The Meaning of Water and Wine
Sully points us to a portion of a recent interview between (I’m not making this up) Hugh Hewitt and Richard Dawkins. The whole interview is here. Andrew’s commentary is worth the read, particularly in its (deserved) shots at Hewitt’s charlatan antics. My interest however is in the fundamental lack of misunderstanding on the part of both participants.
The section Andrew highlights:
RD: Okay, do you believe Jesus turned water into wine?
RD: You seriously do?
RD: You actually think that Jesus got water, and made all those molecules turn into wine?
RD: My God.
HH: Yes. My God, actually, not yours. But let me…
RD: I’ve realized the kind of person I’m dealing with now.
Notice that both of the men assume the same meaning for the story–namely that the story hinges on whether Jesus actually (i.e. read literally concretely) turned water into wine. Hewitt for, Dawkins against.
It would help of course in these debates if people actually knew what the story itself is trying to say instead of foisting their useless modern conceptions about the real and truth onto the story. The story itself you see has no real relevance in this discussion–it might as well be any story. The story functions just as an opening for them to have their pre-determined ideological fight.
The key there is Dawkins’ notion of the molecules of the water turning into wine. There was no understanding of molecules in the ancient world, nor is the Biblical text’s interest in what we would call science. So the imposition of this modern mode of thinking onto the text does serious violence to the story. It doesn’t help of course that Hugh Hewitt (God help us) is here supposed to represent the religious point of view and ignorantly is just as stupid (nay more so) in his inability to see the text on its own grounds, instead of trying to fundamentalistically make The Bible into the source of all scientific knowledge. HH might in that endeavor want to consult St. Augustine who wrote in the 5th century (i.e. a long fracking time ago) that if science comes up with a different naturalistic account of the world than the Bible offers, then you go with the science (WITH THE SCIENCE) and read The Bible for other arenas of truth (e.g. moral, spiritual, cosmological).
This isn’t common practice here at the League, but a gentleman (or gentle-lady) may at time find the need to avail himself of some Biblical exegesis, particularly with reference to this story, so here goes.
For those playing along at home, the story in question is found in Ch. 2 of The Gospel of John. If you don’t have a Bible at home, you can go to this site type in the appropriate coordinates and voila the Wedding at Cana (i.e. The Water into Wine story). I believe the translation on this site is from the New Revised Standard Version.
The thing about the Gospel of John (if I can call it that) is that it is built on its densely layered and cross-fibrous symbolic world. It employs the repetition of certain key words to create an inner (“secret” “esoteric”) meaning. None of which has to do with whether or not Jesus actually literally turned water into wine.
Ch. 1 of the Gospel of John starts with a story of The Word pre-existing the creation of the universe coming down from heaven and taking flesh. Jesus in just the first chapter is called the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, the Messiah, and the Son of God. So we aren’t from the get go in the world of normal sense perception and discourse. It’s symbol world.
Ch. 2 then picks up with the first “sign” (or revealing act) of Jesus. Notice Jesus performs signs not miracles in the Gospel of John. There are a number of them–the final and most important one being the ‘sign’ of his crucified body paradoxically glorified hanging between heaven and earth. The Gospel of John plays up the double meaning of being “raised up”–i.e. raised up on the cross to be murdered and raised up to the Divine Life. Signs are symbols that become means for a discourse/teaching moment. They are not miracles and therefore not in the classic David Humean cum Richard Dawkins strain of “whether or not miracles transverse the laws of nature” which we see in the quotation above.
Of course you wouldn’t actually know this unless you studied the text in detail. Something I can guarantee you Dawkins and Hewitt have not done.
Anyway so with that background in mind Ch. 2 verse 1:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
The third day for those of you with eyes to see and ears to hear is a reference to the resurrection. Big things tend to happen in the Gospels (and The Bible more generally) on the third day. On the third day is–very prosaically put–“a dark and stormy night.” Or in Aboriginal Discourse, “In the Dreamtime.”
The story–how many times can I saw this–is already telling us its not supposed to be read as a scientific account (or a non-scientific account that doesn’t met the unassailable standards of science) from “literally” the first four words.
Weddings function in the Jewish tradition as a metaphor for heaven. So we have the person already referred to as the Son of God come down from heaven, a reference to the resurrection, and a marriage feast (code for the coming kingdom of God), so we know glory is about to happen. We are in the dreamworld of God here.
[As an aside, notice all of this is “true” whether or not you happen to be a Christian. i.e. You can read the story this way and learn a great deal, you can learn to walk its own world, in a humanistic way, without having to confess that this is the religious truth of your soul.]
3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His
For our lady readers, Jesus is not Jackie Gleason or Butters in this story. The word there translated into English as Woman is in that context is a term of love and affection. Jesus is not about to tell Mary to fetch him a sandwich.
The key line there is “My hour has not yet come.” As part of the multifaceted symbolic layering of the Gospel are constant references to time–in hours. Characters (like Nicodemus in Ch. 3) who come to Jesus in the dark are full of ignorance while those who meet him in daylight (like the Woman of Samaria in Ch. 4) are en-lightened. All of which lead up to “the hour” or “my hour” which is the crucifixion.
So again we see that the glory or the heavenly life is paradoxically linked with the Cross. All of this is working at a different level than the wedding itself. The chief steward of the wedding isn’t in the “know” (verse 9), the bride makes no appearance, while the bridegroom is spoken to but never himself speaks.
6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When 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 10and 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.’
This verse is part of the subtle and quite explosive relationship between The Gospel of John (and its community) and Judaism. That isn’t an exactly correctly what of saying it. The Gospel of John-ites would have considered themselves Jews, though we today would label them (most likely) heterodox if not unorthodox/heretical Jews. As best as we can tell, the people who would have read and followed this text would not have understood the term Christians and would not have labeled themselves as such. That term (Christian) doesn’t show up for another two or three decades after this text was (most likely) written.
In Ch. 1 of the Gospel of John it states:
17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Now a form of Judaism that is anti-Mosaic Law sounds like no Judaism at all to us because what became Christianity and Judaism eventually split. The group from whom the Gospel of John originates were expelled from their local synagogue (“cast out”). They teach a Jesus who was cast out by us his own people. Jesus casts out the moneychangers from the Temple as his first provocative act. Judaism eventually became dominated by Rabbinic Judaism which is based off study and practice of the Mosaic Law. But prior to the pre-eminence of the Rabbinical tradition, there were other traditions of Judaism that did not place priority on the Mosaic Law.
Arguably the Gospel of John (and even more fundamentally the entire New Testament, badly named) is therefore a Jewish document. At least originally. When this point is later forgotten and after the Roman Empire becomes Christian, The Gospels (and especially The Gospel of John) become a weapon used to justify persecution of Jews. Even until today. So knowing this background is very important in that regard.
Regardless, this law includes the jars of ritual purification used at the wedding in our story. Though they are huge (20-30 gallons/each times 6 jars) they are not the vessels of grace and truth–according to this story. Only Jesus’ sign is a revelation. And the water turned into wine is a reference therefore to the Crucifixion, since it is a sign and according to the logic of the story all signs ultimately point to the Cross.
After the death of Jesus (Ch. 19 John’s Gospel), we have the following:
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows* that he tells the truth.) 36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ 37And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’ (my emphasis)
The Day of Preparation refers to the Passover. Jesus is described in Ch. 1 of John’s Gospel as The Lamb of God, i.e. the Passover Sacrificial Lamb. This isn’t the place to get into whole argument around Atonement theology but that’s in the foreground here. The bones of the sacrificial animal were not to be broken, which is why the story talks about the legs not being broken.
Notice that this how the “science”, or better the “art” of The Gospels work. Because the scriptures say such and such occurs–and how they choose which passages to promote and not others is a fascinating topic for another day–then the story is written around that prophecy. It’s working via a different logic altogether than say contemporary evolutionary biology.
But anyway, the real reason I put that quotation up and highlighted the piece I did is that you see that what flows from Jesus’ dead body is water and blood. Wine-red blood. The “water turned to wine” in the story of the wedding is not water and wine at all but Jesus’ blood. This is where the theology of the Eucharist derives from.
So Richard Dawkins begins with the wrong question. He’s completely misunderstood the meaning of the story. He doesn’t have to believe that or agree with it in some religious truth sense. But if you are going to argue about whether the story is true or not you ought to at least know what the hell the story is trying to communicate.
As an aside, it’s only more delicious irony that this tragi-comic, dark tale of the wedding at Cana is told as some happy lovey-dovey story at weddings. [We did not read this story at my wedding I should note, for exactly this reason].
It’s like the young couple who recently got married at my church and had their final song be “You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine” which if you just listen to the refrain sounds like a pretty, adorable song until you listen to the verses and realize what the song is actually about:
The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.
You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between.
But not you’ve left me and love another;
You have shattered all of my dreams:
Same with the Gospel. This is dark dark mystical foreboding territory. It is a magisterial spiritual text and a literary masterpiece. It can be read as both of those without having to get into the whole useless question of: “Did this happen exactly like it says or not? I want an answer dammit.”
The Gospel argues instead that one must behold the pierced Lord of the universe in order to find salvation. A strange thing to say to put it mildly. The blood flows out of Jesus referring back to Ch. 1:
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
The blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus is the blood and the water of God (again according to the logic of this story) that births a son or daughter of God. Like the amniotic after-birth of Divinity. The water transformed into wine for the wedding is a sign of the human flesh that is transformed into Divine Flesh in Jesus.
Whether or not you come to believe this or not, I think we can all agree it’s not about molecular bonding. It goes a tad deeper than that reading.
Update I: I almost forgot this brilliance:
Update II (Friday):
Given some of the comments–see especially Jaybird’s important point in comment #25 for example–I should make clearer my philosophical background in this post.
I made a mistake in talking about “this way of reading” is what the passage really means. I was caught up in the debate side of things and that was wrong of me to write.
Modern hermeneutics which grew out of the Romantic Era talked about reading texts as divining the original meaning of the authors, as if you could get into their minds and heads. See for example Frederick Schleiermacher and/or Wilhelm Dilthey. Postmodern hermeneutics go in a couple of different directions. On the one hand are the post-structuralists of various sorts (Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard) and on the other I would say Gadamer. Gadamer in a sense represents a postmodern conservatism. And this is basically where I fit.
It’s postmodern insofar as it realizes–from Heidegger to Gadamer–that we exist in circles of communion. We have ways of seeing the world that are always operative when we come to the text. And the text has its own world–a point I did bring up relative to cosmology but I didn’t hash out sufficiently it seems. And those two worlds come to inter-act. To commune in the act of reading. This is the postmodern part of postmodern conservative.
Or as the French say any performance of a piece of music is an “interpretation” of Strauss by Group X.
Gadamer argued that if you come to stand in a position of humility relative to the text–and here he generally refers to the traditional texts, which is where the conservative part comes from in postmodern conservative–then the text can help surface your own world as you see its distinction relative to this Other world of the text.
In this case, it surfaces I believe the weak debates that continue on and on represented here by Dawkins and Hewitt.
Now to Gadamer I would add Alfred North Whitehead who said that all of Reality (Capital R) is every moment of existence enfolding the entire history of the past within it. And then this moment which is free and becomes part of the next moment enfolded into the entire cosmic train.
In other words, the past is within us. But as soon as we try to access it, Gadamer’s insight becomes operative–namely we come to understand our own history through our current ways of thinking. And the history and the current act in a dialectical relationship, influencing each other.
So this is how–to answer Jaybird’s query–we can say that a reading (an interpretation) of the ancient text that is very contemporary may also be an un-covering of an original meaning. Though again an original meaning funneled through our current lens.
That way of thinking is verboten in the post-structural camp which generally (particularly in Derrida) sees every reading as a transformation or (mis)translation. Baudrillard who is also an influence on me would say that I was too hard on the Hewitt-style readings of the text because that is just another iteration, and all iterations must be allowed to arise.
So while I think Derrida and Baudrillard and company have a point, I lean more towards Gadamer. The post-structuralists are, as it were, the postmodern liberals, standing over the text and reading it according to our ways of thinking. I think both have a place but my general tendency is towards the conservative side (on this point anyway).