Historical Cultural Context
First Century Strategies
Christians living in the (twenty-first) century are heirs of a richly complex and refined tradition. Contemporary understanding of the Eucharist frequently clouds our vision of the challenges faced by our first-century ancestors in the faith and the strategies they employed to meet these challenges.
Today’s passage reports that Jesus’ comments led his contemporaries to a violent dispute among themselves: “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52). No one interpreted this statement literally.
The violent dispute erupts because Jesus once again resorts to “anti-language” (see the commentary for Trinity Sunday). He uses familiar words like “manna” “bread come down from heaven” and “I am ...” and creates new and jarring meanings. What was he really saying?
One clue is found in the verse that immediately follows today’s reading: “Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum” (Jn 6:59). It may be best to interpret today’s passage as part of a “midrashic homily” Jesus preached in the synagogue. (The Hebrew word midrash means interpretation or explanation.)
Homilies by definition always explain biblical texts and apply them to life. A homily never was and should not now be a sermon or a speech or a lecture. What biblical text was Jesus explaining? This is not an easy question to answer.
We know that first-century Judeans read the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the synagogue. It was divided into 150 sections which were read sequentially over a three-year period A second reading, called the Haphtarah, was drawn from the Prophets. Some scholars hypothesize that a third reading came from the 150 canonical psalms.
(A) search (for the “lectionary” envisoned above) would be a purely creative-imaginative exercise were it not for yet another ancient body of Jewish literature known as the Targumim (singular: Targum), which are paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Aramaic language.
During the Babylonian Exile Israel gradually forgot its Hebrew language and adopted the language the Babylonians spoke: Aramaic or Chaldean. They could no longer understand the Hebrew Scriptures when these were read to them.
In the synagogues, therefore, one person would read from the Hebrew text while another person would translate, on the spot, into Aramaic. Gradually the translations became paraphrases, and in some instances the paraphrases became much longer than the text.
By the sixth and seventh centuries C.E., two collections of such Targumim existed: the Babylonian and the Palestinian. The former in general is more literal, the latter more paraphrastic. In either case, scholars use great care in relying on these documents.
Even though they were collected in the sixth and seventh centuries, they do contain concepts that reach back to the time of Jesus.
While many modern believers might insist that Scripture should not be so challenging to understand and interpret this small excursion into our biblical tradition shows how much more there is to learn. What does the Eucharist and its relationship to manna mean to you?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University