Jesus Turns Water into Wine
Detail from “The Marriage Feast at Cana,” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (c. 1672)
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson February 6-12: John 2-4
In John 2:1-11 we read the story of Jesus turning water into wine: “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.”
We can think of John as the “clean-up hitter” of the four gospels and his gospel as, apparently written after the other three, synoptic gospels, filling in some of the gaps left out by the other writers. John, for whatever reason, is the only gospel describing this miracle. He apparently included it in his account of the Savior’s life because it was the “beginning of [Christ’s] miracles.”
This miracle, in my opinion, is one of the toughest to take on from a scientific perspective. There are at least four possible explanations for this miracle: first, this was simply a magic trick in which people only thought the water was turned to wine; second, the guests at the wedding were in some way brainwashed into thinking they were drinking wine, when actually they only were drinking water; third, this was an alchemical manipulation in which water was transmuted into wine; fourth, there was some other, as yet unknown, chemical process or processes involved.
We are told on the website: sciencenotes.org/water-into-wine-or-blood-chem-demo that, “Magicians and chemistry teachers know how to turn water into wine or blood. Of course, this is simply a chemical reaction that causes a clear liquid to turn pink or red.” The way the “trick” is done is to have water in one glass and a second, empty glass. Sprinkle a little bit of sodium carbonate into the bottom of the empty glass. Add about 15 drops of a phenolphthalein solution (a pH indicator that turns red in the presence of a basic solution – pH above 8 or so) to the water in the first glass. There will be no color change because the water in the glass usually has a neutral pH or is slightly acidic. Then simply pour the clear water containing the phenolphthalein from the first glass into the empty second glass containing the sodium carbonate powder. Swirl the liquid around in the glass to dissolve the sodium carbonate and watch the contents miraculously change from clear water to red “wine.” Of course, the water, although red, will not taste like wine.
Another way to magically change the water into wine would be to do a switch of the six water pots for six identical pots containing wine. Of course, such a switch would require a lot of advance notice and preparation – and have the secret cooperation of the servants. I don’t believe that Jesus’ miracles were cheap magic tricks – or even elaborate magic tricks. Furthermore, I don’t believe that any of Christ’s miracles involved some sort of hypnosis wherein, in this case, the guests at the wedding were in some way brainwashed into thinking they were drinking wine, when actually they only were drinking water. That leaves propositions three and four.
Alchemy was in its early phases during Christ’s lifetime. The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus, were probably written in Alexandria during the first century AD and perhaps contained the writings of people such as Bolus of Mendes and Mary the Jewess dating from the third century BC into the first century AD.1 However, it is not clear how much, if any, alchemical knowledge had reached Judea from Egypt by the first century. Probably most of the “alchemical” explanation of the water-to-wine miracle, which is probably still the leading explanation today, has come from more “advanced” medieval alchemical ideas.
The basic philosophy of alchemy is that there are four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, and that the interactions between them can be shown as four lines connecting the four nodes. For example, the line between water and air is called “wet” and the line between water and earth is called “cold.” Because grapes grow in the earth, they would be somewhere close to “earth” node along the “cold” line between water and earth. Wine, therefore, would be closer along that “cold” line toward “water.” Changing water to wine, then, would be a matter of pushing water toward the “earth” node along the cold line until it became wine. The procedures for making such “pushes” were the secrets of alchemy, and ultimately brought about the rise of modern chemistry. The problem with this alchemical model is that we now know that there are not just four elements and not just four interactions. Furthermore, alchemy simply does not work as understood by the alchemists.
A major problem with understanding the water-to-wine miracle from a scientific perspective is that I have never heard of or seen even any guesses as to what might have happened that day in Cana aside from various versions of the three explanations outlined above. In fact, when I first selected this topic a couple of weeks ago for my essay this week, my original plan was to quote Brigham Young and James Talmage and then simply say “I have no idea how this miracle occurred.”
Many people, in writing about Christ’s miracles, and this one in particular, have quoted those two famous statements. On 11 July 1869, President Brigham Young stated, “Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant — that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this — they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings.”2
Thirty years later, in his book, The Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principal Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, first published in 1899, Elder James E. Talmage said, “Miracles are commonly regarded as supernatural occurrences, taking place in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable. However, as human understanding of these laws is at best but imperfect, events strictly in accordance with natural law may appear contrary thereto. The entire constitution of nature is founded on system and order; the laws of nature, however, are graded... The application of a higher law in any particular case does not destroy the efficacy or validity of an inferior one; the lower law is as fully applicable as before to the case for which it is framed.”3
Brigham Young also stated, “It is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law. It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author.”4
In 1891, Elder Parley P. Pratt stated in his book, Key to the Science of Theology, “Among the popular errors of modern times, an opinion prevails that miracles are events which transpire contrary to the laws of nature, that they are effects without a cause. If such is the fact, then, there never has been a miracle, and there never will be one. The laws of nature are the laws of truth. Truth is unchangeable, and independent in its own sphere. A law of nature never has been broken. And it is an absolute impossibility that such law ever should be broken.”5
Today, the Bible Dictionary states, “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power. Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher.”6
My original plan was to leave off the discussion here, as has been the case for most other authors who have written about this issue. But then, in the process of conducting the background research for this essay, I came across this statement by a person calling himself or herself “Bored in Vernal,” “…I wonder if we are beginning to give up that rhetoric [that miracles do not violate natural laws] in favor of a more supernatural approach. Don’t you think, if we really thought miracles could be understood, that we’d study about them in an attempt to discover the natural law behind that miracle? Don’t you think, if miracles had a natural basis, that with our increasing scientific knowledge we would begin to see how some of the miracles of the past were accomplished? Are we any closer to being able to totally control the physical world and produce at will whatever we choose? But we aren’t even asking God to show us those eternal principles.”7
After reading that post, I thought about my fourth proposed explanation listed above, that “there was some other, as yet unknown, chemical process or processes involved.” Here’s the challenge in making wine, it is typically composed of about 86% water and 12% ethanol – that’s about 98% of the total. Half of the rest (1%) is polysaccharides, which gives wine it’s sweetness; about 0.4% is organic acids, which give wine its tartness; and the rest (0.6%) is polyphenols, minerals etc., which give wine its bouquet.8 For the purposes of this discussion, I am only going to deal with the water and ethanol.
Water has the formula H2O, whereas ethanol has the formula C₂H₆O. So the main problem here is finding a source of the carbon (C) in the formula. After conducting a number of experiments, beginning in 1772, French scientist Antoine Lavoisier identified carbon as a specific element and gave it its name in 1779.9 He also proposed that ethanol was a compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Then in 1808, Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure determined ethanol's chemical formula.10 So before the late eighteenth century, no one knew about carbon or its association with ethanol.
We now know that carbon is produced in giant or supergiant stars through the nearly simultaneous collision of three helium nuclei (2 protons each) to form a carbon nucleus (6 protons) via nuclear fusion at temperatures of over 100 megakelvins – 100,000,000 degrees Kelvin – or 180,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit.11
It turns out that alchemists were right after all – humans can transmute elements from one to another – the problem with alchemy is that they did not have hot enough fires (iron melts at about 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit, which was about all the temperature alchemists could generate). Just two months ago, on 5 December 2022, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California (between San Francisco and Modesto), aimed an array of 192 lasers at a tiny cylinder holding a pellet of frozen deuterium and tritium, heavier, isotopic forms of hydrogen, and pulled the trigger. The lasers fired 2.05 megajoules of energy at the pellet. The temperature of the mass shot up to 5,400,000 degrees Fahrenheit – temperatures and pressures intense enough to cause the hydrogen nuclei to give off a billionth of a second blast of 3.15 megajoules of energy and fuse into helium nuclei.12
In order for scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to produce carbon from nuclear fusion, it would require temperatures thirty three times that of the December fifth experiment and sixty four thousand times the temperature required to melt iron. So even though alchemists were on the right path, they were, at best, only one sixty four thousandth of the way to turning water into wine. It is therefore, in my opinion, highly unlikely that Christ produced a blast of heat and energy great enough to fuse hydrogen, and then helium, into carbon to make the ethanol, without blowing the house and all of Cana sky high. There must be some alternative explanation.
I believe two things concerning this story: first, I believe it’s true; I believe that Christ did indeed and in fact turn water into wine; second, I believe that this was not some cheap magic trip, or even a very expensive magic trick, or some delusion of the people at the wedding. I also believe that some day, maybe not for one hundred years, but some day we will know how that water was changed to wine. I fully agree with “Bored in Vernal” that, because miracles have a natural basis, “…with our increasing scientific knowledge we…[will some day] begin to see how some of the miracles of the past were accomplished.” You might think Vernal is boring – try growing up in Idahome, Idaho, population twenty and a suburb of Malta. About all there was to do there was think – and I learned to think outside the box – so that’s what I am going to do now.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, the professor who taught my Theoretical Developmental Biology course told us that if we planned to get into the business of unveiling scientific theory, we should expect to be wrong at least half the time. I think he was being very generous; I think someone advancing scientific theory should expect to be wrong the vast majority of the time. But that is exactly how scientific progress works. I will give a notable example from the past. In 1865, Jules Verne wrote a novel entitled, De la Terre à la Lune, Trajet Direct en 97 Heures 20 Minutes (From the Earth to the Moon: A Direct Route in 97 Hours, 20 Minutes). In his book, he got almost everything wrong. His first mistake was to propose the construction of a cannon capable of shooting a projectile to the Moon – rockets were largely only small amusements at the time. He also slightly miscalculated the time required to reach the moon: 97 hours and 20 minutes. What he did get right was that one hundred four years later, 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong would be the first human to set foot on the moon – after a trip of four days, six hours and 45 minutes. Verne miscalculated the travel time by only four hours and 49 minutes – quite remarkable.
Given that introduction, here is my wild guess as to what happened in Cana nearly two thousand years ago. I will first quote from the book I wrote in 2020, The Infinite Creation: Unifying Science and Latter-day Saint Theology (Cedar Fort Publishing). “[Lee] Billings pointed out that Johnathan Feng and Jason Kumar, at UC Irvine, have shown that there may be, ‘…a hypothetical class of particles…[part of] a hidden realm of the universe filled with varieties of dark particles interacting with one another through a suite of dark forces, perhaps exchanging dark charges through bursts of dark light.’13 This proposal sounds a lot like the beginnings of a periodic table of ‘dark particles.’ It also sounds a lot like what Joseph Smith described for spirit matter back in 1843. (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8) Billings quoted David Spergel, of Princeton University as saying, ‘With the dark sector, you’re free to invent almost whatever you want…the space of available models is huge. It’s a playground where we don’t know what the right choices are – we now need more hints from nature about where to go next.’”14
Suppose that that periodic table of dark matter actually exists and is parallel to the one for regular matter – then there would be “dark” carbon among that dark matter and dark ethanol associated with regular ethanol through a quantum process known as entanglement. There would have been at least two sources of carbon in the room in Cana: carbon in the small amounts of wine left in the empty wine jars and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. The formula for converting CO2 and H2O into ethanol (C₂H₆O) is 2CO2 + 3H2O = C₂H₆O + 2O2. That looks like a very simple reaction but it is not. That reaction would require a huge amount of energy input – nowhere near the amount required to make carbon from helium, but a lot. However, there may be two ways to overcome that hurdle. First, perhaps the dark ethanol available could function as a catalyst/template to lower the activation energy for the reaction. Second, there is an enormous amount of dark energy available in the universe. There is three times as much dark energy as dark matter in the universe, and over ten times the amount of dark energy compared to regular matter. If that energy could be tapped into then an energetically demanding reaction such as 2CO2 + 3H2O = C₂H₆O + 2O2 could be possible. I’m sure that I’m completely wrong – or nearly so – but maybe one hundred four years from now, someone will have at least taken these crazy ideas and moved us closer to tapping into dark matter and dark energy – and explaining the scientific basis of the miracle at Cana and the higher laws involved.
1. Martelli, Matteo, The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus. Sources of Alchemy and Chemistry: Sir Robert Mond Studies in the History of Early Chemistry; Ambix, vol. 60, suppl. 1; Maney Publishing/Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, Leeds, England, 2013
2. Young, Brigham, Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, pp. 140-141, 1869
3. Talmage, James E., The Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principal Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1899, The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah; gutenberg.org/cache/epub/42238/pg42238-images.html#Page_222; retrieved 29 January 2023
4. Young, Brigham, Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, pp. 302, 1870
5. Pratt, Parley P., Key to the Science of Theology, 1891, reprinted by Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1965
6. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/miracles?lang=eng; retrieved 29 January 2023
7. Bored in Vernal; New Testament Sunday School Lessons, Science and Religion, Miracles and Natural Law; wheatandtares.org/2011/02/27/miracles-and-natural-law/; retrieved 29 January 2023
8. Nemzer, Boris et al., Chemical Composition and Polyphenolic Compounds of Red Wines: Their Antioxidant Activities and Effects on Human Health—A Review, Beverages 2022, 8, 1-18
9. chemicool.com/elements/carbon.html; retrieved 30 January 2023
10. cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/e/Ethanol.htm; retrieved 30 January 2023
11. Audi, Georges et al., The NUBASE evaluation of nuclear and decay properties, Nuclear Physics A. 624: 1–124, 1997
12. Greshko, Michael, Scientists achieve a breakthrough in nuclear fusion. Here’s what it means, National Geographic, December 13, 2022
13. Billings, Lee, In the Dark about Dark Matter, Scientific American, pp 14-16, October 2016
Trent Dee Stephens
Join me for my weekly discussions of Where Science Meets Religion – 6 PM each Thursday at the Century Ward meeting house (at 4th and Fredregill, Pocatello). I also will be Zooming the sessions: Meeting ID: 935 754 2152 Passcode: nka