What does it mean to ‘eat Jesus’ in John 6?

We are in the fourth of five weeks in the lectionary winding our way slowly through the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6 and the following discourse, in which Jesus declares he is the bread of life, and that he will feed all who come to him. The reading for Trinity 11 in this Year B is John 6.51–58, and Jesus’ teaching, mixed with brief interrogations from ‘the Jews’, continues to circle around, both repeating previous ideas and adding in new ones, whilst intensifying the claims.

I would really love to know what the lectionary compilers thought they were doing by offering us this series of quite short readings, with much repetition, dragging out this episode over five weeks! Did they assume that most people would be on holiday so that you could, in effect, preach the same sermon every week and no-one would notice? I am in the odd position of covering for different churches, so am preaching in four different places in August. I might well find myself making use of some insights in more than one place!

But the real problem we have in reading these verses, extracted from their context, is that we end up removing them from the things that come before and after, which seems to me to be essential in making sense of them. In terms of what we have already read:

  • The wider context is the feeding of the 5,000. People have actually just eaten bread and fish, so, as is characteristic of this gospel, a ‘spiritual’, metaphorical meaning is attached to a real and physical event.
  • In the light of this, Jesus then makes the core distinction between food which ‘perishes’, and food which ‘abides to eternal life’. We noted that the destiny of the food is linked to the destiny of people in their response to Jesus, and the division between those who ‘perish’ and those who, ‘abiding’ in Jesus, inherit ‘eternal life’, so that ‘you are what you eat’
  • There is a repeated and emphatic parallel between ‘believing in the one who the Father has sent’ and ‘eating the bread of life’. So ‘eating Jesus’ appears rather strongly to be a metaphor for ‘believing in’ and ‘abiding in’ him. Indeed, the later discussion about ‘abiding’ includes language of mutual indwelling; those who abide in Jesus, Jesus will abide in them.

In terms of what follows in next week’s reading:

  • ‘Jesus said these things in the synagogue as he taught in Capernaum’. In other words, Jesus is offering this teaching about himself in the place that would normally be used for the reading and exposition of the Torah. If ‘people do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Deut 8.3), then Jesus is now claiming to be this word which we should eat.
  • When some of his followers take offence in John 6.61, Jesus responds with a prediction of his ascension to the throne of God. In other words, their grumbling appears to be at the exalted claim that Jesus is making, rather than at the offence of the (if taken literally, rather revolting) nature of the metaphor of ‘eating Jesus’.
  • Jesus goes on to comment that his words are ‘[S]pirit and life’, and that ‘the flesh has no value’; in other words, we should not take his words literally! He is not talking about actual eating and drinking, but about his death that gives life.
  • Peter’s response in contrast to those who are leaving is not ‘I don’t mind eating your flesh!’ but ‘We have come to believe and know…’

With these elements framing our reading, let’s turn to the text itself.

Having described himself several times as ‘the bread of life’, Jesus now reframes the expression to describe himself as ‘living bread’. At one level this is not much of a change, but it makes the claim more relational. ‘Bread of life’ has the sense of ‘bread that gives [eternal] life’, but now it is clear that the life that this ‘bread’ brings is the life that the ‘bread’ itself, Jesus himself, has. So the metaphor of ‘eating Jesus’ means taking in the life of Jesus for ourselves, which is the same kind of idea that Paul deploys when he talks of being ‘baptised into Christ’ (Gal 3.27, Rom 6.3).

The phrase also draws our attention to the parallel discussion in John 4.13–14 with the Samaritan woman at the well. Whoever eats physical bread will be hungry again and will eventually die, but whoever eats the ‘living bread’ will never hunger and will live. Whoever drinks the water from the well will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the ‘living water’ that Jesus gives will have within them a ‘spring welling up to eternal life’.

We saw last week how the circling argument built cumulatively: first, Jesus is the bread of life; then Jesus has ‘come down from heaven’; then, in the words of ‘the Jews’, Jesus is the ‘bread that has come down from heaven’; and finally (v 51) Jesus is ‘the living bread that came down from heaven’. Now Jesus adds a further layer by explaining that this bread ‘is my flesh that I will give for the life of the world’.

The term ‘flesh’ (σάρξ) is not common in the Synoptics, occurring only incidentally in three or four sayings (Matt 16.17, 19.5, 24.22, 26.41 and parallels, plus Luke 24.39). It occurs in 12 verses in the Fourth Gospel, and does much more theological work here, though in quite a different sense from Paul’s use of it as ‘sinful humanity’ in contrast to the work of the Spirit (see Gal 5.16).

  • In John 1.13, 3.6, 6.63, 8.15 and 17.2 is means ‘humanity’ or ‘the (merely) human’. Where there is a contrast with the Spirit, it is not in the Pauline sense, but distinctively Johannine, meaning ‘mundane’ as opposed to ‘spiritual’.
  • In John 1.14, it signifies humanity, but now making the theological claim that the divine Word has become fully human.
  • The remaining occurrences are all in this passage.

The language of ‘giving’ of his ‘flesh’ is an unmistakable reference to Jesus offering himself in his death on the cross. It runs parallel with the idea of God ‘giving his only Son’ (John 3.16) and giving the true bread (6.32), and is developed in the ‘shepherd’ discourse in John 10.11, 15, 18, where Jesus is clear that his death comes about because he chooses to lay down his own life, rather than it being taken from him against his will. Elsewhere in the New Testament, there is a connection made between the breaking of bread in the Lord’s supper and the body of Jesus—but the term ‘flesh’ is never used.

The giving of ‘life for the world’ repeats the phrase from John 6.33, parallels the language of John 3.16, and draws on the complex of life, light and world from the prologue. Once more, salvation is from the Jews, but it is for the world.

The reaction here is notable. Instead of, as previously, ‘grumbling’ as a group, with the echo of the grumbling to Moses in the desert, now the ‘Jews’ sharply dispute amongst themselves. We need to note this because it points to the much more complex portrayal of ‘the Jews’ in this gospel, where some clearly follow Jesus whilst others reject him. It also shows that the metaphor ‘giving us his flesh to eat’ was not simply dismissed as unavoidably offensive.

What then follows is a series of 9, 10 or 11 successive sayings of Jesus (depending on how you count the combination in v 57), which again circle around, repeat and develop, mostly using language already deployed, but incorporating one or two new ideas that will be picked up later in the gospel. The group is introduced once more by the Johannine version of Jesus’ ‘weighty saying’ introduction, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you…’

Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you will have no life

If you do eat and drink, you will have life—

and I will raise you up on the last day

My flesh and blood are true food and drink

Whoever feeds on my flesh and blood abides in me, and I abide in them

The living Father sent me,

I live because of him,

and whoever feeds on me will live

This bread came down from heaven

not like the manna which the fathers ate and died

Whoever feeds on this will live forever

We begin and end with the connection between eating/drinking and living, and this life is ‘eternal’ in the sense that it belongs to the (imperishable) age to come, so is both realised now and (as in the previous verses) has a distinctive hope for the future, of being ‘raised up’ on the last day.

There is a repeated and distinctive emphasis on both flesh and blood. Elsewhere (Matt 16.17, 1 Cor 15.50, Eph 6.12) the pairing has a proverbial sense, as it has today, meaning ‘humanity’. But given the earlier reference to flesh alone, as representing Jesus’ body as bread, there is surely a more distinct sense here. Jesus has talked about ‘giving his flesh’ to refer to his dying on the cross; the problem of ‘drinking blood’ is that it is clearly prohibited in the OT (Gen 9.4, Lev 17.10–14, Deut 12.23) because ‘the life is in the blood’. In other words, you are not to take the life of an animal to contribute to your own life, though you may live from its death by eating it. With Jesus, we both live because of his death, but also live because he gives us his life poured out by the Spirit as a result of his (death and) resurrection. We might even be tempted, with Paul, to talk of being baptised into his death and into his new resurrection life (Romans 6.3–4).

If the ‘eating and drinking’ were discrete actions which then had consequences, we might think that John 6.56 suggests that eating and drinking lead to the result of ‘abiding’ in Jesus. But the grammar suggests that they are equivalents; eating and drinking is another way of talking about abiding. We remain in his love as long as we receive the benefits of his death for us and live out his resurrection life by the power of the Spirit.

The cascading relationship of life from Father, to Son, to those who believe in him draws two sets of connections from earlier in the gospel. Those who believe in the true light bringing life into the world are born of God (John 1.13); and the Father who has life in himself has granted that the Son has life in himself (John 5.26) so that whoever believes in him will themselves have eternal life.

Additional Note: someone commenting in online discussion, Merrill Nanigian, noted:

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) Eating his flesh and drinking his blood = *doing* the will of God in our lives.

The term Jesus uses in his first statement is βρῶσις, and in his response to the disciples’ muttering he uses the synonym βρῶμα—a typical variation of words in this gospel. The only other place where the term βρῶσις occurs is near the beginning and end of the ‘bread of life’ discourse, forming a frame to it:

Do not work for the food (βρῶσις) that perishes, but for the food (βρῶσις) that endures to eternal life… (John 6.27)

For my flesh is true food (βρῶσις), and my blood is true drink. (John 6.55)

I don’t think we can separate these two ideas—so ‘eating Jesus’ or feeding on him is inseparable from doing his will and being obedient to him. Again, we find this integration in the ‘farewell discourse’, where abiding in him means knowing his love and doing his will in obedience to his commandments.


The final cluster of sayings connects back the beginning of this section, but also draws to a close the contrast with the manna in the desert from John 6.32. Jesus, the living bread, does not just contrast with the physical bread [and fish] from the feeding of the 5,000—a sign which pointed to him when received aright—but also with the feeding with the ‘bread’ (manna) in the desert. Where the bread and fish point to the meaning of Jesus, and the manna and quails pointed to the faithfulness of God, both point to Jesus the living bread, who gives the life of the Father to all who receive him by faith.

The saying [‘whoever eats my flesh…drinks my blood…] must be understood as a graphic metaphor meaning to believe in him. When it is unpacked it means that Jesus is the source of eternal life, and belief in him is the only way humans can satisfy the hunger and thirst for God. These sayings may remind modern readers of Jesus’ words of institution of the Lord’s supper, but in their Johannine context they are to be understood as a striking, even a confronting, way of speaking about faith in him (Colin Kruse, TNTC p 204).

The paradox that Jesus will bring life through his death becomes the polemical edge of the discourse (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia p 129).

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119 thoughts on “What does it mean to ‘eat Jesus’ in John 6?”

    • Matt seems to have compiled the Lord’s Prayer (as he compiled thematically the other sections of the Sermon on the Mount) by collecting the petitions uttered and enjoined by Jesus in the existing gospels Mark and John, together with a couple of lines from the Kaddish prayer. This particular Lord’s Prayer line does indeed in my view derive from John 6.34 (with 6.27,32).

      • I don’t agree with this theory of composition; how come Jesus was a simple peasant, and it is the gospel authors who are the spiritual geniuses?!

        There is a link, though I think it is theological more than literary. ἐπιούσιος is ‘the bread for the coming day’, or possibly ‘the bread of the Coming Day’. I think it is interesting that, in one of the few places in this gospel where eschatology is future rather than realised, it is in the context of eating Jesus as bread.

        • The idea is the reverse: that Jesus was the spiritual genius, and when Matt gathered his sayings (not Matt’s sayings but Jesus’s as found by Matt in the early Jewish Christian writings – and boy was a larger corpus of Jesus-sayings needed, not least with his Moses template in view) he sometimes ended up with the sayings being unclear in the pitfall-laden process of recasting them into direct petition mode (hence Papias’s Elder’s ‘Everyone interpreted them as best they could.’ – a sign that the resultant sayings which Matt had extracted and compiled could end up being obscure, not least because of the nature of this process). Bread and Testing are the 2 classic examples of that.

          With bread the sense is not fully self-explanatory – something that becomes inevitable when recasting into a genre where each topic is restricted to a single clause.
          With testing people question whether the theology of God hangs together (and if peirasmos in Mark is specific not general then that would create another problem for a compiler seeking to generalise it). These sorts of inconcinnities (produced and/or exacerbated by the shift from topic to topic) are inevitable in the recasting process.

          In fact if one scours Mark and John for petitions recommended or authorised or used by Jesus, this content is exactly what one will get.
          John 17.1-6,11: Father – heaven – holy – Name
          …which echo of the kaddish (name hallowed) naturally suggests following on with ‘Your kingdom come’ similarly to the kaddish
          Mark 14.36 Your will be done
          John 17.4-5 with 1 On earth as in heaven
          John 6.34 (with 6.27,32) Give us today our epiousios bread
          Mark 11.25 Forgive our sins according as we forgive
          Mark 14.38 Not be led into time of trial
          John 17.15 Protect them from the evil one.

          All this is exactly the texts that one would get if scouring the existing gospels for prayer-teaching and prayer-modelling. If it involves Matt in some duplication (note how although he is conservative with Mark’s text he changes 26.42 to align with the Prayer), that is not unusual because of the nature of the Sermon (golden rule etc.).

          Putting things in order is very much how many see Matt, and esp. the Sermon.
          The entire sermon is compilations, largely from the available Jesus material (beatitudes re qualities in James; salt and light; antitheses; Christian disciplines; double animals and double plants; summary).

          If one taught-prayer by Jesus is in the sources it is axiomatic that it will become extremely famous in its fuller form. By which point it becomes impossible to assess the level of genius (in this case, probably considerable – but to be assessed line by line if the prayer is a compilation) because it is in our bloodstream and we cannot be objective about it. In fact Markus Bockmuehl some time back spoke to me in terms of ‘*even* the Lord’s Prayer and Beatitudes’ as though a unit’s fame in Christian tradition (rather than application of criteria as normal) was a key thing in assessing the value of the received historical setting and the form in which the material now reaches us.

          We can then account not only for the way that each clause has a single main parallel (*non overlapping*) in the sources; but also for the way that the bread and testing clauses have potential unclarity or inconcinnity. All by positing that Matt is a compiler and putter-in-order, a role agreed to be played by him most clearly in the Sermon.

          • In David Wenham’s analysis, the bread petition is the centre. Counting-wise that is probably the case. In content, too, it certainly stands out from its surrounding context. It is interesting that the Sermon itself has a central portion, namely the Lord’s Prayer. These 2 ‘centres’ are bolstering evidence for each other.

            Matt’s own genius (which of course should not be disparaged) is more in shaping than in content.

          • The short answer is the match-up between

            (a) the highly specific witness of Papias’s elder (re Matthew collecting teaching of Jesus – and Papias’s own understanding that a document like 1 Peter is the sort of place that one might find same), and

            (b) the data in Matthew (especially the Sermon) whose units show essentially non-overlapping one-to-one correspondence with units in Mark, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, John, 1 John and Revelation – all the work of Jewish individuals. This is best shown by the colour scheme as per handout at Tyndale 2019.

            The long answer involves synoptic simultaneous analysis of the NT for its interrelationships, for which there are millions of data. However, it would be a mistake for synoptic-problem studies ever to begin with an array of pre-agreed options rather than beginning with the data.

            Matt’s NT sources would overlap with one another in this teaching-data if they were deriving it from Matt or ‘Q’. But almost always they don’t. If their echoes of the Sermon were random, then why would whole successions of Sermon items correspond to any of them at all? But they do. And yet, never to more than one. So we have this strange situation with Matt and the other NT writings – that there is ‘never’ either fewer than one or more than one particularly close parallel. This is an extreme problem because of its unlikelihood. But if we are dealing with sources, then it changes from being a large problem to being not any sort of problem.

            Nor does James (Matt’s main source here) once say ‘as Jesus said’, but rather has imbibed and internalised the Lord’s teaching. Matt sets himself the task of giving a more adequately large corpus of sayings of Jesus (which is required of the new Moses), and goes to the best possible sources for it. In this process, some rewording is unavoidable, and it is sometimes not possible to carry that off 100% effectively. The teaching therefore sometimes comes out in head-scratching mode, as Papias’s Elder also attests.

            Incidentally (against the backdrop of the logical implausibility of Q) a further problem is also cleared up: where Matt got all his extra material from.

          • (Such an interpretation of Papias, with Kuerzinger, Matthew Black, David Black, Eric Rowe, depends on the anarthrous ‘hebraidi dialekto[i]’ referring to Jewish style or Jewish style-cum-authorship, a feature that might loom larger for Gentiles like Papias, Polycarp and the coastal Asia Minor churches in general who were presumably the ones puzzling over the sayings.)

          • The non-overlapping point is crucial, and can be seen section by section:
            (1) Beatitudes.
            All 8 qualities are in James – but if James is using the Sermon it is passing strange that he scatters the 8 at random – far more likely that Matt is, as is his practice throughout the Sermon – forming thematic collections.
            1 Peter somehow manages to choose the precise bit that is not in James (Matt 5.11-12).
            So does 1 John 3.1-2 choose precisely what is in neither James nor 1 Peter.

            (2) Salt and Light.
            Here we have to grant (what is difficult to deny) that the Matt 5.14 city is a bright city because 5.14-16 are light verses. Then we have a classic non-overlapping pattern: Mark – John – Rev – Mark – 1 Peter.

            (3) Antitheses.
            No overlap between Mark (ch9 cut it off, ch10 divorce) and Romans 12 and James (oaths and perfection). The fact that both Mark bits then result in doublets later in Matt demonstrates that Matt is here involves in thematic collections.

            (4) Lord’s Prayer.
            The Mark bits are not John;
            The John bits are not Mark.
            If John extracted from Matt, then he took care to choose what was not-Mark. But why? And why is every line ‘covered’ parallel-wise?

            (5) Double animals and plants.
            Largely James and organic expansions on James, but why do the bits that are John (7.13-14), Rev (7.15) and 2 Peter (7.6) fail to overlap with James?

            So the dimensions of the pattern that we see are these. First, the NT is awash with Sermon parallels. Second, *despite* this apparent emphasis on the Sermon, there always or generally seems to be just *one* main/outstanding parallel rather than none or two-plus (which would never happen by chance). Third, these parallels are scattered among different texts and authors without overlap – did they cross-check with one another which ones they were using so as to avoid overlap (and what would be the virtue in avoiding overlap anyway)? Fourth, the parallels never appear in attributed form in any of these authors, as one would expect them to do at least once.
            If however the parallels jointly constitute material that can be broadly characterised as arising from the catechesis of the Jerusalem church (and what is the source of that if not Jesus?), then Matthew, whose project was to maximise the available teaching of Jesus (a new-Moses project), felt justified in extracting and honing these jewels from the Jewish Christian foundation texts in order to do so. His 2nd edition of Mark was to be a one-stop compendium.

          • And that is exactly what is said by the only one verse 13.52 that is regularly cited as Matthew’s apologia: he has treasures or pearls (small but perfectly formed logia) which mix together material from the old (OT and/or chief source) with material from the new (later developments of Jesus’s teaching), much of the latter being too good to ignore or omit. Papias who heard about Matt’s procedure (which is highly Jewish in its accretion: Isaiah, Talmud…) thought it right to engage in an extremely similar project on The Sayings Of The Lord himself, in 5 books, and counted himself justified in using 1 Peter as source-material in so doing.

            In an seeing the need for an apologia at all, Matt may have felt his justified procedure needed formal justification.

          • I don’t really see any of this as evidence. It is all a very hypothetical construction.

            What evidence is there that Jesus *did not* say the things Matthew records him as saying?

            Can you give me a worked example?

          • The idea is not that Jesus did not say them:
            -The Mark ones (e.g. 3 lines of the Lord’s Prayer) Matt understood him to have said.
            -He can quite happily intersperse John with Mark in the Lord’s Prayer and so give comparable authority to John there.
            -He has a project to maximise the corpus of the teaching of Jesus because his template is Moses, so he does so in the best available way: by locating a residue of Jesus’s teaching in the output of the Jerusalem church. Whom did James and Peter get their perspective and teaching from?
            -If a maxim is expanded to a parable, though Jesus may not have said that parable story it is still implicit in the maxim.

            I think that by definition patterns that work on the big scale have to be regarded as the best sort of evidence. A lot of theories can work on a small scale, because the sample is too small. It would not be possible for them to work on the *big* scale unless they had a lot of truth in them. It is really difficult for things to work on the big scale because there is then so much scope for counter-evidence. That is very much the point that would need to be addressed.

            A theory is an hypothesis (hypothetical) by definition, but some have more logic in their favour than others.

            The logic *is* the evidence of a large-scale pattern in the data. To move beyond that to a single example would be a backward step because it would demonstrate nothing more than a theory’s ability to work on a small scale, something that many incorrect theories can do. (I received the same advice from M Goulder in 1992, re John and Luke.) And of course one could cherry-pick one’s chosen pericope, so that the pericope chosen would not necessarily be representative. What one wants is a theory that works across the board for the material as a whole.

            Here we have a coming-together of the relevant strands:
            (1) Why should other NT letters have so much Sermon material in them, particularly when (a) Mark does not, and (b) there is no evidence of Matt being especially early, and (c) the arguments for Q are weak?

            (2) Why do the other NT writings not overlap with one another in their close parallels to the Sermon? Generally the picture is that there is simultaneously not more than one nor less than one close parallel within the corpus of these writings. This is a quite impossible situation unless the other NT writings are Matt’s sources.

            (3) Why do they not attribute these parallels – even on one occasion?

            (4) Why (in the case of James and esp the Beatitude virtues) do they scatter them seemingly hapahazardly?

            (5) Then we have Papias and the idea that Matt collected logia.

            (6) And Papias’s own understanding and replication of that as potentially involving documents like 1 Peter.

            (7) And the widely-suspected apologia verse 13.52 being on this selfsame topic.

            (8) There is the fact that Matthew is compiling (cf. Papias) throughout the Sermon, organising teachings into sets.

            (9) And there is the normal Jewish/rabbinic method of thorough inclusive comprehensive accretion (as in Isaiah, as in the Talmud).

            A good theory I would therefore identify as (a) one compelled by the big patterns that emerge from the data (since it is so unlikely that any misleading patterns could still survive intact without counter-evidence when it comes to the big scale) and (b) one that all roads lead to (see 1-9 above). Together with this I have doubts, for the 3 reasons expressed, about scrutinising one single passage (i.e. a small scale approach) as a way forward. I am always extremely happy to do so if pressed though.

          • Mea culpa, though also the perennial result of working on a big scale, which is really necessary to do. To be able to see the wood for the trees (and importantly also to demonstrate that that is what one has done) is what scholarship is all about.

            The case has been made above and maybe its newness (though I have been plugging it for 28 years) contributes to its initial unclarity. Big things by definition are hard to get one’s head around, but that is not connected to the main question of how evidenced they are.

            If my task is to put myself in the shoes of a sceptic (a sceptic visavis this theory), then these are the questions I would ask:
            (1) Can you justify Q as an economical hypothesis? The data presently in view compounds the problem, since for Q believers James must clearly have had QMt not QLk, even though Lk is seen as closer to Q!! Q already made things too complicated, but this makes them impossibly so.
            (2) Why do you think that the Sermon on the Mount units so often have precisely one especially close NT parallel (rather than none or 2+)?
            (3) And despite this multiplicity of parallels, why are there virtually no overlaps among the units which John, Rev, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter 1 John choose to echo? By what means is that possible (is it collusion?)?
            (4) Where does Matt’s non-Markan material come from, and what is the evidence for that?
            (5) Why don’t James and the others say ‘as the Lord said’ even once? One is forced into a corner with only one available answer here (namely, internalisation); the question is whether that answer is a likely one. After all, compare Paul in 1 Cor 7.
            (6) Should we disagree with those (e.g. in foreword to Nolland FS) who see 13.52 as a bit of an apologia?
            (7) If it is indeed an apologia, what does it mean by the combination of ‘old’ and ‘new’?
            (8) If, as Papias’s Elder says, there was a problem interpreting Matt’s logia, (a) why would there be a problem among Hebrew speakers, (b) how would non Hebrew speakers even be able to begin interpreting them?
            These are hard questions and the onus is on the sceptic. My hypothesis involves only gathering together a thematically-organised inclusive florilegium which is a very natural thing to do for a great teacher.

            It is also true that one cannot prove a negative, but that is just a logical matter which has no bearing on the question of where the preponderance of evidence.

            Also it is not right to view things through the lens of the history of scholarship. There are plenty of times where some of the simplest hypotheses have not figured in the history of scholarship.

          • To conclude, the simplest summary would be this:
            I have listed the different pieces of evidence that Matthew used James (etc). What would be the evidence (not assumptions) that James used Matthew or any urMatthew? (It would run into insuperable problems because of the first list.) And which evidence would be greater?

            Having given a paper to Prof Stanton’s Junior NT Seminar on this entitled ‘R.I.P. Q?’ in July 1999, I mentioned it at BNTC dinner 1999, and after a pause Alan Garrow said he agreed with this position, and has since come out in favour of it. Whether the pause was because it was the first time he had thought the thought I do not know. The other to believe Matthew used James is Adamczewski in ‘Q or not Q?’. Some other major positions in that book are untenable (the gospels are based on Paul in sequence; Luke, who in fact augments Matthew with Elijah and Deuteronomy, somehow precedes Matthew).

        • Praying for bread for the coming day suggests that the entire prayer is a model for praying at the beginning of the day, which for Jews began in the evening. It also suggests that the prayer is for literal bread (food), notwithstanding Matt 6:31.

  1. I am intrigued that you do not consider the link to the Eucharist, especially in light of your recent posts on the Eucharist being about eating and drinking, as two distinct and conjoined acts. The language of drinking blood is surely Eucharist-linked for the readers and audience of John, knowing as they do the gospel of Mark and presumably the practice of sharing bread and wine as outlined in Paul.
    The act of joining in, of sharing together in Communion or Eucharist, is about the believers being together, but it also shows that our believing is about receiving the gift not pushing our own efforts.
    There is more to this passage than simply a spiral reflection around the Eucharist, but – at risk of being told I am wrong! – I struggle to see that this discourse is NOT linked to the key act of remembering, responding and receiving which Jesus instituted, or is John an anti-Eucharist theologian, who is deconstructing and undercutting the early practice (in which case why in such a rouundabout way?). This is about eating and drinking, about bread (the fish has mostly disappeared from view, but drink was not mentioned in the Feeding Miracle yet appears in the discourse), and about how eating and drinking are linked to believing and having life.
    For some in the early church salvation was not guaranteed until you had received Communion, even if baptised – John 6: 53 ‘unless you eat .. you have no life in you’.

    • Thanks. The reasons are severalfold.

      a. In contrast to the synoptics, the Fourth Gospel does not use the ‘fourfold action’ to describe what Jesus does in feeding the 5,000.

      b. As I said previously, ‘bread’ here really means ‘food’, rather than the particular kind of food that bread is.

      c. It is rather surprising that the offence is taken, not against the idea of ‘drinking blood’ as such, but at the exclusive claim that Jesus is making. So both within the narrative, and for the narrative’s first readers, it is the exclusive claim that is the issue.

      d. The fourth Gospel’s general lack of interest in the sacrament, in contrast to its consistent interest in the metaphorical meaning of literal things.

      e. The response of Peter in the next passage.

      Overall, I think lifting these verses out of their narrative context is almost asking for us to misread it. The passage does not ‘point to the Eucharist’; both the passage and the practice of the Lord’s supper point us to the meaning of ‘eating’ as ‘receiving and believing’ by faith.

      (The idea that you cannot be saved unless you receive communion shows how quickly things went badly wrong….!)

      • “d. The fourth Gospel’s general lack of interest in the sacrament, in contrast to its consistent interest in the metaphorical meaning of literal things.”

        This is an excellent point that I don’t think gets much attention in commentary. A lot of people are seemingly very keen to make John say things that John could have said, but absolutely didn’t.

          • This is more of Dr Shell’s expertise, as I’m struggling to find the words to articulate it well..

            In short though, I’d say that what John often does is invest seemingly trivial details (jars, fish etc), or simple images (doors, vines, gates etc) with significant metaphorical meaning. These are rarely integral to the primary message John wants us to hear, but they enhance it, explain it and are a unique feature of the writing. That’s what I think Ian means by “its consistent interest in the metaphorical meaning of literal things”.

            What John doesn’t do is use said features to give us patterns of behavior, rites, rituals and symbolic details to imitate. The could have done if he had wanted to, and echoes the synoptics. The early church broke bread and drank wine (for example) because the other gospel accounts encourage them to, as they do to us. John is not telling people to become door salesmen. 🙂

            That’s possibly making it more opaque.

          • John 6 is an extraordinarily big chapter among Catholics, who interpret sacramentally.

            (1) The category sacramental is nowhere in the Scriptures, whereas in some sort of interpretation it is not merely somewhere but everywhere. Surely that is in defiance of biblical (or original Christian) thought. Sacramental thought has the danger that God is mediated by ceremony, which smacks of religion.

            (2) OK Jesus is speaking holistically and existentially. The category metaphor is more than a little confusing:
            [The thing that constantly bugs me, that when it comes to verbs even many of the mainstream verbs are metaphorical and it could not be otherwise,
            which only goes to show that language is struggling for exactitude to reality and will always necessarily fail,
            so must fall back on approximation,
            which often or typically means falling back on analogy or metaphor,
            which means that metaphor becomes mainstream,
            which means that because of the inexact nature of language ‘everything’ is metaphor,
            and if everything is then the word becomes too vast to be usable,
            so nothing is metaphor.]
            Be that as it may, the physical realities such as bread and light are the shadows of which Christ is the reality. And given that those shadows are so remarkable in their own right (think what an incredible created thing food or light or water actually is: Lewis makes this point in his letters), the Lord’s Supper or Baptism is a noble third tier, itself incredible in its own right but drawing us up to two tiers of reality even higher than itself.
            It is awfully difficult to get one’s head round this but I keep trying after upwards of 30 years.

          • I think it is an important point. John’s concerns are not with church order and practice type issues. He is describing Christ as the life, how we receive life in him and what that life involves.

        • ‘Tis indeed a great point, Mat, but steady- on with your use of absolutes in post-modern, reader- relatively- determined interpretation.

      • “…in contrast to its consistent interest in the metaphorical meaning of literal things.”

        But that is what sacrament is all about, surely? I think there is a case to be made for the sacramentality of all things. Didn’t Bishop Laurie Green write a book about that some years ago? I ran a course of that name for the Willesden Ministerial Training Scheme in the late 90s. Johns Gospel is consistently sacramental surely?

        • ‘The sacramentality of all things’ is I think a rather meaningless comment. The point about sacraments is that they are meant to be particular vehicles for the grace of God, distinct from everyday life.

          You cannot described everyday life as distinct from everyday life.

          If ‘I am the bread of life’ is the basis for a sacrament, what are we going to do with ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the shepherd’ and ‘I am the way’? Turn those into sacraments too?

          • Or even a metaphor based on a metaphor, or transubstantiation based on a metaphor or myth.
            A road sign is based on reality, not a metaphor.

          • The point is that they are not distinct from everyday life. The point is that everyday, ordinary things – bread, wine, water – take on extraordinary meaning and become vehicles for the grace of God.

          • Well I think we are all special but I have no idea what you mean by that comment Ian.
            Your own views are consistently anti-catholic. Your own background might explain that. But it is sometimes obvious that you understand exactly what is meant by sacrament but refuse to use the word just in case anyone might still think you are a Roman Catholic.
            You are describing a sacrament here, whether you acknowledge that or not.

          • But John is full of ‘life’ and short on ceremony. Your proposal is long on ceremony and short on ‘life’. That cannot be true to John.

            If the category ‘sacrament’ is everywhere in some theologies and nowhere in the NT, should that not give us pause?

          • Christopher your own anti -catholic bias shows through as well. I’m not at all proposing that John is full on ceremony! Wherever do I make such a point? You don’t seem to understand what the word sacrament actually means and are simply imposing upon it a supposed medieval ritualistic meaning. You would do well to read some Michael Mayne who makes very clear, like John, how life is at the centre of things, but that life is full of the extraordinary. That’s what sacrament is about.

          • But I haven’t got an anti-catholic bias. You misunderstand the entire education and university process. People assess different ideas for which works best. Among those ideas, no candidate has a divine right to be chosen above the others. If someone selectes one candidate and discards 20 others, is s/he then anti almost everything?

            Every scholar must be anti (and biased against) almost everything! Every time they select one option or theory they decide against multiple others – *all* of which they are then anti or biased against!

          • I am not talking about any educational bias. I’m talking about an emotional bias that I don’t think you are even aware of – which is why I mention it.

          • So I (the owner of the alleged emotional bias) am not aware of it, living as I do with myself 24/7.

            Whereas someone who has never met me claims to be aware of it. I would not even believe the testimony of those I *have* met if they say they know what is going on in another person’s head better even than that person themselves.

            Nor (quite rightly) would you believe me if I said I knew what was going on in your head better than you yourself know it. But I would not make any such claim.

          • (a) It would need to exist in order to be that.

            I know what I think and why. Even my best friend does not know what or how I think. Nor does your best friend know better than you what or how you think. Obviously.

            (b) For every theory one accepts there are multiple that one rejects. So the chances are very strong that a given person will reject a given theory. I do not know what logic would refute that.

            What is it that bad faith, bias and dishonesty are always being imputed? The idea is that they are ubiquitous. Maybe within the circles some move within they are ubiquitous, and not with others. When people try extremely hard to be truthful, it just comes across as a shallow and disenchanted unsupported and cliched allegation.

          • Well, please do not accuse me, in some general way, of thinking that John is light on life but majors on ceremony when you have no evidence. Talk about unscholarly.
            John is all about life, and the incarnation. To suggest that he is about ceremony is to misunderstand the whole of that Gospel.

          • Not sure that ‘sacrament’ is susceptible of a definition that is (a) agreed, (b) not too general and vague, (c) biblical, (d) meaningful (with regard to reality). ‘Sacrament’ as baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc is not the same as ‘Sacrament of present moment’ or as ‘all life is sacramental’.

            Exactly – John is about *life*.

          • I’m content with St Augustine in terms of definition thank you.
            I don’t think cricket is susceptible to a definition that is ‘biblical’ but it doesn’t stop it being a real thing. A traditional thing.
            Sacraments – however many you want to call on – are part of the Christian tradition. Part of Christian life.

          • Penelope,

            “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is (*is*) my flesh.”

            Not being a theologian, let alone an NT scholar, I’ve pondered the exact meaning of this particular statement too. So what follows may not attract full marks from the experts!

            In verse 32 Jesus says that it is his Father who ‘gives you the true bread that comes down from heaven and gives light to the world’. He was clearly talking about himself as a gift from his father (God) to the world – a gift already present as he was talking.

            In verse 51 (the verse you quote) Jesus apparently switches the tense to the future (‘…I will give for the life of the world…’). Is he not looking ahead in time to the literal gift of his flesh at Calvary? Because without that once for all, physical gift of himself there could be no possibility of eternal life given to ‘all who believe’.

            And is it not the case that at the end of that terrible day, Jesus’s physical body was placed in a tomb – it/he was literally consumed within the earth? Of course the tomb could not hold him for long. Nevertheless Jesus’s incarnation went the full distance from cradle to grave; he escaped nothing. The gift was total. And he did it all for us. Wherever we stand on interpretation, we must all be pulled up short when we delve into the full implications of John 6.

          • Penny

            ‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is (*is*) my flesh.’

            ‘Uncle John *is* a pig’

            ‘The beast rose out of the sea’.

            A metaphor doesn’t stop being a metaphor if you repeat it a lot.

          • Ian

            You mentioned the ‘I am’ sayings.
            Clearly this statement about his flesh is distinctive.
            It is metaphor, but metaphor can be true. True in the sense that bread and wine are not ‘merely’ symbolic. At the Eucharist we eat Jesus as he commanded.
            Your examples are very wooden readings.
            I have just read Fr Richard Peers’ rather marvellous sermon for the Feast of the Assumption. It is about how we read scripture.

          • Ian

            Forgot to add the rather important point that Jesus did give his flesh for the life of the world.

        • It would be helpful to have your teaching on the meaning or definition of grace of God?
          As well for “a vehicle for the grace of God.”
          Is it saving grace?
          Is it common grace?
          Or is it a rite?
          Andrew Wilson’s, “God of All Things” takes the visible created things to explain the invisible things of our creator God, created to reveal God.
          And that is surely the pupose of John 6, to reveal, the Revealer and the Revelation, to reveal God in Christ Jesus, of life eternal, only in him. It is all about, points to, a witness to, a singpost to Jesus, to the reality of who he IS/AM.
          Pre-creation, uncreated Life made flesh, incarnate, and giver of life to all who come to him, even now, this very minute as sleep has gone missing. Amen and amen.

          • I agree that the expression “vehicles for the grace of God” is not helpful, in that it carries the baggage of the Roman Catholic view of the sharing of the bread and wine.

            Jesus ‘is’ the door, is a classic metaphor: Two conceptual domains connected by the verb ‘to be’ and while not literally true, it conveys a truth. And we should not reverse a metaphor (unless Scripture does?), thus the door, the source domain, does not take on the characteristics of the target domain, Jesus.

            Similarly ‘this is my body’—source domain bread, target domain body—and yet we do reverse this metaphor.

            On my thread—which Ian has not commented on—I would argue that feeding on the Tree of Life is a metaphoric concept.

        • Yes! The most Eucharistic passage in the 4 gospels being read as non Eucharistic/Sacramental, as ‘merely’ symbolic is such a failure of theological imagination and such a repudiation of the incarnation.

        • My yes! Which is now a long way down the thread was in answer to Andrew’s comment now comments on sacrament.
          The NT is full of the sacramental.

      • And in the the context of John 6 the work and will of God is
        John 6:29
        and John 6: 38-40
        Is it not?
        Of course other scriptures are available in their contexts.
        And as Augustine sweepingly put it, command what you will and grant what you command.

          • Hello Colin,
            I’m on my phone and getting a bit lost off in tracking comments.
            I’ll have a look on laptop later.
            But the comment I made was primarily to Andrew Goldsall, which remains unanswered.
            For what it is worth on the face of it I think you have a point to exlpore with your broader point, (or Biblical bookend point) in the Good News in Genesis with the TOL, though I’m unsure it fits with this topic, even if it does fit with longitudinal biblical theology.
            Have you any references for Jonathan Edwards, available on line?

          • Hi Geoff,
            I have not got an online reference for Edwards, it is in: Gilsun Ryu, The Federal Theology of Jonathan Edwards: An Exegetical Perspective (Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Academic, 2021), 218

            But see this from the Bible Project:

            And : “The books of Enoch refer to a tree that seems to have a connection with a divine presence. Thus, 1 Enoch 24:3 (the divine throne), 2 Enoch 8:3 (where the Lord rests), and 3 Enoch 5:1 (shade for the cherub of the divine presence). It might be expected that the author of Revelation was aware of this Second Temple material and was alluding to such.” See: https://www.academia.edu/40374148/The_Tree_of_Life_in_Enochic_Literature
            A question we might ask: If the TOL does not represent Christ, who or what does it represent?

  2. Hi Ian,

    You are the expert on John—but do you not see that the Tree of Life (TOL) in Eden is a representation of Christ (Jonathan Edwards et al do) – and here in John 6 there is a connection to the TOL in Eden and Revelation?

    In Eden (Genesis 3:22) we are told that Adam must not be allowed to “… stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”

    And in Revelation we read:
    “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life … the devil who had deceived the nations [as he did Adam and Eve] was thrown into the lake of fire … The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations … Blessed are those who … have the right to the tree of life … that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 2:7; 20:10; 22:2; 22:14)

    • Btw – I do not consider the TOL imagery is sacramental, rather metaphoric imagery. Also, I suggest that the Tree of Knowledge and Good and Evil is metaphoric imagery. But that is probably for another blog.

      • And have you ever thought that it seems is clear from the Genesis text that eating of the (TOL) is ‘act-consequential’ —in that even after Adam’s disobedience, a now mortal human who had ruined mankind by ignoring his creator’s direct command, if he had been able to eat of the TOL, would have lived forever. The TOL in and of itself gave life—not any obedience to God’s command. Who or what is the TOL to have been granted such authority and power? Surely that is Christ? The essence of the gospel is thus found in the Genesis account?

    • You are welcome! Curiously, I made almost no use of commentaries this time, in part because they did not address the questions I had, and in part because there was enough to say simply reading the text.

      (Each of the words living, bread, came down, eat, live, forever, give, life and world from the first verse have enough weight!)

  3. Oh, and thank you Ian. This post kept me awake at night.
    I’m working on another symbolic work of art at the moment. I’m combining Ps19 Sun/bridegroom ref. with John’s Lamb with seven horns/eyes. The horns are like rays of sunlight piercing the dawn clouds. The Lamb approaching the throne is like the dawn sun.

  4. Language tries to define and refine, and we can overdo it, when sometimes we need to notice the overlap and deliberate double meaning. The discourses of Jesus in John’s gospel, clearly move between the then of the conversation and the theologising – the double audience of the original conversants and the the first readers, the several layers, all of which together make it richer.
    The metaphor of bread is similar to the metaphors or images of shepherd and vine etc, but the way the discourse continues is different and distinct.
    In whatever way we think we are re-membering Jesus in Holy Communion, there is something more to make apparent , which I think Ian recognises in his pushing for actual eating and drinking.
    I am not arguing that John 6 must be understood as primarily sacramental, but that the sacrament, the particular and demanded act of remembering, is in view and should not be ignored in our interpretation: Similar to born again of water and the spirit in John 3.
    It is not that John 6 is a coded account or explanation of the Last Supper, but that the gift of Jesus, and our receiving of Jesus is also through this remembering, which includes eating and drinking, and this is explored for the early church in this chapter. The particularity of Jesus, and the truth that he is both priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast (?) is a scandal to many.

    When does a painting become an icon? Is it in part the intentionality of the painter, and / or in part the way the painting discloses a deeper truth to the viewer? Maybe similarly, the sharing of bread and wine is an icon, in that we would expect to meet God through it, in a way that a shared meal, or other images might be more like paintings, where some may well find God profoundly, maybe more so than from the icon.

    • Thanks for the further comments.

      The difficulty I have is that every discussion I have ever read about the Site im Leben of this passage in the early church is entirely circular: we know what was happening because of this passage; we know what this passage means because of what was happening.

      I still think that the idea of references to the Lord’s supper have several large obstacles to overcome in the narrative, viz, the lack of the ‘fourfold action’ in the account of the miracle; the offence taken at Jesus’ exclusive claims, which fit similar offence elsewhere, and *not* at this metaphor; the well established meaning of ‘eating’ as a reference to hearing and keeping God’s words; the previous use (the only other occurrence) of ‘food’ in the gospel; the response of Peter at the end, that, in contrast to those who have taken offence, Peter ‘believes’. I don’t really see how we can explain any of these if the passage is ‘really’ about the ‘eucharist’.

      And I am afraid I simply do not believe in ‘icons’, so that parallel doesn’t work for me either—and I think suffers from its own problems of projection.

      • Regarding the sitz im leben: it might be a useful exercise for some of the contributors to this post to reflect on the fact that the original setting of the commemoration of the “eucharist” was the Jewish Passover; celebrating as it does the extension of the covental promises of God (revealed through the sacrifical death of His Son) to the Gentile world [see 1Corinthians 11:17f]. Biblical interpretation has suffered too long either from eisegetical interpretation of what are in effect OT concepts (though realised in the New),or even more to the point, from post biblical traditions seeking to rationalise “the script” to suit their particular philosophical and theological presuppositions.

      • I think you have well explained the richness within the swooping spirals of thought in this longer passage – with the key words returning, being put together in new ways.
        I also think you made a really strong claim for eating and drinking as we do what Jesus commands us to do in remembrance of him. Eating and drinking are paired here.
        John 6 has Passover roots and manna echoes, and the manna becomes the more dominant OT motif, though resolutely referred to as bread. The discourse is also developed from the feeding of the 5000 to help us understand this sign. Living bread parallels living water from John 4 so that is another key link.
        So the passage should not be reduced to being ‘really’ or even ‘simply’ about the ‘eucharist’ but given the language of eating the flesh / drinking the blood, and given the NT evidence for the Eucharist not least in Paul, I remain surprised that you do not want to include a eucharistic thread as part of the interpretation, more prominent in some parts of the discourse than in others, but then the Last Supper and the crucifixion have multiple OT roots.
        Do you really think that the first readers and audience would not make a connection with their new practice of remembering Jesus? – Genuine question. I agree it should not be reduced to a coded discourse about the sacrament, Scripture should seldom be reduced to one strand!
        Does this passage not enrich our understanding of what we do when we eat and drink at Communion? Or is it a honey-trap to some false teaching on real presence, transubstantiation and worse?

        • I think they would indeed have made that connection, perhaps especially when it would have been read out aloud, just as many today make that connection. Perhaps it wasn’t the intention of the gospel author, but that doesn’t mean that readers/hearers didn’t see the connection after many years of remembering Jesus death, as symbolised by the breaking and eating of bread.


        • ” —I remain surprised that you do not want to include a eucharistic thread as part of the interpretation —” Actually this misses the object of my contribution! It was not to become involved in a debate re the nature of eucharistic principles. Rather, it was a reminder of the overall point of this post; namely a biblical exposition on a specific aspect of Jesus, teaching as outlined in John’s gospel. The fact that you speak of ” the NT evidence for the Eucharist not least in Paul” begs the question, for example, of what exactly do we mean by the term “eucharist”?
          Is it ,in fact, evidenced in Paul? Or is is primarily a post-biblical construct superimposed on the biblical material? Eucharistos (gratitude, thanksgiving) has evolved in a wide variety of directions since the testamental era!

          • Hi Colin, I was trying to respond to Ian. The word Eucharist may be a misnomer for what Paul describes. He calls it the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor 11:21
            He then describes the activity but prefers to use drink the cup rather than use blood all the time. Quite what it was and who took charge or presided is obviously all disputed. But it was something.

        • Manna resolutely referred to as bread. But this is not true, is it? Jesus, the true bread of heaven, is contrasted with manna, and manna is not referred to as a kind of bread.

          • Good point. Manna in some respects seems to be more akin to seed. Like coriander. i.e. the Good Seed.
            In the letter to Pergamos those who overcome will be given a white stone and manna (Rev. 2:17). I take the white stone to be a quern stone to grind the seed to make something to feed others with. …just my idea.
            That is perhaps what theology is all about, a quern stone to process the word..:)

  5. John does show how baptism and the Lord’s Supper fit in. He has a systematic theology in his mind. But the place they fit in is within a broader Christocentric context.

  6. But I haven’t got an anti-catholic bias. You misunderstand the entire education and university process. People assess different ideas for which works best. Among those ideas, no candidate has a divine right to be chosen above the others. If someone selectes one candidate and discards 20 others, is s/he then anti almost everything?

    Every scholar must be anti (and biased against) almost everything! Every time they select one option or theory they decide against multiple others – *all* of which they are then anti or biased against!

      • Hello Christopher,
        How odd, though we’ve never met, from your contributions here that I’ve seen over a few years, I may have been persuaded that you had RC sympathies!! Just the opposite of hostile. Indeed, your comment above sets out the RC view of chapter 6, a view that RE Brown in his Anchor commentary supports.
        Where I see hostility, and determined opposition, it is to protestant theology, especially of the communion service even when it purports to be Anglican, not RC.
        Colin McCormack above sets the scene for the communion service, the Passover, highly ritualised at the Temple at the time of Jesus.
        There is a risk that the formalised priestly NT system falls into some type of cultic ritualised practice. Steve in a comment on an earlier article by Ian, last week? put it far more succinctly, and immediately took his leave.
        From what I can gather, there seems to be a cohort of quasi RC refugees in the Anglican church.

        • I have no idea whether or not I have RC sympathies since I treat each issue one by one, as around a table of university types. Denominations are very far from their minds, they just don’t figure whenever truth is at the forefront.

          One will have a percentage of sympathy to all denominations, but one cannot think in a truth-centred way and a denomination-centred way at the same time, and it is clear which of these 2 is far better.

          Brown’s is certainly a great commentary. And his generation of scholars (being so very biblical) are as close to protestantism as catholicism has ever got.

          • Christopher,
            The baseline, is that we don’t know each other, only from what has been written. What I greatly appreciate is your weighing of scripture and where it leads. I don’t put you into an either/or category of RC or Protestant or any denomination really, I know not. Mention of certain people such as David Hathaway and others would suggest your appreciation of those outside mainstream denominations, with truly catholic influences and influencers.
            In my time as a Christian, locally an RC Bishop embraced, encouraged and sponsored Alpha, and I’ve been to some truly uplifting celebratory Masses and my then local vicar sought to facilitate joined services, as did a local Methodist chapel.

        • There are people who know that the Anglican Church is Catholic and Reformed.
          If I had wanted to become a Protestant, I would have joined a Protestant denomination.

          • In what respect is the CofE Catholic?

            Is being Catholic primarily a question of pedigree? i.e, being in continuity with the church fathers, established in history as independent pre-reformation?

            Or is being Catholic a question of doctrine? i.e assent to a particular creeds, or an appeal to traditional notions of orthodoxy…

            Is being Catholic a question of ecclesiology?

            Or perhaps is the CofE Catholic simply because it self-determines itself to be so?

            Or even, all of the above?

            Certainly the Catholic and Orthodox churches afford Anglicanism a degree of grudging respect, far in excess of other mainline protestant denominations (who clearly know their place! 😉 ), but I’m not sure they’d go as far as to say the CofE was ‘catholic’.

            For avowed protestants looking in, and for most Catholics looking out, I think they’d be united in agreement of which side of the Tiber you’re on.

          • Hi Mat

            I’ve posted this before from the Anglican Communion website, but it is a helpful summary.

            Rather than saying Anglicanism is Protestant – like Lutheranism or Calvinism – rather it would be more accurate to say it is catholic (believing it is still part of God’s one Church and having bishops as Church leaders) but reformed (in that it shares the principles of other Christian Churches that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 16th Century) in what has become known as the Protestant Reformation.

            Anglicans, however, do agree that their beliefs and practices, their authority, derive from an integration of Scripture (the Holy Bible), Reason (the intellect and the experience of God) and Tradition (the practices and beliefs of the historical church). This ‘three-legged stool’ is said to demonstrate a ‘balance’ in the Anglican approach to faith contrasting it with Roman Catholic and the Protestant doctrines. The term via media when used in reference to the Anglican tradition generally refers to the idea that Anglicanism represents a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

            [For a more extensive, though occasionally subjective, write-up on Anglicanism take a look at the Wikipedia entry here]

            It’s also worth reading ARCIC documents. [Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission] and the follow up to it. Not least this :

            The sacramental body and blood of the Savior are present as an offering to the believer awaiting his welcome. When this offering is met by faith, a lifegiving encounter results. Through faith Christ’s presence, which does not depend on the individual’s faith in order to be the Lord’s real gift of himself to his church, becomes no longer just a presence for the believer, but also a presence with him.
            Thus, in considering the mystery of the eucharistic presence, we must recognize both the sacramental sign of Christ’s presence and the personal relationship between Christ and the faithful which arises from that presence.
            9. The Lord’s words at the last supper, “Take and eat; this is my body”, do not allow us to dissociate the gift of the presence and the act of sacramental eating. The elements are not mere signs; Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really given. But they are really present and given in order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord,

            You will, of course, encounter Anglicans who are very close to RC doctrine concerning the Eucharist, and Anglicans who are Calvinistic in their doctrine about the Lord’s supper. They are both held within the term Anglican……somehow. (Which is why it is possible, within Anglicanism, to have diametrically differing views about same sex marriage etc).

          • The last part of what Andrew writes is an oft-noticed failure in logic. He argues that if there is more than one theory about A, it follows that it is permissible to have more than one theory about any possible B. Which of course does not follow.

          • I’d suggest, here we have it – the epicentre of the fault lines in the CoE. Here is a church which to all intents and purposes holds itself out as protestant, is likely to be seen as such by the general population has been significantly influenced internally by those of RC persuasion, who seek to reject and undermine the Articles, while also seeking to regect RC Magisterium to replace it with its own.

          • Christopher: there is nothing logically impossible in what I have said at all. You are letting what you want to be the case rule your peculiar logic.
            I am describing what is actually already the case. Not what I wish were the case. Not what could be the case. But what actually is the case.

            Geoff: you are doing the same as Christopher. You can’t bear the idea that some within your church might actually believe the things that Roman Catholics might believe so you are arguing for Puritanism, not Anglicanism. Your argument was settled by Queen Elizabeth 1st.

          • Penny, you did join a Protestant denomination. Have you never read the BCP and the Articles, which still define the doctrine of the Church?

            Andrew, yes you have posted this before, and it is odd that you post it again. The Church of England was formed in the Protestant Reformation. It is bizarre that you think it is not Protestant. Protestant churches consistently see themselves as both Catholic and Reformed—not in the sense of having two things in tension, but in being truly Catholic, in continuity with what has gone before, by being reformed and renewed by the teaching of Scripture—which is what is actually means to be ‘apostolic’.

            Your dismissal of Lutherans as ‘merely’ Protestant, as you appear to do, would be either baffling or offensive to them.

            Your ‘three legged stool’ is a fond thing, vainly imagined. Even Hooker is completely clear that, whilst reason and tradition assist us (how could they not, when we are trying to *make sense* of Scripture, and do so in the light of how previous generations have done this), Scripture is the source of authority.

            Citing ARCIC is pointless; ARCIC does not decide the doctrine of the Church of England; the BCP and Articles do, as canon law makes abundantly clear. At some points ARCIC claims have been roundly rejected.

            The divergences in views between people who call themselves Anglican is not so much that the doctrine of the Church gives such latitude; it is that people vary in the extent to which they actually believe what the C of E sets out in its formularies. It is quite hard to construe that as a virtue.

          • Ian: your argument appears to be with the wider Anglican Communion and not me. It is ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd’ that whenever I quote something from the Anglican Communion website, or a body that is set up by two churches (ARCIC), you vent your anger at these bodies at me, rather than the source of your unhappiness. Play the argument and not the person please? I’m not making this stuff up, but very deliberately quoting from official sources.

          • No, my argument is with you. I am not ‘angry’; I am just baffled you keep repeating this stuff.

            Either you know it is false, and keep repeating it, or you don’t know it is false, which is odd. I don’t think the Anglican Communion has a ‘doctrine’, since it is a loose federation of churches. But the C of E does, and it is not defined either by the Communion or by ARCIC, but by the BCP and Articles.

            The fact that you make it appear that it does is wholly misleading—and simply not true.

          • I’m repeating stuff from official Anglican sources. Take it up with them. I’m baffled as to why you don’t.

          • Andrew,
            I’m certainly not doing what you suggest. What stands out is that the logic simply put by Christopher remains, whatever you may say.
            Of course, as Ian says there will be people in the church with varying degrees of understanding and beliefs, as in the multi-ethnic Anglican Church of which I’m part. But leadership is consistent in its acceptance of the Articles, and the Creeds.
            It is in the realm of leadership and teaching, and appointments where beliefs are crucial for the health and life and direction of the Church.
            It has been well said that if you want to change an organisation, change it’s “head”. But now, the expression, herding cats, comes to mind.

            A limited company has to adhere to its memorandum and articles of association, otherwise, if its directors or authorised persons do not do so, acting on a “frolic of their own”, they are acting “ultra -vires.” And if they want to continue they would likely be sacked, having to start a new legal body. Or to use an expression from Company law, it would become a new (legal) person.

            If the CoE is not plainly, clearly, protestant, it is gross misrepresentation, deception even, not to make it widely and publicly and clearly known where it stands theologically; it is a matter of institutional integrity.

            The RC church makes known who it is, what it believes, is consistent in its doctrines.

          • Geoff: the CofE makes it clear on its own website.

            “The Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion, the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper), can take many different forms across the Church of England, and it may be understood by Christians in different ways, but at the heart of the celebration there is always a special prayer of thanksgiving, or ‘Eucharistic Prayer’ (eucharistein means ‘to give thanks’ in Greek). This is offered by the priest who presides at the service in the name of all who are gathered, giving thanks for all that God has given us in Christ.

            At a celebration of the Eucharist, the community gathers, asks God’s forgiveness for its sins, listens to readings from the Bible including a reading from one of the Gospels. A sermon may be preached and the community prays together. Bread and wine are brought to the holy table (also called ‘the altar’), the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer, and everyone says the Lord’s Prayer together. The community then receives the consecrated bread and wine. At the end of the service, the community is sent out into the world as a ‘living sacrifice’ to live and work to God’s praise and glory.”

            It’s clear, isn’t it, that some call it by the name Mass? There can’t be any clearer statement than that.

            And when it comes to sacraments, the CofE is pretty clear too:

            “A sacrament is a pledge of God’s love and a gift of God’s life. God takes earthly things, water, bread and wine, and invests them with grace.

            A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

            The two chief sacraments of the Church are Baptism and the Eucharist. They’re called ‘dominical’ sacraments because they are associated with the Lord himself. Baptism is the first step in a lifelong journey of discipleship, following Jesus day by day. The Eucharist is food for the journey and takes us closer to God.

            There are five other sacramental ministries of grace that are also seen as channels of God’s presence and action:

            Anointing of the sick

            Clear? Seems pretty clear to me. Seven sacraments. Two chief ones. Augustines definition of what a sacrament is.

            Protestants would take a rather different view.

          • Ian (and others)

            Happy Feast Day of the Assumption of the BVM!

            I do not wish to add much to what Andrew has written here, except to add that, of course, the CoE is both Catholic and Reformed. My options on leaving the RC church were: the CoE, Methodism, or Orthodoxy. The last, although it has huge attractions would have been a little like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
            If I had wanted to become a Protestant I could have joined another denomination, like the Baptists.
            Yes, of course I have read the BCP. The Articles are historical formularies, I did not have to even formally assent to them when I was received into the CoE. The insistence on the ‘teaching’ of the BCP being unchanged always amuses me. The CW marriage service relativises the BCP reasons for marriage with different emphases. It is not the ‘same’ teaching. And practice changes over time: communion is now much more frequent for laity both in the RC and CoE churches than it once was. It may, in future, become less frequent in both.
            Holding different understandings in amicable tension is quite possible. For instance, I believe in the Real Presence (..and what Christ’s Word doth make it, this I believe and take it), my husband is a memorialist. We have managed not to schism.
            Scripture, reason, and tradition (and experience) are, of course, equally important. Yes, scripture is primary, but there is no way of reading it (or of the texts themselves being produced) without reason, tradition and experience. Scripture does not exist in a vacuum.
            And, finally, there is some fairly unpleasant anti Catholicism here. It would be good to see it called out.

          • Andrew,
            There are substantial omissions, distinctives, in that amalgam, which Ian emphasises and it is light on definitions, such as the meaning of grace, salvation, sanctification. It does not amount to a statement of faith or as wide as creed.
            And collaged together, as you have, I’d suggest that it is in effect sponsoring the Fallacy of the Heap.

          • Geoff: it doesn’t need to add anything that amounts to a statement of faith or Creed. We already have the catholic creeds. No need to add or subtract from them.
            As to definitions – the CofE is always careful not to define things too tightly for reasons I have given a million times.

          • I apologise for opening a can of worms, though I do appreciate the responses.

            For what it’s worth, I do know and appreciate that the CofE describes itself as ‘catholic and reformed’, and I have a great deal of sympathy with that self-identification, it’s useful, but my question was mainly about the specific label ‘catholic’ and how meaningful it actually is, particularly when it is followed by a claim to be ‘not protestant’.

            If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and occasionally quacks, then it’s probably not a swan.

          • Andrew, the C of E liturgy nowhere calls Communion ‘the Mass’.

            The Articles clearly reject the idea of seven sacraments.

            If someone write the opposite on a website somewhere, then as I said before, it just goes to show that people depart from the doctrine of the Church, not that the Church’s doctrine is diverse.

            Inferring our doctrine from a website is only marginally dafter than inferring it from statements by the Anglican Communion office. Neither are sources of doctrine or authority.

          • Mat, the phrase ‘catholic and reformed’ means being a reformed part of the church catholic, not ‘a bit of catholic mixed with a bit of reformed.’

            Lutherans and Calvinists certainly also see themselves as part of the church catholic.

            To be ‘reformed’ catholic means being part of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. And in the end, it is inevitable if you also want to claim to be ‘apostolic’ in any thoroughgoing way.

          • Ian: yes of course the articles reject the idea of seven sacraments, but as has been quite clear before the articles do not define what everybody has to believe. The articles express very clear anti Catholic sentiments and so do you. It is right, as Penny says, to call those out.

            Countless more people outside of the Church will refer to the website than the Articles or the BCP, which most will not even have heard of. The website states the reality of the C of E 400 years after the articles and BCP were composed. We have moved a long way since then. Lots of C of E churches refer to the Eucharist as the mass, and I have never seen any request from any part of the C of E leadership to stop such a reference. The only expectation that I have seen from a Bishop (in the London diocese some years ago now) to churches in the catholic tradition was that an Anglican Eucharistic prayer would be used when the bishop visited. Note that many of those churches used the Roman rite, and note the request that the bishop would use an ‘Anglican’ Eucharistic prayer – not necessarily a C of E one, and only a Eucharistic prayer, not the rest of the mass.

            If you have problems with the C of E website or the Anglican Communion website then really, take those up with the Comms dept, and not with me!

          • Mat, thank you for asking your question.
            I don’t agree with everything in this quotation but I think it’s a helpful way of viewing the idea of the via media from an evangelical perspective.

            “Anglicanism is known for the via media, which is a Latin term that means “the middle way.” The middle way allows us to synthesize great Christian truths into a central core, rather than focusing on extremes. In Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker (1544–1600) argued that Anglicanism retains the best of Roman Catholicism (liturgy and tradition) and Protestantism (authority of Scripture and justification). Theologian Alister McGrath argued that Anglicanism at its best avoids both fundamentalism and liberalism, the first of which rejects culture and the latter of which adopts too much culture.

            Anglicans have always tried to embrace the paradoxes of the faith through the via media. One of the best examples of this can be found in the life and ministry of John Wesley, who lived and died an Anglican priest. John Wesley’s unique Evangelical Anglicanism comes to light in his ability to find a synthesis between radical extremes and paradoxes, such as divine sovereignty and free will, evangelical and sacramental, and saving and sanctifying grace. To be an Anglican is to understand and to live in the tension of the paradoxes of the Christian faith by employing the via media.

            Perhaps the most practical way in which the Anglican Church lives in tension comes as it seeks to bring together a variety of dimensions of the Christian faith. At first, these may seem like opposing extremes, but in many ways these different streams are symbiotic and belong together. As Charles Simeon, rector of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, once said, “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes.”

          • Ian

            You mentioned the ‘I am’ sayings.
            Clearly this statement about his flesh is distinctive.
            It is metaphor, but metaphor can be true. True in the sense that bread and wine are not ‘merely’ symbolic. At the Eucharist we eat Jesus as he commanded.
            Your examples are very wooden readings.
            I have just read Fr Richard Peers’ rather marvellous sermon for the Feast of the Assumption. It is about how we read scripture.

          • It is not anticatholic to disagree with the catholic position on one or more points. All perspectives but one will be at least partly inaccurate on any point that one could name. Anticatholic is emotional, generalising, and an ideology. Whereas disagreeing with catholic and explaining why is rational. They are quite different.

          • Plus, if disagreeing with even one thing that catholics say is anticatholic, then that means that catholics should be treated as infallible. But no-one else is treated as infallible nor deserves to be.

  7. Apocryphal anecdote.
    I heard a sermon in a corrugated iron village chapel once. It was how a Muslim escaped Africa only to be shipwrecked upon the shore of Yemen. The only sign of habitation was an ancient coptic (possibly) church full of ‘smells n bells’, icons, priests etc. He entered in. As a Muslim he had never seen any Christian witness before and wondered what it was. On entering the Holy Spirit convicted him. He said it was the order, the solemnity etc that affected him – not the words, not at first.

    I was struck by this. God is pleased to dwell amongst us despite our many and various beliefs.
    In the end our beliefs are just that, beliefs. ‘Even the demons believe- and tremble’.
    This blog is a good place to put aside cherished denominational constructs and test its prophecy.

    • Steve,
      Could it be suggested you read Mike Reeves, “Rejoice and Tremble”. It was definitely a slow burner for me, but it distinguishes between unbelievers “fear and trembling” and a joyful fear and trembling of a believer.

  8. This is from, “Reading Backwards”, by Richard B Hays,
    1 …”John sees Israel’s Scripture as figurally transparent to the One who became incarnate in Jesus…
    2 “Bread from heaven (John 6:22-59). Once this realisation dawns on us, we see that it is not just the Temple and the festivals that prefigure Jesus: for John it is the whole narrative of God’d gracious dealing with Israel (eg) the story of the manna in the wilderness: John insists that it prefigures Jesus who is the true “bread from heaven” (6:31-33)
    3 Jesus sets them (crowd) straight. (They had the experience but missed the meaning).
    4 The heart of the matter: Jesus is teaching his hearers how to read Scripture.
    The crowd had the right text, Psalm 78:24, but the wrong reading.
    5 Jesus is simply teaching them basic hermeneutics (v32)- the subject of the sentence is God, not Moses.
    6 This goes beyond a simple corrective. Not only is it God the Father who is the true giver, but the change from past to present tense (see one of Ian’s comments above) suggests manna must be interpreted as prefiguration of another truer bread to come. It is a paradigm shift, not just about past events in salvation history.
    7 In the past those who ate the bread that perishes, still died. Jesus uses the manna story to point to himself, as prefiguring himself.
    8 Jesus is (the bread of God is the One who comes down and gives life to the world” (6:33)
    9 Finally the crowd get beyond the Wrong Question And makes the Right Request. (v34).
    10 Jesus, no longer speaking cryptically, gives a dramatic answer similar to the one given to the Samaritan woman earlier (4:15)
    11 “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:34-35)
    12 Jesus gives life to the world. He is the true bread from heaven , the bread toward which Israel’s desire – indeed. the desire of all humanity – should be directed; he is the true meaning of the manna story.
    13 Jesus is the one who came from heaven. is the giver of life, and only when we come to him will we be given life that endures and overcomes death.
    14 According to John’s Gospel, that is the true meaning of what Moses wrote.
    15 We could go on, illustrating John’s figural hermeneutic in passage after passage…
    16 (John’s Gospel) articulates his extraordinary (and polemical) claim that all scripture bears witness to Jesus (John 5:46) and more comprehensively than any other Gospels, John understands the OT as a vast matrix of symbols pointing to Jesus…
    17 John’s Gospel reads the entire OT Scripture as a huge web of symbols and figural signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory… the anticipatory traces of God the Word in his self -revelation to the world.

    • It is not evident that Jesus is simply teaching the crowd basic hermeneutics, or that manna must be interpreted as prefiguring ‘another truer’ bread to come. I don’t think any honest reading of Exodus/Numbers, even in the light of the NT (specifically John), would lead to this idea. The emphasis in John 6 is on the contrast: manna did not nourish spiritually and it wasn’t even bread. The demurring Jews are corrected not for having a wrong understanding of the relevant scriptures but for not perceiving their need for spiritual food that will give them eternal life.

      Hence, moreover, there is no counterpart of the manna in the wilderness to prefigure Jesus’s blood.

      This is in contrast to the bronze serpent, which can be understood as prefigurative.

      In any case, in basic hermeneutics, one must first work out what the meaning of a passage is on its own terms, in its proper context. Looking for and perceiving an additional meaning that can only be discerned, if at all, retrospectively, is another level of interpretation altogether, an not basic.

        • Underpinning the idea of life in the natural world is water so water is also a symbol of life as much as blood is to animal life. Water from the Rock is therefore parallel to blood struck from Jesus on the cross. Water is also prefigured flowing from Ezekiel’s temple into the dead sea to bring life.

          The Promised Land is also symbolic of Jesus. To enable the Israelites into the land the water of the Jordan dies. It’s the lack of water in the Jordan that symbolises death in this case.

          The Jordan flows into the dead sea symbolising all life dies. The New Temple, that is Jesus has life flowing from it to restore life to the dead sea.

          Water and Blood from Jesus’ side, both symbols of life, real life poured out.

  9. ‘a vast matrix of symbols’

    Could this be placed in a fractal pattern as well? i.e., from simple to complex but retaining the same shape; a portrait of Jesus?
    ps Physics news about ‘Fractons’ has a spooky reality that some Christian mathematician might find interesting. Ian?

  10. To Peter (Reiss) Apologies Peter! I was (wrongly) following the order in which contributions are presented on my screen, and one or two of your thoughts did gel with my presentation. However your follow up does make complete sense.
    Best wishes!


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