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If You Eat My Flesh, You Eat My Body

If Jesus meant for us literally to eat his flesh, some Protestants insist, then why do the Gospels use different words for "flesh" and "body"?

In a previous article, we said Catholics often present arguments for our beliefs without considering the assumptions our arguments rest on. Today’s example concerns John 6:53-58, which Catholics use to argue for Catholic theology on the Eucharist by assuming that Jesus is . . . talking about the Eucharist.

But that’s not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, some Protestant apologists argue that no significant connection exists between what Jesus says about eating his flesh in John 6 and his instruction for the apostles to eat his body at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). One reason given for this claim is that two different Greek words are used for flesh in John 6 and body at the Last Supper. Eric Svendsen writes:

The Greek word used in John 6 to designate that which we are to eat is (σαρξ [sarx]; translated “flesh”), while the Greek word used in the Last Supper texts is always sôma (σμα; translated ‘“body”). The differences between these words suggests that if a connection between John 6 and the Eucharist is made, it must at best be a loose one. This fits well with the symbolic understanding of John 6.

One problem with Svendsen’s argument is that sarx and sōma are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:16, for example:

Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body [Greek, sōma] with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one [flesh] [Greek, sarka—dictionary form sarx].”

Notice that Paul uses sarx for the Bible’s talk of union of flesh and identifies it with the one body (sōma) that results from a man joining himself to a prostitute.

Another example is 2 Corinthians 4:10-11. Paul writes:

Always carrying in the body [Greek, sōmati] the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies [sōmati]. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh [sarki]. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

If we were to follow Svendsen’s logic, we’d have to conclude that Paul here is saying the life of Jesus is manifested in two different things. But clearly, that’s not the case. Whether Paul speaks of bodies (sôma) or flesh (sarx), he’s referring to the same thing—“the earthen vessel” (v. 7). Paul is teaching the Corinthians how Christians view their physical sufferings (vv. 8-9) for the Faith: it’s a “treasure” (v. 1). Why? It manifests the life of Jesus.

Other examples where Paul uses sarx and sōma interchangeably are Romans 7:24-25, 8:13; Ephesians 5:28-30; and Colossians 2:23.

This makes sense because bodies are made of flesh. So if there is no indication that body is being used in some sense as not to include flesh, we’re justified in reading body as entailing “flesh.” Since Jesus doesn’t say anything at the Last Supper to preclude our understanding of body as “flesh,” we can take body to mean “flesh,” and thereby affirm the connection between John 6 and the Last Supper.

Second, the image of drinking Jesus’ blood is used in both narratives. And both narratives are the only places in the New Testament where Jesus speaks of drinking his blood. The fewer times an image or cluster of words is used, especially when it’s found prior to its current use, the more likely it is that there is literary dependence.

Given that the Last Supper is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus speaks of drinking his blood other than in John 6, and Jesus’ command to drink his blood in John 6 occurs prior to the command given at the Last Supper, we’re justified in reading the words of institution at the Last Supper in light what Jesus says in John 6. To say there’s no connection between the words of institution at the Last Supper and Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John 6 would be akin to saying John doesn’t have the creation story in mind when he writes in John 1:1, “In the beginning.”

Moreover, in John 6, Jesus doesn’t give us any indication that he intends his audience to eat his flesh and drink his blood right then and there. Rather, he speaks as if it’s something to be done at some later time, which fits with our interpretation that the Last Supper is that moment.

For example, he speaks in the future tense in John 6:51: “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v.51b). The other times when he gives instructions about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, it’s hypothetical and general in nature:

  • if anyone eats this bread, he will live forever” (v.51a)
  • unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood” (v.53)
  • he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me” (v.56)
  • he who eats me will live because of me” (v.57)
  • he who eats this bread [his flesh] will live forever” (v.58)

Contrast this with the Last Supper, where Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). Jesus promised to give the disciples his flesh and blood to eat and drink in John 6, but at the Last Supper, he commands it to be done. Given what we said above about these being the only two instances where Jesus speaks of drinking his blood, we’re justified in saying the promise in John 6 is fulfilled at the Last Supper.

Third, biblical scholars recognize that it’s John’s intent to supplement with his Gospel what’s found in the synoptics by adding depth. For example, Mark and Matthew record Jesus’ instruction concerning baptism. Matthew’s record reads: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Mark’s report reads: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

John doesn’t record the great commission, which includes the instruction for the apostles to baptize, but he does add depth to our understanding of what baptism is: the re-birth by water and spirit (John 3:3-5). Where the others simply give the command that the apostles must baptize, John gives the theology behind what they are to do.

As he did for the sacrament of baptism, John adds depth to our understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist. He’s revealing to us that the Eucharist at the Last Supper is the new bread from heaven, and thus the new manna. He’s teaching us that the Eucharist not only forgives our sins, but gives us eternal life. He’s providing us confirmation that Jesus did intend for us to take his words at the Last Supper literally—hence his record of Jesus’ use of flesh, which underscores the literalness of the language Jesus used. Therefore, John intends to inform his readers that just as Jesus’ instruction to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John 6 was literal, so too his words at the Last Supper—“this is my body . . . this is my blood”—are literal: Jesus changed bread and wine into his body and blood.

This challenge serves as a great reminder to always check our assumptions when we defend our Catholic beliefs, since our arguments are only as good as the assumptions that they rest on. When we check the assumption that Jesus’ teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in John 6 is a prelude to the Eucharist at the Last Supper, we find that it stands strong. Therefore, a Catholic can continue to appeal to the literalness of Jesus’ teaching to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John 6 as biblical support for the literal interpretation of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “this is my body . . . this is my blood.”

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