Tuesday, August 14

When Water Became Wine

The recorded miracles performed by Jesus are among the most fascinating and fantastical in Scripture. According to the gospel of John, written c.AD 95 in Ephesus (modern-day Turkey), the first public miracle that Jesus performed occurred at a wedding in Cana in Galilee (John 2:11). While the intention of this article is not to examine whether or not miracles are philosophically or scientifically possible, our intent is to "unpack" the text and learn what we can about Jesus' first public miracle, infamous as the incident where Jesus turned the water into wine. Textual evidence, sociological and archaeological evidence can also provide insight into some of the customs and rituals mentioned within the text, enabling us to view the account through several different lenses. It is therefore pertinent to view the text as a whole before picking apart the text piece by piece. What does the text itself say?

"On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’ ‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them,’ Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’ They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.’ What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him. After this he went down to Capernaum with his brothers and sisters and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days" (John 2:1-12).

"On the third day a wedding took place..." Historically, Jews in the first century thought that because on the third day of creation God declared everything “good” twice, that the third day of the week - Tuesday - was the best day to marry (cf. Genesis 1:10, 12), hence why this Jewish couple is celebrating their marriage on the third day of the week. As this occurred at the start of Jesus' ministry, it would have been around AD 29-30. A wedding is of course a social event, and as there is no ceremony mentioned in the text, this is likely what we would now call a wedding reception. "...at Cana in Galilee." Cana is located near Capernaum. It is mentioned as the birth-place of Nathanael. Cana is also approximately 5-9 miles from Nazareth, and hence was not far from where Jesus grew up. It is entirely possible that the married couple were family friends. Galilee was the province in which the first and last recorded miracle took place. After Jesus’ resurrection, the last recorded miracle took place on the shore of Galilee’s sea (John 21). As a side note, although some Mormons claim that this wedding was Jesus' wedding, those who hold this position fail to account that the bridegroom is not identified as Jesus, and "Jesus and his disciples had been invited to the wedding." It is likely not your wedding if you are invited to your own wedding. Along with this, such an important event in Christ's life would have been more prominent. 

According to Andrew Greeley, Catholic priest and sociologist, "In an era where there were no films, no television, no radio, no computer games, weddings were one of the few available sources for entertainment for the peasant farmers of Palestine. They lasted for a week and were at least as lively as Jewish weddings today – singing, dancing, eating, drinking, talking, telling tales, gossiping, remembering. The bride and groom would go off to another room or behind a protective curtain to consummate their marriage and the dancing and the music and the celebrating would continue.”[1] One wonders how much sleeping was involved in these celebrations. It is likely that few were drunk at these events. When a wedding took place, the entire village was invited, and as noted the wedding celebration usually took about a week.

This practice can even be seen in the time of Jacob (Genesis 29:27). Also, since the entire village was generally invited and partook, each did not consume enormous amounts of wine so there was not much indulgence.[2] Each likely had a moderate amount of the wine. Scripture instructs believers not to be drunk on wine, but on the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). It is also likely that at least some of the water jars were there for the ritual washing of hands and utensils.[3] In sociological terms, wine was drunk more often than not as a result of water contamination. A reference to this is found even within the New Testament, in a letter from St. Paul to Timothy, "Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illness" (1st Timothy 5:23). In these days, water was not very clean. The water was generally filled with contaminants, and individuals drank wine as a result of the unclean water. Sometimes the water was mixed with a bit of wine, or sometimes it was simply a moderate portion of wine. 

From Giotto di Bondone (1400s; Public Domain)
Verses 4-5 are curious. Although it appears that we are missing a crucial piece of the conversation between Jesus and His mother, it is entirely possible that she understood that He would help, and simply continued to inform the servants. It is also possible that she informed the servants without His consent, essentially guilting Him into helping, although He likely intended to regardless. “Jesus’ literal words sound brusque: ‘What has this concern of yours to do with Me, woman?’ But another translation would be ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ It was not yet His time to provide for all the needs of all the world’s people through His sacrificial death, but His turning water into wine was a sign that messianic times had arrived (Jl 3:13; Am 9:13-14)."[4] Mary watched Jesus grow and helped raise Him during the first thirty years of His life, and she likely understood that a time was soon coming for Him to reveal Himself to the world as the Messiah, and this may not be the first time Mary asked Jesus to perform a miracle or implied that He ought to help in some way and thereby perform His first public miracle. His statement "My hour has not yet come" can mean a variety of things.

The statement may mean that the hour of His sacrifice had not yet come, or the hour to perform the miracle had not yet come, or the time for Him to go public with His ministry. Whatever the case, Jesus did indeed perform His first public miracle by turning the water in the six stone jars into wine. The six stone jars could hold about 20-30 gallons each, which is about 75-115 liters and about 180 gallons in all. They were used for ceremonial washing due to their large size. When the servants refilled the jars with water, they likely utilized local wells. This would have taken some time depending on the number of wells, number of buckets, and number of servants. For those who claim that Jesus faked the miracle, these factors would have made it difficult to do so. But what of the usage of the wine? "One hundred eight gallons of the best wine! How could the guests possibly consume it! What did the hosts do with it afterward! Were there other parties in the weeks ahead before it turned sour? We do not know, though it is fun to speculate."[5] The large amount of wine leads the reader to wonder precisely why Jesus had the servants fill all six of the jars, and not simply two or three. "The huge amount of wine was excessive. Why not just one water jar? Jesus liked being excessive, just as his Father-In-Heaven was excessive. Why so many stars? Why not just one galaxy?"[6]

The importance of water symbolism in a purely literary or textual sense cannot be stressed enough. Out of the water came the wine, which the master of the banquet considered to be "the best wine".  Water plays a significant role in Scripture and history. According to Genesis 1:2, God the Spirit "hovered over the waters," and "long ago by God's word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged [the global flood] and destroyed" (2nd Peter 3:5-6). The early Hebraic nomads knew well that water was precious in the deserts of the Near East, and as water was a precious commodity, it was a valuable treasure. Moses' experience in the wilderness during his forty years away from Egypt provided Him with an advantage when the exodus occurred and the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness for forty years (the second set of forty years in the wilderness for Moses), so that Moses knew well the geography of the land. Jesus also walked on the water, calmed the water and after His crucifixion, blood and water flowed from His side (John 19:34; likely due to the rupturing of the heart or puncturing of the pericardial sac), which may possibly also be referenced in 1st John 5:6. Water is also used in baptism, as noted in the New Testament documents and early church writings such as The Didache.

Perhaps the most striking contrast to this miracle at Cana is found in the life of Moses. While Moses turned the Nile River in Egypt from water into blood, Jesus turned the water into wine, a sort of antithesis. Jesus Himself once said, "those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14). The water symbolism found within the first miracle of Jesus is no mere accident, though it may be referred to as an undesigned coincidence by J.J. Blunt. The spiritual significance goes hand in hand with the literary significance; while Moses turned the water into blood (life into death), Jesus turned the life-giving water into wine, which was likely wine in decay yet its purpose was still in some sense the continuation - not extermination - of life. Now, John 2:12 says, "After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days." Jesus’ brothers are mentioned at the end of the account as having gone to Capernaum with Him. Had they also been at this wedding festival to witness His first miracle? If so, would James and Jude use this miracle in discussions with people years later when they had become Christians? We know from other passages in the New Testament that His brothers were originally skeptical, but is it feasible to assume that they too were present at this wedding festival? We will likely never know on this side of eternity, but it is certainly possible, though the miracle evidently did not convince Jesus' brothers.

There is one issue that has been brought to the attention of some which ought to be addressed. According to Morton Smith, an American professor of ancient history well-known for his "discovery" of Secret Mark, "The Johannine story of Jesus' turning water into wine (2.1-11) was modeled on a myth about Dionysus told in a Dionysiac festival shows striking similarities, even in wording, to the gos+pel material and makes its polemic purpose apparent. I do not know any close magical parallel before the practice of the Christian magician Marcus (Hippolytus, Refutation VI.39f)."[7] Now, it is worth noting that historical evidence appears to point to this Dionysus myth coming about in the 2nd century - whereas John's gospel was written and put into circulation in the late 1st century. It is therefore very likely that any borrowing came from the opposition, not the other way around. Now, whether Dionysus was changing things into wine prior to Christ could also be considered a non-issue. Wine was very important in ancient civilizations because of its primary usage, and to have multiple civilizations with a god of wine is to be expected. One major difference, however, is that Jesus was a historical figure whereas Dionysus is a mythological figure. It is also entirely possible that Jesus performed this as His first miracle to counter the false deity; much like the plagues in Egypt during the time of Moses can be seen as countering the false Egyptian deities. 

On its simplest level, the account of turning water into wine found in the text of John 2 is the story of the God-man's public introduction with the first miracle. Jesus had (up to this point) gone through His baptism under John the Baptist and had also endured the forty days of temptation in the wilderness. He may or may not have healed prior to this incident, but it is considered the first of the public miracles found within the canonical gospels. The account of when water became wine is one that has been read and re-read by Christians and skeptics alike down through the ages, and it promises to be one that will continue to fascinate and illicit discussion. 

The Truth Ministries would like to thank you for taking the time to read this article of "The Truth." Feel free to email us at vexx801@yahoo.com or thetruth.ministryweb@gmail.com, visit our facebook page, or visit our ministry website.  It is the mission of this ministry to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2nd Corinthians 10:5). We understand that many will disagree with our position, our claims and our ministry, and we recognize the individual's right to believe what he or she wills, and that some will disagree on our position regarding this particular topic. However, understand that we stand firm upon the Bible as God's Word, which we believe to be historically accurate and reliable, and hold to our conviction that this conclusion was arrived at based on what His Word tells us, and through a Biblical worldview, and hope that if you have not already, will come to faith in Jesus. Take care, and God bless you reader. Troy Hillman

[1] Greeley, Andrew. Jesus: A Meditation on His Stories and His Relationships with Women. 1st ed. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2007. 64. Print.
[2] Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, et al.. Apologetics Study Bible for Students. 1st ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009. 1121. Print.
[3] Alexander, Pat and David. Zondervan Handbook To The Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. 3rd ed. 624. Print.
[4] Ibid, [2].
[5] Ibid, [1].
[6] Ibid. 65. 
[7] Smith, Morton. Jesus the Magician. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981. Print.


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