"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 3 New Beginnings

Section 3.1: The Signs Begin: a Marriage Feast at Cana (Jn 2.1-11)

GENERAL COMMENTS


Presumably, 'the third day' in v.1 means the third day after the conversations with Philip and Nathanael described at the end of chapter 1. So the Evangelist is presenting us with a description of a week in which John the Baptist testifies about Jesus on the first three days, Jesus decides to go to Galilee on the fourth day, and on the third day after that, the seventh day altogether, Jesus attends a wedding in Galilee. The number seven is so significant in the Bible, going right back to the description of Creation in Genesis, that is hard to believe that the Evangelist did not deliberately construct his story, which also includes the call of some of Jesus' disciples on the third and fourth day, in such a way as to emphasise that number. It seems particularly likely, given that this gospel begins with an invocation of Genesis and God's creative acts, that this first week of Jesus' ministry (or at least this first week of the story of the ministry) is meant to signal the start of a new Creation, a new humanity, made up of those that have become children of God, in the words of Jn 1.12-13: 'But as many as did receive him, to them he gave the ability to become children of God, to those that put their trust in his name, those begotten not of blood nor by the will of the flesh nor by the will of a man, but from God.'

One of the most interesting things about this passage is the role of Jesus' mother (who is not named in this gospel). Why is she concerned with matters like the supply of wine? It seems possible that Jesus' family were friends of, or perhaps even related to, the bridegroom's family. Perhaps, as some have argued was the case in the dinner at Bethany described at the start of chapter 12, this wedding was so major a social event in the community that it drew in more than one family to organise and put on (see Bauckham pp 180-1, esp note 33). If this was such an event and Jesus' family were connected somehow with the bridegroom's family, Mary's concerns make more sense.

The actual sign at Cana, the changing of the water into wine, is presented as a very low-key event. As miracles go, it almost qualifies as surreptitious. By doing such a sign openly, Jesus would be in danger of provoking from the guests some sort of messianic recognition, that might lead to anticipating his hour wrongly. The concept of his hour is very important in the Fourth Gospel. It is related to the concept of his glorification, in that both are connected with his obedience to the point of death and his resurrection. But it is also related to the concept of 'kairos' ('καιρός'), the opportune time, God's time -- there is a moment, a right time, for Jesus to be revealed widely, and this is not it.

Yet having told his mother that he cannot help with the lack of wine because his hour is not yet here, he then works out a way to rise to the challenge with which she has presented him. The sign is performed in such a way that only Jesus' immediate associates, the servants, and probably his mother know what has been done; thus the danger of the kind of response that the sign of the loaves and the fishes provoked is avoided. Several Johannine motifs come together here -- Jesus' hour, which must not be rushed or anticipated; the tendency of Jesus to respond positively to those who challenge him, as his mother does here or the Samaritan woman will do later; abundance and plenty as a messianic sign, here and in the sign of the loaves and the fishes.

The sign, however, does have an object -- it is aimed at Jesus' disciples, newly called and chosen by Jesus in chapter 1. Almost alone of those present, they are aware of what he has done and the text concludes 2.11, 'Jesus performed this, the beginning of of the signs, and revealed his glory, and his disciples put their trust in him.' Before they had believed in Jesus as the result of John the Baptist's testimony and their own conversations with him; now this sign confirms their trust. Beyond this, signs in the Fourth Gospel are more than just miraculous events; they act as pointers to the reality that is Jesus' glory as the Father's Son. Thus this sign presages what the signs chosen for inclusion in the gospel are intended to accomplish for us, its readers: they are to bring about in us faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20.31).

 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


This description of the purification rites as 'Jewish' suggests that this gospel may be aimed toward an audience that includes a significant number of non-Jews. Such readers might need more local background, thus leading to this specification and the careful translation of Hebrew and Aramaic terms (such as 'Rabbi' or 'Messiah') that we saw in chapter 1. This seems to argue against the approach taken by Robinson 1960, that the gospel is addressed to a Diaspora Jewish audience.

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According to Liddell, Scott, Jones, McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford 1968) [LSJM], the word for 'measure' here and elsewhere in the Greek Bible stands for the Hebrew liquid measure bath, equivalent to around 36.44 litres (see the on-line Jewish Encyclopaedia under Weights and Measures <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14821-weights-and-measures>). Jars holding two or three measures, then, would have held around 16 or 24 Imperial gallons, or around 19 to 29 US gallons.

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