Interpretation 2

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  Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002


The reader recalls that John 1 identifies Jesus as God, moving Jesus the man to Christ, God. Chapter two, symbolically, further delineates Jesus and Christ. Paul, his works written before the Gospels, argues that Jesus is the new Adam. In John 1, a new creation evolves through the ministry of Jesus, now identified as Christ, the founder of Christianity. For some, it may stretch the point to say that the wedding at Cana also symbolizes the union of two worlds, the old and new. Christ as bridegroom initiates the new era of Christ-ianity. The wine further symbolizes transformation: water into wine, and later in John 4, death into life. Clearly, the good wine has been kept until this time. Furthermore, in verse 23, Jesus' feat is interpreted as the "sign" for which the Jews have waited. The cleansing of the temple, appropriately placed in John, signals preparatory actions for the new era, much as Leviticus prepares the Israelites for their entrance into Canaan. Cana and Canaan! Coincidence? Finally, the old temple built for a dwelling place for God but wrongfully appropriated for profitable business is contrasted to Christ, his body the temple to be destroyed in three days and self-resurrected.

The Wedding at Cana

1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there;
2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."4 And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come."5 Hismother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

6 Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast." So they took it.9 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom10 and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.

11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

No chapter in John is more important than chapter two, structurally teaching the culmination of the Old and the initiation of the New. To understand this, one must follow John’s narrative carefully and understand Hebrew tradition. Alfred Edersheim has explained this structure more convincingly than anyone else I’ve read. Edersheim is not alone, however, in seeing a symbolic significance to this first sign; consider the NET Bible’s explanatory note (given here in entirety):

1sn (2:1) Cana in Galilee was not a very well known place. It is mentioned only here, in 4:46, and 21:2, and nowhere else in the NT.Josephus (Life 16 [86]) says he once had his quarters there. The probable location is present day Khirbet Cana, 8 mi (14 km) north of Nazareth, or Khirbet Kenna, 4 mi (7 km) northeast of Nazareth.2tn (2:1) Grk "in Galilee, and Jesus' mother."3sn (2:2) There is no clue to the identity of the bride and groom, but in all probability either relatives or friends of Jesus' family were involved, since Jesus' mother and both Jesus and his disciples were...invited to the wedding. The attitude of Mary in approaching Jesus and asking him to do something when the wine ran out also suggests that familial obligations were involved.4tn (2:3) The word "left" is not in the Greek text but is implied.sn (20:30) They have no wine left. On the backgrounds of this miracle J. D. M. Derrett pointed out among other things the strong element of reciprocity about weddings in the Ancient Near East. It was possible in certain circumstances to take legal action against the man who failed to provide an appropriate wedding gift. The bridegroom and family here might have been involved in a financial liability for failing to provide adequately for their guests ("Water into Wine," BZ 7 55: 80-97). Was Mary asking for a miracle? There is no evidence that Jesus had worked any miracles prior to this (although this is an argument from silence). Some think Mary was only reporting the situation, or (as Calvin thought) asking Jesus to give some godly exhortations to the guests and thus relieve the bridegroom's embarrassment. But the words, and the reply of Jesus in v. 4, seem to imply more. It is not inconceivable that Mary, who had probably been witness to the events of the preceding days, or at least was aware of them, knew that her son's public career was beginning. She also knew the supernatural events surrounding his birth, and the prophetic words of the angel, and of Simeon and Anna in the temple at Jesus' dedication. In short, she had good reason to believe Jesus to be the Messiah, and now his public ministry had begun. In this kind of context, her request does seem more significant.
5tn (2:4) Grk "and Jesus said to her." 6sn (2:4) The term Woman is Jesus' normal, polite way of addressing women (Matt 15:28, Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 19:26; 20:15). But it is unusual for a son to address his mother with this term. The custom in both Hebrew (or Aramaic) and Greek would be for a son to use a qualifying adjective or title. Is there significance in Jesus' use here? It probably indicates that a new relationship existed between Jesus and his mother once he had embarked on his public ministry. He was no longer or primarily only her son, but the "Son of Man." This is also suggested by the use of the same term in 19:26 in the scene at the cross, where the beloved disciple is "given" to Mary as her "new" son. 7tn (2:4) Grk "Woman, what to me and to you?" (an idiom). The phrase tiv ejmoiVV kaiV soiv, guvnai (ti emoi kai soi, gunai) is Semitic in origin. The equivalent Hebrew expression in the Old Testament had two basic meanings: (1) When one person was unjustly bothering another, the injured party could say "What to me and to you?" meaning, "What have I done to you that you should do this to me?" (Judg 11:12, 2 Chr 35:21, 1 Kgs 17:18). (2) When someone was asked to get involved in a matter he felt was no business of his, he could say to the one asking him, "What to me and to you?" meaning, "That is your business, how am I involved?" (2 Kgs 3:13, Hos 14:8). Option (1) implies hostility, while option (2) implies merely disengagement. Mere disengagement is almost certainly to be understood here as better fitting the context (although some of the Greek Fathers took the remark as a rebuke to Mary, such a rebuke is unlikely). 8tn (2:4) Grk "my hour" (referring to the time of Jesus' crucifixion and return to the Father). sn (2:4) The Greek word translated time (w{ra, Jwra) occurs in John 2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28, 29; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:25; and 17:1. It is a reference to the special period in Jesus' life when he was to leave this world and return to the Father (13:1); the hour when the Son of man is glorified (17:1). This is accomplished through his suffering, death, resurrection (and ascension--though this last is not emphasized by John). John 7:30 and 8:20 imply that Jesus' arrest and death are included. John 12:23 and 17:1, referring to the glorification of the Son, imply that the resurrection and ascension are included as part of the "hour." In John 2:4 Jesus' remark to his mother indicates that the time for this self-manifestation has not yet arrived; his identity as Messiah is not yet to be publicly revealed. 9tn (2:6) Grk "for the purification of the Jews." 10tn (2:6) Grk "holding two or three metretes" (about 75 to 115 liters). Each of the pots held 2 or 3 metrhtaiv (metrhtai). A metrhth'" (metrhths) was about 9 gallons (40 liters); thus each jar held 18-27 gallons (80-120 liters) and the total volume of liquid involved was108-162 gallons (480-720 liters). sn (2:6) Significantly, these jars held water for Jewish ceremonial washing (purification rituals). The water of Jewish ritual purification has become the wine of the new messianic age. The wine may also be, after the fashion of Johannine double meanings, a reference to the wine of the Lord's Supper. A number have suggested this, but there does not seem to be anything in the immediate context which compels this; it seems more related to how frequently a given interpreter sees references to the sacraments in John's Gospel as a whole (italics mine).

John is unique in the Gospels for having included the wedding feast at Cana. Why, one may ask, does John recall this event and place it prominently in the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus? Edersheim points to the significance of the Jewish marriage as symbolizing the union of God with Israel and remarks that by custom, the pious fasted, confessed, and purified themselves before entering into the marriage ceremony. Only after the prescribed washings did the marriage supper begin. Even more significantly, Edersheim views the transformation of legal purification into the wine of the new dispensation; this marriage feast marks the beginning of a passage from the old to the new, and in the life of Jesus, it signals a leave taking of home and family. He describes it as the “active consecration” of Jesus’ submitting to “His Father’s business.” The Intervarsity Press Commentary on John extends the complete renewal process:

These stories form a coherent section, as the link between 2:11 and 4:54 indicates. A common theme in 2:1--4:42 (cf. Dodd 1953:297) is the replacement of the old with the new: wine in place of water (2:1-11), a new temple (2:14-19), a new birth (3:1-21), a new well of water (4:7-15) and new worship (4:16-26). Thus, these stories reveal the fulfillment that has come in Jesus, providing grace upon grace (cf. 1:16). http://bible.gospelcom.net (See commentaries.)

The IVP adds further:

While this story provides a powerful picture of true discipleship, the main point is that it reveals Jesus' glory (2:11). It does this in part by revealing something of Jesus' identity through associations with the Old Testament. Such a miracle might suggest, for example, the deeds of Elijah (1 Kings 17:7-16) or Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-7). More specifically, the promised time of restoration is expressed in the imagery of marriage (Is 54:4-8; 62:4-5) and of an abundance of wine (Is 25:6; Jer 31:12; Amos 9:13-14; 1 Enoch 10:19; 2 Apocalypse of Baruch 29:5). Indeed, in Hosea these images appear together (Hos 2:14-23). Thus, through both the supernatural power of the miracle and the imagery associated with it the disciples' confessions of Jesus in the first chapter are confirmed. Here indeed is the one they have been waiting for. He himself is the good wine that has been kept back until now.


The Passover

12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples; and there they stayed for a few days.13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business.15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade."17 His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for thy house will consume me."18 The Jews then said to him, "What sign have you to show us for doing this?"19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."20 The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?"21 But he spoke of the temple of his body.22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did;24 but Jesus did not trust himself to them,

25 because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.

The Net Bible bears out the truth of what Edersheim has remarked in the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus:
22sn (2:12) Verse 12 is merely a transitional note in the narrative (although Capernaum does not lie on the direct route to Jerusalem from Cana). Nothing is mentioned in John's Gospel at this point about anything Jesus said or did there (although later his teaching is mentioned, see 6:59). From the synoptics it is clear that Capernaum was a center of Jesus' Galilean ministry and might even be called "his own town" (Matt 9:1). The royal official whose son Jesus healed (John 4:46-54) was from Capernaum. He may have heard Jesus speak there, or picked up the story about the miracle at Cana from one of Jesus' disciples.

Having launched his public life, it’s no surprise to see Jesus turn his attention to the temple; it is no surprise in John to place Jesus almost immediately in Jerusalem, unlike Mark and Luke:
Jesus Cleanses the Temple

11 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the moneychangers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

In John, one should take nothing for granted. Even this seemingly simple passage quickly becomes complicated in interpretation. For example, one is first led to ask how many Passovers Jesus attended:
(2:13) Grk "the Passover of the Jews." This is first of at least three (and possibly four) Passovers mentioned in John's Gospel. If it is assumed that the Passovers appear in the Gospel in their chronological order (and following a date of A.D. 33 for the crucifixion), this would be the Passover of the spring of A.D. 30, the first of Jesus' public ministry. There is a clear reference to another Passover in 6:4, and another still in 11:55, 12:1, 13:1, 18:28, 39, and 19:14. The latter would be the Passover of A.D. 33. There is a possibility that 5:1 also refers to a Passover, in which case it would be the second of Jesus' public ministry (A.D. 31), while 6:4 would refer to the third (A.D. 32) and the remaining references would refer to the final Passover at the time of the crucifixion. It is entirely possible, however, that the Passovers occurring in the Fourth Gospel are not intended to be understood as listed in chronological sequence. If the material of the Fourth Gospel originally existed in the form of homilies or sermons by the Apostle John on the life and ministry of Jesus, the present arrangement would not have to be in strict
chronological order (it does not explicitly claim to be). In this case the Passover mentioned in 2:13, for example, might actually be later in Jesus' public ministry than it might at first glance appear. (Net Bible)

The second issue emerging is then the question of how many times Jesus cleaned the temple:

Does John's account of the temple cleansing describe the same event as the synoptic Gospels describe, or a separate event? The other accounts of the cleansing of the temple are Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; and Luke 19:45-46. None are as long as the Johannine account. The fullest of the synoptic accounts is Mark's. John's account differs from Mark's in the mention of sheep and oxen, the mention of the whip of cords, the Greek word kermatisth'" (kermatisths) for money changer (the synoptics use kollubisth'" [kollubisths], which John mentions in 2:15), the scattering of the coins (2:15), and the command by Jesus, "Take these things away from here!" The word for overturned in John is ajnastrefw (anastrefw), while Matthew and Mark use katastrefw (katastrefw; Luke does not mention the moneychangers at all). The synoptics all mention that Jesus quoted Isa 56:7 followed by Jer 7:11. John mentions no citation of scripture at all, but says that later the disciples remembered Ps 69:9. John does not mention, as does Mark, Jesus' prohibition on carrying things through the temple (i.e., using it for a shortcut). But the most important difference is one of time: In John the cleansing appears as the first great public act of Jesus' ministry, while in the synoptics it is virtually the last. The most common solution of the problem, which has been endlessly discussed among NT scholars, is to say there was only one cleansing, and that it took place, as the synoptics record it, at the end of Jesus' ministry. In the synoptics it appears to be the event that finalized the opposition of the high priest, and precipitated the arrest of Jesus. According to this view, John's placing of the event at the opening of Jesus' ministry is due to his general approach; it was fitting `theologically' for Jesus to open his ministry this way, so this is the way John records it. (Net Bible)

My own stance should be clear, although I agree the position should not be overstated: John uses this event to signal Jesus’ public mission. The Net Bible also emphasizes exactly this structure in John:
Some have overstated the case for one cleansing and John's placing of it at the opening of Jesus' public ministry, however. For example William Barclay stated: "John, as someone has said, is more interested in the truth than in the facts. He was not interested to tell men when Jesus cleansed the Temple; he was supremely interested in telling men that Jesus did cleanse the Temple" (John, 94). But this is not the impression one gets by a reading of John's Gospel: he seems to go out of his way to give details and facts, including notes of time and place. To argue as Barclay does that John is interested in truth apart from the facts is to set up a false dichotomy. Why should one have to assume, in any case, that there could have been only one cleansing of the temple? This account in John is found in a large section of nonsynoptic material. Apart from the work of John the Baptist--and even this is markedly different from the references in the synoptics--nothing else in the first five chapters of John's Gospel is found in any of the synoptics. It is certainly not impossible that John took one isolated episode from the conclusion of Jesus' earthly ministry and inserted it into his own narrative in a place which seemed appropriate according to his purposes. (Net Bible)

If, as is sometimes the case, one has to work hard at providing a framework for interpretation, perhaps the simpler explanation has been overlooked. To argue that the cleaning of the temple occurred several times forces one into this greater exertion of having to explain and justify; I prefer the simpler notion that the writer John used the historical event to literary advantage.

But in view of the differences between John and the synoptics, in both wording and content, as well as setting and time, it is at least possible that the event in question actually occurred twice (unless one begins with the presupposition that the Fourth Gospel is non-historical anyway). In support of two separate cleansings of the temple, it has been suggested that Jesus' actions on this occasion were not permanent in their result, and after (probably) 3 years the status quo in the temple courts had returned to normal. And at this time early in Jesus' ministry, he was virtually unknown. Such an action as he took on this occasion would have created a stir, and evoked the response John records in 2:18-22, but that is probably about all, especially if Jesus' actions met with approval among part of the populace. But later in Jesus' ministry, when he was well known, and vigorously opposed by the high-priestly party in Jerusalem, his actions might have brought forth another, harsher response. It thus appears possible to argue for two separate cleansings of the temple as well as a single one relocated by John to suit his own purposes. Which then is more probable? On the whole, more has been made of the differences between John's account and the synoptic accounts than perhaps should have been. After all, the synoptic accounts also differ considerably from one another, yet few scholars would be willing to posit four cleansings of the temple as an explanation for this. While it is certainly possible that the author did not intend by his positioning of the temple cleansing to correct the synoptics' timing of the event, but to highlight its significance for the course of Jesus' ministry, it still appears somewhat more probable that John has placed the event he records in the approximate period of Jesus' public ministry in which it did occur, that is, within the first year or so of Jesus' public ministry. The statement of the Jewish authorities recorded by the author (this temple has been under construction for forty-six years) would tend to support an earlier rather than a later date for the temple cleansing described by John, since 46 years from the beginning of construction on Herod's temple in c. 19 B.C. (the date varies somewhat in different sources) would be around A.D. 27. This is not conclusive proof, however. (Net Bible)
Certainly, in Matthew, this event does come near the end of Jesus’ ministry:

2 And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.

13 He said to them, "It is written, `My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers."

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.

15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant;

11 and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, `Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise'?"

In John, one must argue that the cleansing of the temple is yet another indication that the Passover feast and Passover lamb has been replaced by Jesus as Christ:

At this Passover Jesus performs a sign that points to his death and reveals his replacement of the temple, thereby implying the fulfillment of the redemption of God that Passover itself represents. In the context of Passover in chapter 6 Jesus teaches about the significance of his death at great length. And then at the third Passover (chapter 11) he accomplishes his work and dies as the true Passover lamb. Thus the whole of Jesus' ministry occurs in the framework of Passover and has the effect of replacing the Passover and all associated with it (cf. 1:16-17). Accordingly, this is a Jewish feast (2:13); that is, it is now "abandoned by the Evangelist and his readers" (Ridderbos 1997:114) because Jesus himself, rather than the temple and its feasts, has become the new focal point (Intervarsity Press).

Within the modern church, we must continue to guard against this appropriation of God's house for "our own purposes": 2:16  and to them that sold the doves he said, Take these things hence1; make not my Father's house a house of merchandise2.

Chapter two in John ends appropriately with Jesus’ understanding the frail nature of the mortal creature in grappling with and understanding eternal matters:

20 The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?"

21 But he spoke of the temple of his body.

22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did;

24 but Jesus did not trust himself to them,

25 because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.

John moves the reader quickly here to post-death, although the emphasis is on the Jewish custom of requiring signs of supernatural activity. Faith, even the simple belief of the child, comes with grave difficulty for rational beings seeking to ground themselves in experience. One should not be surprised to observe the author John move to a narrative exemplifying this difficulty in the very next chapter, the episode of Nicodemus, who does not understand what is meant by a second birth. Invocation of a second birth signals Jesus' public ministry as the Christ-ianity that is to emerge as an interpretation of Jesus' work.