A Pagan Reads John, IV: The First Sign

I do not know how much you have heard about this Jewish savior Jesus.  Like others of his calling, he is said to possess magical qualities.  In the stories I have heard about wonder-workers, the point of the miracle is usually to show how powerful the divine teacher is, and there is not much more to it.  This Jesus, I have to grant you is different.

The first wonder that John describes takes place at a wedding banquet, at which Jesus and his first disciples are present.  When his mother Mariam learns that they are running out of wine, she informs her son.  His first response is to inform her that their lack of wine has nothing to do with him; besides, the time for him to reveal his power has not yet arrived.   Nothing daunted, she tells the servers to do whatever her son tells them.  

As it happens, there are vessels of water used for Jewish purification rituals, which accompany most celebratory events including marriage.  We are inevitably reminded of the dipping that Jesus himself has just undergone, at the hands of the other John, as preparation for his career as savior.  He asks for the water jugs to be filled, and when they are poured out, they turn out to be better than the wine that was served at the beginning of the banquet, as the master of ceremonies points out.

Now, what kind of miracle is this?  The sky does not open, mountains are not moved, beasts do not fall down at the feet of the master magician.  As I thought about it, I thought of our own god Bacchus or Dionysus, who, in the course of the season, waters the vines to make them bear the grapes that will turn into wine.  What Dionysus and Demeter take months to perform, Jesus accomplishes in a moment, but there is nothing stupendous, just the acceleration of a natural process.  

Joannes tells us that this was the first of the “signs” that Jesus performed.  That word semeia is itself interesting, because the point is the meaning of the act and not the power.   Wine, as we know, brings great joy to life, especially at a wedding ceremony.  The savior appeared to be telling his disciples—and all who might understand—that he was not only a force of nature but a bringer of joy.  Unlike the stern, self-denying Essenes, with whom many compared him, Jesus gives his blessing not only to marriage but also to the joys of ordinary life.  Most of his followers seem to appreciate this, though I have met some of a gloomy and truculent disposition, forever abusing us Greeks for what they imagine to be our vices—though Jews and even some Christians could give our emperor lessons!

A minor point of the story is his mother’s faith in her son’s ability.  This is the first time we meet her in the story, though there are many legends about Mariam (or some say Maria), that she was an intact virgin impregnated by the breath of the god of the Jews, but John either does not know such a story or is not interested in it.  For him, she is simply a mother who loves her son and has boundless trust in him.  Think of her instruction:  Do whatever he tells you.  Could any of his learners show such trust?

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina