Jesus and the Eucharist 5

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?

  • Jwlung

    If not the Eucharist, then what could he possibly have been talking about? If Jesus is the messianic manna from heaven, and we partake of that manna in the Lord’s Supper, then what’s your problem?

    • John Smuts

      “If not the Eucharist, then what could he possibly have been talking about?”

      How about the reality to which both John 6 and the Eucharist point?

  • Jwlung

    If not the Eucharist, then what could he possibly have been talking about? If Jesus is the messianic manna from heaven, and we partake of that manna in the Lord’s Supper, then what’s your problem?

    • John Smuts

      “If not the Eucharist, then what could he possibly have been talking about?”

      How about the reality to which both John 6 and the Eucharist point?

  • Ross

    Hi Joel Thanks for your posts on Brant’s book. I admit my own bias, but I just don’t see how it would be possible for anyone to read John 6 and not relate it to the Eucharist. Imagine the Corinthians, for example, reading John 6 after Paul had wrote to them ‘The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ Unless John was a bit thick, it is hard to see how he couldn’t think Eucharist when he wrote John 6.

  • Ross

    Hi Joel Thanks for your posts on Brant’s book. I admit my own bias, but I just don’t see how it would be possible for anyone to read John 6 and not relate it to the Eucharist. Imagine the Corinthians, for example, reading John 6 after Paul had wrote to them ‘The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ Unless John was a bit thick, it is hard to see how he couldn’t think Eucharist when he wrote John 6.

  • Saint and Sinner

    “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.”

    This reminds me of the old preacher’s sermon note: “Point weak; pound pulpit!”

  • Saint and Sinner

    “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.”

    This reminds me of the old preacher’s sermon note: “Point weak; pound pulpit!”

  • Eric Weiss

    Interestingly, when the disciples expressed difficulty with what Jesus had been saying (John 6:60), His response was not to further stress what He had just said about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, but hearkened back to their initial point of contention with what He had said – i.e., that He had come down from heaven. He responds: “[what] if then you should behold the Son of Man ascending where He was before?” (6:62), and continues by discounting the value of “the flesh” (sarx), the same word He had just used with reference to eating Him. One could pretty much excise verses 52-58 and still retain everything of importance in John 6. I.e., those who believe in Jesus and come to Him have eternal life.

    Also, the manna is not the unleavened bread of the Passover. While the Synoptics might try to tie the food of the Last Supper with the Passover, John does not; he aims for something different. Moses had written that God gave the Israelites manna and fed them by it so they would learn, as Jesus said to the devil in the wilderness, that man is not to live by bread alone but by everything (LXX rhema) that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Jesus says in John 6:63 that the words (rhema) He is speaking to them are eternal life. He refers in 15:7 and 17:8 to the words He has given them (and 17:8 again refers to believing that the Father sent Jesus – i.e., that He had indeed come down from heaven). Whereas in 17:8 He uses rhema, He uses logos in 17:14,17 for basically the same thing (John of course likes to use synonyms), yet also possibly to link the Father’s rhemata/logos that Jesus has given them with the incarnated Logos which the Father Has given them in the Son.

    There are reasons why non-Catholics reject the Catholic interpretation of John 6 and the RCC’s doctrine of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s Real flesh/body and blood.

  • Eric Weiss

    Interestingly, when the disciples expressed difficulty with what Jesus had been saying (John 6:60), His response was not to further stress what He had just said about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, but hearkened back to their initial point of contention with what He had said – i.e., that He had come down from heaven. He responds: “[what] if then you should behold the Son of Man ascending where He was before?” (6:62), and continues by discounting the value of “the flesh” (σάρξ), the same word He had just used with reference to eating Him. One could excise verses 52-58 (or 51b-58 – i.e., have 51 end after εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα – or 51-58) and still retain most everything of importance in John 6, and John 6:59 would pick up from John 6:51 (or 6:51a or 6:50) without the reader thinking that anything was missing. I.e., those who believe in Jesus and come to Him have eternal life.

    Also, the manna is not the unleavened bread of the Passover. While the Synoptics might try to tie the food of the Last Supper with the Passover, John does not; he aims for something different. Moses had written that God gave the Israelites manna and fed them by it so they would learn, as Jesus said to the devil in the wilderness, that man is not to live by bread alone but by everything (LXX ῥήμα) that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Jesus says in John 6:63 that the words (ῥήμα) He is speaking to them are eternal life. He refers in 15:7 and 17:8 to the words He has given them (and 17:8 again refers to believing that the Father sent Jesus – i.e., that He had indeed come down from heaven). Whereas in 17:8 He uses ῥήμα, He uses λόγος in 17:14,17 for basically the same thing (John of course likes to use synonyms), possibly to link the Father’s ῥήμα/λόγος that Jesus has given them with the incarnated λόγος which the Father Has given them in the Son.

    There are reasons why non-Catholics reject the Catholic interpretation of John 6 and that Church’s doctrine of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s Real flesh/body and blood.

  • Ross

    If I can put this as nicely as possible: I think Eric does get to the heart of the matter when he writes: ‘One could pretty much excise verses 52-58 and still retain everything of importance in John 6. I.e., those who believe in Jesus and come to Him have eternal life.’

    If you wanted only to hear what some protestants wished our Lord (or John, if you prefer) had said that is. The problem is that John includes them and the fact that Eric wants to excise them is significant. Instead of excising them, how about explaining them: ‘whoever eats me, will live because of me’?

    My point remains: how would it ever have been possible for anyone who had read the Synoptics or Paul to understand these verses – the ones that protestants wish to excise – any other way than as a reference to the Eucharist?

    • Eric Weiss

      @Ross:

      I made the statement I did about excising John 6:51/51b/52 – 58 because doing so helps more clearly show that Jesus was probably not in fact saying they had to literally eat His flesh and blood. I was not so much trying to avoid or ignore what John wrote Jesus said in 6:52-58 as subsuming it to the rest of John 6 as well as the rest of GJohn to put it in context.* It’s very telling to me that Jesus drops the “eat My flesh and drink My blood” topic after 6:58 and goes back to discussing His having come down from heaven and being sent by God, and again emphasizes coming to Him. From the beginning to the end of GJohn, it’s about believing in Jesus as the Son of God sent from the Father and coming to Him so as to have Eternal Life. Even 1 John reiterates this.

      * As D. A. Carson’s father said, “A text taken out of context is a pretext for a proof-text.”

      • Eric Weiss

        And my discussion of coming to Jesus and believing in Him, as well as the life-giving power of His words, is my explaining of “whoever eats me, will live because of me.” Whoever has ears….

  • Ross

    If I can put this as nicely as possible: I think Eric does get to the heart of the matter when he writes: ‘One could pretty much excise verses 52-58 and still retain everything of importance in John 6. I.e., those who believe in Jesus and come to Him have eternal life.’

    If you wanted only to hear what some protestants wished our Lord (or John, if you prefer) had said that is. The problem is that John includes them and the fact that Eric wants to excise them is significant. Instead of excising them, how about explaining them: ‘whoever eats me, will live because of me’?

    My point remains: how would it ever have been possible for anyone who had read the Synoptics or Paul to understand these verses – the ones that protestants wish to excise – any other way than as a reference to the Eucharist?

    • Eric Weiss

      @Ross:

      I made the statement I did about excising John 6:51/51b/52 – 58 because doing so helps more clearly show that Jesus was probably not in fact saying they had to literally eat His flesh and blood. I was not so much trying to avoid or ignore what John wrote Jesus said in 6:52-58 as subsuming it to the rest of John 6 as well as the rest of GJohn to put it in context.* It’s very telling to me that Jesus drops the “eat My flesh and drink My blood” topic after 6:58 and goes back to discussing His having come down from heaven and being sent by God, and again emphasizes coming to Him. From the beginning to the end of GJohn, it’s about believing in Jesus as the Son of God sent from the Father and coming to Him so as to have Eternal Life. Even 1 John reiterates this.

      * As D. A. Carson’s father said, “A text taken out of context is a pretext for a proof-text.”

      • Eric Weiss

        And my discussion of coming to Jesus and believing in Him, as well as the life-giving power of His words, is my explaining of “whoever eats me, will live because of me.” Whoever has ears….

  • Lucian

    How do you read Jesus’ statements in John 6?

    As eucharistic. (Especially since all the preceding chapters seem to refer to Baptism).

  • Lucian

    How do you read Jesus’ statements in John 6?

    As eucharistic. (Especially since all the preceding chapters seem to refer to Baptism).


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