Tuesday, August 14, 2012

From "Bread of Heaven" to "Gnawing on Flesh"

John 6:51-58

Reading the Gospel of John is quite different from reading Mark. Mark repeatedly uses ‘immediately’ to create a very push-forward kind of reading. John – as Gerard Sloyan notes in his Interpretation commentary, is much more circular in his writing style. Issues that have been addressed in one place get picked up and re-worked in another. Reading John can be maddening, if one is hoping for a straightforward Markan kind of storytelling, but it can also be a way of reading meditatively, seeing the circle as a spiral of greater intensity and meaning, rather than just a circle of repetition.

I say that because it seems that this vv.51-58 of John’s 6th chapter has very little new content. It echoes the “newer is better” remark from the wedding story in c.2. It echoes the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus in c.3, when the words “born again” elicits a question about climbing back into the womb, just like the words “eat my flesh” elicits questions about edibility. It echoes the conversation Jesus had with the woman at the well in c.4, over water that satisfies temporally versus water enables one never to thirst again. It echoes comments from just prior verses, such as the Judeans who grumble about Jesus in v.41 and the Judeans who dispute among themselves about Jesus in v.52.

My point is that this text can be made immeasurably richer by accepting that John is very deliberately re-stating things with a purpose. What follows are my rough translation, with some initial comments. I will not repeat many of the comments that I have made over the last few weeks, except when they seem especially pertinent. My goal is to spend Tuesday-Saturday refining the study by giving particular attention to how John repeats himself and what gets added to the meaning in the repetitions. I must admit, however, that all this going around in circles causes my head to spin.  

51 ἐγώ εἰμι  ἄρτος  ζῶν  ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς: ἐάν τις φάγῃ ἐκ τούτου 
τοῦ ἄρτου ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα: καὶ  ἄρτος δὲ ὃν ἐγὼ δώσω  σάρξ μού 
ἐστιν ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ κόσμου ζωῆς;
I am the living bread which came down out of the heaven; if anyone eats out of this bread he shall live into the ages; and the bread also which I give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
εἰμι : PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
καταβὰς: AAPart nsm, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend  1a) the φάγῃ: AASubj 3s, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat
ζήσει: FAI 3s, ζάω, 1) to live, breathe, be among the living (not lifeless, not dead)
δώσω:FAI 1s, δίδωμι, 1) to give
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. As I’ve noted previously, the term “the ages” (αἰῶνα), can be translated in various ways and – in my opinion – should be translated in ways that reflect the richness of this term. It is not simply “eternity,” that “really, really long time after we die.” It is more a term that points to the depth of a real moment, not just an extension of post-mortem life.
2. The words “I AM the living bread” are key. They emphasize the present tense. This saying, then, anticipates the conversation Jesus will have with Martha in c.11 after the death of Lazarus, when Jesus uses the phrase “I AM the resurrection and the life” as a way of responding to Martha’s attempt to relegate resurrection to the future. The now-ness of I AM is important. The phrase also seems to echo God’s pivotal “I AM” statements to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15, a phrase which became the basis for the unspeakable name of God. However, the response from the Judeans does not indicate that they heard Jesus’ self-referential use of these as blasphemous.

52 Ἐμάχοντο οὖν πρὸς ἀλλήλους οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι λέγοντες, Πῶς δύναται οὗτος 
ἡμῖν δοῦναι τὴν σάρκα [αὐτοῦ] φαγεῖν; 
Then the Judeans were quarreling to each other saying, “How is this one able to give to us the flesh [of him] to eat?
Ἐμάχοντο: IMI 3p, μάχομαι, 1) to fight  1a) of armed combatants, or those who engage in a hand to hand struggle  1b) of those who engage in a war of words, to quarrel, wrangle, dispute
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind
δοῦναι : AAInf, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone  2a) of one's own accord to give one something, to his advantage
φαγεῖν: AAInf, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat  2) to eat (consume) a thing  2a) to take food, eat a meal  
1. It is curious why the Judeans were quarreling with one another and not confronting Jesus directly. It is also not clear what they are quarreling about. Is it because Jesus has referred to something as off-putting as eating his flesh? Or, is it more a matter of authority – who is Jesus to authorize bread and flesh that satisfy hunger in a way greater than the manna?
2. “Flesh”: I wonder if this is a reference to the companion story of the manna, the quail that fell and gave the Israelites “flesh” to eat in addition to the bready manna.
3. “Then”:  The word οὖν can either indicate consequence (“therefore”) or consecutive (“then”) action. John seems to use it as the later.   

53 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς  Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ φάγητε τὴν 
σάρκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πίητε αὐτοῦ τὸ αἷμα, οὐκ ἔχετε ζωὴν ἐν 
Then 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 in yourselves.
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
φάγητε: AASubj 2p, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat  2) to eat (consume) a thing
πίητε: AASubj 2p, πίνω, 1) to drink
ἔχετε: PAI 2p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
The topic seems to be morphing from “bread” to “flesh and blood.” The disciples will say later, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and John will note later that after this teaching many of his followers deserted him.
54  τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἔχει ζωὴ ναἰώνιον, κἀγὼ 
ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ: 
Whoever gnaws my flesh and drinks my blood has life age-during, and I will raise him in the last day.
τρώγων : PAPart nsm, τρώγω, 1) to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits (as nuts, almonds)  1a) of animals feeding  1b) of men  2) to eat 
πίνων : PAPart nsm, πίνω, 1) to drink
ἔχει : PAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἀναστήσω : FAI 1s, ἀνίστημι, 1) to cause to rise up, raise up
“Gnaws” (ESV has ‘feeds on’): The word “gnaws” (τρώγω) is different from the word “eat” (ἐσθίω) that John also uses in this pericope. I am not convinced that “gnaws” itself is the best translation, but I am using it to denote the different word John uses.

55  γὰρ σάρξ μου ἀληθής ἐστιν βρῶσις, καὶ τὸ αἷμά μου ἀληθής ἐστιν πόσις. 
For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. [For my flesh truly is food, and my blood truly is drink.]
ἐστιν (2x):
Is ἀληθής  an adjective or an adverb? The declension – nominative feminine singular is the same as  βρῶσις (food) and πόσις (drink), suggesting that it is an adjective modifying the nouns as ‘true food’ and ‘true drink.’ The word order, however, suggests that it could be used adverbially – hence Young’s Literal Translation reads, “for my flesh truly is food, and my blood truly is drink.” The words βρῶσις and πόσις also can signify more the acts of ‘the eating’ and the ‘the drinking’ than the food and drink itself.

56  τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μένει κἀγὼ ἐν 
Whoever gnaws my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
τρώγων : PAPart nsm, τρώγω, 1) to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits
πίνων : PAPart nsm, πίνω, 1) to drink
μένει: PAI 3s, μένω, 1) to remain, abide

57 καθὼς ἀπέστειλέν με  ζῶν πατὴρ κἀγὼ ζῶ διὰ τὸν πατέρα, καὶ  τρώγων 
με κἀκεῖνος ζήσει δι' ἐμέ. 
Just as the living father sent me and I live through the father, so whoever gnaws me also will live through me.
ἀπέστειλέν : AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed
ζῶν: PAPart nsm, ζάω, 1) to live, breathe, be among the living 
ζῶ : PAI 1s, ζάω, 1) to live, breathe, be among the living
τρώγων : PAPart nsm, τρώγω, 1) to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits
ζήσει : FAI 3s, ζάω, 1) to live, breathe, be among the living
1. καθὼς καὶ sets up a “just as” … “so” comparison. Otherwise, καὶ is typically “and.”
2. “Through” (διὰ ) has an “on account of” tone. Some translations make it ‘by’ or ‘because of’.

58 οὗτός ἐστιν  ἄρτος  ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, οὐ καθὼς ἔφαγον οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἀπέθανον:  τρώγων τοῦτον τὸν ἄρτον ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. 
This is the bread which has come down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and died; whoever gnaws this bread will live into the age-during.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
καταβὰς: AAPart nsm, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend  1a) the ἔφαγον : AAI 3p, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat
ἀπέθανον: AAI 3p, ἀποθνήσκω, to die out, expire.
τρώγων : PAPart nsm, τρώγω, 1) to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits
ζήσει : FAI 3s, ζάω, 1) to live, breathe, be among the living
This verse circles back to the argument of vv.49-51, comparing the temporal nature of the manna versus the age-lasting nature of Jesus’ own bread/flesh. Hence, I repeat my comment from v.50 of last week: The turn in the argument here is very similar to what Jesus says to the woman at the well in John 4:13-14: “Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’” In that conversation, the woman was asking if Jesus were greater than Jacob (since they are at “Jacob’s well.”) Here, the question is whether Jesus is greater than Moses, through whom God provided the Manna in the wilderness.


  1. I don't know how significant this is, but I noticed that the 'gnawing, chewing' definition refers to raw fruits and vegetables and not flesh(meat?) Just going to ponder that and see if anything happens...

  2. I read somewhere (so it must be true) that chimpanzees, who have human-like dietary needs but eat only raw foods, expend something like 25% of their caloric intake on chewing. Jesus may be going a little apples-and-oranges (or apples-and-steak) with the comparison, but is he getting at a more deliberate, sustained engagement than just "filling our needs"?

  3. Maybe the difference between 'eating' and 'gnawing' is what this guy describes as the difference between a 'weak burger' and a 'strong burger.' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcJFdCmN98s&sns=tw

  4. Thank you for the work of interpreting these lectionary passages each week. It is truly appreciated.

  5. I read the 'gnawing" and "chewing" as something like "chewing the cud." i. e. "churning over and over," "imbibing" "taking it all in," "tasting" ( as in tasting and seeing (understanding)how good the Lord is).

  6. More on the Chewing/gnawing comments... Eugene Peterson makes a point of show how the word "meditate" in Psalm 1:2 should be translated better as "ruminate" or "chew"...as in "chewing on God's law." And this all reminds me that Benedictines, when describing the practice of Lectio, use the image of eating and digestion to talk about relating to God's Word.

  7. Cranmer's prayer about the Scriptures says of our use of them, that me may read, mark, learn, and "inwardly digest them." Not the same as "chewing/ruminating" but another food sort of image.
    Michael Merriman (love your work!)


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