Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Water Into Wine (part 2)

Returning then to the wedding banquet that Jesus would have been attending, with it taking place in the context of a culture that overtly operated on the premises of honor and shame, those considered to be possessive of the least amount of honor would be seated at the far end of the table.  Thus, the banquet table in the ancient world would be an effective microcosm of the stratifications of the existing social order.

So how does this visible social stratification at the banqueting table have any bearing on Jesus turning the water into wine?  It would seem that it has much to do with the “when” of the miracle.  To understand the significance of what has happened, and to continue layering in levels of understanding, it is necessary to do some historical contextualizing so as to recover an aspect of the ancient world and its feasts that has been almost completely lost to the modern, western world. 

This effort at contextualization turns first to Pliny the younger, a magistrate of ancient Rome, who lived from the late first century into the early second century.  As a part of his writings, he provided information about feasts and community meals in and before his day, and his reports speak to the social order that is demonstrable in the service progressions in the meals.  In reference to a meal at which he was an honored guest (and so would have been seated adjacent to or quite near the host), Pliny writes: “Some very elegant dishes were served up to himself and a few more of the company; while those which were placed before the rest were cheap and paltry.  He apportioned in small flagons three different sorts of wines; but it was not that the guests might take their choice: on the contrary, that they might not choose at all.  One was for himself and me; the next for his friends of lower order (for you must know the measures of friendship according to degrees of quality); and the third for his own free men.” 

What Pliny here describes is quite common, and one can see how this report might be applied to painting an appropriate picture of the wedding feast at Cana and the attendant miraculous turning of the water into wine.  Pliny makes the point that while there were three different sorts of wines presented to the table, one should not be deluded into thinking that each person at the table was going to be able to choose which of the three wines they were going to take for themselves.  If all were looked upon as equals, this might be the case, but this was not the prevailing situation. 

It can here be seen that there were clear delineations made between and among guests.  In case the seating position relative to the host was not a sufficient indicator to a person of his perceived (and thus actual) societal ranking as adjudicated in the court of public opinion, the quality of the food and wine which he would find offered to him (which would also be connected to his seating position) would be a further indicator. 

Naturally and as one would expect, the host would have the finest wine and food served to his most honored guests, with the lesser wine served to those that were understood to be slightly less honorable (in this honor and shame society in which all competed to accrue honor and eschew shame---this would not be a commentary on someone’s character, but merely their public standing), with the poorest quality wine and food offered to those that were the least honorable, who also would have been seated the furthest away from him at the u-shaped table, if they were fortunate enough to be seated at the table at all (women, for instance, would not be seated at the table, but would be positioned in seats along the walls). 

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