Eating Jesus’s Flesh (John 6) by Meredith J. C. Warren

In John 6:53, Jesus tells his followers: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus’s unusual comments are part of a larger symbolic statement about his identity.

What does Jesus mean?

John 6:51-58 is part of the “Bread of Life Discourse” in which Jesus talks about eternal life using bread and manna as metaphors. So it is not that surprising that Jesus uses eating symbolically here. It is surprising, though, that Jesus connects this bread to his own flesh and then instructs those listening to eat his flesh and to drink his blood or else they forfeit access to eternal life. Some of the people listening to Jesus in the narrative are aghast, including his own disciples (John 6:52, John 6:60, John 6:66), perhaps interpreting his words to encourage cannibalism. The pericope has long been debated among scholars, with no overwhelming consensus.

What is the significance of Jesus’s body becoming food and being eaten?

For many interpreters, this passage is evidence that the gospel’s author was referring to eucharistic practice. This is important because unlike Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the Gospel of John does not include the institution of the eucharist at his Last Supper event, preferring instead to focus on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. However, many scholars find it difficult to justify such a vague and opaque allusion to the ritual rather than reading Jesus’s words in John 6 as referring to something more spiritual. For example, there is no reference to a cup or wine, but only to bread. If John 6 is about the eucharist, it is curious that the author included that ritual when he excludes others that were important to the early Jesus movement; in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, John downplays baptism by omitting Jesus’s own baptism in John 1:29-31, even if the disciples baptize others in John 4:1-2.

While a good number of scholars who study the Gospel of John support a eucharistic reading, other scholars suppose that Jesus’s words in John 6 are a christological statement about who Jesus is in relation to God. They note that John’s gospel has an overarching concern about Jesus’s divine identity (e.g., John 1:1-18) and consistently uses Jesus’s body as a sign that points to that identity (e.g., John 3:14) and causes people to believe. By this reading, the passage foreshadows Jesus’s death and therefore his identity as Son of God, especially in the context of expiatory sacrifice. In using the ingestion of his body and blood as a sign, Jesus makes clear his identity as God’s son and as sacrifice.

What is the historical context for Jesus’s statement?

In the Greco-Roman world, heroic figures were thought to have a special relationship with a god who was often responsible for their death. The death of the hero is foundational for the cult that identifies the hero with the god; the cult’s rituals, including the ingestion of sacrificed meat, reinforce that identification of the hero with their patron god. The consumption of Jesus’s flesh and blood in John could be read as the literary performance of a ritual meal that participates in the ancient world’s understanding of heroic figures and their association with a god. John’s Gospel may be invoking the language of sacrificial meals to highlight its christological claims about Jesus.

Meredith J. C. Warren , "Eating Jesus’s Flesh (John 6)", n.p. [cited 31 Jul 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/eating-jesus-flesh--john-6

Contributors

Warren-Meredith

Meredith J. C. Warren
Senior Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies , University of Sheffield

Meredith J. C. Warren is Senior Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and the Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. She is the author of Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature (SBL Press, 2019) and My Flesh Is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51-58 (Fortress, 2015). Her research focuses on eating, meals, and the sense of taste in antiquity.

related to Jesus Christ

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

related to the removal of sin

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The artistic and sometimes symbolic public communication of social, political, or religious events, more common in oral cultures.

A discrete unit of biblical text, usually coherent as a story or explanation.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

John 6:53

53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

John 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is m ... View more

John 6:52

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

John 6:60

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

John 6:66

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

John 6

Feeding the Five Thousand
1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.2A large crowd kept following him, bec ... View more

John 6

Feeding the Five Thousand
1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.2A large crowd kept following him, bec ... View more

John 1:29-31

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After ... View more

John 4:1-2

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria
1Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”2—although it was n ... View more

John 6

Feeding the Five Thousand
1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.2A large crowd kept following him, bec ... View more

John 1:1-18

The Word Became Flesh
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2He was in the beginning with God.3All things came into be ... View more

John 3:14

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

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