The Quarrel. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” 52 The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”
The “Jews” themselves make the first direct statement about eating Jesus’ flesh, as they combine Jesus’ words in v.51 into one statement. What shocks the crowd is that until Jesus’ words in v. 51, Jesus’ language has focused on the metaphor of the bread of life, but now the metaphor shifts. The content of the crowd’s protest in v.52 makes clear that the sticking point is the language about “flesh”—namely, its use to refer to Jesus himself.
The quarrel is not limited to those who heard the words from Jesus. The quarrel has continued, especially in the age during and since the protestant reformations of the 16th century and following. The language about “flesh” is a contentious point in Johannine scholarship and vv.51-58 are undoubtedly the most contentious verses in the Fourth Gospel. Here is a sample of what I think are representative positions of noted biblical scholars (list developed by Gail O’Day, 605):
- Rudolf Bultman “maintains that the eucharistic references in these verses were imported into the text of the Fourth Gospel by a later editor in order to correct the anti-sacramental tendencies of the Fourth Evangelist.” This understanding of the whole of the Gospel of John and it sacramental theology is also held by many other German Protestant scholars – but note that it does hold some sacramental understanding.
- A German evangelical scholar Ernst Haenchen maintains that any inclusion of the sacraments contradicts “the heart of [the Evangelist’s] proclamation” This is also the view of D. A. Carson, a North American evangelical scholar who rejects the anti-sacramental reading, but because he does holds that the Fourth Gospel is not sacramental at all.
- Lagrange, a French Catholic scholar, maintains that the allusion to the eucharist is evident in v. 51 and “could not be missed by anyone, except for Protestants who misconstrue the terms.”
- The preeminent Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown adopts a middle-of-the-road position. He holds that vv. 51–58 are the sacramental doublet of the more teaching-revelation oriented bread of life discourse of that occurs in vv. 35–50. Brown holds that b vv. 35–50 and vv. 51–58 preserve authentic Johannine traditions. He maintains that the doublet within the bread of life discourse complement each other along the lines of word and sacrament in the liturgy of the mass.
You will note the clear Protestant/Reformer – Catholic divide in our sample. Why do I present a snapshot of the scholarly debate over John 6:51–58? Because it is important to every reader of the Gospel of John in that it reveals the presuppositions and assumptions out of which every interpreter works and how those assumptions affect interpretation. Fr. Gerald Sloyan, a Catholic scholar, has wisely observed about this discussion: “Some applaud the move to the sacramental plateau, others deplore it—but both seem to do so more on the basis of a Catholic or Reformation heritage than of hard data provided by the Fourth Gospel.” I think this is true for many (or most) internet-found discussions. Catholic and non-Catholic apologists simply assert their positions, recycle their rehearsed arguments, and do not often engage readers or interlocutors
Before we undertake our study of vv. 51-58, I would offer O’Day’s [605-7] comments as regards the place our verses have in the overall picture of chap. 6. Here she will argue against all the positions above – to some degree – and suggest there is intentionality and continuity with these verses within all of John 6:
“First, in order to have a clear vantage point from which to assess the divergent views of 6:51–58, it is important to look again at vv. 51–52 in their full narrative context. The crowd set the topic for Jesus’ dialogue and discourse with its evocation of the manna miracle (6:31). In response, Jesus repeatedly stated that the manna was not the true bread from heaven; he is (6:35, 41, 48, 51a). The true bread from heaven gives life to the world, and as early as 6:35, Jesus suggested that eating the bread was the way to receive its gift of life (see also 6:49–50). In v. 51, then, Jesus takes the replacement of the manna with himself to its ultimate conclusion by equating his flesh with the bread of heaven. The “Jews’ ” protest in v. 52 indicates that they have followed the logic of the discourse, that they understand that Jesus himself now stands in place of the manna their ancestors ate.”
“It appears, then, that v. 51 does not mark a dramatic break from what preceded, but that the language and imagery of v. 51 are consistent with his preceding words and have been carefully prepared for. Readings that insist on a “faith-alone” or “sacrament-alone” outlook disregard the care with which themes and images overlap throughout the discourse of John 6. This is particularly true for vv. 53–58. Key words and themes from 6:25–51 form the heart of this passage. On literary grounds, there is no compelling case for labeling these verses as secondary or even complementary to the “main” discourse of 6:35–51. [O’Day is taking exception to the positions of Bultman and Brown] Rather, the language and style of vv. 53–58 suggest that those verses are an integral part of one continuous discourse.”
“Second, the scholarly debate about vv. 51–58 largely ignores the narrative structure of John 6. Verse 51 does not mark the beginning of a new section; it is the conclusion of the second section of the bread of life discourse and is tightly linked to the “Jews’ ” protest in v. 52. As noted already, the “Jews’ ” protests serve as the pivot for each of the subsections of the discourse (6:35–42, 43–52, 53–59). Each section concludes with a statement by Jesus and the protest that it evokes from the Jews, so that the next section of the discourse builds on both the claim and the protest. John 6:51–58 is no exception. Jesus’ words in v. 51 evoke the “Jews’ ” protest (6:52), and beginning in v. 53 Jesus addresses the heart of their protest. John 6:51–52 thus prepare for the eucharistic language of 6:53–58. When vv. 51–58 are discussed as if they were an independent theological treatise on the eucharist, the narrative integrity of chap. 6 is destroyed, and an interpreter’s sense of what constitutes theological coherence leads to explanations that appeal to independent traditions.”
“Third, there is a circular logic to questioning (or even rejecting) the eucharistic imagery of vv. 53–58 on the grounds that the Fourth Gospel contains no account of the institution of the eucharist comparable to that found in the Synoptics (Matt 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–23). It is possible that vv. 53–58 are the “institution text” in John, but presented in Johannine, not synoptic, categories.”
John 6:51 the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh: Many of the words in this verse (ho artos, sarx, ego doso, hyper) reflect the celebration of the Eucharist and serve as an introduction to vv.51-58, considered the core of John’s Eucharistic theology. Still one is well served to remember Gail O’Day’s  insight: “The interpreter must begin with the miraculous feeding and Jesus’ revelation of himself as the bread of heaven, not with the synoptic Gospels and an imported notion of normative eucharistic theology and practice in the early church. If interpreters of John 6 can free themselves from preconceptions about how a Gospel writer “should” present the eucharist, they will enjoy a fuller understanding of the bread of life discourse and of the eucharist.”
John 6:52 quarrelled: The Greek word machomai implies serious conflict, either physical or non-physical, but clearly intensive and bitter. It was a little more heated than a polite discussion going on among the Jews
John 6:52 eats my flesh and drinks my blood: the verb used in this and following verses is not the classical Greek verb used of human eating, but that of animal eating: “munch,” “gnaw.” This may be part of John’s emphasis on the reality of the flesh and blood of Jesus (cf. Jn 6:55), but the same verb eventually became the ordinary verb in Greek meaning “eat.”
Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 281-94
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 333-37
Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 607-09
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm