Bread in the Gospel of John

Giovanni Lanfranco, “Multiplication of the Loaves”

Yesterday, we saw the centrality to bread in the life of Jews. This is the context in which Jesus multiplies loves and preaches about the  Bread of Life.

In John 6, Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fish and uses them to feed five thousand people. By producing food in a place where people could get no food, Jesus repeats the miracle of manna. He becomes the one who brought “bread from heaven to eat.” This was a power that only God could wield, so the people rightly supposed that Jesus was the Messiah.

But the feeding of the five thousand was greater than the miracle of the manna. The amount Jesus provides is not merely sufficient: it is abundant. A surplus of twelve baskets remains, representing the twelve tribes of Israel and indicating that Christ is creating a new Israel and thus a new covenant.

In his “Tractates on John,” St. Augustine reads even deeper symbolism into the miracle of the loaves, seeing the five loves as a symbol of the Pentateuch. He attaches significance to the fact that these are barley loaves, which “belong to the Old Testament.” Barley has a hard shell, making it difficult to get to the nutritious center, similar to the way the legalities of the Old Testament can prevent true life in the Holy Spirit. As for the boy with the loaves and the fishes, perhaps he represents “the people Israel, which, in a childish sense, carried, not ate. For the things which they carried were a burden while shut up, but when opened [like barley] afforded nourishment.”

St. Augustine is telling us that Jesus has broken open the scripture, and stripped away the burdensome layers of legality, replacing it with Himself. He also “breaks open” the scripture much in the same way he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, explaining its real meaning and true fulfillment in Him.

The two fish are also deeply significant to Augustine, symbolizing the roles of Priest and the King in the Old Testament, “ who were anointed for the sanctifying and governing of the people.” In time, Christ himself came to fulfill the roles of Priest and King in one Person: “of priest by offering Himself to God as a victim for us; of ruler, because by Him we are governed. He has fulfilled by Himself what was promised in the Old Testament. And He bade the loaves to be broken; in the breaking they are multiplied.”

As King and Priest, Christ now rules both the corporal and spiritual realm. As we see in the Bread of Life discourse, immediately following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus does not merely provide the bread from heaven: he becomes the bread from heaven. “It is written,” he says in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Jesus is that Word and that bread. In giving this bread to others, broken for them as his body shall be broken, He gives them eternal life.

[You can find most of the references to “bread” in the New Testament here.]

Bread in the Old Testament

Bread was a staple food in ancient Palestine, made daily in every household. It was such a commonplace item that we don’t get details of types, production, and consumption in the Biblical texts. If we look to the wider documents of the Ancient Near East (ANE), we find the same constant reference to “bread,” but again: few details.  As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the root word for “bread” in Hebrew (lechem) can have different meanings in different cultures, from “meat,” to “cow,” to “fish” to “bread.”  Generally, it means the staple food of a culture, and in ANE cultures, this usually meant bread.

Pyramid of Pepi

Just to take one example among many, in the pyramids of Unis and Pepi I (Nefer-ka-Re) (Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, 25th-24th centuries BC) we find the words “O Osiris King Nefer-ka-Re, take to thyself the Eye of Horus. Lift thou it to thy face.” The instruction then follows: “A lifting of bread and beer.”

This calls to mind the terumah, or “heave offering,” which is mentioned in Bible more than 70 times, and usually rendered in English as “offering.” This uplifting of an offering signifies that something is being aside for God, and fit only to be consumed by kohen (priests). First fruits and tithes were offered in this way, including grains and breads. Thus we see one simple connection between Egypt and Israel. Throughout the documents of the ANE, these connections echo and re-echo, taking on new meanings in different cultural contexts.

Wheat (Exod 29:2) and barely (2 Kgs 4:42) were the primary components of bread. Wheat was preferred, but it was also more expensive that barley, and more scarce in hard times. In Ezekiel 4:9, we get a sense of his penitential privation when he is ordered to take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt and make bread to eat for the next 390 days while laying on his side. This is considered “siege food,” made from bits of everything because there isn’t enough to make a single kind of loaf or cake.

There are references to different kinds of loaves throughout the scripture:

Particular types of bread include ṣappı̂ḥit, “flat cake, wafer” (Exod 16:31); niqqūdı̂m, “hard bisquit or cake” (1 Kgs 14:3); kikkār, “(disk-shaped, round, thin) loaf of bread” (1 Sam 2:36); ḥallâ “(ring-shaped) bread” (2 Sam 6:19); rāqı̂q, “thin cake, wafer” (Exod 29:23); lĕbibâ, “heart-shaped cake” (2 Sam 13:6); ʿugâ “(circular, flat) bread cake” (Gen 18:6); maʾăpeh “thing baked” (Lev 2:4); maṣṣâ “unleavened bread, or cake” (Lev 2:5); ḥāmēṣ, “that which is leavened” (Exod 12:15). A loaf of bread which had been preserved by a fire was found at Gezer dating from 1800–1400 BC. [Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary]

When God needed to chastise the Israelites, He would threaten to break their “staff of bread” (Lev. 26:26), which was the very source of their survival. He might send the “bread of adversity” (Is 30:20) or  the “bread of tears” (Ps 80:5). One way Proverbs expresses disapproval of certain behavior is to suggest they get their daily bread by dishonorable means. This is the bread of idleness (31:27), deception (20:17), and wickedness (4:17). Cannibalistic images find a home in bread idioms, with oppression suggested by “eating people like bread” (Ps 14:4). In Numbers 14:9, we read: “And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”

Baking bread in an oven

On the other hand, when God promised “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity” (Deut 8:9), He was offering them life.

The importance of bread extended to the religious life of the Jews. Cereal offersings were part of the sacrificial system, as we see in Lev 2:4. Showbread, or the “bread of the presence,” was on permanent display in tabernacle and in the temple, as we see in Ex 25:30. And, of course, bread plays a central role at Passover. When Melchizedek mysteriously appears in Genesis 14, we are told that he “brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’”

In Exodus, God feeds his people on manna, saying, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” (Ex. 16:4) This bread is a miracle: food is provided where no food could be found. The amount provided is just sufficient: after it is collected from the ground, no one has more or less than they need. (Ex. 16:16-18) Yet this bread is perishable. If it is left uncollected, it turns foul or melts away. (Ex. 16:20-21)

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how John takes bread–so deeply embedded in the physical, social, and religious lives of the Jews–and renews them in a spectacular way.

You can find most of the references to bread (lechem) in the Old Testament here.

This brief video of bread making in a modern Bedouin village may convey some idea of how the practice was done in the region.