Awhile back, before the end of the academic semester and a trip to Greece and Turkey, I began a series of posts working my way through Brant Pitre’s really good and accessible book on the Jewish background of the Lord’s Supper called Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (you can find these at our old blogspot site). This posts picks up where we left off with chapter four “The Manna of the Messiah”. This chapter is the heart of the book. Brant says at one point that subject of the chapter “led me to study this subject, and ultimately, to write this book” (93).
The Jewish expectation of a new manna from heaven at the inauguration of the Messianic Age, is the second key to fully grasping the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus drew on this expectation, according to Brant, to explain the supernatural nature of the Eucharist. Before we get to Jesus let’s briefly review the Jewish expectation.
The giving of manna is recorded in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus. You will remember that God gave “manna”, which means, “What is it?”, to the Israelites while they wandered in the wilderness until they entered the Promised Land. In fact upon entering the Promised Land the manna stopped falling. Brant uncovers the evidence showing that ancient Jews did not forget the manna. Within the literature of the Second Temple period the manna is referenced many times. Brant highlights three traditions that revolve around the bread from heaven which he believes shed light on Jesus’ thoughts about the Lord’s Supper. The three traditions he lists are: (1) some Jews believed the manna was preexistent, (2) that it was supernatural reality kept in the heavenly temple to feed God’s people, and (3) that at the appearance of the Messiah manna would again fall from heaven to sustain God’s people.
The relationship between these Jewish traditions and Jesus’ teachings, Brant brings out in clear bold strokes. First, he explains the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” in line with the tradition. He believes it is better translated “Give us this day our supernatural bread”, translating the difficult Greek word epiousios following ancient fathers like Jerome. Here in the context of a prayer for the Kingdom of God to come, Jesus teaches the disciples to pray for the new manna which would accompany its coming. This is quite an interesting interpretation and I’m inclined to be sympathetic to it.
More significantly is the second touchstone with the teachings of Jesus, the so-called “bread of heaven” sermon recorded in John 6. This passage Brant believes contains Jesus’ most explicit teaching on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It is fair to say that Brant’s book rests largely on his interpretation of Jesus’ statements here. He in fact quoted the key verses of the passage in the introduction of the book: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
What is foremost, irrespective of the interpretation of the words in light of the new Manna traditions, is whether this discourse can rightly be seen as Jesus’ “explicit teaching on the real presence in the Eucharist” and justifiably be referred to as the “Eucharist discourse”—both Brant does. He states,
“In light of such parallels . . . any attempt to insist that Jesus was not speaking about what he would do at the Last Supper here is a weak case of special pleading” (101).
Wow! That is about as explicit a case one could find of attempting to shout so loud through writing so as to silence potential critics. The problems with his interpretation however are not so easy to silence and to make this kind of statement seems itself an egregious example of “special pleading”. As many have pointed out, John is remarkably the only Gospel that contains no Lord’s Supper story. And to top this, John makes no mention of the Lord’s Supper in the context of the discourse in chapter 6. The inexact parallels noted by Brant (in agreement with Jeremias) cannot settle the question.
The fact is the statements of Jesus in John 6, while perhaps usefully informed by the new manna traditions within Judaism, may very well not be about the Eucharist at all. I’m not the only one that thinks this way either. Brant can line up all the Protestants he wants, but his Catholic convictions are evidently refracting his vision so the Eucharist seems obvious in this text.
I will say this though: if I was Catholic and I thought that John 6 was about the Eucharist, Brant’s explanation would be amazing!
The chapter is interesting indeed. I think the background of the new Manna of Messiah is significant for interpreting Jesus’ teaching. I think it makes good sense of the Lord’s Prayer’s petition about bread. But of the much more consequential point for the book, the interpretation of John 6, I am just not convinced.
How do you read Jesus’ statements in John 6?