Wine in the Gospel of John

Gerard David, “The Marriage at Cana”

The discussion of wine in the Old Testament provides the background for the Wedding at Cana in John 2, which is rich in OT imagery made new in Christ.

The Evangelist tells us that Jesus has come to a wedding: a time of joy and celebration where wine would play a crucial role. But the wine has run out, and the celebration cannot continue. In the same way, the spirit of the Jews had been drained by the burden of excessive legalities, and there was no wine left to renew them. As Raymond Brown observes: “Mary’s statement ‘They have no wine,’ becomes a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purifications.”

Indeed, the jars used for ritual washing are empty. Has the water already been used for purification, or has the practice been neglected? The scripture does not indicate either way, but the symbolism of the dry jars points to a ritual life that is coming to an end. The time has come for God to replace the water of purification with the new wine of the messianic age.

As an interesting aside, wine is called “the blood of the grape” twice in the Old Testament (Gen. 49:11 and Deut. 32:14), suggesting the sacrificial and sacramental meaning wine shall assume after the Resurrection.

St. Augustine points to a scriptural meaning in the miracle at Cana, saying that “the good wine— namely, the gospel— Christ has kept until now.”

Most importantly for Augustine, Christ validated the Old Testament promises by insisting that the water jugs be filled. Christ was certainly capable of producing wine without the water being poured into the jugs first, but “had He done this, He would appear to have rejected the Old Scriptures.”

Rather than merely ignoring the jugs or the water, Christ integrates them into His work to show how the Old Testament is becoming the New. By filling the jugs first, Christ is saying that the old covenant was His work, but that unless it is mediated through him—as shown in his command to fill the jugs and his transformation of the water into wine—it will remain little more than the colorless, flavorless water.

Christ multiplied the food for the five thousand, producing it (in the words of Stephen B. Clark in Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction) like a “fountain of bread” from where it was not, much like God’s rain of manna. But at Cana he changes the accident of the water. This water—symbolic of the rituals of the Old Testament—was once essential to the law, but is now replaced with abundant new wine; indeed, the finest wine. Christ is not rejecting the old covenant: he is incarnating it. In fulfilling the material promises of the old covenant, Christ creates a new covenant.

This wine is used to continue a marital feast, but also serves as a potent indication of the nature of this new covenant. No longer will the people need ritual washings to become pure. Instead, they become pure by drinking the “new wine.” The wine becomes a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who alone can make us pure and sanctify us. (Mt 9: 14-17, Mk 2:15-22, Luke 5:33-39). Indeed, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles on the first Pentecost, people say they are “filled with new wine.” (Acts 2: 13) The bystanders intend this has a taunt, but they have unwittingly spoken a greater truth.

Jesus was the Word from whom the old covenant flowed. In producing abundant bread and wine, he takes things from the old covenant and makes them a vehicle for new realities. His miracles indicate that he was not here to just give physical life, but also spiritual life. This was the promise of a new covenant, which ushered in the new life of the messianic age.

Thus does Christ mediate between the old and new covenants. He works with symbols that have deep and resonant meaning for the Jews. They recognize the feeding of the five thousand as an example of “bread from heaven.” Likewise, the scriptural promises of wine and its role in celebrations indicate a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These are the manifestations of the power of God, yet this power is wielded by a man. For this reason, they proclaim him the Christ.

Bread is needed to survive, while wine is needed to celebrate. Bread feeds the body, but wine feeds the spirit. Jesus, true God and true man, sees to both the physical and spiritual needs of the people by giving them the food of life and the drink of joy. In doing so, he shows mankind that he wants us to “have life, and have it abundantly.” This abundance transcends time and space, becoming the spiritual food of the Eucharist. That which once fed the Israelites as bread and gave joy as wine now provides us with the spiritual nourishment for eternal life.

References to “wine” in the New Testament.

The Magnificat Year of Faith Companion eBook UPDATE

The sold-out “Year of Faith” Companion from Magnificat is now available in the Kindle store, although I’m not seeing it in the nook or App Store yet. Here’s a preview, and here’s the link.

And don’t forget the Advent Companion!

UPDATED: The Magnificat folks say this was submitted to the nook store, but hasn’t appeared yet, for reasons unknown. They have not made an app version.

Wine in the Old Testament

Bread was the ordinary food of the people, but wine was for celebration. It was a symbol of joy. It was considered so important in the ritual life of the Jews that people had the responsibility to provide wine for the poor during the feasts if the poor could not provide it for themselves.

Egyptian wine press and storehouse

The grape harvest was a festive time (Is 16:10) that includes feasting, singing , and dancing (Jeremiah 48:33, Judges 21:20–21). Wine was produced by gathering grapes into large vat, which would have been carved from stone, or made of wood or clay. This vat (called a “gat”) was connected to a lower cistern (a “bor”) via a pipe.

Grapes were pressed in the gat, with the juice passing through a pipe, strained using linen to remove husks and other unwanted bits, and ending up in the bor. It was stored in large receptacles of wood or pottery, sealed with pitch.

Wine had to stand for 40 days before it was usable as a drink offering. Once it had settled, it would be decanted into jars or skins (Matt 9:17). As with all wine, there were varieties by region, with red preferred to white, as well as blends. Some added water and balsam to old wine, sacred incense, honey and pepper, and different spices. There were myriad variations, levels of quality, and special wines for special occasions. The Jewish Encyclopedia identifies a number of them:

“Yayin” was the ordinary matured, fermented wine, “tirosh” was a new wine, and “shekar” was an old, powerful wine (“strong drink”). The red wine was the better and stronger (Ps 75:9, Prov 23:31). Perhaps the wine of Helbon (Ezek 27:18) and the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:77) were white wines. The vines of Hebron were noted for their large clusters of grapes (Num. 13:23). Samaria was the center of vineyards (Jeremiah 31: 5; Micah 1:6), and the Ephraimites were heavy wine-drinkers (Is 28:1). There were also “yayin ha-reḳaḥ” (spiced wine; Song 8:2), “ashishah” (hardened sirup of grapes), “shemarim (wine-dregs), and “ḥomeẓ yayin” (vinegar). Some wines were mixed with poisonous substances (“yayin tar’elah”; Ps 60:5). The “wine of the condemned” (“yen ‘anushim”) is wine paid as a forfeit (Amos 2:8), and “wine of violence” (Prov 4:17) is wine obtained by illegal means.

Merchant with wineskin

“The Lord gives us wine to make our heart glad,” the Psalms tell us. (Ps 104:15) Wine was a gift from God (Deut. 7:13, Ps. 104:15) and at the end of time, it would be provided in great abundance. (Jer. 31:12; Joel 3:18, Amos 9:13-14) That theme of abundance is key: bread meant life, but wine meant something extra added on to life. There was an element of luxury about it. It meant abundance, and was used in both feasting and mourning to celebrate good times (Eccles. 10:19) and to dull the pain of bad times (Prov 31:6).

Amos 9:13-14 provides vivid imagery of the importance of wine to the Jews:

13 “Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine…”

God’s promise of wine would have been a symbol of salvation to the Jews. It was against this background that Jesus made wine the source of his first miracle John, and then placed it, along with bread, at the center of the Eucharistic celebration.

For the references to wine in the Old Testament, click here.

For other posts in this series, click here.


Ancient wine press

All photos from Verbum Bible Software.