Light & Bread in the Gospel of John

This essay originally was published in an online journal, now defunct. I’m publishing it here in case it’s of interest. The full title is Light and Bread: A Sapiential Reading of Two “I Am” Statements in the Gospel of John. All the footnotes got stripped when I plopped the text into WordPress, but if you’re curious about a citation, let me know.

The most powerful moments in the Gospel of John occur when Jesus takes the sacred name of God—“I AM”—as his own. In particular, Christ seeks to explain his being by creating a mosaic of images in the seven “I am” statements. In these, Jesus is the bread of life; the light of the world; the gate; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life; and the true vine. Each statement peels back the veil that shielded mankind’s eyes from the face of God, seeking to express a new way of encountering God, not on the mountain or in the pillar of fire, but in the flesh of the incarnate Christ.

Jesus uses the phrase “I am” in numerous other places in John, perhaps none as potent as his simple formulation, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) These statements must have been like a thunderclap for his Jewish listeners, who fully understood that Jesus was claiming equality with God. The Gospel of John is deeply rooted in Jewish theology and understanding, and it is through these “I am” statements that Jesus conveys the nature of the new covenant to a Jewish audience. In particular, the images of bread and light convey two fundamental qualities that define the Christian experience.

I Am the Bread of Life
In most of his sayings in John, Jesus draws on Old Testament language and imagery to express new realities to his audience. This opens his words, particularly his “I am” phrases, to multiple levels of meaning and understanding. With John 6:34—“I am the bread of life”—we have an image that evokes wisdom, allowing for a sapiential interpretation that draws upon the long tradition of personified Wisdom in Jewish literature.

Bread is associated with Wisdom throughout the Old Testament, and into the New. We hear it in the words of Sirach 15:3: “She [Wisdom] will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.” In Amos 8:11, the prophet draws a parallel between the hunger for food and the hunger for wisdom: “Behold, the days are coming … when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” In a passage like this, Christians make a connection between a hunger for bread and the incarnate Word. This was the kind of pedagogy Jesus was offering to his listeners, and to Christians down through the ages to our own day.

Christ has come into a Jewish world that understands two paths of knowledge: that of the philosophers, and that of the law. These are both a kind of bread that feeds the people. We see in the feeding of the 5,000 examples of both kinds of bread. First, Phillip says that “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (John 6:7) Thomas Aquinas sees this as an image of wisdom acquired through philosophy, which must be purchased through “experience and contemplation,” and yet will never fully nourish.

The other kind of wisdom is the Law, represented by the five barley loaves, which are a symbol of the Pentateuch. This, too, is not enough to nourish, and must be multiplied by the Lord. Thus, we see that wisdom derived from philosophy and wisdom derived from the law are insufficient until multiplied and completed by the coming of Wisdom in the form of Christ.

With this as our background, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says “I am the bread of life.” This is a new bread, which neither the Jews nor the Greeks have ever encountered. Money—even 200 denarii—is useless for purchasing this kind of wisdom. As we read in Isaiah 55:1-3, we come to eat and drink at the banquet of the Lord “without money and without price.” We should not spend our money for “that which is not bread” and “which does not satisfy.” The “bread” of this passage is not literal bread, but the Word of the Lord, which you must “hear, so that your soul may live.”

The phrase “bread of life” does not occur in the Old Testament. Indeed, we have to look to the Pseudepigrapha to find this phrase.

“Joseph and Aseneth” is a non-canonical tale dating from some time between 100BC and 200AD, and telling the story of the marriage of Joseph (son of Jacob) to the pagan Aseneth. Thus, it may be either a Jewish document that represents the sole appearance of the phrase “bread of life,” or a later document written under the influence of Christianity.

In the apocryphal tale, an angel comes to Aseneth to help her become worthy of marrying Joseph. He does this by feeding her a piece of honeycomb from his hand, and bidding her “Eat.” In the story, the honeycomb is an image of manna, but the words of the angel (whom Aseneth address as “Lord”) have a powerful Christian import: “Behold, you have eaten the bread of life, and drunk the cup of immortality, and been anointed with the ointment of incorruptibility. Behold, from today your flesh will flourish like flowers of life from the ground of the Most High.”

This bread has a power beyond that of manna. It not only makes Aseneth pure and draws her in the Covenant, but also gives her new life. Was this an early tale used by either Jesus or the Evangelist to convey a radical new theology to a Jewish audience, or a later Christian interpolation of a traditional Jewish folk tale? We have no way of knowing, but the image it creates is a powerful one. Here is the “bread of life,” which is able to unite Jew and gentile.

Even more suggestive is the fact that this Jew is Joseph, a symbol of wisdom who rises to great heights because of his wise council to pharaoh. How does he do this? As the scripture tells us, “There was no bread [sometimes translated merely as “food”] in all the land.” (47:13) What does Joseph do? He finds a way to provide grain for bread during the years of famine. In this way, he prefigures Christ feeding the multitudes.

We can see in these brief examples—both canonical and non-canonical—the powerful currents of meaning and symbols that drive us forward, like waves on the sea, from the old covenant to the new. Wisdom becomes a symbol for “spiritual refreshment,” and that Wisdom is the Word: “Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

This is the Wisdom that will bring us all to eternal life. As Thomas Aquinas observes, material bread is “the bread of death.” It can only ever replace what is lost by the body, and thus has no role in our immortal life. But the bread of life is the bread of “divine wisdom.” It is “life-giving of itself, and no death can affect it.” The life this bread gives us allows the soul to live, and that life is ours because we listen to the word of God.

I Am the Light of the World
Turning to John 8:12, wherein Jesus says “I am the light of the world,” it is possible to continue exploring sapiential themes and the way they would have resonated with a Jewish audience.

Once again, we have Christ presenting an image that evokes a specific Jewish understanding. In this case, his words coincide with the feast of Tabernacles, which began with a water-drawing ceremony and the lighting four large lamps of gold in the Temple’s Courtyard of the Women. These lamps were fueled with vats of pure oil, and lit by children of priestly descent using worn out priestly garments as wicks. The light was so bright that it illuminated all the courts of Jerusalem.

Philo wrote that Tabernacles was meant to teach “equality, the first principle and beginning of justice . . . and after witnessing the perfection of all the fruits of the year, to give thanks to the Being who has made them perfect.” The feast ended on the eighth day, which was regarded as the crowning day of all the feasts of the year. It is quite suggestive that Tabernacles was a harvest feast, celebrating the conclusion of a fruitful growing season. This echoes and amplifies John 6 and its mediations on the bread of life.

Thus, on the occasion of a feast in which oil is fired with the worn-out garments of the Temple priests, shedding a light over the Temple and the whole city, Christ utters another earth-shaking statement: He is the light of the world. Oil is a symbol of anointing and kingship, while the worn out priestly garments are a symbol of the insufficiency of the old priesthood and sacrifice. The lamps of the feast merely provide earthly light, which will flicker and fade when the oil is exhausted.

In this setting, Christ reveals the light that never fades, and which illuminates not merely the Temple or the Jews alone, but the entire world. The light of the fire illuminating the Courtyard of the Women was meant to evoke the pillar of fire that guided the Jews in the wilderness. The Book of Wisdom identifies this light with “the imperishable light of the law” (Wisdom 18:4), which brought them to the promised land. This light has been replaced by the light of Christ, which shall lead us to the true and final promised land of heaven. The one who follows the light of Christ “will not walk in darkness, for he has the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Augustine says that this light is “the Light which never fails, the Light of knowledge, the Light of Wisdom.” God’s first creation, of course, was light. (Genesis 1:3) Wisdom is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wisdom 7:26) Christ brings Wisdom to mankind. He offers a light that shall be placed upon a stand to shine brightly, driving away the darkness of error and sin. (cf Luke 11:33-36) Those who believe in his truth have found the light of Wisdom: “I have come as light in the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)

Wisdom was with God at the beginning, and in the beginning was the Light, brought to earth by Christ. “Let us love this Light,” says Augustine. “Let us long to understand it, let us thirst for the same; that, with itself for our guide, we may at length come to it, and that we may so live in it that we may never die.”

By coming among us as the bread of life and light of the world, Jesus gives us an opportunity to share in the life of God. In particular, we are called to wisdom, which is found through following the teaching and example of Christ.

In Matthew 11:19, Jesus says quite clearly: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

St. James provides guidance for our times, when discerning between the wisdom of man and the Wisdom of God becomes difficult. Who is wise? James asks. Let his works and meekness prove his wisdom. Those who display “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” do not have the wisdom that “comes down from above,” but instead have a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” (James 3:13-15) This can lead only to “disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:16)

By comparison, the Wisdom of God is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” (James 3:18)

In “The Tree of Life,” St. Bonaventure describes what is needed for the kingdom of God to be perfect. Power alone is not enough. The kingdom also needs “resplendent wisdom,” so that this power is direct by “the brilliant rays of the eternal laws emanating without deception from the light of wisdom. And this wisdom is written in Christ Jesus as in the book of life.” The Son of God, says Bonaventure, is “the book of wisdom and the light that is full of living eternal principles in the mind of the supreme Craftsman.”

Nourished by the Bread of Life and guided by the Light of the World, mankind at last has an opportunity to share in a portion of the Wisdom of God, by which we can better discern the will of God in our lives.