Sunday, August 12, 2018

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

Below is a rough translation and some ruminations about John 6:51-58, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 13thSunday after Pentecost.  

Reading the Gospel of John is quite different from reading the Gospel of 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 6thchapter 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 and some initial comments. Your comments are welcomed as well.  

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 would eat out of this bread s/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.” I hear it as a term that also points to the depth of a real moment, not just an extension of post-mortem life. The verb “live” is in the future tense – “shall live” – but I think that future expresses the result of the subjunctive “if one may eat.” 
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. 
3. One often hears of the “seven I AM statements” of John’s gospel, which seem to echo God’s pivotal “I am” statements to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15. That phrase became the basis for the unspeakable name of God. However, the question from the Judeans does not indicate that they heard Jesus’ self-referential use of the phrase “I am” as blasphemous. Perhaps sometimes the first person use of the verb ‘to be’ is just the first person use of the verb ‘to be.’ 
4. As in v.35, Jesus moves the topic from the bread, which he multiplied and gave to them, to the bread which he is. 

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. The verb μάχομαι indicates contention between two sides. Again, the fact that the narrator has the Judeans quarreling among one another, rather than with Jesus, would indicate that there were some who affirmed and other who opposed what they were hearing. This phrase follows the feeding story and the intention of the crowd to make Jesus their king. I cannot tell what, exactly, the various sides are arguing for specifically, but they are arguing over the question, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” 
3. “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. 
4. “Then”:  The word οὖν can either indicate consequence (“therefore”) or consecutive (“then”) action. John seems to use it as the later. 
5. Maybe, just maybe, the Judeans are arguing over how to understand such cryptic phrases as “I am bread” and “eat my flesh.”  If that is the case, I would benefit from being part of that quarrelsome conversation, because I am not always of one mind on how to understand those phrases either. 

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
1. The topic has morphed from “bread” to “flesh and blood.” The disciples – disciples, not opponents – 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. 
2. Perhaps John is writing sacramentally, to a community 60-some years after the death and resurrection, who will hear these words without the harshness of their literal meaning. It is, however, incredibly cannibalistic language, even if it is an expression of sacramental or metaphorical or symbolic languages. 
3. It bears remembering that the Christian tradition continues to quarrel over what these words mean through doctrines of the transubstantiation, consubstantiation, spiritual presence, and symbolic meaning of the sacraments. 
4. Notice the present tense and indicative mood of the last verb: “… you do not havelife …” It is similar to v.47, “whoever believes haseternal life,” but different from the present subjunctive of v.40, “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him may haveeternal life” or the future indicative of v. 35, “whoever believes in me will neverthirst.”  

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
1. This verse has two intriguing topics. The first has to do with the verb “gnaws” (τρώγω), which 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. The ESV uses “feeds on,” but the NIV uses “eats” for both verbs, which does not honor John’s choice of a different verb here. 
2. It is almost as if John is using the most pressing language possible, in order not to allow the reader to avoid the physical nature of this call. One has to wonder why John insists on being so adamant about it. I cannot imagine that the issue for John’s community is “the nature of Christ’s real presence in the sacraments” - which I believe is a much later argument over this issue. I can imagine that the issue for John’s community is the real physicality of Jesus himself, a topic that John addresses as early as 1:14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” 
3. The second topic of this verse has to do with tenses. However one translates ζωὴ ναἰώνιον, whether “life age-during” (the awkward phrase that I have used from Young’s Literal Translation) or “eternal life,” this verse posits something to ponder. One has(Present indicative verb) eternal life andJesus will raise(future indicative) that one on the last day. Having eternal life now and being raised on the last day are not the same, but neither do they name an either/or. 
4. This ‘now’ and ‘later’ relationship will arise again in c.11, when Jesus is talking to Martha about Lazarus: “Your brother will rise again;” “I know he will rise on the last day in the resurrection;” “I am the resurrection and the life.” 

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)
1. Is ἀληθής (‘true’ or ‘truly’)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, modifying the verb “is” – hence Young’s Literal Translation reads, “for my flesh truly is food, and my blood truly is drink.” 
2. The words βρῶσιςand πόσιςalso can signify more the acts of ‘the eating’ and the ‘the drinking’ than the food and drink itself. 
3. This verse may be worthy of a lifetime of submissive contemplation. It sparked my comments following the pericope below. 

56  τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μένεικἀγὼ 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 
1. Again, I keep using ‘gnaw’ to show that τρώγω is not the typical word for ‘eat.’ It seems to be an abiding way of receiving life. 

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’. 
3. This seems an important shape to the conversation. One ‘gnaws’ on Jesus just as Jesus ‘lives’ through the father. It certainly turns the attention from the literalness of chewing toward the effect of sustaining life.

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
1. 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. 

I want to feel that there is a kind of mystical and deep meaning in these verses that is far more profound than the superficiality with which one usually argues about the presence of Christ in bread and wine. I’m not saying that those who initiatedthe conversations about the ‘real presence’ were superficial or that everyone who have joined those conversations since are superficial. I do feel, however, that once the “sides” of the debate have been marked out, the debate has lost its power of depth and devolved into a question of “which option is right?” rather than “how might we speak of such a thing?” 

The depth that I’m after may be related to what Jesus said after talking to the woman at the well in c.4. Recall that Jesus was tired and sat by Jacob’s well as the disciples went into town to get food. After they returned and Jesus had a riveting conversation with the woman who then became an evangelist, the disciples encouraged Jesus to eat something. He said, “I have food to eat that you do no know about”(v.32). They wonder who has been feeding him and so he explains, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (v.34). This story is about a really tired, really thirsty, and really hungry Jesus, who is energized and satiated as a Samaritan woman embraces the truth that he bears. His real hunger is really satisfied by her openness and their conversation. I want to say that this is not just metaphorical language, using the ‘physical’ to express the ‘spiritual.’ The line itself between the ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ is blurred. 

To me, there may be something like this going on in our pericope as well. Perhaps, in Christ, there we are beholding ‘the word made flesh’ – a reality that is greater than our distinctions between the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual,’ between ‘time’ and ‘eternity,’ between ‘now’ and the ‘future.’ Maybe – per Immanuel Kant – time and space are forms of our thinking as finite beings, not reality in itself. In Christ there is a glimpse into how those distinctions can be both ‘real’ for our thinking but ‘surpassed’ in Christ. 

Maybe? Blessings on your journey through this mysterious fabulous text. 


  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.'

  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" 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!)

  8. Thank you all for your comments in the past. The connection between gnawing and ruminating is very suggestive. Cows are called "ruminants" because they chew the cud, which is first received in the "rumen" (one of their 4 stomachs) and then rendered back into the mouth as little balls of cud for them to chew most of the day. I suppose 'ruminating' is basically chewing on something for a long period of time.
    Maybe I should use "chew" instead of "gnaw."

  9. Ahhh this is so good...LOVE what you did with the parable of the woman at the well! thank you!

  10. I find the concept of ruminating to be a very fruitful one (pun intended). How about "savor" as yet another extension of this way of receiving Christ? To savor Christ's body and blood is, then,to savor the fullness of who he is: in every atom of his being, both in Himself and in his extended Body throughout the world and through the ages.

  11. Savor is an excellent suggestion, William. Better than gnawing, chewing, etc. because ever since translating it with rumination in mind I've been tempted to offer the bread with the words,
    "The cud of salvation." :-)

  12. As usual, Mark, you have given us a lot to think about in approaching this text. So here are my thoughts in response: [1] While I agree this text isn't about the first century anticipating the 16th, the use of the present tense at various points makes it hard for me not to think that this pericope isn't a statement of an early eucharistic theology emerging in John's community; [2] I'm aware that "trogo" was used by the classical authors especially of animals that didn't eat meat, so I'm wondering about the contraposition of these terms; and [3] the alternating verbs in v. 58 suggests to me that Jesus "as bread" is not merely a continuation of the manna miracle; it is something intimately related to it, yet in a different order.

    1. I like the way you are thinking about this text, my friend. I do think there is a kind of emergent eucharistic theology at work in this text as well. I suspect that if I could circle back before the 16th century to hear that theology for itself, I could then have a better appreciation for what the folks in the 16th century were facing.
      Thanks for the note.

  13. Trogo is used in classical texts of animals who eat only vegetables, and of poor people who can't afford to eat meat. I think John's use of trogo after esthio and fagein is purposeful. Also, the word in Psalm 1.2 translated as "meditate" is not an eating metaphor, but sound: h-g-h means "make an animal sound."

  14. A different question: What are the other things we 'gnaw on'? 'Revenge is a dish best served cold.' 'I kept chewing over their comments about me.' We talk about being 'eaten up' with jealousy, and getting our teeth into something. Eating and drinking Jesus' flesh and blood may be an alternative to some other things we eat and drink. FWIW.

    1. Marvelous. Thanks for evoking a lot of thought about the possibilities here.

  15. Hi! I copied and pasted your comment about the reference to "flesh" harking back to the quail that fell from the sky to supplement the manna. I added that in real life, though, if a bird falls from the sky, you probably shouldn't eat it. One of our members said that the Israelites probably shouldn't have eaten the quail either, because the people who ate it died. This makes me think that the current reference has nothing to do with that, since the people who eat the Body and Blood of Jesus don't die.


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