The term "nature miracle" is very poorly chosen for several reasons: first of all, the stories it covers do not correspond to the usual three-part structure of a miracle narrative, secondly, the word nature is totally foreign to the New Testament world, and thirdly, the term is incapable of encompassing the diversity of events we are talking about. In the absence of a single term, various categories could be used: gift miracle, epiphany miracle, rescue miracle, or curse miracle.
Among the seven stories analyzed, six fail to meet the criteria of historicity and force us to conclude that they do not go back to the historical Jesus.
- The account of the temple tax, although it contains a pre-evangelical tradition of the payment of the temple tax by Jewish Christians, has received a secondary addition from Matthew himself, specifically the reference to the coin, and cannot in any way claim to date back to the time of Jesus.
- The account of the barren fig tree cursed by Jesus is a creation of the early Church, which wanted to interpret the cleansing of the temple, which Jesus is carrying out, using certain Old Testament images, and is not at all consistent with the whole of Jesus' life.
- The account of the miraculous catch is an example where the early Christians projected a post-Easter situation back into Jesus' ministry in order to justify and legitimize the Church's teaching, worship and mission so that they would be seen in continuity with the historical Jesus.
- The account of the walking on the water is a Christian creation that aims to interpret the scene that accompanies it, where Jesus feeds the crowd, to express the experience that the Christian community lives when it gathers for the Eucharist, an experience of epiphany as lived by the Jews with Yahweh in the Old Testament.
- The account of the stilling of the storm is an example of a theological account of the first generation of Christians in which various features of Yahweh found in the Old Testament are applied to Jesus.
- The story of the water changed into wine at Cana is a creation of the evangelist, expressing his theology centered on Jesus, the true bridegroom, who invites his people to the messianic wedding feast and initiates the replacement of Judaism, symbolized by the jars of water, by the better reality of Christianity, symbolized by wine.
The only story that probably dates back to the historical Jesus is the one where he feeds the crowd. Although the present account is colored by the memory of the miracle of Elisha and Jesus' last meal with his disciples, it nevertheless seems to reflect a memorable meal which Jesus would have had with a crowd on the shores of Lake Galilee, without being able to specify the details.
- "Nature Miracle" as a Questionable Category for the Gospels
While the miracles analyzed so far have had a stable literary form, as well as a common vocabulary and content, the same cannot be said of the so-called nature miracles. No category seems to be able to group them together.
- First of all, the term "nature" is difficult to define and is the subject of much philosophical and theological discussion, and above all is totally foreign to the world of the New Testament.
- Second, how can we define these nature miracles as opposed to exorcisms, healings, and raising of the dead? Isn't a raising of the dead an action on inanimate matter? Isn't walking on water primarily an action on the living body of Jesus, and not only on the attributes of water?
- The nature miracles have disparate forms and most of them do not contain the usual three-part structure of miracle stories.
- Very often the request for Jesus' intervention is absent: there is no urgent need expressed in the walking on the water or in the scene of the cursed fig tree or in the denarius of the temple.
- Very often there is no word or action of Jesus that would produce the miracle: there is no mention of when and how the miracle is performed.
Very often there is no conclusion where a crowd is surprised at what has happened: for example, there is no reaction from the crowd in the synoptic account of Jesus feeding the crowds.
- The same comment applies to the very disparate content and vocabulary. Someone like G. Theissen proposed the category gift miracle, but only the feeding of the multitude and the miracle of Cana could at least fit into this category. It must therefore be admitted that there are as many categories as there are "nature miracles" and that it is impossible to group them together.
- Alternate Categories
Four categories could replace the rather cumbersome "nature miracle" category.
- There are the "gift miracles". Two miracles belong to this category: the transformation of water into wine at Cana and the feeding of the crowd (or the provisioning of the crowd).
An "epiphany miracle" is one in which a deity manifests himself through certain phenomena, but especially through his own person. This is the case of walking on the waters.
A "rescue miracle" is one that saves someone from a rough sea or from prison. This is the case of the calm storm.
A "curse miracle" is a punitive or destructive miracle. This is the case of the fig tree cursed by Jesus.
It is immediately apparent that there is a great difference between the miracles analyzed earlier and these, especially their number: whereas we had six exorcisms, fourteen healings and three raisings from the dead, here we have practically only one miracle narrative per category, and only one source and one literary form per category.
Let us begin our analysis with two stories that are almost universally attributed to the creativity of the early Church, the silver coin in the mouth of the fish and the cursed fig tree.
- The Story of the Temple Tax (Mt 17: 24-27)
Let's summarize the story first. Peter is asked in Capernaum by the temple tax collectors whether Jesus pays his taxes. After answering yes, he found himself at home where Jesus told him that he was not actually obliged to pay this temple tax, but that he would do so to avoid scandal. Then he asks Peter to go fishing, for he will find in the mouth of the first fish caught the money needed to pay his and Peter's taxes.
This story, which is unique to Matthew, is not really a miracle story, since it does not tell the scene of the fishing, but rather a story of declaration or judgment to answer the question: Must Christians pay the Jewish tax due to the temple?
The vocabulary, style and composition of the story bear the mark of Matthew. It is the last account of the fourth section of his Gospel, coloured by various ecclesiological themes, especially Peter's place in the community, and ends with a discourse on life and order in the Church.
Jesus' answer to the question of the obligation of the temple tax emphasizes that God, the supreme king, does not claim any tax from his Son. And therefore the disciples of Jesus, who are sons and daughters of God through Jesus, are therefore totally free from taxation. On the other hand, in order to avoid being a source of scandal, Christians will pay this tax on a voluntary basis; this voluntary aspect is humorously underlined by the fact that the money needed to pay the tax will be obtained not from a common pot, but a little by chance from the mouth of a fish. These themes of "son", "freedom", "scandal to be avoided" are very Matthean, as is Peter's prominent place in the community.
Thus, our story is a composition by Matthew in which he puts forward his theological concerns. However, we are not faced with a fabricated narrative, for the following reasons.
- Since his Gospel was written around the years 85-90, when the temple had already been destroyed since the year 70 and therefore the tax obligation no longer applied, there is no reason to invent a story for a problem that no longer exists.
- There are words in this account that are unique throughout the New Testament, or at least in Matthew's Gospel.
- The structural and theological analysis suggests that the original narrative ended in v. 26 (the sons are exempt from taxation), and that the whole of v. 27 (request to restrict one's freedom to avoid scandal and invitation to go fishing for money in the mouth of the fish) is simply a creation of Matthew to conclude the narrative with a catechesis and provide a transition to the discourse that follows.
In conclusion, a pre-evangelical tradition (reflected in vv. 25-26) on the payment of temple taxes by Christian Jews probably circulated before the year 70 in Matthew's community of Jewish origin, probably located in Antioch. On the other hand, v. 27, which does not contain an account of a miracle, but its prediction, is a secondary addition by Matthew to the original account and cannot in any way claim to date back to the time of Jesus.
- The Cursing of the Fruitless Fig Tree (Mk 11: 12-14.20-21 || Mt 21: 18-20)
- Initial Observations on Method
This story has only one source, Mark, who divides the scene into two parts, the gesture of cursing the fig tree, then the finding of the dead tree the next day. Matthew repeats this scene, but merging the two parts that take place in the morning, after the cleansing of the temple. Luke, for his part, follows Mark's order, but avoids mentioning the gesture of cursing the fig tree, no doubt a little embarrassed by the scene. As for John, there is no similar account.
Many commentators make an error of method in asking questions related to the historicity of the story at the outset: what type of fruit did the tree bear, what was Jesus' state of mind? We behave as if we were in front of a video of what happened around 30 AD. Rather, we must begin by examining the pericope within the literary and theological context of the Gospel, seeking to understand what Mark wanted to communicate to his audience through his theological and literary composition, and then, only then, through criticism of the writing, forms, sources and by applying the criteria of historicity, determine if we could not discern a historical event that goes back to the period of Jesus.
- Overview on the Structure and Content of Mark 11
Mark clearly divides the whole of Chapter 11 into five major components.
- The entry into Jerusalem (11: 1-11): Jesus shows his messianic authority by asking a donkey to ride him into Jerusalem (in the manner of the righteous king entering Zion in Zechariah 9:9), while a jubilant crowd cheers him.
- The cursing of the fig tree (11: 12-14): As Jesus came from Bethany and approached a fig tree because he was hungry, his disciples heard him say as he found no figs: "Let no one ever eat of your fruit again".
- The "cleansing" of the temple (11: 15-19): Jesus makes a prophetic gesture by expelling the merchants from the temple, while the chief priests and scribes hear him say that they have made it a den of robbers rather than a house of prayer for the nations; it is a symbolic gesture announcing the destruction of the temple.
- The discovery that the cursed fig tree has withered (11: 20-25): The next morning, as they pass by the fig tree of the day before and Peter points out that it has dried up to the root, Jesus responds with a teaching on faith and prayer.
- The challenge to Jesus' authority (11: 27-33): While the chief priests, scribes, and elders questioned Jesus' authority to make such a symbolic gesture toward the temple, he replied by asking them to determine whether John the Baptist's authority was divine or human, and since they were unable to answer, he showed that their authority was empty.
- The Meaning of the Cursing of the Fig Tree in the Context of Mark 11
In today's context, the narrative has two meanings. First, it should be noted that the Old Testament contains a number of accounts in which symbolic trees, such as the fig tree, are used to describe God's intervention in judging Israel. It is in this sense that we must understand Jesus' gesture towards the fig tree. This gesture must also be interpreted in the light of his symbolic action of expelling merchants from the temple: the two stories interpret each other in order to pass judgment on the temple of Jerusalem which no longer bears any fruit and will therefore be destroyed. All the rest of chapters 11-15 of Mark is in the same direction: Jesus announces that the temple will be destroyed (13: 2), that the time of God's judgment has approached like the leaves of the fig tree that announce summer (13: 28), and at his trial his words will be repeated announcing that he will destroy this temple to build another one not made by human hands, and finally the veil of the temple will be rent in two at his death.
On the other hand, Mark's way of following the observation of the withered fig tree with Jesus' discourse on the power of faith and prayer (11:22-25), as well as an invitation to forgiveness, points us in another direction. However, it must be recognized that such a discourse, even if it reflects the whole of Jesus' preaching, does not fit well with the present context. This is all the more true since Jesus' miraculous interventions are never the result of his prayer. And moreover, invitations from Jesus to pray are never intended to destroy anything. So Mark does not really succeed in integrating this discourse with the present context.
- Tradition, Sources and Rdaction in Mark 11
- The Sources of Mark 11: 22-25
Having noted that this passage is poorly integrated into the context of Mark, we can now observe that these words are also found in the Q source, Matthew's special source, just as they are in John and Paul.
- The Q source (Mt 7:19-20 || Lk 17:6) and somehow, Paul himself (1 Cor 13:2), speak of faith that can lift mountains, a popular Christian proverb that was to circulate among the first Christian generations.
- The amazing promise that what is asked will be granted (Mk 11:24) is found with the same verb (aiteō: to ask) in the Q source and in John (Jn 15:7b), as in the Epistle of James and the first epistle of John, as well as in the discourse of the last supper in John (14:13-14; 15:7; 16:23). We are dealing not with a common source, but rather with similar but independent currents in the oral tradition on the words of Jesus.
- Mk 11:25, which makes the Father's forgiveness in heaven dependent on the forgiveness we grant each other, is strangely similar to a part of the Lord's Prayer presented to us by Matthew. It is not a loan from Mark to Matthew, but rather an isolated word of Jesus known to both of them.
What can we conclude? It was Mark who would have added to Jesus' dogmatic message of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem a catechesis on prayer by using Jesus' words without a precise context. We have already noted that this set 11:20-25 is poorly integrated into the context. We can add that, if we eliminate it, we end up with a much more fluid narrative.
- The Existence of a Pre-Marcan Complex Behind Chap. 11
This type of composition, in which one narrative is split in two (the narrative around the fig tree) to intersperse another narrative, so that the cleansing of the temple is sandwiched between the two phases of the fig tree, seems typical of Mark: the narrative that encompasses the other gives it its key to interpretation. However, in admitting that 11:20-25 is Mark's addition, one must necessarily admit at the same time that it is an addition to a pre-existing, and therefore pre-Marcan, narrative. This pre-Marcan account contained the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the curse of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple, the observation of the withering of the fig tree, and the challenging of Jesus' authority.
Another indication that Mark is modifying a pre-Marcan source is the presence of the particle "for" (gar) in v. 13: "for it was not the season of figs. "This is typical of Mark's pen when he modifies the material of the tradition he receives: he is trying to explain a statement that is not his own. This is the case, for example, in Mk 16:8: "And they said nothing to anyone, for (gar) they were afraid...." These interventions are sometimes clumsy, as we note in Mk 16:4: "And when they looked up, they saw that the stone had rolled away: for (gar) it was very large". The explanation of the size of the stone, however, refers to a previous verse when the women were wondering who was going to roll the stone.
- The Sources of the Pre-Marcan Author
Is it possible to go further back in time to determine what this pre-Marcan author received from an earlier tradition and what he added? Since Matthew and Luke depend on Mark, let us turn to John. In fact, John presents similar accounts of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, and the questioning of Jesus' authority, but not in the same order. In John, the cleansing of the temple and the questioning of Jesus' authority occurs at the beginning of his ministry for theological reasons of his own: it is the first Passover and the evangelist already wants to evoke the death of the temple made with human hands and the resurrection of the temple that is the body of Jesus, a sign that will only be understood at the final Passover. But it is basically the same story as in Mark, as is the following scene about the constestation of his authority: What sign do you show us (Mk: by what authority) to do these things?
Thus, there is a fundamental narrative where the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is followed by the cleansing of the temple and the constestation of Jesus' authority, without any trace of the curse of the fig tree. So where does this account of the fig tree, which is found in the pre-Marcan tradition, come from? It seems impossible that this story circulated independently, since its purpose is to illuminate the scene of the cleansing of the temple. Most probably, we have here the hand of the pre-Marcan author who wants to emphasize that the cleansing of the temple is not simply the expression of a desire for reform, but rather the prophetic judgment of its destruction.
- The Historicity of the Curse Miracle in Mark 11: 12; 14: 20-21
Our analysis has shown that the story of the cursed fig tree is intended to interpret the cleansing of the temple and that it is the work of the pre-Marcan author as he takes up and develops the tradition of the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple and the challenge to the authority of Jesus. Mark added a catechesis on faith and prayer in the form of a story at the end of the fig tree scene.
Logically, it must be concluded that the account of the cursed fig tree does not go back to the historical Jesus. This conclusion is supported by the criteria of historicity, especially those of discontinuity (in relation to the Old Testament) and coherence (with other words and gestures of Jesus). First of all, the account of the fig tree is not in discontinuity with the Old Testament, since a certain number of punitive miracles can be found there: let us simply think of the plagues of Egypt. Secondly, this account is not consistent with the whole of Jesus' life, since we find no other examples of it in his ministry. Thus, the story of the cursed fig tree is a creation of a Christian author of the early Church who continued the Old Testament tradition of punitive miracles and paved the way for all the others that will be found in the apocryphal narratives.
- The Miraculous Catch of Fish (Lk 5: 1-11 || Jn 21: 1-14 [+15-19])
Contrary to the accounts of the coin and the cursed fig tree, the story of the miraculous fishing seems to benefit from multiple attestations, that of the special tradition of Luke and that of John. Unfortunately, we are faced with a number of problems.
- Luke places his account at the beginning of Jesus' ministry and matches it with the call to follow him made to Peter, James and John. In the Gospel according to John, on the other hand, the story is taken from the final redactor who places it after Jesus' resurrection and features seven disciples, including Peter and the sons of Zebedee. This story is then linked to the famous lunch on the shores of Lake Tiberias and to Peter's triple confession of love for Jesus.
In these two different settings, it is legitimate to ask the question: who has the original version? Was it Luke who retro-projected a post-pascal story into Jesus' ministry or was it John who transformed a story of Jesus' ministry into a post-pascal story?
- Do Luke 5:1-11 and John 21 Preserve the Same Basic Story?
Let's recall Luke's account. We are from the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. After getting into Peter's boat on the shores of Lake Tiberias and preaching to the crowd, he asked him to go into deep water and spread the nets, even though he struggled all night without taking anything. The fish caught were so numerous that Peter asked for help from the other fishermen in their boats, and then he was so afraid that he asked Jesus to go away because he was a sinner.
In contrast, John's account takes place after the resurrection, after Jesus had already appeared twice to his disciples in Jerusalem and the Gospel had come to a conclusion. Here in chapter 21 Jesus is on the shore of Lake Tiberias while his disciples are fishing without recognizing him. After he had invited the fishermen to cast their nets to the right, they gathered a multitude of fish; seeing all this, Peter, with the help of the beloved disciple, recognized him, threw himself into the water to join him, and finally, when they were all with Jesus, the latter mysteriously gave them bread and fish that was already cooking on the wood fire.
But behind these differences, which can be explained by particular editorial and theological contexts, the same story is clearly discernible.
- A group of fishermen led by Peter spent the night without catching anything.
- With supernatural knowledge, Jesus invites them to cast out their nets again.
- Peter and his associates obeyed, and brought up a huge quantity of fish.
- the impact on the net that could break is mentioned
- Peter is the only one to react strongly
- The narrator calls Jesus by name, while Peter alone says, Lord.
The other disciples remain silent
- Jesus invites Peter to follow him
- The symbolism of the story is clear and is linked to the missionary action: without Jesus, Peter and the other disciples can achieve nothing, but with Jesus they will be very successful.
- The stories of Luke and John contain many common words: embarking, disembarking, following, net, fish, boat, night, son of Zebedee.
- When Peter responds to the miraculous fishing, he is called Simon Peter. This is all the more remarkable because it is the only mention in Luke.
In short, we have two different versions of the same story.
- Has Luke or John Preserved the Original Setting of the Story?
Biblical scholars find it very difficult to answer this question and do not agree. But weighing each other's arguments, it seems that it is John who has preserved the original setting.
- There is a general flow in the evangelical tradition to retroject into the ministry of Jesus elements that belong to the post-pastoral setting. We have several examples of this: Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, where he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ and Jesus promises him the keys to the Kingdom (Mt 16:18-19); some of Jesus' long speeches, such as the one on the bread of life (Jn 6), which are probably Christian homilies that were put in Jesus' mouth; some miracles, which are a Christian creation, but placed in the life of the earthly Jesus, as is probably the case with the healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman to justify the mission to the Gentiles. On the other hand, if we forget for the moment Jn 21, we have no example where a scene from Jesus' ministry would have been projected after Easter.
Why would the primitive Church have made such retrojections? To justify and legitimize its teaching, worship and mission so that they could be seen in continuity with the historical Jesus.
- Even if the above argument is sufficient to take a stand, some detailed observations support it.
- Peter's answer in Luke's account has something surprising: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!". This is the only time someone confesses his sinful state when he is called to be a disciple. But John 21, with his three times confession of Peter's love for Jesus, provides us with an illuminating context for the scene: it is the reversal of Peter's three denials. This context of Peter's denials makes the confession of his sinful state understandable in the face of the success of fishing.
Lk 5:1-11 and Jn 21 are said to be remnants of an early tradition recounting the initial encounter of the risen Jesus with Peter, as mentioned in the oldest creed of 1 Cor 15:3-5. And this would be the only account of such an encounter. Moreover, the recognition of such a tradition allows us to understand some of the otherwise enigmatic features of the story, especially in John: the fact that Peter is the center of the story, that he returned to his profession as a fisherman since he had no hope of anything else after Jesus' death, that he is the only actor to speak with Jesus, that the miracle refers to the symbolism of the universal expansion of mission, that the disciples do not recognize him at the beginning, that Peter recognizes his sinful state and is sent on mission at the same time.
- Luke's composition can be explained. For literary and theological reasons, he blocked all accounts of the appearance of the risen Jesus in Jerusalem and in a single day, on the very day of Easter. Having at his disposal this account of the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Peter on the shore of Lake Tiberias, Luke could not add it to this frame without destroying it, since Galilee is three days away. His choice to integrate it with the account of the disciples' call at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, as he received it from Mark, was logical: the miraculous catch provided a motive to follow him.
- Schürmann, a biblical scholar, who nevertheless defends the opposite thesis of the story belonging to Jesus' ministry, interprets the scene with characteristics typical of a post-Easter situation: Jesus appears there as the exalted Lord, the title Simon Peter refers to his role in the Church, Jesus preaches at a distance from the crowd to express the majesty of the Lord in the midst of his community, Peter uses the word Lord when he addresses Jesus. All of this reinforces the post-paschal setting.
- Placing this story after Easter helps to resolve the difficulties from form criticism in classifying it. Theissen tries to classify this story as a gift miracle, just like the feeding of the crowd and the wedding at Cana. In Luke, the disciples do not eat the fruit of their catch, but leave everything to follow Jesus; in John, they hardly eat the fruit of their catch, but Jesus gives them the bread and the fish. It is as if John has merged a story of fishing with a story of communion at the same table with the risen Lord. The form is really that of a post-pastoral account of being sent on mission.
Since the object of our study is that of the historical Jesus, and not that of the resurrected Jesus, it is easy to understand that the account of the miraculous catch goes beyond the limits we have imposed on ourselves, for it does not belong to the realm of the marvellous deeds accomplished by the historical Jesus.
- The Walking on the Water (Mk 6: 45-52 || Mt 14: 22-33 || Jn 6: 16-21)
- The Sources
We have two independent sources for the story: Mark and John. Matthew follows Mark, but adds the scene of Peter also trying to walk on water. Luke omits the story for literary and theological reasons. But what is intriguing is that the agreement between Mark and John is not limited to walking on water, but covers the sequence that begins with the miraculous feeding and ends with Peter's confession.
Let's begin with Mark and his section called the "section of the bread" because of the word bread which comes back as a unifying theme. There are two parallel cycles:
|Mk 6: 30 7: 37
||Mk 8: 1-26
|1) From the miraculous feeding (5,000 people)
||1) From the miraculous feeding (4,000 people)
|2) Through a crossing of the Sea of Galilee by Jesus and his disciples and a dispute with Jewish leaders that involves the key word "bread"
||2) Through a crossing of the Sea of Galilee followed by a disputes with Jewish leaders who demand a sign from heaven, and a dispute between Jesus and his disciples over bread
|3) To miracles of healing
||3) To miracles of healing
These two cycles culminate with Peter's confession to Caesarea Philippi. So it seems that Mark knew two versions of the catechesis of Jesus in Galilee and incorporated them both into his account.
John's chapter 6 is the only chapter in his Gospel dedicated to Jesus' ministry in Galilee. It seems that this Gospel, which has its roots in Jerusalem and Judea, used a well-known tradition of first-century Christianity to add some substance to Jesus' stint in Galilee. The same sequence can be observed:
- From a miraculous feeding of the crowd (which also mentions Jesus' healing of the sick)
- through a crossing of the Sea of Galilee and a dispute with the crowd about their demand for a sign, and conflict between Jesus and his disciples
- to a confession of faith by Peter in Jesus as the Holy One of God
Two observations are in order:
- The walking on the water is known independently by Mark and John;
- This scene was associated early on with the story of the feeding of the multitude.
- The Story in Mark and John
- Mark's Version of the Story (6: 45-51)
Mark describes the scene from Jesus' point of view. After collecting the remaining loaves, Jesus forces his disciples to get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other shore, then goes to the mountain to pray alone, while his disciples struggle to row in the middle of the lake because of the headwinds. Between 3 and 6 o'clock in the morning (4th vigil), Jesus broke the distance between himself and his disciples by walking on the water "and he was going to pass by them". This last expression is typical of Old Testament theophanies. Thus, Jesus reveals himself with divine power and majesty by demonstrating his dominion over the hostile forces of the wind, sea and waves, somewhat like Yahweh personified by wisdom in the Old Testament, and reveals his identity: I am (that is me), like Yahweh.
Jesus' epiphany is the central point of the story, not the rescue of the disciples: there is no indication that they were in danger of dying, but simply that they were struggling because of the headwinds.
- John's Version of the Story (6: 16-21)
- The question on how John uses his source
John's source is more primitive than Mark's. It may be surprising that a Gospel, like John's, dating from the end of the 2nd Christian generation, has an older source than Mark's, which dates from the end of the first Christian generation. This has already been noted for the tradition about Jesus' last supper and death. But here the antiquity of the source is particularly noticeable by the brevity of the account and especially the absence of theological commentary or symbolic typical of John: this is all the more surprising from an evangelist who likes to underline the divine character of Jesus. But John certainly received from his source both the feeding of the crowd and the walking on water, for it is the same order found in Mark. But in John, the walking on water interrupts a little the logical sequence that goes from the feeding of the crowd to the long discourse on the bread of life; John had to do a little editing work in order to bring back on stage the crowd that had eaten the bread after the interruption of the walking on water.
At the same time, we can understand why John kept this account of the water walk in spite of everything: this account of the epiphany was congenital to his Christology and his theology of Revelation. For him, Jesus is the personified Wisdom spoken of in the Old Testament, the Word made flesh. And the expression "I am" in the midst of the epiphany echoes in him the "I am he who is" of Yahweh in Ex 3:14-15. He was certainly not going to miss an account that is in line with his theology. On the other hand, he does not develop or amplify it with a theological commentary.
- The content of John's story compared to Mark's story
A number of features distinguish John's story. First of all, the scene is described from the point of view of the disciples, not from that of Jesus as in Mark: Jesus seems to abandon his disciples as he flees from the crowd that wants to make him king, and so the disciples, left to their owns, take the direction of Capernaum in a boat. Then he emphasizes the dramatic character of the journey on the water by mentioning that it is darkness (symbol of evil), that the sea rises and that not only was the wind against them, but it was violent, without endangering the lives of the passengers. But above all, the finale is completely different: instead of the normal conclusion of a miracle story with the astonishment of the audience as in Mark, in John the story ends abruptly at the moment when the disciples want to take him on board, since the boat has mysteriously arrived at its destination; we have a new miracle. This is typical of John to emphasize the miraculous side of his stories.
- The Primitive Version of the Story
Although it is impossible to reconstruct the primitive version word for word, its basic content can be reconstructed using the structure typical of miracle stories.
- The Setting and Attendant Circumstances
- Temporal and geographical setting: The scene takes place following the feeding of the crowd, therefore at a major moment in Jesus' ministry in Galilee and around the Lake of Galilee.
- The Initial Action of Jesus: Jesus is the catalyst for the departure of the disciples, either by forcing them to leave and then go to the mountain to pray (Mark), or by fleeing from the crowd and going to the mountain (John), leaving the disciples to their owns. In both cases Jesus creates a problem of separation which he will later try to solve.
- The Miracle Proper
Separated from Jesus, the disciples are struggling in the middle of the night in their boat. It is then the epiphany of Jesus who comes towards them and identifies himself as such when they are afraid: "It is I (or I am), fear not".
- The Reaction of the Audience and the Conclusion of the Story
The evangelists agree that the distress of the disciples is over, that they are reunited with their master whose presence hastened their arrival at their destination.
Beyond this common point, the conclusions diverge according to the theology of each one. For Mark, the disciples are amazed and understand nothing. For Matthew, the disciples bowed down before Jesus and cried out, "Truly, you are the Son of God," echoing Peter's confession at Caesarea or the centurion's at Golgotha. For John, the presence of Jesus miraculously brings the boat to its destination.
The basic content of the story is quite clear. After the feeding of the crowd and following an initial action of Jesus, the disciples board a boat to cross the Lake of Galilee without him. As night comes and the winds are contrary, the disciples are in pain, while Jesus is alone on the mountain. Suddenly the disciples see Jesus coming towards them on the lake. They are frightened, but Jesus says to them, "It is I (or I am), fear not". Jesus is gathered with his disciples who reach the shore without difficulty. We have a story that belongs to the epiphany category of forms criticism, the only one of Jesus' entire ministry.
- The OT Bacground to the Epiphany Mircacle
We have already mentioned that the story of walking on water uses the vocabulary and themes of the Old Testament epiphanies where God shows his dominion over the forces of chaos. Let's look at this in more detail.
- Job speaks of God as follows: "He alone has stretched out the heavens, He walks on the sea as on the firm ground" (Job 9:8 LXX). So God rules over the sea as he rules over all his creation, and this is the image that we associate with Jesus in the Gospels.
- Other Job texts are along the same lines, in a more epiphanic context where God reveals himself in the storm and where he affirms that it is he who established the limits of the sea, it is he who was at the beginning of creation to enter into the springs of the sea and walk on the depths of the Abyss (Job 38:1-21).
- Similar images are found in the prophet Habakkuk: "You have trodden the sea with your horses, the boiling of the great waters!"(Hab 3:15).
The image of the Creator God goes hand in hand with that of the Savior God, for He who masters creation is able to command it for the salvation of his own, as is shown by this echo of the coming out of Egypt: "The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee and were troubled.... On the sea was your way, your path over countless waters..."(Ps 77:17-21).
- A similar image is used by the prophet Isaiah to speak of God destroying the sea monster on the way out of Egypt: "Did not you split Rahab, you pierced the Dragon? Did you not dry up the sea, the waters of the Great Abomination? Who has made the bottom of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass through?"(Isaiah 51:9-11)
- Many passages in the personified Wisdom of God go in the same direction: everything that was said of God is now said of His Wisdom. This point is important to John as he applies speculation about this personified Wisdom to Jesus. Let us begin with the book of Proverbs: "(I was by his side) when he appointed the sea to his end, - and the waters shall not pass over the sea" (Prov 8:29); Ben Sira writes about Wisdom: "Alone, ... I alone have walked through the depths of the deep. In the waves of the sea, over all the earth ... I have reigned" (Sir 24:5-6); according to the Book of Wisdom, it was this Wisdom who guided the Israelites out of Egypt, who "led them across the Red Sea and led them through the great wave" (Wis 10:17-18).
- It is to the God who is master of the waters and the chaos and who brought his people out of Egypt that we refer to the account of the walking on the water, especially Mark's version with its strange expression: "He came to them walking on the sea and he was going to pass by (parerchomai) them". This last expression can only be understood in the context of the theophanies of the Old Testament, for example when Yahweh comes to Moses and says to him: "And [God] said, I will pass by (parerchomai) before you with my glory" (Ex 33:19). It is the same Greek verb used by Mark and the Greek text of Exodus. Many similar examples can be found in the Old Testament. Thus this verb describes a revelation of God and should therefore be translated: Jesus comes to them walking on the sea, because he wanted to pass by them (to reveal himself to them in an epiphany).
- When Jesus said, "It is I (literally, "I am"), fear not," in the account of the walking on the water there is a reference here to the passage through the burning bush where the Lord said to Moses, "I am he who is. The prophet Isaiah will comment on this passage by making Yahweh say this:
1 Fear not (LXX: mē phobou), for I have redeemed you...
Thus, there is no reason to fear, for God reveals Himself as a transcendent and all-powerful being
2 When you pass through the water, I will be with you; the rivers shall not overwhelm you...
3 For I am Yahweh, your God...
5 Fear not, for I am with you...
10 You are my witnesses ... to know and believe in me, and understand that it is I: [or: I am he] (MT: ănî hû; LXX: egō eimi).
Prior to me no god was formed, and after me there shall not be [any].
11 [It is] I, I Yahweh (MT: ānōkî ānōkî yahweh; LXX: egō ho theo ["I am God"]).
There is besides me no Savior. (Isa 43:1-11)
The account of the walk on the waters, with its allusions to the OT's theme of God who rules over the waters and saves, its theophanic setting and the repetition of the expression "It is I, do not be afraid", appears to be a theological work of the first Christians: Jesus is portrayed there with the features of Yahweh who dominates the waters and declines his identity in a theophany with the very words of Yahweh as presented by the prophet Isaiah. This may come as a surprise when we know that the story was probably composed in the first or second decade after the death of Jesus. But it must be remembered that the evolution of Christian reflection does not follow a rectilinear movement.
- The decision About Historicity
Let us dismiss immediately the attitude of some who reject as non-historical the account of the walk on the waters, because it is unacceptable to modern man. This is an ideological bias that does not borrow from historical criteria. This narrative has multiple attestations from the pre-Marcan and pre-Johannic sources. Nevertheless, having said this, we must recognize that at the end of our analysis a conclusion must be drawn: it cannot be a historical event, for two reasons.
- The criteria of discontinuity and coherence militate against the historicity of the narrative. First of all, the story differs from other miracle stories in which Jesus comes to the aid of people in need or in great danger; even though the disciples in the boat are struggling against the wind, they are not in danger of death. Secondly, the other miracles express above all the arrival of God's reign and are never an opportunity for Jesus to express his status and glorify himself. But the climax of our story is an epiphany in which Jesus wants to reveal himself in his transcendent majesty and power over the waters, proclaiming: "It is I, fear not," in the manner of Yahweh in Job or the prophet Isaiah. All this is not consistent with other miracle narratives, but rather reflects the Christology of the early Church: it is a confession of faith in the form of a story.
- The second reason comes from the Old Testament connection. Miracle stories often allude to this. But what is peculiar about walking on the waters is the massive influx of elements from the Old Testament, especially around Yahweh, which occupy all the space: it is an indication of a theological creation of the early Christians.
If this miracle does not date back to the historical Jesus but is rather a Christian creation, what was the purpose of such a creation? One possible explanation comes from the observation that the story of the walking on the waters never existed as a pericope independent of the story of Jesus feeding five thousand people: here we would have a way of doing theology among the first Christians by creating a story that is in fact a commentary or homily on another story; a symbolic story comes to interpret another symbolic story. They saw the scene of Jesus feeding the crowd as a prefiguration not only of his last meal but also of the Christian Eucharist. Thus, the story of the disciples struggling at night in their boat represents the small early Church facing a hostile world and suffering from the absence of its master, but at the same time, in the Eucharist, the community has the ritualized experience of the epiphany of the risen Jesus coming to them overcoming the hostile waters and assuring them of his peace.
Matthew adds from his own material a scene in which Peter asks Jesus to walk on water as well. Clearly, if the basic story of walking on the water is not historical, neither is Matthew's addition. We have here an ecclesiological commentary that has been added to a Christological account.
- The Stilling of the Storm (Mk 4: 35-41 || Mt 8: 23-27 || Lk 8: 22-25)
- The Place of the Story in Mark's Gospel and Its Possible Source
The story marks a turning point in the first part of Mark's Gospel: after a series of parables follow a series of miracles; Jesus shows his authority not only by words, but also by deeds. But this series of miracles has the peculiarity of not containing any of Jesus' teachings, as we have seen in the first three chapters: the emphasis is exclusively on miracle stories, and miracles that are of great magnitude. It seems, therefore, that Mark is reusing a collection of miracles that existed before him in the early church.
- The Story's Content and Form-Critical Category
This story has the classic structure of a miracle story.
- The setup extends to the details of the situation. Jesus commands his disciples to cross the Lake of Galilee with him. The presence of other boats is mentioned, but this detail will not be repeated. Then a strong wind rises and provides a contrast: on one side Jesus sleeps on a cushion at the stern of the boat, on the other the disciples are so frightened that they ask him the question, the equivalent of a miracle request: "Teacher, are you not concerned that we are perishing?" Let us note that the Greek negative particle in this question is not "mē" (when a negative answer is presupposed), but "ou" (when a positive answer is presupposed).
- The miracle proper is summarized in one verse (v. 39): Jesus "rebuked (epitimēsen) the wind and said to the sea, 'Be quiet! Be muzzled (pephimōso)!" These two Greek words are also used by Mark in Jesus' action on demons, as if the Sea of Galilee was a demonic force.
- The reaction and acclaim that normally concludes a miracle story is preceded here in v. 40 by Jesus' reproach in the form of a question: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith". Jesus' rebuke echoes the disciples' rebuke of not caring about their fate. Jesus' "still no" refers to past miracles that should have aroused the disciples' faith, but expresses the expectation of the day when they will finally have faith. V. 41 reflects the astonishment that usually concludes a miracle story, but here it takes the form of a question: "Who is he that the wind and the sea should submit to him?" The question presupposes a gradation in Jesus' power: after healings and exorcisms, he now dominates the natural forces.
- Is the Story a "Sea-Rescue Epiphany"?
The answer to that question is: no, we do not have an epiphany here. Of course, all the miracles of Jesus reveal something of himself. But strictly speaking, an epiphany must include the absence of the divine figure at the very beginning, then his sudden and terrifying coming in all his power and majesty, accompanied by a self-revealing affirmation of his identity and an offer of help. As much as all this was the case with Jesus' walk on the water, these elements are absent from the account of the stilling of storm, which is more a case of rescue at sea.
- Tradition and Redaction
It's very difficult to separate what is traditional and what is editorial when we only have one source, Mark. Nevertheless, the setting of the original story can be seen in the three moments of a miracle story, which are brought together by the key word "great": 1) a "great" gust of wind rises; 2) Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea, and a "great" calm is established; 3) the disciples felt a "great" fear. The repetition of key words is a classic mnemonic. It is possible that over time the narrative has become more extensive, as evidenced by the presence of other boats, which appear to be a relic preserved by Mark, without giving it meaning.
The editorial work is first noticeable in the disciples' reproaches to Jesus ("Teacher, are you not concerned that we are perishing?"), typical of the harsh and non-editing language of the disciples in Mark. It is also noticeable in Jesus' reproaches to his disciples ("Have you still no faith"), which reflects the theme of the messianic secret where the disciples' intelligence remains closed despite all Jesus' actions. Finally, it is likely that the final question ("But who then is this?") comes from Mark, an expression of this tension among the disciples between their experience of Jesus working wonders and their misunderstanding of his identity, a theme typical of the author.
- OT Background
- Here we could review the texts already presented concerning Yahweh's dominion over the wind and the sea (see above), which are applied to Jesus in our account.
- But more specifically, it is the account of Jonah (Jonah 1:1-16) that gives us the context of the calmed storm. Jonah gets into a boat and a great wind and a great storm rises. The sailors are frightened, but Jonah is lying down and sleeping soundly. The captain rebukes Jonah for his carelessness and asks him to pray to the Lord to be spared and not to perish. When the crew threw Jonah overboard as he had asked, a great calm was achieved. When the men saw this, they were filled with great fear of the Lord.
Despite certain differences, the account of Jonah and the account of the storm calmed by Jesus offer striking parallels, such as the threat of the high wind, Jonah's recklessness, the rhetorical question inviting him to do something, the sudden stop of the wind which triggers great fear. The Christian author who wrote this story was probably trying to show how Jesus transcended Jonah and reversed his attitude: to Jonah's disobedience in refusing his mission, Jesus is faithful to the point of death; as Messiah and Son of God, he does not need to pray to calm the wind, he does it himself by the power of his own word. Thus, it is a Christological account in which Jesus plays the role of Yahweh, the master of creation.
- Psalm 107 also provides some context.
25 The Lord said, and caused a gust of wind to arise, and it lifted up the waves;
26 Rising up to the heavens, going down to the depths, their souls were melted under evil;
27 Their wisdom was swallowed up, whirling and staggering like a drunkard.
28 And they were crying out to the Lord in their trouble; out of their anguish he gave them salvation.
29 And he made the gust of wind to come to silence, and the waves became quiet.
30 They rejoiced that they were at rest, and he led them to the port of their desire.
What the psalm says about Yahweh, the miracle story applies to Jesus.
- The Question of Historicity
It can be concluded that the account of the calmed storm probably does not go back to the historical Jesus, but is rather the product of the theology of the early Church for the following reasons:
- There are no multiple attestations, but there is only the source of Mark on which Luke and Matthew depend.
- There is the important and pervasive presence of the Old Testament, which serves to present Jesus as Yahweh who dominates the wind and the sea and seeks to articulate symbolically, as in the account of the walking on the water, a primitive form of "high Christology".
- Mark adapted the original story to serve his theology of the messianic secret and the understanding of the disciples.
The story is in discontinuity with the whole of Jesus' miracle narratives, where there are no examples of the disciples being saved from mortal danger to their master.
- The story is in continuity with the miracle tradition of the early church, such as the story of the release of Peter from prison by an angel (Acts 12:6-19) or the rescue of Paul after the sinking of his ship (Acts 27:13-44).
- The Changing of Water into Wine at Cana (Jn 2: 1-11)
- Basic Form and Content of the Story
This story shares with the one in which Jesus feeds the crowd a number of similarities, firstly by being a gift miracle, and secondly by containing the three characteristic elements of a miracle story.
- In the setup, a) both stories present a group of people different from the disciples who need to be supplied (with wine, bread); b) the need is accentuated by a dialogue between Jesus and another person (his mother, Philip); c) the insignificant matter that will be used to fill this need is then introduced (six stone jars, five loaves of bread and two fish); d) then Jesus gives the order to do something that does not seem to be related to the need to be filled (fill the jars with water, make the crowd sit on the grass).
The miracle proper: in fact, in both stories there is no account of how the miracle is performed.
- The conclusion: both stories end with a statement that confirms the quality (wine) and quantity (bread) of the supply.
- The Different, Allusive Nature of the Story
Despite the similarities between the two stories, the account of the miracle at Cana stands out for its indirect, confusing, ironic style.
- In the setup, rather than having a clear request, we simply have a terse observation from the mother of Jesus: "They have no more wine".
- The miracle proper: it is told even more indirectly than the one where Jesus feeds the crowd while he takes the bread, gives thanks and distributes it, which gives a certain solemnity to the gesture; here Jesus simply gives two orders, to fill the jars with water and to bring them to the chief servant, and only indirectly do we learn that what the chief servant tasted was no longer water but wine.
- The conclusion: It is useless to look for an acclamation of Jesus like that of the crowd that wants to make him king after eating the bread, for the chief servant totally ignores Jesus' intervention and simply points out to the groom that he has saved the good wine for the end of the meal. On the other hand, the narrator mentions that the disciples are aware of the miracle, but they don't know how.
To add to the peculiarity of the story, let us add that this is the only miracle Jesus performed involving his mother. It is also the only one in which he participates in a wedding and includes wine. There is no equivalent in the synoptic narratives and the story does not enjoy multiple attestations.
- Isolating the Johannine Traits of the Story
Bible scholars disagree as to whether such details come from the hand of the evangelist or from a source, called the Gospel of signs. Moreover, the indirect and laconic style of the narrative and the presence of Johannine theology make it difficult to identify a tradition behind the narrative. Let us try to isolate certain stylistic and theological elements that probably come from John.
- The first element is the opening sentence: "On the third day there was a wedding". This mention of time links our story to the above, first the testimony of John the Baptist in v. 27 ("the next day"), then again in v. 35 ("the next day") where Peter and Andrew begin to follow Jesus, and finally in v. 43 ("the next day") where Jesus meets Philip and Nathanael. Thus, the story of the wedding feast at Cana concludes the literary unity of the composition of the group of disciples and fulfills the promise made to Nathanael: "You will see greater things than these". We must reject the idea that this "third day" is an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus, for there is no association of the resurrection with a third day in John.
The way the story about Jesus' mother reflects John's language and theology.
- What is peculiar, John never mentions the name of Jesus' mother, even though he knows the name of Jesus' father, Joseph, and gives the names of the other women on the cross. It is improbable that he does not know the name of Jesus' mother, so he intentionally kept her name secret.
- The impression of a stylized and symbolic function of the mother of Jesus is reinforced by the way he addresses her: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." Jesus also uses the term "woman" elsewhere in John's Gospel, for example with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:21), or with Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:15), or with the adulteress (Jn 8:10). Each time it is a call to faith. But this way of calling one's mother in this way is new in the whole Bible. We can conclude that John intends to present a symbolic relationship between Jesus and his mother.
- There are only two occasions on which the expressions "mother of Jesus" and woman are brought together, here at Cana and on the cross. At Cana Jesus distances himself from his mother by saying that his hour has not yet come. It is important to know that "the hour" in John refers to the glorification of Jesus through death on the cross. When that hour has come, his mother will reappear and be entrusted to the good care of the beloved disciple, in short, symbolically to the memory and tradition of the Johannine community. In contrast, the brothers of Jesus will make a brief appearance in the middle of this frame (ch. 7) as a typical portrait of the unbeliever and then disappear from the scene. It is clear that Mary plays a symbolic role and her dialogue with Jesus is a creation of the evangelist.
- The biblical scholars have made several hypotheses to explain the various stages of the story, i.e. Jesus who seems to refuse his mother's request, the mother nevertheless invites the servants to do what her son tells them to do, and finally Jesus' miraculous action. However, the same pattern can be observed here as in two other miracle stories: the healing of the son of the royal officer (Jn 6:46-54) and the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-57). The key to understanding this pattern is to remember that John develops a "high Christology" where Jesus knows everything and keeps control of events at all times. This pattern has four elements:
- A petitioner makes an implicit or explicit request for a miracle. At Cana, the request by the mother of Jesus is implicit: "They have no more wine". For his part, the royal officer at Cana asks Jesus to come to Capernaum to heal her dying son. For their part, Martha and Mary send an implicit message: "Lord, behold, the one you love is sick".
- At first glance Jesus seems to abruptly refuse the request: he retains control of events and will only act in accordance with the agenda of his mission, which is ultimately controlled by his Father. At Cana he replies to his mother: "My hour has not yet come". At the request of the royal officer, he answers: "Unless you see signs, you will not believe?" At the request of Martha and Mary, Jesus seems to dismiss the request on the pretext that this illness does not lead to death and intentionally remains where he is for two days.
- Since the petitioner is fundamentally a person of faith, he is not discouraged by Jesus' attitude, and therefore persists in his faith journey. Thus, at Cana, the mother of Jesus continues to believe that her son will do something and says to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you". The royal officer persisted, saying, "Lord, come before my little boy dies". But Martha said, "I know that whatever you ask of God, God will grant you."
- Faced with such persistent faith, Jesus accedes to the request of the petitioner, but each time in a more spectacular and astonishing way. At Cana, Jesus offers the superabundant gift of a fine wine, symbolizing the irruption into the present of the last times and the overflowing of wine at the Messianic banquet which transcends the institution of Judaism symbolized by the water jars of ritual purification. With the royal officer, Jesus exceeds his expectations by performing a miracle from a distance and introducing the theme of life. At Bethany, Jesus raises Lazarus even though he has been dead for four days, symbolizing his own death and resurrection and his power to give eternal life.
This pattern, into which the miracle at Cana fits and which emphasizes Jesus' initiative and full control of the agenda of his mission, indicates that the first five verses, if not the whole story, are a creation of the evangelist.
- In John, the miracles are more spectacular and of greater scope than in the synoptic. The blind man he heals has been blind since birth. The person he raises had been dead for four days. The paralyzed man he heals had been paralyzed for 38 years, not just 18 years as in the woman bent in Luke. The story of walking on the water ends with the sudden and miraculous arrival on the shore. This is also the case at the wedding at Cana, where 550 liters (about 145 US gallons) of liquid (the six jars of water) will become fine wine.
- Moreover, it is a common practice of John to depict a physical reality to symbolize a higher reality, a spiritual and eschatological reality. Thus, this abundance of fine wine at festive weddings is a symbol found throughout the Old Testament: when the harvest was gathered in the autumn, the last days were celebrated when the Lord will restore his people by forgiving their sins ("I will restore my people Israel, ... they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them" Am 9:14).
- In the same way, the image of the wedding feast is omnipresent in the Old Testament to represent the covenant of Yahweh, the groom, with his wife Israel: "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man's youth when she is cast off, says your God. " (Isa 54:5-6). The first Christians took up this image, but transferred the role of the bridegroom to Christ the Messiah. Thus, the epistle to the Ephesians, for example, makes the union of Christ and his Church the archetype of the love of spouses. The majority of the passages where Jesus appears as the bridegroom or finds himself at a wedding fall within the theology of the second generation of Christians. Thus, the wedding at Cana evokes the parousia where Jesus, the bridegroom, comes to take his bride for the Messianic banquet; for the evangelist John, the parousia has already begun. In this context, one understands the phrase of the head of the servants who addresses the bridegroom who has remained anonymous: "You have kept the good wine until now!" (Jn 2:10). This anonymous groom symbolizes Jesus in the evangelist's view that the present time is that of the incarnation and revelation of the Son of God on earth, a time of abundance and messianic joy.
- Other typically Johannine traits are also found. When the evangelist says: "And he (the chief servant) did not know whence the water-become-wine was, but the servants who had drawn the water knew", we recognize the ironic style common in John, because the servants themselves know where the wine comes from. But there is more. Elsewhere in his Gospel the key word "whence" is at the centre of a debate about the origin of Jesus: "Even if I bear witness concerning myself, my witness is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going. But you do not know when I come and whither I go"(Jn 8:14). Recognizing the divine origin of Jesus and the gift that he represents is the equivalent of believing and having eternal life for the evangelist. We now perceive that the miracle scene at Cana is the beginning of the Gospel where he introduces pieces of his Christology and soteriology.
- At the end of this analysis, the different pieces of the Johannine message fall into place. The present time is that of the eschatological wedding feast where Christ, the bridegroom, comes to take his bride, Israel; the gift of life and of the Spirit is generously poured out, as the quantity of wine shows. However, the transformation into wine of the ablution water used by pious Jews and contained in stone jars symbolizes the replacement of Judaism by Christianity. This symbolism will be continued in the Gospel. Chapters 2 - 4, where Jesus drives out the temple vendors and meets the Samaritan woman, announce the replacement of the temple of Jerusalem with his crucified and resurrected body, and the replacement of the temple on Mount Garizim with worshippers in spirit and truth. In chapters 5 - 10 Jesus speaks of replacing Jewish observances and feasts, such as the Sabbath (Jn 5:1-18), the Passover and its evocation of manna (Jn 6:1-58), the Feast of Tabernacles and its evocation of water and light (Jn 7:1 - 9:41), the Feast of Hanukkah and its dedication of the altar (Jn 10:22-39). All this will be replaced by the gift of life and light that is Jesus himself. This replacement is easily understandable in the polemical context of the end of the first century, when Christians, after having long frequented Jewish synagogues, now experience separation.
- The story ends in v. 11: "This was the beginning of the signs of Jesus at Cana in Galilee. He manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him". This verse is a pivotal point: on the one hand, it concludes the creation of the group of disciples, in chapter 1, where Jesus had announced to them that they would see heaven open, and on the other hand, it begins the period of signs where Jesus will reveal his deepest being and arouse the faith of the disciples. It is truly a beginning, for the sign of Cana is the archetype of the other signs to come, when the superabundant gift of life brought by Jesus will be revealed in an ever greater way. All this literary and theological construction bears the mark of the evangelist. His hand can still be felt in the way he structures the first part of the Gospel from chapter 2 to the end of chapter 4: the wedding feast at Cana in chapter 2 and the end of chapter 4 which also takes place at Cana form a literary structure called "Semitic inclusion" where the beginning and the end respond to each other to sandwich the body of the text and thus form a distinct unity, the first part of Jesus' ministry.
- Secondary Historical Considerations
This general impression that Jn 2:1-11 was created by John himself, or by the school from which he took over its work, is corroborated by other secondary observations.
- We have translated the Greek word architriklinos, which usually refers to the person who manages the servants at a meal and mediates between them and the groom, as "head-waiter". But in our story his relationship with the groom is more like that of a friend, for he gently reprimands him on a humorous note for saving the good wine for last. He thus appears much like someone who plays a role known in the Greek world as that of symposiarchos, "toastmaster", "president of the drinking-party", or "master of the feast", which is found in association groups. And this raises a problem, for there is no evidence in the Jewish milieu of Jesus' Palestine of this complex figure of a toastmaster, especially not in a peasant village in Galilee.
- In verse 10 we read: "Every man puts out first the good wine, and they get drunk the poorer wine". Yet such a universal custom or rule or proverb is sought in vain in the Jewish or ancient Greco-Roman world. Moreover, even if such a rule had existed, it is hard to see how it would have been applied in the depths of the Galilee countryside, where weddings lasted several days and people came and went as they pleased. One cannot help but think that John invented this rule to present in an allegorical way the good wine that is the revelation of Jesus arriving only at the end of time, after the Old Testament had reached its limit.
- Finally, other details are surprising, even if they are not totally impossible historically. Isn't it strange that Jesus and his mother give orders, and demanding orders, while they are in a village that is not their own? Isn't it curious to find such large jars and so many servants in a house in a village on a hill in Galilee? Didn't the evangelist import into his account the Greco-Roman urban setting that was familiar to him?
When we look at all the problems we have raised as well as the Johannine features, both literary and theological, that permeate the narrative, it is difficult to discern a core that would be historical: the narrative is rather a creation of the evangelist. This does not mean that the village of Cana does not exist or that Jesus would not have participated in a wedding there. But we have no indication that the scene described by John, where Jesus turned water into wine and thus led the disciples to believe in him, actually happened.
- The Feeding of the Multitude (Mk 6: 32-44 || Mt 14: 13-21 || Jn 6: 1-13 || Mk 8: 1-10 || Mt 15: 32-39)
- The Unique Nature of This Miracle Story
Let's name some of the unique features of this story.
- According to the classification of forms criticism, it is the only gift miracle of multiplication (the wedding at Cana is rather a case of gift miracle of transformation).
- In every gift miracle, the miracle itself is told in a veiled and indirect way, but in the account of the feeding of the crowd one must also infer the miracle, which is never explicitly affirmed, from the final result.
- This is the only miracle that is found in all four Gospels, and the only one that is told twice in the same Gospel (Mark and Matthew).
- Is John's Version Independent?
When we compare the synoptic version and John's version, we observe a curious mixture of similarities and differences. John's version is much closer to Mark 6, but at the same time intriguingly shows certain similarities with Mark 8 as opposed to Mark 6. If John knew Mark 6, then it is not clear how he could have omitted certain elements that fit perfectly with his theology, such as the mention of the desert that would have supported the allusion to the Jews' sojourn in the desert and the manna in Jesus' discourse on the bread of life following the miracle. John's account is best explained by admitting that he draws on a similar tradition but independent of the versions found in Mark 6 and Mark 8.
- The Relationship Between the Two Marcan Versions of the Feeding Story
Mark's two versions seem to echo the same story for the following reasons.
- The content and structure of the two versions are similar, sometimes identical.
- The disciples in the second account seem to be surprisingly unaware of the possibility that Jesus may have already multiplied the loaves and fishes.
- If John's account, though drawing from an independent source, contains elements that belong to both versions, then it must be admitted that originally there was an oral tradition, but a very fluid one.
- This is not the first time that we have a case of multiple versions of the same story. It has already been shown that the two versions of the healing of the centurion's servant (son) reported by the Q document (Mk 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10) were related to the same account, and yet the differences in these two versions are much greater than those observed in those of the feeding of the crowd, not to mention the third version presented by John (4:46-54).
Also, the most plausible explanation for the two accounts of crowd feeding in Mark is that he integrated two versions of the same story into his Gospel. To the biblical scholars who support the hypothesis that one of the two accounts came from tradition, and the other was a creation of Mark himself, the following objections must be raised:
- Despite its brevity, Mk 8 contains words and phrases that are not part of Mark's vocabulary. Moreover, it does not contain the recurring theme of the disciples' misunderstanding, even though the context was perfectly suited to it. Finally, there are striking similarities between Mk 8 and Jn 6, for example the expression "where (pothen) to take bread to satisfy these people" Mk 8:4; "where (pothen) would we buy bread for these people to eat" (Jn 6:5), or the expression "giving thanks" (eucharistesas, see Mk 8:6 and Jn 6:11), while Mk 8 uses the expression "making a blessing" (eulogēsen). It is therefore unlikely that Mk 8 is a creation of Mark based on the tradition of Mk 6.
- The reverse is also unlikely, i.e. Mk 6 would be a creation of Mark based on the tradition of Mk 8. The biggest difficulty with this hypothesis is to explain the many similarities between Mk 6 and John 6, whereas John 6 is based on an independent source: how could Mark have accidentally created a story that looks strangely like John's, for instance these five pieces of bread and two fish, or these five thousand people.
It must therefore be concluded that Mk 6 and Mk 8 represent two alternative versions of the miracle of the feeding of the crowd, and both versions have circulated in the pre-Marcan tradition of the first Christian generation.
- The Primitive Form of the Story
It is difficult to distinguish between what is traditional and what is editorial. The simplest approach is to make an inventory of the elements found in at least two stories, preferably all three. By using the traditional structure of miracle stories, we can establish the primitive version of the story of the feeding of the crowd:
- The Setup
- The place: the shores of Lake Galilee (uninhabited place?)
- The actors: Jesus, his immediate disciples, a large crowd following him because of his miracles.
- A dialogue that exposes the problem: the lack of food to satisfy such a large group, when at least two hundred denarii would be needed to buy what is needed and only five loaves of bread and two fish can be found.
- Jesus' command relayed by the disciples to make the crowd sit on the grass.
- The Miracle Proper
- Jesus takes the five loaves and, giving thanks, breaks them and gives them to the disciples to distribute. He does the same with the fish.
- All the people eat and are full.
- The Conclusion: After the meal, twelve full baskets are needed to pick up what is left.
- The Question of Historicity
For many biblical scholars, the question of historicity boils down to whether the account of the feeding of the crowd is simply a copy either of the miracle account of the prophet Elisha feeding a group of one hundred people in the Old Testament or of Jesus' last supper and the celebration of the Eucharist among the first Christians in his memory.
- The Miracle of Elisha (2 Kings 4: 42-44)
Let's remember the story. Twenty loaves of barley bread and fresh grain in his ear are brought to the prophet Elisha. Elisha orders his servant to offer it to the people to eat, but the servant objects that he cannot serve this to a hundred people. The prophet reiterated his order, and the people ate, and had some left over. We immediately notice certain similarities with the Gospel account:
- The prophet apparently gives an order that is impossible to carry out.
- There is bread, but also other things with the bread
- The assistant raises objections
- The prophet repeats his order
- The miracle is confirmed by the presence of surpluses.
Thus, the Gospel account, where Jesus feeds not one hundred people, but five thousand, not with twenty loaves, but with only five, would aim to show that Jesus is greater than Elisha. However, at the same time, several differences must be noted.
- There is no precise geographical location in the Elisha scene as in the Gospel scene.
- There is no talk of a crowd following the prophet Elisha.
- Who are these hundred people and where do they come from? It is not clear
- There are no clear indications that these one hundred people are hungry.
- The story about Elisha begins without introducing any problems
- In the Gospel story, it is the disciples who will find the bread after discussing the problem.
- In the Gospel story, Jesus orders the crowd to sit down, then performs the typical householder ritual at the beginning of the meal, which is totally absent from the scene of Elisha.
- The objections of the disciples precede the order to have the crowd seated and will disappear completely afterwards.
- In Elisha's account there is no calculation of what remains
- The basic structure of the Elisha narrative is a prophecy and fulfillment, which is not the case in the Gospel narrative.
The parallels that can be drawn between the Elisha scene and the Gospel narrative can be applied to later versions of the feeding of the crowd, and not necessarily to the early form of the narrative.
- Jesus Last Supper
It is especially with Mk 8 that the allusions to Jesus' last supper seem most apparent.
|Mark 8: 6-7
|over the bread
||over the bread
|AND TAKING the seven loaves of BREAD,
HE BROKE [them]
AND GAVE [them] TO HIS DISCIPLES...
|AND TAKING the loaf of BREAD,
HE BROKE [it]
AND GAVE [it] TO THE DISCIPLES [or: to them]
|over the fish
||over the cup
A BLESSING OVER THEM
[i.e. a few fish]
he commanded them also to be set out,
AND THEY ATE...
[in some traditions over the bread: PRONOUNCING
he gave it to them,
AND THEY ALL DRANK...
Let us make a number of observations.
- The tradition behind Mk 8 seems to have crafted in a careful and balanced way the pattern of "giving thanks" and "pronouncing the blessing", first on the main element of the meal, then on the accompanying food. In Judaism this pattern does not correspond to the customs of the householder presiding over the meal, but is a deliberate intention to assimilate the scene of the feeding of the crowd to Jesus' last meal.
- Throughout the Gospels Jesus had several meals with people. Aside from this scene of feeding the crowd, where does Jesus give thanks and bless the elements of the meal? The answer is clear: only at his last meal. And if we turn to John 6, who has no Eucharistic institution at the last meal, we can clearly see that the feeding of the crowd is intended to introduce the discourse on the bread of life that culminates in a Eucharistic section.
- It is possible that the oral version of the account of the feeding of the crowd did not have such a pronounced Eucharistic colour. On the other hand, given that Christians gathered every week to remember Jesus' meal, it is hard to imagine that they did not read the account of the feeding of the crowd in a Eucharistic context.
- Even though both bread and fish are used to feed the crowd, it is the bread that occupies the front of the stage, as seen in Mk 8 where the fish is only mentioned at the time of the blessing. This is because the bread makes a clearer allusion to the last meal. At the same time, the desire to have this balanced pattern of thanksgiving and blessing on both bread and wine is intended to parallel the same balanced pattern found at the last meal.
In conclusion, it must be admitted that the miracle story of Elisha and Jesus' last supper had an influence on the account of Jesus' feeding the crowd. The parallels are too clear. However, these parallels are not so overwhelming as to attribute the origin of the account of the feeding of the crowd simply to the account of Elisha and Jesus' last supper. For example, the fact that the loaves are of barley as in Elisha's account is probably due to a later development of tradition. Furthermore, neither the Elisha account nor Jesus' last supper speaks of fish. Therefore, it is more likely that it was over time that the account of Jesus' feeding the crowd was colored by the accounts of Elisha and the Last Supper. If he cannot explain by these two accounts, can we find clues to his historicity?
- First of all, this account has multiple attestations like no other Gospel account: there are Mark and John, and within Mark there are two versions. This suggests a long and complex historical tradition going back to the first generation of Christians, and behind this tradition there is probably a primitive form of the narrative.
- Then there is the criterion of coherence. At the heart of Jesus' preaching is the announcement of the coming of God's reign in the form of a great banquet. And throughout his ministry, Jesus actualized this banquet by his actions by participating in many meals which included sinners and outcasts, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet. Just before dying, he wanted to have a meal with his disciples. Now, among all these meals of Jesus, there was one particularly memorable one on the shores of Lake Galilee with a huge crowd. Rather than bread and wine, it is normal to find bread and fish there. From the beginning, this memorable meal was interpreted in relation to the eschatological message of Jesus, and then after Easter in relation to Jesus' last meal and the Christian Eucharistic celebration.
What really happened? The data we have do not allow us to answer that question. We can only say this: behind this story, there is a particularly memorable community meal with bread and fish, a meal celebrated by Jesus and his disciples with a large crowd on the shores of Lake Galilee. Is there anything miraculous that happened? This is not accessible to the historian.
Next chapter: Conclusion: How can we summarize the study of miracle stories in the Gospels?
List of all chapters