Reading John in the Light of the Wisdom Tradition

“Light & Bread: A Sapiential Reading of Two I Am Statements in the Gospel of John” is an essay I wrote for a class on John. I was able to express some of my fascination with the wisdom tradition–the place where Jew and Greek meet in the Old Testament–in this essay, as well as draw upon a tiny slice of the vast, fascinating body of Jewish literature labeled as “Pseudepigrapha”: the non-canonical writers produced from about 200BC to about 200 AD.

Excerpt:

Bread is associated with Wisdom throughout the Old Testament, and into the New. We hear it in the words of Sirach 15:3: “She [Wisdom] will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.” In Amos 8:11, the prophet draws a parallel between the hunger for food and the hunger for wisdom: “Behold, the days are coming … when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” In a passage like this, Christians make a connection between a hunger for bread and the incarnate Word. This was the kind of pedagogy Jesus was offering to his listeners, and to Christians down through the ages to our own day.

Christ has come into a Jewish world that understands two paths of knowledge: that of the philosophers, and that of the law. [3] These are both a kind of bread that feeds the people. We see in the feeding of the 5,000 examples of both kinds of bread. First, Phillip says that “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (John 6:7) Thomas Aquinas sees this as an image of wisdom acquired through philosophy, which must be purchased through “experience and contemplation,” and yet will never fully nourish. [4]

The other kind of wisdom is the Law, represented by the five barley loaves, which are a symbol of the Pentateuch. [5] This, too, is not enough to nourish, and must be multiplied by the Lord. Thus, we see that wisdom derived from philosophy and wisdom derived from the law are insufficient until multiplied and completed by the coming of Wisdom in the form of Christ.

With this as our background, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says “I am the bread of life.” This is a new bread, which neither the Jews nor the Greeks have ever encountered. Money—even 200 denarii—is useless for purchasing this kind of wisdom. As we read in Isaiah 55:1-3, we come to eat and drink at the banquet of the Lord “without money and without price.” We should not spend our money for “that which is not bread” and “which does not satisfy.” The “bread” of this passage is not literal bread, but the Word of the Lord, which you must “hear, so that your soul may live.”

Read the whole thing at The Journal of the Dead Philosopher’s Society.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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