52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
I must admit that for some time I have dreaded having to deal with this passage. The reason is not because this passage has been a subject of age long debates within Christian circles as to the meaning of eating the body and drinking the blood, but rather because I keep coming back to a sense of intense personal discomfort with the whole idea. Because of this, I’ll begin with the last verse of this section (John 6.60) where we read of a similar reaction from Jesus’ disciples: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
Reading this in retrospect, actually from a distance of 2000 years, we can say the disciples were wrong about the second part of their statement – “who can listen to it?” The fact remains that in one form or another, all Christ-followers worldwide, have indeed participated in a ritual rooted in these very words. We now know that while their fears were understandable, they did not materialize. Quite the opposite is the case. No matter how the ritual is practiced, it remains if not central as in Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, it is at least very important (and in some cases also central) for most Protestant denominations worldwide.
The disciples were, however, right about one thing – this was indeed a hard saying! It may seem offensive to explain why this idea is hard “to stomach” (pan intended). Simply speaking, it sounds like cannibalism. Basically cannibalism is defined as eating human flesh or human internal organs. It comes from the Spanish Canibales and is thought to refer (at least allegedly) to the flesh eating practices of the Carib people. In fact when early Christ-followers were still a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire, along with other accusations of criminal behaviors, the Christ-followers were also accused by their Roman enemies of cannibalism. Only after time were the early Christ-followers cleared of this false charge.
So, yes, this was a hard saying. At least I continue to think so. Having said that, I think we can see the passage in several ways. I think there are four ways we can approach this issue. Each view has consequences for how God is viewed.
Neither the King, nor the Father: One view would be a secular way of dealing with the passage. We can see this statement as wrong or an unfortunate/unwise thing to say. It was a poor choice of words or a wrong metaphor. In this case it could be said that God is neither Father, nor is he King and our approach would reflect this belief.
The King, but not the Father: A religious way to deal with this same issue would be to say, that despite the intense discomfort, we should not question God. We must simply accept it “as is” without doubt and leave it without discussion. Who are we to doubt Jesus’ wisdom! In this case God is the King, but not the Father.
The Father, but not the King: A liberalized religious approach to this would be to say: while God did speak to us in his Son, we need to realize that mistakes were made, but the spirit of love and compassion should occupy our minds and not the hypercritical dissection of words and details. Who cares if it was flesh and blood, it might as well have been the heart of Jesus (instead of flesh and blood). It could have been any other metaphor he could have chosen at the time! In the end, it is all about being close to him. In other words, he is the Father, but not the King.
The Father and the King: I believe there is another way – the way of faith and trust, being honest and using your mind. Here’s how this approach works: While trusting God who loudly and clearly spoke in his son Jesus, we come to Him with our doubts, discomforts, and suspicions, not dismissing any of them. Like children who know the mercy, goodness, and patience of their father; we lay it all out before him, seeking to understand his thoughts and logic, based on one important premise – He is both good and right. In other words, he is both the King and the Father.
It should be obvious that my approach can be best described as guided by the very simple conviction that the God of Israel is both Father and King. In the words of the famous Jewish traditional prayer, I believe God should be approached as “Aveinu Malkeinu” – Our Father and our King.
So, did Jesus perform a mistake? Did he confuse the metaphors? Was it the lack of his Greek education in rhetoric that got him in trouble? You can probably guess my answer to this question is a clear “No.” I will continue with this passage in the next section of the commentary, hopefully in another week. What is your opinion? Is this a good approach? If yes, then why? If no, why not? Make your comment now!
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Join the conversation (56 comments)
Dr. Eli, thank you for the response. I agree Christ did not employ an actual physicality – which is what I do think the Apostles (and many non-Christians later) thought He was doing. It is why, in my opinion, they reacted so strongly – because believing He meant it that way, then that would certainly defy the Judaistic dietary restrictions. Regarding the divinity question, indeed I am not following – but then I’m not saying His divinity isn’t critical – I’m saying I don’t know why you left the topic to go into a discussion on His divinity – the point of Christ’s message in the passage is a beautiful one that does not require the debate in order for it to be made.
But, then, I am not concerned about the dignity question very much…it makes literally no difference to me whether or not someone someday provides proof that He was or was not divine. My faith requires neither truth to be Truth in order for me to believe Christ was exactly who He claimed to be. But that is a much larger topic and my thoughts on it would likely be welcomed as much as Christ’s message was by those in the synogogue.
In the passage you’ve cited, Christ was clearly making the point that His flesh and blood are metaphorically the Spiritual meal – that His sacrifice would be a greater deliverance than the Passover had once been…and with it He would be changing what the Jews were meant to remember during the Passover itself. While He intended His statements to be taken as metaphor – that He was making Himself to be a Spiritual meal – there is no question that all who heard Him believed He was speaking literally.
The passage does not require Christ to be divine in order for His message to keep its meaning, and for that reason I do not believe the divinity question matters in the slightest to the passage.
I don’t think it had anything to do with the food restrictions. After all gentile Christians who for the most part have almost no food prohibitions also have trouble with thinking of physically eating Jesus and drinking his blood :-). Disciples understood what Jesus meant very well, i.e. the implications of this claim. It is not the physicality (this was a non-issue) that got them scared.
Sounds right to me. I like that so many people are trogo (chewing) on his teachings. They must be good “food for thought.” The fact that He made it so obvious that He was being nonliteral (by choosing a metaphor that would be completely antithetical to rabbinical teaching if taken literally) seems to be missed by so many people. I believe He was divine, but even if He was not, His metaphor made Him a selective rabbi, by eliminating those disciples who were not willing to stick around to chew on his teachings, whether because of their lack of faith, or because of their lack of patience, or because they did not “thirst” for righteousness in a way that would motivate them to stick by the teacher. It also sets before us an example, which preceded all the millions (bilions?) who would also turn away prematurely from the faith for similar reasons.
Dr. Eli, I realize this is quite an old post, but having just read it I am not sure I understand why you left the topic of what was meant by Jesus’ statement regarding eating his flesh and drinking his blood to move into a debate on His deity. Do you make this topic change because Christ’s statement somehow carry less impact – or less meaning – if He were NOT God Incarnate?
To my mind, the message of the statement is powerful beyond the matter of such a debate. Whether Christ is or is not deity has no relevance whatsoever to the point of what He says to those who were present.
He knew exactly what He was saying – and to whom He was saying it. He knew they would have difficulty with it precisely because of the reason for why He was saying it in the first place!
It isn’t like He expected them NOT to know about the Jewish dietary restrictions against drinking blood – they were all Jewish, after all. So, whether He said what He said as a man – whether God is King or Father or both – I feel it necessary to submit to you that the debate is entirely counterproductive to the entire point of the passage at hand.
Let me be clear Christ did not employ nor did they understand it in a physical way. But something can be literally true without it being physical. Once again you will have to see the whole study to see this point. His DIVINITY is of critical importance here. Perhaps, that is the point that you are not following :-). By the way at some point I had on the blog everything now there will in a book. Now I do the same thing with Revelation. In two years this will be a book based on the blog, so only some blog posts will remain on the blog.
Dear Dr.: I have always think who Jesus came to teach us about the Law with the intention and spirit what with this was written: take your own burden, make your best endeavour, do not harm anybody, do the right and good always. After that, you will get the eternal life. But this was twisted by those who took the job of priests as a business, yet today, no matter if is a rabbi, catholic priest, protestant, or some other. Jesus also said :Give by grace which by grace you received. None of them do this comandment. Very painfully.
I put here the great and convenient fragment of Qohélet Rabáh, in which was writen:
And I admired the happiness, (is not other thing to men) but eating and drinking and to be happy, and he stay in his work the days of his life (8:15).
ושבחתי אני את השמחה… כי אם לאכול ולשתות ולשמוח, והוא ילונו בעמלו ימי חייו (ח’ ט”ו).
And his explanation is in his Midrash:
Any eating and drinking that was said in this Scroll, speaks about the Torah, and good actions
And about the rest: “that he stay in his work the days of his life” means: In this world till he comes to the tomb.
כל אכילה ושתייה שנאמר במגילה הזאת, בתורה ובמע”ט הכתוב מדבר.
והוא ילונו בעמלו – בעולמו, בעולם הזה;
ימי חייו – לקבר וכו’.
So, it’s possible that Yehoshúa’ Hamashíaj, was speaking in this sense… eating his body and drinking his blood, means, learning his words and doing his commandments and not the rules (The Halachah) of the Pharisees… so that it was a hard speech… 😀
Thank you Eric for this insight. It is very possible indeed.
It’s pretty clear from the writings of Luke and Paul that the dietary restrictions of the Covenant Code were one of the breaking points between Gentile and Jewish Christians. The reaction in the West was to set “law” as a counterpoint to “gospel”. The “law” that is put forward, however, is somewhat of a straw soldier which reflects the idea of Roman Law more than the guidance of the Covenant in which God instructs the People. (There’s an unspoken ambivalence about this among Christians that shows itself in an insistence on “faith alone” while demanding adherence to the “Ten Commandments”. This might set off a whole new discussion, but it’s just meant as a little mile-marker on my way to a point.) The fact is that in it’s effort to eliminate dietary restrictions, the church under-appreciated the theological message of the kosher table. (By the way, my tradition is Protestant.) In Genesis, the use of animal flesh for food is given to Noah following the flood (9:3) with the command that anticipates Torah. The animal shall not be eaten with the blood in it (kosher slaughter). The reasoning for this is also explained in the text, “you shall not eat any flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4). When grace is given prior to a meal, properly speaking, the food is not blessed (only God is worthy of blessing). God is blessed for being the provider of food. In the case of meat, to allow another “breather” to be a source of human sustenance. It is a gracious gift (hmm, “law” is grace) and the draining of the life, that is “the blood”, during the preparation is the pious reminder that all life comes from and belongs to God. If I stretch this thread, to drink Jesus’ blood is to take into the self the life that comes from God.
My point is that one does not need to go to the pseudepigrapha to find ideas that could inform first century idioms. They are in canonical scriptures as well.
Rob, thank you for another well put and meaningful comment. Agreed to all, with the exception to your last point. I think there are times when biblical information alone is simply not sufficient. It presupposes that the readers would be familiar with para-and extra-biblical material as well. There many many examples. Now… does this destroy the sola scriptura? I don’t think so. (We are not talking about things upon which salvation depends upon.)
I did not mean to imply that extra-canonical sources are not important. (I have, however, met people who argue that something from a “gnostic gospel” must be already tainted- this is why I attempt to show parallels to the canon.) Obviously, the first century faith communities were diverse and ideas which were later suppressed, intentionally or inadvertently, can still provide great insight. I am very interested in how language functions within,and varies between cultures. The differences often explain how people of good will easily talk past each other.
Got it! Sorry for misunderstanding. We are on the same page.
I acknow this as a Methatextual reading… knowing historical, cultural etc. context is fundamental for a most precise approach to the sense of the text.
A couple of days ago, I read the so called “Gospel of Thomas” on which are given some news teachings of Jesus, and one of that, is like this:”The lamb(cow,bird,ram)who you eat after kill it, lives again after you ate, because this takes life from you, and so you give new life to the cow(bird,ram, lamb). In this way, when we eat bread and drink wine, we eat Jesus and drink his blood(semblances).
It seems to me that Christians (maybe all humans) have a tendency to confuse what Augustine called “signs and things”. I think I’m correct to say that Aramaic and Hebrew were languages that were not particularly abstract. Physical realities have to stand in for abstract concepts. If you miss that shift, you miss the point. So the parable of the sower and the seed is not about sowers or seeds. One of my favorites is with the woman at the well when Jesus says to the returned disciples that he has bread that the do not know about and they think he has food stashed somewhere. Why not this use of language here? Body and blood are life. Human beings are a psychosomatic unity. To be a disciple means to participate in the life of Jesus, that it, to take him into the self and be sanctified into his image and likeness. (We become what we eat- spiritually.)
Is this a sacramental discourse, or a simple affirmation that new life begins in nourishment toward faithfulness to the One?
Well put, Rob. Thank you. Eli
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