Christ Could Not Have Been More Clear: ‘Eat My Flesh’

Chapter 6 in the Gospel of John is usually the main source cited for the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist: that in the sacrifice of the Mass, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ for consumption by the faithful. This is the source and summit of our faith and arguably the main thing that separates us from nearly every other faith on the planet. Therefore, it is critically important to understand John chapter 6 (as well as other scriptural references to the Eucharist).

The first 15 verses of chapter 6 detail the miracle of the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd. This is an important backdrop for what is about to happen because Jesus uses this recently completed miracle the next day when He tells the crowd: “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth unto life everlasting, which the Son of man will give you. For him hath God, the Father, sealed.”

The crowd then asks Jesus for a sign that they might believe in Him:

They said therefore unto him: What shall we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered, and said to them: This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he hath sent. They said therefore to him: What sign therefore dost thou shew, that we may see, and may believe thee? What dost thou work?

The people ask for a sign, and Christ responds by making a parallel to the manna that the Jews were given in the desert, stating that God will give bread even better than what Moses gave. He will give bread from Heaven that will bring life to the world — that will be the sign.

Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you; Moses gave you not bread from heaven, but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world.

Life to the world? The crowd says, “Of course we want that bread!” “They said therefore unto him: Lord, give us always this bread.”

Jesus responds with what I will call the first “I am”: “And Jesus said to them: I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger: and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.”

Here, Christ is directly comparing Himself to bread. More importantly, to the life giving bread that was eaten by the Jews under Moses. But here it can still be seen as a metaphor: believing in Jesus is how you get the true life giving bread. You are not necessarily eating actual bread.

But even in this initial comparison, the crowd starts to murmur about this teaching:

The Jews therefore murmured at him, because he had said: I am the living bread which came down from heaven. And they said: Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then saith he, I came down from heaven?

They seem to not like that He called Himself the “living bread” or that He claims to have come down from heaven. In verse 43, Jesus tells them to stop their murmuring and then in verses 48–50. He reiterates what He had just said:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die[.]

So there we get the second “I am.”

Christ uses the comparison of the manna in the desert throughout this whole discourse, and it is important to remember that  the Old Testament prefigurements are never as great as their New Testament fulfillments. Mary is greater than Eve, Christ’s sacrifice is greater than Abraham’s with Isaac, and the manna Christ is going to give will be greater than the manna Moses received in the desert, not merely the same as that manna.

Verse 51 is where it starts to get really interesting, and you have to take it word by word. Christ immediately restates what He just said in verses 48–50, and we get the third “I am”:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world.

This time, Jesus is much more explicit: He is directly telling them that His flesh is the bread from Heaven, the new manna that will give life to the world. Still think it is just an analogy? The crowd certainly did not think so: “The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

If it was just an analogy, why did the crowd find it hard to grasp? Why is there this jump from “Give us the bread!” to “What? Eat His flesh?” And why would He repeat three times that He is the bread? The answer to these questions lies in the words Christ used and how direct He was.

There are indeed places where Christ uses hyperbole in the gospels. Think about in Matthew 5:29, when he told the people that it would be better to pluck your eye out than to allow it to cause you to sin. No one misunderstood Him to mean that he needed to dismember himself. No one walked away saying, “This teaching is too hard; I cannot follow a man who asks this of me.” But in John chapter 6, the verbiage that Christ uses and the reaction of the crowd clearly show that Christ was being literal, not hyperbolic or metaphorical.

Throughout John’s entire sixth chapter, the verb “to eat” is used 12 times to describe eating manna in the desert, eating the bread of life, and eating Christ’s flesh. Up until verse 54, the verb in the original Greek text of the gospel has been the same: φάγω (“phago”), which means “to eat.” But in verse 55, when the crowd is already confused and murmuring, Christ changes the verb He uses to τρώγω (“trógó”), which means “to gnaw, munch, or crunch.” It has also been translated as “to masticate” [1].

He that eateth [gnaws, chews, masticates] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.

Think about the sequence of events. Christ says to the crowd in verse 52 that they need to “eat” His flesh. The crowd questions this directly in verse 53, and then what does Jesus do to answer their question in verse 55? He does not say, “No, it was just an analogy, you will not actually consume my flesh.” Instead, He doubles down, switches His verb, and says yes, you indeed need to “chew” or “masticate” my flesh. Here, Jesus goes the extra mile to ensure that his message is not lost on the audience.

The other direct and provocative word Christ uses seven times in this chapter is the word “flesh.” Some Bible translations will have that word written as “body,” but if you read the Greek, it is σάρκα (“sárka” or “sarx”), which literally translates as “flesh,” whereas the generic Greek word for “body” is σώμα (“sóma”). It is even the root of the Greek word for “carnivorous”: σαρκοβόρος (sarkovóros).

So Christ says to “chew” His “flesh,” and the crowd finds this hard to accept: “Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it?”

And here they actually leave Christ’s discipleship: “After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him.”

It is therefore clear from reading John 6 that the crowd, those who heard the Bread of Life discourse in person understood Christ as saying they need to consume His real flesh. Why else would they have walked away? And if they misunderstood, why did Jesus not try to clarify and keep them from walking away with a misunderstanding? They knew exactly what He meant, and so did every early Christian who wrote on this topic.

The writings of the early Church fathers strongly support the Catholic interpretation. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Clement of Alexandria all wrote about this in the 2nd century; Origen, Hippolytus, and Tertullian all wrote about it in the 3rd century; and the list of early Christians who believed Christ to mean that we need to consume His flesh goes on and on. Outside of the apostles, those men were in the best position to know what Jesus meant in John 6, and they would have been quick to correct any misunderstandings or heresies arising from misinterpretation. Here are just a few quotes from the early Christian fathers:

If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189])

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110])

The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 19:7 [A.D. 350])

I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. … That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. (Augustine, Sermons 227 [A.D. 411])

Many will say that much of this article is irrelevant because Christ likely did not speak Greek out of His mouth, so parsing a Greek text is useless. But if we have faith that the writers of the Gospels were inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can look at the nuances and specifics of the language in which they wrote and know with confidence that it represents the words Christ was speaking in Aramaic or Hebrew. On top of that, the text in Greek does not constitute the entire argument, nor is it splitting hairs, as I laid out multiple times through the “I am” argument; the belief of early Christians; and the people in Jesus’s day finding the teaching hard and walking away, which would not have happened if it were merely a symbol.

If you read John chapter 6, use a tool as basic as Google Translate, and read any early Christian writing on the topic, you will realize that the Catholic teaching of Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist is quite undeniable and comes directly from Scripture.

[1] Dominic, A Project. The Bible versus the Catechism?: a Controversy., 2004. Page 205.

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