Did Jesus really turn water into wine or did he, as some aver, actually turn water into beer? It may seem like a stupid question. Partly, that’s because it is. It arises from some basic errors that masquerade as clever thinking in respect to the gospel writings. I raise it because, in a particularly silly article in the Guardian, I read the following:
If you’ve blown the dust from the original Bible like we have, you’ll know full well that Jesus Christ didn’t turn water into wine. No, he turned it into beer. The earliest scriptures state that Jesus, the lead character, turns water into shekhar [sic], a Hebrew word meaning strong drink and, crucially, a derivative of the ancient Semitic word sikaru – which means barley beer. The reason beer was banished from subsequent versions of the Bible was that, in an astonishing display of academic arrogance, 17th-century English translators believed beer to be beneath the son of God. So they took it upon themselves to transform Jesus Christ into a cork-sniffing, cravat-wearing wine-drinker, draped insouciantly on a banquette of an All Bar One. He wasn’t. He was a beer guy.
With similar, but slightly different, logic you can hear this on youtube:
This is all, of course, complete garbage.
We can look at the Greek of John 2:3:
κἀὶ ὑστερήσαντος οἴνου λέγει ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν οἶνον οὐκ ἔχουσιν
ὡς δὲ ἐγεύσατο ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος τὸ ὕδωρ οἶνον γεγενημένον καὶ οὐκ ᾔδει πόθεν ἐστίν οἱ δὲ διάκονοι ᾔδεισαν οἱ ἠντληκότες τὸ ὕδωρ φωνεῖτὸν νυμφίον ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος
And John 2:10
καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ πᾶς ἄνθρωπος πρῶτον τὸν καλὸν οἶνον τίθησιν καὶ ὅταν μεθυσθῶσιν τὸν ἐλάσσω σὺ τετήρηκας τὸν καλὸν οἶνον ἕως ἄρτι
We can note four uses of the word translated wine (οἶνος) across these verses. In each case, the specific word used is indeed the word for wine.
Neither can we suggest that this is a later 17th century addition nor, as the video claims, an addition by Pope Gregory in 349. In respect to the latter, Pope Gregory I became pope in 590AD, nearly 250 years after the video claims the Bible was finally placed in its canonical form. Athanasius in the mid-300s seemed confident that the canon had been agreed and, if any pope is to be associated with its final form, is likely to be Damasus I at the Council of Rome (though there is good evidence the canon had basically been agreed before this). Nonetheless, Damasus I encouraged what was to become the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome in 382.
In any case, the gospel of John was written in Greek (despite the highly confused claim in the video that the Bible was written in “all sorts” of languages such as ‘Babylonian and Sumerian and whatnot’ – it wasn’t: it contains Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The Rylands Payrus, which can be viewed at John Rylands Library in Manchester, is a Greek fragment of John’s gospel dated to 90-125AD. Not only is 90AD within the latter end supposed of the apostle John’s life, this is an extant copy uncovered in Egypt. This means this Greek copy of John had made its way to Egypt some time before 100AD, giving strong evidence that the gospel was indeed written by the apostle after whom it is named.
Now, the date of John – and specifically the Rylands papyrus – is only significant for this discussion because it proves that a relatively early copy of the gospel, a copy well within the lifespan of the apostle himself, had been written in Greek, not Hebrew. This makes arguments referencing the Hebrew shekar a total red herring. For the gospel was not written in Hebrew, but Greek, and the manuscript evidence maintains that the water Jesus changed became οἶνος not shekar.
If John had intended to convey the Hebrew word shekar, he would have presumably used the Greek word σίκερα which is the standard loanword. Shekar is typically translated strong drink. It has a much wider meaning the ‘beer’ but can rightly refer to fermented barley drinks i.e. beer. The Greek has a specific loanword for shekar, σὶκερα. But John specifically does not use that word. He uses the standard word for wine, οἶνος. The only possible reference to shekar comes in the use of the word μεθύω (drunk). But clearly this is not a reference to the nature of the οἶνος Jesus made but the (potential) intoxication of the guests. In every instance of referring to whatever it was into which Jesus turned the water, we read οἶνος, that is wine.
So, did Jesus turn water into beer? No. The argument revolves around a basic false premise that the gospel was initially written in Hebrew (it wasn’t), that the Greek had no equivalent word for shekar (it does) and that οἶνος was a later addition with various reasons given for the motive in altering the wording (this does not stand up to the manuscript evidence). So no, Jesus did not turn water into beer. John intended to tell us that Jesus turned water into wine, without the Guardian’s additions of cravats and corks.