In part one of this blogging series, it was my intent to illustrate two important facts about the Catholic interpretation of the “bread of life discourse” found in John 6: 35-58. To recap briefly:
- The Catholic interpretation is both metaphorical and literal.
- The bread of life discourse can be subdivided into two parts: verses 35-47 and verses 48-58 (see figure 1).
These tenets provide some literary underpinnings for a Eucharistic interpretation of the text.
Today I wish to highlight a textual clue which supports both of the above ideas. In keeping to sola scriptura for this series, the support comes from the scriptural text alone.
We already know that in verses 35-47 of John 6, both Protestants and Catholics alike can agree that Christ is speaking metaphorically when he says “I am the bread of life.” When the Jews utter their first grumblings at Christ’s words, they are not expressing disgust at the idea of Christ being bread. Rather, they ask “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” They express no objection to the obvious metaphor and instead call into question Christ’s claim to divinity. Up until this point, the only controversy was that Christ claimed to come down from heaven. He claimed that faith in Him was necessary for salvation; coming to Him, the bread of heaven, was a metaphorical invitation to faith. I am the bread of life. If John 6 ended here, there would be no question among Christians that Christ was speaking strictly metaphorically.
Of course, the passage continues. Verse 48 begins a second half of the naturally-divided discourse. Like the first half, it begins with “I am the bread of life.” Christ continues his series of invitations to faith, but this time we begin seeing a new word in our English translations: eat. The word appears as eat/eats/ate a total of ten times between verses 48-58. To English-speaking minds, this is not a detail of obvious significance. After all, Christ is speaking of bread – of course you eat it. What other word should we expect for unpacking a metaphor about bread?
As it turns out, the Apostle John did not record Jesus using the same word for “eat” throughout the entire passage. According to the original Koine Greek language of John’s gospel, Christ used at least two different terms:
esthio: a verb meaning to eat, to consume, to partake in a meal. This was a common verb for eating and appropriate for use in a metaphor about bread.
trogo: a verb meaning to chew, to gnaw, to crunch. This was a common verb in Greek literature used to describe the feeding of animals such as mules, pigs, and cattle.
John used the verb esthio, the common term, in verses 49, 50, 51, and 53. When does he change his vocabulary to employ the verb trogo? Only after the Jews finally object to a literal interpretation of Christ’s words. Remember, the Jews’ first objection (verse 42) was in response to Christ’s claim to divinity. Verse 52, on the other hand, is the first instance of objection from the Jews related to the specific idea that we must actually eat Christ’s flesh: The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ It is only at this point that the Apostle John abandons the common form of the verb “eat” and replaces it with trogo, or chew, gnaw, for the remainder of the discourse.
Why? Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Catholic scholars and commentary contributors for The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, explain:
The change in vocabulary marks a change of focus and emphasis, from the necessity of faith to the consumption of the Eucharist. The graphic and almost crude connotation of this verb thus adds greater force to the repetition of his words: he demands we express our faith by eating, in a real and physical way, his life-giving flesh in the sacrament.
When considering the two distinct terms used for “eat,” it becomes clear that Christ is not just merely repeating himself, as English translations might lead us to believe. Let us agree that He is repeating himself with emphasis. But emphasis on what? The Catholic Church affirms that a careful interpretation of St. John’s Koine Greek writing most logically points to a literal interpretation of Christ’s words in this passage. The purposeful Greek terms used for “eat” are considered to be one point of supporting evidence for Catholic Eucharistic doctrine.
Reconciling Christ’s strong verbiage with a strictly-metaphorical interpretation of the text is difficult. Of course, any Christian who denies the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is charged with not only denying the ancient Catholic interpretation, but using Christ’s words to support their own strictly-metaphorical analysis. The Protestant must insist that Christ’s gradual crescendo in meaning from “partake in a meal” to “chew like an animal” was intended to simply intensify the metaphor from verses 35-47. It makes little sense, however, to assume that Christ would counter a response of incredulity from his devout followers by making the metaphor more difficult for them to understand. ”How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” If a metaphorical interpretation was Christ’s objective, we would expect that he would either make his rhetoric more comprehensible or at the very least, repeat the teaching with synonyms very close in meaning. Esthio and trogo are not close synonyms; they are merely related in that both describe something a mouth can do to food. Regardless, Christ intensifies his teaching with word choices that could only make the teaching more burdensome for an audience that is already disconcerted. Is this a risk that Christ would take for the sake of a metaphor? The Catholic Church emphatically says no.
Christ’s deliberate verbiage implies a meaning that goes beyond a metaphorical truth. If eating is believing in 6:35-47, then believing leads to eating in 6:48-58. An examination of the Greek words used for eat gives us another piece of evidence for a sacramental doctrine of the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and a literal interpretation of the text.
In part three of this blog series, we will examine the reaction of the hearers of Christ and compare the reaction to other instances of controversy over a teaching. Stay tuned.