Ok, ready for ANOTHER long post???
Well, in one week we will be celebrating Holy Thursday, a day when, among other things, we commemorate Jesus' instituting the Eucharist. So with that theme in mind, here is Part I of a post on John's Gospel, chapter 6 and the Eucharist. Next week I will post some Patristic commentary on John
6 as well as the thoughts of some Protestant scholars who agree with the traditional Catholic interpretation of this text.
John 6 and the Eucharist
Many Fundamentalist commentators on John 6 assert that the "I am the bread of life" passage fits into a pattern of "I am" discourses throughout the 4th Gospel. They cite John
8:12 ("I am the light of the world"), John
10:9 ("I am the door"), John
10:12 ("I am the good shepherd") and John
15:1 ("I am the true vine") and claim that all of these texts are metaphorical explanations of Jesus' identity. (1) If this were the end of these Protestant exegetes' comments, their conclusion could fit within the mainstream of Christian Biblical interpretation. Indeed, Jesus' expression "I am" (Ego eimi
) is ubiquitous in the Gospel of John. (2)
However, most Fundamentalists do not stop there. They insist that since Christ commonly speaks metaphorically in His "I am" statements, certainly the discourse in John
6 is correspondingly, 100 percent metaphorical. Unquestionably, the statements: "I am the door" and "I am the vine" can be interpreted metaphorically since Jesus is like a door--we enter eternal life through Him--and He is also like a vine--without His "spiritual sap" we wither and die. However, the interpretation of John
6 is crucial since for Catholics it deals with the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The doctrine of the Eucharist is a bedrock teaching for Catholic theology and worship. The interpretation of John
6 is, therefore momentous.
Most Catholic commentators, following the Patristic tradition, have seen a great deal more than metaphor in John
6. The Catholic tradition has always interpreted the "Bread of Life" discourse as Eucharistic.
6:35 Jesus begins the "bread of life" discourse saying, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst...For I have come down from heaven." (John
6: 35, 38a) Jesus' Jewish audience "murmured at him, because he said, 'I am the bread which came down from heaven.' They said, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' How does he now say, 'I have come down from heaven?'" (John
Jesus' immediate response is "Do not murmur among yourselves." (John
6:43) To emphasize His point Jesus repeats himself: "'I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.' The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" (John
The "common sense" interpretation of this passage is that Jesus' audience was stupefied because they had understood Jesus literally--and accurately. This is also the Catholic interpretation. However, the message was received with difficulty because the teaching did not seem to make sense to Jewish ears. Nevertheless, Jesus repeats Himself, with even stronger emphasis; He also adds the statement about drinking His blood. Jesus continues,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
Clearly, Jesus does not attempt to lessen what He said; there is no attempt to amend "misunderstandings."
It seems too difficult to deny that Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said in John
6. The Jews understood Him completely; they simply did not agree with the teaching. However, they certainly did not understand Him to be speaking metaphorically. Indeed, Jesus does not attempt to correct their understanding. It is clear that on other occasions when there was perplexity, the Lord explained His meaning (cf. Matthew
16:5-12). In fact, rather than correct Himself, Jesus recapitulated the offensive language, with greater intensity.
The verses which follow confirm the foregoing analysis. In John
6:60, 66 we read: "Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?' After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him." So here we have Jesus, uncompromising in His doctrinal teaching to the point where He is willing to risk losing his disciples. Indeed, this is an unusual instance where Jesus is unyielding on a doctrinal point. In fact, it is the only record we have of any of Christ's followers forsaking Him for purely doctrinal reasons. (3) Finally, Jesus turns to the 12 apostles, His hand picked friends and confidants. What does He say to them? Does He ask, "Where did I lose them? Where did I go wrong?" No. On the contrary, Jesus solemnly asks in John
6:67 "Will you also go away?" Thus here is Jesus so firm in His teaching that he is willing to risk losing the 12 apostles. Finally, John
6:64 asserts that the one who did not believe his teaching would betray him. Thus, Judas the betrayer is linked to unbelief in the "Bread of Life" discourse.
The foregoing analysis is a brief overview of the "Bread of Life" discourse in John
6. At first glance it seems that Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, and that His message has some connection to the Eucharist. But what about the details? Some Fundamentalists claim that Jesus was speaking about spiritual food and drink. Other Protestants claim that "coming" to Jesus is "bread" and "having faith" in the Lord is "drink." Thus for some Fundamentalists, eating His flesh and blood merely means believing in Jesus. (4) But what does that text really say? What is the meaning of the words? A closer look at the Greek should resolve these issues. The question to be asked is: do the Greek words in John suggest a literal/actual interpretive meaning, or a spiritual/metaphorical meaning? The following analysis will attempt to answer this question.
Speaking in the aggregate, Jesus repeats Himself twelve times in John 6 that He was "the bread that came down from heaven." Four times He claims that believers would have "to eat my flesh and drink my blood." The foregoing analysis suggested that it is difficult to deny that John
6 was an extended promise of what would be instituted at the Last Supper. But what is the timbre of the language? What does the Greek literally say? Can the English translation be somewhat deceiving? Will a closer look at the text support a Fundamentalist interpretation?
Two Greek words are found repeating in the text. In John
6:52 the infinitive "to eat" is the Greek verb phagein
. Again in John
6:53 the same verb used for "you eat" is in Greek phagite
. This verb is correctly translated into English by the words "eat, eat up, devour." (5) Phagein
is a straightforward word. It literally means, "to eat." To add a spiritual or metaphorical meaning to this word would be eisegesis, "reading into" the text . This word has no overt spiritual, mystical or symbolic meanings. Any other translation, rendering or interpretation contradicts the original text. Similarly, the Greek word used for "drink" pinon
is straightforward, and used repeatedly. It simply means, "drink." (6) Nothing more can be honestly read into this word. So far, we have not encountered anything helpful for a Fundamentalist.
However, another Greek word is used in John's Gospel which is translated in English as "eat." Can we learn anything from this word? The Greek word used for "eats" in John
6:54, 56, 57, and 58, is trogon
. This word is used 4 times, which is twice as much as phagein
. So what does trogon
mean? The English repeats "eats" but in Greek it's a different word. Trogon
is an extremely blunt word which has the sense of "chewing, gnawing, nibbling, or munching." The word smacks of herbivorous animals which have to perpetually chew their food. (7) Trogon
is a graphic, earthy, pictorial word. This is not the language of metaphor. The fact that trogon
is used more often that phagein
is almost comical in its vividness. The fact that trogon
is used in the text diminishes any hope the Fundamentalist may have had about this being metaphorical language. This language is strikingly literal. Indeed, since trogon
is used so often this text is even more literal and vivid. The analysis of the New Testament Greek supports the Catholic interpretation and puts those who would deny it on paper-thin ice.
Many other things could be said about this text from John
6. However the line, "My flesh is true food, my blood is true drink" (John
6:55) is worthy of note. The Greek word alitis
is often translated as "true, or indeed" and this is an accurate translation. (8) However, it only bolsters the Catholic understanding of John
6. The author grounds the text on literal bedrock with the repetition of the word alitis
. This is the exact opposite of metaphor. The language in John
6 could not be more direct. So we have literal, graphic vocabulary in John
6, which opposes a metaphorical interpretation. Then we have the word alitis
which roots the text even more strongly in the literal field.
(Look for Part II sometime next week! *Breath collectivly held*)
(1) Keating, Carl, "The Eucharist," Catholic Answers Tract
(2) Morrow, Stanley B. The Gospel of John: A Reading
. New York: Paulist Press, 1995, p. 123 .
(3) Keating, Carl, Catholicism and Fundamentalism
, Ignatius (San Francisco, CA, 1991) p. 123.
(4) Keating, Carl, "The Eucharist," Catholic Answers Tract
(5) Liddell, Henry, and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon
, Clarendon Press (Oxford, 1996) p. 1911.
(6) Ibid. p. 1406
(7) Ibid. p. 1832.
(8) Ibid. p. 63.