At a wedding in Cana, sometime in the first century, Jesus turned water into wine. At least, so it says in the Gospel of John. This was the first of Jesus’ public miracles. The story runs that after the wine had run out, Jesus ordered the servants to fill six water jars full of water. They obeyed. The servants were then directed to draw from the jugs and serve up a mugful to one of the attendees. Upon taking a sip, the attendee proclaimed ‘ you have kept the good wine until now!’
If taken allegorically, the story is probably intended to remind us to trust in Jesus even in hardship, or to remember that while this life may end, the “good wine” of the hereafter is yet to be poured, or something along those lines.
If taken literally, the story means one of two things:
(1) Jesus, by some supernatural means, converted water into wine.
(2) The water became (or apparently became) wine by some natural process.
If (1) is true, then Jesus must have had some kind of supernatural powers. If (2) is true, then Jesus was some kind of trickster. Now, there are plenty of Bible bashers who take the first option to be the obvious choice. I would like to propose, however, that there may be a way to explain how Jesus performed the feat with the tools available to him in his day.
Hero of Alexandria (circa. 10—70AD) was a Greek polymath and inventor, who is most famous for having devised the first working steam engine. (He also invented the first vending machine!). In his treatise Pnuematica, Hero describes a trick jug into which one could pour water, and out of which one could proceed to pour wine. The trick depends on a secret divider within the vessel, separating a wine compartment from a water compartment. He says of the vessel:
“We may also pour in the water first, and then, stopping the vent, pour wine upon it, so as to pour out wine for some, wine and water for others, and mere water for those whom we wish to jest with” (§8)
Whether wine or water flows depends on whether one holds one’s thumb over a vent while pouring. It’s a great little gimmick. Here’s a diagram of the jug I borrowed from Bennet Woodcroft’s 1851 edition of Pneumatica:
Although it is unlikely that Jesus would have acquired six of these bloody fancy magic trick jugs, it is less unlikely than the hypothesis that he really turned the water into wine supernaturally.
Might Jesus have been a magician, using cheap conjuring tricks for personal benefit? He would not be the first holy man to do so. Consider Sai Baba, pictured performing a miracle below. He is believed by millions to have been an incarnation of Vishnu. Using simple palming, he enthralls vast crowds of faithful followers—incredibly, he can even materialize watches too (replete with country of origin stamps)!