My Flesh Is Meat Indeed: Theophagy and Christology in John 6:51c–58

This project argues that John 6:51c–58 makes christological rather than eucharistic claims. While scholars have often viewed the “Bread of Life Discourse” as a later addition of sacramental theology to John’s supposedly anti-sacramental gospel, I propose that the narrative of consumption in this pericope functions to make Jesus “equal to God.” Two major themes converge in this section that support this conclusion: the pointed concern with Jesus’ identity and John’s use of sacrificial language. John 6:51c–58 comes on the heels of a statement made about Jesus’ human parentage in John 6:41–51b, making divine/mortal identity a logical context in which to understand his statements about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Further, throughout John there exists an overriding concern with Jesus’ divinity and humanity. The moment when Jesus exhorts those around him to eat his flesh and drink his blood is when Jesus identifies himself with the God who put him on earth to die a sacrificial death. This death, too, is evoked in Jesus’ words in John 6:51c–58. John's use of 'didomi + hyper' here alludes both to Jesus’ death on behalf of others, and to the representation of this death as sacrifice. In almost all uses found in the New Testament, the phrase is used to connote Jesus’ expiatory death on the cross, not in a eucharistic context, but in a sacrificial one (e.g. in particular Eph. 5:2). This section represents a literary performance of a ritual meal which is not the eucharist. Instead, John 6:51c–58 references the cultic meal that establishes the hero cult, and as such, establishes the hero’s association with his divine patron (cf. Nagy, 1979). Jesus’ death associates him with the idea of the Hellenistic hero (Wills, 1997); I argue that the narrative-level consumption of his flesh in a sacrificial context indicates his divinity. The series of statements in John 6:51c–58 therefore bring about the identification of Jesus with God because of shared cultural expectations in the ancient Mediterranean world about the nature of the divine-mortal relationship. As in the cultural milieu in which he wrote, for John, sacrifice is not complete without the meal it includes—a meal that identifies Jesus with God. In John’s gospel, the glorification, death, and sacrificial consumption of Jesus are intimately connected; John 6:51c–53 is the locus of that interconnection.