Living bread: flesh and blood

living-bread53 Jesus said to them, “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 within you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.

The language is graphic and direct, including images and actions that would have been abhorrent to faithful Jews: eating flesh and drinking blood (Gen 9:4). But is the language meant to be realistic or one of metaphor. Morris’ approach [335] to this question seems fairly standard among those who do not hold to the sacramental, Eucharistic understanding of this text. “Both ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are aorists, denoting once-for-all action, not a repeated eating and drinking, such as would be appropriate to the sacrament. And this eating and drinking are absolutely necessary for eternal life. Those who do not eat and drink in the way Jesus says have no life. Eating and drinking Christ’s flesh and blood thus appears to be a very graphic way of saying that people must take Christ into their innermost being.” I would suggest that it is hard to make this argument and at the same time demand also other biblical sources inform the understanding.

Jesus is referring to eating of his flesh. He recounts this action verb several other times between vv. 51-58, while adding the drinking of his blood to the command. There is no doubt as to Jesus’ intent. And there is little doubt as to context into which his words will be heard. “To eat someone’s flesh” appears in the Bible as a metaphor for hostile action (Ps 27:2, Zech 11:9). In fact, in the Aramaic tradition, the “eater of flesh” is the title of the devil. The drinking of blood was looked upon as a horrendous thing forbidden by God’s Law (Gen 9:4, Lev 3:17, Dt 12:23, and Acts 15:20). Outside Temple rituals, its symbolic meaning was that of brutal slaughter (Jer 45:10). In Ezekiel’s vision of apocalyptic carnage (Ez 39:17), he invites the scavenging birds to come to the feast: ‘You shall have flesh to eat and blood to drink.’ Thus if Jesus’ words in v.53 are metaphor, it argues against a very strong grain in biblical understanding. This would also be a radical departure from Jesus in John’s gospels. It is hard to think of another metaphor Jesus offers that does not reside upon positive imagery from Jewish biblical thought.

In reality the suggestion of eating flesh and drinking blood is repugnant to a faithful Jew. The use of such language as metaphor is a bit much and not really needed. Jesus has already said that believing in him and coming to him constitute the work of God. But this is the juncture one is stuck at when one does not let the whole of John 6 develop, but insists that nothing new can be said in v.51 and following that was not said prior to v.51.

Perhaps a small thing, perhaps not – one thing that does change is the verb used to describe “eating.” Prior to v.51, phagein and esthiein are found in a number of places and contexts in the Fourth Gospel to describe the normal human activity of eating. That changes here – and perhaps to make a point? The verb trōgein is used 6:54-58 (and found only here and in 13:18. Both of these passages have eucharistic background.) The verb trōgein used in this and following verses is not the classical Greek verb used of human eating, but that of animal eating: “munch,” “gnaw.” It has many uses that are quite graphic as though an animal ripping flesh from the bone. Hardly the soft, spiritual meaning.

Perhaps the daunting question is how can the language of eating flesh and drinking blood be given a positive understanding? A similar question would be how the cross, the symbol of Roman domination and torture, can be understood in a positive light? The answer to both is that Jesus can transform them. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” these images of bread drawn from the scriptural tradition are transformed. The traditional metaphors are redefined by the very person of Jesus. Metaphors that pointed to God in the Hebrew Scriptures now point to God through Jesus. This focusing of the rich OT symbols on the person of Jesus is the context in which the Eucharistic images are to be read and, indeed, out of which they grow. I would suggest the same is true for eating flesh and drinking blood.

[Note: The prohibition of consuming blood is quite old, first found in Genesis 9:4. What is the reason for that prohibition? Because a living being dies when it loses most of its blood, the ancients regarded blood as the seat of God-given life, and therefore as sacred, belonging to God along. It is why the blood of the sacrifice is poured on the altar – returning it to God. It is why blood was sprinkled on the people as the sign of the covenant – returning them to God. Consider what is being offered when Jesus directs the people to “drink my blood.” The very author of all life, is offering the seat of God-given eternal life.]

What has been put negatively is now stated positively in a way typical of this Gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Earlier Morris had noted: ““Both ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are aorists, denoting once-for-all action, not a repeated eating and drinking, such as would be appropriate to the sacrament.” In v.54 the verb changes and the tense changes so that a more precise rendering would be “Whoever continues to eat…”

Returning to O’Day [608]: “The third-person Son of Man language gives way to first-person pronouns. [Continually] Eating the flesh and blood of Jesus leads to the gift of eternal life and the promise of resurrection on the last day, complementary eschatological promises that run throughout the bread of life discourse (6:39–40, 44, 50–51). A comparison of vv. 40 and 54 shows that eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood parallels seeing the Son and believing in him. Participation in the eucharist and the faith decision are parallel in the Fourth Gospel, not either/or acts. Verse 55 states succinctly why Jesus’ flesh and blood are the source of life. Jesus’ flesh and blood thus fulfill the promise in 6:35 of food and drink that will end hunger and thirst.”

Apart from the already cited issues of understanding John 6, O’Day points to another axiom of questionable standing. So many commentaries, which rightly hold to the emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God and the needed faith response prominent in 6:24-50, then rigidly apply the logic, “since it was Word and faith before it can’t be Eucharistic now … it is either this or that, not both.” The false dichotomy of either/or, the insistence on harmonization with Eucharistic institution narratives with the synoptic tradition, and other interpretative impositions, simply combine to not let the Bread of Life discourse develop past 6:50. Such development leads to a Eucharistic understanding and a faith understanding – both/and.

NOTES

John 6:53 Amen, amen, I say to you: The presence of the double “amen” in v. 53 makes this the third use of the expression to introduce Jesus’ response to the misunderstanding interruptions that mark the beginning of each section (cf. vv. 26, 32).

John 6:54 those who eat my flesh: The use of trōgein for the action of “eating” is found throughout vv. 53-58 (cf. vv 54, 56, 57, 58). The claim that the verb is used to express the physical experience, “to munch,” “to crunch” is sometimes questioned. Those who reject this physical meaning point to the presence of phagein in the immediate context (cf. v. 53), and thus claim that the verbs are interchangeable. This does not respect the fact that the verbs phagein and esthiein are found in a number of places and contexts in the Fourth Gospel, but trōgein is found only in 6:54-58 and 13:18. Both of these passages have eucharistic background. It is often suggested that the vigor of this language combats emerging docetic ideas about Jesus.

SOURCES

Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 281-94

Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 333-37

Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 607-09

Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm

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