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.

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.


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 6: John 6:63; 17:20-23

John 6:63; 17:20-23

In the previous note, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), we examined Paul’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus, and its association with the Holy Spirit. Pauline theology is closely aligned with the Johannine theology, in its emphasis on the participation of believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Three key points may be made regarding this participation:

    • It is the means by which believers are united with Jesus (the Son), and, in turn, with God the Father
    • This union occurs through the presence of the Spirit in and among believers, and
    • The presence of the Spirit conveys the eternal, life-giving power of Jesus—the same power that raised him from the dead—to believers.

At the ritual level, this participation is symbolized through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In his letters, Paul tends to use the baptism ritual as a way of expressing the participatory aspect, whereas, in the Gospels, the emphasis is on the Lord’s Supper. This is clearly so with regard to the idea of participation in Jesus’ death, built into the very language of the institution, in the Synoptic Last Supper scene (Mk 14:22-25 par). The association with Jesus’ resurrection is less apparent; probably the closest we come is in the Emmaus episode of the Lukan narrative, with the eucharistic allusions in 24:30-31. With the breaking of the bread, the disciples see the resurrected Jesus, and recognize his presence with them.

The sacramental symbolism is more complex in the Gospel of John, having been detached from the Passion/Resurrection narrative, and given a new (and deeper) interpretation within the context of the great Discourses of Jesus. The eucharistic language in the Bread of Life Discourse (6:51-58) is a natural development of the Gospel tradition of the miraculous feeding, where, at an early point, eucharistic allusions were recognized and applied to the narrative (6:11ff, cp. Mark 6:41ff / 8:6ff par). What is distinctive in the Bread of Life discourse, is how this association is further developed and given a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. 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). The overall context of the Gospel makes clear that this is realized through the Spirit, even as Jesus declares in 6:63:

“The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. giving] life, the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing); the utterances [i.e. words] that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life.”

The same point is made elsewhere in the Discourses, through the image of drinking water, which symbolizes the presence of the Spirit (7:37-39; 4:13-14, 23-24). Through the Spirit, the believer is able to participate in the life-giving power of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, to (symbolically) “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood”.

Again, in the previous note, I discussed how, through the resurrection, Jesus comes to share the Spirit of God, and that it is through this Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—that believers are united with him. That this union is based upon the Spirit is a fundamental point of Johannine theology, and one, it seems, that Paul shared. Certainly his exposition of the resurrection of Jesus (in 1 Cor 15 and Rom 8:9-11, cf. also 1:4 etc) would tend to confirm this. Consider also his statement in 1 Cor 6:17: “…the (one) being joined to the Lord is one Spirit“. This is true of the union of Jesus (the Son) with God the Father, and, correspondingly, it is equally true of our union (as believers) with Jesus. While Paul does not develop this idea much further in his letters, it is central to the great Johannine Discourses of Jesus—especially the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) and the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17.

It is in the Prayer-Discourse, that this aspect of Johannine theology reaches its pinnacle, forming, we may say, the climactic point of the entire Gospel. In terms of the narrative context, it represents Jesus’ last words, in the presence of his disciples, prior to his death. From this narrative standpoint, the Prayer-Discourse holds a similar place in the Gospel of John as the institution of the Lord’s Supper does in the Synoptics. Through the presence of the Spirit, believers participate in the life-giving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Spirit is the means by which the union is achieved, while, in the Prayer-Discourse, the focus is on the nature of this union.

While sharing features of the Johannine discourse-format, chapter 17 is unique among the Discourses in that it is a prayer, addressed formally to God the Father, though the main message is intended for Jesus’ disciples (believers)—cp. 11:41-42. I have discussed the Prayer-Discourse at length as part of a series in the Monday Notes on Prayer; you should consult those notes for a detailed exegesis. The main thrust of the prayer is Jesus’ request for the protection/preservation of his disciples (believers). This request to the Father is to be understood in terms of the central message of the Last Discourse—the promise of the Holy Spirit (also referred to as “the [One] called alongside”, para/klhto$), who will continue the presence of Jesus in and among believers, uniting them with both the Son of God (Jesus) and God the Father. It is through the Spirit that the Father will “keep watch over” them (vb thre/w), protecting them from the evil in the world (vv. 11-15). As the Spirit of holiness, it will also purify believers, even as the Father Himself (and Jesus the Son) is holy (vv. 17-19).

That the Johannine Discourses are addressed to all believers, and not merely to Jesus’ immediate disciples, is a vital and essential point for interpretation. The point is made explicit here in the Prayer-Discourse, with Jesus’ words in verse 20:

“And (it is) not about these alone (that) I make (this) request, but also about the (one)s trusting in me through their word/account…”

The universal scope of the Discourses, involving all believers, was hinted at in earlier passages (e.g., 3:16; 4:21ff; 10:16; 11:52), and is clearly in view in the mind of the Gospel writer (20:29-31). The emphasis on the unity of believers—all believers—was stated previously, both by Jesus and the Gospel writer, respectively:

“…and they will hear my voice, and they shall come to be a single [mi/a] herd [i.e. flock], (with) one [ei!$] herdsman [i.e. shepherd]” (10:16)

“…but also that the offspring [i.e. children] of God, having been scattered throughout, would be gathered together into one [e%n]” (11:52)

Both of these passages are set in the context of Jesus’ impending death, as the means by which—through the resurrection and the presence of the Spirit—believers are united into one. In Hebrew and Aramaic this sort of oneness, or unity, is expressed through the related roots dja and djy, and the respective words dj*a@ and dyj!y`. The latter noun (y¹µîd, “unity”), has a corollary dj^y~ (yaµad) that specifically refers to a unity of persons, i.e. a community, being united together by a common identity or purpose. The Community of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls) referred to itself as a dj^y~, and so also, we may assume, early Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking Christians did the same for their own Community. In the New Testament, the Greek word for this common bond is koinwni/a (koinœnía, Acts 2:42 et al); it does not occur in the Gospel, but is used by the author of 1 John (1:3, 6-7).

Many Christians, I fear, have misunderstood the sense of Jesus’ prayer for unity in 17:20-23, primarily due to the tendency to read these verses out of context. Indeed, Jesus’ words here must be read in the light of the Last Discourse, with its Passion setting, as well as in terms of the Johannine Discourses as a whole. Keeping the following points in mind will help readers and commentators avoid off-target explanations regarding the unity/oneness expressed in vv. 20-23:

    • It is Jesus’ sacrificial death that is the basis for this unity—this is clear both from the Passion setting of the Prayer-Discourse, and the earlier references to the unity of believers in 10:16; 11:52 (cf. above).
    • The unity involves participation in (“remaining in”) the life-giving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection—cf. the discourses dealing with the theme of resurrection (esp. 5:19-29; 11:21-27ff), the motif of eating/drinking what Jesus gives (4:13-14; 6:51-58; 7:37-38f, etc), and the repeated use of the verb me/nw (“remain”) throughout (esp. 5:38; 6:27, 56; 8:31ff; 12:24, 46; 14:10, 17; 15:4-10ff).
    • The unity is realized through the presence of the Spirit—the coming of the Spirit, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, is a central theme of the Last Discourse (see esp. 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15), as well as being alluded to numerous times in the prior discourses.

Verses 20-23 will be discussed in further detail in the next daily note.

June 18: Mark 6:30ff; 8:1ff par

This is the last of short series of notes on the miraculous feeding narratives (of the 5000/4000) in the Gospels. In the prior notes, I have discussed a number of critical questions related to these narratives, along with a comparative study of the passages. Today, in the concluding note, I will look at Eucharistic elements in the narrative; this brings us back to notes I posted earlier in the week, following the (traditional) commemoration of Corpus Christi (the “body of Christ” in the Eucharist) this past Sunday. This entailed a study on the expression “breaking (of) bread” as a kind of shorthand reference to the Lord’s Supper in the early Church; in an examination of the relevant passages, I left unaddressed the miraculous feeding narratives, to which I now turn for today’s note.

Let us begin with Mark’s account (Mk 6:30-44); the key verse is v. 41:

“And taking [labw\n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he gave a good account (of) [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] (it) and broke down [kate/klasen] the bread-loaves and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside them [i.e. the people], and the fish he divided (among) them all”

Matthew’s account (Matt 14:13-21, v. 19) is simpler, but shows only minor differences, most notably perhaps the use of kla/w (“break”) instead of the compound verb katakla/w (“break down”). Luke’s version (Lk 9:10-17) of this verse (v. 16) is almost identical with Mark.

On the surface, there might not seem to be much relation to the Eucharist here; after all, there is no mention of a cup, nothing to suggest symbolism of Jesus’ body (or blood), plus the mention of fish—is there actually a connection to the Lord’s supper? The answer is yes, and there are several reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

1. The Greek verbs used

Look at the Greek verbs indicated in square brackets in Mk 6:41 above, and you will see that, with just one slight variation, they are the same verbs (and in the same sequence) used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 par):

And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) blessing [eu)logh/sa$] he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, “Take (it)—this is my body”

The only difference is that there, instead of the verb katakla/w (kataklᜠ“break down”), the simple verb kla/w (klᜠ“break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in a previous note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:

Lk 24:30: And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he blessed [eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…

2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand

In some ways, the wording in the Markan account of the feeding of the Four thousand (Mk 8:1-9,  v. 6) is even closer to that of Jesus’ acts of institution at the Last Supper:

And taking [labw\n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving (thanks to God for his) good favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he broke [e)kla/sen] (them) and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…

The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eu)xariste/w, others read eu)loge/w. The verb eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ, “give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).

3. The Context in the Gospel of John

If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11

Therefore Yeshua took [e&laben] the bread-loaves and giving (thanks to God for his) good favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he gave (them) throughout [die/dwken] to the ones (having) lain back [i.e. lain/sat down]…

it is noteworthy that we do not find nearly so close a parallel to Jesus actions at the Last Supper. Noticeably missing is any mention of breaking the bread (though “broken pieces” [kla/smata] are mentioned in v. 12). This may well be an indication that John has inherited an early form of the tradition which was not yet shaped to fit the eucharistic imagery to the same extent (as we see it preserved in the Synoptics). However, the Johannine form of the narrative would have a considerable influence on Eucharistic formulae and imagery in the early Church, as we shall see below.

The miraculous feeding episode in John serves as the basic setting for the great “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in Jn 6:22-59, a discourse in which most commentators find at least some reference to the Eucharist (especially in vv. 53-58). I must admit that I am not as inclined to see references to the concrete (material) sacrament in these verses as many commentators do—especially if we are to regard these in any meaningful way as authentic words of Jesus. I see the Eucharistic imagery here as of a more general type, referring primarily to the work of the Spirit as conveying the real [but spiritual] presence of Christ and eternal life to the believer (much as the apparent references to baptism in Jn 3)—foreshadowing, perhaps, the true and proper meaning of the sacrament. However, that there is Eucharistic imagery, especially in vv. 53-58, I do not deny; I have discussed this in several prior posts, including an earlier Saturday Series study.

4. Early Christian tradition

Here I will limit discussion to several points and one or two references which show that early Christians understood a definite Eucharistic aspect or element to the miraculous feeding episode.

a. The Johannine context. As mentioned above, the miraculous feeding is followed by the Bread of Life discourse, which has certain eucharistic elements. While the extent to which the eucharistic aspect applies to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ original words may be debated, there can be no doubt that Christians early on made the association. The Gospel of John is best dated somewhere between 70-90, and may include a late (c. 90-95) redaction.

b. As discussed in an earlier note, the “breaking (of) bread” appears to have served as a kind of shorthand reference to the Eucharist. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where the breaking of bread is mentioned, there appears to be some connection to the Lord’s Supper. By way of “catch-word (or catch-image) bonding”, any occurrence of breaking bread in the narrative would likely have been associated with the Eucharist from a very early time on.

c. The use of the verb eu)xariste/w in John’s account (as in the Synoptic feeding of the four thousand) may have helped to increase the use of the verb in association with the Eucharist (a word which, of course, derives from a transliteration of the related noun eu)xaristi/a [eucharistía]).

d. There are a number of parallels between John’s account of the miraculous feeding and references to the Eucharist in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” [of the Twelve Apostles]).

    • The Bread is simply called kla/sma (plur. kla/smata), “broken (piece[s])” in Didache 9:3-4 as in the feeding miracle (cf. Jn 6:12)
    • Note especially the prayer in Did 9:4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

With the following details:

    • The bread scattered on the mountains (only in John’s account [v. 3] is a mountain setting mentioned).
    • The verb translated “brought together” (suna/gw) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (kla/smata). The same verb is also used in a Eucharistic setting in Did 14:1. The image of the (twelve) disciples gathering up the twelve baskets of fragments “so that nothing might be lost” [Jn 6:12b] was a suitable symbol of Church Unity, as the Didache clearly indicates.
    • The mention of the Kingdom (of God/Christ); perhaps coincidentally, John’s account is the only one which makes any reference to a king (v. 14f).
    • Note the three relevant details in succession in Didache 14:1:

“having been brought together [sunaxqe/nte$], break bread [kla/sate a&rton] and give (thanks to God for his) good favor [eu)xaristh/satei.e. technically ‘celebrate the thanksgiving/eucharist]

Despite the name ascribed to the writing, the Didache is almost certainly not a product of the Apostles. It is typically dated sometime between 125-150 A.D., but may possibly preserve earlier tradition. It is a “church manual” of sorts, and provides at least a partial glimpse of what early Christianity may have been like in the first half of the second century (a generation or two after the later writings of the New Testament).

June 15: Mark 6:30-44 par

In yesterday’s note, partly in commemoration of the traditional feast of Corpus Christi (first Sunday after Trinity), I examined the New Testament expression of “breaking (of) bread” (as in Acts 2:42, 46; Luke 24:35, etc) in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in the early Church. There is one other major passage where this image occurs—the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The tradition surrounding this miracle is unique in that: (a) it is one of the only episodes recorded in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John); (b) it is one of the only instances where something like the same narrative occurs twice in the same Gospel (Matthew/Mark). For this reason (among others), it proves to be an interesting ‘test case’ in terms of how early Gospel traditions may have developed, as well as being illustrative of the key differences between traditional-conservative and critical viewpoints in this regard. You will also find this episode discussed in detail as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

I will divide the discussion into three main sections, each of which will be treated in a daily note:

    • Survey of the passages, with a brief study of the source-critical and historical-critical questions
    • A more detailed comparative study of the narratives
    • An examination of the Eucharistic elements of the traditional narrative—their possible origins and influence in the early Church

Today’s note will is devoted to the first of these—namely, a survey of the passages, study of key source-critical and historical-critical questions. To begin with, a miraculous feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) is narrated in Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15. As will be seen, all four narratives are quite close, both in outline and much detail as well; typically the the three Synoptic accounts are extremely close, while there are more substantial differences between the Synoptics and John. This brings up two separate, but related, source-critical questions:

    1. What is the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels?
    2. What is the relationship between the Synoptics and John?

The first question is usually addressed in the wider context of the so-called “Synoptic Problem”—how to explain the substantial agreement (including wording, order, other detail) between two and/or all three Synoptic Gospels. Today, there is a rough consensus among many (if not most) critical scholars that corresponds with the so-called “Two-Document” and “Markan priority” hypotheses, according to which:

    • Mark was written first, and both Matthew and Luke made (extensive) use of Mark, including the overall narrative plan and arrangement.
    • Matthew and Luke also made use of a second major (written) source, primarily consisting of blocks of Jesus’ sayings and teachings—this is the so-called “Q” source. Usually this is assumed to be a distinct written document, but it is perhaps safer to refer to it more generally as a collection of shared tradition(s).
    • Matthew and Luke also each made use of other sources—collections of tradition, whether written or oral—not found in the other Gospels, and often labeled “M” and “L” respectively.

While not without difficulties, this does, I believe, represent a reasonably sound working hypothesis. At the very least, if Matthew and Luke did not make use of Mark, then they must have made use of an early Gospel framework very similar in both content and arrangement. In particular, the position of the feeding miracle within the overall Gospel framework is similar between the Synoptics. Assuming, for the moment, the “Markan priority” hypothesis, here is the position of the episode in Mark:

1. Mk 6:1-6: The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (saying in v. 4)
2. Mk 6:7-13: Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve (saying/commission in vv. 10-11)
3. Mk 6:14-29: Herod and the death of John the Baptist
4. Mk 6:30-44: The feeding of the Five thousand
5. Mk 6:45-52: Episode at sea—Jesus walking on water (reference to the feeding miracle in v. 52)
6. Mk 6:53-56: Summary references to healing miracles by Jesus
7. Mk 7:1-23: Sayings of Jesus in context of disputes with Pharisees and Scribes (at least two blocks of sayings, vv. 6-13 and 14b-23)
8. Mk 7:24-37: Two healing miracles

If we compare the position in the Gospel of Matthew, it is nearly identical; the only structural difference is that Jesus’ commission and sending out the Twelve occurs somewhat earlier (Matt 10:5ff) and serves as the introduction and narrative focus for a lengthy block of sayings vv. 16-42 added to the portion (vv. 5-15) he presumably inherited from Mark. The arrangement in the Gospel of Luke differs even more considerably:

  • The story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth occurs earlier (at the beginning of his ministry), and in different/expanded form, in Lk 4:16-30
  • The material corresponding to Mark 6:45-8:26 for the most part is not found in Luke; as a result the confession of Peter, Jesus’ first Passion prediction (with related sayings), and the Transfiguration (Lk 9:18-36) follow immediately after the miraculous feeding episode in Lk 9:10-17

Notable differences between the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand will be mentioned in the comparative study in the next day’s note.

The second question (see above) has to do with the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Even though there is relatively little common material between John and the Synoptics, scholars have at times proposed that the author of the fourth Gospel utilized one (or more) of the other three. For example, there are some notable details in common between the Passion/Resurrection narratives of Luke and John, but other (apparent) minor points of agreement as well. However, in my view, most of these similarities are best explained by a shared common tradition rather than literary borrowing. I would concur with a good number of scholars today that there is very little (if any) clear evidence that the author of the fourth Gospel even knew (let alone used) any of the other three Gospels. At least one strand of evidence to this effect will be presented in the comparative study offered in the next day’s note. This means that, if we take Mark as the earliest Synoptic (and partial exemplar for the other two), then, at several key points, the Gospels of Mark and John are both drawing from an early tradition (or block of tradition), such as that involving the feeding of the Five thousand. By all accounts the “common portion” shared by John here is modest, limited to the traditions corresponding to Mark 6:30-52.

There is a far more serious historical-critical issue related to these passages, one which demonstrates a rather clear divide between traditional-conservative and critical approaches to the Gospels. The difficulty can be summarized by the fact that, in the Gospel of Mark (and in Matthew) there are two different miraculous feedings which are largely identical, differing mainly in specific vocabulary and other detail. This second episode is a feeding of Four (instead of Five) thousand men, as narrated in Mark 8:1-10 (par Matthew 15:32-39). The traditional-conservative view would tend to take these at face value as separate historical episodes; however, the number of similarities makes this hard to maintain in the light of objective analysis. The critical view would generally hold that these are separate versions of the same episode which have been preserved in different form; but there are difficulties with this view as well, as we shall see. Critical scholars are most reluctant to harmonize differences and discrepancies in Scriptural narrative by positing separate (similar, or nearly identical) events. For example, because of the different apparent chronology between John and the Synoptics, some traditional-conservative commentators would hold that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice; however, I regard this as highly unlikely—apart from the variant position of the episode (‘early’ vs. ‘late’), there is virtually no evidence to support a tradition of two (largely identical) Temple-cleansings. The situation is more complex with the “Anointing of Jesus” episodes in the Gospels; there it is likely that we are dealing with two traditions—one represented largely by Luke 7:36-50, the other primarily by Mark 14:3-9 and the Matthean parallel. As in the case of the miraculous feeding narratives, the Johannine account shows a mixture of details found in the other versions, which is somewhat hard to explain if we are dealing with different historical events (or traditions). This will be explored in greater detail in the next note.

June 14 (2): Acts 2:42-46

This Sunday (the first after Trinity Sunday), in Roman Catholic tradition, represents the feast (celebration) of Corpus Christi—that is, the body of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). Protestants generally do not recognize this feast day in the Church Year, since it is tied to a belief in the “real presence” of Christ (i.e. his body present miraculously, but materially in the consecrated bread and wine) and the concept of transubstantiation (the substance/essence of the bread and wine is transformed into his body/blood). Ever since the Renaissance and Reformation period, Western Christians—Protestants in particular—have struggled to preserve something of the ancient mystic-symbolic sense of the sacred ritual in light of the more scientific-materialistic age in which they live. The crux of the disputes in the Reformation period was the declaration by Jesus in the Last Supper scene of the Synoptic Gospels—”this is my body / this is my blood” (Mark 14:22, 24 par)—and how precisely it should be understood. However, perhaps even more interesting, from my viewpoint, is the question of exactly how early believers may have applied eucharistic language and symbolism to their communal meals. In this regard, the crucial, seminal passage is found in the book of Acts, in the narrative summary of Acts 2:42-47:

42And they were strong/steadfast toward (each other) in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion, in the breaking of bread and the speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers]…
44and all the ones trusting/believing were (together) upon the same (place) [e)pi\ to\ au)to/] and had all things in common…
46and according to (the) day [i.e. daily], being strong/steadfast toward (each other) with one impulse in the sacred place [i.e. Temple], and breaking bread according to (the) house, they took food with (one another) in joy and smoothness/simplicity [lit. without stone/pebble] of heart…
47…and the Lord set toward [i.e. added to] the ones being saved according to (the) day [i.e. daily] e)pi\ to/ au)to/.

Here I would focus on the expression kla/si$ tou= a&rtou (klásis tou ártou), “breaking of bread” in verse 42, which is mentioned again in verse 46 in slightly different form: “breaking bread according to house”. The modifying expression “according to (the) house” (kat’ oi@kon) means that the “breaking of bread” took place in one house, then another—presumably an indication that the larger group/community met in the houses of different believers in turn. But what of this “breaking of bread”?—does it represent: (a) ordinary meals, or (b) a celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)? On the surface, it would seem that ‘ordinary’ communal meals are meant, as in v. 46 where it says that the believers “took food/nourishment with (one another) [metala/mbanon trofh=$]”. However, most scholars today would, I think, hold that some form of the Lord’s Supper is meant, and in this they are probably correct. One could, perhaps, distinguish between the terminology of the earliest believers (c. 35 A.D.) with that of the author of Acts (c. 70-80) [cf. also references in Acts 20:7, 11; 27:35]; but for the author of Luke-Acts, at least, it is extremely likely that “breaking (of) bread” served as a kind of shorthand reference and image for the Eucharist. This would seem to be confirmed by the narrative of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), where Jesus comes to be known/recognized in the breaking of the bread (cf. verse 35, the only other occurrence of the noun kla/si$ [klásis, “breaking, fracture”] in the New Testament). For more on this passage, see below.

The symbolism, of course, originates with that used by Jesus in the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper:

Mark 14:22: “And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) blessing [eu)logh/sa$] he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”

The version in Matthew 26:26 differs very little, the majority text of Luke 22:19 somewhat more so, with the addition in 19b (missing in some key ‘Western’ manuscripts) of: “…th(at is) given over you; do this in my memory/remembrance”. From a period presumably in between that of the earliest believers and the author of Luke-Acts, we have Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which includes a citation of Jesus words of institution (vv. 24-26) fairly close to the formula in Luke. While the exact context and circumstances are not entirely clear, Paul’s is describing a situation where the significant (or “sacred”, i.e. eucharistic) aspects of the communal meal are effectively being ignored or disregarded in practice. This indicates (clearly enough to me) that the eucharistic elements simply serve as a ritual, symbolic aspect of what is otherwise an (ordinary) communal meal. Paul warns strongly against those who eat and drink without “judging/discerning throroughly” (diakri/nwn) the body (of Christ) (v. 30, and note the warning against eating and drinking unworthily in v. 27). Some commentators have interpreted verse 30 in light of later disputes regarding the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, but this almost certainly reads too much into the text. I believe Paul’s point in this passage is two-fold:

    1. Those who participate in the meal in an unworthy manner are, whether consciously or not, disregarding the sacred/symbolic aspect of the meal—it is not possible to reconstruct the ancient ritual element with certainty, but originally it probably centered upon a specific act of “breaking bread”, in imitation of Jesus’ own act.
    2. The nature of the problems at Corinth involved a lack of unity among believers, and this was reflected in the way they came together to celebrate the eucharistic meal (see v. 17-19ff). Here divisions in the body of Christ (the congregation) are juxtaposed against the body of Christ (bread and wine) broken/divided in ritual (but serving to promote unity and spiritual life).

Previously, I mentioned the Emmaus scene in Luke 24, where Jesus joins the two disciples for a meal (in their house or a lodging on the way). All throughout the scene (vv. 15-29), the disciples had failed to recognize the resurrected person of Jesus; that is, until the moment of the common meal:

30And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he blessed [eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…

The same set of four verbs, in sequence, appears in Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper (see above)—the eucharistic connection could not be clearer! Note, too, that upon the breaking of the bread, “their eyes were thoroughly opened and they recognized [lit. knew upon] him”, an aspect of the scene important enough to be repeated in verse 35, where it is mentioned, in conclusion, “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread”. This, I believe, is not unrelated conceptually to Paul’s statement regarding the importance of “discerning” (diakri/nw) the body of Christ during the meal. The importance of the breaking of the bread, which, as I pointed out, was probably a single ritual act of breaking (accompanied by simple liturgical wording) is emphasized in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” of the Twelve Apostles), which likely dates from the early-mid second-century; in the Eucharistic passage in chap. 9-10, the bread is specifically referred to as “broken (piece[s])” (kla/sma) (9:3-4). In the Didache, the associated prayers have already developed considerably beyond anything likely to have been used by the earliest believers (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26); but note the powerful image of Christian unity expressed in verse 4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

This draws upon the other major passage in the New Testament which specifically refers to the breaking of bread—namely, the miraculous feeding of the multitude—which I will discuss in the next few daily notes.

The feast of Corpus Christi was officially established by Pope Urban IV in 1264 A.D., associated with the so-called miracle of Bolsena in which the eucharistic wafer (host) was said to have bled and imprinted bloody images of the host upon the surplice of the officiating priest—therefore removing any doubts the priest (or others) may have had about the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Real Presence! The scene was commemorated most famously by Raphael in the Stanza (reception room) d’Elidoro in the Vatican palace