“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:53)

John 6:53

There are three occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the great ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse of chapter 6. The first of these (in verse 27), discussed previously, occurs within the first of the three sections (vv. 25-34) that comprise the Discourse proper (vv. 22-59):

    • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
    • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
      • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
      • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
      • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
    • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
    • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
      • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)

Each of these three parts builds upon the one prior. In Part 1, Jesus expounds the Scriptural tradition of manna as “the bread from heaven” (Exod 16:4; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15), implicitly identifying himself as the true “bread out of heaven”, which God the Father has sent down. In Part 2 (vv. 35-50), this identification is made explicit, utilizing the expression “the bread of life” (o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$), within an “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) statement by Jesus (v. 35). In Part 3, the identification is further refined in a second “I am” statement (v. 51), using the expression “the living bread” (o( a&rto$ o( zw=n).

The exposition in Part 2 can be divided into two sections (vv. 35-40, 43-50), separated by the questioning (and skeptical) response from Jesus’ hearers. This follows the basic pattern of the Johannine Discourses. Two main points are made in the first expository section: (1) Jesus has come down from heaven, having been sent by the Father; and (2) the purpose of this mission is to give (eternal) life to all who believe in him (viz., as the Son of God). This is basic Johannine theology, and it provides the theological explanation for the identification of Jesus as “the bread of life” (as “the bread out of heaven”). In the second expository section (vv. 43-50), in response to the audience’s questions (v. 42), Jesus further emphasizes the need for people to trust in him, and offers a measure of theological explanation as to how this trust takes place (vv. 44-46).

The fundamental expository development of the manna motif is thus two-fold: (1) that Jesus himself is the true “bread out of heaven”, and (2) that “eating” this bread means trusting in Jesus as the Son of God. There is not the slightest suggestion that the idiom of eating here has any other meaning.

This brings us to the third part of the Discourse (vv. 51-58), in which the “son of man” reference occurs. It is important to keep in mind that the entire Discourse is ultimately rooted in the first saying by Jesus, in verse 27, where the expression “the son of man” occurs:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], which the son of man shall give…”

The second and third sayings explain and elucidate (Christologically, note the “I am” formulation) the primary saying of v. 27:

    • I am the bread of life
      the (one) coming toward me shall not (ever) hunger,
      and the (one) trusting in me shall at no time thirst.” (v. 35)
    • I am the living bread (hav)ing stepped down out of heaven—
      if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age…” (v. 51)

The message is fundamentally the same in each of these sayings: the person who trusts in Jesus shall possess (and experience) eternal life. The parallelism of vv. 35 and 51 further confirms that “eating” the bread of life (Jesus) means trusting in him.

However, the second of these “I am” sayings (v. 51) is closer in form to the initial saying of v. 27. Note the parallel in the first portion of each saying:

    • “…(work for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age”
    • “if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age”

And also in the second portion:

    • “…which the son of man shall give”
    • “…and the bread which I will give…”

The parallel makes clear that the expression “the son of man” is primarily used by Jesus here as a self-reference, interchangeable with the pronoun “I”. This confirms much of our analysis from the earlier studies on the Synoptic “son of man” sayings. The final words of verse 51 provide the essential expository information that will be further developed in this section:

“…and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”

That is to say, Jesus’ identity as the “bread of life” (or “living bread”) is specifically focused on his flesh (sa/rc). In verse 53 (see below), this is further expanded to include his blood (ai!ma); the preparation for this expository development is provided by the reference to both eating and drinking, in v. 35. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the motif of eating and that of drinking—in the Johannine theological idiom, they both refer to trusting in Jesus, and to the life that is conferred to the believer as a result of that trust. One only need to compare the “living water” (drinking) theme in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10-14, cf. also 7:37-39) with the “living bread” (eating) theme here in chapter 6.

The statement by Jesus in verse 51 naturally leads to another questioning response (demonstrating a lack of understanding) by his hearers (v. 52). The difficulty expressed in vv. 42-43 had to do with the idea that Jesus had come down from heaven; here, the problem lies in the idea of eating his “flesh”. Jesus responds with a further exposition (vv. 53-58) of his saying. The “son of man” reference occurs in the initial statement of this exposition:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: if you should not eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, you do not hold (any) life in yourselves.” (v. 53)

Here, the phrase “the flesh of the son of man” is precisely parallel with “my flesh” (in v. 51), demonstrating (again) that the expression “the son of man” is principally a self-reference by Jesus. This is also confirmed by the statement that follows in v. 54:

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…”

This represents the positive side of the negative statement in v. 53: the one who does eat Jesus’ “flesh” does have life, while the one who does not eat his “flesh” does not have life. This is typical of the dualistic manner of Johannine thought and expression. For stylistic variation (and dramatic emphasis), the verb trw/gw (lit. “wear away” by chewing), in the sense of “devour, consume”, is used in verse 54ff instead of the more general fa/gw (“eat”). The verb trw/gw is quite rare in the New Testament; of the six occurrences, four are here in vv. 54-58.
It is no less rare in the LXX, occurring only in the compounds e)ktrw/gw (Mic 7:4) and katatrw/gw (Prov 24:22e).

In verse 55, Jesus further emphasizes that his “flesh” and “blood” is true food and drink (just as he is the true “bread from heaven”). The natural consequences of this idiom of eating/drinking are developed in vv. 56-57. Just as a person takes in food and drink, and then the life-giving nutrients, etc, are assimilated and made active within the person, so the believer who consumes the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus assimilates the Divine life (and life-giving power) of the Son. This is expressed in decidedly Johannine terms. First, in verse 56, the key verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) is utilized. This is the principal Johannine way of expressing the union of the believer with God—viz., the believer “remains in” God, and God “remains in” the believer. This abiding union with God the Father is achieved through the Son—that is, through trust in the Son (i.e., eating/drinking him):

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

It is only by being (i.e. remaining) “in the Son” that we are able to be “in the Father”. In verse 57, the focus is on the life-giving power of the Son, which was given to him by the Father:

“Just as the living Father sent me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also the (one) devouring me—that (one) shall live through me.”

This is another essential Johannine theme, one which featured prominently in the chapter 5 Discourse. Indeed, the theme is central to the “son of man” reference in v. 27, as it occurs within the overall context of vv. 19-30 (cf. the discussion in the prior study). Note, in particular, the statement in verse 26:

“For, just as the Father holds life in Himself, thus also He has given (it) to the Son to hold life in himself.”

The Son, in turn, gives life to whomever he wishes—that is, to all those who trust in him.

These themes and points of emphasis are summarized in v. 58, at the close of the Discourse, as Jesus returns to the manna tradition with which he began the Discourse:

This is the bread (hav)ing come down out of heaven; and (it is) not at all as our fathers ate and (then) died away—the (one) devouring this bread shall live into the Age!”

Conclusions

The use of the expression “the son of man” in verse 53, as noted above, functions primarily as a self-reference by Jesus. Its meaning and significance, in this Johannine context, follow the points of emphasis that we have already outlined from the prior studies (on the sayings in 1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27, and 6:27):

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe

If there is anything distinctive which is to be added to these theological themes, based on the saying in v. 53 (in the context of vv. 51-58), it relates specifically to the motif of Jesus’ flesh (and blood). These two idiomatic terms— “flesh” (sa/rc) and “blood” (ai!ma)—carry a correspondingly two-fold significance:

    • “flesh” —the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus (cf. 1:14; 1 Jn 4:2; 2 Jn 7)
    • “blood” —the life-giving power of Jesus’ death (19:34 [cp. verse 30]; 1 Jn 1:7; 5:6, 8)

The nouns sa/rc and ai!ma hardly occur at all in the Johannine writings outside of this theological-christological nexus.

As we have seen from our studies on the Synoptic sayings, the expression “the son of man” was particularly used by Jesus in connection with his suffering and death. This applies to the three Passion-predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par; cf. also 9:9, 12), but the expression also occurs a number of times in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:21, 41 par; Matt 26:2; Lk 22:48), in dramatic anticipation of Jesus’ suffering/death. Especially notable, as a parallel to Jn 6:53, is the saying in Mark 10:45:

“For the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul, (as) a loosing (from bondage), in exchange for many.”

This resembles the thought expressed by Jesus at the Last Supper:

“this is my blood…having been poured out over many” (Mk 14:24 par)

The symbolism of the bread and wine—as Jesus’ “body” and “blood” —relates to his impending death, which will function as a sacrificial act, enabling human beings (viz., those who trust in him) to be set free from bondage (to sin).

Nearly all commentators recognize that there is eucharistic language present in vv. 51-58. The inclusion of flesh and blood, even though “flesh” alone would make a more natural parallel to “bread”, strongly suggests that there is an intentional reference (or allusion) to the eucharist (i.e., the Lord’s Supper ritual) at work in this section. Indeed, the wording in v. 51 (“…which I give over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”) seems to echo that of Mk 14:24 par (“…having been poured out over [u(pe/r] many”).

The precise relationship of vv. 51-58 to the eucharist has been (and continues to be) much debated by scholars and commentators. I have discussed the matter in earlier notes and articles, most recently as a supplemental note in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” (cf. the article on Jn 6:63). I will not repeat those discussions here. In any case, with regard to the specific use of the expression “the son of man”, the principal point is that, as in the Synoptic Last Supper account, Jesus’ “flesh” (or “body”) and “blood” refer to his death. Only secondarily, by way of symbolism, do they refer to the (eucharistic) elements of the Lord’s Supper rite.

As a result of our study on verse 53 (in context), we may expand our list of Johannine themes associated with the expression “the son of man” to include four fundamental themes:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe
    • The incarnation of the Son, whose mission on earth culminates in his sacrificial death, which serves to confer life to those who believe

In the next part of this study, we shall turn our attention to the “son of man” reference in verse 62.

August 6: John 6:63 (6)

John 6:63, continued

“The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything!” (6:63a)

As I have discussed, there are two aspects of Jesus’ teaching in the Bread of Life discourse which would have caused difficulty for his disciples (v. 60): (1) the claim by Jesus that he has come down from heaven (implying a heavenly origin) [v. 41f], and (2) the idea that people need to eat Jesus (as “bread from heaven”) [v. 52]. Both points can only be understood from the standpoint of the Christology of the Gospel. In the previous note, we looked at the contrastive (Spirit/flesh) statement in v. 63a in terms of the first Christological aspect; today we will consider the second aspect.

Even without verses 51-58, the idea that people need to “eat” Jesus would have been difficult to understand (see the reaction in v. 41f). When one includes the eucharistic language of vv. 51-58, and the specific image of eating (human) flesh and drinking (human) blood, the concept would have seemed especially grotesque and offensive (see v. 52). The disciples’ response (in v. 60) surely indicates something of the same reaction.

When Jesus’ declaration in v. 63a is considered in relation to this particular difficulty (stated rather clearly in v. 52), the Spirit/flesh contrast takes on a different level of significance. In an earlier article (cf. also the supplemental note), I discussed this verse in the particular context of the Johannine understanding of the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord’s Supper rite). When verse 63 is read in relation to the eucharistic language of vv. 51-58, it strongly suggests a spiritual (rather than sacramental) interpretation of the Supper. We shall now follow up on this discussion, looking at the matter from a Christological standpoint.

If, from a Christological standpoint, “Spirit” (pneu=ma) designates the Divine nature and status of Jesus (as the eternal Son of God), then “flesh” (sa/rc) refers to the Son’s (incarnate) life and existence as a human being; cf. the discussion in the previous note. The implication, then, of the statement in v. 63 (“the flesh does not benefit anything”) is that one does not actually, physically, eat Jesus’ human flesh. I would maintain that this premise extends even to the physical consumption of the eucharistic bread (symbolizing the flesh). It is only the Spirit, not the flesh, that has life-giving power.

Why, then, is it necessary to eat Jesus’ flesh? It is important to understand the connotation of the terms “flesh” (sa/rc) and “blood” (ai!ma) in the theological context of the Discourse. As indicated above (and in the previous note), sa/rc refers to the Son’s life and existence as a human being; the term ai!ma (“blood”) takes this point further, by referring specifically to Jesus’ death (as a human being). This conceptual terminology is relatively rare in the Johannine writings, but, where it does occur, it has a vital significance that is emphasized by the author—Jn 19:34f; 1 Jn 1:7; 5:6-8; cf. also Rev 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11; 19:13. It is also a sacrificial death, which possesses the cleansing (and life-restoring) power of a sacrificial offering for sin (1 Jn 1:7; Rev 1:5; cf. Jn 1:29). This idea is expressed or alluded to repeatedly in the Bread of Life Discourse—especially in vv. 53-58.

According to the principle expressed in v. 63a, the efficacious power of Jesus’ sacrificial death (his “blood”) is communicated to believers by the Spirit. There are two components to this teaching:

(1) It is communicated to believers

In the Discourse, “eating” the living bread of Jesus means trusting (vb pisteu/w) in him; this is clearly stated or expressed throughout the discourse—vv. 29, 35f, 40, 47.

(2) It is communicated by the Spirit

The clearest indication of this, apart from v. 63 itself, is the parallel between the motif of “living bread” (v. 51) and the “living water” of 4:10-15; 7:37-39. In each instance, the motif refers to something, given by Jesus, which the believer consumes (eats/drinks), and which has the Divine/eternal attribute of “living” (zw=n). Since the Gospel writer understands the living water as referring to the Spirit, almost certainly the living bread has the same point of reference. The Son possesses the fullness of the Divine Spirit, having received it from the Father (3:34f); just as God the Father is Spirit (4:24), so also is His Son. The Life he possesses from the Father, the Son is able to communicate to believers (1:4ff; 5:26; 14:19, etc). This is expressed most clearly in the Discourse by the statement in verse 57:

“Just as the living [zw=n] Father sent me forth, and I live [zw=] through the Father, (so) also the (one) eating me—even that (one)—will live [zh/sei] through me.”

At the physical level of human existence (“flesh”), life is given/maintained through the eating of material food (“bread”); similarly, at the Divine level (of the Spirit), life is given (and preserved) through the eating of spiritual food. One “eats” the bread/flesh of Jesus himself, in a spiritual way, through the Spirit. This corresponds precisely with the contrast in 3:3-8, between an ordinary (physicial/biological) human birth and spiritual birth (“out of [i.e. from] the Spirit,” e)k pneu/mato$).

Once the believer receives the Spirit, it abides/remains (vb me/nw) within, functioning as a continuous source of (eternal) life which the believer possesses, even during his/her existence (as a human being) on earth. For this language and imagery here in the Discourse, cf. vv. 27, 35, 53, 55-57; elsewhere in the Gospel, esp. 3:34-35; 4:14; 7:38f; 14:17; cf. also 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13.

In the next daily note, we will examine the second part of verse 63[b], according to the same two Christological aspects by which we examine v. 63a.

The Extent of Johannine Spiritualism: Jn 4:23-24; 6:63

Two important Spirit-references in the Gospel of John, reflecting Johannine spiritualism, have been discussed in the most recent articles in this series—the articles on 4:10-15ff (incl. vv. 21-24) and 6:63. Based on the strong spiritualistic language in 4:23-24 and 6:63, it is fair to inquire as to the extent of Johannine spiritualism. A basic feature of Christian spiritualism is the tendency to relativize or downplay the importance of external religious elements—especially as they are manifest in public (corporate) worship and ritual. The essence of worship and ritual is realized spiritually, and does not require any external observance or performance.

The language of 4:23-24 and 6:63 (in the context of 6:51-58) suggests that the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) is emphasizing just such an inward, spiritual mode of worship, over and against the external observance of any rite. I will begin which the specific relationship between 6:63 and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), since the eucharistic language in vv. 51-58 strongly indicates that these verses at least allude to the early Christian rite of the Lord’s Supper.

John 6:63 in relation to the Eucharistic language in vv. 51-58

It is generally agreed that verses 51-58 of the chapter 6 Bread of Life Discourse contain eucharistic language, and that both author and readers would have recognized the language as referring, in some fashion, to the early Christian ritual of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). However, if this point of reference is intentional, in precisely what sense is it intended to be understood?

I would delineate two broad ways of viewing the matter. The first option is that the author intended to emphasize the physical eating and drinking of Jesus’ “flesh” and “blood” through the sacramental elements (bread and wine) of the Lord’s Supper ritual. Let us call this the ritualistic view. The second option is that the eating/drinking is meant to be understood entirely in a figurative, spiritual sense, and that one partakes of the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus inwardly, through the Spirit. This we will call the spiritualistic view. While it is certainly possible to posit a hybrid or intermediate view, somewhere between these two interpretive poles, most explanations of vv. 51-58, as reflecting the author’s intention, tend toward one of these two options. This is especially so when we consider the relationship between vv. 51-58 and the Spirit-saying in v. 63 (on which, cf. the recent article in this series).

We must also take into account the critical question of vv. 51-58 in relation to various theories regarding the composition of the Gospel, as there are differences of opinion as to whether vv. 51-58 are an integral part of the original Discourse (and the original version of the Gospel), or whether they represent a secondary (redactional) addition. We may thus outline three possibilities:

      • Verses 51-58 are original to the Discourse, and are intended in a ritualistic sense
      • They have been added to the Discourse, with a ritualistic emphasis, perhaps intended to counterbalance the (apparent) spiritual emphasis in the rest of the Discourse
      • Whether or not the verses are original to the Discourse, they are meant to be understood in a spiritualistic sense

The incompatibility of the ritualistic interpretation with the consistent figurative usage of the idiom of eating/drinking—both in the Discourse proper (esp. verses 35-50) and in the earlier Samaritan Woman Discourse of chapter 4 (vv. 10-15, 32ff)—makes it highly unlikely that there would have been a ritualistic meaning intended for vv. 51-58 if those verses were part of the original Discourse. This is all the more so if we consider the Discourse in terms of the historical tradition—viz. of Jesus as the speaker of such a discourse in a synagogue setting (v. 59). A reference to the early Christian ritual would have been completely incomprehensible to a first-century Jewish audience.

This leaves us with the last two options outlined above. Either vv. 51-58 represent a redactional addition, meant to counterbalance the spiritual emphasis of the Discourse, or they were intended to be understood in a spiritualistic manner. Many commentators (e.g., R. E. Brown, von Wahlde) would hold to some version of the former position—that vv. 51-58 are an addition to the original Discourse-tradition, and are intended to bring out a ritualistic Eucharistic emphasis. In other words, the purpose was to emphasize the need to “eat” (and “drink”) Jesus (i.e., the Bread) in a literal, physical sense—through the “flesh” and “blood” of the sacramental elements. According to some versions of this theory, the Eucharistic language of the ‘words of instution’ by Jesus, set (in the Synoptic tradition) during the Last Supper, have been transferred and relocated to the Bread of Life Discourse, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Given the early Christian tendency to associate the Miraculous Feeding episode (vv. 1-15 par) with the Eucharist, the following Discourse may have seemed like the best place to include reference to the Last Supper tradition.

If this was, indeed, the author/editor’s intent, it must be regarded as a failure. If the goal was to emphasize the Lord’s Supper ritual, this would have been accomplished much more effectively by maintaining the Synoptic connection with the Last Supper. By embedding the Eucharistic reference within the Bread of Life Discourse, any ritualistic emphasis has been thoroughly obscured. As the history of interpretation has demonstrated, with centuries of diverging opinions by commentators, it is by no means clear that vv. 51-58, in context, were intended to be understood in anything like a ritualistic sense.

Thus, serious consideration should be given to the possibility that the verses were, from the beginning (at whatever point they were included in the Discourse), meant to be understood in a spiritualistic sense. The main arguments in support of this have been introduced and elucidated in prior notes. The central point I would make is that, if the idiom of “eating” and “drinking” was used in a figurative, spiritual sense in 4:10-15ff and 6:27-50, then it should be similarly understood the same way here in 6:51-58. Moreover, if the expression “living water” was understood (by the Gospel writer) as referring to the Spirit (7:37-39), then it is fair to assume that “living bread” has a comparable meaning in chapter 6. And, if one “eats” the living bread in a spiritual manner, then a person would “eat” (and “drink”) the flesh/blood of Jesus likewise. Properly speaking, the emphasis in vv. 27-50 is on trusting in Jesus; people eat and drink Jesus when they trust in him (vv. 29, 35-36, 40, 47, cf. also the emphasis in v. 64).

From the Johannine theological standpoint, to trust in Jesus specifically means believing that he is the Son sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father, and that he was sent to give life to the world. This last point is expressed clearly at several key, climactic moments in the Discourse (vv. 40, 50-51, 57). While “life” (zwh/) is communicated by Jesus through the Spirit, it entails the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. I have discussed this principle, which I believe is central to the Johannine theology, in recent notes (cf. most recently on 1 Jn 1:7ff and 5:6-8). This is the reason and purpose for the eucharistic language and imagery in vv. 51-58, as it provided the only meaningful way for early Christians to express the idea of the communication of the power and efficacy of Jesus’ death through the idiom of eating and drinking.

What role, then, did the Lord’s Supper rite itself have in the Johannine congregations? The complete lack of any reference to the tradition of the institution of the Supper (as a rite to be performed)—and, specifically, in the context of the Last Supper (cf. chapter 13)—suggests that it may not have been particularly important in the Johannine religious milieu. In its place, at least within the Last Supper narrative, a very different ritual (the Foot-washing) is emphasized (vv. 4-20), to a much greater extent than the Supper ritual is correspondingly emphasized in the Synoptic narrative. Unfortunately, we have no information in the Letters regarding Johannine worship practice, so there is no way to form even a prelimary conclusion regarding the place of either the Eucharist or the Foot-washing in the life of those congregations. However, the spiritualistic emphasis, in both the Gospel and the First Letter (to be discussed), raises at least the possibility that the Johannine churches would have downplayed the importance of the Supper ritual, even if they themselves observed it, to some extent.

In this regard, we might mention Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Christians in Smyrna, written sometime in the early 2nd century (c. 110-115?). He refers to opponents who seem to have certain features in common with the opponents mentioned in 1-2 John. In chapter 7, Ignatius claims that these people “hold themselves away” from the Eucharist, apparently refusing to accept that the sacramental elements truly embody the “flesh” of Jesus, and thus (presumably) there is no need for physical consumption of them. Ignatius probably wrote his letter not all that many years after 1-2 John were written; moreover, Smyrna is located in region of Asia (Minor), centered around Ephesus, that is often thought to represent the geographic hub of the Johannine churches. All of this suggests that the opponents Ignatius mentions could have derived from the wider Johannine Community, having perhaps adopted a more extreme version of the kind of spiritualistic views that are expressed in the Gospel and Letters of John.

The Principle Expressed in John 4:23-24

“…an hour comes, and is now (here), when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for indeed the Father seeks such (people) worshiping Him. God is Spirit, and (for) the (one)s worshiping Him, it is necessary to worship in Spirit and in truth.”

This extended declaration by Jesus was discussed in the earlier article (on 4:10-15ff). It has a remarkably spiritualistic ring to it, and yet most commentators are unwilling to go very far down that line of interpretation. R. E. Brown (p. 180), in his comments on vv. 23-24, can serve to summarize the prevailing opinion:

“An ideal of purely internal worship ill fits the NT scene with its eucharistic gatherings, hymn singing, baptism in water, etc. (unless one assumes that John’s theology is markedly different from that of the Church at large).”

His assumptions about “the Church at large” are far-sized, if understandable; in actual fact, we have very little information regarding worship practice (and the associated beliefs) in first-century churches. It is quite precarious to assume that Johannine congregations would have shared, broadly, the ideas and practices mentioned, for example, by Paul in 1 Corinthians, or in the so-called “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (Didache). Brown’s caveat (in parentheses above) at least admits the possibility that Johannine congregations might have held to a more spiritualistic view regarding the nature and purpose of worship.

In the Discourse, Jesus specifically relativizes the location of worship, beginning in verse 21:

“…an hour comes when, neither on this mountain [i.e. Gerizim] nor in Yerushalaim, shall you worship the Father”

The distinction between Gerizim and Jerusalem is particular to the religious differences between Samaritans and Jews. In spite of Jesus’ words in v. 22, the implication is that such differences no longer matter. More than this, the expression “on this mountain” can be generalized to mean “in this particular location”. It would be natural (and logical) to extend this principle to emphasize that worship does not depend on any particular location; this would include any particular congregational setting.

The location for worship is no longer spatial or geographical, but is located “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati). It is possible to understand pneu=ma here in terms of the inward/internal aspect of the human spirit, but this would be quite out of keeping with the overall Johannine usage; moreover, it is contradicted by the emphasis in v. 24, with the declaration that “God is Spirit”. Jesus is clearly referring in v. 23 to the Spirit of God, a point confirmed by the repeated connection between the Spirit and truth (a)lh/qeia)—cf. 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6; 5:6. To worship “in truth” (a)lhqei/a| [preposition implied]) essentially means the same as worshiping “in the Spirit”.

What does all of this mean for the practice of worship, and the realization of it within the Johannine congregations? We simply do not have enough information to draw any conclusions. There may have been an ideal of spiritual worship which the congregations sought to maintain in some fashion, without completely dispensing with common traditions and ritual practices. This question will be explored further in the upcoming articles in this series dealing with the evidence from First John. Indeed, a key theme of that letter (or tract) is the need to balance and moderate a Spirit-centered communal experience, by retaining contact with established lines of tradition.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Jn 6:63

John 6:63

“The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything! (and) the utterances which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life.”

In some ways, this provocative statement by Jesus captures the essence of Johannine spiritualism better than any other passage in the Gospel. Yet it is arguably the most difficult of the Spirit-passages to interpret. Much of the reason for this is the position of the saying in relation to the “Bread of Life” Discourse in chapter 6, and, in particular, the apparent eucharistic references in vv. 51-58.

Chapter 6 represents a more complex literary structure than the Discourses in chaps. 3-5. Like the discourse in chap. 5, the “Bread of Life” discourse in chap. 6 is related to an established Gospel tradition—a miracle-episode, in this case, the Miraculous Feeding episode (vv. 1-15), an historical tradition also found in the Synoptics (Mark 6:32-44 par); I discuss this episode in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The Discourse proper begins at verse 22, with vv. 22-24 serving as the narrative introduction. There are three sections to the Discourse, each of which follows the Johannine discourse-pattern:

    • Principal saying by Jesus
    • Reaction/question by the audience
    • Exposition/explanation by Jesus

Here is my outline of the Discourse:

Section 1 (vv. 25-34)

    • Principal saying by Jesus—verse 27: “Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]…”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 29
    • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 28-31
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 32-33
    • Theme: transition from the Feeding Miracle (v. 26) to the Passover motif (i.e. the manna, “bread from heaven”, vv. 31-33)

Section 2 (vv. 35-50)

    • Saying by Jesus—verse 35: “I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Bread of Life—the one coming toward me (no) he will not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting into me (no) he will not ever thirst. …”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—vv. 36-40
    • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 41-42
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 44-50
    • Theme: Eating Bread—Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, the Bread come down from Heaven

Section 3 (vv. 51-58)

    • Saying by Jesus—verse 51a (parallel to v. 35): “I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Living Bread stepping down [i.e. coming down] out of Heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age (to Come)…”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 51b
    • Reaction/question by the people—v. 52
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 53-58
    • Theme: transition from Bread (of Life) to the Eucharist motifs (vv. 53-56ff)

Thematically, the “Bread of Life” discourse follows the Samaritan Woman discourse in chap. 4 (discussed in the previous article), with the expression “the bread of life” (o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$) parallel to “living water” (u%dwr zw=n). The expression in v. 51, “living bread” (o( a&rto$ o( zw=n), makes for an even more precise parallel. In chapter 4, Jesus gives (i.e. is the source of) the “living water”, while here in chap. 6, he himself is the “living bread”.

Working from the Miraculous Feeding, and the Passover setting of the miracle (v. 4), Jesus utilizes the motif of bread, drawing upon the Moses/Exodus tradition of the manna—the “bread from heaven”. In good homiletic style, Jesus works from a Scripture reference (v. 31; Exod 16:4, 15, cf. also Psalm 78:24), giving to it a unique theological (and Christological) interpretation. At the historical level, it is possible that the Exodus reference may be following the Synagogue (v. 59) Scripture readings (sedarim) for the Passover season (cf. Brown, pp. 277-80).

The bread motif runs through all three sections of the Discourse; and we can see the expository development at work, moving from the Scriptural motif (“bread out of heaven”) to the Johannine theological expression (“living bread”):

    • “bread out of heaven” (vv. 31-34)—Jesus identifies himself with this bread, since he is the one who came from heaven (v. 38; 3:13, 31ff), that is, from God—hence the parallel expression “bread of God” (v. 33)
    • “bread of life” (vv. 35, 48)—as the “bread from heaven” (v. 41), sent by God to give life to the world (vv. 32-33, 40; cf. 3:15-16, etc), he is rightly identified further as the bread of life (zwh/, i.e. eternal life)
    • “living bread” (vv. 51, 58)—as the “bread of life,” one can also speak of Jesus according to the Johannine theological idiom as “living” (zw=n) bread, parallel to the expression “living water” (4:10-11; 7:38), as noted above.

It is possible to trace this expository development in theological/Christological terms:

    • “bread out of heaven” —Jesus is the Son sent from heaven by God the Father
    • “bread of life” —he is the source of the Divine/eternal life, which he received from the Father, and gives (in turn) to believers
    • “living bread” —referring more properly to the eternal life which he possesses (as the Son), sharing it with the Father (v. 57); as such, this expression alludes more definitely to the presence of the Spirit.

One is to receive the living bread by “eating” it, just as one “drinks” the living water that Jesus gives. Interestingly, in the third section, the idiom of eating is expanded to eating and drinking, even though the idea of drinking does not fit the bread motif. It is just here that the ‘eucharistic’ aspect of the imagery comes into view, as is clear from the initial wording in verse 51:

“I am the living bread, (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven; if any(one) should eat this bread, he shall live into the Age—and, indeed, the bread which I shall give is my flesh, (given) over the life of the world.”

Jesus expounds this statement in vv. 53-56, following the reaction by the people in v. 52; in particular the central declaration of v. 51 is expounded—first negatively, then positively:

    • “if any(one) should eat this bread, he shall live into the Age”
    • “if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourselves” (v. 53)
    • “the (one) eating my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 54)

Clearly, “bread” is explained as Jesus’ “flesh” and “blood”, which one must eat and drink (v. 55). The apparent eucharistic language in vv. 53-54 (Mk 14:22-24 par) is further expounded in the Johannine theological idiom, in verse 56:

“the (one) eating my flesh and drinking my blood remains [me/nei] in me, and I in him”

The statement that follows in verse 57, often neglected in discussions on this passage, is vital for a proper understanding of vv. 51-58 in context; again the wording follows the Johannine mode of theological expression:

“Just as the living [zw=n] Father sent me forth, and I live [zw=] through the Father, (so) also the (one) eating me, that (one) also shall live [zh/sei] through me.”

The verb za/w (“[to] live”) is used three times, and the specific forms have theological significance, in terms of expressing the chain of relation between Father, Son, and believer(s):

    • zw=n (“living”)—present participle, as an attribute of God (the Father), referring to the Divine/eternal life which He possesses, and by which He is the ultimate source of life.
    • zw= (“I live”)—present indicative (first person), expressing the active reality of the life which Jesus (the Son) receives from the Father
    • zh/sei (“he shall life”)—future indicative (third person), referring to the life which the believer receives from the Son, which includes the promise of future eternal life.

Based on the earlier statements in 3:34-35, we can identify this Divine/eternal life with the Spirit. As we saw, the “living water” that Jesus gives to the believer is also identified with the Spirit, and it is fair to assume that the same is true for the “living bread” here in 6:51ff. We find confirmation of this line of interpretation in the section that immediately follows (vv. 60-71) the end of the Discourse proper (in v. 59).

In verse 60, we finally hear the disciples’ reaction to the Discourse (especially vv. 51-58):

“This word [lo/go$] is hard—who is able to hear it?”

To what, precisely, does “this word” refer? In terms of the Discourse as a whole, as it has come down to us, we can discern three levels to the reference:

    1. The principal saying, presented with variation in each section of the Discourse, by which Jesus identifies himself as the “bread from heaven” (vv. 32-33, 35 and 48, 51)
    2. The idea, as developed by Jesus, that one must “eat” him (v. 50); according to some commentators, in the original form of the Gospel, verse 60 would have immediately followed v. 50, with vv. 51-58 representing a subsequent addition
    3. The specific (eucharistic) idea in vv. 51-58 that one must eat and drink Jesus’ flesh and blood in order to have life.

The disciples naturally find all of this difficult to understand (and accept). This reaction reflects the regular discourse-feature of misunderstanding by Jesus’ hearers. The implication seems to be that the disciples are reacting in a manner similar to that of the other people (in v. 52), whereby they understand Jesus to be speaking at the ordinary, material level, referring to his actual (physical) flesh and blood. As we saw in both the Nicodemus and Samaritan Woman discourses, this is basic to the failure of Jesus’ hearers to understand the true meaning of his words. For he is not speaking on the material level—i.e., of ordinary flesh and blood, etc—but on the spiritual level. Just as he was not speaking of an ordinary physical birth in chapter 3, nor of ordinary water in chap. 4, so here in chap. 6 he is speaking neither of ordinary bread nor of his physical flesh and blood.

Responding to the disciples’ frustration, Jesus asks them simply: “Does this trip you up?” (v. 61), and follows this with another question: “Then (what) if you should look (and behold) the Son of Man stepping up (back to) where he was (at) the first?” (v. 62). Commentators continue to debate the force of the Son of Man saying in v. 62; the main significance, however, surely is to the divine/heavenly origin of Jesus (the Son). The saying forms both a promise and a challenge to his disciples—they must confront the truth regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son of God come to earth from heaven. Moreover, it is only after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to the Father, that the disciples will be able to receive the Spirit. Their understanding will remain incomplete until the Spirit dwells within them.

In the previous study, we saw how “drinking” the living water Jesus gives essentially means trusting in him. The same is true regarding the idea of “eating” the living bread Jesus gives. However, there are two additional components to the imagery here which broaden and deepen the theological significance of the eating/drinking idiom. First, Jesus does not only give the living bread—he is the bread (v. 51). This essential predication specifies that trust in Jesus means trust in his identity (who he is), as the Son come from the Father in heaven. Second, by eating this ‘bread’, we are eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood, which is symbolic (eucharistic) language signifying the sacrificial death of Jesus. Thus, trust in Jesus also entails, fundamentally, belief in the atoning and life-giving power of his death.

This brings us to the saying in verse 63, where Jesus makes clear that he is not talking about eating ordinary physical flesh (nor drinking actual blood)—these things take place in a spiritual way, at the level of the Spirit. Moreover, Jesus declares that the words (lit. utterances, r(h/mata) of his discourse “are spirit and are life”. As the living Word (lo/go$) of God, who possesses the eternal Life and Spirit from God the Father, the words which Jesus (the Son) speaks are God’s own. And, since God is Spirit (4:24), His words are also Spirit, and must be received (and understood) in a spiritual way, through the Spirit; and, since God’s words have life-giving power, so also do Jesus’ words. This is certainly true of the words given by Jesus here in vv. 51-58.

What, then, of the eucharistic language in vv. 51-58? Is the Gospel writer (to say nothing of Jesus as the speaker) referring to the ritual of the Lord’s supper? And, if so, how does this relate to the rest of the Bread of Life discourse, and to the Spirit-saying of Jesus here in v. 63? If the essence and significance of the words are spiritual, if the concrete physical aspect (“flesh”) of the idea expressed in vv. 51-58 is not of any use, then how should the eucharistic language be understood?

Some commentators (e.g., Brown, pp. 299-300) would claim that the term “flesh” (sa/rc) here in v. 63 has a fundamentally different meaning than it does in vv. 51ff; and, as such, Jesus’ statement does not refer to the same eucharistic emphasis of vv. 51-58. For many Christians, this is the only way that the apparent eucharistic focus in vv. 51-58 can be maintained within the context of the Discourse. After all, how can Jesus say that a person needs to eat his flesh (in the ritual sense of actually eating the physical bread of the Supper), and then go on to say that the “flesh” is of no benefit?

Taken on its own, the statement in v. 63 is fundamentally spiritualistic, providing a clear contrast—between the Spirit (pneu=ma) and the flesh (sa/rc). As we have seen, such dualism is a common feature of Paul’s letters, where he uses it repeatedly—cf. especially Romans 8:4-6ff; Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17; 6:8; Phil 3:3. It is much less common in the Johannine writings, but may be found in Jn 3:6 (cf. the prior study), and a negative connotation to the term “flesh”, as something contrary or inferior to God, is present in 8:15 and 1 John 2:16. Usually, this negative aspect is expressed by “(the) world” (ko/smo$). Here, in verse 63, the contrast is especially pronounced—not only does the flesh not give life, but it offers no benefit at all! This harsh statement must be understood properly, in terms of the comparison of the flesh with the Spirit. Compared with the Spirit, which gives everything (Life), the flesh offers nothing.

Through trust in Jesus’ words—his teaching and witness as to who he is (the Son come from the Father in heaven)—one receives from Jesus the life-giving Spirit; similarly, we also receive, through the Spirit, the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. Our participation in his death (and resurrection) is described symbolically as “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”. Even if the Gospel writer (and the Johannine ‘Community’) still deemed important the partaking of the ritual meal (the Eucharist/Supper), the emphasis is clearly on participation in Jesus’ death in a spiritual manner, through the presence of the Spirit.

The scandalous nature of this language was not lost on Jesus’ hearers, neither the people at large nor his disciples (who call the message “hard/harsh” [sklhro/$], v. 60). After all, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood refers to hostile and violent action (cf. Deut 32:42; Psalm 27:2; Isa 49:26; Ezek 39:17-18; Jer 46:10; Zech 11:9). Even the very juxtaposition of flesh/blood can designate violence and slaughter (e.g., Psalm 79:2-3; Ezek 32:5-6; Zeph 1:17; 4 Macc 6:6). And, of course, the idea of ingesting blood (along with flesh [meat]), a fundamental violation of the Torah regulations, would have been abhorrent to any devout Israelite or Jew (Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17; 19:26; Deut 12:23; Ezek 33:25; Acts 15:20). Cf. Brown, p. 284.

It is easy to see how Jesus’ words would “trip up” and offend even his close disciples. In addition to the difficult concept of Jesus (in his person) as the “bread from heaven” that one must ‘eat’, he adds the particularly offensive idea of eating/drinking his flesh/blood. All of this, however, must be understood in a spiritual way, in terms of the life-giving Spirit. To “eat the flesh” and “drink the blood” of Jesus means to trust in the message of who Jesus is (the Son of God come from heaven), and to be united with him (to “remain” in him) through the Spirit.

In a supplemental note, I will discuss the Spirit-sayings, here in 6:63 and in 4:23-24, in relation to more developed (and extreme) forms of Christian spiritualism, whereby any external ritual or worship observance is deemed unnecessary, since the essence of all religious experience is realized entirely through the Spirit. Since Jesus’ statements in 4:23-24 and 6:63 (in connection with the Eucharist, vv. 51-58) could be read and interpreted in this light, it is worth giving some consideration to the extent of Johannine spiritualism.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).

April 18: John 6:51-58, 63

John 6:51-58, 63

There is an important connection between the Spirit and the death of Jesus in the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6. The connection depends, in large part, upon the relationship between verses 51-58 and the statement by Jesus in verse 63. However, there are subtle allusions to be found throughout the discourse. One such allusion involves use of the verb di/dwmi (“give”) as a keyword. The prime saying by Jesus, in the first section of the discourse, states that the ‘bread of life’ will be given by the Son of Man:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food th(at is) remaining [me/nousan] into the Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man will give [dw/sei] to you…” (v. 27)

Earlier in 3:13-14, the title “Son of Man” was used, first (v. 13), in reference to Jesus as the one coming down (descent) from the Father (in heaven), and second (v. 14), in reference to his exaltation (ascent) back to the Father—a process of being “lifted (up) high” that begins with Jesus’ death on the cross.

On the one hand, Jesus himself is identified with the “bread of life”, the “bread from heaven”, and so to eat the bread means ‘eating’ Jesus himself (thus the provocative language in vv. 51-58, cf. below). In this way, by giving the ‘bread’, Jesus is giving himself—which certainly includes the idea of giving himself over to death, as a self-sacrifice, a sacrifice that brings life for the world (v. 33).

At the same time, it is said that the Father gives this bread (v. 32), which could be taken to mean that the Father sends the Son to the world, in order to give it life—an idea that is very much prominent in the Gospel of John; indeed, in 3:16-17, the verbs di/dwmi (“give”) and a)poste/llw (“send forth”) are used interchangeably to express this. However, there is equally present in the Gospel the idea of the Father giving to the Son—and the foremost of what He gives to the Son (Jesus) is the Spirit (3:34-35). This motif of the Father giving to the Son features prominently in the discourse (vv. 37-40ff), and reaches its climax in verse 57:

“Just as the living Father sent me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also the (one) eating me will live through me.”

The Father gives life to the Son, and the Son, in turn, gives life to the person ‘eating’ (trw/gwn) him. There is thus here a close connection between Jesus giving life and giving himself (in death).

If giving “life” is defined in terms of ‘eating’ the “living bread”, it is right that we should understand the idiom in relating to the parallel in the Samaritan Woman discourse (4:10-15), where Jesus gives “living water” to drink. This “living water” is explicitly identified with the Spirit in 7:37-39, so there is good reason to believe that the same meaning attaches to “living bread” in chapter 6. In both discourses, the motifs of eating and drinking are interchangeable, and essentially carry the same meaning (4:10ff, 32; 6:50-51ff).

There are thus two closely related aspects to the significance of the imagery in the Bread of Life discourse:

    • Jesus (the Son of Man) gives himself (as the bread) to believers through his sacrificial death
    • The Father gives life (i.e., the living bread) to the Son (Jesus), through the Spirit, and the Son, in turn gives this life (the Spirit) to believers.

This means that there is indeed a connection here between the Spirit and the death of Jesus, and that it is actually central to the message of the Discourse as a whole. Let us consider this further by focusing specifically on verses 51-58.

One of the most peculiar features of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John is the lack of any mention of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup) in the Last Supper scene (chap. 13). Many critical commentators believe that this detail has been transferred to an earlier location in the Gospel (the Bread of Life Discourse, 6:51-58). There is certainly a similarity between 6:51ff and the words of institution in the Synoptic Lord’s Supper tradition; the saying in v. 51 forms the core statement of Jesus in the sub-discourse of vv. 51-58:

“I am the living bread, the (bread hav)ing stepped down out of heaven; if any (one) should eat out of this bread, he shall live into the Age, and the bread, indeed, which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world.”

The reaction (misunderstanding) of the crowd follows immediately in verse 52, and the exposition by Jesus comes in vv. 53-57, along with a restatement of the initial saying in the closing v. 58, bringing it line with the context of the discourse as a whole:

This is the bread (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and (then) died off—the (one) munching this bread will live into the Age.”

By combining the italicized portion of v. 51 above with the basic idiom of the exposition in vv. 53ff (i.e. eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood) we can approximate the Eucharistic tradition of Mark 14:22-24 par:

“And (with) their eating, (hav)ing taken bread…he gave (it) to them and said ‘Take, [eat,] this is my body’. And, (hav)ing taken the drinking-cup…he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many’.”

The force of the instruction in Jn 6:53-57 involves a contrast between those who eat/drink Jesus’ flesh/blood and those who do not:

“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Amen, amen, I relate to you (that), if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourself’.” (v. 53)

“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…” (v. 54)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains [me/nei] in me, and I in him.” (v. 56)

Clearly, “holding life” is here synonymous with “remaining” in Jesus, both idioms being essential to the Johannine theological vocabulary and found repeatedly in the Gospel (and Letters). The verb me/nw (“remain”) is of special significance in the way that it defines the identity of the believer in Christ (note its earlier use in verse 27, cf. above).

Some commentators would view the Vine instruction/illustration in 15:1-8 as a similar Eucharistic reference, with the vine (i.e. wine/cup) as a complement to the bread in the chap. 6 discourse. In point of fact, however, the main parallel between 6:51-58 and 15:1-8 lies in the use of the verb me/nw, and the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. Consider the words of Jesus in 15:4:

“You must remain [mei/nate] in me, and I in you. Even as the br(anch) broken (off) is not able to bear fruit from itself, if it should not remain [me/nh|] in the vine, so also you (can)not if you should not remain [me/nhte] in me.”

The same language is repeated in vv. 5-7, and again, by way of exposition, in vv. 9-10. According to a sacramental (eucharistic) interpretation of these passages, the believer initially comes to Jesus through faith/trust in him, but remains in relationship with Jesus (his life-giving power, etc) by partaking in the ritual meal (sacrament of the bread and wine). While this would make perfect sense, I am sure, to many early Christians, there is precious little support for it in the Johannine Gospel (or Letters). The basis for “remaining” in Jesus, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology (and Christology), is two-fold:

    • Trust in Jesus—that he is the Son who manifests God the Father, and
    • Union with him—being united with both Son and Father—through the Spirit

This is further reflected in the two essential characteristics marking the true believer in Christ:

    • Obedience to the dual-command: of trust and love
    • The abiding and guiding presence of the Spirit

The former is clearly expressed in 15:9-10, where the “remaining in Jesus” of the vine-illustration, is explained precisely in terms of the ‘command’ (e)ntolh/) of trust/love (for an explicit definition of this dual-command, cf. 1 John 3:23-24). As for the presence of the Spirit, while this is central to the entire Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), it applies more directly to the eucharistic language in 6:51-58. Indeed, in the explanation of Jesus that follows in vv. 61ff, we read:

“Does this trip you (up)? Then if you could look at the Son of Man stepping up (to) where he was (at) first, (would that help)? The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. bringing] life; the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)—(and) the utterances that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But there are some out of you that do not trust.”

Does the flesh/blood of Jesus in 6:51-58 refer primarily to the Eucharist or to trust in Jesus? The explanation in verses 61ff, within the overall setting of the Johannine theology, clearly indicates the latter. It is our trust in the revelatory message about Jesus—who he is (Son of God the Father) and what he does (his sacrificial death)—which allows us to “hold” life within ourselves and to “remain” in him. Moreover, this message is identified with the Spirit, which is the source of the life we hold, and the presence of the Spirit is what unites us with Jesus the Son (and God the Father).

However, the message of Jesus does center upon his sacrificial death, which brings us around to the Passion setting of the eucharistic language. The “bread”, further described as the “body and blood” of Jesus, which he gives, is given “over the life of the world” (6:51; Mk 14:24 par “…over many”). This alludes to the covenant context of the ritual in Exodus 24:5-8—particularly the action involving the blood in verse 8 (parallel to v. 6). Blood is thrown on (i.e. over) the people as part of the ratification of the covenant (note the declaration of faith/obedience to the covenant in v. 7). Obedience to the covenant leads to life and blessing for Israel.

This idea is taken much further in early Christian thought. As a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) those who believe in him are freed from the power of sin and evil, and rescued from the coming Judgment of God on the wickedness/evil in the world. We are never told exactly how this is accomplished, though the symbolism and imagery involved offer some clues. Paul, in his letters, provides rather more theological exposition in this regard, but ultimately it remains one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. Jesus’ death brings (eternal) life to all who believe (“…the life of the world”, cp. Jn 3:16 etc). This development by Paul will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 2 (John 6:51-58; chap. 13)

Episode 2: The Passover Meal

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 (see the discussion in parts 123 of this study), 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, see 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:

    1. 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).
    2. There is no account of the “Lord’s Supper” and its institution (see part 3).
    3. In its place we find a different sort of symbolic, sacramental act—Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (vv. 3-17).
    4. Judas features more prominently in the episode (vv. 2, 25-30; see also 12:4-6).
    5. 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 part 3, 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, 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, such as in the notes on the Feeding Miracle (6:1-15) in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (see 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) eatthis 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)

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” (see 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, see 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)
      • Eating this Bread, which is Jesus’ flesh (vv. 51b-52)
        —Eating/drinking his flesh and blood [Eucharistic motif] (vv. 53-56)
      • Eating Jesus, the one (Son) sent from the Father (v. 57)
    • 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.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 2 (1 Cor 11:23-26, etc)

Episode 2: The Passover meal

The Words of Jesus—Institution of the Lord’s Supper

The last two notes have examined the Passover meal episode in the Passion Narrative. An important component of this scene is the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” —the words of Jesus over the bread and the cup. Most commentators recognize that this tradition in the Gospels is related in some way to the early Christian practice of observing the “Supper of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:16-22; 11:17-34, v. 20). It would hardly be surprising if early ritual and liturgical practice shaped, to varying degrees, the Gospel narrative at this point. But the direction and extent of the influence remains a matter of considerable debate.

It is clear that the “Last Supper” was identified as a Passover meal in the early Gospel tradition; this is certainly the case in the Synoptics (Mk 14:1, 12-16 par), though less definite in John’s Gospel (to be discussed in the next note). Luke brings out most prominently the Passover connection (see part 2 of this study), all the more so, it would seem, if one adopts the longer, majority text of vv. 17-20 (which includes vv. 19b-20). It has been argued that here, in the longer text, Luke preserved more of the original setting of the Passover meal, such as it would have been practiced in the 1st century A.D. These details are explored by J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Fortress Press: 1977), esp. pp. 41-88, and summarized by Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 1389-91. According to this reconstruction, the outline of the meal in Lk 22:17-20 (longer text) would be:

    • The Cup (vv. 17-18)—a single cup, to be shared, it would seem, among all the disciples together. It is it perhaps to be identified with the initial cup of blessing (qiddûš), drunk prior to the serving of the meal. Possibly it may also represent the second cup of wine following the Passover liturgy (hagg¹d¹h).
    • The Bread (v. 19)—the “unleavened bread” (maƒƒôt) served and eaten together with the Passover lamb.
    • The Cup (v. 20)—the second cup of blessing (trad. kôš šel b§r¹k¹h), following the meal.

If Luke thus preserves more of the original historical setting, then the Synoptic version in Mark-Matthew (Mk 14:22-25/Matt 26:26-29) would have to be viewed as a simplification or abridgment of the scene. While this might be appealing from a historical-critical standpoint, the situation is not quite so straightforward, at least when considering the words of institution by Jesus. There are two basic forms preserved—(1) that in Mark/Matthew, and (2) that in Luke and 1 Corinthians. In addition to the Synoptic Gospels, the tradition is preserved by Paul in 1 Cor 11:22-26, part of his instruction regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (vv. 17-34, see also 10:16-21). Paul introduces the tradition in v. 23:

“For I received along from the Lord th(at) which I also gave along to you—that the Lord Yeshua, on the night in which he was given along [i.e. betrayed], took bread…”

The first phrase does not necessarily mean that Paul received this information as a special revelation by Jesus; it may simply indicate that the tradition goes back to the words and actions of Jesus himself. As in the Gospels, Paul recorded words spoken by Jesus over the bread and the cup/wine, in turn. Let us examine the tradition regarding each of these.

1. The Bread—Mk 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19 [MT]; 1 Cor 11:24

First, the action of Jesus as described:

    • Mark 14:22: “taking [labœ¡n] bread (and) giving a good account [eulog¢¡sas, i.e. blessing] (to God), he broke [éklasen] (it) and gave [édœken] (it) to them and said…”
    • Matt 26:26: “taking bread and giving a good account [i.e. blessing] (to God), Yeshua broke it and, giving [doús] it to the learners [i.e. disciples], said…”
      [Note how close Mark and Matthew are, the differences in the latter’s version are indicated by the words in italics]
    • Luke 22:19: “taking bread (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eucharist¢¡sas], he broke (it) and gave (it) to them, saying…”
      [Luke is even closer to Mark, except for the verb eucharistéœ instead of eulogéœ]
    • 1 Cor 11:24: “Yeshua…took bread and, giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eucharist¢¡sas], broke (it) and said…”

Paul agrees with Luke in use of the word eucharistéœ (“give [thanks] for [God’s] favor”) instead of eulogéœ (“give a good account [i.e. words of blessing] [to God]”). His version is simpler in that it omits mention of Jesus giving the broken bread to the disciples.

Now the words of Jesus:

    • Mark 14:22: “Take (it)—this is my body [toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou]”
    • Matt 26:26: “Take (it and) eat—this is my body”
      [Matthew is identical to Mark, except for the addition of the command fágete (“eat/consume [it]”)]
    • Luke 22:19: “This is my body (be)ing given over you—do this unto my remembrance [i.e. in memory of me]”
      [The italicized portion is not in Mark/Matthew]
    • 1 Cor 11:24: “This is my body th(at is given) over you—do this unto my remembrance [i.e. in memory of me]”

Again, we see how close Paul is to Luke—nearly identical except for the participle didómenon (“being given”), which is to be inferred. The only portion common to all four versions are the words “this is my body” —in Greek, toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou, though Paul has a slightly different word order (toúto mou estin to sœ¡ma).

2. The Cup—Mk 14:23-25; Matt 26:27-29; Luke 22:20 [MT]; 1 Cor 11:25

Jesus’ action and words associated with the cup are clearly parallel to those associated with the bread. First, the action:

    • Mark 14:23-24: “and taking [labœ¡n] (the) drinking-cup (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eucharist¢¡sas], he gave [édœken] (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them…”
    • Matt 26:27: “and taking (the) drinking-cup and giving (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them saying, ‘Drink out of it all (of) you’
      [Matthew is identical to Mark, except that the reference to drinking has been made part of Jesus’ directive]
    • Luke 22:20: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
    • 1 Cor 11:25: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
      [Luke and Paul have virtually the same version, with slightly different word order]

And the words of Jesus:

    • Mark 14:24: “This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] set through [diath¢¡k¢] (by God), th(at) is poured out over many”
    • Matt 26:27: “This is my blood of the agreement set through (by God), th(at) is poured out around many unto [i.e. for] the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins
      [Differences between Matthew and Mark are indicated by italics]
    • Luke 22:20: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood, th(at is) being poured out over you”
    • 1 Cor 11:25: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood—do this, as often as you should drink it, unto my remembrance”

Again, the common tradition inherited by Luke and Paul is clear. Their version differs significantly from that of Mark/Matthew in one respect:

    • In Luke/Paul, the cup is identified as the “new covenant”
    • In Mark/Matthew, the blood (wine) itself is identified with the “covenant”

The reference in Mark/Matthew is more obviously to the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24:8; in the Greek LXX the declaration reads:

“See, the blood of the agreement which the Lord set through toward you around/about all these words”
In Hebrew:
“See, the blood of the agreement which YHWH cut with you upon all these words”

In ancient Near Eastern thought and religious/cultural practice, an agreement between two parties was often established through the ritual slaughter (sacrifice) of an animal. It may involve the sprinkling or application of blood, as in the Exodus scene, where Moses throws blood upon the people (or their representatives). This action followed the reading of all the words which God had spoken to Moses, referred to collectively (in written form) as the “Book of the Agreement [i.e. Covenant]” (v. 7).

This symbolism is less direct in the Lukan/Pauline version; indeed, the emphasis has switched to the symbolic act of giving the cup, rather than the wine (i.e. blood) in it. Also the reference is now to the “New Covenant” of Jer 31:31, a passage of tremendous importance for early Christian identity, much as it also had been for the Qumran community (CD 6:19; 1QpHab 2:4ff, etc). Along with the other Synoptics, Luke has retained the expression (and image) of the blood being “poured out” (the verb ekchéœ) “over” (hyper) people. In addition to Exod 24:8, we find this ritual/sacrificial imagery elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as Lev 17:11, where the idea of expiation and atonement for sin is present. Paul omits this aspect in 1 Cor 11:22-26. Instead, he gives emphasis to the rite of the Supper as a memorial of Jesus’ death. Luke includes this in the words over the bread (22:19), but not the cup.

Summary

If we consider all four versions, it would seem that, while 1 Corinthians may have been the earliest written (in the form we have it), it is also the version which most reflects early Christian ritual. This can be seen in the way that the Passover and sacrificial elements are missing, and by the emphasis of the Supper as a memorial. In addition, the Pauline form has a more consistent shape. The rougher contours of the Synoptic version would, I think, suggest a closer approximation to the original (Aramaic?) words of Jesus. Here, as often is the case, Mark may record the earliest form of the tradition; note the common elements highlighted in bold:

    • “Take (it)—this is my body [toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou]”
    • This is my blood [toúto estin to haíma mou] of the agreement/covenant, th(at) is poured out over many”

It would seem that Matthew and Luke have both adapted this core tradition in various ways (see above). The real problem lies with the text-critical question in Luke. The similarity between Luke and Paul here has been used as an argument in favor of the shorter text, with vv. 19b-20 (so close to 1 Cor 11:24-25), being viewed as a harmonization or interpolation. However, if vv. 19b-20 are original, then there can be no doubt that Luke and Paul have inherited a common historical tradition, however it may differ from the version in Mark/Matthew. I would argue that all four versions—that is, both primary lines of tradition (Mark/Matthew and Luke/Paul)—have adapted the original words and setting into a framework that reflects, to some degree, early Christian practice regarding the Supper. In Mark/Matthew, this is done primarily through the narrative description of Jesus’ action, and the sequence of verbs used (cf. above), especially with the key pairing of eulogéœ and eucharistéœ (the latter giving rise to the term “Eucharist”). In the case of Luke and Paul, it may be that Jesus’ words (in Greek translation) have been shaped to reflect the ritual context. Even so, as I noted in part 2 of this study, Luke has clearly retained (and carefully preserved) a connection with the Passover setting of the original tradition.

References above marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1985).

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Exodus 24:8

Exodus 24:8

One of the most important Old Testament passages that shaped the Gospel Tradition, especially as it relates to the death of Jesus, is the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. I have discussed this passage at length in an article in the series “The People of God”, and the current study makes extensive use of that earlier article. You may wish to consult Parts 1 and 2, in which were examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, scenes that are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (Heb. tyr!B=, literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament.

When considering the context of Exodus 24:1-11, it is important to realize that this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement (covenant) between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called the “account of the agreement” (tyr!b=h^ rp#s@ s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb hj*v*) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (tyr!B=) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

The ancient Near Eastern covenant was often accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (hl*u), ±ôlâ) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew <l#v# (šelem, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. eaten by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun jb^z#, verb jb^z`), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the binding (agreement) which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9) —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10) —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb hz`j* in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). A study of the remainder of the book of Exodus demonstrates how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Instruction, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition.

The Last Supper Tradition:
Mark 14:22-25 / Matt 26:26-29 / Luke 22:17-20

Exodus 24:8 was most influential in relation to the important early Christian tradition of the institution of the “Lord’s Supper”, as is narrated in Mark 14:22-25 (par Matt 26:26-29; Luke 22:17-20). Here will be helpful to observe the basic tradition as it is preserved by Mark (and Matthew). The outline is very simple:

    • Action by Jesus (the bread):
      “taking bread (and) giving a good account [i.e. blessing] (to God), he broke (it) and gave (it) to them” (v. 22a)
      • Words of Jesus:
        “Take (it)—this is my body” (v. 22b)
    • Action by Jesus (the cup/wine):
      “taking (the) drinking-cup (and) giving good words of (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it” (v. 23)
      • Words of Jesus:
        “This is my blood of the diaqh/kh [i.e. ‘covenant’] th(at) is poured out over many” (v. 24)

An additional saying/declaration by Jesus (v. 25) concludes the solemn moment:

“Amen, I say to you that, no—I will not drink yet (again) out of the produce of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

This saying, with its “Amen, I say to you” (a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n) formula (a well-attested mark of Jesus’ own style), is parallel to the declaration in v. 18.

It is clear that the “Last Supper” was identified as a Passover meal in the early Gospel tradition; this is certainly the case in the Synoptics (Mk 14:1, 12-16 par), though less definite in John’s Gospel. Luke brings out most prominently the Passover connection, all the more so, it would seem, if one adopts the longer, majority text of vv. 17-20 (which includes vv. 19b-20). It has been argued that Luke preserved more of the original setting of the Passover meal, such as it would have been practiced in the 1st century A.D.; the outline of the meal in Lk 22:17-20 (longer text) would be:

    • The Cup (vv. 17-18)—a single cup, to be shared, it would seem, among all the disciples together. It is it perhaps to be identified with the initial cup of blessing (qiddûš), drunk prior to the serving of the meal. Possibly it may also represent the second cup of wine following the Passover liturgy (hagg¹d¹h).
    • The Bread (v. 19)—the “unleavened bread” (maƒƒôt) served and eaten together with the Passover lamb.
    • The Cup (v. 20)—the second cup of blessing (trad. kôš šel b§r¹k¹h), following the meal.

If Luke thus preserves more of the original historical setting, then the Synoptic version in Mark-Matthew (Mk 14:22-25/Matt 26:26-29) would have to be viewed as a simplification or abridgment of the scene. Central to the scene, and of the Gospel tradition that developed around it, are the words of institution by Jesus. There are two basic forms preserved—(1) that in Mark/Matthew, and (2) that in Luke and 1 Corinthians. In addition to the Synoptic Gospels, the tradition is preserved by Paul in 1 Cor 11:22-26, part of his instruction regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (vv. 17-34, cf. also 10:16-21). Paul introduces the tradition in v. 23:

“For I took/received along from the Lord th(at) which I also gave along to you—that the Lord Yeshua, on the night in which he was given along [i.e. betrayed], took bread…”

The first phrase does not necessarily mean that Paul received this information as a special revelation by Jesus; it may simply indicate that the tradition goes back to the words and actions of Jesus himself. As in the Gospels, Paul recorded words spoken by Jesus over the bread and the cup/wine, in turn. It is the words over the cup that allude to the covenant scene in Exodus 24:1-11 (discussed above).

Jesus’ action and words associated with the cup are clearly parallel to those associated with the bread. First, the action:

    • Mark 14:23-24: “and taking [labw\n] (the) drinking-cup (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them…”
    • Matt 26:27: “and taking (the) drinking-cup and giving (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them saying, ‘Drink out of it all (of) you’
      [Matthew is identical to Mark, except that the reference to drinking has been made part of Jesus’ directive]
    • Luke 22:20: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
    • 1 Cor 11:25: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
      [Luke and Paul have virtually the same version, with slightly different word order]

And the words of Jesus:

    • Mark 14:24: “This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] set through [diaqh/kh] (by God), th(at) is poured out over many”
    • Matt 26:27: “This is my blood of the agreement set through (by God), th(at) is poured out around many unto [i.e. for] the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins
      [Differences between Matthew and Mark are indicated by italics]
    • Luke 22:20: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood, th(at is) being poured out over you”
    • 1 Cor 11:25: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood—do this, as often as you should drink it, unto my remembrance”

Again, the common tradition inherited by Luke and Paul is clear. Their version differs significantly from that of Mark/Matthew in one respect:

    • In Luke/Paul, the cup is identified as the “new covenant”
    • In Mark/Matthew, the blood (wine) itself is identified with the “covenant”

The reference in Mark/Matthew is more obviously to the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24:8; in the Greek LXX the declaration reads:

“See, the blood of the agreement which the Lord set through toward you around/about all these words”
In Hebrew (cf. above):
“See, the blood of the agreement which YHWH cut with you upon all these words”

The use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is clearly drawn upon by Jesus, echoing the declaration in v. 8:

“This is my blood of the covenant [diaqh/kh] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34). Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8).

If the blood in the Sinai covenant scene established (ratified) the first covenant between God and His people (Israel), the blood shed by Jesus establishes the new covenant. This concept of a “new covenant” goes back to the Prophets of the exilic and post-exilic period, who described the restoration of Israel (in the New Age) in terms of a new covenant between YHWH and His people. The most prominent reference is Jer 31:31-34, a passage of tremendous importance for early Christian identity, much as it also had been for the Qumran community (CD 6:19; 1QpHab 2:4ff, etc). Early Christians certainly adopted the idea of the new covenant and applied it their own identity as believers in Christ—that is, believers as the people of God in the New Age. If we accept the historicity of the Last Supper tradition, then it would seem that this early Christian adaptation of the New Covenant concept goes back to the words and teaching of Jesus himself.

Saturday Series: John 6:22-59

John 6:22-59

This week we will follow-up on the previous study, in which we examined the Johannine version of the Miraculous Feeding episode. That episode is one of the rare instances where a distinct historical tradition has been preserved in both the Synoptics and the Gospel of John. Last week’s study looked especially at the episode as it was developed within the Johannine Tradition. One special aspect of the Johannine version involves the relationship between the Feeding Miracle tradition itself (6:1-15) and the Bread of Life discourse (6:22-59) that follows in the Gospel narrative. This was mentioned in the previous study, but is deserving of a more extensive treatment.

There are three motifs from the Miracle tradition which are developed in the Bread of Life discourse:

    1. The Passover setting—which is unique to John’s account, though Mk 6:39 could also indicate springtime.
    2. The eating of Bread, and
    3. The Eucharist (on these allusions, cf. the previous study)

These three themes run through the discourse, but it may be said that each dominates one of the three main sections. Verses 22-24 serve as the narrative introduction to the discourse, and are transitional, joining the discourse with the Feeding Miracle, etc, in vv. 1-21. Each of the three main sections builds on the dialogue/discourse format used in the Gospel—

    • Saying of Jesus
    • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
    • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

In addition, the three sections are joined together, forming a larger discourse, by way of a step-parallel thematic technique:

    • Miracle of the bread-loaves —>
      • Passover: manna / bread from heaven —>
        • Eating bread: Jesus the “bread from heaven”, Bread of Life —>
          • Jesus the Living Bread —>
            • Eucharist: eating his flesh/blood leads to (eternal) Life

Section 1 (vv. 25-34)

    • Principal saying by Jesus—verse 27: “Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]…”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 29
    • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 28-31
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 32-33
    • Theme: transition from the Feeding Miracle (v. 26) to the Passover motif (i.e. the manna, “bread from heaven”, vv. 31-33)

Section 2 (vv. 35-50)

    • Saying by Jesus—verse 35: “I am [egœ¡ eimi] the Bread of Life—the one coming toward me (no) he will not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting into me (no) he will not ever thirst. …”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—vv. 36-40
    • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 41-42
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 44-50
    • Theme: Eating Bread—Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, the Bread come down from Heaven

Section 3 (vv. 51-58)

    • Saying by Jesus—verse 51a (parallel to v. 35): “I am [egœ¡ eimi] the Living Bread stepping down [i.e. coming down] out of Heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age (to Come)…”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 51b
    • Reaction/question by the people—v. 52
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 53-58
    • Theme: transition from Bread (of Life) to the Eucharist motifs (vv. 53-56ff)

I will not here discuss the rich texture and theology of the discourse; this has been done in some detail in an earlier note (however, see the section below on John 6 and the Eucharist). The outline above is meant to demonstrate how the Gospel writer has developed the Feeding Miracle tradition, by making it part of the larger Bread of Life discourse, much as he did with healing miracle (and Sabbath controversy) episode in chapter 5. The Discourses of Jesus in John are complex and difficult to analyze, due to the sophisticated way that authentic historical traditions have been adapted and interpreted within the Johannine literary style/format (i.e. of the Discourses). This compositional style can be seen at many different points in the Gospel. Compare, for example, the close similarity of structure, language and ideas, between Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman (4:9-15) and that of 6:25-34 (above, cf. also Brown, p. 267). The parallel between Jesus as the living water (ch. 4) and the living bread (ch. 6) is unmistakable, and is clearly intentional within the context of the Gospel.

Also most difficult is the relation between the Bread of Life and Eucharist symbolism in second and third sections (vv. 35-58) of the discourse. As challenging as these passages have been for Christians throughout the ages, Jesus’ words must have been completely baffling to the first hearers, if we accept the essential historicity of the discourse (v. 59). Indeed, this is a prominent theme of the Discourses in John—the misunderstanding of his words by the people who hear him. The explanation by Jesus, within in the discourse format, expounds the true (and deeper) meaning of his words, much as we see him, on occasion in the Synoptics, explaining his sayings and parables to the disciples in private (Mk 4:10-20 par, etc).

John 6:60-65ff

As it happens, John records a similar sort of “private” explanation by Jesus to the disciples in vv. 60-65. This comes in addition to the exposition(s) within the discourse proper; as such, vv. 60ff functions as an epilogue or appendix to the discourse. There is a loose parallel, perhaps, to this in 4:31-38. Verses 60-65 have greatly complicated interpretation of the discourse (particularly the eucharistic motifs in vv. 51-58), since they contain a distinctly spiritual explanation of Jesus’ words. This section may be outlined as follows:

    • Reaction by the disciples (i.e. to the discourse)—v. 60 “This account [i.e. word/discourse] is hard/harsh; who is able to hear it?”
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 61-65, which is framed by a question and a statement directed toward his disciples: “Does this trip you (up)?” (v. 61b) “But there are some of you that do not trust (in me)” (v. 64a)

The explanation in vv. 62-63 is comprised of three sayings, which must be taken together:

“Then if you should look upon the Son of Man stepping up to where he was at (the) first(, how will you react)?” (v. 62) “The Spirit is th(at which) makes (one a)live; the flesh does not help (in) anything” (v. 63a) “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you (they) are Spirit and Life” (v. 63b)

The first saying (a rhetorical question) emphasizes the divine origin of the “Son of Man” (Jesus), and foreshadows his departure back to the Father. It is at the time of his departure that the Spirit will come to the disciples (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:13-15; 20:22-23; cf. also 8:39). The second saying clearly states that the Spirit (of God, and Christ) is that which gives life; the flesh plays no role, or is of no use in this. In the third saying, Jesus identifies his words with the Spirit and with the life the Spirit gives. The disciples, at this point in the narrative, could not possibly understand the significance of these things, since they foreshadowed events which had not taken place. They simply had to trust Jesus. This is the emphasis of verses 64-65, and in the tradition which follows (vv. 66-71). Not all of Jesus’ disciples truly trust in him, but only those chosen and given to Jesus by the Father (i.e. the Elect believers). Here the author seems to have joined to the discourse a separate tradition, with similarities to several found in the Synoptics—i.e., the calling of the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13-19 par) and the confession by Peter (vv. 68-69; cp. Mk 8:29 par). On the latter point, compare Peter’s words in Mk 8:29/Lk 9:20 and Jn 6:69 respectively:

“You are the Anointed One [Christós] of God” “You are the Holy One [Hágios] of God”

It is another example (among many) of how the Synoptic and Johannine traditions are so very similar, and yet, at the same time, so very different.

More on John 6 and the Eucharist

One of the most peculiar features of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John is the lack of any mention of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup) in the Last Supper scene (chap. 13). Many critical commentators believe that this detail has been transferred to an earlier location in the Gospel (the Bread of Life Discourse, 6:51-58), the precise reason for which remains uncertain. This interpretation is easier to maintain for critical scholars who tend to view the Discourses, etc, as primarily the product of early Christians, rather than representing the authentic words/sayings of Jesus himself. At the historical level indicated by the narrative setting of the Bread of Life discourse, for example, allusions to the Eucharist, while obvious to early Christian readers, would have been completely unintelligible for Jesus’ Galilean contemporaries (the people with whom he is said to be speaking in the Discourse). The same is true of the supposed references to (Christian) baptism in 3:5ff, and so forth.

There is certainly a similarity between 6:51ff and the words of institution in the Synoptic Lord’s Supper tradition; the saying in v. 51 forms the core statement of Jesus in the sub-discourse of vv. 51-58:

“I am the living bread, the (bread hav)ing stepped down out of heaven; if any (one) should eat out of this bread, he shall live into the Age, and the bread, indeed, which I will give is my flesh, over [hypér] the life of the world.”

The reaction (misunderstanding) of the crowd follows immediately in verse 52, and the exposition by Jesus comes in vv. 53-57, along with a restatement of the initial saying in the closing v. 58, bringing it line with the context of the discourse as a whole:

This is the bread (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and (then) died off—the (one) munching this bread will live into the Age.”

By combining the italicized portion of v. 51 above with the basic idiom of the exposition in vv. 53ff (i.e. eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood) we can approximate the Eucharistic tradition of Mark 14:22-24 par:

“And (with) their eating, (hav)ing taken bread…he gave (it) to them and said ‘Take, [eat,] this is my body’. And, (hav)ing taken the drinking-cup…he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [hypér] many’.”

The force of the instruction in Jn 6:53-57 involves a contrast between those who eat/drink Jesus’ flesh/blood and those who do not:

“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Amen, amen, I relate to you (that), if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourself’.” (v. 53)

“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…” (v. 54)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains [ménei] in me, and I in him.” (v. 56)

Clearly, “holding life” is here synonymous with “remaining” in Jesus, both idioms being essential to the Johannine theological vocabulary and found repeatedly in the Gospel (and Letters). The verb ménœ (“remain”) is of special significance in the way that it defines the identity of the believer in Christ.

Some commentators would view the Vine instruction/illustration in 15:1-8 as a similar Eucharistic reference, with the vine (i.e. wine/cup) as a complement to the bread in the chap. 6 discourse. In point of fact, however, the main parallel between 6:51-58 and 15:1-8 lies in the use of the verb ménœ, and the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. Consider the words of Jesus in 15:4:

“You must remain [meínate] in me, and I in you. Even as the br(anch) broken (off) is not able to bear fruit from itself, if it should not remain [mén¢] in the vine, so also you (can)not if you should not remain [mén¢te] in me.”

The same language is repeated in vv. 5-7, and again, by way of exposition, in vv. 9-10. According to a sacramental (eucharistic) interpretation of these passages, the believer initially comes to Jesus through faith/trust in him, but remains in relationship with Jesus (his life-giving power, etc) by partaking in the ritual meal (sacrament of the bread and wine). While this would make perfect sense, I am sure, to many early Christians, there is precious little support for it in the Johannine Gospel (or Letters). The basis for “remaining” in Jesus, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology (and Christology), is two-fold:

    • Trust in Jesus—that he is the Son who manifests God the Father, and
    • Union with him—being united with both Son and Father—through the Spirit

This is further reflected in the two essential characteristics marking the true believer in Christ:

    • Obedience to the dual-command: of trust and love
    • The abiding and guiding presence of the Spirit

The former is clearly expressed in 15:9-10, where the “remaining in Jesus” of the vine-illustration, is explained precisely in terms of the ‘command’ (entol¢¡) of trust/love (for an explicit definition of this dual-command, cf. 1 John 3:23-24). As for the presence of the Spirit, while this is central to the entire Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), it applies more directly to the eucharistic language in 6:51-58. Indeed, in the explanation of Jesus that follows in vv. 61ff, we read:

“Does this trip you (up)? Then if you could look at the Son of Man stepping up (to) where he was (at) first, (would that help)? The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. bringing] life; the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)—(and) the utterances that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But there are some out of you that do not trust.”

Does the flesh/blood of Jesus in 6:51-58 refer primarily to the Eucharist or to trust in Jesus? The explanation in verses 61ff, within the overall setting of the Johannine theology, clearly indicates the latter. It is our trust in the revelatory message about Jesus—who he is (Son of God the Father) and what he does (his sacrificial death)—which allows us to “hold” life within ourselves and to “remain” in him. Moreover, this message is identified with the Spirit, which is the source of the life we hold, and the presence of the Spirit is what unites us with Jesus the Son (and God the Father).

However, the message of Jesus does center upon his sacrificial death, which brings us around to the Passion setting of the eucharistic language. The “bread”, further described as the “body and blood” of Jesus, which he gives, is given “over the life of the world” (6:51; Mk 14:24 par “…over many”). This alludes to the covenant context of the ritual in Exodus 24:5-8—particularly the action involving the blood in verse 8 (parallel to v. 6). Blood is thrown on (i.e. over) the people as part of the ratification of the covenant (note the declaration of faith/obedience to the covenant in v. 7). Obedience to the covenant leads to life and blessing for Israel.

This idea is taken much further in early Christian thought. As a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) those who believe in him are freed from the power of sin and evil, and rescued from the coming Judgment of God on the wickedness/evil in the world. We are never told exactly how this is accomplished, though the symbolism and imagery involved offer some clues. Paul, in his letters, provides rather more theological exposition in this regard, but ultimately it remains one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. Jesus’ death brings (eternal) life to all who believe (“…the life of the world”, cp. Jn 3:16 etc).

* * * * * * *

Next week, we will turn our attention to the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels. This is another example of the “Triple Tradition”, but it is also particularly instructive for understanding the many subtle (but significant) ways that the individual Gospel writers shaped the historical tradition. It is also a fitting passage to study in celebration of the Lenten season, in preparation for the coming Holy Week. I hope you will join me here…next Saturday.

References marked “Brown” above are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966).

April 2 (1): John 6:51-58; 1 John 5:6-8

John 6:51-58; 1 John 5:6-8

One of the most peculiar features of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John is the lack of any mention of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup) in the Last Supper scene (chap. 13). Many critical commentators believe that this detail has been transferred to an earlier location in the Gospel (the Bread of Life Discourse, 6:51-58), the precise reason for which remains uncertain. This interpretation is easier to maintain for critical scholars who tend to view the Discourses, etc, as primarily the product of early Christians, rather than representing the authentic words/sayings of Jesus himself. At the historical level indicated by the narrative setting of the Bread of Life discourse, for example, allusions to the Eucharist, while obvious to early Christian readers, would have been completely unintelligible for Jesus’ Galilean contemporaries (the people with whom he is said to be speaking in the Discourse). The same is true of the supposed references to (Christian) baptism in 3:5ff, and so forth.

There is certainly a similarity between 6:51ff and the words of institution in the Synoptic Lord’s Supper tradition; the saying in v. 51 forms the core statement of Jesus in the sub-discourse of vv. 51-58:

“I am the living bread, the (bread hav)ing stepped down out of heaven; if any (one) should eat out of this bread, he shall live into the Age, and the bread, indeed, which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world.”

The reaction (misunderstanding) of the crowd follows immediately in verse 52, and the exposition by Jesus comes in vv. 53-57, along with a restatement of the initial saying in the closing v. 58, bringing it line with the context of the discourse as a whole:

This is the bread (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and (then) died off—the (one) munching this bread will live into the Age.”

By combining the italicized portion of v. 51 above with the basic idiom of the exposition in vv. 53ff (i.e. eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood) we can approximate the Eucharistic tradition of Mark 14:22-24 par:

“And (with) their eating, (hav)ing taken bread…he gave (it) to them and said ‘Take, [eat,] this is my body’. And, (hav)ing taken the drinking-cup…he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many’.”

The force of the instruction in Jn 6:53-57 involves a contrast between those who eat/drink Jesus’ flesh/blood and those who do not:

“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Amen, amen, I relate to you (that), if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourself’.” (v. 53)

“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…” (v. 54)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains [me/nei] in me, and I in him.” (v. 56)

Clearly, “holding life” is here synonymous with “remaining” in Jesus, both idioms being essential to the Johannine theological vocabulary and found repeatedly in the Gospel (and Letters). The verb me/nw (“remain”) is of special significance in the way that it defines the identity of the believer in Christ.

Some commentators would view the Vine instruction/illustration in 15:1-8 as a similar Eucharistic reference, with the vine (i.e. wine/cup) as a complement to the bread in the chap. 6 discourse. In point of fact, however, the main parallel between 6:51-58 and 15:1-8 lies in the use of the verb me/nw, and the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. Consider the words of Jesus in 15:4:

“You must remain [mei/nate] in me, and I in you. Even as the br(anch) broken (off) is not able to bear fruit from itself, if it should not remain [me/nh|] in the vine, so also you (can)not if you should not remain [me/nhte] in me.”

The same language is repeated in vv. 5-7, and again, by way of exposition, in vv. 9-10. According to a sacramental (eucharistic) interpretation of these passages, the believer initially comes to Jesus through faith/trust in him, but remains in relationship with Jesus (his life-giving power, etc) by partaking in the ritual meal (sacrament of the bread and wine). While this would make perfect sense, I am sure, to many early Christians, there is precious little support for it in the Johannine Gospel (or Letters). The basis for “remaining” in Jesus, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology (and Christology), is two-fold:

    • Trust in Jesus—that he is the Son who manifests God the Father, and
    • Union with him—being united with both Son and Father—through the Spirit

This is further reflected in the two essential characteristics marking the true believer in Christ:

    • Obedience to the dual-command: of trust and love
    • The abiding and guiding presence of the Spirit

The former is clearly expressed in 15:9-10, where the “remaining in Jesus” of the vine-illustration, is explained precisely in terms of the ‘command’ (e)ntolh/) of trust/love (for an explicit definition of this dual-command, cf. 1 John 3:23-24). As for the presence of the Spirit, while this is central to the entire Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), it applies more directly to the eucharistic language in 6:51-58. Indeed, in the explanation of Jesus that follows in vv. 61ff, we read:

“Does this trip you (up)? Then if you could look at the Son of Man stepping up (to) where he was (at) first, (would that help)? The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. bringing] life; the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)—(and) the utterances that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But there are some out of you that do not trust.”

Does the flesh/blood of Jesus in 6:51-58 refer primarily to the Eucharist or to trust in Jesus? The explanation in verses 61ff, within the overall setting of the Johannine theology, clearly indicates the latter. It is our trust in the revelatory message about Jesus—who he is (Son of God the Father) and what he does (his sacrificial death)—which allows us to “hold” life within ourselves and to “remain” in him. Moreover, this message is identified with the Spirit, which is the source of the life we hold, and the presence of the Spirit is what unites us with Jesus the Son (and God the Father).

However, the message of Jesus does center upon his sacrificial death, which brings us around to the Passion setting of the eucharistic language. The “bread”, further described as the “body and blood” of Jesus, which he gives, is given “over the life of the world” (6:51; Mk 14:24 par “…over many”). This alludes to the covenant context of the ritual in Exodus 24:5-8—particularly the action involving the blood in verse 8 (parallel to v. 6). Blood is thrown on (i.e. over) the people as part of the ratification of the covenant (note the declaration of faith/obedience to the covenant in v. 7). Obedience to the covenant leads to life and blessing for Israel.

This idea is taken much further in early Christian thought. As a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) those who believe in him are freed from the power of sin and evil, and rescued from the coming Judgment of God on the wickedness/evil in the world. We are never told exactly how this is accomplished, though the symbolism and imagery involved offer some clues. Paul, in his letters, provides rather more theological exposition in this regard, but ultimately it remains one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. Jesus’ death brings (eternal) life to all who believe (“…the life of the world”, cp. Jn 3:16 etc).

1 John 5:6-8

Within the Johannine congregations, there was apparently some controversy over the place of Jesus’ death in the Gospel message. The author of 1 John refers to ‘false’ believers (whom he calls a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”, i.e. antichrist), who, by their (erroneous) view of Jesus, effectively deny him as the Messiah and Son of God. The details of their Christology are difficult to determine (I discuss the matter at length in several recent Saturday Series studies), but it can be pieced together, to some extent, by a careful examination of the main passages (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:1-12; 2 Jn 7-11). I would maintain that the key is found in 5:6-8. A true/proper belief in Jesus (as the Anointed and Son of God) entails an affirmation that

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not through the water only, but through the water and the blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that the Spirit is the truth. (For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood—and the three are into the one.”

This is a most challenging passage, which commentators have sought to interpret in various ways. I discuss it in several earlier notes and articles (most recently in a Saturday Series study). In my view, “the water” refers primarily to Jesus’ birth and life as a human being, while “the blood” refers to his death (as a human being). The importance the author gives to affirming that Jesus came both “in the water” and “in the blood” strongly suggests that the ‘false’ believers, in some sense, denied the second portion—the reality of Jesus’ death, and/or the significance of it. Certainly, the Johannine Gospel tends to downplay the human suffering of Jesus (compare the Passion narrative and crucifixion scene with that in the Synoptics), and some in the Community may have distorted or exaggerated this aspect of the Gospel portrait of Jesus.

Be that as it may, the central theological point in 1 Jn 5:6-8 is that the Spirit conveys the meaning (and reality) of both Jesus’ human life (“water”) and death (“blood”) for believers—uniting both aspects together into a single, life-giving power. This very symbolism is expressed in the Gospel, following the death of Jesus, when “blood and water” came out of him (19:34), parallel with the earlier notice that, at the moment of his death, he “gave along the Spirit” (v. 30). This will be discussed further in the next daily note, the second for Good Friday.