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What IS a Theologoumenon and What DOES Changing Water into Wine Mean?

Part I.

A couple of hurdles to deriving the greatest possible meaning from the Bible are orthodox literalism (everything in the Bible must have happened just because it is in the Bible) and secular denial (since hardly anything in the Bible really happened, the book is of no value). The literalist disregards the contradictions and inaccuracies that the Bible gives us as a clue that it ought to be looked at non-literally. The denier recognizes the inaccuracies and contradictions all too clearly and, thus, regards the book as nonsense. Indeed, literalism and denial are a Scylla and Charybdis that crush interpretations of greater meaning that can serve as a guide for humane development and the core of a progressive Christianity.

Yet, there is also a third hurdle that has come about as a result of the realization that most of the stuff in the Bible did not really happen. (And one need merely look at The Bible Unearthed by two Israeli archaeologists to see that very little in the Bible actually happened.) It answers the question, “If it didn’t happen, why is it in my holy book?” but only superficially. They have a name for this approach: the theologoumenon.

The word comes from the Greek language and means “to talk about the gods”. It is basically a brief explanation – drawing on history or theology – of the meaning of a Bible story. We can think of the theologoumenon approach as being like sharks that wait just beyond Scylla and Charybdis. In our search for greater meaning in the Bible, if the two big rocks do not get us, the sharks often do.

A “theologoumenon” type of interpretation is, however, not tied to a person’s experience, and seems little more than a re-phrasing of something literal. It lacks all the criteria established for a good interpretation and falls into the trap that Marcus Borg wrote about, where “fanciful” interpretations can be derived having little connection to the symbolism involved.

So do not settle for stone when you can have bread and wine! Get out the old shark repellant and float easily on the wine-dark sea. You can debunk Bible stories and find original kernels of history or basic theological re-phrasings or literary/mythological trends in them – but this is not real meaning that can be applied to changing one’s life for the better. Bible symbolism is there to help in the process of an examined life – we can use the symbolism to go beyond the constraints of everyday language and see something much tougher to convey. It has to be applied to our experience or it is useless. We will see some examples of the theologoumenon shortly. I believe, in fact, that this was the approach of my own high school religion teacher, who debunked a lot but did not guide us toward more relevant meaning. The results were not what he had planned.

In my relatively progressive urban Catholic high school of days gone by, I was taught that the Bible was the inspired word of God but that God was not speaking to us literally and I learned this because of that particular religion teacher. Looking at his influence symbolically, he was more like someone who provided lots of water but no wine. He helped to clear away misconceptions, helped me (and others) move away from one stage, but he never really provided anything fulfilling or elevating to take the place of what was cleansed away. Most of us in the class, consequently, became agnostics or atheists (due to our Catholic religion class!).

The theologoumenon approach is also an approach that does not invite another journey, but it seems to move a little beyond merely debunking. It seems to be the institutional (academic and religious institutional) approach in general if it is acknowledged that the Bible must be viewed non-literally. When “authorities” admit that certain Bible stories should be interpreted non-literally, they seem to provide the theologoumenon interpretation.

If one does not replace the type of literalist faith one loses with anything compelling, this invites a stale secularism. One ends one journey but does not see the next and, indeed, does not suspect that another journey of meaning and personal development might be possible or necessary. You expose the Wizard of Oz but never get back to Kansas. You live happily ever after in a Wizardless Oz, which was to be a place of transition and change, not home (unless you are a Munchkin).

Jacques Duquesne, author of Jesus: An Unconventional Biography, says a theologoumenon is, “…a kind of image that helps us understand an aspect of faith.” (Duquesne, p. 38) He then goes on to say that the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is a theologoumenon because everybody knows it did not happen but it has to have some meaning or it wouldn’t be in a holy book. So the interpretation he finds among scholars is that God revealed himself to Gentiles as well as Jews. This is, of course, a quite stale and uninspiring interpretation, there is no need for symbolic representation to convey this. Calling a symbol or a story packed with meaning a theologoumenon is a half measure. A theologoumenon is only going half-way away from literalism; there is a greater leap to be taken.

After that seminal religion class where I learned that I just could not interpret the Bible literally anymore, I spent more than a few years as an atheist because my previous faith had been solely based on a literal belief in the Bible. Like a lot of secular folks, I believed it was literalism or nothing. Indeed, many folks seem to believe that one MUST jump from literalism to agnosticism or atheism. To lose the faith based on a literal interpretation is to lose a lot. If you know that you might lose the authority and comfort of the Wizard but you don’t see a possibility for Kansas, you are not going to look behind that curtain and see what the Wizard really is. The key to finding greater meaning is finding personal relevance in the symbolism of the Bible – finding how the greater meaning reveals and invites a new journey for each of us. I hope to show that one can jump from literalism to greater meaning and never touch stale secularism or atheism.

Part II.

The turning of water into wine could be considered a theologoumenon, but, it is, in fact, a deeply meaningful allegory about the human potential for rising above what is harmful to ourselves and others and living humanely. In regard to the turning of water into wine, Randel Helms, in Bible Fictions, finds a parallel in the Book of Kings but also finds a more interesting parallel in a quote from Bultmann regarding an aspect of Greek mythology. During a festival for Dionysus, at Andros and Teos, the sacred springs were said to provide wine. At Ellis three empty containers were placed in the temple and overnight they became filled with wine. Helms writes, “In other words this miracle story had an extensive history before it reached the author of the fourth Gospel. Neither he nor anyone he knew attended a wedding at Cana-in-Galilee at which Jesus provided a hundred and twenty gallons of wine to those who had already drunk so freely they had exhausted the day’s provisions; the story is fiction and has a clearly traceable literary lineage.” (Helms p.86)

So why is it in our holy book if it is false? A theologoumenon approach will just tell me that Jesus was a great and generous man or give me a greater theological meaning (as you will see). But, what does stone or wine mean in this story? What does water mean? Why is it six containers? Why is water changed into wine? Why does it happen on the third day? The theologoumenon interpretation proposed by higher-ups in the Catholic Church does not have ‘parsimony’ or cheapness. It does not explain everything with the least effort. It does not explain, for instance, the difference between water and wine or explain what all these obvious symbols in the story mean.

Duquesne has a lot to say about the “miracle” at Cana. He begins by quoting from a book sanctioned by the imprimatur. This means the Pope, himself, agreed with the conclusions of the book. The author of the book, a Father Leon-Dufour casually observes that the episode at Cana clearly did not happen and offers that this is the view of most serious scholars.

Duquesne comes up with interesting observations as to how wine can be a symbol before ruining everything with a theologoumenon. He points out that the director of research at CNRS (a Catholic research institute in France), Jean-Paul Roux, believed wine to be a symbol because the process of wine making and consumption embodied a mysterious and even troubling or disturbing principle, especially as the blood of the vine resembled human blood. The grapes themselves go through a death and resurrection process by being picked, stepped on (or pressed) and then taking on a greater potency.

Duquesne then writes, “What marriage was the author of the episode at Cana thinking of? The strange non-appearance of the bride has already been pointed out. The principal role is played by Mary, who is not mentioned by name but simply as ‘the mother of Jesus’. Most scholars feel that the mother of Jesus stands here for Israel or, some feel, for the church. So the story represents the marriage between Israel the bride and God the husband, brought about by Jesus.” (Dusquesne, p.110). Why? Again, another stale, boring interpretation. There’s still too much LITERALISM in this interpretation. There is so much we can learn if we treat symbols as symbols.

The big problem, again, with this interpretation is that nobody should have any problem clearly articulating that very mundane and boring “truth.” Again, this is a rephrasing not a symbolic interpretation and we clearly have symbols here. This cannot be a theologoumenon, and, frankly, the concept of a theologoumenon seems to be a fraud. Duquesne himself admits there are symbolic aspects to wine and the use of wine in this theologoumenon interpretation is not parsimonious. The interpretation completely avoids the turning of water into wine and focuses on the wedding. This is just too arbitrary an interpretation. Borg would have called it “fanciful”.

Where, for instance, do we see the influence of the resurrection of grapes in this interpretation? Duquesne seemed to have been moving in the right direction with his interpretation of wine but then settles for what can only be considered a stale and totally unmeaningful interpretation of the changing of water into wine at Cana. And this is the problem with all these alleged theologoumenon interpretations, they are too wedded to literalism. They are a half measure taken by folks who simply do not seem to want to abandon literalism for GREATER MEANING. I am arguing that symbolism means SYMBOLISM not theologoumenon. Theologoumenon means, “I’m not looking for greater meaning, just looking for an answer to stop thinking.” These stories were meant for people in general, not graduate students at the Union Theological Seminary. Are we supposed to give up a literal interpretation for that pseudo-symbolic/historical interpretation? That’s not Kansas. Give up the Wizard for that? Please. We have not moved one step forward by doing this. The whole function of symbolism is to point to what we cannot clearly articulate. The whole function of a theologoumenon is to save literalism in some way, shape or form. Now I’m getting all riled up.

Part III.

To look at the difference between a symbolic interpretation and a theologoumenon, we can take a look at a very obscure work I came across by a somewhat mysterious English psychologist named Maurice Nicoll (1884 – 1953). It is not perfect, but we can see, in his book The New Man, a concerted attempt to “listen” as it were, to the Bible and to really grapple with the text the way the Bible seems to challenge us to grapple with it; not to learn analytical theology but to enrich our lives.

Nicoll was Cambridge educated and one of the leading psychologists, in the UK, right after the beginnings of the study of psychology. He published several papers dealing with the new study of empirical/medical psychology as well as Jungian psychology. Indeed, he seems to have been one of Carl Jung’s favored colleagues and wished to extend Jung’s study of mythology to the Christian religion and especially to the “New” Testament. By all accounts he was a very humane, generous, conscientious and kind individual who often made his services available to the poor. I introduce his book The New Man because the interpretations seem remarkably brilliant and systematic and serve as a good counterpoint to the theologoumenon approach.

Nicoll, indeed, seems to follow an almost scientific methodology in attempting to determine what obvious Bible symbols mean and how we can tie them to our lives and experiences. What I find to be especially valuable about his book The New Man is the fact that he seems interested in answering: “If it didn’t happen, why is it in my holy book?” He is also interested in why many of the stories of the Bible have to be veiled. Why can’t the messages be stated clearly without obscurity or mystery? He comes to the conclusion that if you want to deal meaningfully with our inner reality, or inner world, you have to use metaphors and bend language and story-telling in all sorts of bizarre directions. The language we use for the outer world and its relationships is insufficient for our inner world. We have to play with language to get an inkling of what is happening inside of ourselves in regard to our motives, conflicts, emotions, cognition and desires. There is no language for our inner reality, we have to use language for the outer world differently. Metaphors, symbolism and allegory – this is the language of our inner world.

But Nicoll goes one step farther and states that “The Gospels speak mainly of a possible inner evolution called ‘re-birth’.” (Nicoll, p.3) “The Gospels are from beginning to end all about this possible self-evolution.” “…man, internally, is a seed capable of a definite growth.” (Nicoll, p.4) Therefore, Nicoll seems to agree that the “hidden” meanings of the Bible concern an “inner development” or the possibility of an “inner development” available to us all. This renders the Bible useful. The stories are not analytical statements or even lessons to be learned. The stories can engage us in self-examination and humane development.

Let’s take a look at Nicoll’s approach in regard to the story of the wedding at Cana. I have already mentioned that in the field of science there is a principle that is attributed to Sir Isaac Newton. The principle is called the law of parsimony. To be parsimonious is to be cheap. In science there have been zillions of theories – many of them competing theories. Once it is recognized that Bible stories can be interpreted non-literally there becomes a potential for a bunch of competing theories as to what certain symbols and stories might mean as well. Newton believed that the best of a bunch of competing theories will show greater “parsimony” or cheapness. It will explain the most with the least effort. As with scientific theories so with symbolism. The best interpretations of symbolic stories show this type of parsimony.

Nicoll begins by pointing out that the number 3 is symbolic. It seems to stand for the beginning, middle and end of a stage or process, a completed process. I think it is amusing that Duquesne reads the same passage and in his naiveté declares that the turning of water into wine occurred on a Tuesday (!) because that is what a person from Cana would have considered the third day of the week. But the writer is not saying, “…third day of the week…” The writer wrote “…on the third day…” Earlier in his work Duquesne caught that the number 40 was a symbol of transition, but, in this case, he missed the symbolism of the number 3. This is what I mean by being too wedded to literalism. Take the plunge into symbolism please! Drink your wine!

So Nicoll is saying that when one stage is over a new stage may begin. This is conveyed through the number three. How many days was Jonah in that whale’s (symbolic) belly? How many days did Jesus lay dead? How many times does Peter deny Jesus? Three is a symbol. I would say that is pretty thorough and pretty parsimonious. So it is “three” and not “Tuesday”.

Duquesne says the mother is the nation of Israel. How arbitrary and fanciful can you get?
Nicoll also addresses what is found to be so distressing to many authors about this story: the ‘rudeness’ of Jesus to his mother. Why would Jesus be rude to the nation of Israel? Especially if he is bridging it to God? Not parsimonious. Duquesne’s interpretation clearly misses stuff. The more parsimonious you are the less stuff you miss. Nicoll writes that Jesus’ mother represents a former level of being, which it is time to abandon. Jesus says: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?” Much more parsimonious especially within the context of the entire allegory.

This woman, now that she is rendered obsolete, has one last function to serve, to order the servants to obey Jesus. Why does this happen at a wedding? A wedding represents a union. In allegorical literature sex is used symbolically. The man often represents spiritual desire while the woman represents the fulfilment of this desire. We are moving from the union of dependence between a mother and son to a union of mutual attraction between husband and wife. What the mother represents is clearly of no real use to him anymore and his rudeness would seem to indicate that she may, indeed, be holding him back. Nicoll, therefore, also nicely explains why there is a “wedding” with no bride explicitly mentioned. He tries to explain every element of the symbolism and his explanation seems reasonable and can be tied to human experience.

Nicoll then turns to stone as a symbol and points out that the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone. He believed stone represented what he calls “literal truth”. Again, I think Nicoll is on the right track but may not be entirely parsimonious. Nicoll, interestingly, sees that Jesus is sometimes used symbolically or as a symbol when he states, “ Christ himself was called ‘the stone which the builders rejected’. The Psalmist says: ‘The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.’” Instead of claiming that stone represents something “literal” may we safely assume that stone represents some kind of truth? Or could it be that stone can represent different types of truth under different circumstances? The point is, we are searching for what stone represents while examining our own experience.

He gets more parsimonious again though when he talks about the number 6. To Nicholl six is a symbol of creation or preparation. There are six days before the Sabbath, a Jewish servant served for six years before gaining his freedom, a vineyard was pruned for six years, there were six days before God rested during the creation of the world, there were six steps to the throne of Solomon.

“Thus the six stone water pots would appear to stand for a period of preparation…” (Nicoll, p. 33) Nicoll believes that the teaching of Jesus is to be understood in terms of the process of stone into water and then into wine. The relationship, by the way, between stone and water is found elsewhere. Moses, for instance, while wandering through the desert strikes a stone and water appears out of it. When I was wandering through my own desert, of sorts, as an agnostic, I was striking plenty of stones and drinking plenty of water, continually I recognized that I had gone beyond something to which I could never go back. I was lacking some good sweet wine however! I had abandoned something but had not yet attained a type of fulfillment. For Nicoll, the story set in Cana seems to indicate moving from one stage in development to another. The rejection or “rudeness” toward the previous stage initiates a new and higher state of being (symbolized by wine).

Clearly, Nicoll seems to be indicating that for six stone jars to be filled with water and then having wine appear spontaneously would indicate what he calls a psychological process or a process of inner evolution that is possible. The big implication, I think, is that what this process represents in reality is open to human experience. By implication, Nicoll would be implying that a lot of symbolism exists to provide a language for special types of “transformational” experience. He categorizes this process as a movement from literal truth to psychological truth.

Again, there are some flaws here, but let us give the man his props as this is better than a theologoumenon any day of the week…even Tuesday. It gets one thinking about what in fact might be possible for us developmentally. How meaningfully can we live? How good can we be? On how high a level of development can we engage others? And he seems to follow the methodology we established: he tries to stay close to the text and he tries to find greater meaning to help one experience the examined life. Let us take our own look at the story and the symbols in light of what Nicoll may or may not have shown us.

There is a WEDDING that occurs on the THIRD DAY. We know the wedding and the third day are symbols because no real details are given about the wedding and there is no reason why the author could not write “Tuesday” instead of “the third day”. At this wedding THE WOMAN (MOTHER) realizes there is no WINE and tells this to JESUS. Is Jesus a symbol or a protagonist? We know, in regard to the woman and wine, that 1) gender/sex and 2) wine are common religious/sacred symbols. Indeed, we know that water has been changed into wine in other sacred literature and we know that women often serve a function for men and are then abandoned in allegorical literature. Jesus indicates to the woman that he has absolutely no ties to her anymore whereupon she, of her own initiative, like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, aware that it is time to put her ego aside and unselfishly help her kid, orders servants to obey Jesus. He has the servants fill SIX STONE CONTAINERS with WATER. As soon as the stone containers are filled, the water changes to WINE.

Symbols convey what cannot normally be conveyed. The toughest thing to convey is what happens in our inner world. If there were some way to put this into a language, that would help us to further examine what goes on inside of us. Symbols are this language. We can speak truthfully about our inner lives to others through symbolism. I honestly believe that the symbols of the Bible are about the inner world as Nicoll seems to believe as well.

Is his overall interpretation entirely parsimonious? If we take a look at the examples in the Bible where stone is used, I do not think I can buy the interpretation of stone as a “literal” truth. I think some kind of “truth” may be represented symbolically though. And certainly, some kind of “foundation” seems to be symbolized. But it seems to be a sort of paradoxical foundation. It is often set up to be replaced by something better. Jesus says he will tear down the stones of a temple and replace them in three days at one point. And we can see by the story of the man who continually cuts himself with stone that stone can be harmful. It is Jesus who “cures” this man of his self-mutilating tendencies; he cuts himself with stone until a personal encounter with Jesus.

I simply do not buy “water” as being another type of truth. I think that water has to represent an aspect of a process and not a ‘thing in itself’: a sort of cleansing, for lack of better terminology. I think what might be critical here is that Bible symbolism may be meant to approximate a “process” that can be experienced. Maybe “water” represents an aspect of an experienced process that really cannot be explained very well. That is why we have the symbol in the first place. In any case, “water” as a symbol of a vague kind of truth does not strike me as being especially thorough or parsimonious. Water seems to represent a cleansing element or transitional element in an (inner) process. Wine simply has to represent a new incarnation, a re-birth, as it were, of a person as a type of new, “higher” being. Even Duquesne hits upon this.

Jesus talks about the concept of rebirth in the Gospels. I think, therefore, it is plausible to assert, as Nicoll does, that the turning of water into wine approximates what Jesus meant by rebirth. The turning of water into wine is a process being described, not a theological fact. Drunk in moderation, wine emotionally elevates a person. And in regard to positive or pro-social behavioral change, we are definitely dealing with a type of force akin to gravity and inertia which stops human change. When one is pleasantly drunk, he/she is more social, tolerant, forgiving, kind and joyous. This is the Christian ideal for life embodied in the drinking of wine.

To me, “stone” is the recognition that a certain type of behavior is problematic. One establishes that something is wrong. For example, petulance. Or the way a person responds to a malicious statement or action. We get a sense that our response is wrong and we construct a truth about it. “Returning evil for evil is wrong. The way I respond to malice is wrong. I do not have to become angry, I can remain at peace, I can be understanding and compassionate.” This is a true statement which becomes divorced from my personal reality; it is a statement devoid of life, a statement that can live outside of me. This is, to me, “stone”. (Take that interpretation as you will!)

One battles against his/her negative emotional responses due to the denial which inheres in all of us. When we strike back at someone cruel, dopamine floods our system and tells us we were right to act that way, we inherently deny we did anything wrong. The “stone” step, the development of categorical statements and judgments, is the first step toward overcoming our sense of denial toward many irrational responses we feel which we immediately categorize as right. But the “stone” stage can lead to another stage, the “water” stage. Perhaps this is the recognition that the statements we make and responses we feel in regard to our “wrong” behavior are temporarily useful but do not bring us the type of elevated being or life we would prefer. We want to reach a stage where we do not need to judge our actions, but can naturally respond in an unperturbed, pro-social manner. The “wine” stage is when we allow ourselves to effortlessly overcome the malignant in us, when we respond outside of denial and with real love and humanity.


Duquesne, Jacques, Jesus, An Unconventional Biography, Liguori, MO, Liguori Publications,


Finkelstein, Israel & Silberman, Neil A., The Bible Unearthed, New York, NY, Free Press, 2002

Helms, Randel, Bible Fictions, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 1988

Nicoll, Maurice, The New Man, Boulder, CO, Shambala, 1984

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