My Parish Priest made a point in his sermon this morning which stuck, even though it was a rather simple and obvious point. He pointed out that the reading from the Johannine Gospel this second Sunday in ordinary time, concerning Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine, is not called a miracle in John’s Gospel. In fact, while the Synoptics freely use the term miracles to describe events in Jesus’ ministry, John explicitly exchanges this word for the word ‘signs’.
The Greek word δύναμις is translated as miracle because it denotes mighty works, works done with power, especially supernatural power. The alternative term which the synoptics also use, and from which the hypothetical document behind John’s Gospel takes its name, (σημειον – Semeia), is found in the Synoptics as well. In the Synoptics one finds δύναμις as many as 38 times, whereas we find σημειον 31 times, implying that the Synoptics use the two words interchangeably. On the other hand, John has a clear preference for the word σημειον; where the word σημειον is found 17 times, the word δύναμις is found a grand total of zero times – John avoids using it even a single time.
John construes these actions of Jesus as signifying events. First, this seems congenial to the kind of symbolic epistemology proposed by Cardinal Avery Dulles in his book Models of Revelation. Second, if the Semeia source and/or John is careful to avoid construing these events as miracles, and instead wants to highlight and draw all our attention to the fact that they are signs, we should be careful to do the same. We should say that John presents the miracles of Jesus not as acts of supernatural power, but as signs – events which insinuate the truths they re-present. Symbols. Thus, we should call the Semeia source a source of the symbols of Jesus’ ministry.