Harry Potter Changed Water Into Wine—No, Wait—

Miracles or magic: What’s the difference?

One crucial, fundamental rule for responsible Bible study—pursued by adults who can set aside “what the church says”—is this: be curious, be very curious. Another fundamental rule follows as well: be skeptical, be very skeptical. This requires looking below the surface, which should include exploring the writings of biblical scholars: every chapter and verse of the Bible has been studied closely, and the results published.


A couple of examples: (1) It was discovered that the last twelve verses of Mark’s gospel (16:9-20) are not in the oldest manuscripts of that gospel. Person or persons unknown added them later. So are they divinely inspired or not? These verses include the risen Jesus promising that baptized Christians will be able to drink poison, pick up snakes, and heal people by touch. So maybe we can rule them out as divinely inspired. (2) Matthew reports (27:52-53) that when Jesus died, lots of people came alive in their tombs, then toured Jerusalem on Easter morning. No other gospel writer mentions this—and it escaped the notice of any other historian of the time. Were these verses divinely inspired, or was Matthew indulging in a flight of ghoulish fantasy?


Curiosity must always prompt this question about any Bible story, chapter, or verse: where did it come from? Is it the product of revelation, imagination, or hallucination? And how can you tell? What are the criteria by which we can decide if any particular Bible text came from a god through the mind of the human author—or did it come from the author’s imagination? Indeed, did the cultural context at the time of the writing have major impact?


The miracles reported in the gospels are dangerous territory, because they look so much like the outcomes of magic spells. In Mark 5, Jesus transfers demons into pigs—is that really a thing, or just superstition? Remember: the cultural context of the time. In Mark 5:25-34, a woman is healed by touching Jesus’ garment. It’s really hard to argue that this isn’t a bit of magic folklore. Christians: be careful in celebrating the miracles of Jesus. Be prepared to explain how they differ from the magic commonly accepted in the ancient world. I suspect one of the reasons conservative Christians have so much angst about Harry Potter is because the things that Harry and his pals do look so much like what we find in the gospels. What’s the difference? 


One gospel miracle story in particular deserves special scrutiny and skepticism, for so many reasons. In chapter 2 of John’s gospel, at a wedding banquet, Jesus changes water into wine. This story has prompted a lot of jokes, e.g., Jesus and his disciples walk into a bar. Winking at his disciples, he says to the bartender, “We’ll just have water.” But this story has been no joke for Christian theology. In John’s gospel it is Jesus’ first miracle, indeed it plays a major role in establishing who he was: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). It revealed his glory.


But there is a lot wrong with this story, so it’s worth a close look. We get help with this in Evan Fales’ 25-page essay, “Credulity at Cana?” in the John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles. There are a few things to consider




Where did the story come from? Fales asks, early in the essay: “Does, indeed, the entirety of the narrative in John 2 have any historical basis? Whose record of the event would have provided the source-material for the author of John?” (p. 470) There is substantial consensus among mainstream New Testament scholars that John’s gospel was the last of the four canonical gospels to be written—probably late first century, or early second. In other words, several decades after this wedding banquet in Cana, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. For this story to qualify as history, there would have to be contemporaneous documentation by which to verify it. Maybe the diary of the groom? —which mentions Jesus as a guest, and the amazing thing he did. Of course, we would also need to know exactly how the author of the gospel was able to access that diary. Writing real history is based on serious archival research. This is one way we would rule out the story coming from the author’s imagination—driven by theological purpose. 




More thoughts on where the story came from. It is a source of distress to devout New Testament scholars that the gospel of John tells such a different story of Jesus. Its author is guilty of what I have often called theological inflation. Consider: The apostle Paul was sure that Jesus made all the difference because of his resurrection—without mentioning details of his life, much less his virgin birth. For the author of Mark’s gospel, Jesus became son of a god at his baptism; for Matthew and Luke, his miraculous conception insured that status. John got carried away: Jesus had been present at creation—it was through Jesus that everything had been created: theology inflation. Which is another way of saying: he made things up

            Thus John’s Jesus is different. There are long Jesus monologues found nowhere else. Were the other gospel writers just not paying attention? Even more puzzling, there are no parables in John’s gospel; nor does the Sermon on the Mount show up. He included stories not found in the other gospels. The other three gospels don’t mention the Cana wedding banquet or the raising of Lazarus. So we do have to wonder where these stories come from—especially since John wrote his gospel so long after the others.   




One more thing about where the story came from. Near the end of the essay, Fales notes this: “…nearby pagans in Tyre and Sidon worshipped at temples to Bacchus where water was annually changed into wine.”  (p. 489) Yes, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine—whose mother was also inseminated by a god—did the same trick, or so it was believed. This is another example of cultural context having an impact on a New Testament author: borrowing an idea. Are we to assume that both Jesus and Bacchus went to the same water-into-wine training course? Or would Christians be right in insisting that Bacchus couldn’t have done it, but Jesus did…because, you know, he’s our god. It’s far more likely this a matter of shared superstition. 




It seems to be rarely grasped that this story presents a huge theological problem. The author of John’s gospel thought that Jesus turning water into wine revealed his glory, which prompted his disciples to believe in him. Aren’t there many more important, worthwhile things that Jesus could have done to accomplish that? Changing water into wine in the presence of dozens—hundreds at most—wedding guests: was that the best he could do? If believers are thrilled that Jesus had the power to change water into wine, surely they can see the implications of what Jesus didn’t do. The implications of what Jesus fails to do today. There are so many people now who don’t have access to clean, safe water. How about Jesus changing dirty, brackish water—now, today, every day—into clean water for these people? For all those who are malnourished or starving, how about Jesus turning water into high-energy drinks? These would be far better ways of displaying/proving his glory.


This is the challenge to believers who claim that their god is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, and totally competent: why is there so much misery on his watch when he can do something about it? Isn’t water-into-wine a pretty anemic trick when there is so much more to be done? Author Matt McCormick, in his essay, “God Would Not Perform Miracles,” in the same Loftus anthology, sees the problem with such finite miracles:


“… millions of people suffer horribly from disease, famine, cruelty, torture, genocide, and death. The occurrence of a finite miracle in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that a being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.”  (p. 67)




No, taking it on faith that Jesus turned water into wine does no good whatever. That’s to embrace “what the church says,” instead of thinking independently. Faith is no path to knowledge, and it’s certainly no way to prove history: what actually happened. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Mormon clergy all plead with their followers to take their version of god(s) on faith. Hence we end up with so many different, conflicting, incompatible claims about what god is like. Fales states the case bluntly:


“A deeply convincing faith has undeniably led many an honest person astray, even though they be generous of heart. What proper assurance can such faith provide, when it must now row upstream against a flood of conflicting evidence?” (p. 484)


Fales’ essay is a solid examination of the various factors that shaped John’s creation of his Jesus story. Of the Cana story specifically, he says:


“Nothing of the kind actually happened, but the scientific ignorance of John’s day, human fascination with wonders, and especially the absence, in those times, of scientific critical reasoning and reflection provided fertile ground for the confabulation of all manner of superstitions and wonder-tales, especially ones that could be placed in the service of some cause or social movement.” (p. 472)


Fales has a long discussion about why John chose to put the Cana wedding banquet episode at the beginning of his gospel. In fact, he offers seven suggestions, describing them in detail. His essay is a very helpful portal into serious examination of this particular Bible story. It helps the reader see the context of John’s theology inflation, and how, in fact, it was nurtured—not by any substantial understanding of how the world works—but by his far too limited religious perspective. As Fales puts it, “…human nature, both past and present, is permeated by emotional and cognitive mechanisms that cast good sense adrift.” (p. 479)


Is it appropriate or fair for me to ridicule the Cana wedding miracle with my title for this article: Harry Potter Changed Water Into Wine—No, Wait—  ? I intend this as a reminder that gospel miracle stories look just too much like magic folklore. Is this really the way Christians want to prove/defend their god? Is it the best way or the worst way? Here again curiosity and skepticism should kick in: just how do believers suppose they know about god? Because of what priests and preachers have always told them? Because of what they learned, once upon a time, in Sunday School or catechism? This is a serious issue, and merits serious curiosity and skepticism. 


But there’s another issue here as well. John’s shallow theology—the glory of Jesus being displayed by changing water into wine at a wedding—is in fact matched by the inferior Jesus portrayed in the gospels. This is so difficult to notice because Jesus has been hyped by the church for such a long time, for centuries before laypeople had access to the Bible. What we find in the gospels about Jesus is not all that appealing or attractive, although this is kept out of sight by the feel-good-Jesus-is-love Bible verses read from the pulpit. The not-so-good Jesus is the topic of my 2021 book, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught. If churchgoers took the time to carefully read the gospels, they would discover that the church is guilty of over-selling: It’s not hard to spot the bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus quotes. There must be a better hero. 


In Derek Murphy’s 2011 478-page book, Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The fascinating parallels between two of the world’s most popular literary characters, he draws this conclusion:


“Harry’s popularity is crucial—he is the gospel of our time, the best selling story. Yes, he is a repacking of the Jesus Christ story, but one that ellipses that story completely. While we can sift through Harry and trace back to Jesus, why would we? Harry is a much more humane, in depth, vibrant character than the Jesus of the gospels, infinitely earlier to identify with, champion, and even love.” (p. 418)


It's not surprising that conservative Christians have so much angst about Harry Potter. 




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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