Reading John’s Gospel, the story of the first miracle Jesus did still intrigues me. Jesus and his disciples had been invited to a wedding at Cana of Galilee, as had his mother and her other children. (Click on the map several times to enlarge it. To find Cana, look left from the Sea of Galilee.)
Here’s some interesting information about this little town, taken from the Ancient Sandals website.
Location and Setting
Two sites have been identified as the Cana of Jesus’ ministry:
(1) The traditional site is Kefr Kana, about four miles north-northeast of Nazareth on the road to Tiberias. There is no historical or other data that would support this location. Given the difficulty in reaching the other proposed site, there exists the strong possibility that this town was chosen for its easy access and its proximity to Nazareth.
(There are other examples of moving a site for the benefit of pilgrims and tourists. For instance: locating the feeding of the five thousand at Tabgha, rather than at Bethsaida as is recorded in the Gospels.)
(2) The more likely site of Cana is Khirbet Kana, nine miles north of Nazareth. There is clear evidence that the site was occupied from the early Roman to the Byzantine period. Further confirmation of this site comes from the historian Josephus, who at one time lived in Cana. It was at Jotapata, only two miles distance from Cana, that he was defeated by the Romans and surrendered to them. Local Arabs still refer to it as “Cana of Galilee.”
Cana was situated five miles northeast of Zippori (Sepphoris) and nine miles north of Nazareth. It was nestled against one of the hills of Lower Galilee overlooking the fertile Bet Netofa Valley.
Recent excavations at this site have provided evidence of a well-planned village with a number of cisterns that would ensure an adequate water supply. The town may have been located at the base of the hill because of the availability of water there.
The site was occupied from the early Roman period (from 63 B.C.) to the Byzantine period A.D. 334 – 639). This could mean that its founders were of the same group as the descendants of the Babylonian exiles who returned to Galilee during those years, including the families that established nearby Nazareth. Such a connection could account for Mary and her sons from Nazareth being present at a wedding in Cana and for Mary’s personal concern for the lack of wine on that occasion.
The Bet Netofa Valley, which lies between Cana and Nazareth, tends to be poorly drained. (i.e. swampy) (Today two large reservoirs of the National Water Carrier are located there.) The difficulty of travel across the valley probably limited contacts between the two towns.
The citizens of Cana apparently considered the small village of Nazareth, on the ridge across the valley, to be of little significance. It is understandable, then, that Nathanael, who presumably was born and raised in Cana, would wonder how any important person, especially Messiah, would come from Nazareth.
Historical and Biblical Significance
The Israelite of Cana in Whom There was No Guile
To understand the importance of the little village of Cana, we must understand one of its young citizens, Nathanael. In fact, if John had not mentioned him in the first and last chapters of his Gospel, we may never have heard of this out of the way town nestled against the southern hills of Upper Galilee.
Nathanael met Jesus at the Jordan River where John the Baptist was preaching about the kingdom and baptizing. A “domino effect” of spontaneous evangelistic encounters began when John and Andrew, fishermen from Capernaum, sought out Jesus to learn more about who He was and what He was preaching.
Convinced that He was, indeed, the Messiah, Andrew brought his brother Cephas (Peter) to Jesus. The next day Andrew located Philip, also from Bethsaida, and brought him to Jesus. Philip, in turn, sought out Nathanael from Cana, a small town twenty five miles west of Bethsaida to share about the new-found Messiah (John 1:35-45). These two future disciples had joined the crowds trekking down the Jordan Valley to hear John the Baptist preaching about a kingdom that “was at hand.”
Overcoming Nathanael’s initial skepticism about the likelihood of Messiah’s coming from Nazareth, Philip pressed on, urging him to “come and see” (John 1:46). He not only came and saw, he believed! Jesus had demonstrated that He knew what only God could know about a man He had never met.
His reaction to Jesus’ characterization of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile,” was spontaneous and sincere, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” Jesus, who had just demonstrated His knowledge of Nathanael’s thinking, went on to make an apparent allusion to Jacob (the Israelite in whom there was guile!), knowing that Nathanael was well taught in the Scriptures and would appreciate this reference (John 1:47-51). (If Nathanael became one of the Twelve, which is likely, he would have been Bartholomew, meaning, “son of Tolmai”).
Nathanael was surprised to learn that this Rabbi, whom he had just met, had grown up in a village only nine miles from his home in Cana. Apparently, Nathanael had never heard of Jesus before. His uninhibited outburst, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” probably embarrassed the others in the group. When Nathanael suddenly realized who Jesus was, however, he expressed his wonder in equally uninhibited terms, calling Him “the King of Israel!”
Probably to everyone’s surprise, when they returned to Galilee from Bethany Beyond Jordan, together with Peter, Andrew, and John, Jesus led them to Cana. Instead of continuing northward and on around the Sea of Galilee, then through Decapolis on the east, or passing Tiberias on the west, Jesus turned northwest at Scythopolis (old Beth-shan).
Through the Harod Valley, where Gideon had routed the Midianites, across the Plain of Megiddo (Esdraelon in Jesus’ day) they pressed northward, past Nazareth and across the swampy Bet Netofa Valley to Nathanael’s’ hometown.
Jesus’ First Miracle: Turning Water into Wine at Cana
Cana would become the site of Jesus’ first two miracles in Galilee. In the first, He would provide wine for a wedding (John 2:1-11). In the second, Jesus would heal a boy in Capernaum, home of John and James, twenty miles away on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, while remaining in Cana (John 4:46-54).
From Capernaum, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the first Passover of His public ministry (John 2:13-25). There, He evicted the moneychangers and others who were occupying the Court of the Gentiles, the only part of the Temple Mount that Gentiles could enter to worship. Here He performed His first public sign miracles. One evening He had a remarkable conversation with Nicodemus, a notable Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1-21).
After ministry with His disciples in Judea (John 3:22-30), He led them back to Galilee. To their surprise, He took the direct route up north on the old “Patriarch’s Highway” to those historic mountains, Ebal and Gerizim.
After two-days of cross-cultural evangelism and teaching among Samaritans (John 4:5-43), they continued northwards, probably passing through Ginae and then out onto the Plain of Megiddo. Perhaps they stopped in Nazareth on the way, then continued northward across the Bet Netofa Valley to Cana. If Jesus’ interest in this town had seemed unusual before, now His disciples would be doubly bewildered. This time, there was not even a wedding scheduled!
Jesus’ Second Miracle in Cana: Healing of an Officer’s Son (in Capernaum)
Meanwhile, an official of the court of Herod Antipas, who lived at Capernaum, was faced with an impending tragedy: his son was dying (46-49). The Galileans who had just returned from Passover had brought back amazing reports of how a Galilean Rabbi had healed people in Jerusalem (John 4:43-45). Although this Rabbi had left Capernaum for Jerusalem some weeks before, it became apparent that He was not going to return there.
When the official heard that the Healer had been seen on His way to Cana, he hurried there and waited for the Rabbi to arrive. John records the Capernaum-Cana connection, “He came therefore to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water to wine. And there was a certain royal official, whose son was sick at Capernaum” (John 4:46). When they met, the Servant of God and the servant of Herod, Jesus responded to the plea of the distraught father and healed his son in Capernaum.
In a scenario reminiscent of the water-to-wine miracle, Jesus simply said, “Go your way; your son lives” (John 4:50). In neither case was the miracle visible to the immediate audience, the water changing to wine and the son rising from his bed. As Jesus had demonstrated in His first miracle at Cana that He was Lord of time, now He showed that He was Lord of space. As He could create good wine in a moment, so He could reverse a fatal disease twenty miles away with a word!
Again, Jesus had chosen this little town of Cana, Nathanael’s home, in which He performed two very different, but significant signs. The first He did for the benefit of wedding guests who never knew who did it nor why; the second He did for a government official in Capernaum where he could not immediately see the result. There was a planned sequence in Jesus’ self-revelation, first to His disciples and then to the people of Capernaum, where He would soon be living.
Nathanael, a Witness to Peter’s Commissioning
Three years later, we find Nathanael, James, John, Peter, and Andrew still together (John 21:2). They were back in Galilee after the “week that changed the world” in Jerusalem. Still stunned by the trauma of the crucifixion and exhilarated by the joy of the resurrection, they were beginning to understand the words of Jesus’ prayer in the upper room the night before He died. Three nights later, He had repeated those profound words when He appeared in their midst, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21).
Jesus had told them to meet Him in Galilee (Matt 26:31,32). The women who came back from the tomb had reminded them of this important rendezvous (Matt 28:7). So here they were, near the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in a boat, in the early morning, with empty nets!
As John recorded the names of the crews of the two fishing boats, he mentioned the hometown of only one of them, “Nathanael of Cana in Galilee.” Why this reference to his home? Was it because that day at Cana was still so vivid in John’s memory, a half century later when he recorded this event?
John mentioned Cana when Nathanael met Jesus for the first time (John 1:45-51) and now, near the end of His ministry with them, he refers to it again (John 21:2). This device seems to connect the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry to His disciples. We are also left with a sense of the special significance of Cana and its one citizen we know by name, Nathanael.
Writing his Gospel in Ephesus a half-century later, among people who had never lived in the Land, John would need to mention that this Cana was the one in Galilee. But why mention Cana at all? John seems to have sensed the unique significance of Cana in Jesus’ ministry, and the unique role of its best-known citizen, the first to proclaim, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!”
* Bimson, John J., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Places. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.
* Rousseau, John J. and Rami Arav. Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.