One of the characteristics of the gospel According to John is that the main events in the life of Jesus are connected to Jewish feasts or specific times. The expulsion of the money changers and traders from the temple happened on a Passover (2:13). The feeding of the five thousand took place on another Passover (6: 4). Apparently Jesus did not go up to Jerusalem for this one. The healing of the paralytic at the portals of the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem was done on “a feast of the Jews” (5: 1). (Most readers of this gospel think this was also a Passover). All the gospels agree that Jesus died at Passover time (11: 55).
On the basis of references to four Passovers in According to John (counting as a Passover the feast of chapter 5), it is said that the ministry of Jesus lasted three and a half years. The Passover references are thus taken at their chronological value. (According to the Synoptics the ministry of Jesus may have lasted less than a year). In this context it is well to remember that other events in According to John are given time references with deep reserves of meaning that transcend temporality.
For example, we read that the feast of Tabernacles was approaching, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem incognito (7: 2). This feast commemorates the providence of God during the desert wanderings at the Exodus. One of the most prominent miracles at that time had been the rock from which water came forth to satisfy the needs of the people in that parched land. The feast lasted seven days. At its culmination the priests descended from the temple to the spring of Siloam and then carried jars full of water up to the altar of sacrifices in the court of the Gentiles. The people followed them, also carrying jars full of water. As they came to the court of the Gentiles they would all pour the water in their jars on the altar, and the water would then run freely on the court. In this way the feast not only transformed the altar into the rock from which water flowed freely in the desert, but also announced the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy that a river would flow from the temple on Zion and run east to sweeten and give life to the waters of the Dead Sea (Ez. 47: 1 – 12).
According to John says: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If any one thirst let him come to me, and drink he who believes in me. As the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water”’” (7: 37 – 38, my punctuation). The narrator then tells the reader, “Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7: 39). The reference to the feast of Tabernacles gives us the clue to understand the words of Jesus. The water from the rock in the desert and the water of the river that gives life to the Dead Sea are not to be compared with the water of the Spirit (3: 5; compare with 4: 14) that flows from the body of the Glorified. No doubt the description of the soldier opening a wound with his spear in the side of Jesus on the cross, from which water and blood flowed (19: 34), is meant to demonstrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ words at the feast of Tabernacles.
It would seem, then, that the temporal references aim to give the reader the theological frame within which to understand what is being told. This is also the case in the reference to Passover in chapter six and the feeding of the five thousand. The discourse about the true bread which descended from heaven contrasts the miracle of manna with the bread of life provided by the Glorified. “It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh is of no avail” (6: 63).
Other episodes in According to John have temporal references with evident theological meaning. In my previous column I referred to the washing of the disciples’ feet as an example the disciples were to imitate to confirm their solidarity with Christ. Jesus carried out this act when he “knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world . . . . Jesus knowing . . . . that he had come from God and was going to God” (13: 1, 3). In other words, the washing of the disciples’ feet must be understood in reference to his death, his departure out of this world, his return to God.
After having eaten the bread dipped in wine that Jesus gave him, Judas went out from the room in which Jesus and the disciples had supper. The disciples thought he was going to buy what was necessary to celebrate Passover the next day. The narrator, however, informs the reader that “it was night” (13: 30).
Throughout the gospel there are references to Nicodemus, the one who came to Jesus “by night” (3: 2; 7: 50; 19: 39). Jesus himself makes clear that “if any one walks in the night, he stumbles” (11: 10). Worrying that the bodies of the three who had been crucified not be exposed to view on the Sabbath, “the Jews” asked Pilate to accelerate their death by breaking their legs. Once this was done, the victim was not able to lift his body by putting pressure on the nail that went through his feet. The full weight of his body hanged from the arms and the lower thorax was extended, making it very difficult for the diaphragm to pump air into the lungs. Those crucified, then, died from asphyxia or cardiac arrest.
Eager to fulfill the requirements of the law, two individuals show up: Joseph of Arimathea, a crypto-Christian for fear of “the Jews”, and Nicodemus, the gentleman of the night. It is hard to miss the ironic (sarcastic ?) tone with which the narrator tells of their eagerness to act before night came. Wishing to bury the body of Jesus before sundown, Joseph asks Pilate for the body. Nicodemus comes with one hundred pounds of ointments. Between the two they embalm and bury the body “as is the burial custom of the Jews” (19: 40). The following day, we are told, was “a great Sabbath” (19: 31). No one has found another reference in the contemporary literature to “a great Sabbath”. One hundred pounds of ointments would have been sufficient to embalm a dozen bodies, at a minimum. That they took care to bury the body according to the custom of the Jews tells us that these fellows had not understood the truth of the One who gives the Spirit without measure (3: 34). It would appear that the narrator is describing a disoriented concern with “the flesh” and the night by those who do not have a true connection with the One Sent by the Father. By contrast, in the Synoptics we read of pious women who carried out a true act of mercy.
The narrative of the wedding feast at Cana starts with the most significant temporal reference: “On the third day there was a marriage at Cana of Galilee” (2: 1). As a chronological marker it is useless because it does not tell us when the counting of days is to start. If we become frustrated with the ambiguity of the phrase, however, we are not reading well. For the first Christians “on the third day” was already a clear reference to the climax of the mission of Jesus.
The Christian confession of faith cited by Paul, known by everyone in his churches, said:
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
He was buried.
He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
He appeared. (1 Cor. 15: 3 – 5)
Here “on the third day” is placed in parallel to “for our sins”. The other parallelisms contrast “died” with “was raised” and “was buried” with “appeared”. Together “for our sins” and “on the third day” tell us the purpose and the method of the redeeming mission already predicted in the Scriptures.
As an introduction to the narrative of the wedding at Cana, “on the third day” alerts us to the context in which the story is to be understood. Of the marriage at Cana we learn nothing at all. Apparently the only thing memorable about it was that at the accompanying feast they ran out of wine and Jesus’ mother said to him: “They have no wine”. It would appear that weddings and wine went together. It was hard to imagine one without the other. Jesus’ response to the information provided by his mother gives us a second clue, in case we failed to appreciate the reference to the third day. “Such problem is neither yours nor mine, woman. My hour has not yet come” (2: 4, my translation).
By now the reader can surmise that the wine which they do not have will be provided by Jesus when “on the third day” his hour has come. With this already settled, the narrative can proceed. “Now six stone jars were there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding two or three metretas”. Apparently this was a household in which the purification rituals were rigorously observed and performed very precisely, using running water (not water from a pool or a cistern). We are also told that the six containers were made of stone. These were not fragile pottery jars. Their capacity was also admirable. Since a metreta is the equivalent of 40 liters (almost eleven gallons), each jar had a twenty-seven gallon capacity (100 liters). According to the requirements for purification, of course, the jars were empty.
Jesus ordered the waiters to fill the jars with water, and they filled them up to the brim (to “the above”, 2: 7). This means that in the jars now there were 600 liters (162 gallons) of water ready to be used for Jewish purification rites. But when the waiters drew from the jars, it was not water. It was wine. The waiters were then told to have the steward approve what was to be served to the guests. The narrator now alerts his readers to an important detail. While the waiters knew where the wine came from, the steward “did not know where it came from”. That is, the steward did not know that the wine he had tasted was “water from above”.
After tasting the wine the steward feels betrayed. He finds himself liable to accusations of incompetence. He not only ignores the details of his job but is also wasting the goods of his master. If it had happened where I came from, the River Plate region in South America, people would have said to him: “No gastes pólvora en chimango” (“Don’t waste gunpowder on chimango. Gunpowder is expensive and this bird is neither hurtful to crops nor eatable).
According to the steward, it is a misuse of expensive resources to serve the best wine when the guests, who have been drinking an inferior wine, have already lost the ability to appreciate a good wine. The best wine available is served when the guests are in full use of their gustatory talents. Once “drunk” (methusthosin, 2: 10), one serves any cheap wine freely. The steward accuses the bridegroom of not having used his head. His complaint is, “You have kept the good wine until now.”
What is this narrative about? Surely it is not about a wedding, of which we do not learn a thing. It is about the ineptitude of a bridegroom who has the best wine available and does not serve it when he should have. Instead, he has waited “until now” to serve the best wine. The narrator tells us that this was the first sign performed by Jesus. Since his hour had not yet come, on the third day, instead of dying on the cross, Jesus manifested his glory providing the best wine at a wedding without wine (2: 11).
The waiters knew that the wine came from stone jars destined to provide water for the ritual purifications of “the Jews”. Of course, those who complain that the bridegroom is a distracted fellow who serves the best wine at the wrong time do not know from whence the best wine comes.
All these details make us realize that this narrative, in effect, has an apologetic function. It justifies the Christian claim. “The Jews” argue that a wise and just God served the good wine by giving the law and the covenant at Sinai through the mediation of Moses. They proudly proclaim themselves to be disciples of Moses (9: 8). In this gospel “the Jews” are accused of placing their hope on Moses (5: 45), and of thinking (erroneously) that life is found in the Scriptures (5: 39). These Christians flatly reject this way of seeing things. The religion of feasts without wine and ritual purifications, the religion of “your law” (10: 34; 15: 10; 18: 31; 19: 7), has now been transformed to the religion of the truth and the life. Precisely, the irony is that the complaint of the steward, in effect, proclaims the truth of the Gospel. It is necessary to believe in the One Sent by the Father who came “from above” because God waited “until now” to give us life, the best wine, “on the third day”.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3644