Water into Wine?
Is John's account of the wedding of Cana historically credible?
The account of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana is a well-known story from the Gospel of John. When commenting upon this passage, many focus on the exceptional quality of the wine that Jesus produced, while others prefer to highlight the enormous quantity, which, based on the size of the six stone water jars mentioned in John 2:6, would have amounted to somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine (roughly the equivalent of 600 to 900 bottles). But in my opinion, the most noteworthy aspect of this famous story relates not to the quantity or quality of the wine, but rather to its historical reality.
The Gospel of John purports to be an eyewitness account of the life of Jesus. The author actually makes this clear in chapter 19 as he relates significant details related to the crucifixion. “He who saw it has borne witness,” he says, “his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth” (Jn 19:35). Then, at the end of his narrative, he re-emphasizes this same point: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24). Cambridge scholar Richard Bauckham unpacked the significance of these texts on a recent episode of The Humble Skeptic podcast. In his thinking, “ancient readers would have found [the Gospel of John] making a claim to be historical literature, not a kind of theology dressed up as a story.” Bauckham then went on to point out that,
There’s a lot of language of “witness” and “testimony” scattered through the Gospel, and of course, the last witness is the beloved disciple himself, the author of the Gospel…So many scholars have thought for various reasons this cannot be written by an eyewitness, so they’ve tended to say that the last couple verses of the Gospel don’t really mean what they say, but I think it says rather clearly that this is the disciple who wrote these things.1
What’s odd, however, is that in his eyewitness account, John describes Jesus as a person who performed numerous signs and wonders, such as we find at the wedding of Cana. Admittedly, the idea of someone turning water into wine sounds more like the stuff of myths and legends, but John repeatedly assures us that his testimony is true — that these things really happened. That claim of course doesn’t make his report true, but it does help us to understand what’s at stake. You see, if Jesus actually turned water into wine (2:7-11), walked on water (6:19), gave sight to the blind (9:1-7), raised the dead (11:1-44), and all the other things spoken of him throughout the Fourth Gospel, then he was unlike anyone who has ever lived, and all of us would do well to pay careful attention to his words—whatever our creed or worldview happens to be. But if these things were not true of Jesus, then John’s Gospel is not merely a fictional tale, but should be set aside as a false report—a work of deception.
These really are the only two options. John didn’t say, “Give Jesus a chance,” or “Try him you’ll like him.” No, he kept insisting that his testimony was true. When it comes to historical events, we’re never really given the option to believe whatever we wish. Rather, we all have an obligation to follow the truth, wherever it leads. As John Adams famously noted, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The question, of course, is what are the facts?
John is claiming to have been an eyewitness of Jesus, and as it happens, this claim is something we can test since there are countless little details scattered throughout his narrative that can be used to corroborate his claim. What does he say about the political leaders and the customs of the period? What does he say about the geographical features and architectural details of first-century Palestine, and how does all of this compare with what we know from other ancient sources? Are the names that appear in his narrative authentic to the time and place, and how about the botany? It turns out that when we apply these kinds of critical tests to this ancient document, the Gospel of John ends up passing with flying colors.2
Now, in his account of the miracle of Cana, John tells us that “There were six stone water jars used for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (Jn 2:6). As it turns out, stone water vessels were actually quite rare in the ancient world. Typically, jars and water pitchers were made of clay, but according to various texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, first-century Jews believed that if a clay vessel was made ritually impure, it could never again be purified, and simply needed to be destroyed. According to Princeton scholar James Charlesworth,
From 20 BCE to the destruction in 70 CD, a little over ninety years, is the time assigned to the production of massive stone jars found at Qumran, Zippori, and the Upper City of Jerusalem, constructed with a large lathe in the stone industry. The only clear literary evidence of this phenomenon is found in John, and it seems to occur as an aside (2:6)…The author of John knew much about such massive stone jars, and they disappear from archaeological findings dated later than 70 CE.3
Charlesworth goes on to say that stone vessels of this kind have subsequently been found in Cana, the very site mentioned by John in chapter 2 of his Gospel.4 Another interesting detail related to this same scene appears in verse 12. After the wedding, John says that Jesus “went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers…” Cambridge scholar Peter J. Williams has observed that all the topographical details, all the ups and downs that we find in all four Gospels actually work. As one leaves Cana and heads toward the city of Capernaum (which is near the shore of the Sea of Galilee), the land does in fact descend.5
So here in this curious narrative related to events that transpired at a wedding Jesus attended in Cana, we find two significant pieces of information that help us to corroborate John’s claim that he really did live at just the right place and time to qualify as an eyewitness of events in the life of Jesus. The details he provides about the large stone jars allow us to place him at the scene of the crime, as it were, since vessels of this unique type were made exclusively in Palestine during a very narrow window of time. “The Fourth Evangelist,” Charlesworth writes, “is an exception among the four evangelists for his knowledge of pre-70 CE Jewish religious customs and especially of the topography and architecture of Jerusalem. Such elements in his narrative appear intermittently without relevance for the narrative or rhetoric of persuasion.”6 Archaeologists, he says, “have repeatedly demonstrated that the Fourth Evangelist reflects an intimate knowledge of the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. The evidence now indicates that the Fourth Gospel must be understood within its Jewish context and that the author of the first edition of John had unique personal knowledge of Jerusalem.”7
In light of the numerous discoveries that have been made over the past few decades, which have served to corroborate John as an authentic reporter, Charlesworth actually goes so far as to say, “All the reasons that require a late date for the Gospel of John (sometime after 90 CE) have vanished. There is no longer a consensus regarding the date of John…The composition of John makes best sense if the definitive form, the first edition, was composed before 70 CE.”8
In his recent book, Rethinking The Dates of The New Testament, Canadian scholar Johnathan Bernier similarly argues that, “Whereas most scholars favor a date for John’s Gospel at or around 90, this study concludes that John’s Gospel was most likely written sometime between 60 and 70.”9 And in a recently discovered commentary of the Fourth Gospel, the great Cambridge scholar of the nineteenth century, J. B. Lightfoot, pushed the envelope even further by saying: “This is the narrative of a person who was an eyewitness of the events he relates, and who writes not half a century later, but within a very few years of the occurrence.”10
“I am convinced,” Charlesworth observes, “that the earliest edition of John—the first edition—may antedate 70 CE. Why? It is because the author knew Jerusalem intimately, proving many architectural details which only thirty years ago we imagined were literary inventions provided to make Christological or theological points.”11 In fact, these new details lead him to wonder in several places throughout his most recent book whether a new consensus related to the Fourth Gospel will soon emerge among New Testament scholars.12
Now, of course, it could still be argued that John wrote a kind of historical fiction. Though he really lived in first-century Palestine, perhaps at some point he decided to craft a story about Jesus who, in addition to being a terrific Rabbi, also happened to perform miracles at weddings and other venues. But here’s where things get interesting. The Jesus he describes in his Gospel happens to be famous for his wonder-working power. He not only turns water into wine, but ends up healing so many people that crowds of thousands follow him, and desire to make him king (Jn 6:10-15). In fact, in John 12:19 the religious authorities are astonished at Jesus’ fame and say to one another, “Look how the world has gone after him.” Now, if Jesus never really had been famous for his miracles, or perhaps never even existed in the first place, then why would anyone during that time find John’s story remotely plausible? Wouldn’t it be patently obvious to everyone that his narrative about Jesus, the famous miracle-working Rabbi, was complete nonsense? And yet, all four New Testament Gospels indicate that during his lifetime, Jesus’ fame spread throughout Syria, Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea as a result of his miracles.13
The fact of the matter is that the story of Jesus as outlined in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was extremely persuasive from the moment it first began to circulate. An early Christian creed dating to just a few years after the crucifixion, affirms belief in Jesus’ resurrection among the earliest Christians,14 and according to Acts 21:20, there were “tens of thousands of Jews” in Jerusalem alone who believed he was Israel’s promised Messiah.15
Paul, whose epistles are typically dated around 20-30 years after the crucifixion, wrote to numerous Christian churches scattered across the Mediterranean world, congregations that were composed of both Jews and Gentiles, and a first-century Christian by the name of Clement says that innumerable hosts of Christians, including Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome during the Neronian persecutions of the mid-60s.16 This fact happens to be confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus, who similarly referred to the rising Christian movement of that period as a vast multitude.17 Those believers not only lived during the eyewitness period but apparently were disciples of the eyewitnesses themselves. So, if Jesus never really did turn water into wine, calm the storm, give sight to the blind, or conquer the grave, if Jesus never had been a famous wonder-worker, then how and why did thousands upon thousands of first-century Jews and Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean world come to believe that he had? It’s an inescapable fact of history that Christianity saw explosive growth during this period, even in the face of torture, persecution, and martyrdom.
It’s particularly interesting to note that no one in the first few centuries following Jesus’ crucifixion claimed that the story of Jesus had either been invented or embellished. The earliest opponents of Christianity affirmed not only Jesus’ existence but also his wonder-working power. All four Gospels indicate that Jesus’ enemies rejected him as one who performed miracles by means of demonic power,18 just as the Talmud would later state that Jesus was rejected because he led Israel astray through his practice of “sorcery.”19 And even the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, described Jesus as a “wonder-worker” whom many “called the Messiah.”20
Did Jesus really turn water into wine? Did he give sight to the blind and raise the dead? If he did, his story is the greatest ever told, and if he didn’t, it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetrated. Either way, his story is worth looking into. And as you do, consider this also. All the ancient Hebrew prophecies that spoke of the coming Messiah not only declared that he would perform signs and wonders of various kinds,21 but that he would also, in Isaiah’s words, be “despised and rejected,” “pierced for our transgressions,” and “cut off from the land of the living.”22 And even though he would be “laid in the grave,” Isaiah went on to say that he would somehow mysteriously “see light” and that he would “divide spoils” in a victory celebration.23 And what is the result of all this? “Of him shall the nations shall inquire”; “Kings shall shut their mouths because of him.”24 All these promises and prophecies came true in Jesus and the subsequent rise of Christianity. In short, the very one John wrote about in his Gospel, Isaiah hinted at some 700 years earlier. This is why you can have confidence that Jesus really did turn water into wine at the wedding of Cana. Not only was his story written by extremely credible eyewitnesses, but it also happened to be told in countless ways throughout the Hebrew Scriptures centuries in advance.25
Though a fictional tale about a wonder-working Rabbi might make for an entertaining story, it simply doesn’t have the power to alter the course of our lives. But with Jesus, the evidence is inescapable. He really did exist, he really performed wonders, and as a result, he ended up changing the course of Western Civilization. And the fact that Jesus fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies gives us confidence that he’ll also be present at the great wedding feast still yet to come. As Isaiah describes it, this will be “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, and of aged wine well refined.”26
For Further Study
Archaeologists find a Stone Quarry from the Time of Jesus (Video)
Authenticating the Fourth Gospel, by Shane Rosenthal
Why Should We Believe the Bible?, by Shane Rosenthal
How to Detect Deception, by Shane Rosenthal
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the original creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California.
The Humble Skeptic podcast, episode 16: “Faith Founded on Fact (Part 2).” Dr. Bauckham makes these statements at around 32:21.
James H. Charlesworth, Jesus as Mirrored in John, (London, T&T Clark, 2019), p. 54. Examples of these kinds of stone vessels from first-century Judea are depicted in the image at the beginning of this article.
Ibid., p. 83
The Humble Skeptic podcast, episode 15: “Faith Founded on Fact (Part 1).” Dr. Williams makes this point beginning around 30:34.
Ibid., p. 24
Ibid., p. 29
Ibid., p 47.
Jonathan Bernier, Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2022), p. 87. Daniel Wallace has famously argued that Jn 5:2 provides the strongest evidence that the Fourth Gospel was written before the fall of Jerusalem (you can listen to him make this argument on this episode beginning at 40:33). And in the introduction to his commentary of John 1:1 - 7:1, William Weinrich made a compelling case that the Fourth Gospel was written between 40 and 60 AD (which is roughly the same conclusion that the liberal John A.T. Robinson arrived at in his 1983 book, The Priority of John).
J. B. Lightfoot, The Gospel of St. John: A Newly Discovered Commentary (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 197
Charlesworth, Jesus as Mirrored in John, p. 2
Ibid., pp. xiii, 9, 82-83
The word “crowd” occurs 144 times in the Gospels; 35 times it appears with adjectives such as great or large (cf. Mt 1:28–45, 4:24-25, 8:1, 9:31, 13:2, Mt 14:21, 15:38, 16:9-10, 19:2, 20:29, Mk 3:7-8, 4:1, 5:19-24, Mk 6:44, 8:9, 9:14, 10:46, Lk 5:15, 6:17, 7:11, Lk 9:14-21, 8:4, 12:1, 14:25, 23:27, Jn 6:2-15, 7:31, 12:9-12).
Acts 21:20 read, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed.” The Greek word underlying “many thousands” is murias, which literally means “tens of thousands” or perhaps even, “countless thousands.”
Apostolic Fathers, 1Clement 5:1-6:1
Tacitus, Annals 15:44
Cf. Mt 12:24, Mk 3:22, Lk 11:15, Jn 8:48, 10:20-21
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a: “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'He is...to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.”
Antiquities 18:63 (18.3.3), 20:200 (20.9.1)
Is 29:13-19, 35:3-6
Is 53:3, 5, 8
Is 53:9, 11. The word “light” appears in the oldest copies we have of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in the Septuagint.
Is 11:10; 52:15.
This is precisely what Jesus claims of himself in Jn 5:39 and Lk 24:25-47.
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