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Food for Thought:

The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71)

in Johannine Legitimation

Legitimation/Apologetic in the Fourth Gospel

In recent times a key area of interest in New Testament studies has been the use of sociological models to illuminate New Testament texts. This is due largely to a realization that theological reflection never takes place in isolation from a particular context, and thus that a greater understanding of the context which produced a given document will illuminate our understanding of that text, and of why the author felt compelled to address specific issues. Of particular interest in the study of John is the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, whose work in the field of the sociology of knowledge has been fruitfully applied to the study of Luke-Acts by Philip Esler. Berger and Luckmann suggest that a given socio-religious body, in order to maintain its worldview against objections from within or without, must engage in what they call 'legitimation' or world-view maintenance. In response to challenges to their understanding of reality, a community 'legitimates' its beliefs by drawing out the implications of other beliefs, by finding new proof-texts, and by in various other ways developing its traditions. In other words, conflict causes belief systems to develop and grow. Given the general agreement that the Fourth Gospel was formed in a context of conflict with a local synagogue, and that John's belief system is more fully developed than that found in other New Testament documents in precisely the areas that were at the heart of the conflict between the Johannine community and the synagogue, it would appear that the two may be related to one another by applying Berger and Luckmann's model. What follows is an attempt to read John 6:25-71 in light of the Johannine conflict situation, and to see whether such a sociological reading illuminates the meaning that this text would have carried to its first readers. In this study, we are using the terms 'legitimation' and 'apologetic' more or less interchangeably, because of the ambiguity which surrounds the purpose of the Fourth Gospel and because, for the most part, apologetic works written with the aim of converting unbelievers are read much more frequently by believers, so that, in practice, apologetic works primarily serve a legitimating function.

Sources and Composition

There are essentially three main views on the origin and composition of this chapter:

(a) The whole chapter (except perhaps for vv51-58) is an integral part of the original Gospel (although perhaps displaced from before chapter 5).

(b) The traditional material (vv1-21) was included in the original Signs Source, while the rest comes from the Evangelist.

(c) The whole chapter was composed and added to the second edition of the Gospel, not having been included in the first.

It would obviously be possible to distinguish variations within these headings, as indeed we felt compelled to do in the case of (a) above. For our purposes, however, this oversimplified sketch will be more than adequate. The big question here as everywhere in the Fourth Gospel is that of what criteria may be used to distinguish between source and redaction.

It is always best to move from that which is more certain to that which is less. To begin with, there can be little doubt that the material contained in the first section of John 6 the author inherited and did not simply compose himself. Secondly, the transition from chapter 5 to chapter 6, which jumps from Judaea to Galilee without warning, can hardly be said to be smooth, and the result has been the appearance of a number of displacement theories. These two points seem fairly certain, but several different interpretations of this evidence would appear to be possible. While source theories rightly draw attention to the traditional nature of the material in John 6:1-21, this on its own does not prove that this material was actually written down in the Gospel of Signs, as Fortna suggests, rather than having been added together with the discourse material to the last edition of the Gospel, as Lindars suggests. It cannot be stressed enough that the age of material does not automatically determine when it was written down. On the other hand, Lindars' point about the function of this chapter as proof that Moses wrote concerning Jesus (John 5:46f) does not necessarily disprove or exclude Fortna's source theory, nor his suggestion that the disjunction between chapters 5 and 6 are due to a rearrangement not of the Gospel in its present form by a redactor, but of the source by the evangelist. It is possible that both are correct. The evangelist may have moved this material from the Signs Source to its present position in order to use it to illustrate the point made in the discourse material he added in John 5:46f, namely that Moses wrote about Jesus.

In showing that these two views are not incompatible, our intention is not to provide a comprehensive synthesis of the various suggestions which have been made. For the purpose of this study it is sufficient if we have found some indication of the origin of the material found here, and in doing so can perhaps detect some of the logic which may have moved the evangelist to finally put this chapter in the form that he did. The miracle which precedes the discourse is clearly traditional, and the discourse material bears the hallmarks of Johannine theology, whether that of the Evangelist or of a redactor. Beyond this it is unnecessary for us to speculate at present.


The most significant contribution which has been made to the interpretation of this chapter is certainly that of P. Borgen. Borgen was the first to convincingly demonstrate that what is going on in the discourse of John 6 is essentially exegesis of the Jewish Scriptures, following patterns and principles of exegesis which are widely attested in the sources available to us. The key to understanding the discussion is thus to realize that the various words and phrases, many of which are difficult to understand or interpret, are derived from, and will thus only be understood in light of, the Old Testament text or texts being discussed. The key passage in John 6 is the Old Testament paraphrase (it is not identical to any exact citation), "He gave them bread from heaven to eat", and in Borgen's view, Jesus is suggesting an alternative reading of the Hebrew text, in good rabbinic fashion: 'Do not read 'he [Moses] gave', but 'he [God] gives'. The whole discussion between Jesus and the crowds is then to be regarded as following the typical course of such exegetical discussions.

Building on such insights, Barnabas Lindars has pointed out that the discussion follows the pattern of a synagogue homily, a suggestion which is not at all surprising or implausible, since the evangelist tells the reader that this discourse took place in the synagogue at Capernaum (6:59). Regardless of whether any historical veracity is to be granted to the statement, the Bread of Life discourse was at the very least recognized by the evangelist (and probably also his readers) as reminiscent of the genre of the synagogue homily. The two passages, Exodus 16:4 and Isa.54:9-55:4, which play a central role in this chapter, are thus to be regarded as the seder and haphtarah texts for a homiletic exposition of the Jewish Scriptures.

It would appear reasonable to follow Lindars in regarding John 6 as essentially an attempt to demonstrate the truthfulness of the statement made at the end of John 5: Moses wrote concerning Jesus, and what he wrote finds its fulfilment in him. The stories concerning the feeding of the multitude and the crossing of the sea John inherited from the Christian tradition, very possibly as part of the Signs Document. More needs to be said about a number of other issues, such as the relationship between this part of John's Gospel and the practice of the Christian sacraments, in particular the Lord's Supper. However, such issues are best dealt with in the course of an examination and consideration of the text itself, to which we will shortly turn.

Structure and Genre

The discourse material in this chapter begins in a way reminiscent of John 4, where Jesus discusses living water with the Samaritan woman. Both conversations begin with a reference to ordinary food or water (4:7-9; 6:26 in the context of the earlier feeding), to which Jesus responds by referring to the need to be concerned with eternal food or drink (4:10; 6:27). Jesus' interlocutor(s) then ask(s) for this eternal water/bread, yet still understanding it as a permanent form of ordinary food/drink (4:15; 6:34). In both cases, the water or bread is referred to in terms of 'life' and/or its cognates ('living water', 'bread of life'), which is said to provide eternal life. It may also be noted that both conversations take place in the context of a particular OT tradition (in John 4 Jacob's well, in John 6 the manna). There are also significant similarities between this discourse and the discourse with Nicodemus in John 3. In both cases Jesus' interlocutor misunderstands him, and responds with a question containing pws dunatai (John 3:4; 6:52), to which Jesus responds with a double 'Amen' and a saying beginning with 'unless' (ean mh_; John 3:5; 6:53). We thus are confronted here with another example of the Johannine dialogue, which takes a misunderstanding, usually caused by Jesus' use of a term which can have more than one meaning, and elaborates it.

In the context of Jesus' words about the need to be concerned about food that endures for eternal life, and the crowd's request for a sign comparable to that given in the time of Moses, an inexact quotation from Exod.16:4, or perhaps from Ps.78:24, is given: "He gave them bread from heaven to eat". We have already noted the importance of this quotation as providing both the basis for and the background of the discussion which follows. In the first part of the discourse, the discussion takes its starting point from the words in the citation, 'He gave'. It then continues by expounding the whole citation, in light of the specific understanding of 'he gave' and of the further text from Isaiah that is also in mind. The whole is thus to be read primarily, as we have already suggested, as a homiletic exposition of the Jewish Scriptures.

vv25-27) In the opening part of the bread of life discourse, the crowd expresses to Jesus its astonishment at finding him already on the other side of the lake. Jesus responds with words that are reminiscent of the Old Testament exegetical tradition relating to the provision of manna, such as is found in Deut.8:2-3, where it is asserted that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh". Jesus, in a similar vein, asserts that the crowd should not seek after ordinary food, but after food given by the Son of Man which truly gives life, eternal life. The intertextual echoes provided here at the outset provide an important clue to the interpretation of what follows.

vv28-29) This question by the crowd and the response given by Jesus also provide an important key to the interpretation of what follows. Here it is made clear that what is at issue throughout the discourse is the question of belief in Jesus. Whatever other overtones the language used may have, the focus is on what Jesus says is the key work required by God: to believe on the one he has sent. It is also to be pointed out that this issue is frequently to the fore in documents which arise out of conflict between Christians and Jews. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, to be part of the people of God or even to seek to observe the Law is without value if one refuses to accept God's messenger.

vv30-31) The crowd now requests a miraculous sign as a validation of Jesus' status as one sent by God. This is not in and of itself an unreasonable request, since God had, according to Exodus 4, worked signs precisely to validate Moses' ministry. However, there may be a certain amount of irony intended by the author, since the crowd, at least in the context of the narrative as it now stands, has seen Jesus provide food miraculously for them, and this request for further proof of Jesus' status and ability may thus be an indication of unbelief or of unwillingness to believe. In the context of this discussion, the key Old Testament quotation/paraphrase which will underlie the rest of the discussion is given by the crowd: "He gave them bread from heaven to eat".

It is quite probable that another issue between the Johannine Christians and their Jewish interlocutors may have influenced the present text. In a number of places in the rabbinic and other early Jewish literature, the belief is expressed that the second redeemer (i.e., the Messiah) will perform the same acts as the first redeemer (Moses). In Ecclesiastes Rabbah three specific signs are mentioned, the provision of manna, the provision of water, and riding on a donkey, and although this text is much later, some have suggested that it is significant that John, and only John among the New Testament documents, provides a description of Jesus accomplishing all three of these things. Of these, at least the expectation of a new provision of manna in connection with the coming of the Messiah can be dated with some certainty to the time of John. The discussion which follows may thus also be an attempt to show that Jesus fulfils this Jewish expectation, albeit not in the way that most Jews expected.

vv32-33) It was Borgen who first championed the idea that the words attributed to Jesus here are in fact proposing an alternative rendering of the OT text under discussion. In his work, reference is made to the exegetical technique which occurs with some frequency in the rabbinic and other early Jewish literature, where a phrase like 'do not read X, but Y' proposes an alternative understanding of the passage in question. In this instance, the suggestion is that the Hebrew consonants ntn are being read with a different pointing, so that the word is understood to be 'he gives' rather than 'he gave'. Then a further interpretative suggestion is made, namely that the 'he' in question is not Moses, but God. Although the exact phrase from the rabbinic literature is not reproduced, it nonetheless seems very likely that what we have here is still to be regarded as the proposal of an alternative understanding of the Old Testament quotation/paraphrase which will form the subject of the rest of the discussion.

The 'bread of God' is then interpreted as a reference to 'he who (or 'that which') comes down from heaven and gives life to the world'. Although it has been suggested that the bread from heaven was identified with Moses in at least one strand of ancient Jewish thought, there is no evidence that such ideas stem from the time when the Fourth Gospel was written or earlier, and it would thus be unwise to rest our interpretation of this motif on such later traditions. However, in the Old Testament already and throughout the later Wisdom literature, the manna or bread from heaven is frequently identified with the Word or Wisdom of God. God's Wisdom or Word was also identified with Torah, which by association meant that the manna also became a symbol of Torah. Thus here the Johannine Jesus is making the assertion, not infrequent in Judaism, that the true bread from heaven is the Wisdom or Word of God which comes down from heaven to give life to human beings. The implications of this in the context of Johannine Christology will soon become apparent.

v34) The crowd requests that they be given this bread 'from now on', suggesting a literal, material understanding of Jesus' words is in their minds, one which will soon be challenged.

v35) In this verse a key turning point occurs in the discussion, in the form of an 'I am' declaration by Jesus, which will determine the course of the remainder of the chapter's discourse. Jesus here identifies himself as the bread from heaven. This saying is a revelation of the significance of Jesus for salvation in metaphorical language, as are all the 'I am' sayings. Jesus is the true embodiment of God's Wisdom, and the source of true spiritual nourishment which gives eternal life.

vv36-40) Jesus' words continue with an accusation of the Jews' unwillingness to believe. The mention of the Father in this context is significant. The Father of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is clearly identical to the God of the Jewish Scriptures. Many commentators have seen here a predestinarian emphasis, which is of course quite common in sectarian Jewish literature and is in many ways a quite natural reading of the text. However, a rather different emphasis is likely to provide a better understanding of this portion of John 6. At a number of significant junctures in the conflict between Jesus and 'the Jews' presented in John, Jesus rebukes the Jews by saying that if they had known the Father, whom they claim as their God, they would have known and accepted Jesus. This knowledge of God refers at least primarily to a correct response to the message of the Jewish Scriptures. It would thus seem fair to read this passage as conveying a similar message to those which assert that if the Jews had correctly understood the witness of Moses, they would have come to Jesus: likewise, had the Jews responded in the correct way to the Father in his previous interactions with the Jewish people, including especially, but not necessarily exclusively, the Jewish Scriptures, they would have come to Jesus. The key message of the passage is thus not predestinarian, but apologetic and polemical: the Jews reject Jesus because they have rejected their own God. This interpretation fits in well not only with the overall tenor of the Fourth Gospel, but also, as we shall soon see, with the specific emphases of this chapter.

Before proceeding, we should also mention the possibility, in light of the similar phrase in John 9:34, that Jesus is presented in v37 in sharp contrast to the Jewish leaders: they drove Jesus' followers out of the synagogue, but those who come to Jesus will never have to experience the alienation of being driven out from his community.

v41-42) The specific wording of John's account here of the response of the Jews to Jesus' words is extremely significant. To a reader who has already detected the explicit and implicit references to the provision of the manna in the wilderness as recounted in the Old Testament, the word 'grumble' would provide an immediate intertextual echo of these stories. The author uses the same verb, gonguzw_, which appears in the LXX of Exod.16:7-9. This parallel is noted by most commentators, but only Barrett, Carson and Hanson make explicit mention of the important connection that the author is seeking to make between the contemporaries of Jesus and the Israelites in the wilderness. Carson writes, "Their grumbling shows them to be of the same spirit as that displayed by their fathers in the wilderness who complained before (Ex.16:2, 8-9) and after (Nu.11:4ff.) the manna was provided". And as Hanson comments, "John would surely have seen a deep significance in Exod.16.7: the Jews of old were really murmuring against God. In murmuring against Jesus the Jews are unwittingly doing the same thing". That the author intends the reader to compare these two generations of Israelites seems unmistakeable, and the significance of this would appear once again to be illuminated by an apologetic reading. It is frequent for apologetic works to point to the behaviour of a group in the past as part of an accusation of present wrongdoing. In this instance, the Jewish leaders pointed to the fact that the majority of the Jews and their leaders had not accepted Jesus as an evidence that he was not in fact the Messiah or one sent by God, and the Fourth Evangelist responds by alluding to the teaching of the Jewish Scriptures that Israel has also in the past refused to accept the one whom God sent to them, and then as now, 'grumbled' at the bread from heaven which he provided. This functions both as a challenge to the Jewish objects of evangelists from the Johannine community, and as a legitimating reassurance in light of the failure of so many Jews to believe in Jesus.

The issue which is presented as causing the Jews to grumble here is the claim of Jesus to be the bread that came down from heaven. The heart of their problem is made clear in v42: Jesus' audience know that Jesus is a human being, apparently like other human beings, and his family is known to them, and these facts make his claim to a heavenly origin seem ludicrous. This provides evidence for what was at any rate extremely likely, namely that the development of the doctrine of Jesus' pre-existence caused difficulties for the Jews (and even for many Christians, as we shall soon see). On the one hand, the identification of Jesus with Wisdom, and as the Son of Man who had existed in heaven prior to his appearance on earth, was not a particularly radical development in the context of Judaism and Jewish Christianity: the language of pre-existence had been applied to a number of Old Testament figures, and some had also been said to have been indwelt by the Spirit and/or Wisdom of God. However, on the other hand it appears that, whereas to make such claims for heroic figures of scripture was one thing, to make such claims about a human being who had lived in the recent past and who was well known was much more difficult to accept.

vv43-44) Jesus rebukes his Jewish interlocutors for their grumbling, what follows is again widely read as a predestinarian assertion. We have already mentioned that such statements are common in Jewish sectarian literature, most notably the Dead Sea Scrolls, as an explanation of why the majority of Jews have rejected the minority's message. Yet in the case of the present passage, we have suggested another reading which seems to better fit within the emphasis of the passage, and indeed of the Gospel as a whole. Jesus' words here, that no one can come to him unless drawn by the Father, functions in a way similar to Exod.16:8, where Moses rebukes the Israelites by saying, "You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord". To complain against God's servant or appointed messenger is to grumble against God, and here these words of Jesus serve as a reprimand against the Jews: if they do not come to Jesus, there must be something wrong with their relationship with or attitude to God.

v45) That our reading of v44 is correct is confirmed in v45: those who are willing to listen to and learn from the Father, again presumably via the Old Testament revelation, will come to Jesus. These verses are more a reminder to the Jews of their responsibility than a statement of predestinarianism. The verse which Jesus paraphrases from Isa.54:13 provokes numerous intertextual echoes. Firstly, this verse comes in the context of a description of the restored state of Israel after she will be brought back from exile. There is much evidence that many if not most Israelites thought of the exilic state as something continuing into their own time, and which would be brought to a climactic end at the end of the age. This verse would thus conjure up in the mind of those familiar with its context both a sense that Jesus is claiming to fulfil at least one element of the promise of Israel's restoration, and also perhaps would recall Israel's present state and the danger which looms over Israel when she is disobedient. The former claim is to the fore, being made much more explicitly, but both of these points would be important ones in the context of a christological debate with the Jews.

Secondly, this text occurs very near to Isa.55:1-11, in which God, speaking much as Wisdom does elsewhere in the OT, offers food and drink to Israel. This passage appears to be in the Fourth Evangelist's mind throughout this chapter. The reference to concern for food which does not satisfy (Isa.55:2) is quite close to John 6:27, and the descent and return of the word to accomplish God's purpose in Isa.55:10f is also very close to the Johannine discussion of Jesus as the true bread from heaven, especially since, as we have already noted, there was already a long-standing and widespread tradition that the manna in some sense represented the word of God. This allusion to a neighbouring passage should help the reader to understand that the identification of Jesus as the bread from heaven is really about the identification of him as God's life-giving word.

v46) An assertion is made here which is very much reminiscent of John 1:18. Here as there, there is probably an attempt to both uphold the strong Jewish tradition that no one has ever seen God, while acknowledging at the same time that in some sense knowledge of God is possible through the mediation of God's Word, Wisdom or Shekinah. The distinctive element is that this figure is now identified with the human figure of Jesus, so that he becomes the exclusive locus of revelation. It is implied that any claims which the Jews may make to know God in isolation from faith in Jesus are invalid.

vv47-51) In this section, the key focus is on receiving eternal life, which is said to be possible by believing (v47), by eating the bread from heaven (v50), and by Jesus giving his flesh for the life of the world (v51). In the last of these verses, the reference to Jesus giving his flesh alludes to his death, and very probably also to the Christian Eucharist. This, however, still leaves open the question of the significance of the allusion: it is one thing to say that language reminiscent of the Lord's Supper is present, but quite another to say this language is being used to teach, for instance, that participation in the sacrament is in and of itself life giving. It would seem preferable to suggest that all of these statements are parallel, and represent different aspects of the same thing: to believe in Jesus includes believing in his words, in his status as God's agent and Word, and in his death as a saving event. Believing in Jesus also implies joining the Christian community, and thus sharing in its sacraments, and in particular in its table fellowship. Meals in the ancient world were of great importance, and were thus open to becoming the bearers of symbolic significance, and this was clearly true in early Christianity, where in the Pauline communities, for example, the unity of believers with Christ and with each other was considered to be symbolized in the table fellowship of Christians when they met together for the Lord's Supper. Given the fact that all other references to Jesus providing food or water in this Gospel are clearly intended to convey a symbolic or spiritual meaning, which is mistakenly overlooked in favour of a more earthly understanding by Jesus' interlocutors, a similar interpretation should be given here.

It may also be proposed that, if the Jews with whom the Johannine Christians were debating expected the messiah to provide literal manna as Moses had done, then Jesus here is presented as challenging that expectation. Jesus himself is the true manna, which gives eternal life. This is important in the context we have proposed. Firstly, by identifying Jesus himself as the manna, a response is given to Jewish objectors who refuse to believe in Jesus because he did not provide manna: Jesus himself is the manna God provides. Secondly, the manna provided in Jesus is superior to that which the Jews expected: the manna provided in Moses' time did not give eternal life, whereas Jesus does. This contrast would thus have served an important legitimating function for the Johannine Christians: the Jews expect manna, but the Johannine Christians have the real manna, which gives eternal life. The importance of this point is brought out by the fact that it is returned to as a conclusion of the discourse in v58.

v52) As Lindars points out, most manuscripts omit 'his' here, and this is very likely to be original, both because of the fact that 'his' would be a natural addition to make, and also because the reading thus preserved would provide a further reminiscence of the Jews' response to Moses in Exodus 16, where they grumble and argue and demand flesh to eat. Lindars, however, makes too much of this, concluding that what is at issue is how Jesus can provide yet another supply of food, whereas the context makes clear that, in spite of this allusion, the issue must still be Jesus' words about giving his flesh. The point is that the response of the Jews to Jesus' words is one of stubbornness, like the response of the Israelites to Moses even after they had seen God's miraculous provision, and that the provision of miraculous food or drink should in both cases result in a provisional faith which is open to respond to God's servant.

vv53-58) This final section, while a response to the Jewish objections to his reference to his flesh as the true bread from heaven which they must eat, is still a continuation of the christological exposition of the Exodus paraphrase cited at the outset of the discussion. Here the focus comes on to the final words, 'to eat', and their interpretation in light of the identification of Jesus as God's Wisdom and Word, and thus as the 'bread of life', the bread from heaven. It is thus necessary to follow Borgen in regarding this section as an essential part of the discourse, and to reject Brown's contention that this section is independent of what proceeds it in both imagery and meaning. However, while we may disagree with his conclusion that in this section the Eucharist has become the exclusive theme, Brown may be correct in considering that eucharistic imagery, which has played a minor role in the discourse thus far, now takes on a dominant role. The references to blood as well as flesh cannot derive from the manna traditions, and thus its most likely origin is in the Christian eucharistic tradition. As Beasley-Murray, a commentator without any particular pro-sacramentarian bias, writes, "it is evident that neither the Evangelist nor the Christian readers could have written or read the saying without conscious reference to the eucharist". However, it is still necessary to beware of reading later developments back into the Fourth Gospel, and of assuming that later views derived from this text necessarily provide the best interpretation of it.

The best way forward, in light of the conclusions we have reached thus far, is perhaps to turn immediately to the question of what these words are likely to have signified in the context of the debates between the Johannine Christians and the Jewish synagogue. Here, as elsewhere, a sociological reading provides an important insight. D. Rensberger has suggested in connection with John 3 that, in the context of such a debate, the call to be 'born again of water and Spirit' would have been understood as a call to join the Johannine community, and in so doing to share in its initiation processes, sacraments and overall religious experience. Such a reading appears to be even more appropriate in the present instance. For the Jewish reader, to believe in Jesus would mean to join the Christian group, and to face ridicule and exclusion from the Jewish community. One of the many elements of the belief and practice of the Johannine Christians which the non-Christian Jews found unacceptable was undoubtably the language used in the Christian celebration of the Lord's Supper. Sharing in this Christian sacrament was therefore an important element of Christian belief for those undergoing conversion, because it represented a move from table fellowship as part of the Jewish community to exclusion from that community in exchange for fellowship with Jesus and his followers. Sharing in the flesh and blood of Jesus by becoming part of the community that believes in him, it is emphasized, is also sharing in the true bread from heaven, which the Jews claim to wait for, but which, in rejecting Jesus, they reject and exclude themselves from. The main point of the combination of Christian sacramental and Old testament manna imagery here is to present a counter-identity which will legitimate the Christians' beliefs and practices in the context of their debates with the synagogue.

v59) This comment, whatever its historical basis, is important as an indicator that our approach to this chapter as primarily concerned with the exegesis of the Jewish Scriptures is correct. To the Fourth Evangelist at least, and presumably also to his readers, this discourse represented the sort of 'sermon' one expected to hear in a synagogue context.

v60) In this verse we have a response to Jesus' words which is quite unusual in John, inasmuch as here we find disciples of Jesus who find Jesus' words unacceptable. This suggests that the issues presented in this discourse were controversial not only for Jews outside the Christian circle, but for Christians as well.

vv61-65) The description of Jesus' disciples as grumbling strengthens the indication that here some of Jesus' own followers are presented as responding to Jesus in the way that the Israelites had responded to Moses after the Exodus. Not only those Jews who had rejected the Johannine Christians, but even some of their own group were unhappy with this teaching. It is likely that they were responding to developments in the Johannine community's beliefs and practices, and it is essential for our purposes that we see clearly what those developments are likely to have been. This chapter suggests a number of possible issues, none of them mutually exclusive: the identification of Jesus with the manna, and also with Wisdom; the concept of his pre-existence; the idea of Jesus' death as a saving event; and the Christian eucharistic practice, or at least the emphasis placed upon it by the Johannine Christians even in light of the offence it caused to most Jews. In relation to the last item mentioned, it cannot be ruled out a priori that we have here evidence of what has been called a more sacramentarian approach to the Lord's Supper, with it being understood as a literal eating of Jesus' flesh and drinking of his blood, a development which many Christians are thus shown to have found unacceptable. However, in light of Jesus' words about spirit and flesh in v63, it seems far more likely that a literal understanding of Jesus' words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood was a mistaken understanding, resulting from an inability to grasp the deeper, spiritual significance of Jesus' words.

Jesus responds to the offence of these disciples with a reference to the ascent of the Son of Man. Barrett discusses the possible meanings, and concludes that the two main alternatives usually proposed, that the ascent of the Son of Man will either remove the stumbling block or will actually increase the offence of Jesus, are not mutually exclusive, and thus that both contain an element of the truth. To the unbeliever, the ascent of the Son of Man will prove to be the ultimate stumbling block, whereas to the believer, it will provide the ultimate confirmation of Jesus' words and identity.

In the context of the development of Johannine christology, there are good reasons for believing that the identification of Jesus with Wisdom arose out of a need to justify the exalted place attributed to Jesus after his ascension, and that the emphasis on Jesus' pre-existence also relates to the need to present him as one who is more qualified than Moses to reveal heavenly things. It is striking that both these motifs are present here: throughout the discourse, a contrast with Moses/Torah can be detected, and here now the ascension is emphasized as a return of Jesus to where he was before. The point of the present section appears to be that the ascension will prove to be an unbearable stumbling block to the Jews, but only because they, in contrast to the Johannine Christians, have failed to discern in Jesus the presence of God's Word or Wisdom.

Jesus then goes on to clarify that it is the Spirit which is important and life-giving; the flesh counts for nothing. This is clearly a decisive indicator against a reading of the preceding discourse which treats any of the ideas found there too literally. Jesus' heavenly origins are spiritual. He is not presented as having descended from heaven as a fully-formed flesh-and-blood being, but his 'spiritual origins', the origins of the one who is incarnate in or as Jesus, are spiritual. The eating of Jesus' flesh and blood also has a spiritual meaning, although the exact details of that meaning are less important to us than the overall significance which the presentation of Jesus along these lines would have had in the context of the Johannine conflict with the synagogue. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus' words are always enigmatic and difficult. Those who have faith, who already have responded to some extent to the Father, will probe deeper and come to Jesus, whereas those who refuse to believe will stumble over the literal meaning of Jesus' words and fail to discern the deeper spiritual meaning in them.

v66) The result of the teaching presented in this chapter is that many of Jesus' disciples turn back from following him. We are probably meant to see here a shrinking of the Johannine Christian group as a result of the conflict and the subsequent developments in belief in practice.

v67-71) In contrast to those who turn back, the Twelve, mentioned here for the first time in John, are presented as discerning that Jesus has the words of eternal life, and that he is the holy one of God. The Twelve represent the correct attitude of faith, and are thus intended as a challenge to wavering Christians. A further warning is provided in the final words of this chapter, in the mention of Judas Iscariot, who is presumably mentioned as a reminder that even one of the Twelve could turn out to be 'a devil' if he did not believe. This warning, which concludes the discourse on a somber note, indicates the tensions which existed in the community's conflict setting and the community's concern to legitimate itself and its beliefs in the face of the loss of a number of members.

Conclusion: John 6:25-71 in Johannine Legitimation

We have found in this chapter's 'Bread of Life' discourse a number of features which suggest that it had an important role to play in the legitimation of the Johannine community's beliefs and practices. Central to the discourse are motifs which were important to the Johannine Christians in their debates and conflicts with the synagogue: Jesus' fulfilment of messianic expectations (specifically, the provision of manna), his heavenly origin, his ascension, his relationship to Moses/Torah. We also found present here references and allusions to the 'sacraments' of the Johannine community, and a challenge to Jewish interlocutors to overcome initial stumbling blocks and to find faith in Jesus as part of the Johannine group of Christians.

In this chapter, Jesus is identified as the true manna or bread from heaven. The origin of this concept is probably the need to show that Jesus fulfilled the Jewish expectation of an eschatological provision of manna, coupled with the developing Wisdom christology formulated from the need to contrast Jesus with Moses and/or Torah. Although eucharistic language and imagery does play an important part in this chapter, we have not found the eucharist to be its central focus. Rather, the bread of life discourse represents a christological exposition of the Old Testament manna tradition. Eucharistic language is thus probably used not as an end in itself, but because it enables faith in Jesus to be expounded in a way that is relevant to the Johannine community's legitimation of its beliefs and practices in the context of its conflict with the synagogue.

In the mind of the Johannine Christians, the ascent of Jesus simply confirmed that Jesus was in fact the pre-existent Son of Man, and the incarnation of God's Word/Wisdom. Yet the reaction of many Christians as well as Jews shows that they were aware that developments were taking place, and that some considered these developments unacceptable. Together, these features which we have found in John 6 appear to provide support for our suggestion that the distinctive developments in Johannine Christology were formed in the furnace of the community's conflict with the synagogue.

by James F. McGrath

Durham, England


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Published January 10, 1997.
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