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John 6a – Will the Real Quoted Text Please Stand Up?

John 6:31

In John 6:30-31, the crowd demands a sign from Jesus to help them believe (ignoring the miracle that just took place – the feeding of the 5000!). They give Jesus an example of the kind of sign they’re looking for: “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:31 ESV)

Multiplied barley loaves and fish are not enough. They want manna from heaven!

The crowd quotes Scripture to Jesus, as evidenced by the phrase, “as it is written.” But which Scripture passage do they refer to? There are a couple possibilities.

Psalm 78:24 is the most likely possibility. Though John was written in Greek and the Psalms were originally written in Hebrew, the Greek version of the Psalms was used by many in the early church, probably including John himself. When we compare those two versions side by side, we see some very close similarities (you may notice the chapter number of the Psalm is different from Greek to English – this is not a mistake, since the Greek translation numbers them a bit differently than the English and Hebrew. The translations below are my own and woodenly literal, keeping with the word order of the text):

 

John 6:31b ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς φαγεῖν.
John 6:31b Bread / from / the / heaven / he gave / to them / to eat
Psalm 77:24 καὶ ἔβρεξεν αὐτοῖς μαννα φαγεῖν

καὶ ἄρτον οὐρανοῦ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς

Psalm 78:24 and / he rained down / to them / manna / to eat /

and / bread / heavenly / he gave / to them

 

The language of the text matches up almost exactly, though the word order is a bit different and John adds the words “from the.” Psalm 78 is one we call an “historical review” psalm, which reflects back on the rebellion of the Israelites and the graciousness of God throughout that history of rebellion. One of the instances mentioned is the miracle of manna, as seen here.

Another possibility is that John is quoting right from the Exodus passage:

 

John 6:31b ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς φαγεῖν.
John 6:31b Bread / from / the / heaven / he gave / to them / to eat
Exodus 16:4 εἶπεν δὲ κύριος πρὸς Μωυσῆν ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ὕω ὑμῖν ἄρτους ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἐξελεύσεται ὁ λαὸς καὶ συλλέξουσιν τὸ τῆς ἡμέρας εἰς ἡμέραν ὅπως πειράσω αὐτοὺς εἰ πορεύσονται τῷ νόμῳ μου ἢ οὔ
Exodus 16:4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not (ESV).

 

The Exodus 16 text may seem like a more likely candidate at first for the source of the quote. It is, after all, the original manna text. The first four Greek words in John 6 match up almost exactly with the Greek version of Exodus 16:4 (the word “bread” is plural in Exodus and singular in John – this is the only difference). You may notice the “from the” that we saw was the only difference between John 6:31b and the Psalm 78 passage is found in Exodus.

Another intriguing link between John 6 and Exodus 16 is that the Exodus passage specifically notes that the manna is a “test.” Exodus uses the same Greek word that John uses in 6:6 to describe Jesus “testing” Philip. So the bigger context of both passages have this link, that God tests the Israelites through the use of the bread miracle.

However, one of the reasons some scholars lean more towards Psalm 78 instead of Exodus 16 as the source of quotation is that the main verb “to give” is not found in Ex 16:4. Instead, God is said to “rain down” the bread from heaven (Psalm 78 picks up on that verb, but also uses “to give” as well). The other verb, “to eat” is not found in Exodus 16:4 either (it shows up later in 16:15 though).

So it seems that the lexical links are stronger between John 6:31b and Psalm 78:24, but the contextual links are stronger between John and Exodus. Certainly the Israelites refer to the event described in Exodus, but perhaps they were using language from a common psalm/song in order to describe it. This may explain why the language is closer to the psalm but the context is closer to the original description of the event.

(There are a few other possibilities for the source of the quote, like Exodus 6:15, Nehemiah 9:15, Psalm 105:40, but all three have weaker lexical links with John 6, so they are not the most likely candidates.)

 

2 Kings 4:42-44

There is another possible connection with the Old Testament in the text, one that does not involve Moses or manna. Here is the text of 2 Kings 4:44-46:

 

2 Kings 4:42-44 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the LORD. (ESV)

 

This passage deals with the ministry of Elisha the prophet. Elisha takes twenty loaves of bread and some grain and feeds hundreds of men with it, with some left over. The thematic connections are obvious to the John 6 story – a miraculous mass-feeding, a disciple unsure of how the people will eat with so little food, and leftovers after everyone has eaten. These connections are strengthened by noticing that it wasn’t just any type of bread that was brought: it was barley bread (John 6:9).

Commentator J. Ramsey Michaels also notes that in the story before, Elisha calls his servant Gehazi a “lad” (4:38), which is the same Greek word used to describe the “young boy” of John 6 that brought the bread and fish (Michaels, The Gospel of John, pg. 347). This connection is not quite so strong since it takes place in the previous story, and it is not Gehazi bringing the barley bread to Elisha, but the use of the word is intriguing nonetheless.

Whether or not we should give any weight to the use of “lad,” the other thematic and lexical connections between 2 Kings 4 and John 6 may indicate that the reader is to see Jesus as a kind of “New Elisha.” The connection is deep and intricate, since Elisha was a kind of “New Elijah,” and Elijah was a kind of “New Moses” (doing many similar miracles and having many similar experiences as Moses). And, of course, John 6 depicts Jesus as a “New Moses.”

One can become dizzy thinking too much about these circular links!

 

Hints at Communion?

Here’s a discussion that may end up sneaking back into the next sermon. It almost made it into this sermon, but I cut it due to time and thought it was more distracting than necessary.

Some scholars see a connection between John 6 and the ordinance of communion. For example, before Jesus passes out the bread, He “gives thanks” (John 6:11). The Greek word for this is eucharisteo – which is where we get the word “Eucharist” (another word for communion). Jesus will later tell the people to (spiritually/metaphorically) eat and drink Him in order to enjoy true life (John 6:51, 53-58).

However, though these connections to communion seem to be strong at first, we must remember that we are enjoying this text from our perspective with the completed canon of Scripture at our disposal. One of the major problems with this view is that the Jews listening to Jesus could not possibly have understood that He was speaking of communion, mainly because the first Lord’s Supper was not instituted until at least a year later, at the Last Supper. So the words would only have this communion-relevance to the readers of John’s Gospel, not to the original listeners. Commentator D. A. Carson also notes some places where John could have used typical “communion language” in order to draw out these connections more strongly, but he does not, thereby weakening that position as well (Carson, John, 276-280).

That being said, I am drawn to the words of F. D. Maurice, quoted in Leon Morris’s commentary on John: “If you ask me, then, whether he is speaking of the Eucharist here, I should say, ‘No.’ If you ask me where I can learn the meaning of the eucharist, I should say, ‘Nowhere so well as here’” (cited in Morris, 313).

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