Catz asked me why we should understand John 6 literally. First, all the Church Fathers believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, so this wasn’t a confusion that those who heard the Apostles had. Any time there’s a part of the Bible universally understood in a certain way in the early Church, the hurdle to say “they’re all wrong, I’m right!” should be so high that it’s rarely or never done. It’s sheer arrogance to assume that our looking back at cold evidence renders a more accurate conclusion than what these Saints and Martyrs knew and believed. In my opinion, this is pretty overwhelming evidence for the Catholic/Orthodox position. But let’s walk through the chapter anyhow to see what Biblical evidence our forebears could hang their hats on. To make it clearer what the crowds thought, I put references to them in red:
John 6:1-15 is the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus uses miraculous bread to meet their physical needs as well as miraculous fish. Both of these are Christological symbols, so He’s pointing to His own ability to meet their spiritual needs. The people saw that Jesus was capable of providing for their physical needs and tried to make Him their earthly king.
Also, note John 6:4, which says that this occurs at Passover time, which means it occurs almost exactly one year before the Last Supper and the Passion, a significant detail to John. Plus, note that the significant Eucharistic discourse in John 6:25-70 occurs the next day (John 6:22), so even closer to Passover time. There’s another significant element, hinted at in John 6:11-12, but made more clear in the parallel account in Mark 8:6 – Jesus breaks the bread, then tasks His disciples with distributing His bread to the masses. This prefigures the next Passover’s Last Supper, where He commissions them to distribute His Bread as His first priests.
John 6:26-29 – Jesus encourages them to pursue spiritual food (belief in Him), rather than physical food.
John 6:30-31 – the people respond by begging for more food, and using the comparison of Moses.
John 6:32-33 – Jesus points out that the Manna was Christological. It foreshadowed Christ, and specifically the Eucharist.
John 6:34 – The people are confused and want the bread. At this point, they don’t take Jesus literally as being Bread or literally as being from Heaven. They’re still thinking He’s going to feed them like He did the day before. We still see this desire to use Christ as a welfare system, but not in the Catholic view of the Eucharist. Rather, this dialogue condemns the “health and wealth Gospel,” if anything.
John 6:35-40 – Jesus explains that the Bread come down from Heaven is literally Him, but that they don’t believe.
John 6:41-42 – The people grumble. They’re not taking Him literally about being Bread, but they now realize He literally means that He’s from Heaven.
John 6:43-47 – Jesus subtly calls Himself God (see v. 45), notes that only He has seen God (v. 46), and that Faith in Him (Jesus) saves.
John 6:48-51 – Jesus calls Himself the Bread of Life, calls Himself the Living Bread come down from Heaven, and says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
John 6:52 – Now the Jews start taking Him literally about giving His flesh to eat, and they’re not pleased.
John 6:53-58 – Rather than correcting their initial confusion (as we’ve seen Him do before, when they weren’t taking Him literally), He responds:
“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”
So if they’re misunderstanding Him, He’s purposely misleading them at this point by making such an incredibly Eucharistic statement. I mean, just count the Eucharistic statements: (1) unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no Life in you; (2) Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal Life, and I will raise him up at the last Day; (3) My Flesh is real Food and My Blood is real Drink; (4) Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood remains in Me, and I in him; (5) the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me. Then He says that This is the Bread come down from Heaven: His literal Flesh and Blood. Finally, in His seventh Eucharistic claim in six verses, He says that “he who feeds on this Bread will live forever.”
If all He means is “faith is very important,” there are far less baffling ways of presenting that point which won’t lead millions of Jews and (later) Christians into heresy, thinking He’s advocating the eating of His Flesh and Blood.
John 6:60 – The people are shocked at His Eucharistic teaching. They understand He’s literally claiming to (a) be from Heaven, and (b) give His Flesh and Blood. They respond, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” So obviously, they know He’s not just saying “Come, follow Me,” because they were already doing that, following Him across the lake that morning when He’d purposely withdrawn to get away from them.
John 6:61-62 – Rather than explaining what He really meant was just “Come, follow Me,” He challenges them, “What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before!” He’s fully aware that in just over 13 months, He will ascend, with His literal Flesh and Blood, into Heaven. This statement challenges their incredulity on both (a) and (b).
John 6:63 – The most confusing verse in John 6: The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” Taken as a literal absolute that flesh is always worthless amounts to a denial of the necessity of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. It’s the same Gnostic heresy that John penned his Gospel largely to refute. What Jesus means then, is not that flesh itself is inherently and always worthless, but that it’s worthless without the Spirit. But this doesn’t dispel the Eucharist, it dispels a view of the Eucharist that It’s cannibalism. Eating dead flesh (that is, flesh separated from the spirit) is worthless. Killing Jesus and hacking Him into bits isn’t what He means at all. I think St. Augustine explains this verse better than anyone, showing both how the absolutist position makes no sense, and what Jesus really meant:
What does it mean when He adds, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the Flesh profits nothing”? Let us say to Him (for He permits us to ask, not to contradict Him but rather desirous to know): O Lord, good Master, how is it that the “Flesh profits nothing” since you say, “Unless anyone shall have eaten my Flesh and drunk my Blood he will not have life in him”? Is it that life is of no value? And why are we what we are except for the purpose of having eternal life, which you promise to us by your Flesh? Therefore, why do you say, “The Flesh profits nothing”? It profits nothing as they understood it: for they understood the flesh as it is when cut up in a corpse or sold in a meat market, not as it is when animated by spirit.
And therefore it is said, “The Flesh profits nothing,” just as it is also said, “knowledge puffs one up” [1 Cor 8:1]. For, if flesh profited nothing, the Word would not have become Flesh so that he might dwell among us. If Christ has been such profit to us through the flesh, how it is that flesh profits nothing? Rather, through the Flesh the Spirit has acted for our salvation. The Flesh was a vessel. Pay attention to what it held, not to what it was.
The Apostles were sent forth. Was their flesh of no profit to us? And if the flesh of the Apostles was of profit to us, can it be said that the Flesh of the Lord is of no profit? How would the sound of a word come to us except through the voice of the flesh? How would pen be moved and writing done by us except by the means of the flesh? All these are works of the flesh, but used by the spirit as its instrument. Thus, it is “the Spirit who gives life, the Flesh profits nothing” – as they understood flesh – but that is not the way I give my Flesh to eat.
[Tractatus In Jo. 27, 5; CCSL, vol. 36, p. 271-72 (quoted in Fr. James O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, p. 67-68)]
John 6:64-65 – Jesus then says that only those who the Father has enabled can believe His message.
John 6:66 – “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Now they take Him literally, and it’s the Eucharist which serves as a stumbling blog to these people otherwise willing to follow Him.
John 6:67 – Jesus doesn’t let up. In other instances, where the crowds were confused about Jesus’ message, He either clarified or at least revealed the full meaning to the Apostles, if the crowds weren’t meant to get the full meaning just yet. Mark 4:34 tells us that in private, Jesus explained everything, including the meaning of His parables. So, for example, Jesus presents a confusing parable in Matthew 13:24-30, then explains it just to the Twelve in Matthew 13:36-43. So now, He’s just delivered a doozy of a message, and the crowd thinks it’s literal. If it’s figurative, Mark 4:34 means that He’s about to explain to them its metaphoric meaning. Nope. Instead, He says, “Will you also go away?” In other words, “That’s the message – take it or leave it. What’ll it be?” Mark Shea points out that there’s only one other point in Scripture where this happens, Luke 18:34, and it’s because the Disciples can’t figure out what Jesus means by saying He’s going to die and rise again on the third day. They’re convinced it’s a metaphor, but not sure what for. Turns out, it was just a literal, incredible statement.
John 6:68-71 – Peter then speaks on behalf of the Twelve (yet another example of Petrine primacy) and declares their allegiance to, and faith in, Christ. Christ responds by telling them that they’re the chosen, but that one of them, Judas, is still “a devil.”
At the beginning of John 6, the crowds take Jesus metaphorically. Then He convinces them He’s speaking literally about being from Heaven (not just metaphorically “Heaven-sent”). Then He convinces them He’s speaking literally about giving His literal Body and Blood to literally eat and drink (not just metaphorically “feast on My message”). At that point, they think the message is just too crazy, and split. Then He presents the same message to the Twelve without explaining the metaphor (contra Matthew 13:36, etc.).
I think the reason they took Jesus literally is that He hit them over the head over and over with the literal nature of the message – the seven different Eucharistic claims of John 6:53-58, for example, not because they were naturally predisposed to the conclusions that they came to and ultimately rejected as too incredible.