The Meanings of the
Water into Wine
and the
Fish with the Coin

In the wedding based nature miracle wine runs out at a wedding party and we are told in the text that Jesus does, in effect, a magic trick to keep the wedding party flowing. It seems on the surface to be a trivial use of powers. It is found only in John, outside the synoptics, and is John's launch of Jesus' public ministry with his disciples:

John 2: 1-11
1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."
4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.
8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.
9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom
10 and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now."
11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

These are the main points:

The first thing that strikes is the pre-echo here of Jesus stating that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, which is a reference to entry into the Kingdom of God, contrasted with the pecking order in this world. Here, then, normality is being reversed. In something common and trivial like getting drunk at a party, the worst (least) is left until later, whereas here in this sign the best waits until the last.

Yet it feels wrong. This tale allows people to get drunk, or more drunk, which seems quite unethical. However, they would be missing good wine if they did, unable to appreciate what is the best. And arguably there is a message here too. Another matter is the suggested warmth of the relationship with his mother, out of character with the other gospels (Vermes, 2003, 272).

This story also has the feel of a trivial trick in itself. This is breaking the laws of nature to produce something not for healing or preventing disaster but in order to have a good time. It seems like an abuse of eschatological privilege. Only Jesus, the disciples and the servants are in on the trick.

The charge could well stick - Jesus is happy to see great things done for the most trivial of events and reasons, when no one is ill and nothing is threatened. It is the divine sanction for a booze up with wasted good quality drink. More examination is needed.

Playing a trick has Hebrew Bible roots, and this antecedent is an important aspect. The key is Genesis and Jacob. John 1 finishes with parallels to Jacob. Then the wedding follows in John 2, and this echoes the time following Jacob's wedding feast when there was also a divine trick.

Genesis 29: 15-30
15 Then Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?"
16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.
17 Leah’s eyes were lovely,* and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.
18 Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel."
19 Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me."
20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed."
22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast.
23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.
24 (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)
25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?"
26 Laban said, "This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.
27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years."
28 Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.
29 (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.)
30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban* for another seven years.

The main points of this (and subsequently) are:

This trick is against Jacob, whereas in John it is by Jesus. Yet the allusion to Jacob, his wedding and the trick is there, a trick where one or some are in on it and where others are not. There is confusion and consequence as a result. The Jacob situation involved the misplaced sex with Leah and the continued competition with Rachel, and the wedding involved the misplaced use of wine. So in both cases there was a contrast with normal custom in the breaking with custom. There was also the argument that followed, Jacob with Laban and the Chief Steward with the bridegroom. The trick then is about unpredictability, particularly divine unpredictabiility. Linked to this is the social anthropology about the use of the trick by the marginal and dispossessed in overturning the established order. The powerful are exposed, and taken down a peg or two. So for Jesus it is indeed the first shall be last and the last will be first - the overturning of the established order is involved in this sign.

The Greekness of this gospel appears is different ways. One could well be that this tale is about the synagogue as the religious power to be taken down a peg or two when the Christians are being excluded. The use of the jars for the Jewish rite of purification might well be relevant here - the wine is a distortion of this use of water and also signifies, from the early Christian standpoint, something richer and more fruitful than what is normal. The trick is against the Jews in the synagogue, and here is an anti-semitic element creeping in. There is (fortunately) a more positive spin, that the jars represent Judaism and this is being renewed to a level of ecstasy, with the discovery of the Messiah that transforms Judaism (but whom is ignored by so many). The second aspect of Greekness is the parallel with a Pagan festival.

January 6th was an ancient Greek holiday in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine (and more). Wine miracles happened then. In his temple in Elis, empty jars filled up with wine (Uta Ranke-Heinemann), and at Andros at either a spring or the temple wine flowed instead of water. The early church may well have adopted this feast and made of it the Feast of the Epiphany, the same force of adaptation that put it into the gospel. (See Shorto, 1997, 123)

This story then, like all the nature miracles, is an example of "epic concentration" (Shorto, 1997, 122). This is where, in a great tale of multi-layered meanings, much greatness and ability is put on to the leading character. The person becomes superhuman and, in this case, is the producer of signs and wonders from the beginning in the tale of redemption. At the same time, many remain ignorant and outside of the loop, so to speak, and they carry on arguing in the old way.

The nature miracles are themselves like added parables then, with layers of meaning within a story. Here is another example:

Matthew 17: 24-27
24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?
25 He said, "Yes, he does." And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?"
26 When Peter said, "From others", Jesus said to him, "Then the children are free.
27 However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me."

The main points here are:

The points then assert the centrality of their position and mission to the greater purpose of the Temple, that therefore they should not pay to themselves, so to speak, and the symbolism meant that God would look after them and secondly that this position of closeness to the temple's greater purpose was available now.

When people heard these tales they recognised the meaning, or if they did not they knew that understanding was to be found in them. They did not think, primarily, in some event having happened that could be considered as naked history and indeed if they were stripped back to history an unsatisfactory "shambles" is left beyond the important layers of meaning (Shorto, 1997, 123). The nature miracles are closer to parables than magic, even if in one case there was a divine trickster involved as part of the story. They are about the experience of the divine mediated through story and text, not about a magician. They are about gospels written from some 40 years later to a new community searching out its meaning of existence.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful

Biblical references are for the water into wine, John 2: 1-11, with a reference to Jacob's wedding, Genesis 29: 15-30; and regarding the temple tax, Matthew 17: 24-27. All from the New Revised Standard Version.

Shorto, R. (1997), Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History and Why It Matters, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 122-124.

Vermes, G. (2003), The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, London: Allen Lane, 272.