Water into Grape Juice?

In John’s telling of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the very first public miracle he performs is at a wedding celebration in Cana, a small town in Galilee. Compare this with the first miracles in the other Gospels: in Mark it is an exorcism (Mark 1:21-28); in Matthew it is healing (Matthew 4:23-25); in Luke it is the same exorcism recorded in Mark (Luke 4:31-37).  So whereas the Synoptics portray Jesus as a healing exorcist, John presents Jesus as a party animal who brings the best wine. I am being facetious, of course, but it should be noted that in Matthew and Luke Jesus is accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (see Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34).

Here is the story as it is written in John.

[1] On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. [2] Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. [3] When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [4] And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” [5] His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

[6] Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. [7] Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. [8] And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. [9] When the master 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 master of the feast called the bridegroom [10] and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people 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.

[12] After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days. (ESV)

There is no shortage of things that could be said about this passage. We could comment on its situation in the narrative flow of the gospel itself or we could do an excursus on what Jesus meant when he said his “hour has not yet come” (v. 4). We could even discuss the meaning of the word σημεῖον (“sign”) and how this term helps structure John’s gospel. But our interest is not in any of those things but upon the miracle itself – the turning of water into wine. 

In particular, we want to find out if the miracle involved turning water into non-alcoholic grape juice or into true, alcoholic wine. It is a topic not without controversy as many Christians believe that there is absolutely no way Jesus would have ever created wine that was alcoholic. After all, didn’t the apostle Paul write, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18)? One author writes,

With close examination, we must conclude that the Lord did not make intoxicating wine at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee. “Did Jesus turn water into wine?” Yes. “Did Jesus turn water into intoxicating wine?” Absolutely Not!

Alcohol has caused and/or contributed to broken homes, every kind of accident imagin able, disease both physical and mental, poverty, and crimes of every kind. Since its effect is such, it is beyond my own imagination why anyone would ever want to justify its use let alone mar the Lord’s perfect example with its production and distribution. 

How does he arrive at this conclusion? Before I address the claims of those who believe Jesus did not turn water into “intoxicating wine,” allow me to offer up my own brief exegesis of the passage.

Out of Wine

The story here in John 2 is a simple one. Jesus, his disciples, and Jesus’ mother are at a wedding. The wine runs out and Mary lets Jesus know. Jesus orders the servants to fill up six stone water jars with water. He then tells them to draw some of the water out and take it to the master of the feast. The master of the feast is shocked because under normal circumstances the good wine is brought out first and, after everyone has “drunk freely,” the poor wine is offered to the guests. The bridegroom has instead apparently reserved the good wine for the end.

So now we must answer the question, “What is meant by ‘good wine’?” To answer that we must look at the Greek text and dissect it a bit.

First, the Greek word for “wine” is οἶνος (oinos). It appears thirty-four times in the New Testament though only four times in John and always with reference to the event here in Cana (John 2:3, 9, 10 and 4:46). Throughout the rest of the New Testament, the term refers to alcoholic wine. There may be an exception in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17; cf. Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38). However, even in this instance the “new wine” (Greek, oinon neon) likely refers to grape juice in the beginning phases of fermentation. (Hagner, 1993, 244)

Second, the master of the feast (Greek, ho architriklinos) is taken back when he tastes the water turned wine by Jesus. He says, “Everyone serves the good wine first” (v. 10). Not new wine as in the Synoptic passages mentioned above but ton kalon oinon – “the good wine.” Under normal circumstances, the master of the feast tells the bridegroom, the good wine is offered up first and then when everyone has “drunk freely” then the “poor wine” (Greek, ton elasso). In other words, you don’t normally serve the poor wine first and the good wine last.

Third, the reason that you normally serve the good wine first and the poor wine last has to do with the fact that when the guests have “drunk freely” they no longer care about what comes next. We can safely arrive at that conclusion because of the Greek term John uses: μεθυσθῶσιν (methusthōsin). It is derived from methuskō, a passive verb which means “to make drunk” or “to become intoxicated.” Methuskō itself is directly related to three other terms in the New Testament.

The first is methuō, a verb that simple means “to drink alcohol.” It appears five times in the New Testament: Matthew 24:49, Acts 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:21, 1 Thessalonians 5:7, and Revelation 17:6. In every instance it conveys the idea of intoxication.

The second is methusos, a noun which means “drunkard.” It appears only twice in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 6:10.

The third is methē, a noun which means “drunkenness.” It appears three times in the New Testament: Luke 21:34, Romans 13:13, and Galatians 5:21.

Clearly, methusthōsin in John 2:10 must mean “to become intoxicated.” This affects directly our understanding of what the master of the feast means when he says, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine.” The reason “everyone serves the good wine first” is so that when people methusthōsin they don’t care what the quality of the next batch of wine is because they will be inebriated. Leon Morris in his commentary on John’s gospel says,

Men universally put out the better wine at the beginning of a feast, while palates are still sensitive. It is only when their guests are somewhat affected (the word rendered “drunk freely means “are drunken”), that they produce the worse wine. The bridegroom however has kept the good wine until the end. We are thus left in no doubt as to the quality of the wine that resulted from the miracle. (Morris, 1971, 184-185)

In his commentary on the text, Reformed theologian RC Sproul agrees.

The master was amazed because hosts usually served good wine first and then resorted to cheaper stuff when people had largely had their fill and some were too drunk to notice the difference. Jesus not only had turned the water into wine, He had turned it into very good wine. (Sproul, 2010, 22)

There can be no doubt that once the first round of wine ran out that the water-turned-wine was alcoholic and not merely grape juice.

Answering Eisegetical Objections

Earlier we quoted an author who claimed that Jesus would never have turned water into alcoholic wine. With regards to the wedding feast at Cana he wrote,

The immediate context of John 2:1-11 is quite clear. The guests at the marriage feast of Cana were able to discern between the quality of the drink that the Lord had made and that which had already been served. If intoxicating wine had been served, and people “well drunk” or “drunk freely” (American Standard Version,1901) of it (verse 10), then they would not have had such keen discernment. Though the amount is not specified as to what they had previously drunk, if they consumed the six waterpots that Jesus had the servants fill with water and which contained “two or three firkins apiece” (verse 6), then they would have consumed somewhere between 106 to 162 gallons of booze! This is far more than enough to make the most casual drinker drunk. Those who twist this account to condone social drinking say the term “well drunk” refers to the idea that the crowd was so drunk that they could not distinguish. However, the point of “the governor of the feast” to the bridegroom is that the guest were able to discern between the “worse” and the “good wine.” If it is the case that these wedding guests were so drunk that they could not distinguish, then the Lord made the six pots of alcoholic beverage for those who were already strongly under the influence, and caused them to be even more drunk! Thus, the “good wine” of the wedding feast of Canaan must have been the fresh juice of the grape.

At once it is obvious that the author either doesn’t care about the actual words John wrote or he is being deliberately dishonest. He claims that “the guests at the marriage feast…were able to discern between the quality of the drink that the Lord had made and that which had already been served. If intoxicating wine had been served…then they would not have had such keen discernment.” But did John write that the guests tasted the wine and discerned its superior quality? No, he didn’t. John wrote that Jesus ordered the servants to bring the miraculous wine to the master of the feast, not the guests. The master of the feast then tasted the wine and discerned its superior quality (verses 8-10).

The author also makes the off-hand remark that because six stone jars of wine could have added up to 162 gallons that this is too much wine if it is indeed alcoholic. “This is far more than enough to make the most casual drinker drunk.” But is he assuming that one person is going to consume 162 gallons of wine? Or that all the wine would be consumed by the guests at the feast? His shock at the amount is not germane to whether the wine was alcoholic. Wouldn’t that be an awful lot of “grape juice” for someone to drink?

The author’s exposition of John 2:1-11 and his conclusion that it could not have been alcoholic wine is based on an obviously erroneous reading of the text. The point of the master of the feast to the bridegroom wasn’t “that the guest [sic] were able to discern between the ‘worse’ and the ‘good wine.'” The guests had not yet had a chance to taste of it! The point made to the bridegroom was that the master of the feast had tasted the wine and wondered why it wasn’t put out before the batch that had just been consumed by the guests.

“Wine is a Mocker”

But what about other biblical passages that portray alcohol in a negative light? For example, the author of the book of Proverbs wrote,

[31] Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup
and goes down smoothly.
[32] In the end it bites like a serpent
and stings like an adder.
[33] Your eyes will see strange things,
and your heart utter perverse things.
[34] You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
like one who lies on the top of a mast.
[35] “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
I must have another drink.” (Proverbs 23:31-35)

For starters, whether this passage is warning against drinking alcoholic wine or not isn’t germane to the meaning of John 2:1-11. We have established that oinos must mean alcoholic wine on exegetical grounds. But this particular passage in Proverbs isn’t teaching that one should never drink alcohol. I deliberately presented the passage without more of the context. Here are verses 29-30 of that very passage.

[29] Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
[30] Those who tarry long over wine;
those who go to try mixed wine.

The word translated as “tarry” in the ESV is from the Hebrew word אחר (‘ahar). Here in Proverbs 23:30 it conveys the idea of lingering over the wine, spending a lot of time with it. So this proverb isn’t warning against drinking but against drunkeness, of spending too much time with wine.

The author we quoted earlier specifically mentions this passage in particular and writes of it,

If Jesus had turned water into intoxicating wine, then He would have caused others to look upon the wine when it is red opposing the wisdom of Solomon. Since, Jesus is “greater than Solomon” (Matthew 12:42), He would know the wisdom of sobriety and would not tempt others with an intoxicating beverage.

Setting aside that this proverb has no bearing on how wine should be understood in the context of John 2:1-12, the author hasn’t even properly read Proverbs 23:31. In fact, by divorcing it from its context he has yet again arrived at his position eisegetically. In reading verses 29 and 30 it becomes clear that the passage is about becoming drunk.

Drink a Little Wine

There is no prohibition in the New Testament against drinking wine. In fact, the most prolific of the early New Testament writers, Paul, wrote to his protégé Timothy to drink wine. In the midst of a discussion about the conspicuousness of the sinful deeds and righteous deeds of some people, he parenthetically tells Timothy to “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23). What these ailments were is not clear and Paul does not mention them again either in this letter or his second letter. What is clear is that he advocates the use of wine for the sake of health and Timothy had evidently been abstaining.

But why would Timothy abstain? William Mounce in his commentary believes it was because of the “Ephesian situation,” namely that Paul had opponents that were drunkards and wanted to totally disassociate himself from them. Timothy followed suit but this was evidently a poor choice though he had done so out of a love for the Ephesian church where he was a minister. (Mounce, 2000, 318-319) Mounce wisely points out that this passage should not be used to endorse social drinking but instead advocates wine’s medicinal properties. However, this passage does not forbid social drinking either. Mounce also notes that oinos “was a fermented drink; there is no evidence of non-alcoholic (pasteurized) wine in ancient times.” (Mounce, 319)

Back to the Wedding

It isn’t my intention to do a full treatment of the Bible’s position on alcohol here. Suffice it to say that the Bible’s position on booze is advocacy for moderation not necessarily abstinence. The context of John 2:1-12 is clear that fermented wine is intended, not grape juice as some would claim.  To say that Jesus turned water into grape juice is eisegetical nonsense and nothing more.

Print Bibliography

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary. Bruce Metzger, general editor. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993.

H. G. Liddell, editor. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon Founded Upon the Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889.

Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary. Bruce Metzger, general editor. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

R.C. Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: John. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010.

Spiros Zodhiates, editor. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New TestamentChattanooga, TN: AMG International, Inc., 1992.

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