The Gospels (7) ‘A Party to end all Parties’

Fernando Gallego : University of Arizona

In continuing to think about the Gospels as literature, let’s reflect on the fact that skilled authors employ figurative language, including allegory, metaphor and symbol, to enhance appeal and enrich meaning. Figurative language, by definition, can’t be directly equated with the factual or historical. This applies, in my view, to the Gospel writers. Obvious examples, in John’s Gospel, are Jesus being figuratively described as “the true vine”; “the bread of life”; the “light of the world”; the “gate for the sheep”. He’s not, of course, an actual vine tree, bread loaf, light bulb or wooden gate.  Given agreement on that, let’s apply this to the stories about him in that same Gospel, like the “Wedding at Cana”, which John places, quite deliberately, at the beginning of what he has to say about Jesus’ evangelistic mission.

At some point in the festivities, we’re told, “the wine had given out”. It’s tempting to suggest that either the hosts had been overly mean, or the guests overly indulgent. Be that as it may, Jesus solves the problem by turning the contents of six water jars into wine. As if that isn’t ‘miraculous’ enough, we’re told that this wine was unquestionably superior to “the ordinary wine(otherwise known as ‘plonk’) that the hosts had provided. So should we understand this story as factual and historical, or allegorical and symbolic?

Water contains – water! Wine, in addition to alcohol, contains many, or all, of glucose, fructose, pectins, tannins, potassium, malic, tanic and lactic acids etc. Turning water into wine would require the full resources of a physics lab, and god knows what the result would taste like, though ‘plonk’ would be a merciful guess.

That we’re not meant to take this seriously is surely shown by the quantity of ‘wine’ involved – “six stone jars, each large enough to hold about a hundred litres”. That’s 600 litres (or, if you’re my age, 130 gallons) of wine. The hosts could have set up their own village wine shop with that lot. In any case, since the guests had already quaffed the entire initial supply, downing yet another 600 litres must have made for one hell of a party. The word ‘stoned’ comes to mind – defined as “stupified (or, better, paralysed) with alcoholic liquor”. 

John calls these miracle stories “signs” in his Gospel – signs proving the divine origin, nature and mission of Jesus. In the other Gospels, however, Jesus is reported as saying, “A wicked generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it.” That seems very sensible, since such ‘signs’ risk turning Jesus into, not a preacher with a crucial message to challenge the crowd, but a conjurer performing clever tricks to divert it. In any case, if Jesus could and did literally turn water into wine, what conceivable spiritual (or ethical) value could that have for you and me?

So what’s the point of the story? It suggests, to my way of thinking, a provisionally positive view of the Jewish religion. It’s as if, compared with the ‘water’ of the pagan Emperor cults and mystery religions, the Jewish religion is like ‘wine’. It’s a religion that celebrates God’s ‘marriage’ to his chosen people. Jesus, however, has come with a fresh understanding of it, which can make that ‘wine’ even better than before. This is John’s opening ‘taster’, for what is to come in the pages that follow. Whether or not they live up to this promise, is for you, the reader, to decide. 

I’d like, in closing, to make clear that I’m not mocking or ‘making fun’ of the Gospels. To me, they’re not stiff, starchy and stodgy, but make for marvellous reading, in part because of the humour that’s found in them. Jesus, like any memorable story teller, had a sense of fun – like lighting a lamp and sticking it under the bed, or straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel. Perhaps some of us need to loosen up a bit, and feel ok about reading the Gospels to be ‘entertained’ as well as instructed and challenged. In my view, the latter are enhanced by the former.

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