Stone vessels were common in Judea for ritual purposes, since according to the Law of Moses stone would not become impure, unlike the often-used pottery of ancient times (Leviticus 6:28, 11:33-36). Additionally, running water or living water was considered pure, and collection of water in a stone cistern could be used for purification purposes (Leviticus 11:36, 15:13). This “living water” could be stored in a large stone water jar, which would function like a cistern holding ritually clean water, then later it could be used for purification. While the use of stone vessels is not apparent from the Hebrew Bible and must be implied, sources in the Mishnah make it clear that this was the understanding during the Roman period. During the 1st centuries BC and AD, purification rituals and stone vessels associated with this practice were extremely common in Judea and Galilee, since purification washing was a religious custom carried out frequently (John 2:6, 3:25; Mark 7:3-4). These stone vessels were made from a soft limestone, which is found throughout the region and easy to carve. The craftsmanship of the vessels varies widely, by hand or on a lathe, from crude and uneven to perfectly uniform with incised decoration. A few even contain inscriptions, such as a personal name or a chant. The archaeological evidence indicates that there was an industry for producing stone vessels during this period centered at Jerusalem, where the priests, festivals, and Temple necessitated more frequent use than other areas (Magen, “Jerusalem as a Center of the Stone Vessel Industry during the Second Temple Period”). In the houses of the elite, both bathtubs for regular washing and ritual baths for purification rituals have been discovered, demonstrating the distinctive uses. The primary purpose of these washing rituals was to become spiritually clean or holy, rather than physically clean. While the standard belief and practice was that stone vessels made or kept materials ritually pure, there were sects of Judaism that had slightly different ideas about the ritual purity of these vessels (The Temple Scroll; The Damascus Document). The Gospel of John records that the six stone water jars contained two or three measures each, suggesting that the six were of slightly varying size (John 2:6). Many of the stone vessels have been discovered all over the regions of Judea and Galilee from the 1st centuries BC and AD, and the large stone water jars have specifically been discovered in places such as Jerusalem and Cana. Yet, their general absence from Samaria and the predominantly Hellenistic and Roman areas of the region and their chronological distribution from the 1st century BC to their decrease in 70 AD and near disappearance after 135 AD further demonstrate their association with ritual in Judaism. The stone jars are often referred to as a krater or a kalal, which is an Aramaic word used to denote a large stone jar for ritual washing (Mishnah Parah 3:3 and Eduyot 7:5). These large jars were usually about 26 to 32 inches high and 16 to 20 inches in diameter, agreeing with the size variance stated by John of two to three metretas, which was about 9 gallons or 34 liters (Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains).
Both John and Mark included explanatory notes on Judean purity customs, since many readers from other cultures would be unfamiliar with these specific ritual practices. However, the main point of these sections was not to educate on ritual customs of Judaism, but to record significant events in the life of Jesus. In particular, the Gospel of John references the stone water jars and purification rituals in the context of the Cana wedding, where Jesus performed His first recorded miracle. Later in the Gospel of John, “living water” is mentioned multiple times. Jesus says in reference to eternal life that He gives living water, and those that drink of it will never again thirst (John 4:10-15; cf. John 7:38). Perhaps the stone water jars were used in the miracle as an earlier allusion to drinking the “living water” which Jesus would explain later. Beyond the obvious miracle of turning water into wine that authenticated Jesus as sent from God, there may also be a connection between drinking the wine that Jesus gave them at the wedding and the wine at the Last Supper. The wine, which represented the atonement on the cross through the blood of Jesus, was clearly used to foreshadow the death of Jesus on the cross during the Last Supper, then commemorated by drinking the wine representative of the blood of Jesus during the ritual of the Lord’s Supper in the early Church (Matthew 26:27-29; 1 Corinthians 11:25-26). Regardless of the validity of these possible meanings of the water and the wine at the Cana wedding, stone water jars were regularly used in purification rituals during the 1st century. Additionally, many vessels of this type have been discovered in Judea and Galilee, and drinking wine from jars used for ritual purification would have sent a powerful message of spiritual purification to those in attendance at the wedding.