"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 7
Section 7.3: Bread from Heaven (Jn 6.25-59)
We only learn in the last verse (v59) that this section represents a teaching delivered by Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum. As befits that location, John presents Jesus as using rabbinic midrashic and homiletic techniques to bring out the meaning of the text the crowd cites in v31 and make the contrast between the manna and the true bread from Heaven (see Brown 1966 pp 277-8). It is an interesting question whether this reflects Jesus' actual teaching technique in such an environment, as Brown thought possible.
In addition to the First Testament parallel of the manna, elements from the Wisdom literature likely underlie the teaching about the Living Bread. In Proverbs 9.1-5, Lady Wisdom invites 'those without sense' to enter her house of seven pillars and eat the bread and drink the wine that she provides. And in Sirach 24.21 she says 'Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.' This is a contrast to Jn 6.35: although what Wisdom bestows is desireable and good, the seeker after Wisdom is not satisfied. But the one who comes to Jesus the Living Bread will be satisfied.
We can thus see that there are links between Jesus as the bread of life and the figure of Wisdom. There are also links between Jesus as bread of life and Torah, which is often represented as bread for humankind in rabbinic teaching. That in turn connects with Jesus' contrast between Moses and God as the source of the manna: Moses gave the Torah-bread, but God now gives Jesus the true bread. This also harkens back to the prologue, particularly John 1.16-17. [[Also add something re Eucharistic elements]]
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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
Obviously this group who speak to Jesus in Capernaum is not identical with the crowd that was fed near Tiberias, despite v24. Only a fraction can have found transportation from the serendipitous arrival of boats described there. But their questions and concerns, and Jesus' replies, show that it is made up of at least some of those that were fed. In Brown 1966 pp 258-9, he argues (among other possibilities) that the combination of vv26-7 with vv30-1 may indicate that this group contains both members of the crowd that had been fed in the sign of the previous day and people from Capernaum who had joined with them to hear Jesus' teaching.
Literally their question is, 'Rabbi, when have you been here?' As Brown observes (Brown 1967 p 261) it reads like a cross between 'How long have you been here?' and 'When did you get here?' I have tried to provide an idiomatic translation.
The idea that the Father has sealed the Son as an authentication of the Son's mission and identity has a parallel above in Jn 3.33. There we learn that one who receives the Son's witness thereby authenticates that God is true. Here the Son himself rather than a statement about God is what is certified by the (figurative) seal. But we have been assured by this sealing that both the Father and the Son are truthful and therefore will provide the promised eternal life.
The group at Capernaum asked Jesus for a sign in response to his statement in v29 that God's work is to be faithful to the one that God has sent. Influenced no doubt by the sign of the loaves and fish that they had recently seen, they offered the manna given during the Exodus as an example of the kind of sign they are hoping for and asking for. There are two things to note about Jesus' response. First is that he accepts their request as valid; he does not reject their seeking for a sign. This is quite different from the attitude that Jesus showed at the end of ch4, when he apparently berated the royal official who was seeking a cure for his sick son about a desire for signs.
The second thing to note is that neither they nor Jesus mentioned the sign of the loaves and fish as a possible answer to the request for a sign. This is because the mention of the manna in v31 has raised the question to a new level. In fact v32 seems partly a desire on Jesus' part to make explicit what he finds to be implicit in the question as it has been posed in the two previous verses. What Jesus did in feeding the 5,000 in vv1-15 was indeed a sign, but as the crowd's reaction at the time showed, it was the sign of a human saviour, the prophet-like-Moses promised in Deuteronomy or the royal Messiah. But as Jesus reminded his questioners in v32, their request for a sign like the sign of the manna in Exodus 16 is qualitatively different, for the manna was not given by Moses, a man, but by the Father, that is, by God.
It appears that by asking for a sign of a completely different kind than they had asked before, they had won Jesus' co-operation with their request. In the answer that he gave in v32, 33, and 35, the tables have been turned. No longer is Jesus the worker of signs and wonders for which the people ask. Instead in answer to this new request, Jesus presented himself as the sign (the true bread from Heaven) and his Father as the one who works the sign. He pointed beyond himself to the Father, the one who sent him, as he had also done in the debate of ch5. Like the water of life that is the subject of Jesus' discussion with the Samaritan woman in ch4, the true bread from Heaven, the bread of life, is more than the crowd asks or expects, as will be clear in subsequent verses. See Brown 1966 p 267 for a helpful comparison of the two discussions (from ch4 and ch6), highlighting the parallels.
This is the first of seven 'I am' sayings with predicates that occur in the Fourth Gospel (see the Introduction for a short discussion of the two sets of seven 'I ams' that occur in this gospel). And it prompts us to ask why Jesus said that he was the bread of life, and what the bread of life is. On the one hand we can see that this saying clearly connects with the earlier exchange between Jesus and the crowd about manna. Insofar as Jesus is the bread of life, he is the true manna, the real bread from heaven. And it also connects Jesus and his teaching with Torah: as we have seen above the figure of bread is used in some rabbinic teaching to refer to the Torah -- God's instruction to God's people nourishes the soul as bread does the body.
The remaining verses in this paragraph (vv36-40) appear to be a caveat from Jesus in response to the request in v34 to receive this bread always. The group in Capernaum may have asked for the bread from heaven; however, they have not done what would be required for them to have it. They have not responded to Jesus, the Son, with trust; they have not begun to build a relationship of trust with the Son. Those who come to him in trust will not be cast away but raised up on the last day and have everlasting life. Only those who come in this way receive the bread that the Father gives and become part of 'all that [the Father] has given me'.
It is not clear why in this verse Jesus' interlocutors, or at least some of them, are described as 'hoi Ioudaioi' (as is also done in v52 below). It seems likely that the term here is being used to differentiate Judeans from Galileans in the group. The following v42 is a problem, since it does seem odd for people identified as not local to the area to say that they know, or know about, Jesus' parents. However we learned in chapter 1 that a group of Judaeans sent priests and Levites to John the Baptist in Galilee to question John both about his own role and about that of Jesus. Could such a group also have sent representatives of some kind to seek out and question Jesus' family? Or perhaps this is an a anomaly of the sort that the author should have edited or rewritten in a final going over, like his remarks about Jesus and (or) his disciples engaging in baptism in Jn 3.22, 3.26, 4.1, and 4.2 (see the earlier comment on Jn 4.2). In any case, their grumbling (or 'murmuring' -- related words are used in the LXX to describe the Israelites' complaints in Exodus 16.2, 7, and 8, leading up to the gift of manna) serves primarily to set up the misunderstanding expressed in the next verse.
As we have already seen, especially in chs 3 and 4, and previously in this chapter, the Evangelist has a taste for ironic misunderstanding. He uses such misunderstandings to create the opportunity for discourses by Jesus that illuminate and offer opportunities for true understanding. Here the Judaeans in the synagogue think that because they know who Jesus' parents are, they know that he cannot be the bread from Heaven: they cannot imagine that there could be a spiritual or heavenly reality that differs from the earthly one. We readers, of course, have been informed through Nicodemos' experience that birth from above is something new and quite different from earthly birth.
It is also possible that this ironic misunderstanding presupposes that the Evangelist's readers were aware of the tradition of the Virgin Birth as preserved to us in Matthew and Luke. If these grumblers, who claim to know about Jesus' parents, do not know about the story of his miraculous birth, they do not really understand Jesus' earthly story, far less his relationship to 'the Father who sent' him. That would certainly increase the irony of the situation. This however is purely speculation. See Appendix 5 for a fuller discussion of this issue.
Verses 43-7 are in answer to the grumbling in v42. The Judaeans are reminded here of the larger picture of the Father's activity. Their inability to understand what Jesus had said about coming down from Heaven was not the result of any contradiction between an earthly and a heavenly origin. Instead it resulted from their refusal to listen to and learn from the Father, both in Jesus whom he sent and in the prophets. But those that do listen and learn, and respond in faithfulness and trust, have everlasting life. There is a clear choice here, and an invitation to these Judaeans to rethink theirs. See further Brown 1966 p 277.
These verses recapitulate Jesus' earlier teaching about the living bread, and take the metaphor further. The problem lies not with the idea that the bread must be consumed, but with his then saying that the bread is his flesh. That suggests the unspeakable, the eating of human flesh. Yet this flesh of which Jesus speaks is the life which he will sacrifice for the world, an idea that we have seen before, just not in such graphic language. These verses juxtapose the sign of living bread which we can understand on a variety of levels (the manna, the bread of Wisdom, the bread of Torah) with the Son's self-sacrifice for the world, which has been hinted at in Jn 3.13-16. They do so in a very jarring way for the Capernaum audience. For the readers, however, they seem to bring in more clearly a connection with the bread of the Eucharist, which was suggested first in the language used to describe the Feeding of the 5,000 (see Comments above). This Eucharistic theme is further developed in the succeeding verses 52-8.
But see Brown 1966 pp 284-94 for a detailed discussion of vv51-8 in which he concludes that these verses are a repetition of what has come before, added to an existing discourse without proper editing or revision.
This section (verses 52-8) raises at least three important questions: how could such an apparently offensive way of speaking reach Jesus' original audience, the Judaeans and others who are shocked and disgusted by Jesus' words and his apparent repudiation of the Law's requirements? Second, what is the significance of the way verses 53-4 and 57 link flesh and blood with everlasting life? And finally how can John's readers, including modern readers like ourselves, understand the references to the Eucharist here?
We certainly can't deny that these verses appear to up the ante as far as potential offensiveness goes. Not only is the bread the listeners are to eat (which we've seen can be understood through a variety of scriptural images) still presented under the disturbing symbolism of the Son's flesh, this metaphor is extended to the drinking of blood as well. It seems that these images were designed to shock. But were they intended to offend? Perhaps they were rather meant to shock the hearers and arrest their attention, so that they (and subsequent readers) concentrate on these extraordinary images. Furthermore we can see the evangelist's method of using ironic misunderstanding here, as Jesus' hearers completely misunderstand the eating and drinking as earthly and not heavenly.
The linking of flesh and blood with life, especially in vv53-4 and v57, works to recall certain repeated themes from earlier discourses. For example, v53 tells us 'Amen, Amen I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves'. Having life in oneself had earlier figured (in Jn 5.26) as an attribute of the Father, which he shared with the Son as part of their unique relationship. But now this saying by Jesus opens up the possibility that human beings too can have life in themselves, provided that they eat of the Son's flesh and drink his blood. In Jn 6.54 we learn that '[t]he one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life'. Having everlasting life is a theme that has recurred many times in this gospel -- in Jn 3.14-15, Jn 3.36, and Jn 5.24 -- and in this very chapter in Jn 6.40. The essential promise that Jesus makes in all these texts is that the one who encounters the Son, whether by seeing him or by listening to his words, and responds with faithfulness and trust has everlasting life.
The earlier use of the symbol of bread showed how it is possible to find ways to understand the body and blood in terms that would have made sense to the original audience. This audience depicted by John likely included both the actual hearers of the teaching on which the evangelist builds this chapter and some early readers from Jewish Christian communities. This entire subsection of chapter 6 is constructed around, and can be read as an extended comment on, the double Amen sayings of verses 47 and 53, which no doubt represent actual sayings of Jesus preserved in the evangelist's circle. Someone who has been paying attention to this teaching since v25 should have noticed, if they were intrigued rather than revolted by the extreme image of eating flesh and drinking blood, that this eating and drinking were somehow related to the listening and seeing of the everlasting life texts. In the wisdom texts that were quoted above, Lady Wisdom gives bread to eat and wine to drink; just as a correlation can be drawn between this sapiential bread, the living bread of Jesus' discourse, and the flesh given for the life of the world, so a connection can also be made between the sapiential wine and the blood of the Son of Man. The bread and wine that Lady Wisdom gives confers wisdom upon the seeker but the flesh and blood that the Son offers, like the teaching and presence of the Son, confer everlasting life upon those who respond to him with faithfulness and trust. And, as v57 indicates, life flows to humans through the Son from the Father, binding all together in a familial relationship, such as was prefigured in the Prologue, especially Jn 1.11-13.
As with many of the Evangelist's discourses, we should seek to understand this one on more than one level: this drinking of blood, condemned literally by the Law, can and should be understood by the reader as a reference to the Eucharist. That however would not in itself suffice to explain the claims that Jesus makes for eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The Eucharist is not a magic ritual that confers everlasting life on whoever takes part, without regard to their hearts or minds. More needs to be involved, and that more is the trust and faithfulness of the one who hears and listens, eats and drinks. Raymond Brown observes that "while the Synoptic Gospels record the institution of the Eucharist, it is John who explains what the Eucharist does for the Christian." (Brown 1966 pp 292-3)
It is not possible to understand the references to the Eucharist in this gospel without the context provided by the Synoptic gospels. The so-called institution of the Eucharist (described in that tradition that Brown referred to) is the story of Jesus' actions at the Last Supper. According to the Synoptic Gospels, at that time Jesus took the bread in his hands, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples who were present. He repeated these actions with the wine. Those actions (the so-called four-fold act discussed above in the context of the feeding of the 5,000) were accompanied by the words that are echoed here: "Take: this is my body" and "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14.22 and 24). It is these actions and these words (whether in the form quoted by one of the Synoptic gospels or that quoted by St Paul) that are the foundation of all Eucharistic liturgies. But to explain and give meaning to the Eucharist, John chose to ignore that part of the traditional account of the Last Supper and concentrate on other aspects of the event; instead he gave us his description of the feeding of the 5,000 accompanied by this lengthy synagogue teaching about the Bread of Life and the association of this bread and wine with his body and blood.
This section of the gospel, full of important teaching about the Eucharist (as Brown pointed out) nevertheless relies on the context provided by the Synoptic accounts of the institution of teh Eucharist. Without that context we would not be able to see that the meaning of Jesus' words are not exhausted by the teachings about Torah-bread, the bread and wine offered by Lady Wisdom, or even the gift of everlasting life. Beyond all that, important as those teachings are, is the teaching about the Eucharist that John has drawn out of the double-Amen sayings around which he built this beautiful and profound reflexion. Without that external context, the sacramental character of this eating and drinking could be overlooked. Unless a clear connection can be made between this teaching on the Bread of Life and the story of the first Eucharist, the lack of the story of the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine in John's account of the Last Supper would have left his readers in the dark as to the role played by the sacrament of the Eucharist in building our relationship with Jesus and his Father through love, faithfulness, and trust.
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