Eating flesh.

Proverbs 9:1-6

Psalm 34:9-16

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:53-59

There has long been an argument about whether John’s Gospel is anti-sacramental or sacramental. On the anti-sacramental side is John’s reticence to narrate Jesus actions instituting the “last supper” as do the other Gospels. On the sacramental side are these passages from John’s sixth chapter concerning eating the flesh of the son of man and drinking his blood. But even in this sixth chapter, some author or editor goes on to say, “The flesh counts for nothing, only the spirit.”

 I’m not sure the debate would have made sense to John’s author(s). The debate that would have made sense would have been between a sacrificial perspective and an anti-sacrificial perspective. The banquet would have been the background against which all meals would have been seen, and a banquet was always a sacrificial affair. Any meal involving meat and wine would have been implicated in the banquet/sacrficial system. As Andrew McGowan (Ascetic Eucharists) has shown, there were certainly early christian eucharists that self-consciously avoided the banquet/sacrifice system by using water and bread (in that order, since banquets would have always been meal first and then wine/symposium).

The purpose of sacrifice, and the meal it provides, is to establish a network of relationships, primarily descent (see Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever and Stanley Stowers, “Greeks who sacrifice and Greeks who don’t”). The blood of the sacrifice, which is pure, undoes the descent of son from mother and remakes descent into lines from father to son. Men recline at banquets, and women usually did not.

Certainly the sacrificial language of John’s Gospel fits with the emphasis on the relationship between Father and Son. By sharing in this meal, we “become one even as the Father and I are one.” It seems that John’s authors and editors were struggling between a sacrificial understanding of their meals, which established a relationship between Father and sons (and presumably daughters), but which implicated them in the Imperial Cult on the one hand, and an anti-sacficial understanding that allowed them to opt out of both the Imperial Cult and the Temple cult of Jerusalem.

The Proverbs passage shows a banquet hosted by Wisdom, a goddess figure like Athena. Her banquet gives wisdom to the simple. This motif certainly fits with the Greek understanding of banquet. The symposium was often the context for philosophical instruction and conversation. John’s community was very likely organized around a meal at which the founder of the meal was present in the philosophical conversation. Perhaps there was an argument over whether sacrifice and wine should be a part of that communion. That argument comes forward to us in John’s sixth chapter.

One thought on “Eating flesh.”

  1. Fr. Dan,

    i finally got around to ordering an NRSV bible (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition). Added Oxford Bible Commentary because it was too hard not to click the order button 😉

    Some years ago you wrote for me a little paper describing your take on the differences between various Bible translations. Perhaps similar material might make a nice resource page to put in your blog?



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