There is an expression among biblical scholars that we would all do well to remember: “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof-text.” The point that they are making is that we must always be on guard when reading and meditating upon Scripture to be sure to understand the context in which it is written. As Catholics we read John 6 as a proof-text for the Eucharist (which it is) but John includes this chapter in his gospel for a deeper reason than merely introducing the Real Presence of the Eucharist. As the Church offers us this chapter this week in the Daily Liturgy, it is instructive to examine some of the background.
While it is true that many first century Jews were looking for a political messiah, to paint with a broad brush and say all were waiting for this type of Messiah is not true. Most were awaiting a new Exodus. For the Jews, the Passover and the Exodus were (and still are) the central events of their faith because they represented God’s definitive action and future promise to save them. This would have been readily known by the Jewish Christians in John’s Community and is an important interpretive key for understanding John’s Gospel as a whole and John 6 specifically.
Jesus makes reference to the new Exodus most clearly when He is asked point-blank by the disciples of John the Baptist whether He is the Messiah. He responds by making reference to one of Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the new exodus—“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Mt 11:4-5)
In the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah were to speaking to Jesus about His “exodus which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem”—this gives us an essential clue to when the new exodus would be fulfilled: during Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem.
This new Exodus could be summarized in four key events:
(1) The New Moses—see Dt 18:15-18 where Moses promises a “prophet like me.” This is a theme throughout John’s Gospel, the most obvious of which is the Woman at the Well where she mentions that she has found “the Prophet.”
(2) “Cut” a New Covenant—the making of the first Sinai Covenant involved a heavenly meal like when Moses and the elders feast in the presence of God—“They beheld God and ate and drank” (Ex 24:11). The promise of the New Covenant comes in Jeremiah 31:31-33. Jesus’ fulfillment of it (with its accompanying meal) is done at the Last Supper (Luke 17:14-20) but not consummated until the Cross (John 19:30).
(3) The New Temple—This one is the most obvious from John’s Gospel. One can see Micah 4:1-2 for the prophecy. The Cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’ sign that He will fulfill this (rather than chastising Him for cleansing the Temple, the Jews merely ask “what sign do you give us for this?”). Another significant text that factors into our discussion is Mt 12:1-8 when Jesus says, “Something greater than the Temple is here.”
(4) The New Promised Land—See Is 60:21. There is more detail on this as well, but for the sake of our discussion we can set this aside.
Any Jew would have known that if there was a new exodus then there must also be a new Passover. If Jesus saw Himself as inaugurating a new exodus then He would have seen the need to provide food for the journey. What is often forgotten or overlooked is the fact that not only did manna come from heaven but flesh came from heaven in the evening as well. If the first Moses gave Israel manna, then it was expected that the second would as well. The people clearly expect this as well as John 6:22-34 shows.
Another key question is how is God worshipped once the new exodus begins?
Although many Christians are familiar with the animal sacrifice of the Old Testament, there were actually two types of sacrifices performed in the Old Testament. The first is the bloody animal sacrifice and the second was an “unbloody “sacrifice which consisted of bread and wine.
This second offering is a sacrifice of thanksgiving (the Greek word is Eucharistia) that was offered every Sabbath day (see Lev 24:5-7). This was a perpetual sacrifice that was to be offered “forever” since it belongs to the Melchizedekian priesthood (see Gn 12, Ps 110, Hebrews 5-8 in which this priesthood is applied to Christ). It is only the bloody sacrifice for sin that ceased when the Lamb of God was offered “once for all.” A first century Jew would have been well aware of the weekly offering of the Bread of the Presence.
Clearly then the Bread of the Presence (or showbread as some translations [KJV, NAB] call it) was a sacrifice (see Ez 41:21-22 where there is an altar and incense which are obvious accompaniments of sacrifice), but what did the Jews believe about the Bread itself—why was it called the “Bread of the Presence” or more accurately in Hebrew “the bread of the face (panim)”?
During the three main Jewish feasts (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), Jewish men were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to “appear before the face of the Lord God (panim), the God of Israel” (Exodus 34:23; 23:17). If we turn to extra-biblical sources of the time (Babylonian Talmud for example) we find that the priests would raise the bread of the Presence before the people at the festivals and tell them “Behold God’s love for you.” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahoth 29A).
Now it may be granted neither the Old Testament nor the extra-biblical sources tell us whether the Jews viewed the Bread of the Presence as merely a symbol or the actual face of God. Either way it is important that we come away with the two main points – that it was a sacrifice and (at least) a symbol of God’s Presence.
If we go to any of the Last Supper accounts, we see Jesus equating the Bread and Wine with Himself. As Christians, we have heard this so often that we do not give it a second thought. But this is really strange language unless the idea of bread and wine representing a person is not a foreign concept. With this Old Testament background, we see now why the Apostles have no questions at the Last Supper when Jesus did this.
With our first Century Jewish Christian lenses cleaned off, we commence at the beginning of John 6. We find that the Passover is near. This is a hint to the reader that Jesus’ sign is intimately tied up with the Passover and that His actions and discourse will give a new and greater meaning to it. After the miraculous feeding of the multitude, we then find Jesus “parting the waters,” so to speak, and crossing the sea. Immediately the reader is thinking, “Passover, miraculous bread, walking on water, this must have something to do with the new Exodus.” Lo and behold, we find that when the people catch up to Jesus they raise the topic of Moses. “Could this be the new Moses?” is what they are thinking.
Some key verses for us to reflect on:
John 6:25—Jesus asks the crowd why they are truly seeking Him. Is it because they saw a miracle in the multiplying of the loaves or because they really saw a sign? It turns out that it was the latter because they make mention of Moses. But the Manna from Heaven ceased and would perish at the end of the day. Some people misread this and think that the people just like the idea of getting a free meal. But these people are seeking the new manna because they want to be a part of the new exodus. The people want the bread of God that lasts always and not the old manna which perished at the end of the day.
John 6:35—This is the first half of the discourse that serves as an invitation to faith. Here we find Jesus first introducing the idea of Him as the Bread of Life. This is meant both as an invitation for the people to come to Jesus and believe in Him for salvation. But the people do not ask why He has called Himself bread (not such a strange concept given what was said above regarding the Bread of the Presence) but instead how He could be from Heaven.
John 6:48—This is the second half of the discourse in which Jesus is no longer speaking symbolically as He was in verses 35-47. Instead He repeats several times that the Jews must eat His body and drink His blood. Again this is not what they question, however. Instead what they question is how He can give His body to eat. It seems pretty straightforward in Jn 6:55 that Jesus is saying that His flesh and blood are real food and only those that eat them abide in Him.
John 6:58-59—This is the crux of the issue and proof that Jesus is not speaking symbolically. He says that the Bread that He gives is the fulfillment of the manna from Heaven. Remember, this was one of the things that they were awaiting as a result of the messianic age. What exactly was the first manna?
It was the supernatural “bread of angels” (Ps 78:25) come from Heaven. The question that one must answer then is this – if the first manna was supernatural bread from Heaven, how could it’s fulfillment that Jesus is bringing about just be a symbol? In other words, the old manna would be greater than the new if the new manna is just a symbol. If Jesus was speaking symbolically here, this would be the one and only place in salvation history laid out in the Bible in which the Old Testament prefiguration is something that is greater than the New Testament fulfillment.
“A Hard Saying”—Again the stumbling block for the Jews was not so much that they had to eat his body and drink His blood, but how this could be possible. Jesus’ response says that it will only make sense when the “Son of Man ascends to where He was before.” “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” What this means is that it is His resurrected (and ascended) flesh that they will eat and not His earthly flesh. It is His spiritual body that comes under the appearance of Bread and Wine (see Luke 24:35).