John 6 is an often discussed passage related to the Eucharist, and one which Biblical literalists ironically often want to interpret metaphorically: Jesus is not talking about the Eucharist or any such thing, and certainly nothing remotely Catholic-ish. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood are simply a metaphor for believing in Jesus. However a strong case can be made for the contrary, as follows:
1) John 6 uses the same four roots to describe the act of blessing and giving the bread as the synoptic Gospels do at the last supper.1 A root is the most basic form of a word from which a host of other words are derived, for example, types, typed, typing, typist, typo, etc., all come from the root verb “type.” In Luke 22:19, Jesus:
takes — λαβὼν (labōn), from the verb λαμβάνω (lambanō)
blesses — εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistēsas), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō)
broke — ἔκλασεν (eklasen), from the verb κλάω (klaō)
gave — ἔδωκεν (edōken), from the verb δίδωμι (didōmi)
The verbs in Matthew and Mark are identical, except for they use εὐλογέω (eulogeō) εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō).
In John 6, we something surprisingly familiar. To make things easier to see, I’ve bolded below what is precisely identical to the above. In verse eleven, Jesus:
Took the bread — ἔλαβεν (elaben), from the verb λαμβάνω (lambanō)
blessed — εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistēsas), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō)
gave the bread — διέδωκεν (diedōken), which is derived from the verb δίδωμι (didōmi)
You might be wondering what happened to “broke.” In the following verse we read Jesus saying, “Gather up the fragments left over.” If you were to guess what root verb “fragments” comes from, I doubt you would be far off.
Fragments — κλάσμα (klasma), which is derived from the verb κλάω (klaō)
Verses eleven and twelve of John 6 contain the identical four verbal roots the Lukan account of the Last Supper has in describing Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. Since this is the case, it would like awaken a memory of that story in the mind of the hearers.
2) In v. 23, the day after Jesus fed the five thousand, a crowd of people return to the same location looking for Jesus. The place is called “where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” “Given thanks” is from the Greek εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō), from which we get the word “Eucharist.” It is notable that this is the element the author decides to drawn attention to, considering it is a seemingly superfluous detail. It wasn’t enough merely to say it was where they had eaten bread. And he doesn’t call it “the place where Jesus did a miracle.” It was where the Lord had “made eucharist.” Considering that the Gospel of John was written around 100 AD., and we have clear usage of this identical Greek word family referring to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the 100-110 AD timeframe2, it is very likely that the way the author inserts this word here is meant to conjure in the mind of the hearers a recollection of the Eucharist.
3) In Jesus’ discourse in verse 26 and following, a clear Exodus motif emerges in which Jesus relates the manna the Israelites ate in the wilderness with the “bread from heaven.” In verse 32 he identifies himself as this “bread from heaven,” and later in verse 51 further specifies that this bread is his flesh. So far, this all accords with the Exodus story if you take Jesus’ flesh as a kind of metaphorical manna. However in verses 53-56, Jesus four times adds something that is not in the Exodus narrative at all — the notion of drinking blood. There was no drinking of blood in the Exodus, but now Jesus says in order to have life, they must not only eat his flesh but also drink his blood. This “is a very scandalous image for a Jew since drinking any blood, let alone human blood, was forbidden by the law” (Lev 3:17; 17:14; Deut 12:23).3. It seems that there must be a reason for the insertion of a scandalous concept if the body=manna=faith/believing equation was sufficient. And this reason is likely that the text is referring not simply to faith, and not simply to the Exodus, but to the Eucharist, the reception of Jesus’ flesh and blood.
4) Furthermore, in verses 53-56, Jesus uniformly follows the synoptic order of “flesh” first, followed by “blood.” Flesh always precedes blood, just like in the synoptics, “body” always precedes “blood.” That John uses “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx) where the synoptics use “body,” (σῶμα, sōma) should not be a concern, because neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have a term for “body” as we commonly use the term. The term “flesh” was likely the Aramaic term which got translated variably into Greek as either “body” (σῶμα, sōma) or “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx).4
5) Additionally, the way Jesus uses the terms “flesh” and “blood” in parallel four times in a row in verses 53-56 seems almost poetic. In fact, it strongly resembles a significant feature of Hebrew poetry called “conventionalized coordinates.” Conventionalized coordinates are two words that originally formed a kind of stereotypical phrase (such as “orphan and widow,” “righteousness and justice,” or “heaven and earth”) and are subsequently broken up into two parallel poetic phrases:5
defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17; cf. Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18, 24:19, 27:19; Job 31:8; Ps. 94:6; 146:9; Ezek, 22:7)
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. (Psalm 72:2; cf. Job 29:14; Ps. 72:1; 89:14; 97:2; 99:4; 106:3; Prov. 8:20; 21:3; Eccl. 3:16; Isa. 1:21, 27; 5:7; 9:7; etc.)
How majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Ps. 8:1 NRSV)
Eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood (John 6:53)
Eat my flesh and drink my blood (John 6:54)
my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink (John 6:55)
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:27)
Jesus’ use of “flesh” and “blood” in parallel seems very much like a “conventionalized coordinate,” which suggest a stereotypical use of the phrase “flesh and blood.” In the example of 1 Corinthians, we see Paul using the very phrase (body and blood), to explicitly refer to the Lord’s Supper. If this is the case, it is likely that the eating of Jesus’ flesh and drinking of his blood is meant to refer to the Eucharist.
6) In verse 54, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Here Jesus uses the Greek word “τρώγω” (trōgō). It literally means, “to bite or chew food,”6 or “gnaw, nibble, munch,” and specifically refers to the physical process of eating, not simply an abstract concept of nourishment.7 Every listed meaning and example in both leading lexicons for Biblical Greek (BDAG) and Classical Greek (LSJ) refer to literal eating and chewing. This is so much so that the BDAG entry comments on this verse that, “Jesus uses it [τρώγω/trōgō] to offset any tendencies to ‘spiritualize’ the concept so that nothing physical remains in it.”8 In other words, there is no known metaphorical use of “τρώγω” (trōgō) in any extant Ancient Greek literature. If we are to understand John 6 as a metaphorical eating (e.g., faith, or the like), it would be the only known example of such in the entire corpus of Ancient Greek literature. Because this is highly implausible, it seems more likely that this text (like every other one in which τρώγω/trōgō appears) is referring to the actual physical process of eating, and we are meant to understand the “nibbling on Jesus’ flesh” as participation in the Eucharist.
In all, there is a relatively strong case to believe that we are meant to read John 6 as being about the Eucharist. Assertions that eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood are simply elaborate metaphors for “believing in Jesus” seem somewhat forced. Considering the degree of controversy this teaching caused and the number of disciples Jesus lost because of it (John 6:60ff.), it seems largely unnecessary, and even reckless, unless he was actually talking about something more. Faith and believing in Jesus are certainly in view as a major theme of this chapter, but what kind of faith specifically is the author attempting to describe? Of course, it would be in appropriate to read later medieval and reformational controversies into this text. However, John 6 is clear biblical seed from which later Eucharistic theology comes to flower. And this development does not take 500 years. It can undeniably be seen in the decades that immediately follow the writing of the Gospel of John. To these writings we will turn in an upcoming post: “What Early Christians Believed About the Eucharist.”
This is not to necessarily imply any literary relationship between John and the Synoptics. It is simply to argue that in this passage the author is using “eucharistic language” that was shared among early christians. Cf. also 1 Cor. 11:23-24 ↩
Didache 9.1-5, — “Now concerning the Eucharist, (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) give thanks as follows. First, concerning the cup: We give you thanks, our Father…” Ignatius’ Letter to the Philadelphians 4.1 — “Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood)” Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrneans 6.2 — “They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrneans 8.1. — “Only that Eucharist (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.” ↩
Rodney A. Whitacre, John (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 168. ↩
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 285. ↩
Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1985), 76. ↩
BDAG, s.v. “τρώγω,” 1019. ↩
Liddle and Scott, s.v. “τρώγω.” ↩
BDAG, ibid. ↩