Historical Culture Context
Anyone who reads these verses carefully cannot help but notice the strong and explicit Eucharistic tone. The question then arises: could Jesus have spoken such words in the middle of his ministry?
Prior to the Last Supper, how could anyone—crowd or disciples—understand or appreciate Eucharistic interpretations? The verses as they appear in the Gospel, therefore, were likely not spoken in this form by Jesus.
Yet, everyone who reads the Gospel of John knows that while he devotes five chapters (Jn 13-17) to the Last Supper, his narrative does not include the institution of the Eucharist. For this and other reasons, scholars believe that the multiplication of loaves and the discourse in chapter 6 are John’s equivalent of an institution narrative.
The objection “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) is serious and would likely have arisen in Jesus’ lifetime. The problem was no less real in the time of the evangelist, sixty years later. Literal drinking of blood was prohibited in Judaism and perhaps also in early Christianity (sec Gen 9:4; Lev 17:10, 12, 14; cf. Acts 15:29).
Yet “eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood” became a common way for Christians around the time of John’s Gospel to describe participation in the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch said, “I desire ‘the bread of God’ which is the flesh of Jesus Christ ... and for drink I desire his blood.”
The Johannine scholar Charles H. Talbert believes that such language serves to describe intimacy, the close relationship of Jesus to those who believe in him, or who place their commitment and loyalty in him.
Thus, the Father has life in himself (Jn 5:26), and so too does the Son (ibid.), and so too do believers who share an intimate relationship with Jesus by sharing in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Talbert continues and highlights the distinctive contribution John’s thinking makes to Christian theology. In John’s view, the Eucharist is not so much a memorial of Jesus’ death (see 1 Cor 11:23-25) nor a continuation of mealtimes with Jesus during his life and after his resurrection (Lk 24:13-35).
Rather, John views the Eucharist as a liturgical or cultic extension of Jesus’ incarnation.
This is why, according to Talbert, John placed Jesus’ Eucharistic words at this moment, the middle of his public ministry, immediately after his lengthy “homily” on the nourishment he provides in revealing the Father.
This illustrates the Church’s guidelines which note: “Let the exegete seek out the meaning intended by the Evangelist in narrating a saying or a deed in a certain way or in placing it in a certain context. For the truth of the story is not at all affected by the fact that the Evangelists relate the words and deeds of the Lord in a different order, and express his sayings not literally but differently” (Historical Truth of the Gospels, no. 9).
John’s Gospel is a favorite of many believers, but few ever plumb the depths of his masterpiece. It takes careful reading, intense study, and prayerful reflection to tune correctly into John’s wavelength. The clear sound that emerges from such effort is nothing less than heavenly.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University