The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71)

Much has been written about the so-called “Bread of Life Discourse”, the verses in John:6:25-71. Many of the writings I’ve surveyed seek to draw from this text a theology of the Eucharist. But, while Jesus’ sayings certainly apply, the Eucharist is arguably secondary to the symbolism He attaches to the “Bread of Life” and the mechanism by which “consuming” the Bread of Life” leads to everlasting life.

Since Jesus is manifestly not a loaf of bread, this term is being used figuratively. But of what is it symbolic? The first clue lies in the Hebrew Scriptures. During Jesus’ life, and throughout the later Wisdom literature, the manna[1] given to the Israelites during the Exodus became identified with the Word of God, the Torah. It is not unreasonable to understand the Johannine Jesus to be making the assertion, common among the Hebrews of His day, that the true bread from heaven is the Word of God which comes down from heaven — the Torah — and by which everlasting life can be obtained.

Receiving the Torah, the bread of life

This was likely the understanding among the Jews in the Caperneum synagogue when, in verse 6:35, Jesus declares himself to be “the Bread of Life”. Their expressed shock and dismay is not easily explained if Jesus was just speaking of Himself as something that sustains life. Had He meant that, the people may certainly have evinced skepticism, but shock? Hardly.

A more likely explanation is that the congregation immediately understood that Jesus was claiming to be the incarnate Torah, i.e., the Word made Flesh, and John would later write. The shock expressed by the congregation arose because such statements would have been thought to be rank apostacy. A human claiming to be divine. Where the manna[2] given by God and distributed to the Israelites during the Exodus gave physical life, Jesus here claims to be the incarnation of God’s Word, the Torah, giving everlasting life.

What is Jesus trying to accomplish here by presenting himself in this way? One clue is to jump ahead and read John 14:6. This famous verse is a reemphasis of the dialog in 6:25-71. In this text, “way” translates as doctrine and “truth” refers to the credibility of Jesus’ teaching of God’s Word contra the other sages.

Now go and study…

  1. [1]The word ‘manna’ comes from the transliteration of the question the Hebrews asked when first they saw the flakey substance covering the ground. The question, “What is it?” is pronounced mannu in Hebrew (Exodus 16:15).
  2. [2]Called by Moses the “the bread from heaven” or Lechem min hashamayim
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