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.