John 6:54-58, and the Meaning of the Verb “to Eat” Flesh

John 6:54-55, and the
Meaning of the Verb “to Eat” Flesh
By Robert Sungenis


The word used in John 6:54, 56-58, when Jesus says to eat his flesh and drink his blood is an important matter to consider when doing exegesis of the passage. The word to eat, trogo, means to gnaw, crunch, so showing the physical reality, and showing the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is too obvious for some, and even Protestant dictionaries have to try to explain away the meaning of this. Here Robert Sungenis responds to an email from someone who asks him a question on the meaning of the word to “eat flesh” (trogo.) The Protestant’s Vine’s Dictionary attempts to give a figurative meaning to the expression of eating flesh (p. 192), and Bob Sungenis responds to this attempt. In Green is the email from the person asking the question, and later, quotes from Vine’s dictionary. In Blue is Sungenis’ analysis.

My question is:
In checking Vine's Dictionary for "trogo" it says that it is used "metaphorically of the habit of spiritually feeding upon Christ", which is clearly the Protestant definition. It goes on to say "The use of 'trogo' in Mat.24:38 and John13:18 is a witness against pressing into the meaning of the word the sense of munching or gnawing; it had largely lost this sense in its common usage." How do I answer this above statement?

Here are some excerpts from an article I am writing titled: "The ‘trogo' Experience of Contemplative Munching

First, Vines' Expository Dictionary is a Protestant work that is biased against Catholic doctrine. Even the three volume Dictionary of New Testament Theology (editor Colin Brown) is a biased work, especially in regards to the words used in John 6. A better resource is a Greek lexicon, like Walter Bauer, Liddell and Scott, Moulton-Milligan, or Reinecher.

Here is what Vine says of "trogo": (I will make comments intermittently)

"Primarily, to gnaw, to chew, stresses the slow process; it is used metaphorically of the habit of spiritually feeding upon Christ, John 6:54,56,57,58 (the aorists here do not indicate a definite act, but view a series of acts seen in perspective);

Comment: First of all, the "trogo" verbs in John 6:54-58 (pronounced "troogoon;" the double o signifying the long-sounding Greek omega), are all in the present participle form, not aorist, so Vine's comment here is irrelevant. The only aorist is "phagete" in John 6:53, but that is a subjunctive in a conditional clause, which would not support Vine's point. Second, notice how Vine first admits to the very literal usage of "trogo" as "to chew," even stressing the "slow process" of chewing, but then, out of nowhere, injects the conclusion that "trogo" is used "metaphorically" of "spiritual feeding" in John 6. He does not give any grammatical or historical rationale for his abrupt shift in meaning, rather, he is forced to this conclusion by his Protestant bias.

He continues: "of the constant custom of eating in certain company, John 13:18; of a practice unduly engrossing the world, Matt. 24:38."

Comment: Vine is picking out one dimension of the use of "trogo" in these verses, but ignoring the other dimensions. It is the combination of these two dimensions which gives "trogo" its special meaning. I will elaborate on this in my latter paragraphs.

"In John 6, the change in the Lord's use from the verb esthio (phago) to the stronger verb trogo is noticeable.”

Comment: At least he does recognize that the switch from phago to trogo is "noticeable." We'll have to thank him for taking "notice," reluctant he may be in doing so.

"The more persistent the unbelief of His hearers, the more difficult His language and statements became. In vv. 49 to 53 the verb phago is used; in 54, 58 trogo (in ver. 58 it is put into immediate contrast with phago)."

Comment: Of course, Vine's reason for Jesus making his language "more difficult" is that "trogo" is used spiritually while "phago," as noted in his previous explanation above and in his description of "phago" in his dictionary, is used physically. But what he misses is that "phago" is used quite often in the spiritual sense in the New Testament (see below), and is even used on par with "trogo" in John 6:53-54. So if Vine's argument is that "trogo" is "more difficult" than "phago" because "trogo" is spiritual and "phago" is physical (e.g., as "phago" is used physically to recount the giving of manna to the OT Jews in John 6:49), this cannot be possible, since "phago" must also, due its presence in John 6:53 as a lead in to "trogo" in John 6:54, be used in Vine's "spiritual" sense. Vine cannot object to our critique of his view because he has already committed to viewing John 6:54-58 as metaphorical and spiritual, which also commits him to seeing "phago" in John 6:53 as metaphorical and spiritual.

But if Vine were to claim that both "phago" and "trogo" are being used spiritually in John 6:53- 54, then he would have no basis for saying, as he earlier did, that the use of "trogo" is "more difficult" than "phago," since both words would then be on an equal spiritual plane and point to the same spiritual idea — that the bread is not Jesus but merely a symbol of Jesus. Spiritually speaking, "trogo" could not be "more difficult" than "phago." "Chewing spiritually" cannot be any more difficult than "eating spiritually," since both point to the same spiritual reality. The "more difficult" nature of "trogo" in contrast to "phago" can only be in the PHYSICAL realm of meaning, that is, "phago" refers to "physical eating" but "trogo" refers to "intense physical eating." This is confirmed by the fact that the Jews, according to John 6:52, understood "phago" as referring to physical eating, not spiritual eating. Mr. Vine is trapped, but he doesn't realize it.

"The use of trogo in Matt. 24:38 and John 13:18 is a witness against pressing into meaning of the word the sense of munching or gnawing; it had largely lost this sense in its common usage."

Comment: The assertion that "it had largely lost this sense in its common usage" is mere conjecture based on his wish to dispense with the Catholic usage of "trogo" in John 6. There is absolutely no evidence for Vine's claim in either koine or classical literature. What Vine misses is that "trogo" connoted more than "munching" or "chewing," but a special kind of munching or chewing, which I will explain below.

Here is some additional information:

Contrary to Vine, "trogo" is never used metaphorically in either koine or classical Greek. "trogo" (= "I eat," present indicative) is used six times in various verb forms in the New Testament:

Matt. 24:38
John 6:54, 56, 57, 58
John 13:18

As a preliminary matter, the main issue is not whether "trogo" can refer to something other than munching or chewing, but whether "trogo" is ever used in a non-physical sense. The meaning in the above passages concerns only the physical act of eating, which distinguishes the meaning from being merely symbolic, as is true of its counterpart "phago" which is sometimes used symbolically (cf., John 4:32; 1 Cor. 10:3). In fact, there is no symbolic usage of "trogo" in the New Testament or in classical literature, and "trogo" is not used in the LXX. In classical literature, according to Liddell and Scott, "trogo" referred mainly to biting into a piece of fruit or vegetable and eating it. Of the two, "phago" is the more general, since it can refer to physical or spiritual eating, but there are other reasons I will state below. Vine tries to turn "trogo" in Matt 24:38 and John 13:18 into metaphors by claiming that the physical eating is merely representative of the social scene, but this is illegitimate, since that is not how a true metaphor is defined. The ante-deluvian people were literally "eating and drinking, and marrying and giving in marriage" right up until Noah entered the ark, since the ark door was shut on the very day it started raining; and Judas did share an intimate meal with Jesus right before he betrayed him. In fact, as I will show below, the social context of Matt. 24:38 and John 13:18 is only made possible by the fact that "trogo" is taken in its literal sense.

"Phago" and "trogo," when used in the physical sense, can be used interchangeably. For example, in John 6:53-54 Jesus says, "Except you eat ("phagete" - aorist, subjunctive) the flesh of the Son of Man....He that eats ("trogon" - present, participle) my flesh." Likewise, Jesus uses "phago" in Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; when he says, "Take, eat, This is my body."

Another interchange is in John 6:58: "Not as your fathers ate ("ephagon" - aorist, indicative) the manna and died. He that eats (" trogon " - present, participle) this bread shall live forever." Notice that "phago" in John 6:58 is understood in the physical sense, which would also point to its being used physically in John 6:53. This is so because "phago," used in both John 6:49 and 6:58 when Jesus is speaking of the Jews eating manna in the desert, is sandwiching John 6:53 which uses "phago" in reference to eating Jesus. It would be grammatically incongruous for Jesus to switch from a physical meaning in verse 49, to a spiritual meaning in verse 53, and back to a physical meaning in verse 58.

Notice also that "trogon" in John 6:54 and 6:58 is a present participle, which refers to an ongoing eating, whereas the aorist indicative of "phago" in 6:58, which describes the eating of the manna, refers to a past, discontinued event. In fact, all the uses of "trogo" in John 6 are present participles, which means that the eating of Jesus must be continual.

All in all, "trogo" carries the meaning not just of "chewing" or "munching" but also of "intimate, sustained, eating and total consumation," as opposed to "phago" which is usually only a general reference to eating without further description. One way to distinguish the two, using our everyday language, is to say "phago" refers to "eating for essential nourishment," while "trogo" refers more to "dining, with the express purpose of masticating all the food so that one can savor it," as when we go to a fine restaurant to eat our favorite meal, perhaps making groans of pleasure as we eat. This puts a little distance from defining "trogo" as mere "chewing" or "munching," since animals do the same kind of chewing but without being cognizant of a fine gourmet meal shared with another.

Thus, Jesus can use "phago" in John 6:53 when he is referring to the Eucharist, since "phago" refers to "essential nourishment," which is true of the Eucharist — it leaves us with God's grace. In fact, Jesus completes John 6:53 with "unless you eat (phagete) the flesh of the Son of Man....you have NO LIFE IN YOU," showing a lack of nourishment (sanctifying grace) if one refuses to eat.

But in the next verses, John 6:54-55, Jesus says, "Whoever eats (trogon) my flesh...has eternal life...for my flesh is REAL food" (Greek: aleethos = truly, really). Notice that now the emphasis is on "REAL" food. In other words, Jesus is saying, "Look, I'm not kidding when I say I, personally, am food for you [as he just intimated in John 6:53]. In fact, I am so REAL that you will actually have to chew me [trogon me] as you would dine at a meal."

This distinction between "phago" and "trogo" wherein the latter refers more to intimate dining, would also explain why John 13:18 and Matt. 24:38 can opt to use "trogo" instead of "phago." John 13:18 uses "trogo" as a translation for the Hebrew "akal" in Psalm 41:9. "Akal" is the normal Hebrew word for "eat," being used in various forms about 800 times in the OT. But the Jews did not have a specific word for "chew" or "gnaw," which is probably why the LXX (Septuagint) never translated "akal," or the other Hebrew words for "eat" such as "barah," "lacham," "raah," "team," or "okel," into the Greek word "trogo." The Greeks had a word for everything.

John 13:18 is the scene in which Judas is betraying Jesus after sharing a most intimate meal with him. The horror of the betrayal is made even more severe by its stark contrast to the intimacy of dining together. Colloquially, Jesus would be saying, "The one with whom I shared a most intimate meal, is the very one who will betray me." This is why some translations render John 13:18 as "He who SHARES MY BREAD has lifted up his heel against me" (NIV). Although it would still be possible to use "phago" in John 13:18, "trogo" puts more emphasis on the intimacy of dining together.

In Matthew 24:38, we have almost the same picture. The scene is of an intimate wedding in which people are eating and drinking, oblivious of the coming deluge of Noah's flood. The use of "trogo" here portrays an intimate, sumptuous meal, which is common at weddings and which occupies the guests time and interest. In fact, much of the ceremony/celebration revolves around the food and drink, as was the case in the marriage feast of Cana in John 2. Matthew is trying to draw our attention to the act of enthusiastic dining among the guests, which in turn shows us why the guests are oblivious to their coming misfortune. It is also significant that there is not another instance in the New Testament in which "eating and drinking" is coupled with "marrying and giving in marriage," which shows that the intensity or emphasis afforded by "trogo" allows it to be uniquely coupled with an intimate marriage celebration.

Hence, in using "trogo" in John 6:54-58, Jesus is not merely saying that the Jews must "chew" him (like animals chewing a cud, or like humans taking a vitamin pill), but that they must chew as if they were dining at a fine meal of celebration, savoring every bite of him, thinking about the food as they eat it. This is why the Jews are upset at Jesus -- not only because he is telling them to eat him (phago, which, admittedly, could have been interpreted either physically or spiritually), but because he is treating himself, without equivocation, as if he were an intimate dining experience, which was indeed the nature of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and continues to be in the Mass. The Jews are no longer to eat like their ancestors who consumed manna in the desert merely to fill their stomachs, and who even complained that they didn't like the taste of the manna. No, the food that Jesus will give is a savory meal which one must intimately chew, taste and enjoy. We do this by contemplating who we are eating — God himself. Colloquially speaking, it is gourmet food that must be chewed and savored; you must really know what you are consuming, which starts by literally sinking your teeth into it. Since chewing connotes the idea of getting into the inner essence of the object, "trogo" is the most intimate and specific word afforded in the Greek language to get this point across — that God himself wishes to become a physical part of every part of our being. We can thus enjoy a "trogo experience" when we receive the Eucharist, literally savoring the presence of God in our mouth and then contemplating him permeating our entire body and filling us with his grace. Wow, what a rush!!

Robert Sungenis


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