Heilmann, Jan. "A Meal in the Background of John 6:51-58?" Journal of Biblical Literature 137:2 (2018), 481-500.
Heilmann considers whether there is a eucharistic intention in John 6:51-58 or whether the eucharistic interpretation was read into the passage at a later time. He argues that "the passage refers in more general terms to the universal human practice of eating and drinking" (Heilmann 2018, 482).
In the 1990s a new interpretation of eucharistic passages arose, in which scholars attemt to distinguish between the discourse and the actual practice of meal rituals (Heilmann 2018, 483). The narratves are taken not to represent the practice but to provide some sort of typology. Heilmann asserts that the meal rituals in Christian practice are not known to include the Words of Institution as part of the meal prayers until the prayer from the 4th century Apostolic Tradition (Heilmann 2018, 484).
Based on this view, Heilmann considers the specific eucharistic ritual to have been absent at the time of composition of the Fourth Gospel (Heilmann 2018, 485). The absence of an institution narrative in John could rurther reinforce the idea that no eucharistic celebraion existed in the experience of the evangelist. Therefore, Heilmann takes the eucharistic overtones in John 6 to be anachronistic (Heilmann 2018, 486).
Heilmann evaluates John 6 on the level of metaphor. In verse 27 Jesus introduces the discourse, then he identifies himself as the Bread of Life in verse 35 (Heilmann 2018, 487). The metaphors, rather than being centered on the food, focus on the act of eating. The eating is what brings eternal life (v. 51). Heilmann concludes that the act of eating has to do with receiving and believing that Jesus is the Word incarnate. Heilmann observes that the concept of eating and drinking as receiving messages appears also in secular literature (Heilmann 2018, 489).
The language of John 6:51-58 is relatively concrete. Heilmann notes that this leads many exegets to see the passage as sacramental, not metaphorical (Heilmann 2018, 489). Heilmann, however, doe snot think the language necessarily precludes a metaphor. The verbs used are sometimes present in metaphoric passages. Further, the cultic meals which are theorized as parallels to John 6 cannot be proven to have been in operation (Heilmann 2018, 490). A literal reading appears to represent a cannibalistic motif, but understanding the passage metaphorically takes off the offensive edge and allows for a focus on the reception of Jesus by faith (Heilmann 2018, 491). In the end, Heilmann sees the flesh and blood given to be the teachings of Jesus which equip one for eternal life. This is consonant with sharing in Jesus' sufferings and taking on a life based on His words (Heilmann 2018, 493).
Heilmann next considers the history of reception of John 6:51-58. He asks if it has been understood metaphorically and in what contexts (Heilmann 2018, 494). While there are suggestions of a meal practice, particularly in the proximity of feeding the multitude, Heilmann takes the statement of "giving thanks" to be a commonplace idea not necessarily connected with a sacramental ritual. The specific teaching of the Bread of Life, in fact, does not happen in close connection with the meal, but later, in a synagogue (Heilmann 2018, 495). Further, Jesus' statements in passages where he is misunderstood are typically to be understood metaphorically. Here, the pattern is followed. Jesus makes statements which are questioned, then Jesus makes a further explanation, not deviating from the original statement (Heilmann 2018, 496). The end result of the discourse is that the twelve disciples remain with Jesus, receiving His words. Heilmann finds this understanding represented in the early history of interpreation as well (Heilmann 2018, 497).
Heilmann closes by noting that Ignatius' reference in Eph. 20.2 does not necessarily speak of a sacrament but rather of the unity of Christians (Heilmann 2018, 499).