Thursday, February 5, 2009

Water to Wine (John 2:1-11)

Whenever I teach about Jesus' miracle at Cana, students have so many good questions. Why did Mary think Jesus could do anything about the problem of the wine running out? Why was it her problem to start with? Why did Jesus start with this miracle? Why did Jesus say no to Mary at first, then go ahead and do the miracle?

On the last item, at least, I think that a recent article by Mickey Klink (a professor at Biola University) helps out a lot. When Mary asks Jesus for help, his response is a rare phrase (ti emoi kai soi) that is actually a Hebrew idiom rather than normal Greek. My Greek students always struggle with translating it, because it looks like it should mean "what to me and to you?" Any good commentary will tell you that this phrase is used three or four times in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek Old Testament) to mean something like "what do I have to do with you?" or "why are you bothering me with this?" Mickey Klink added an important observation: on one particular occasion in the OT, someone asked a prophet for a water-related miracle, and the prophet answered ti emoi kai soi, but then went ahead and performed the miracle.

In 2 Kings 3:9-23, the allied armies of Judah and Israel faced a crisis - they were out of water, and the Moabites were about to attack. They asked Elisha for help, but Elisha at first refused because the king of Israel still worshipped idols. However, he then gave instructions to prepare for the miracle - the army dug trenches and waited for water. When the trenches were miraculously filled the next day, the rising sun made them look red as blood. In Hebrew, both "red" and "blood" are terms occasionally used to describe wine.

So what is John doing with this story? By having Jesus refuse with the distinctive phrase ti emoi kai soi, but then complete the miracle, John is showing us that Jesus is much like the great heroic prophet Elisha - something John often does.

This adds to the overall sense of the wine miracle that it is all about Jesus. Jesus' words and actions show him to be as great as Elisha. By converting ceremonial water into celebratory wine, he shows that he is replacing the purity rituals of Judaism. Jesus' disciples see the miracle and they understood that its purpose was to "display his glory," and they grow in their belief in him (John 2:11).
The picture: Water to Wine, in Das Plenarium oder Ewangely Buoch, 1516. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.


  1. Dr. Manning is this reference to Elisha a common understanding of the miracle of water into wine?

  2. No, it's not common yet. Normally, John commentaries mention the three or four OT passages where the prhase ti emoi kai soi occurs, and leave it at that. However, I think Klink's explanation is believable, and I think it will start to show up in newer commentaries. Part of the reason that this will be accepted now is because of a change in the last twenty years in how scholars view NT allusions to the OT. It is more common now to pay attention to the themes and theology of the entire OT passage, not just the verse that is quoted. Since there are several significant ties between the context of John 2:4 and the context of 2 Ki 3:13, it seems likely that the allusion is intentional. There is another OT allusion in Mary's response in John 2:5 that I will probably blog about this week.

  3. Would the "newer commentaries" you refer to happen to include one you are writing Dr. Manning? Ha ha . . . I look forward to it!

    You know when you share this kind of insight, it's really exciting to me because it seems like I get to witness almost the cutting edge of biblical interpretation. Mahalo!

  4. Hi Keoki,

    I am working on a paper this summer, to be presented at the Evangelical Theological Society, and then hopefully published in a journal later. The title right now is "I am not Elijah: The Use and Non-use of Elijah/Elisha Material in the Gospel of John." It will look at 7 passages, including this one, where John alludes to Elijah/Elisha stories, and several places where John seems to avoid using Elijah/Elisha material in reference to John the Baptist. The paper is due in November, but I hope to have it done this summer. I think I will post the whole thing on my blog.

  5. Could I sum up my thoughts on your paper with one simple Elvish word? "Him"!

    So on a related Elijah note, I know your paper will be regarding the Gospel of John but is there any relation between John's avoidance of using Elijah material and Matthew's use of Elijah material in Matthew 17?

  6. My Elvish is getting rusty! I had to look that one up. Erurainon Aran!

    The synoptic gospels portray John the Baptist as the prophesied Elijah of Malach 3, the one who had to come before the Day of the Lord. But the Gospel of John wants to claim all titles for Jesus - Messiah, Prophet like Moses, Son of David, and even Elijah. The return of Elijah is a metaphor, so the evangelists have interpreted in slightly different ways. I am pretty sure others have commented on Jesus as Elijah in John; I will just expand on that by commenting on all the Elijah passages in John. I will also speculate a bit about how John sees Jesus fulfilling the role of Elijah.

  7. Hello, I just stumbled across this blog and have found it very educational. Thank you and thanks be to God!

    I do have one question. In this paragraph: "So what is John doing with this story? By having Jesus refuse with the distinctive phrase ti emoi kai soi, but then complete the miracle, John is showing us that Jesus is much like the great heroic prophet Elisha - something John often does.", are you saying that Jesus did not actually say "ti emoi kai soi" and that John interjected it because he wanted to create a link to Elisha? Or do you mean that John chooses to specifically include Jesus' response in this situation to draw attention to the allusion to Elisha?

  8. Hi Anonymous,

    Glad you are enjoying the blog! I think my point is that John intentionally emphasizes some details to highlight their similarity to stories in the Elijah/Elisha cycle. I am sure that Jesus said a lot of things at the wedding, but John picks out just a few to make his points. I don't see the Gospels as a perfect dictation of everything Jesus said, but they are historically accurate reminiscences of Jesus' deeds and words. Theologians call this view of the Gospels "ipsissimi vox" (exact voice) rather than "ipsissimi verbi" (exact words).

  9. Cool, thanks for the quick reply! As a clarifying question, would you say that the red letters were things Jesus actually said word-for-word (at least translated into Greek from whichever of the 3 languages he was using at the time), or is it more that they capture the spirit of what he said?


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