The Example of John 2:1-11
by Edward “Mickey” Klink
In this issue
The goal of this article is to use the familiar scene of the wedding at Cana to show how an understanding of an ancient literary convention can explain a difficult phrase in the narrative, and help the contemporary interpreter grasp the author’s theological intentions.
At a wedding at Cana, described in John 2:1-11, Jesus is approached by Mary his mother and told that the wedding party has run out of wine. Jesus responds in a bewildering manner: ti, evmoi. kai. soi,( gu,nai (Jn 2:4). This idiomatic phrase is difficult to translate. The NRS V is probably the most rigid: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” The NAS attempts an awkward–and maybe even more confusing–softened translation: “Woman, what do I have to do with you?” And the NIV tries to eliminate all offense: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Yet the translation difficulties are only the beginning, for Mary’s response to Jesus in 2:5 appears oblivious to Jesus’ apparent refusal: “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” Was Jesus response a refusal or, as some translations handle it, a legitimate hesitancy? In either case, why did Mary not take it seriously? Explanations of Jesus’ initial refusal followed by his immediate concession have produced some creative exegesis, usually in relation to the historical occurrence of the scene itself.
The awkwardness of this passage is lessened when the contemporary reader realizes that a literary convention implicit in John 2:1-11 explains to us how it should be read. The Gospels are clearly functioning within the confines of an ancient literary genre: Greco-Roman biography. At the same time, the Gospels are intimately connected to the Old Testament narratives, as they themselves reveal. Scholars have long noted that the Elijah-Elisha tradition supplies a conceptual background for the miracles of Jesus. A detailed comparison between 2 Kings 4:1-7 and John 2:1-11 makes this clear.
Both passages begin with a common aspect in miracle stories, a description of the scene. In both cases the initial characters (widow and the mother of Jesus) and the problem (creditors approaching and no wine left at the wedding) are made known to the miracle worker. Following the setting, both miracle workers engage with the person in need, though in different ways. In both cases the miracle workers respond to the problem by providing what was needed. In both cases food was replenished in appropriate jars; more than what was expected. Following the miraculous result, each passage closes with a purposeful summary statement. In 2 Kings 4 the statement is made by Elisha himself; whereas in John 2 the comments by the “chief steward” point to a thematic message presented by the episode, followed by the narrator’s comment concerning this first sign of Jesus. The structural similarity between these two narratives is striking.
|John 2:1-11||2 Kings 4:1-7|
|1-3 – Setting||1- Setting|
|4 – Jesus’ answer||2 – Elisha’s answer|
|5-8 – Instruction from Jesus||3-5 – Instructions from Elisha|
|9-10 – Result||6 – Result|
|11 – Closing summary||7 – Closing summary|
But the allusions to the same type of miracle and a similar literary structure are not the most surprising aspects that connect these two texts. Jesus’ response to his mother, “what concern is that to you and to me?” in 2:4, is also connected to the Elisha narratives; but this time the link is not the miraculous works but to the miracle worker. The same phrase is spoken by Elisha in 2 Kings 3:13. Commentators have made the connection in the past, but merely as a means to make sense of this difficult Greek phrase in translation. Jesus’ statement refers almost directly to the scene in 2 Kings 3 where Elisha was confronted by the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom, who were going to battle against the king of Moab. After marching for seven days they ran out of water. They called upon Elisha to inquire on their behalf. According to the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), Elisha responded to the kings with the identical phrase used by Jesus in John 2:4 (ti, evmoi. kai. soi,). In the Old Testament the phrase can be used in two ways: when one feels unjustly bothered by another (What have I done to you that you should do this to me? Cf. Jud. 11:13, I Kings 17:18) or when one feels that another’s matter is no business of his own (That is your business; how am I involved? Cf. 2 Chron. 35:21; 1 Esd. 1:24). The latter seems to be the case in both 2 Kings 3:13 and John 2:4. In both texts the narrative reveals a reluctant prophet who is called upon to provide for one in need, a need the prophet sees as an unwanted involvement. The expression always distances the two parties. The tone is not rude, but certainly abrupt. “The expression is, at least minimally, a measured rebuke.”2 Elisha agrees to the request because he has regard for king Jehoshapat of Judah, while Jesus’ reason for complying is not mentioned. Thus, the fourth evangelist deliberately places the miracle story in John 2:1-11 within a motif of the prophet Elisha. But how does this prophet motif function? How do the narrative and thematic connections between Jesus and Elisha enlighten our understanding of John 2:1-11, and specifically Jesus’ response to his mother in 2:4?
Rather than examining the scene between Jesus and his mother at a wedding only from the perspective of a historical event, the connections between John 2 and the Elisha narratives allow us to place Jesus’ response within the literary convention of a prophet “type.” In Judaism the great prophets became types; they occupied unique positions or roles in both oral and literary traditions. The various prophets represented epochal movements of God in the history of their people, movements that were expected to find their culmination in God’s eschatological plan. Jesus was not outside that tradition but within it. It is clear in John that a prophetic motif is at work in his depiction of Jesus. As George Buchanan claimed over thirty years ago: “The Gospel of John shows more interest in prophets than any of the Synoptic Gospels….”3 Today, the prophet “type” has been duly recognized. But a “prophet” motif cannot be estranged from the content of the narratives, for it was intended to serve as a literary convention. For example, “Old Testament figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha… served as models for conceptualizing Jesus at both pre-literary and literary stages of Gospel tradition. … The role into which Jesus is typecast in the Gospels is an amalgam of existing conceptions of the categories eschatological prophet and messianic king.”4 Unfortunately, these types are far removed from the contemporary reader. As Robert Alter explains: “One of the chief difficulties we encounter as modern readers in perceiving the artistry of biblical narrative is precisely that we have lost most of the keys to the conventions out of which it was shaped.”5 Alter argued that “there are certain prominent elements of repetitive compositional pattern” in biblical narrative that are a conscious convention, one which has been designated “type-scene.” For Alter, the concept of “type-scene”6 is based upon the assumption “that there is a series of recurrent narrative episodes attached to the careers of biblical heroes....”8 So in some cases, “the biblical authors, counting on their audience’s familiarity with the features and function of the type-scene, could merely allude to the type-scene or present a transfigured version of it.” While Alter’s discussion of the “type-scene” was primarily oriented to the Old Testament, it is now commonplace to see the type-scene convention in the New Testament narratives, especially in the depiction of Jesus. The recognition of type-scenes in the Gospels allows the modern interpreter to read the Gospel narratives in light of literary conventions common to their authors’ creative context. Alter explains: “As modern readers of the Bible, we need to relearn something of this mode of perception that was second nature to the original audiences.”9 It is now widely accepted that the authors of the Gospels are teaching us to perceive Jesus through patterns of the Old Testament.
I suggest that the recognition of the presupposed literary convention of the type-scene implicit in John 2:1-11 brings needed clarity to several aspects of this enigmatic passage. First, Jesus’ response to his mother in 2:4 firmly establishes his prophetic mission. The phrase “What concern is that to you and to me?” or as we might say in modern English idiom, “Why do you interfere in my affairs?” is not meant to be mysterious. Jesus intends that his allusion to the Elisha narratives in light of the type-scene is to be recognized. This “strange” comment between a mother and son at a wedding feast is overshadowed by the “prophetic” context in which John has placed it. To attempt to explain the comment as simply an exchange between mother and son misses the larger intent of the passage. This is made all the more clear by 2:4b where Jesus declares, “My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ response to his mother is in response to another request, the one in response to which he came (1:9). Although Jesus eventually answers the request, he does so as a prophet who is living out a “prophetic” mission. John has no need to show why Jesus eventually did respond to his mother’s request, for the Elisha narratives provide explanation. In 2 Kings 3:14 Elisha responds to the kings’ request by saying, “Were it not that I have regard for king Jehoshaphat of Judah, I would give you neither a look nor a glance.” The silence of Jesus is due to his reliance on the words of Elisha and the assumption that a son would have a similar “regard” for his mother. As Alter stated, “[T]he biblical authors, counting on their audience’s familiarity with the features and function of the type-scene, could merely allude to the type-scene….”10 Thus, Jesus’ response to a wedding request by his mother in 2:4 is able to exemplify a larger request already imposed upon Jesus, one that he will accomplish during his prophetic mission.
Second, the entire scene in John 2:1-11 places Jesus’ prophetic mission as the final stage of a divine movement already in motion. By using Elisha as a “type,” the fourth evangelist places Jesus in a related divine mission. But this mission is different, as 2:10 makes clear. After Jesus turns the water into wine he instructs the stewards to take the wine to the chief steward (2:8). After tasting the new wine the chief steward exclaims: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (2:10). Frequently commentators take the chief steward’s remarks to be in reference to the “quality of the wine that resulted from the miracle”11 or to the custom of serving the best wine first.12 But when seen within the prophetic type-scene a different intent may be discerned. Since the narrative has already made implicit the connection between Elisha and Jesus, and has already shown that Jesus’ mission is a prophetic mission similar to the prophets of old, John intends the chief steward’s comment to serve as irony (as is normal for John–see for example Caiaphas’ comment in 11:49-52), in order to differentiate between the work of previous prophets and Jesus’ prophetic mission. The new wine that is better than the old is Jesus himself who is the last of a long line of “prophets” and the greatest of them all. In contrast to the custom of wine distribution at weddings where the best is served first, John explains that in the plan of God the best “wine” will be served last.
Third, the prophetic type-scene, by functioning to define the mission and task of Jesus, introduces him to the readers of the Fourth Gospel. John has already made clear in the prologue that the identity of Jesus was assumed to be linked to the “prophets” in some sense (1:17, 21, 45). The first “sign” of Jesus “anticipates the significance of Jesus’ mission, as the water of the Jewish rites of purification gives way to the wine and joy of the new life that Jesus provides.”13 The use of the term “hour” in 2:4 leads toward a culmination of which this passage is just the beginning. As Brown explains, “The ‘hour’ of which we hear so much in John, the hour of Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the culminating hour in the long history of God’s dealings…. Jewish customs, feasts, and religious institutions… find their fulfillment in Jesus.”14 And the prophets were primary figures in this “long history.” Thus, the normal theological themes within the narrative no longer stand alone. On its own John 2:1-11 portrays Jesus’ prophetic mission and the divine task for which he has come. Yet, within the Gospel as a whole, it is just one of many “signs” of the person of Jesus that is meant to lead the reader to believe that Jesus is the Christ (20:31). The prophets had characterized the messianic age as a time when wine would flow liberally (Jer 31:12; Hos 14:7; Am 9:13-14; we see the same ideas in the apochryphal literature, e.g. 2 Bar 29:5; 1 En 10:19). The Gospel of John reveals Mary’s concern about ending the wedding without embarrassment, while simultaneously revealing Jesus’ concern for his identity and role as the prophet from God.
1 This article is adapted from Edward W. Klink III, “What Concern is that to you and to me? John 2:1-11 and the Elisha Narratives,” Neotestamentica 39.2 (2005): 273-87.
2 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1991), 171.
3 George Wesley Buchanan, “The Samaritan Origin of the Gospel of John,” in Jacob Neusner, ed., Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (Brill, 1968), 149-75; see also Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (Brill, 1967), and J. Louis Martyn, “We Have Found Elijah,” in Robert Hammerton-Kelly and Robin Scroggs, eds., Jews, Greeks, and Christians: Religious Cultures in Late Antiquity: Essays in Honor of William David Davies (Brill, 1976).
4 David E. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Westminster, 1987), 54.
5 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 47.
6 Ibid, 50.
7 Ibid, 51.
8 Ibid, 58.
9 Ibid, 62.
10 Ibid, 58.
12 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol. 1 (Doubleday, 1966), 100; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed. (SPCK, 1978), 193, emphasis added.
13 Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Hendrickson, 2000), 15.
14 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, Francis J. Moloney, ed.(Doubleday, 2003), 237.