A quarry found near ancient Cana gives evidence that stone vessels in first-century Israel were a valued commodity for religious reasons, and it adds historical context to Jesus’ first recorded miracle at a wedding, say archaeologists and scholars familiar with the excavation.
The large subterranean cavern, uncovered in August 2016, is carved out of a chalkstone hillside south of the modern town of Kafr Kanna—one of two plausible sites for the Biblical town of Cana. The other major candidate for the site of old Cana—favored by most scholars today—is the town of Khirbet Qana, about four miles northwest of Kafr Kanna. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, is within a few miles of both towns.
The dig, at a site called Einot Amatai, is the first time a workshop where stone vessels were crafted has been found in the northern Israel region of Galilee. It gives evidence of a thriving trade in stone vessels, Biblical Archaeology Review wrote in a summary of the excavations. The project is sponsored by Ariel University, the University of Malta and the Biblical Archaeology Society. Yonatan Adler of Ariel University, the lead archaeologist on the dig, told the Arutz Sheva news outlet that the stone vessels were a daily part of the religious lives of first-century Jews who used the stone, rather than clay or glass, because according to Jewish law it could not become ritually impure.
Archaeologist Yitshak Magen wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review that most ritual purity laws were related to rites inside the Temple until the Second Temple period (538 B.C.-A.D. 70), when those laws were expanded to everyday Jewish life.
“It made sense to purchase a vessel that could not become unclean,” Magen said, “for once a vessel became ritually unclean, it had to be taken out of use. An impure pottery vessel, for example, had to be broken”—a practice prescribed in Leviticus 11:33.
While the excavation team doesn’t claim a connection to the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus turning water into wine during the wedding celebration at Cana, Adler says the findings show historical context.
“The evangelist [John] was clearly familiar with the fact that Jews were using stone vessels for ritual purposes,” Adler told Arutz Sheva. “It is certainly possible—perhaps even likely—that large stone containers of the type mentioned in the wedding at Cana story may have been produced locally in Galilee in a cave similar to the one we are now excavating.”
The Biblical account is specific about the volume of Jesus’ miracle: “Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece” (John 2:6).
The discovery of the quarry only strengthens the claims of historicity in the Gospel accounts, says Craig Keener, the Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and an expert in New Testament backgrounds.
“Certainly a first-century stone vessel factory near Cana would support the picture we have in John 2:6,” Keener told Decision. “Actually, much of John’s topography fits first-century conditions too well to be an accident.”
Keener added: “Scholars have long noted John’s correct knowledge of Jerusalem’s topography, despite the likelihood that John was writing more than two decades after Jerusalem’s destruction. This would offer another piece of information that illustrates how his accounts are consistent with local conditions, illustrations that in turn are consistent with our other evidence that this Gospel reflects genuine eyewitness memory of first-century events in the land in which the author followed Jesus.”
Daniel Warner, who holds the Bryant Chair of Archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, says the wedding celebration John describes likely would have drawn a significant crowd from the nearby villages. He said he favors Khirbet Qana, the site about four miles from Kafr Kanna, as the more likely site of Cana, but both places are in the same vicinity not far from Nazareth.
“It’s the Lord’s first miracle,” Warner says. “Six vessels. Do you think God would only have done one? One gets the idea He is saying, ‘Let me show you how it’s done!’”
According to the Biblical Archaeology Society, the site was discovered in 2001 with only preliminary findings. Last summer included the first full-scale excavations, with more scheduled for this August.
The Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.