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Cyril of Alexandria’s Exegesis of the Wedding at Cana

December 1, 2009

One of the problems with discussions about patristic exegesis is that it is so easy to stay at the level of generalities and never get into specific examples of what the fathers did when interpreting the Bible. In this post and the two that will follow it, I will take a brief look at three passages from Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on the gospel of John. Please feel free to weigh in with what you think is positive or negative about his exegesis.

The Wedding at Cana A typical example of Cyril’s exegetical method in which he displays his concerns for Christology and soteriology is his treatment of the wedding at Cana in John 2:1-12. Cyril begins by asking a question that would not even occur to most modern commentators – why would Jesus bother to go to a marriage feast? He answers that Jesus attended the wedding because he was invited, but, more significantly, he went to the wedding in order “to sanctify the very beginning of the birth of man.” That is, Jesus’ mission as the one who would recreate the human race was not simply to bless those persons already called into being, but also to bless those “soon to be born” through the marriage and to “make holy their entrance into being.” A yet further point relates to the marriage itself. Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, Cyril quotes the curse pronounced upon Eve in Genesis 3:16 – “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” As the one who came to redeem mankind, Jesus removed this curse of the Fall and in so doing honored marriage and erased the shame associated with childbearing. Jesus undertook this action because God has loved mankind and is the “Delight and Joy of all.” Finally, Cyril uses another text to drive home his point. The theme of the recapitulation of the human race in Jesus Christ is supported by Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature.[1]

Having stated the historical account of the text, Cyril begins his description of “what is therein signified,” that is, the spiritual meaning of the passage. He states the principle guiding his exegesis as “holy Scripture carries up language from human things to a meaning that is above us.” In other words, the language or ordinary human experience mirrors greater divine realities. The realities he has in mind are the description of Jesus as the bridegroom and human nature as the bride. Furthermore, the fact that the marriage occurred on the third day is significant, for “the number three gives us beginning, middle, end,” signifying the whole of time. It is for this reason that Christ was raised on the third day. Thus, Cyril uses the wedding “on the third day” in conjunction with several other texts (Hos 6:1-3; Gen 3:19; 1 Cor 15:20) to argue that on the third day Christ was raised from the dead and so “rendered all our nature whole, raising it from the dead in Himself.” Other elements in the passage also have spiritual significance. The fact that the miracle was performed in Cana of Galilee rather than in Jerusalem reveals that the Jews would reject Jesus, but that the Gentiles would gladly receive him. The lack of wine at the feast signifies the inability of the Mosaic law to bring perfection, and the fact that Jesus created wine even better than the first foreshadows the greater blessings of the gospel brought by Christ (relying also upon 2 Cor 3:6, a classic proof text of patristic exegesis). Finally, in Cyril’s exegesis the ruler of the feast becomes a type of the priesthood. Just as the ruler was given the wine first, so the priest should be supported by the church (relying also upon 2 Tim 2:6).[2]


[1]Cyril, Commentary on John, vol. 1, 155. 2 Cor 5:17 is a text that Cyril returns to often in his exegesis.

 

[2]Ibid., 157-58.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2009 6:27 am

    Interesting stuff, Matt. The mention of wine in John 2 early in Jesus’ ministry made me think of Mark 2:18-22. Also of significance is Cyril’s redeeming view of marriage. I imagine most people think the early church fathers on empahsize celibcy to the exclusion of marriage (per Augstine), but apparently not so for Cyril. I think what David Steinmetz said of medieval exegesis probably rings true for patristic exegesis: the levels of meaning discovered in exegesis flourished because they are true.

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