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.

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.

Bread in the Gospel of John

Giovanni Lanfranco, “Multiplication of the Loaves”

Yesterday, we saw the centrality to bread in the life of Jews. This is the context in which Jesus multiplies loves and preaches about the  Bread of Life.

In John 6, Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fish and uses them to feed five thousand people. By producing food in a place where people could get no food, Jesus repeats the miracle of manna. He becomes the one who brought “bread from heaven to eat.” This was a power that only God could wield, so the people rightly supposed that Jesus was the Messiah.

But the feeding of the five thousand was greater than the miracle of the manna. The amount Jesus provides is not merely sufficient: it is abundant. A surplus of twelve baskets remains, representing the twelve tribes of Israel and indicating that Christ is creating a new Israel and thus a new covenant.

In his “Tractates on John,” St. Augustine reads even deeper symbolism into the miracle of the loaves, seeing the five loves as a symbol of the Pentateuch. He attaches significance to the fact that these are barley loaves, which “belong to the Old Testament.” Barley has a hard shell, making it difficult to get to the nutritious center, similar to the way the legalities of the Old Testament can prevent true life in the Holy Spirit. As for the boy with the loaves and the fishes, perhaps he represents “the people Israel, which, in a childish sense, carried, not ate. For the things which they carried were a burden while shut up, but when opened [like barley] afforded nourishment.”

St. Augustine is telling us that Jesus has broken open the scripture, and stripped away the burdensome layers of legality, replacing it with Himself. He also “breaks open” the scripture much in the same way he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, explaining its real meaning and true fulfillment in Him.

The two fish are also deeply significant to Augustine, symbolizing the roles of Priest and the King in the Old Testament, “ who were anointed for the sanctifying and governing of the people.” In time, Christ himself came to fulfill the roles of Priest and King in one Person: “of priest by offering Himself to God as a victim for us; of ruler, because by Him we are governed. He has fulfilled by Himself what was promised in the Old Testament. And He bade the loaves to be broken; in the breaking they are multiplied.”

As King and Priest, Christ now rules both the corporal and spiritual realm. As we see in the Bread of Life discourse, immediately following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus does not merely provide the bread from heaven: he becomes the bread from heaven. “It is written,” he says in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Jesus is that Word and that bread. In giving this bread to others, broken for them as his body shall be broken, He gives them eternal life.

[You can find most of the references to “bread” in the New Testament here.]

Bread in the Old Testament

Bread was a staple food in ancient Palestine, made daily in every household. It was such a commonplace item that we don’t get details of types, production, and consumption in the Biblical texts. If we look to the wider documents of the Ancient Near East (ANE), we find the same constant reference to “bread,” but again: few details.  As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the root word for “bread” in Hebrew (lechem) can have different meanings in different cultures, from “meat,” to “cow,” to “fish” to “bread.”  Generally, it means the staple food of a culture, and in ANE cultures, this usually meant bread.

Pyramid of Pepi

Just to take one example among many, in the pyramids of Unis and Pepi I (Nefer-ka-Re) (Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, 25th-24th centuries BC) we find the words “O Osiris King Nefer-ka-Re, take to thyself the Eye of Horus. Lift thou it to thy face.” The instruction then follows: “A lifting of bread and beer.”

This calls to mind the terumah, or “heave offering,” which is mentioned in Bible more than 70 times, and usually rendered in English as “offering.” This uplifting of an offering signifies that something is being aside for God, and fit only to be consumed by kohen (priests). First fruits and tithes were offered in this way, including grains and breads. Thus we see one simple connection between Egypt and Israel. Throughout the documents of the ANE, these connections echo and re-echo, taking on new meanings in different cultural contexts.

Wheat (Exod 29:2) and barely (2 Kgs 4:42) were the primary components of bread. Wheat was preferred, but it was also more expensive that barley, and more scarce in hard times. In Ezekiel 4:9, we get a sense of his penitential privation when he is ordered to take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt and make bread to eat for the next 390 days while laying on his side. This is considered “siege food,” made from bits of everything because there isn’t enough to make a single kind of loaf or cake.

There are references to different kinds of loaves throughout the scripture:

Particular types of bread include ṣappı̂ḥit, “flat cake, wafer” (Exod 16:31); niqqūdı̂m, “hard bisquit or cake” (1 Kgs 14:3); kikkār, “(disk-shaped, round, thin) loaf of bread” (1 Sam 2:36); ḥallâ “(ring-shaped) bread” (2 Sam 6:19); rāqı̂q, “thin cake, wafer” (Exod 29:23); lĕbibâ, “heart-shaped cake” (2 Sam 13:6); ʿugâ “(circular, flat) bread cake” (Gen 18:6); maʾăpeh “thing baked” (Lev 2:4); maṣṣâ “unleavened bread, or cake” (Lev 2:5); ḥāmēṣ, “that which is leavened” (Exod 12:15). A loaf of bread which had been preserved by a fire was found at Gezer dating from 1800–1400 BC. [Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary]

When God needed to chastise the Israelites, He would threaten to break their “staff of bread” (Lev. 26:26), which was the very source of their survival. He might send the “bread of adversity” (Is 30:20) or  the “bread of tears” (Ps 80:5). One way Proverbs expresses disapproval of certain behavior is to suggest they get their daily bread by dishonorable means. This is the bread of idleness (31:27), deception (20:17), and wickedness (4:17). Cannibalistic images find a home in bread idioms, with oppression suggested by “eating people like bread” (Ps 14:4). In Numbers 14:9, we read: “And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”

Baking bread in an oven

On the other hand, when God promised “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity” (Deut 8:9), He was offering them life.

The importance of bread extended to the religious life of the Jews. Cereal offersings were part of the sacrificial system, as we see in Lev 2:4. Showbread, or the “bread of the presence,” was on permanent display in tabernacle and in the temple, as we see in Ex 25:30. And, of course, bread plays a central role at Passover. When Melchizedek mysteriously appears in Genesis 14, we are told that he “brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’”

In Exodus, God feeds his people on manna, saying, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” (Ex. 16:4) This bread is a miracle: food is provided where no food could be found. The amount provided is just sufficient: after it is collected from the ground, no one has more or less than they need. (Ex. 16:16-18) Yet this bread is perishable. If it is left uncollected, it turns foul or melts away. (Ex. 16:20-21)

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how John takes bread–so deeply embedded in the physical, social, and religious lives of the Jews–and renews them in a spectacular way.

You can find most of the references to bread (lechem) in the Old Testament here.

This brief video of bread making in a modern Bedouin village may convey some idea of how the practice was done in the region.

Bread & Wine | Life & Abundance

The moment when the Lord comes down and transforms bread and wine to become his Body and Blood cannot fail to stun, to the very core of their being, those who participate in the Eucharist by faith and prayer. When this happens, we cannot do other than fall to our knees and greet him. The Consecration is the moment of God’s great actio in the world for us. It draws our eyes and hearts on high. For a moment the world is silent, everything is silent, and in that silence we touch the eternal—for one beat of the heart we step out of time into God’s being-with-us.

Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

There’s something simultaneously humble and profound in the use of bread and wine to convey the presence of Christ in the world. Bread and wine were deeply important to both the ritual and physical lives of the Jews, and thus it was natural for Christ to use them as vehicles for his new covenant. In doing so, he both fulfilled and extended their role and meaning.

Themes of replacement and abundance are central to the gospel of John. Jewish institutions, rituals, and feasts are to be replaced with the person of Christ himself. In particular, wine and bread shall be provided in great abundance, in fulfillment of the messianic promises of the Old Testament.

Over the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of catechesis on bread and wine in the Old Testament, and the way it is transformed in John’s gospel.

I want to start by isolating all the passages referencing bread and wine in both the Old and New Testaments, which is an easy task to do with Verbum. Here are the results:

Bread in the Old Testament and the New Testament

Here’s the distribution of the word bread among the books of the OT and NT:

“Bread” in the Old Testament

The use of “bread” in the OT is complex, since the word (לֶחֶם lechem) could have various meanings in Semitic languages, with the root representing any staple food. Thus, “in Arabic one has laḥm, ‘meat,’ in Ethiopic laḥm, ‘cow,’ and in the South Arabic language of Soqoṭra leḥem, ‘fish.’ In Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic lḥm referred to bread specifically and food generally.” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman) The highest number of references are grouped in Exodus, Leviticus, and 1 Samuel.

“Bread” in the New Testament

In the NT, it’s a little simpler, with  ἄρτος (artos, “bread”) used pretty consistently.  As you can see, the Gospels represent the most frequent usage of “bread,” with John having the most at 20.

Wine in the Old Testament and the New Testament

“Wine” in the Old Testament

Isaiah has by far the most references to wine, and we’ll see why as we go through this catechesis. There are several Hebrew words that get translated into “wine,” but the most common יַיִן (yayin).

“Wine” in the New Testament

By contrast with references to bread, references to wine are more predominant in Revelation (again, for reasons we’ll see) than the gospels. The Greek word here is οἶνος (ŏinŏs, “wine”).

These two elements become the vector for intense meaning both in the Old Testament and the New. Even before the last supper, bread and wine were imbued with deep layers of significance for the Jews. As we’ll see in this catechesis, together they fulfill key elements of John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”