On The Bread of Life Discourse
In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, St. John records Jesus’ “Bread of Life Discourse.” This speech was controversial at the time, and continues to be to this day. Christ tells his followers that they must “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood”, a claim that is later said to be “hard to hear”. Theologians now debate whether Jesus was speaking metaphorically, as he often did, or literally.
Some scholars interpret the passage to have a purely spiritual meaning. While many Christians believe Jesus’ intended his speech to be understood a command to symbolically “eat his flesh” in the reception of what Protestant Christians commonly refer to as the “Lord’s Supper”, Anthony Nabor takes the somewhat unusual position that it is merely a continuation of the metaphor started in Chapter 6, with no literal or even sacramental meaning at all. In his "The Sacramentality of the ‘Bread of Life Discourse’ in John 6," Nabor says the speech is purely metaphor, intended not to provide sacramental instruction, but to emphasize the necessity of faith in Christ.
Others also opposed to a literal interpretation may suggest that Jesus often “relexicalizes” his metaphors. In “Mixed Metaphors: Resolving the ‘Eschatological Headache’ of John 5,” Hugo Mendez notes the “Johannine Jesus’s tendency to intensify the vividness of his metaphors as his discourses continue.” In what Mendez calls “metaphor clustering”, he holds that many of Jesus’ discourses, including the Bread of Life Discourse, are actually clusters of metaphoric speech, and the imagery may not be entirely consistent throughout. He believes this is intended to “intensify the provocative character” of the speech.
In contrast to these relatively recent and novel interpretations, I hold the historical position of the Catholic Church and argue that the discourse starts metaphorically, then shifts to a literal meaning. To make this argument, I will examine the text and dig into the speech itself, and show that a metaphorical-to-literal shift occurs at what I consider to be the pivotal moment in the discourse. I will also examine how this passage has been interpreted historically.
METAPHORICAL, LITERAL, OR BOTH?
In the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus responds to a challenge by the crowd: Moses gave us manna from heaven, what will you give? In response, Jesus says: For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (The New American Bible, John 6:33) Note here, Jesus is referring to himself, he is “that which comes down from heaven”, metaphorically referred to as bread. A couple of verses later, he says as much: I am the bread of life… (John 6:35) Verses 48-51 are the key to understanding this discourse:
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; 50 this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (v. 48-51)
Jesus contrasts himself as the metaphorical bread of life with the manna that was eaten in the desert. But then in the second half of verse 51, he clarifies what he will give (remember the challenge posed to him by the crowd) - he will give his flesh: “the bread that I will give is my flesh”. The word is indicates the shift from metaphorical bread to the real, literal, thing that he will give. Christians agree that Jesus did in fact give his flesh (body) in a literal way on the cross. The disagreement occurs over whether we are commanded to eat that literal flesh in a literal way. The reaction of the crowd indicates they understood it literally as well. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus does not correct their understanding, telling them no, it is a symbolic eating. Instead, he doubles down, dropping the metaphorical language of bread, using the literal language of eating and drinking his flesh and blood. Even the verb for eat that he uses in the Greek text, trogien, is that of animal eating, to “munch” or “gnaw”. This is not that same Greek verb used in the metaphorical eating of the bread of life.
We are told that “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” (v. 66) This teaching was just too much to accept for the Jews, given the Mosaic Law’s prohibition on drinking blood, not to mention the repulsion they must have felt when hearing a command to what they thought amounted to cannibalism. (Of course, cannibalism is the consumption of a dead human body, whereas Christ is living). Why did Jesus not correct their mistake? In fact, he even asked the disciples if they would also leave, given the difficult nature of his teaching. Notice, St. Peter merely asks “where else would we go?”, implying not an insider’s understanding of the true, non-offensive meaning, but a simple trust that Jesus knew best, no matter how strange and outlandish his teaching.
WHAT ABOUT THE FATHERS?
As a Catholic, I believe that Sacred Scripture does not stand alone, rather, we have a Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium to help us understand the meaning of the Holy Scriptures. This is a belief held in faith, but I believe it is also generally good literary practice to consider how earlier readers have historically interpreted a text when coming to one’s own conclusion. With that in mind, I think it is telling that over the centuries, John Chapter 6 has overwhelmingly been understood to support not only a literal meaning, but specifically a Eucharistic meaning.
The Church Fathers as early as St. Ignatius of Antioch held this view. In c. AD 110, St. Ignatius writes of those who hold “heterodox opinions”: “[T]hey do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh that suffered for our sins and that the Father, in his goodness, raised up again”. (Akin) There can be no confusion of St. Ignatuis’ view - not only is the Eucharist the flesh of Christ, it is the same flesh that suffered and was raised. A physical body, a living body.
St. Augustine furthers this position when he writes “Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’. For he carried that body in his hands.” (Akin) Notice the clear and developed Sacramental understanding of Christ’s “body”, even to the point of making the seemingly paradoxical claim that Christ held his own body in his hands.
Perhaps most strikingly, at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, the Church proclaimed her teaching on the matter with the words “[We] are sanctified, having received his holy flesh and the precious blood of Christ the Savior of us all. And not as common flesh do we receive it; God forbid: … but as truly the life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself.” (Akin)
In summary, I believe that the evidence for a shift from metaphor to literal meaning in verse 51 is the most compelling interpretation, based on a plain reading of the text as well as an appeal to authoritative voices on the subject. A non-literal reading is necessary for many people to maintain their theological consistency, but I don’t find any of the given reasons for such a reading tenable.
Akin, Jimmy (2010) “The Fathers know Best.” Catholic Answers, Inc.
Mendez, Hugo. “Mixed Metaphors: Resolving the ‘Eschatological Headache’ of John 5.”
Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 137, no. 3, 2018, pp. 711–32. JSTOR,
https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1373.2018.409291. Accessed 26 Nov. 2022.
Nabor, Anthony (2019) "The Sacramentality of the "Bread of Life Discourse" in John 6," Global
Tides: Vol. 13 , Article 2. Available at:
The New American Bible: Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
© 2023 Stephen Jacob Edwards