Anyone wishing to harmonize the gospel of John with the Synoptics will have a great deal of trouble explaining the beginnings of Jesus’ career. In the Fourth Gospel, on his way back to Galilee, Jesus has already poached many of John the Baptist’s followers. In fact, he has started up his own dunking franchise, luring away John’s customers. However, in the Synoptics, after Jesus’ baptism, the spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he sits in solitude. He hasn’t even met any of the Twelve yet.
Such differences might compel us to posit that the two origin stories have so little in common that they must emerge from wholly unrelated traditions. And yet if we look just a bit harder, we see some common threads, at least on a symbolic level.
In my brief series on How John Used Mark, I discussed how John apparently took ideas from the Gospel of Mark and turned them inside out. But in the case of John inverting the temptation stories, the source must be either Matthew or Luke, since Mark has only this to say:
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13, NRSV)
For details concerning those temptations, we must turn to the other two gospels. Oddly, Matthew and Luke list the second and the third in different order, but the first temptation remains the same. (All of the following verses come from the NASB.)
|4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.||4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness|
|4:2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.||4:2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry.|
|4:3 And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”||4:3 And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”|
|4:4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'”||4:4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE.'”|
The tempter (Satan, the devil, etc.) whisks him away in the Satan-copter and entices him twice more, offering the kingdoms of the world, and strangely daring him to throw himself down from a high place to be saved by the angels.
|4:5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple,||4:9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here;|
|4:6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU’; and ‘ON THEIR HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'”||4:10 for it is written, ‘HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU TO GUARD YOU,’
4:11 and, ‘ON THEIR HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'”
|4:7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'”||4:12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'”|
|4:8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory;||4:5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.|
|4:9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”||4:6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.
4:7 “Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.”
|4:10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'”||4:8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'”|
|4:11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.||4:13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.|
Notice that Luke omits the part about the angels tending to Jesus in the wilderness.
At first glance — or even second or third glance — we might see no connection whatsoever between the temptations and the miracle at Cana. After all, the former happens in the wilderness in private, while the latter happens in a town in public. In fact the latter’s stated result is, like the other “signs” in John’s gospel, people saw and believed in him. This time, it is the first sign, and his disciples believed in him.
However, when I see strongly opposed points like this I become more suspicious that John is inverting something in the Synoptics. We find an obvious clue in the temptation to convert a natural substance — rocks, water — into something else — bread, wine. Both of these substance have a yet higher transformed substance in the Christian ritual of communion — flesh, blood.
Let’s examine some points of the stories more closely and see how they contrast.
|In the verse before the Wedding at Cana, Jesus says to Nathanael (aka, Nathanael of Cana) that they will see heaven opened, with angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.||The Synoptics end with the angels tending to Jesus.
In M and L, the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself down, so that the angels will swoop in and pick him up.
|Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding, which he voluntarily attends.||The spirit enters Jesus, and drives him away from the Jordan and into the desert. For 40 days, he seems to have lost bodily control, the spirit of God moves him about, and the tempter takes him from place to place.|
|The wedding ceremony is used throughout the gospels as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. Jesus blesses the Wedding at Cana with his presence and with a miracle.||The devil in M and L shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world and he rejects them.|
|Jesus’ mother (never named in John) says they’re out of wine and asks her son to act. He does, even though he rebukes her.||The devil in M and L tries to make Jesus say and do things. He quotes scripture and steadfastly refuses.|
|Jesus turns the water into wine.||Jesus refuses to turn the stones into bread.|
|Following the miracle, Jesus, his disciples, and his mother, all go to Capernaum. After that, he goes to Jerusalem.||In Luke, after the temptation, Jesus goes to Nazareth.
In Matthew, Jesus goes to Nazareth, then Capernaum.
(Nazareth is in the opposite direction from Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee.)
The key here is John’s taking a miracle denied that proves his righteousness into a miracle performed that results in others’ belief. Of course, without the symbolism, the miracle of Cana is a mere parlor trick. What makes it important, aside from being the first sign, is what the different elements in the story mean. (We have previously discussed the function of the miracle at Cana as a parable.) But all those various elements depend on this foundation: What, John asks us, if Jesus refused the transformation of rocks into bread for his own selfish needs, but on the other hand assented to the transformation of water into wine to help others and so that the disciples would believe in him?
Note: When Jesus rebukes his mother, (John 2:4a) he uses remarkably harsh language, viz. “What have I to do with you?” But several well-known English translations falsely try to make the object of Jesus’ rebuke the fact that the wedding party ran out of wine. She says, “They have no more wine.”
NIV: “Woman, why do you involve me?”
ESV: “Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
NASB: “Woman, what does that have to do with us?”
Always keep plenty of translations around and continually refer to the Greek. Under no circumstances should you trust the NIV to be faithful to the text; their first duty is to harmonize the Bible with their evangelical beliefs.
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