Brief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part Four: The Poetic Parallelism of St. John 6: 50 – 51

Ancient authors wrote differently than modern authors of poetry, prose and narrative. The ancient authors wrote using fixed forms that aided in imparting meaning and emphasis. These forms were also employed to aid in memorization of their works. These fixed forms abound in the Christian Scriptures — both Old and New Testaments. One such literary form is parallelism. Parallelism is found throughout the poetry of the Old Testament, and then especially in the Psalms. These poetic structures can also be found in the New Testament, and one such example can be found in St. John 6: 50 – 51. Before examining this text, let’s first consider the three basic types of parallelism found in the Scriptures: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic/stair-step (although scholars can define other types in addition to these three). I quote from Psalms — Reading and Studying the Book of Praises by W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), 13.

Synonymous parallelism. The second line enhances the thought of the first by way of closely related statement:
What is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him? (Ps 8:4)…
Antithetical parallelism. The second line may complete a thought by presenting a contrast to the first line:
For the wicked shall be cut off;
but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land. (Ps 37:9)…
[Synthetic] Stair-step parallelism. The second line may continue the thought of the first and take it a step further:
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods. (Ps 95:3)

Bellinger continues,

Students of Hebrew poetry have noticed other types of parallelism, but the above examples suffice to show that parallel lines in Hebrew poetry expess nuance and completion of thought rather than entirely distinct ideas. These examples also indicate that the thought — not the sound — of the text determines its form…

Scholars note that such parallelisms exist beyond the Psalms and can be found in the works of the prophets, and the the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). I further argue that parallelisms exist in the New Testament as well. I will examine one such parallelism as found in St. John 6: 50 – 51:

This is the bread which is coming down (katabainon) from heaven, in order that if someone might eat of it might also not perish. (6:50)
I am the living bread which came down (katabas) from heaven: if ever someone might eat of this bread he shall live forever, and the bread which I shall give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world. (6: 51)

It seems we find a parallelism in these two verses. This most clearly follows that of synthetic (stair-step) parallelism. Here St. John constructs Jesus’ words where the bread of verse 6: 51 further defines the bread of 6:50. In this construction, and of keenest interest, are the participle forms of the Greek verb katabainein — to come down, to descend. To see how verse 6:51 completes, or clarifies, verse 6:50, we next have to look at the types of Greek verbs/participles. Greek verbs tell far more than when an action occurred. Greek verbs inform us of the quality of action. This quality of action is called aspect. In verse 6:50 we have the present active, substantival participle katabainon. Regarding the present aspect, we are to know that the quality of the action implies an ongoing action: “The present tense is basically linear or durative, ongoing in its kind of action. The durative notion may be expressed graphically by an unbroken line ( _____ ), since the action is simply continuous (James A. Hewett, New Testament Greek — A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar, Henderiskson, 1986). Thus, there is a Bread which is continually coming down from heaven. Our Lord then defines and clarifies what and who this Bread is in 6:51. He most clearly states that this continually nourishing Bread is none other that his physical body of the Incarnation — the body that came down — katabas (aorist substantival participle — a completed action) — once and for all which will be broken and given for the life of the world. They are one and the same!

Given this parallelism, St. John then further records Jesus’ teaching on eating this continually descending, continually given, and continually eaten Body. The sixth chapter continues,

Therefore, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you should eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood you have no life among yourselves. The one who is continually eating (trogon — present active, substantival participle) my flesh and is continually drinking (pinon — present active, substantival participle) my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him in the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who is continually eating (trogon) my flesh and is continually drinking (pinon) my blood abides in me and I in him. Just as the Father sent me, and I live on account of the Father, also the one who is continually eating (trogon) shall live on account of me. This is the bread which came down (katabas) from heaven, not as the fathers ate [of the manna] and died: the one who is continually eating (trogon) this bread shall live forever (6: 53 – 58).

So, where is the life giving bread to be found, and eaten which gives eternal life to the one who is consuming it? It is in the Eucharist of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church! We find this in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church:

With these blessed powers, O Master who lovest mankind, we also cry aloud and say: Holy art thous and all-holy, thou and thine Only-begotten Son and thy Holy Spirit. Holy art thou and all-holy, and magnificent is thy glory; who hast so loved thy world as to give thine Only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life; who, when he had come and had fulfilled all the dispensation for us, in the night in which he was given up — or rather gave himself up for the life of the world — took bread in his holy, most pure, and blameless hands, and when he had given thanks, and blessed it and hallowed it, and broken it, he gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying: “Take, eat: This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins…” And likewise after supper he took the cup saying: “Drink of it, all of you: This is my Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.”

My brothers and sisters, be so continually eating his Body and drinking his Blood that his life, light, victory, forgiveness, and cleansing may be yours to sanctify you in this life, and raise you to eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!

The first three of such commentaries:  Brief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part One: The Feeding of the 5,000 (6: 1 – 15)Brief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part Two: Walking on WaterBrief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part Three: A Misused Objection is Countered

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus



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