The Miracles, 1 – Water into Wine

Generally considered Jesus’ first miracle, “turning the water into wine” has captured popular imagination as a casual display of miraculous power – something of a party trick. Which perhaps it was.

Jesus turning water into wine

Here’s the story: Jesus attends a wedding. His mother says they’ve run out of wine, can he help? She tells the servants to do whatever he says. He says to fill some pitchers with water; the liquid is then taken to the Steward of the feast, who congratulates Jesus on saving the best wine for last, i.e. this wine is better than the stuff they had earlier – normally the good stuff would be served first, before everyone is too sozzled to notice the difference.

But remember that Palestine was part of the Roman Empire by this time. Consider how Romans served wine at feasts: wine was shipped around the Empire as a concentrate, which reduced shipping costs. The wine steward at a feast had the task of adding the appropriate amount of concentrate to the jars of water, producing something that was the appropriate strength for the company and for the state of the party.

If the concentrate was already in an otherwise empty jar, which you then filled with water… Well, it would be a good party trick, especially if it came out at a good strength, and if your guests were village simpletons who weren’t used to attending Roman-style events.

Or perhaps everyone knew that it was nothing special, just a bit of fun – and that the only miracle was in having better-tasting (stronger) wine at the end of the party than at the beginning!

In The Gospel According to the Romans there is an assumption that Jesus uses street magic to provide an illusion of the miraculous, to reinforce the spiritual lessons he teaches – just as Indian holy men do today.

2 comments on “The Miracles, 1 – Water into Wine

  1. Beth says:

    This type of story was an attempt to assume the traits of Dionysus, not a literal occurrence or party trick. Jesus is also referred to as “the true vine” (John 15, The Vine and the Branches). Why call it a “true” vine if not trying to prove another “vine” false? Dionysus is the God of the Vine. He IS the vine embodied. The legend told is that when he was killed, his blood hit the earth and sprang up as a vine, each grape representing a drop of his blood. Wine was incredibly important in His rites. It’s not a coincidence that catholic ceremony of sharing wine and bread mimics earlier Pagan ceremonies. If it couldn’t be suppressed, it was subsumed.

    Below is a link to a page which details some of the miracles and lore of Dionysus, which includes wine bubbling up from a spring at ecstatic festivals in his honor. The article is well researched and includes one of my favorite writers on Dionysus, Karl Kerenyi.


  2. I agree in part, Beth. I accept that John was trying to use the story to co-opt followers of Dionysus, and used some of Jesus’ Passover imagery to support it. And the story of turning water into wine is only in John, not in the three Synoptic Gospels. And John’s is the wackiest of the gospels, and therefore the least reliable.

    However the story is still perfectly possible as, not a miracle, but an event – one of Jesus’ little street magic demonstrations. If it was unconvincing or trivial it needn’t be reported in the Synoptic Gospels – but if John thought he could get some mileage out of it, he might well tell it with his own spin.

    And that’s how I see the gospels – rooted in fact, but spun like crazy to help the new Christian sect, with diverse advocates but all under Paul’s influence, grow their influence.


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