In the history of exegesis, John 6 has been a common text upon which to write much commentary. This is understandable because it seems to reflect the most significant expression of Eucharistic theology in John. While there is much in this text (for example, Karl Barth writes compellingly in Church Dogmatics about how it argues to us for the supremacy of Christ over all other voices in our life) it is most commonly a site of discussion around the Eucharist.
Borgen argued that the Bread of Life discourse is an exegesis of the Jewish Scriptures. The aspects of the text that are troublesome for us and the themes that we struggle with become clear as we read them through the lens of the Old Testament. Thus, for Borgen, in John 6, it is not Moses who gives us bread from heaven but God (and Jesus is the true manna!).
Lindars argues that the text is a version of a syngogue homily (which makes sense since the setting is the synagogue at Capernaum). He argues that John 6 is elaborating and underling the point made at the end of John 5: that Moses finds his fulfillment in Christ. Isaiah 54 and Exodus 16 are thus strong themes that resonate through this reading.
CONTEXT AND FIT IN JOHN
The discourse doesn’t seem to quite fit where it is placed. It follows the miraculous feeding of the crowd and Jesus appearing to the disciples on the storm tossed sea of Galilee. It perhaps jars somewhat with the first half of the “book of Signs”. Some have argued that this is a later interpolation into the Gospel. We can leave such redaction questions aside as we examine the text as it comes to us.
A misled question begins the discourse and Jesus in typically Johannine fashion sets his interlocutor straight. Immediately we see reference to the Exodus and to Mann (Ex 16:4). There is a dispute with the crowds and Jesus takes the opportunity to reorganise their priorities away from signs and instead to see that the Son of Man is authorised by Heaven. Jesus is asked what works the willing disciple must do. He responds by saying belief in the one God has sent is the work of God.
This section is perhaps best read as a Midrash (Rabbinical commentary) on Psalm 78:24 (which in turn re-reads Ex 16). Jesus is presented to us as the bread from heaven that must be eaten and as the very personification of divine wisdom. Belief in the one who has the authority from heaven is again seen in the context of the Old Testament references to be central to following God.
This is often read as the solid Eucharistic foundation of this text within liturgical hermeneutics. Literally in Greek we are told not to eat the flesh but to chew on it (trogo).
This section shows the disputes with the disciples, where some fail to fathom the teaching and leave (the only time in the Gospels where disciples leave for purely theological reasons), while Peter confesses faith. Those who do not believe must, from the logic of the text, not live. It is those who reject this teaching. Those who have the Spirit however, have life. And within this discourse, life comes from partaking in the death and the promised gift of food that comes from Jesus, the one sent with authority from heaven.
OLD TESTAMENT SOURCES
John 6 is loaded with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The bread (flesh/sarx) is to be distinguished from the blood (sacrifice/pesach). The Covenant is sealed in the blood of the victim (Gen 17). In Exodus 24:8, the blood is sprinkled on Israel and they agree so that they can say, “we will heed and do”.
Central in all this is Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and its call to remember as foundation for anamnesis, for the creation of memory.
John 6 offers no reference to wine. Perhaps this is because the community from which it originates used water in Eucharist or perhaps it is because this is more of a catechetical teaching than an institutitive one. The history of interpretation of the text has seen diversity, especially since the European Reformation. Zwingli for example, argued that verse 63 demands a spiritual reading. Luther saw the passage as more about Christ as the eternal Word, the fullness of revelation that nourishes and builds up the faithful. But there surely is a legitimate Eucharistic reading where the 1st half Christ is speaking figuratively as the Bread of Heaven and 2nd part (v51-59) speaks of the fulfillment of v27’s promise of a future gift of food.
The New Covenant (Jer 31) is here arriving. Reference of blood clearly relates the meal to his suffering and death, even if it is not explicitly a Passover reference. Perhaps it is more catechetical than liturgical, expounding the beliefs about Eucharist, as against being strictly institutive of the Eucharist. John 6 can thus be read as a Eucharistic passage (perhaps a “worldview legitimation” text as James McGrath has argued) that points us to this realisation: Communion is the place where one comes to eternal life.
Your Correspondent, Away to the cheating world goes he.