Your Fill of the Loaves: The Johannine Sign of the Loaves and the Ancient Bread Economy

Museo Nazionle Archeologico
di Napoli Inv. 9071

If the reference in the Lord’s Prayer to bread points to unavoidable issues of hunger and dependence present in the everyday life of ancient eaters, and the place of bread in particular in them, there are other texts in the New Testament where that obvious meaning is assumed but then contested or presented as insufficient. Most obvious is the elaborated version of the miraculous feeding narrative in the Gospel of John (chapter 6).

The miracle of the loaves in any version depends on the centrality of bread, and the reality of food insecurity. Any of the Synoptic accounts could be considered further in this light, but John characteristically enters into a critical re-interpretation of the core sign.

This is the only version of the miracle where the fabric of the bread is mentioned; a boy is said to have “five barley loaves” (6:9) and two fish. Commentators have often correctly noted that the reference to barley indicates food of the poor. However it probably also indicates domestic food production, and perhaps a rural setting, rather than the typical product of urban industrial milling and baking.

The divine economy manifested here in the wilderness is marked by separation from the world of the city, and perhaps in particular with the world of Jerusalem, whose Passover festival is specifically marked in the text here (6:4). While barley was technically just as ritually appropriate for Passover, wheat would always have been preferred where possible as the more desirable and festive, and the contrast is hard to avoid, once this is noted.

Here as in the Synoptic versions, the remnants are gathered after the meal, but the process is commented on by Jesus, uniquely: “Gather up the pieces left over, that nothing may be lost” (6:12b). These elements of the story make further sense in the light of the place of bread in the ancient economy. The leftovers are the same klasmata - broken pieces - as in the Didache (see ch. 9); not crumbs, that is, but meal portions.

Perhaps most striking however in the John account is the criticism of some followers, which is expressed in the extended sequel to the miracle story itself:

Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the bread. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal (6:26-7)

This observation makes more sense in the light of the ancient bread economy. Jesus’ popularity is not seen here as a matter of his wonder-working ability per se, but rather his capacity to feed a hungry population - like the population of the Johannine community and its neighbors.

Crowds did indeed gather around ancient leaders and grandees, precisely because they could expect to be fed by them, as patrons fed retainers daily. Of course the author of John is criticizing this behavior, even when clients apply it to Jesus, but this does not mean it was irrelevant to the community; quite the contrary, it implies that behavior exists, and then seeks to press beyond it to deeper things.

To say that Jesus is “the bread of life” is not merely to play with a convenient story or symbol, as often seems to be assumed, but to produce a riff from a daily reality just as fundamental as the other Johannine “I am” symbols such as light and life. The author however says to the community, “this is not just a feeding program.” Yet it is a feeding program too, one whose material and spiritual realities are assumed to be aligned. The bread on offer here is not the same as the bread in Jerusalem, even though both may fill the stomach. The faithful eater will understand, hearing the word as well as eating the (barley?) loaves of communal meals, that Jesus himself is the bread of life.

[Omitted from the delivered version of "The First-Fruits of God’s Creatures’: Bread, Eucharist, and the Ancient Economy," Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University, June 18 2018]

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