Water into wine

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (April, 2005)

The hypothesis that the gospels contained a pesher was formed when I noticed that a passage in the Qumran Community Rule (1QS) was capable of giving a natural explanation of the 'miracle' of turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). Josephus' account of Essene initiations in JW 2, 137-142 agrees essentially with the Scrolls passage 1QS 6: 13-23, which sets out the stages of Essene initiation. The process lasted three years before a full commitment was made. First, a probationary year outside the community, with no contact with any member except an instructor. Next, the first contact, when a water baptism was given. In Josephus' words: "Having given proof of his temperance during this probationary period, he (the initiant) is brought into closer touch with the rule and is allowed to share the purer kind of holy water, but is not yet received into the meetings of the community."

He then went through two further years, equivalent to the stages of a novice. Both Josephus and the 1QS passage show that it was two years. At the end of the first of these novitiate years he was admitted to the sacred meal, in a preliminary form, and his property was held in reserve but not yet handed over. The preliminary form meant that he took the bread, the inferior element of the sacred meal, but not the wine. After another year, the end of his novitiate period and of three years in all, he became a full initiate, surrendering his whole life to the monastic community. His property was handed over, being no longer legally his, and he became a member of the council. The main sign of this final stage was that he now received the wine at the sacred meal. It was called 'the Drink of the Many' (1QS 6:20).

Thus the two decisive stages of entry were when he was baptised in water, and two years later when he received the wine as a full initiate.

The Qumran rules frequently state that no disabled persons were to be admitted into full membership, for they were not 'pure'. The name for the sacred meal was the Purity. "No man afflicted by human uncleanness shall enter the assembly ... No man afflicted in his flesh, or paralysed...or lame, or blind, or deaf or dumb, or with a visible blemish, no tottery old man unable to stand straight in the midst of the assembly, none of these shall hold office in the congregation of men of a name, for the angels of holiness are with them" (1QSa 2: 4-10). The Temple Scroll cols. 45-47 further illustrates the classes of the 'unclean'. No blind man, no leper, no menstruating woman is to be allowed into holy precincts, for they are an offence to God. Similarly in CD 15: 15ff.

According to Josephus (JW 2: 154-157) the Essenes attracted Gentiles. But Gentiles, being uncircumcised, would certainly have been classed with the unclean, not permitted to become full initiates. In all Jewish law, Gentiles were defined as the legal equivalents of women.

In Qumran terms, then, 'turning water into wine' would mean that the early stage of baptism had been combined with the later stage of full initiation. The consequence would be that the 'unclean' - including Gentiles - were given the same rights as male Jewish celibates. That would be a social revolution, abolishing the basic tenets of the Qumran community.

The Wicked Priest/ Man of a Lie of the Scrolls committed 'abominations', 'defiled the temple', 'flouted the Law'. (1QpHab 5:11-12; 12: 8-9). In Qumran terms, that meant that he broke the rules designed to keep pure precincts pure. He would have treated the 'unclean' as no different from the 'clean'. The gospels and Acts describe 'healings' by Jesus that include people prohibited at Qumran - paralysed, lame, blind, deaf-mute, leper, menstruating woman (Mark 1-2, 5, 7-8; Acts 3). This is one of the several reasons for identifying Jesus with the Wicked Priest/Man of a Lie, who opposed the Teacher of Righteousness.

Recognising that Qumran language gave a natural explanation of 'turning water into wine' and so uncovered a significant piece of history, the next step was to look at all seven signs in John's gospel. They are constructed as a unit, as is shown by the notes "This is the first sign that Jesus did...... (John 2:11) This is the second sign...."(John 4:54). They list further miracles in ascending order of incredibility - healing at a distance (John 4:46-54), healing a man who had been waiting 38 years beside a pool(John 5:1-18), feeding 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish (John 6:1-15), walking on water (John 6:16-21), healing a man blind from birth (John 9:1-41), finally raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-53).

Ascending order of incredibility - or ascending order of historical importance? What was the meaning of 'raising from the dead'? Initiation into the Qumran community gave 'life' (1QS 3: 7). Therefore, if a man was excommunicated according to the provisions of 1QS 7: 17, 22-25, he had 'died', spiritually. If he had been excommunicated for heresy and another leader approved his heresy, then that leader would re-instate him, 'raise him from the dead'. Similarly all the other cases of 'raisings from the dead' in the gospels and Acts. Lazarus had not been dead, but had enacted his spiritual 'death' in dramatic form, being dressed in burial garments and placed in his own tomb, as was still the practice for excommunicants in medieval monasteries.

All accounts of miracles yield to a pesher, using terms such as 'wine', 'bread', 'blind', 'lame', 'leper', 'life', 'death' in special, technical senses that were different from their ordinary meanings. Other terms appearing to have an ordinary sense have a special sense concerning the types of Qumran members: 'saint', 'sinner', 'righteous', 'good'. All words for parts of the body have a particular sense. The terms 'God', 'angel', 'Spirit', 'Father', do not primarily have a supernatural meaning but refer to real people who were part of the history. The special meanings are listed in the Lexicons in my second and third books.

The Synoptic gospels contain parables in historical form, about a Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan etc. They have an obvious moral meaning, yet it does not account for all of the detail. Luke's gospel has exactly 12 in historical form, in addition to other sayings called parables. 12 is the sign of a planned structure, just as 7 is. The historical parables yield to a pesher, with the same special meanings. Their pesher is a record of the previous history of the Qumran stage, and of the Christian interaction with it.

The complete history of Jesus and the rise of Christianity is given by these means. He was not a founder, but a reformer, one who broke down the restrictiveness of the Qumran community, giving Gentiles equal rights, until finally his Gentile following were forced out by the Qumran element and formed a new party using the name 'Christian', with its base in Rome.

The 'Jesus of history' is looking very different from 'the Christ of faith' - the distinction made by 20th century theologians. My own view, which perhaps more are sharing now, is that it is inappropriate and even idolatrous to concentrate so much on the person of Jesus. He was a heroic figure, who came at one of the turning-points of western culture, and he helped to make the turn. But he was only part of an organisation that was ready to make the change. Grown-up people need to look beyond a human cult figure, to that which is higher than human. I think we are moving away from the language of all the traditional religions, into a language that expresses better our sense of what we call 'God'.

The next questions to face are the major doctrines on which traditional Christianity has depended, the virgin birth and the resurrection.

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