What is the meaning of the stone jars at Cana in John 2?

The Sunday lectionary gospel in Year B for Epiphany 3 is John 2.1–11, the ‘sign’ of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. (The ecumenical lectionary has a reading for Mark instead, but in the Church of England version of the lectionary, it is the reading on Epiphany 3 in Year B and Year C; if anyone can explain this, do comment below.)

It offers us a good example of John’s remarkable ability in story-telling, where he combines an intense attention to realistic detail with powerful evocation of the scene. In 11 short verses, we are taken into both the reality and the emotion of the event, so it is no wonder that the story is so well known that the phrase ‘turning water into wine’ (like ‘walking on water’) has become something of a cultural trope.

We have become used to reading John’s gospel on two levels, the literal and the symbolic, and so it is not surprising that we should be alert to anything that might suggest symbolic significance in this story. Already John the Baptist has proclaimed Jesus as the symbolic ‘lamb of God’ (so we are not surprised when we later read that Jesus dies in John’s chronology at the time of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs), and the first disciples ask Jesus ‘Where are you staying?’ (John 1.38) using the word later translated ‘abiding’, which becomes a symbolic term for the incorporation of the faithful disciple in the presence of God through Jesus in John 15.4. The Cana episode is introduced with one of John’s characteristic temporal markers: ‘on the third day…’ (John 2.1). Mark Stibbe and C K Barrett disagree on whether this implies the wedding takes place on the sixth or seventh day of the narrative so far, as indicated by the cumulation of temporal markers:

Day 1John 1.19John’s testimony to the Jewish leaders
Day 2John 1.29‘the next day’John’s declaration of Jesus as lamb of God
Day 3John 1.35‘the next day’The disciples seek Jesus
Day 4John 1.43‘the next day’Jesus leaves for Galilee
Day 5The Sabbath?
Day 6John 2.1‘on the third day’The first day of the week?

(If ‘the third day’ implies an interval of two days between this and the previous event, then we are on to Day Seven in this ‘week’ of Jesus’ ministry. Jo-Ann Bryant, Paideia p 55 and other recent commentators agree with Stibbe, that this is indeed Day Seven.) But Stibbe and Barrett do agree on the significance of the phrase ‘on the third day’, anticipating the day of resurrection, the first day of the week and the first day of the new creation brought about by Jesus’ dying and rising again. Stibbe takes this further, and sees the wedding itself as presaging the eschatological wedding banquet of God with his people (compare Rev 19.7–9). We find this double meaning repeatedly as the gospel unfolds: Nicodemus, dimly grasping Jesus’ teaching, meets him in the twilight in chapter 3, the usual time for a meeting in a hot climate, whilst the woman by the well sees the light of the world by the light of the noonday sun in chapter 4, an unusual time demonstrating she is outcast; in John 9.7 the man born blind in chapter 9 is sent to the Pool of Siloam (which means ‘sent’, of course!); and when Judas goes out to betray Jesus ‘it was night!’ (John 13.30) which it was both literally and metaphorically.

So it is not surprising that many readers interpret the six stone water jars symbolically. Barrett comments:

It is possible although by no means certain that the number six is symbolic. Six, being less by one and seven, the number of completeness and perfection, would indicate that the Jewish dispensation, typified by its ceremonial water, was partial and imperfect. (p 191)

Augustine goes much further, connecting the six jars with the six ages of the world up to the time of Jesus:

But observe what Himself says, The things which were written in the law, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me. And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets. Hence there were there six water-pots, which He bade be filled with water. Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies are fulfilled, the water-pots are full; but that the water may be turned into wine, Christ must be understood in that whole prophecy. (Tractates on John 9.6)

And in popular preaching, this symbolic number is hard to resist. The Jewish system of the law is all about ritual; it separates people into the clean and the unclean, and so dehumanises them; and Jesus comes to do away with the lot.

There are multiple problems with this kind of reading. Theologically, we need to reflect on the origin of ‘the law’. In the OT, it is clearly seen as a gift from God—so in this reading we must believe that Jesus is doing away with a nasty, dehumanising system which originated with God himself. Canonically, there is a difficulty posed by Jesus’ insistence that he ‘has not come to do away with the law, but to fulfil it’ (Matt 5.17), and by Matthew and Paul’s insistence (strongly implied by all the other gospels) that Jesus’ life and ministry ‘fulfilled’ or was ‘according to’ the Scriptures (1 Cor 15.3–4)—a belief that marks out canonical from non-canonical texts. Within John’s gospel, despite the language of ‘the Jews’ (John 2.6), we find a very Jewish message which insists on the primacy of Jewish understanding (‘salvation is from the Jews’ John 4.22) and which centres around the Jewish pilgrim feasts. And in this narrative, absolutely nothing whatever is made of the number six—most notably, Jesus changes the water into wine within the six jars, and does not add a seventh. If we are to take the six as symbolising the apparent ‘incompleteness’ of Jewish belief prior to Jesus, then Jesus’ completion of it involves using what is already there—and not adding anything to it! Reading carefully, we also notice that the climax of the story is not the contrast between water and wine—but that the best wine has been kept until last. Just as John 1.16 (now rightly translated in modern versions) talks of Jesus bringing grace (the grace of the gospel) in place of (Gk: anti) grace (the grace of the law)—and not grace in place of legalism—so this miracle compares Jesus with the law as the best wine following good wine.

In his fascinating paper given at a recent Tyndale New Testament Study Group, Richard Bauckham brought two other factors into play in reading this story historically. The first relates to the stone water jars themselves, about which much has been written in scholarship in recent years. There are several things to note.

First, the importance of stone vessels is that they are not subject to the impurity laws in Lev 11.32–35 which demand that clay vessels which become unclean must be smashed. So though they are much more expensive to make in the first place, in the long term they are more economic because they can be used repeatedly, even if they come into contact with things which are ceremonially unclean. So their presence indicates either that we are in a priestly household, or at least a household concerned with purity.

Second, these very large vessels are very difficult to make, since they must be carved from a single piece of stone. A quarry and workshop producing stone vessels was recently discovered not far from Cana in lower Galilee. But the technology to produce large vessels needed the kind of lathes that were used by the Romans in making stone columns—so these large stone vessels indicate quite a specific time period of the Roman occupation of Judea and Samaria. Thus John’s mention of them is pointing to a particular and limited historical period.

Thirdly, because these items were expensive, it was thought that they might be ostentatious luxuries which were put on display—and in fact you can see from the examples in the picture above that they were finely made, with a consistent and sophisticated design around the rims, for example. But archaeological evidence, particularly from the Burnt House in Jerusalem (a first century dwelling destroyed in the Roman siege of 70 AD) shows that the large stone jars (qalal in Hebrew) were in the working areas of the house. In other words, they had a practical importance, rather than being for display.

But Richard added another dimension to this discussion. In 1 Chron 24.7–18 are listed the 24 ‘priestly courses’ or divisions (Hebrew mishmar) which set out the pattern of duties of the priests through the year, with each ‘course’ doing duty for two weeks each. Although there is some doubt in scholarship as to whether this was a historical reality in the time of the first temple, or an idealised reconstruction by the writer of Chronicles after the destruction of the temple and the exile, the pattern became important in the Second Temple period—and in fact allows us to determine the approximate date when Jesus was born. But why would such a schedule be so important if all the priests lived in Jerusalem? In fact they didn’t, and so this schedule allowed them to know when to travel to the city to complete their duty. A number of inscriptions have been found in synagogues from the period (and later) which list these divisions, include the names of the towns related to each division, and include an additional column of names, which Richard argues are the particular families within the divisions who lived in the various towns listed, and so were the ones actually travelling to perform their duties.

Why are these lists so important? Firstly, because they have a good claim to indicating actual historical practice at the time of Jesus, not least because no towns established after 70AD are included. They all date from the Hasmonean period, when priestly families settled throughout the country. Secondly (something I pointed out and Richard agreed with), these lists show the connections between Galilee and Jerusalem, with the priestly families settled in the region providing a link with the temple. This is important given John’s focus on Jerusalem—and Richard’s argument that John’s gospel was not written by John the apostle, brother of James, but by someone based in Jerusalem, which accounts for the focus on Jerusalem throughout the gospels, in contrast to the focus on Galilee in Mark, and the importance of the pilgrim festivals. Thirdly, Cana is listed as one of the 24 towns in which priestly families lived.

Put together with the role of stone jars, it looks quite likely (though of course not provable) that the wedding in Cana was taking place in the house of this priestly family, which accounts for the presence of jars themselves because of the family’s concern for ritual purity. And why, then, does John record that there were six? Because, as in the picture of the Burnt House above, that is how many there happened to be!

Although there is much symbolism in John’s gospel, we are increasingly realising that there is also much history. Why does John note (in John 5.2) that the Pool of Bethesda has five stoa (colonnades or porticos)? Until the 19th century, there was no evidence outside of John’s Gospel for the existence of this pool; therefore, scholars argued that the gospel was written later, probably by someone without first-hand knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, and that the ‘pool’ had only a metaphorical, rather than historical, significance. But when the site was excavated, it was discovered that it did indeed have five colonnades—not in a pentagon, but as a rectangle with one colonnade crossing the middle. (See to the right my photograph of the scale model in Jerusalem taken last year, with the Antonia Fortress behind the Pool of Bethesda.) And why does John note (John 5.5) that the man had been there for 38 years? Probably simply because he had.

When reading John, and the other gospels, we need to be alert to their symbolism. But we also need to take them with their full historical seriousness too—as previous generations have often failed to do.

There are a number of other things to note about the passage.

Having introduced the episode by careful temporal and geographical markers, the writer introduces the characters in a way which anticipates the following action. The mother of Jesus is mentioned first; there is no particular significance in the omission of her name, and it would be appropriate to refer to her in relation to Jesus, since he is the principle focus here. It places her in a role of importance, but not central to either the narrative or the gospel; she makes a significant contribution, but there are limits to her understanding of the situation.

Jesus is introduced next, and it is he who has been invited to the wedding as a guest (the verb is singular) whilst the disciples as tagged on, almost as an afterthought. As often happens in this gospel, the disciples are largely by-standers rather than major actors; their function here is to witness what has happened, and ‘believe’. As in the episodes in chapter 1, we find here a close juxtaposition between the ‘mundane’ reality of kinship obligation (as Jesus attends the wedding, most likely of a relative) and the cosmic significance of the action that manifests his ‘glory’, that which he has shared with his Father in John 1.14 and which will be made fully manifest (paradoxically) when Jesus is lifted up on the cross (John 17.5).

The wine fails; the term here, hustereo, can have a sense of lack of quantity or lack of quality. Mary’s statement to Jesus suggests the former, whilst the final response of the steward suggests the latter. Within the first-century honour/shame culture, it would not be appropriate for a mother to make a demand of her adult son, so Mary’s comment is a statement, though clearly with the expectation of some response.

Typical of the Fourth Gospel’s realistic speech, Jesus’ reply is expressed in a semitic metaphor: ‘What to me and to you?’, an expression we find in exactly the same form in Hebrew in Judges 11.12, 1 Kings 17.18 and 2 Kings 3.13, all with the sense of ‘What is there between us?’ Given the context of these examples, we would be right to interpret Jesus’ address to her as ‘woman’ in a negative way; he is resisting her suggestion, since she does not fully understand what the coming of ‘his hour’ will involve. Nevertheless she clearly expects him to do something dramatic, hence her instruction to the servants.

Although there are no particular linguistic connections, the volume of the jars and the action of the servants in filling them ‘to the very top’, beyond the point where you would normally fill them, points to the later language of ‘life in abundance’ (John 10.10).

Once again, the honour/shame dynamic plays its part. The steward does not know where this best wine has come from, and credits its supply to the bridegroom, whose honour is thereby left intact since the humiliating failure is not made public. And there is an inversion of revelation, in that it is the servants who really know the truth. But Jesus himself does not accrue honour in the social sense. Instead, he reveals his ‘glory’ to the disciples (who presumably have also observed the action). This first sign points forward to the time when Jesus will be shamed rather than honoured in human terms, but the glory of God’s grace in the life and forgiveness that flow from Jesus’ crucified body—another juxtaposition of ‘blood and water’—will be fully revealed.

In a previous posting of this piece, Colin Hamer (who has published a fascinating study of marital imagery in the Bible ) offered this further observation about symbolism in the episode:

When asked to make up the shortfall of wine Jesus is said to declare that ‘My hour is not yet come—Jesus is nonetheless recorded as performing the miracle and when the wine is produced the master of the feast comments on its quality and assumes it is the bridegroom who has made the provision (vv. 9–10). Brant Pitre (Jesus the Bridegroom, 35–39; also: McWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah and the People of God, 57) suggests that this was in accord with the Jewish wedding tradition where it was the bridegroom’s responsibility to provide the wine (as inferred in v. 9). It follows that Mary had been, in effect, asking Jesus to act as if he was on that day the bridegroom—such an analysis would explain his enigmatic reply to her. Pitre further suggests Mary’s reference to the lack of wine is an echo of Isaiah 24:7, 9, 11—Isaiah subsequently describing a future restoration of Israel when Yahweh will ensure wine will be in abundance (Isa 25:6–8). Thus Pitre sees that the writer of the fourth Gospel, in recounting such an extravagant supply of wine, is employing contemporary Jewish marriage traditions to portray Jesus as the divine bridegroom self-consciously taking the role occupied by Yahweh in the Old Testament imagery.

I think that that is a plausible observation, but with one qualification: why should we see this symbolism only as the creation of the gospel writer, rather than as something in the mind of Jesus to which the gospel writer is alert? I always find it odd when we ascribe theological sophistication to later characters rather than to Jesus himself! (See also Colin’s own volume The Bridegroom Messiah which offers his PhD research in a popular format.)

For a full discussion of the passage, including detail on how the jars would have been made and their capacity (!), join James and Ian for their discussion:

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6 thoughts on “What is the meaning of the stone jars at Cana in John 2?”

  1. Ian, I really like your work and found this blog a great addition to material I have on this story. Its a fascinating story, full of richness and almost inexhaustable depth.

    One minor quibble. “Within the first-century honour/shame culture, it would not be appropriate for a mother to make a demand of her adult son, so Mary’s comment is a statement, though clearly with the expectation of some response.” In honour cultures mothers are held in high esteem and often wield huge influence over their sons. (Stereotypical Italian, Jewish and Indian mothers are stereotypes for a reason). I therefore read that Mary’s statement carries a lot of weight for Jesus and pushes him to act. This makes the strongly negative “What between you and me” even more startling. And yet Jesus acts. This part of the interaction is fascinating and I’m sure I don’t fully understand it. Even so, I can feel the impact of it. Fascinating and very human

  2. Futher to my comment on the previous thread.
    Perhaps the six is significant of the “work”days of creation which following the Judgement were days of toil and hard labour.
    Such was the work of religion under the law which demanded much labour to walk in.
    The blessing of the Corn and Wine and Oil [the bruising ,the shedding and the outpouring] reflected in the Eucharist and Pentecost on the other hand being God imparted.
    Perhaps Mary was walking in the steps of the Overcomers[the Isreal that prevails with God ]
    The party is apparently over, the temporal joys are fading away there is no gladness”institutions are failing the moral order is failing
    Churches are coming apart.Fears and anxieties are mounting on all sides,people looking for chemical substitues to “maintain” their mental health; ever seeking for that brief moment of Paradise were rest and peace might be briefly enjoyed. “they have no wine”; “sheep without a Shepherd”
    Mary just stated the facts
    Perhaps Jesus spoke to Mary as he did to the Canaanite woman Matt.15 vs 22 – 28 which she only refuse to let go but persued in faith,thus Mary’s comment to the sevants.
    The blessing of the spiritual corn and wine and oil must be asked and prevailed for.
    In this sense how significant is Hose’s prophecy of a coming day, in the which Jehovah shall hear the heavens, the heavens shall hear the earth, and the earth shall HEAR the corn, the wine, and the oil.”
    Then will the Lord be jealous for His land, and pity His people. Yea, the Lord will answer, and say unto His people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith.” (Joel 2:18-19.)

    Then will the Lord be jealous for His land, and pity His people. Yea, the Lord will answer, and say unto His people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith.” (Joel 2:18-19.)
    AND Joel Chapter: 2 V23ff. to the remnants.
    23 Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God: for he hath given you the former rain moderately, and he will cause to come down for you the rain, the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month.
    2:24 And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the fats shall overflow with wine and oil.
    2:25 And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpiller, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.
    2:26 And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed.
    2:27 And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God, and none else: and my people shall never be ashamed.
    2:28 And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:
    This is that which overcomes the world even our faith.

  3. Re the lectionary: I think it’s because the wedding at Cana is regarded as so important, alongside the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus, for the Epiphany season (see the traditional Epiphany office hymn “Why impious Herod shouldst thou fear”, whose highlighting of these three events is also reflected in the Extended Preface for the Epiphany season in the Common Worship Eucharist), that the adaptors of the Revised Common Lectionary in the C of E decided that it should be included every year. It’s on a different Sunday in each year of the cycle – the fourth Sunday of Epiphany in year A, the third in year B and the second in year C.

  4. >>And in popular preaching, this symbolic number is hard to resist. The Jewish system of the law is all about ritual; it separates people into the clean and the unclean, and so dehumanises them; and Jesus comes to do away with the lot.<<

    That really doesn't apply to St Augustine's symbolic reading of the stone jars as six periods of history up to Our Lord's incarnation.

    In his masterpiece, On the City of God Against the Pagans he presents a theological and sociological treatise concluding that human society finds only completion in the realm of God. For Augustine the purpose of history is the unfolding of God’s plan. God initiated creation and all history is under His Providential care.

    It is possible to see in the water contained in the six stone jars, prepared for the Jewish purifications, a symbol of the Old Law which Jesus is bringing to perfection through the New Law. The number six is less by one than the number seven (HJ did arithmetic at school), and the number seven represents completeness and perfection. Thus the six jars indicate that the Jewish dispensation was partial and imperfect. It was perfected by Christ’s blood – and we now have His blood miraculously changed in the Eucharist wine.

    This fits too with the miracle at Cana being the first of seven miracles John recorded as signs of Jesus being the Messiah.

  5. ‘The third day’ seems odd when the preceding temporal markers are just ‘the next day’ and there have already been three ‘next days’! On a trip to Israel, a number of years ago now, our guide suggested something quite different: that they didn’t have specific names for the days of the week (except the Sabbath, of course) they were simply called First day, second day etc. so ‘the third day’ is just saying ‘on Tuesday’, the third day of the week. He went on to say that Tuesday was the traditional day for a wedding, because the third day is the first time in the Genesis account where ‘And God saw that it was good’ immediately precedes ‘and there was evening, and there was morning’. Marriage is good, so if God has called the third day good, it is a good day for a wedding. I am not enough of a scholar to know whether this stands up to scrutiny, but it has a feel of credibility about it – simple and satisfying.


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