This blog entry discusses some of the clearly deliberate parallels made by the author of the Gospel of John to the god Dionysos (Bacchus to the Romans). These are additions I will be inserting into the commentaries of The Gospel of John, which is my recently published restoration of the original text of that work. You will find ordering information here. I welcome feedback on this and all blog posts!
In reference to the miracle of the water-turned-wine at Cana:
To any first-century reader this miracle would have been clearly meant to cast Jesus not just as like Dionysos, but even as superior to him. Didorus Siculus (Library of History, 3:66) and Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 2:106) both mention springs of water, at locations sacred to Dionysos, that on festival days would miraculously produce wine. One of these is known from Corinth in the fifth century B.C.E. (Campbell Bonner: “A Dionysiac Miracle at Corinth”, Am. Journal of Archæology 33 ). Pausanius (Description of Greece, 6:26) tells of another from Ellis, saying that during one Dionysian festival the priests would seal three empty jars within the temple in the presence of the local citizens, and in the morning they would be filled with wine. Jesus here performs a similar miracle in the presence of the locals, but he outdoes the miracle of Ellis with six jars, not three, and instantaneously.
In reference to Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate:
Dionysos like Jesus was put on trial before a hardhearted ruler determined to maintain control over the people despite the rise of an ecstatic new cultus; indeed, the names are quite similar: Pentheus and Pontius. Jesus, like Dionysos in Bacchæ, by Euripides, also sees the ruler
ὃς θεομαχεῖ τὰ κατ᾽ ἐμὲ καὶ σπονδῶν ἄπο
ὠθεῖ μ᾽, ἐν εὐχαῖς τ᾽ οὐδαμοῦ μνείαν ἔχει.
ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ αὐτῷ θεὸς γεγὼς ἐνδείξομαι
πᾶσίν τε Θηβαίοισιν.
…as one who struggles against God, pushing off
Any concord with me. His prayers have none of me.
Thus I will show him that I am God,
And all Thebes as well.
In both Euripides’s play and the gospel the two engage in a deep conversation on godhead, power, revolution, and the nature of truth. In the myth, Dionysos is killed and then resurrected from the dead by his father-god Zeus (or Jupiter, a name that carried Jewish implications; it at least sounded to Jews as הי-Πατερ, Yah-Pater, God the Father, and may in fact even have come from such linguistic roots). His dévotés communed with him by ingesting bread and wine said to have been transubstantiated into his sacred flesh and blood.
In the religions of Dionysos and Demeter and in the Mystery Religions of Inanna and Cybele, among others, the consort of the Goddess, made by her the Shepherd of the Land (cf. John 10:1-16), is publicly humiliated, stripped, and beaten (cf. John 19:1-5), and then killed, in some versions as an expiation for the sins of the people and in others for continued fertility. In most versions of this archetypal myth he comes to life again.
In reference to the miracle of the seeds turning into fruiting plants, from the Egerton papyrus:
As with the miracle at Cana, with which this event forms an inclusio, there is an implication here of the Dionysian cultus that would have been immediately apparent to any first-century reader. Dionysos is often associated with this kind of miracle. In the seventh of the Homeric Hymns, for instance, he reveals his godliness to the Tyrrhenian pirates by causing grape vines to grow around the mast, already heavy with fruit. Sophocles, in Thyestes, speaks of the holy vine growing and fruiting within a single day, and Euphorion explains that this miracle was caused by Dionysos’s worshippers executing cultic dances and singing choral hymns (Fragmenta, 118). Similar miracles took place in several other places, most notably at Parnassus, according to Walter Otto in his book Dionysus.
In reference to Jesus speaking of the greater dimension beyond this physical universe as the Æon:
Æonia is a name for part of the ancient Greek land of Bœotia, including the mountains Helicon and Cithæron that were sacred to the Muses. This bucolic region is the birthplace of Semele, the mother of Dionysos, who died and lived again like Jesus, and who was remembered with a sacred meal of bread and wine. Semele’s father, the hero and ruler Cadmus, introduced the Greek alphabet, and abdicated in favor of his grandson Pentheus, who is the equivalent to Pontius Pilate; sought as ruler to outlaw the ecstatic religion of Dionysus, and in his trial of the god, as related by Euripides, the two have a profound philosophical discussion reminiscent of the one between Jesus and Pilate.
All of this would be well known to the amanuensis of this volume, John the Presbyter. He was a Greek, associated by Eusebius with the city of Ephesus, and tradition suggests the gospel was composed there; John also received a vision while on the island of Patmos that became his Book of Revelation. John may have known Æonia from his travels, or even originally have been from there (nothing more than what has just been said is known about his life). In writing about the Æon he may have pictured the Æonian hills, what Milton called those “Fortunate fields and groves and flowery vales, Thrice happy isles” (Paradise Lost, III, 568). Elysium, the “Elysian Fields”, the after-death abode of the blessed, was found according to the classical Greek authors to the west, fronting the sea, which could be based on Bœotia, which faces out toward the expanse of the western Mediterranean.
Whether or not he had seen it, the highly literate John the Presbyter surely knew from his reading the glorious depictions of this land in Homer, Pindar, and Virgil. And therefore a land associated with life after death, a land celebrated not just in literature but for the very birth of literature (its mountains sacred to the Muses and the introduction of writing) would be significant to him. Nor would he have overlooked the connections between two spiritual mountains (Helicon and Cithæron, and Sinai and Gerizim), Semele and Mary mother of Jesus, Pentheus and Pontius, and most of all Dionysos son of Jupiter, הי-Πατερ, Yah-Pater, God the Father, and Jesus, son of God the Father.