Weatherhead’s Joke

The late Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976) thought he had identified a bit of humour in John’s account of the Wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). Weatherhead was a liberal and influential London Methodist minister who had, what most Bible-believing Christians would label, liberal and unorthodox beliefs: his view of Scripture as a human document, his denial of the virgin conception (apparently John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, impregnated Mary when she visited there (Luke 1:39-56), etc.

Liberal theologians being liberal shouldn’t surprise anyone—it is much like saying that, “water is wet.” What is noteworthy, however, is the extent to which this skepticism (regarding the miraculous in the Bible) will sidestep and ignore the clearest reading of a text. Consider the story in John about the wedding in Cana, when Jesus turns water into wine:

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:1–11, ESV)

As a bit of background: to run out of wine during a several-day-long wedding feast is a horrible faux-pas. It simply isn’t done, and lawsuits against the bridegroom were not unheard of if the wedding feast failed in this way. This was a social disaster.

Now the joke that Weatherhead sees in this was published in a sermon in 1944. Leon Morris, in his commentary on John (1971-1995) writes,

“See, for example, Leslie D. Weatherhead, It Happened in Palestine (London, 1944), pp. 43–44. Weatherhead imagines the scene: “The wine runs out. Water is served. Why, that’s the best joke of all! They lift their wine-cups, as we do in fun when we shout, ‘Adam’s ale is the best of all.’ The bridegroom is congratulated by the master of ceremonies, who carries the joke farther still. ‘Why you’ve kept the best wine until now.’ It requires only a servant going through the room into the kitchen for a wonderful rumour to start” (pp. 50–51).

Now the reader has probably figured out by now that Adam’s Ale is slang for water. What Weatherhead is getting at is that Jesus defused a tense situation with joke, but by no means a miracle.

Why could he not accept the natural reading of the text and see in it a simple miracle? Because by the mid-20th century it had been determined, supposedly by science, that a miracle simply could not have happened as reported. Another explanation must be found, because we all now know that miracles are unscientific. Turning water into wine is an impossibility according to the known facts of chemistry.

I would agree that miracles are not scientific, but that can never mean that the event did not occur in reality; that is, in space and time. The nature of science and miracle will be subjects that have to wait for another blog post.

But being a child of his generation, Weatherhead believed that science = fact and unscientific = an interesting story, a myth.

Thus passed the hope for the long-term survival of the Methodist church as a robust body of believers that could survive long into the 20th century. There was no Jenny Geddes (it was then, 1600-1660) to throw a three-legged stool at the good Reverend Weatherhead and thus knock some sense into him.

The anti-punch line for his joke is this: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11, ESV). According to Weatherhead we are not to believe that Jesus could change water into wine (because chemistry says it is impossible) but we are to believe that a joke manifested Christ’s glory and caused His disciples to believe in Him.

This raises an important question: “If Jesus did not (because He could not) turn water into wine, what do we make of the even greater non-scientific miracles our Lord performed?” Think of two completely non-scientific and supernatural miracles in Scripture that our salvation depends upon: Genesis 1:1 and John 20, the creation of everything and Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

In order for a relatively small event as supernatural winemaking without a permit to be denied, we have to understand that the same logic can and will be turned against creation and the resurrection.

This hits home, because when I was in my first year of Bible college, a relative, who was at the time a pastor with a liberal bent, challenged me as to the historicity of Jonah. I’m not sure how we came to discuss that book, except perhaps I mentioned that one of my professors had written his dissertation at Johns Hopkins on Jonah (that should have been a warning flag for my relative).

In my youth and naivety, I responded, “If we believe God can’t use a great fish to get Jonah to where he needed to go, how can we believe that God could raise Christ from the dead?”

That answer worked for me because I am not a skeptic. This is the kind of answer that needs to be supplied to part-time skeptics, who claim to believe in the less miraculous parts of the Bible but who stumble over events that must be seen as supernatural.

Those who don’t believe at all aren’t helped by my argument at all—they remain skeptical of Creation to Resurrection and everything in between. But what I want to do is use this line of reasoning as a tool to ward off skepticism in believers who should know better.

Doubtful: “Do you really believe Jesus walked on water?”

Me: “Of course! If our salvation depends on the resurrection (and it does–1 Corinthians 15:12-19), how can we stumble over something of less significance? The same reasoning that finds another cause for a miracle (other than the plain text) will be used to deny Creation itself and the Resurrection.”

The danger of selective skepticism is that if we follow it, we will someday be talking not of a real, factual, historical resurrection of Christ but rather of a Christ-event. A Christ-event is theology-speak for, “Something significant happened but we’re not sure what it was, other than it wasn’t a resurrection as described in all four Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15!” Follow this and you’ll be getting time on the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Special at Easter when the “real” event of the resurrection is revealed.

And that is a joke.

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