Text Study for John 6:51-58 (Pt. 1); 12 Pentecost B 2021

Fine Christian Cannibals

“Therefore, Jesus said to them, ‘As a solemn vow I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” (John 6:53, my translation). Ok, now it gets really weird.

J. Albert Harrill addresses what he calls the elephant in the exegetical room, the language in this text regarding cannibalism. He is not suggesting that Jesus advocates cannibalism as a Christian practice as such. Instead, he examines the rhetorical role that the imagery of cannibalism played in ancient literary sources and contexts. “What specific connotations did the idiom of cannibalism have in the ancient Mediterranean world?” he asks. “Why did the Johannine author (or redactor) ascribe cannibalistic language to Jesus in a specific scene of factionalism?” (Page 133).

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He investigates whether this imagery was current in Greek and Hebrew literature as well as the Hebrew scriptures. He wonders how this image of eating Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) might carry “messages about community maintenance and regeneration.” And he asks, “What connection did anthropophagy have for ancient audiences to articulate community dissent, party division, or even civil war?” (Page 134).

I know Harrill’s work in connection with Greek and Roman slavery and the imperial enslavement system. He is a thorough, careful, and adventurous scholar who leaves no assumption or commonplace undisturbed. In the case of our text, he suggests that the ongoing and long-running “sacramental/non-sacramental” debate about the Bread of Life Discourse leaves some exegetical stones unturned – especially when it comes to the prospect of being fine, Christian, cannibals.

Harrill notes that the speech here in the latter part of the discourse was clearly bewildering to the audience. He suggests that this is a “virtual parody of a revelation discourse: what is revealed is Jesus’ utter incomprehensibility. Even Jesus’ own followers fail to understand what their prophet-messiah is requiring of them,” he observes, “which escalates the divisive fray” (page 134). This paragraph generates disgust among the listeners. Many simply leave the movement at this point. The religious authorities decide that Jesus has to die.

“This scene is one of factionalism,” Harrill writes. “In this context, the forms of speech that would normally provide warrants for a particular kind of instruction (midrash) serve solely to emphasize Jesus’ strangeness as the Other. This parody of a traditional epiphany belongs to the Fourth Gospel’s regular subversion and reinterpretation of familiar symbolism,” he argues. “Indeed, subversion of familiar symbolism,” Harrill notes, “is the principal strategy of the Fourth Gospel” (page 135).

Harrill argues that this language of cannibalism draws on the Greco-Roman polemics of factionalism. He examines a number of ancient literary sources in that context to make his case. He isn’t suggesting that the writer of John’s gospel directly quotes from or reacts to those literary sources. Instead, he suggests that the culture was informed by an ideology that used cannibalism language and imagery that “signaled for ancient audiences a recognizable Greek and Roman condemnation of domestic rebels and internal conspirators.”

In the Gospel of John, Harrill, argues, “anthropophagy proved especially useful to the author because it also celebrated the very cultural idiom of factionalism that defined John’s community. The Johannine author revaluated the cultural taboo of cannibalism in positive terms,” he concludes, “as a means of self-definition for his community, to throw outsiders off the scent and to weed out those insiders ‘who did not believe’” (page 136).

Before we dismiss this line of interpretation as either wildly speculative or completely irrelevant, let’s think about the role of cannibalistic imagery in our own discourse and ideologies. Indigenous peoples routinely have been accused of cannibalism and other “perversions” in order to render as Other, Savage, and Non-human. With that designation well in place, the actual cannibalistic and perverse behaviors of the colonizers could proceed apace.

One of the ways to Otherize Jews was to accuse them of cannibalism – especially drinking the blood of Christian children in secret rites and ceremonies. The combination of cannibalism and children was and is especially powerful as a way to symbolically render the Other as worthy of death and destruction. That story was then used to demonize Jews during the Nazi regime. In that case, the story led to the consuming, figuratively and literally, of the Jews in the Nazi death camps and in the larger society.

We don’t have to go that far afield, however, either geographically or historically. We need only remember “Pizzagate,” the conspiracy theory that proposed the Democrats, and especially Hillary Clinton, were engaged in a child-sex ring that was also rumored to include cannibalism and blood-drinking.

The headquarters of this “ring” was rumored to be located at Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in northwest Washington D. C. This led Edgar Maddison Welch to drive to the pizzeria with an assault rifle and to begin shooting. The Pizzagate conspiracy has resurfaced as part of the Q-Anon conspiracy lunacy. This time the headquarters was identified as the U. S. Capitol. And the attack took place on January 6, 2021.

Harrill examines Greco-Roman sources including the work of the historian Thucydides. The historian described a local civil war on the island of Corcyra during the Peloponnesian war. The rhetoric of cannibalism was used to describe the revolutionaries in the most graphic of terms. “Thucydides draws on Greek ethical theory that articulates immorality not in terms of mere decline or degeneration but rather by the figure of inversion,” Harrill notes. “The inversion of verbal ‘transvaluation’ belongs to a set of interrelated elements within the Thucydidean topos that includes tyranny, the subordination of justice to self-interest, rampant criminality, violent unrestraint, and bloodthirstiness” (page 138).

This matters for our purposes because the writer of John’s gospel turns this rhetoric upside down and inside out, according to Harrill. “Thucydides’ narrative of the dissension at Corcyra is important for our study of the Fourth Gospel,” he proposes, “because Jesus’ cannibalistic talk of John 6:52–56 presents a corresponding inversion of verbal evaluations in a similar episode of communal dissension and factionalism” (page 139).

The imagery appears as well in Plato’s Republic. Revolt against the established order leads to a breakdown of societal norms and produces moral, and actual, monsters, Plato argues. Cannibalism thus belongs to ancient polemics against rival forms of government and community self-definition,” Harrill concludes (page 140). The imagery is used to vilify and bestialize Mark Antony during that period of Roman disorder. “Anthropophagy emerges therefore,” Harrill argues, “as a fundamental trope in polemics against factionalism and tyranny” (page 140).

In Jewish rhetoric of the time, Harrill describes and analyzes the imagery of cannibalism in the Jewish Wars of Flavius Josephus. He notes that Josephus shares the Greco-Roman ideology that makes the language of cannibalism understandable to audiences. “The Greco-Roman polemics of factionalism, with its imagery of cannibalism,” he argues, “provides an overlooked ancient context in which to interpret both the presence and the function of the cannibalistic language in John 6:52–66” (page 148).

Harrill points to the factionalism that is a main them of the Gospel of John. It is a story of opponents, divisions, and exclusion of the heterodox. Therefore, he asserts, “Cannibalism was one of the prime images of factionalism in ancient Mediterranean culture and is the key image of John 6” (page 149).  Why, then, would the writer of this Gospel use such image here?

Cannibalism was a familiar way to characterize and otherize one’s opponents in the ancient context. Given the nature of the Christian sacrament of the Supper, the charge of cannibalism would have been and was a natural one. Wagemaker’s article goes into detail on the charges made against Christians by pagan writers and government authorities in the late first and early second centuries. It’s interesting that both cannibalism and infanticide were among the charges leveled.

Harrill agrees with the scholarly consensus of those “who understand the Fourth Gospel to function as a ‘two-level drama,’ in which the murderous hostility between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ refers not to the situation of the historical Jesus but to the late-first-century experience of the author’s community being expelled from one of the emerging synagogues” (page 150). The writer is addressing those on the knife edge between “enduring” (continuing to put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah) and “perishing.”

The expelled and rejected followers of Jesus used the rhetoric of cannibalism to identify themselves as the true faction, those who endured. If, as Harrill argues, the Fourth Gospel’s message focuses on this experience of alienation, then the devices of inversion, irony (and, I would add, humor) carry this message forward. “The narrative,” Harrill writes, “appropriates many motifs and symbols from their traditional meaning and revalues them in a way precisely to offend the Jewish interlocutors” (page 155).

“The semantics of cannibalism, therefore,” Harrill concludes, “reflect John’s characteristic use of private language…throughout the Gospel. Such sectarian discourse,” he continues, “gave legitimacy to the estrangement and degradation that the community experienced. A product of a ‘cognitive minority,’ the private language affirmed the community’s feelings of Otherness and alienation from the world… The anthropophagic saying of the Johannine Jesus functions in an antimissionary way, to steer outsiders away from the community and to encourage unworthy insiders to leave” (page 156-157).

That’s probably enough to chew on for now.

References and Resources

Harrill, J. A. (2008). Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6: 52-66). Journal of Biblical Literature.

Miller, Michael E. “Pizzagate’s Violent Legacy.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/02/16/pizzagate-qanon-capitol-attack/.

WAGEMAKERS, B. (2010). INCEST, INFANTICIDE, AND CANNIBALISM: ANTI-CHRISTIAN IMPUTATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Greece & Rome, 57(2), second series, 337-354. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40929483

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