By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana is the first of Jesus’ miracles recounted in the Gospel of John, and as such it marks a decisive moment in the story of Jesus’ divinity. But there are several mysterious details about the story which are worthy of closer analysis, not least the matter of where ‘Cana’ exactly was.
The miracle is told of in John 2:1-11. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples attend a wedding in the village of Cana. When the wine runs out at the feast, Jesus turns water into wine, thus demonstrating his divinity to his disciples.
Let’s take a closer look at the ‘water into wine’ miracle by analysing what John tells us.
Jesus turning water into wine: summary
In John chapter 2 verses 1-11, we are given an account of the marriage at Cana, where the miracle takes place:
And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:
And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.
John tells us that there was a marriage ‘in Cana of Galilee’ and ‘the mother of Jesus’, i.e., the Virgin Mary, was present. Jesus and his disciples were also ‘called’ to the marriage.
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
At the wedding, they ran out of wine and Jesus’ mother told him that they’d run out, implying that he could perhaps … help out.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
Now we come to a significant moment in the story. Jesus replied rather sharply: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.’ In other words, ‘woman, what am I going to do with you? You’re hopeless! I’m not ready to announce my divinity to the world’ (i.e., by performing a miracle and magicking up some wine in public).
His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.
And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.
Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.
This is how John 2 develops: in other words, Jesus seems to have come round and acquiesced in his mother’s request, although we are not told what brought on this change of heart. Was it filial duty – a son obeying his mother’s wish and command – or did he realise that perhaps this was the ideal time, when a crowd of people were gathered together, and he was the only one capable of providing wine, which was needed to bless this union?
Whatever the cause of this about-face, Jesus appears now to be quite willing to help out, even though doing so will reveal his true identity to those onlookers and witnesses at the feast. Mary told the servants at the wedding, whatever her son tells them to do, they should do it.
While we’re mentioning Mary, it’s worth pointing out that, unlike the other three gospel writers, John never does so – mention Mary, that is. When he refers to her, as above, he calls her simply ‘the mother of Jesus’. His gospel contains no reference to the miracle of the virgin birth and effectively views Mary (unnamed) as a normal mother. Joseph, similarly, is named as Jesus’ father despite the obviously unconventional (to put it one way) origins of Jesus.
It’s perhaps helpful to begin by setting out the difference between the Gospel of John and the three other gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Mark is thought to have been composed the earliest of the four gospels, with Matthew and Luke basing their own accounts on it.
The gospel of John was written later still, and of the four, has the strongest claim to actually having been written by one of Jesus’ apostles. (It’s been speculated, though we cannot know for sure, that John may have written his account in the late first century AD, when he was an old man of nearly 90.)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are grouped together as the ‘Synoptic’ gospels, from a word meaning ‘seeing together’. These three accounts all reflect each other to varying degrees. But the Gospel of John is quite different. Right from those opening words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, John is telling his readers that his account of Jesus’ life will treat Jesus as much more than a human being.
So all of this is not to say that John downplays Mary’s role: quite the opposite. She arguably plays a more central role in Jesus’ development than she does in the synoptic gospels. And this is obviously relevant to this story of Jesus turning water into wine. Mary is fully aware of her son’s special powers, and this is why she calls upon him – even though it would be ‘blowing his cover’, as it were – to work his magic and provide wine for everyone at the festival.
So, what does Jesus do? Once the waterpots had been filled to the brim with water – as Jesus had instructed – he called upon the servants to draw the liquid out of the pots:
And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.
In summary, then, there were six water pots made out of stone. Jesus told the servants to fill them up with water, and they did so. Then he told them to fetch the governor or ‘ruler’ of the feast. They did so.
When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom,
And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.
To put this another way: the ruler of the feast tasted the water, and realised that it was wine. He couldn’t say where it had come from, but the servants knew (and probably smiled to themselves, as they realised what Jesus had done). The governor of the feast then called the bridegroom and congratulated him for keeping ‘the good wine’ back until this point in the feast.
John adds, as a kind of coda to this story of the miracle at Cana:
This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.
And then the story moves on to what Jesus and his mother and brothers did after the wedding, including a visit to Capernaum (a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee) before they returned to Jerusalem for Passover.
Jesus turning water into wine: analysis
The miracle at Cana is often imagined (by people who know vaguely of the story but have never read what the Bible actually says about it) as a public demonstration of Jesus’ divinity.
But this act is, we should note, performed only with the utmost reluctance – Jesus even shouts at his mother for persuading him to turn the water into wine, after all! – and kept secret from the majority of guests at the wedding. Jesus’ disciples know the truth, as do the servants, but it is clearly stated by John that the groom publicly gets the credit for the wine, and the governor or steward in charge of the feast doesn’t suspect that Jesus is behind it.
This is perhaps fitting, even significant, given Jesus’ championing of the poor, the lowly, and the meek in society. The fact that the servants are aware of what he did, but the (higher-class) guests at the wedding, and the ruler of the feast, are unaware of the divine origins of the wine they drink, is in keeping with Jesus’ determination to address the poorest among society and reveal his divinity to them. That he reveals his powers to them first, outside of his immediate family, is utterly in keeping with his message and teachings.
As such, the miracle is very different from one performed later in Jesus’ ministry: the feeding of the five thousand (as it is commonly known) which we have previously analysed here. By that point, Jesus is on the run after John the Baptist’s death and has amassed a vast following: a whole crowd which gathers around him to hear what he has to say.
There, Jesus performs his miracle – making the loaves and fishes feed every man, woman, and child present – in front of the multitude so there can be no doubt as to his divinity.
Cana is remembered now for one thing and one thing only: the fact that, according to John, Jesus turned water into wine there. But where Cana was is a mystery. We know it was somewhere in Galilee, that part of Palestine where Jesus was preaching at the time, and several possible sites have been proposed, including Kafr Kanna, Khirbet Qana in Lower Galilee, Reineh in Lower Galilee, and Qana in Upper Galilee.
Of these, the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible propose Khirbet Qana as the true identity of ‘Cana of Galilee’, which would have been so named to distinguish it from a ‘Kanah’ in the Old Testament, in the Book of Joshua. (Joshua’s Kanah was probably near Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon.)
The name Cana is thought to be from the Hebrew or Aramaic for ‘reeds’, but even that we cannot be sure about. Outside of John’s gospel, Cana isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Nathanael, one of Jesus’ disciples whom only John mentions, came from Cana, and later in John’s gospel we are told that Jesus healed a nobleman’s son at Capernaum, shortly after Jesus had returned to Cana (John 4:46).
Whatever the truth, it’s probable that Cana was a few miles north of Nazareth, the place where Jesus grew up and where he first began to preach his teachings. Since the miracle of turning the water into wine is widely regarded as Jesus’ first miracle, it seems appropriate that it would happen at an event not far from Jesus’ home, while he was with his mother.
Whilst later miracles often take place with a gathering of Jesus’ followers assembled around him, at this stage the crowd is there to witness the marriage of two other people, and the opportunity for Jesus’ miracle arises naturally from a catering oversight.