Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand, so we resort to using commentaries to help us. Along with this is often the viewpoint that if someone wrote a commentary, they must know what they’re talking about. So what do we do when we have two commentaries that disagree on an issue or topic? Take a look at the following excerpts from two commentary sets, both published by Broadman and Holman, a well known evangelical publisher.

“2:9–10. John carefully drew the narrative to indicate that the master tasted the wine and, probably much to the amazement of the trembling servants, pronounced it the best of the evening. Many interpreters have pondered whether Jesus created intoxicating wine, and arguments have been raised on both sides. The word oinos is of no help since it is used for both intoxicating and non-intoxicating wine.”

Gangel, K. O. (2000). (Holman Commentary) John (Vol. 4, p. 31). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

“Jesus’ making wine in this case has caused some readers another major problem. One of my sons once returned from a class and informed me that Jesus made nonalcoholic wine in this story. His teacher also had informed him that the Greek word for the drink here meant nonalcoholic grape juice. It serves no purpose for evangelicals to twist the Greek language for the sake of their ethical opinions because such an argument cannot be sustained from Greek.”

Borchert, G. L. (1996). (New American Commentary) John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 157). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

So which one is right? Well, there are some simple ways to figure it out:

  1. Check a multitude of sources. “Out of the mouths of two or three witnesses let the truth be known” is a really good rule of thumb when looking at differing interpretations of the Bible. Please be careful with sources you find on the Internet, not all sources are equal, and frankly, there is a lot of garbage theology that comes up from a Google search.
  2. Keep an open mind but think critically. Don’t gravitate toward one opinion simply because it agrees with you. Realize that even well-meaning people repeat something that they believe to be true even though it’s not. Understand both the biases of the person you are reading and your own.
  3. Don’t be lazy. Whether or not you know Greek, you do know English (yes, I am giving many of you the benefit of the doubt). Using a tool like Net Bible will allow you to look up all the English word equivalents and with a little bit of additional work, it will even show you the Greek. See what God’s word has to say.
  4. Learn a language. Yeah, I know this isn’t really simple, but for some of us, it is necessary. Someone I worked with told me that I was the only “Pollock they ever met from Missouri”. If I can’t see something for myself, it is never really real for me. The pastor who mentored me would routinely use phrases like “a better translation would be this” or “this word really means” which left me frustrated since I couldn’t see it for myself. So, I spent a year of my life learning Greek and when I did, he stopped using it. It wasn’t that he was trying to be deceitful, but those phrases gave his preaching an air of authority and he was simply repeating what he had read in a commentary. When I tried to discuss the actual grammar with him, he really didn’t understand the points I was trying to make. Take my word for it: learning a language is hard, and staying fluent in that language is even more difficult. Many people who learn a language (myself included) let their fluency lapse because of time constraints in our busy schedules.

Which of the commentaries is correct? The second one. I have a long history with this debate. For almost 10 years I taught a Pastor’s Sunday school class using the approved Southern Baptist curriculum and twice a year we would receive lessons proving unequivocally that Christians should abstain from alcohol in all forms. Each time I used that as a lesson on how not to handle God’s word. There are many reasons for personal abstinence from alcohol, a prohibition by the Bible is not one of them (unless, of course, you’re a Nazirite). In fact, the first commentator went on to point out that no matter how drunk the wedding party was, they would’ve noticed the switch from alcoholic wine to non-alcoholic wine (otherwise known as grape juice). Instead, the master of the feast praised the quality of the wine that Jesus had created. Additionally, there is a quote below from a Greek English dictionary (lexicon), which points out that the word in Greek refers to a fermented beverage and there is another word for non-fermented.

“οἶνος, ου, ὁ (Hom.+; inscr., pap., LXX, Philo; Jos., Ant. 3, 279al.; Test. 12 Patr.) wine, normally the fermented juice of the grape (cf. Hastings, Dict. of the Bible 1899, 2, 33f); the word for ‘must’, or unfermented grape juice, is τρύξ (Anacr.+; pap.). “

Arndt, W., Gingrich, F. W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (1979). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (p. 562). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Our goal when we study the Bible should be to set aside our preconceptions and biases, letting God’s word inform our beliefs and opinions. In other words, we should let God’s word change us, instead of us trying to change God’s word. By the way, Bobby did an excellent job handling this section during his Sunday morning message and I will always remember “Partying Jesus”.

Terry Poperszky