naturally, and appropriately, refers only to eating. The critical question is whether the Gospel writer or Jesus himself is responsible for this development. If one decides that the latter is more likely, then it is harder to maintain a primary Eucharistic reference in vv. 51-58 (though a secondary application is still possible); if the former, then a direct allusion to the Eucharist is all but certain.