Jesus, Manna

This Sunday’s first reading is from Joshua 5:9-12. The key verses are here:

On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year. Joshua 5:11-12

God provided the miracle of manna to the Israelites to sustain them on passage from the land of bondage to the land of promise. When they entered the land of promise, the manna ceased. Manna was bread for the journey.

In John’s gospel, we find Jesus comparing himself to the manna of the exodus.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. John 6:48-56

It’s impossible for me to understand how any Christian in the late first century could read this passage and not think of the Eucharist.

In Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre explores the manna theme at length. Psalm 78:24-25 calls manna the bread of heaven and the food of angels. The deutero-canonical Wisdom of Solomon (16:20) uses similar language. The Targum Pseudo Jonathan also follows this train of thought. The Mishnah even says that manna was created on the eve of the seventh day of creation; it was with God in heaven from the beginning of creation.

The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (and later the temple) contained a container of manna (Exodus 16:32-34). The Babylonian Talmud locates the creation of manna in the heavenly temple, of which the earthly tabernacle is only a copy.

Some Jewish authors anticipated a return of the manna with the coming of the messiah. Pitre cites a few examples from rabbinic commentaries, and quotes a late first or early second century Jewish apocalypse.

And it will happen that when all that which should come to pass in these parts is accomplished, the Messiah will begin to be revealed . . . And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves, and they will, moreover, see marvels every day . . . . And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time. (2 Baruch 29:3, 6-8, as quoted in Pitre).

This passage, says Pitre, “is an important witness to the fact that the Jewish belief in the return of the manna was circulating a the time of Jesus.” The coming of the messiah will be the beginning of a new exodus, and the signs of the exodus will accompany it.

Pitre sees a reference to this expectation in the Lord’s Prayer. In the petition, “Give us this day our epiousios bread,” the word “epiousios” is a neologism. It is a made up word that is only found here. Often translated “daily,” Pitre breaks it down into its roots “epi” (on, upon, above) and “ousios” (being, substance, nature). Following Saint Jerome’s Vulgate (which translates “epiousios” as “supersubtanialem”), Pitre suggests “supernatural” as the best translation. Early Christian writers Cyril of Jerulaslem and Cyprian of Carthage also understood “epiousios” in this way. In this case, Jesus would be referring to the manna from heaven that accompanies the coming of the kingdom. What else could bread that is daily and supernatural be?

Commenting on the “bread” petition in the Lord’s Prayer, N. T. Wright made a manna-kingdom connection.

Manna was not needed in Egypt. Nor would manna be needed in the promised land. It is the food of inaugurated eschatology, the food that is needed because the kingdom has already broken in and because it is not yet consummated.

John 6 is built on the expectation of a new exodus, a new Moses and a revival of the heavenly manna. Just as Moses fed the people in the desert with manna, so Jesus feeds a multitude in the wilderness. (John 6:1-15). Jesus is acclaimed as the prophet who would come into the world (John 6:14) in accordance with Moses’ promise in Deuteronomy 18:15. But if Jesus is prophet like Moses, where is the daily manna? (John 6:31) Feeding a multitude one afternoon is nice, but the messiah will feed us every day. This leads Jesus to the Eucharistic language that rounds out the chapter.

This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)

Joachim Jeremias notes how closely this formulation fits with the more common, “This [bread] is my body, which is for you.”

God continually gives us the manna of the new exodus at the table of the Lord, where he feeds us with real heavenly food and real heavenly drink as we remain united to him through the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Thoughts in another direction at The Manna Ceased.

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