I was prompted to writing by C. Michael Patton, a Reformed blogger. He'd written a post entitled, “Why I Don’t Buy the Roman Catholic Interpretation of John 6 in Defense of Transubstantiation,” in which he argues that John 6 was never meant to be taken literally. He offered two primary reasons for this claim.
What follows are Patton's arguments, and my responses:
I. Jesus Was Always Misunderstood
First, that Christ is “always” being misunderstood, so it would be “irresponsible” to take Him literally:
1. Jesus is always being misunderstood. John rarely records Jesus’ correcting the misunderstanding of people.
The people in John 6 were looking for Christ to provide for them like Moses did and they were not interested in His talk about belief and eating his flesh. Some naturally thought that he was being literal about his statements. It is true, Christ did not correct them. But this is a common theme in the ministry of Christ. As Peter demonstrates, it is only those who stay with him that get the answers for eternal life (John 6:68). Often Christ would speak in parables and not tell any but those who were His true followers (Luke 8:10). The rest He let go in their ignorance since he knew all men and he was not committing himself to them.
"Loaves and Fishes" Relief, Church of Our Lady of Ravensburg (1897)
John presents this side of Jesus more than any other of the Gospels when he says: John 2:24-25 “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” He did not entrust himself to his listeners. Why? I suppose some wanted a king who would provide literal food for them like Moses did in the wilderness and they left when it became clear that He was not going to do the same. Some thought that He was speaking about actually eating his flesh and blood, I violation of the Mosaic Law, and they left. But why didn’t He simply correct their misunderstanding in this case? For the same reason He does not throughout the book of John. He often says things that are open to misinterpretation and then leaves His listeners in their confusion. Notice these examples
a. John 2:18-21 “The Jews then said to Him, ‘What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
Notice, Christ was not being literal here yet He did not correct the misunderstanding. This misunderstanding eventually leads to His conviction and death.
b. John 3:3-4 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”Notice again, Jesus does not correct Nicodemus’ misunderstanding (although, like in John 6, it is obvious to the reader that this is not to be taken literally).
c. The disciples want Jesus to eat: “Rabbi, eat” (John 4:31). Jesus answers: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). “So the disciples were saying to one another, ‘No one brought him anything to eat, did he?’” (John 4:33).
This time Jesus does correct his disciples, but in frustration because they cannot see the symbolism behind it. In other words, they should know enough by now to interpret His words symbolically since this is the way He always spoke.
It's true that Jesus often uses figurative language, which is a hyper-literal reading of the Bible (of the kind favored by some Fundamentalists and atheists) fails to grasp what is being taught. But it's an exaggeration to say “Jesus is always being misunderstood” or that the Apostles “should know enough by now to interpret His words symbolically since this is the way He always spoke.” Imagine if we were to wave away our need to forgive our enemies, or the reality of Heaven and Hell, or Christ's Resurrection, claiming that these were mere symbols, since Christ “always” spoke symbolically, and it would be “irresponsible” for us to take Him literally.Now we come to John 6. John’s readers should know by now that Christ speaks symbolically in such statements as these. We should understand by now that Christ is always being misunderstood by “outsiders.” They also know that sometimes Christ corrects the misunderstanding (especially with true followers) and sometimes he does not. Therefore, it would be irresponsible for the reader to take Christ literally in John 6.
In any case, here's what I said in response:
I really liked the way you approached this issue, and wanted to respond. I agree with you that not every time Jesus spoke, He was understood by the crowd, and I agree that an attempt to over-literalize Jesus has gotten a lot of people into trouble. I’ve actually used the same example from John 2:18-21 to show that people who brag about how “literally” they take the Bible are making an oft-repeated mistake. Take the Bible seriously, but not always literally – in other words, take it as it was meant to be taken.
Luca Signorelli, Communion of the Apostles (1512)
That said, I think there are some pretty easy Catholic responses.
The answer to your first point is Mark 4:34: “He did not tell them anything without using a parable, though he explained EVERYTHING to his disciples in private.” So Jesus allowed the crowd to be confused, and then would explain things to the Disciples. The reasons are pretty clear — the crowds weren’t ready for the full Truth yet, and so He revealed it slowly, and according to His own timetable. The Disciples were given more information, and still didn’t really get it at first. So looking at your examples:
1 (a) is the crowd misunderstanding, with a note from John explaining what Jesus meant. How does he know? Because Jesus explained parables to His disciples, and John was a disciple.
1 (b) is the exact same thing, only it’s Nicodemus (and not a whole crowd) misunderstanding. Once again, John is “in the know,” so to speak, so he clues in his readers.
1 (c) has the Disciples initially confused, and then Jesus explaining it.
All of this comports with Mark 4:34. Now look to how Jesus reacts in John 6. The crowd, I think we’d both agree, think that Jesus is speaking literally. They didn’t initially think this: in John 6:42, they think He just means that He’s come down from Heaven (with no hint that they get anything about eating His flesh). After He keeps talking, their initial objection gets replaced with a much bigger one in 6:52, suggesting that NOW they are taking Him literally.
If this was like 1(a)-(c), we would see either a description of Jesus explaining this to His disciples, or a note from John explaining what Jesus meant. Instead, we see in John 6:67, “Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’”
So it isn’t even that John omits to include what Jesus really meant, or the fact that He talked to the Twelve afterwards. It’s that Jesus went to the Twelve, and instead of saying, “here’s what that symbol means” like He did for the other examples (and which Mark 4:34 says He would do), He basically says, “Take it or leave it.”
3rd century depiction of the Eucharist, catacomb of San Callisto
The only thing that I would add to this response is that Patton assumes that “it is obvious to the reader that this is not to be taken literally.” That's because he's reading this through the lens of centuries of Protestant exegesis. As a matter of historical fact, that's not how the early Christians approached this passage. They took it literally, as we see from the writings of the first and second, third, and fourth century Church Fathers.This is pretty unique amongst the teachings of Christ. The only other one can be found in Mark 9:9-10, when Jesus warns them not to say what they’ve seen until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Mark 9:10 says, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.”
So the two times we see Jesus refusing to explain away the “metaphor” are for the Resurrection and the Eucharist. If Mark 4:34 is accurate, this [is] because the Son of Man literally was to rise from the dead, and because Jesus meant the Eucharistic part literally.
Writing the first four centuries of Christians off as irresponsible, and incapable of understanding basic metaphors isn't a very compelling argument -- particularly for someone who bases his whole religion off of a belief that the Holy Spirit was working through these exact same men to preserve the Gospel. The burden is on the person rejecting transubstantiation to explain why the early Church believed in it: did the Apostles just forget to correct the idolatry of their followers?
II. John Omits the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper
Patton's second argument is that John omits the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper:
This is a fairly common argument by Protestants who take John 20:30-31 to mean that the Gospel of John was intended to be sufficient for salvation, apart from the Church or the rest of the Bible. I responded:2. Another important factor that Keating and other Catholic apologists fail to take into account is that John does not even record the central events of the Last Supper at all. Obviously if we took the Catholic interpretation of John 6 and believed John included this passage to communicate that believers must eat the literal body and blood of Christ in order to have eternal life, you would expect John to have recorded the events that it foreshadows. You would expect John to have a historical record of the Last Supper, the inaugurating meal of the Eucharist. But John does not. What an oversight by John! In fact, John is the only Gospel writer that did not record the Last Supper. Therefore, it is very unlikely that in John’s mind, a literal eating and drinking of Christ body and blood are essential for salvation. Remember John wrote the only book in the NT that explicitly says it is written for the purpose of salvation and he does not even include the Lord’s Supper.
As for your second point of opposition, it’s true that John doesn’t include the Last Supper. But Paul does, making it one of the only biographical details which he records. To use the standard that “anything not found in John’s Gospel isn’t important” would take out the Virgin Birth as well as the [Institution of the Eucharist at the] Last Supper.
Fra Angelico, Communion of the Apostles (1451)
Remember that John is writing last, perhaps as last as the 90′s A.D. Notice also that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul use almost identical wording for their description of the Last Supper, and that St. Paul claims to have received this “from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23). This suggests two things:
(1) This was important enough for Jesus to tell Paul personally;(2) the Synoptic writers and Paul seem to have this memorized basically verbatim.
Now notice that the Didache (written before the Gospel of John), was a book intended for new entrants into the Church to explain some of the basics – a sort of “Idiot’s Guide to Christianity.” It includes Eucharist prayers in Chapters 9 and 10, and calls the Eucharist “spiritual food and drink.” Chapter 14 says that you have to confess your sins before you can receive the Eucharist, so that “your sacrifice may be pure,” and says that it’s celebrated on the Lord’s Day.So given that the people to whom John is delivering this message have already heard of the Last Supper from 4 Apostolic sources, plus the Didache, it’s no wonder that John didn’t feel the need to include that information. Besides that, his Last Supper discourses already run 3 chapters long (as long as the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus all rolled into one). John’s Gospel is radically different than the other three because his goal is to build off of them.
The point that I raised in that comment is supported by Eusebius, a fourth century Catholic considered to be the first Church historian. Eusebius, who is one of the sources used in establishing the authorship of the four Gospels, tells us:Anyways, I like your post. I thought it was thought-provoking, and hopefully, I’ve provided at least some context for why people come out on the other side of those arguments.
This is an important point, because it shows that Patton's whole hermeneutic for understanding the Gospel of John is backwards. Patton suggests that anything John omits is false or unimportant, or "an oversight by John." Eusebius shows that this is false: John intended to build off of the Synoptics, without repeating the same details.For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.
And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.
Understood in this light, John is building off of the existing accounts of the institution of the Eucharist (found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as in the writings of Paul, and the Didache), by adding two important details omitted by the others: (1) Christ's Last Supper Discourses (John 14-17); and (2) the prefigurement of the institution of the Eucharist in John 6. Fittingly, both the institution of the Eucharist and the Bread of Life discourse happen at the time of Passover (John 6:4; Matthew 26:17-19).
The Gospel of John wasn't intended to be divorced from Scripture or the Church, and read in that divorced manner (and through the lens of faulty Protestant exegesis), it's understandable why Patton would wind up misunderstanding of John 6.