The Mythical, Depth Psychological, and Spiritual Dimensions of Jesus’s Healings

A central aspect of the New Testament gospels is the miraculous healings that Jesus reportedly performed. Indeed, these healings constitute a large majority of his miracles, so they must have been especially important to the authors of the gospels. As we shall see, the healing stories were meant to make theological points. But more broadly they help paint a picture of what a person’s spiritual life should be like, and how a society made up of such people would look. Futher, the principles involved intersect nicely with modern depth psychology and the spiritual principles associated with it. Applying these principles does heal people. In these times of a pandemic that has isolated many people and sparked controversies, it is timely to examine what Jesus’s healing stories have to offer us here in the modern world, even to non-Christians.

       Jesus’s Healings as Myth

By any definition of myth, the healing stories are mythical in character. They were developed and upheld as important within the Christian community, involved divine forces and figures, and used symbols to convey important truths to Christians and prospective converts. We can’t really know to what extent the stories may be historical, but for our purposes their historicity is not important. What matters is the truths that the myth is designed to convey, so we must work with the myth. Indeed, for purposes of psychological healing, Carl Jung considered Christian mythology to be the most important body of myth for people in the West, because it forms part of our own cultural tradition and personal experience. That is, the Christian myth, when interpreted as myth and from the perspective of depth psychology, can still be effective for us in the present day.

            Theological Truths of the Healing Stories

Some of the healing stories, especially in the Gospel of John, are designed to establish Jesus’s divinity and his identity as the son of God. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), an overriding theme is the connection between the healings and what these gospels call the “kingdom of God.” Further, physical healing is always linked with spiritual healing and salvation.

The Role of Faith

In many if not most of the healing stories, the person’s faith in Jesus is said to have led to the cure (e.g., Mk 5:34; Mk 10:52; Lk 17:19). Jesus does not claim personal credit for the miracle. Rather, once the afflicted person has faith, it is the power of God operating through Jesus and within the afflicted person that does the job. It is the personal experience of Jesus’s divine presence that leads a person to take this leap of faith and be receptive to healing.

A person’s faith in Jesus was often said to have laid the basis for the healings. Thus, the afflicted person played a key role in being healed.

The Apocalyptic Kingdom of God

It is important to place the healings into their historical and theological context, which in Synoptic Gospels is Jewish apocalyptic thought and myth (Ehrman; Schnelle, 127). According to Jewish apocalypticism during the time of Jesus, the current world was viewed as evil, run by evil people and forces. But soon God, acting in concert with the Messiah, would intervene and overturn this order. The evildoers would be judged and perish, while the remaining good people would live happily in a kingdom of God on earth. According to the gospels, Christ, having returned, would rule this kingdom. In the kingdom there would be no evil, no death, no illness, no hunger, no injustice, and so forth. It was thought of as a restoration of the ideal cosmos that God had originally created (Schnelle, 127-28). There would also be a general resurrection of the dead, so that they too could be judged; the evildoers would perish, and the good people would live again, in the kingdom of God. 

The healing miracles of Jesus correspond to and are meant to help realize this apocalyptic vision, indicating that the kingdom of God is not only imminent, but is beginning to be realized. (Biblical scholars call this idea “realized eschatology.”) Thus, there will be no illness in the kingdom, so Jesus cures diseased, blind, mute, and deaf people. There will be no hunger in the kingdom, so Jesus miraculously feeds the hungry multitudes. There will be no death in the kingdom, so Jesus raises the dead. Jesus’s own resurrection also fits into this vision; Paul called Christ’s resurrection the “first fruits” of the general resurrection (1 Cor 15:20, 23). The pattern is likewise in healing through exorcism: In the kingdom there will be no evil because Satan will have been defeated. The demons in people are Satan’s minions, so the exorcisms are the beginning of the downfall of Satan and the evil forces that rule the world.

In a story told in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus explains this connection between his healings and the coming of the kingdom. When John the Baptist (an apocalypticist) heard about Jesus’s many miracles, he dispatched some of his disciples to inquire whether Jesus was truly the Messiah who would inaugurate the end times. Jesus replied by connecting his healings with the incipient kingdom: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk ,the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised . . . .” (Lk 7:22; see also Mt 11:4-5).

The Special Case of Healing (Spiritual) Blindness

Together with the exorcisms, Jesus healing blind people is especially important to the authors of the gospels, as this type of healing yields further theological and spiritual insight. There are seven specific stories in which he heals the blind, in addition to several general references to him doing so.

The state of blindness was a metaphor used often in the Hebrew Bible to symbolize spiritual blindness, where a person failed to understand or obey God’s law; whereas those who see a vision or become enlightened are said to have had their eyes opened (e.g., Num 22:31; 2 Kgs 6:17-18; Ps 119:18; see also Gen 3:5 (Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened when they eat the fruit)). The metaphor is applied to the failures and achievements of Israel as well (e.g., 1 Enoch 89:41; 90:35). It is also used outside the gospels in the New Testament (Acts 26:18; Eph 1:18).

The stories of Jesus healing the blind continue this tradition, and the best example is Jesus curing the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9:1-41). Before the healing, the disciples ask whether the man’s blindness is due to the sins of the man or his parents (a common Jewish notion at the time). Jesus says no, that the man is blind so that God’s work can be revealed in him. The idea here is that we are all born spiritually blind, and so must be reborn spiritually (Ravindra, 111-20). The groundwork for this idea had been laid in Chapter 3 of John, where Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that each person must be born again, from above, in a spiritual sense (Jn 3:3-7). Jesus drives the point home while healing the man’s blindness, saying that he is the light of the world (Jn 9:5), and that “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). Here Jesus is dividing people into two groups, those who see the light and those who reject it and so will be judged. This is illustrated by contrasting the healed man with the Pharisees. The healed man believes in Jesus as the Son of Man and as a prophet, and worships him. In contrast, a group of Pharisees interrogate the man and refuse to recognize the miracle or believe in Jesus. Jesus comments that it is these Pharisees who are willfully blind, which is a sin for which they will be judged.

Jesus healing the man blind from birth at the Pool of Siloam.

The Kingdom as a Spiritual State Within Individuals

So far I’ve focused on the collective aspects of the kingdom of God, a society on earth made up of those who have passed judgment, ruled by Christ. But Jesus himself also talked about personal aspects of the kingdom, as a state of being that comes to one’s mind or consciousness, and this also relates to Jesus’s healings. Jesus reportedly told people that “the kingdom is within you, (Lk 17:21), and, more specifically, that “the kingdom is within you and outside you” (Gospel of Thomas, 3). Healing was thought to bring the kingdom to a person. Thus, in connection with exorcisms, Jesus said, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I case out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Mt 12:28). And when commissioning his disciples to evangelize in towns, he instructed them, “cure this sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Lk 17:21).

Thus, before the kingdom of God can exist as a society, the kingdom must be achieved within individuals as a psychic, spiritual state of being. (Since the nature of this state relates to concepts in depth psychology, in order to avoid repetition I defer the description of this state to the depth psychology discussion below.) The collective kingdom will then be made up of such people. The earliest Christians viewed themselves as beginning to achieve this. They, having achieved this state on an individual level, lived together in their own small communities which in their view had the characteristics of the earthly kingdom, which would appear soon.

The Healings from a Depth Psychological/Modern Spiritual Perspective

Depth Psychology and Christian Myth

With the above background in mind, we can understand the healing miracles from a depth psychological perspective, using primarily the ideas of Carl Jung. Jung held that our psyche is divided into our everyday ego consciousness on the one hand and the unconscious on the other. The unconscious is divided into the personal unconscious, consisting of content from our personal lives, and the collective unconscious, which is that part of our unconscious which all people share in common as a product of our evolution. The totality of these elements of our psyche is called the Self.

The collective unconscious has many structural patterns within it which Jung called archetypes, which shape our thinking and behavior. When experienced, archetypes have a numinous, emotional, mysterious, and “divine” quality and appear to come from elsewhere; this is because they come from the unconscious, and the ego generally is not aware of the unconscious when it is functioning.

Jung held that the most central archetype is that of the Self, which gives us our sense of totality and wholeness. It gives us our most profound experience of the “divine,” and so he also calls it the God archetype; it produces the symbol (God-image) of God the Father. Archetypes produce psychic content when suitably triggered by a life experience. Psychic energy (libido) is generated which carries the unconscious content to our ego consciousness so that we are made aware of it. According to Jung, generally people function only according to their ego consciousness and are largely unaware of their unconscious and the content that lies there. He argued that the unconscious must be integrated with ego consciousness in a person in order to have a healthy psychic balance. This integration process is called individuation and is a spiritual experience. The successful result of this process is a psychic and spiritual state called wholeness. But the ego often fears to undergo this process for fear of sacrificing some of itself or even being destroyed. What it takes to make the ego willing to undertake the journey is an involuntary stimulation from unconscious content felt emotionally as psychic energy, provoking a non-rational, intuitive response that persuades the ego to take a leap of faith. (Dourley, pp. 75-76).

Jung thought that the above inner psychic process is reflected in the Christian myth and in authentic Christian experience, meaning that the myth can be used in the individuation process to achieve wholeness. For Jung, the Holy Spirit symbolized psychic energy. Christ the Son mediates between the Father and humans utilizing the Holy Spirit. Thus, the members of the Holy Trinity are reflected in the psyche. Further, because Christ, who is both divine and human, brings “divine” (i.e., unconscious) content to human awareness and experience in people’s ego consciousness, bridging the entire psyche, he is an effective (albeit incomplete) symbol of the Self (Jung, CW 9.2). The process of experiencing divine unconscious content and integrating it into our ego consciousness is symbolized by the incarnation. Since it can be painful for the ego to sacrifice its prior state, individuation is likened to crucifixion. Without individuation, the psyche is split, which in theological terms is the split between humans and God. The Christ symbol helps to bridge this gap

We can now examine how the above ideas are symbolized in the healing stories. 

Depth Psychology and Jesus’s Healings

As mentioned above, in the healing stories, more often than not the healing is made possible by the sick person first having faith in Jesus. In these cases, faith is a precondition for the miracle. It is the divine presence of Jesus that provokes this faith response. Similarly, in depth psychology it is the encounter with “divine” unconscious content (such as the presence of the divine Jesus) which can persuade the ego to embark on the individuation process, leading to spiritual and psychological healing (Dourley, pp. 75-76). On the other hand, in the healing stories the Pharisees who refuse to see the light are like the ego refusing to undergo individuation. Christ is the light that shows the way out of the darkness to wholeness. 

The exorcisms all involve removing the demons within people. In some cases Jesus is able to confront and control them because he knows their name (e.g., Mk 5:9; Lk 8:30). Recognizing and dealing with the shadow (“demons”) in one’s psyche is a similar process. One first must recognize and accept that it is there, and step-by-step learn about its characteristics in one’s own case. In the individuation process, shadow content is integrated into one’s psyche, resulting in greater psychic balance and wholeness. In this respect Christian doctrine and depth psychology diverge: Depth psychology recognizes the shadow as an archetypal and inevitable feature of the psyche and does not judge or try to eliminate it, but rather says to integrate it. Jesus and Christian doctrine, however, call for the total defeat of Satan. In this respect Christ fails to fully symbolize the Self: the additional figure of Satan is needed to represent the shadow. For Jung, trying to banish the shadow would defeat the process and purpose of individuation. (In the Christ figure the feminine principle in the Self is also lacking, which is one reason why veneration of the Virgin Mary eventually naturally arose.)

Also important in this respect are the above-mentioned stories about healing the spiritually blind. Like the blind man by the Pool of Siloam, we are naturally blind, in the sense that ego consciousness initially and naturally dominates our psyche to the point where awareness of the unconscious is lost; the psyche is split. This condition must be overcome by integrating the unconscious in the individuation process.

As mentioned above, the kingdom of God is a psychic and spiritual state within individuals. The components of this state of being are reflected in Jesus’s teachings. Besides the fundamental commandments to love God with all one’s heart and to love thy neighbor as thyself (Mk 12:28-31), a number of other teachings (which if followed will get one into the kingdom) intersect directly with depth psychology and the individuation process.  

First, Jesus said that one must give up one’s attachments (Mt 19:21; Lk 14:33), once quipping that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God (Mt 19:24; Mk 10:25; Lk 18:25). (Similarly, Buddha had taught that such attachments are the root of suffering.) It is the ego that focuses on attachments (both material and psychic), so in order to give them up the ego must be tamed, which according to depth psychology is done by integrating the unconscious. Of similar import is Jesus’s teaching that if one wants to be first (e.g., entering the kingdom), then, rather than compete with others for primacy and status, one must humbly be last of all and servant of all (Mk  9:36).

Second and similarly, Jesus taught that unless one changes so as to become like a small child, one will not enter the kingdom (Mt 18:4; see also Mk 9:33-37). In a young child, the ego is not yet so separated from the unconscious and the psyche is more integrated. The figure of Jesus as the innocent divine child symbolizes this, while the story of the massacre of the innocents (Mt 2:16-18) illustrates the ego rejecting the child.

Third, Jesus taught self-awareness. He famously taught that, before criticizing the splinter in another person’s eye, one must remove the log from one’s own eye (Mt 7:3-5; Lk 6:37-42; Gospel of Thomas, 26). And in the Gospel of Thomas he said, “If you do not know yourselves, you will exist in poverty and you are that poverty” (Saying 3). Depth psychology likewise teaches self-knowledge, most fundamentally by making the unconscious conscious through the individuation process.

Jesus’s saying 61 in the Gospel of Thomas summarizes the above: “I say that if one is integrated one will be filled with light, but if one is divided one will be filled with darkness.” According to the New Testament, the result of such spiritual enlightenment is to be living in the kingdom of God, which is salvation.  In depth psychological terms, this is wholeness.

Achieving wholeness (the kingdom, salvation) is a healing process. This is recognized in both the Christian theological and depth psychological perspectives. The theologian Pail Tillich describes the salvation process as healing, writing that “healing means reuniting that which is estranged, giving a center to what is split, overcoming the split between God and man, man and his world, man and himself.” (Tillich, vol. 2, p. 166). Psychologically, this is integrating ego consciousness with the unconscious, including in particular accessing the Self/God archetype.  From the depth psychological perspective, Jung summarizes the interplay between depth psychology and the ideas in the New Testament as follows:

Because individuation is an heroic and often tragic task, . . . it involves suffering, a passion of the ego. . . . [A man] suffers, so to speak from the violence done to him by the self [ego]. . . . Through the Christ symbol, man can get to know the real meaning of his suffering: he is on the way towards realizing his wholeness. . . . The cause of the suffering is . . . ‘incarnation,’ which on the human level appears as ‘individuation.’ . . . The drama of the archetypal life of Christ describes in symbolic images the events of the conscious life – as well as in the life that transcends consciousness” (Jung, CW 11, para. 233).

Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave on July 30, 2021, at the Mythologium mythology conference.

Sources and Bibliography

Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).

Dourley, John. The Psyche as Sacrament: A Comparative Study of C.G. Jung and Paul Tillich. Toronto: Inner City Books (1981). 

Edinger, Edward. The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary on the Life of Christ. Toronto: Inner City Books (1987).

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press (1999).

1 Enoch, in Charlesworth, James, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, pp. 5-89. Peabody, Massachusetts (1983).

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self.  Collected Works, vol. 9.2, paras. 68-126 (cited as “CW 9.2”).

Jung. Carl. Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol. 11 (cited as “CW 11”).

Ravindra, Ravi. The Yoga of the Christ in the Gospel According to St. John. Element Books: Longmead, UK (1990).

Schnelle, Udo. Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2009).

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. New York: University of Chicago Press (1967) (three volumes in one edition, paginated separately).

© Arthur George 2021.

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Speaking at upcoming Mythologium Conference

I’ll be speaking at the Mythologium mythology conference in late July, where the main theme will be mythology and healing. I’ll be talking about the many dimensions of the healings of Jesus as told in the gospels, from a mythological and depth psychological perspective. This conference is always great and I encourage anyone interested in attending to register, in the attached link. This year the conference will be on Zoom due to continuing Covid precautions.

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The Case for Mythological Biblical Criticism

My paper at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Pacific Coast Regional Meeting being held (virtually) right now is entitled “Toward Mythologcal Biblical Criticism: A Preliminary Sketch.” Since the Bible is mythical in character, I argue that scholarly critical methods in bible studies (or at least one form of biblical criticism) should be based on a mythological framework as used in mythological studies. Once I get feedback at the conference and from elsewhere, I intend to turn this short paper into a more detailed article for a scholarly journal, so I would appreciate any comments that anyone may have! The link to the paper on the conference website is:

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Wine Myths of Dionysus

My new blog post, “The Wine Myths of Dionysus,” was just posted as a guest post on The Academic Wino, one of the leading wine blogs. It is based on material in my new book, The Mythology of Wine. Enjoy! Here’s the link to the post:

Maenad in ecstatic dance holding a thyrsus and a panther, wearing a panther skin over her shoulders and a snake diadem. By the Brygos Painter, ca. 490 BCE

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My Video Interview on the Mythology of Wine Just Posted

Recently Wes Hagen, a prominent Santa Barbara County winemaker and wine raconteur, interviewed me on his weekly video broadcast, The Punchdown. We discussed the mythology of wine, the subject of my new book, The Mythology of Wine, while sipping each other’s wines. It has now been posted on YouTube, so I’m reposting it here. It covers some highlights from the book. Enjoy! Link:

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My Wine Mythology Book Has Just Been Published

Hey readers, my newest book, The Mythology of Wine, has just been published! It details the wine-related myths in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel, as well as in early Christian Europe, showing how these stories ultimately affected today’s wine culture and our religions and culture at large. It is fun, not long or technical, easy to read, has lots of illustrations (in color in the ebook), and is not expensive (ebook $9.99, paperback $14.99). Here’s the Amazon listing:

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My New Article Just Published: “Easter and Ancient Myths”

My article, “Easter and Ancient Myths,” was just published as the cover article in the September-October issue of The Fourth R, the journal of the Westar Institute, an association of biblical scholars dedicated to furthering religious literacy, focusing on the Judeo-Christian tradition. The article is based on the Easter chapter of my new book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays. The article begins on page 8 of the issue. Enjoy! Comments and questions are welcome.

Noel Coypel Apotheosis of Hercules

The Apotheosis of Heracles, by Noel Coypel, 1700. The Resurrection and Ascension of Christ parallels the accounts of other figures of the Greco-Roman world who were “translated” into heaven upon their deaths.

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My New Book, “The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays,” Has Just Been Published

Hey everyone, my new book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays, has just been published in paperback and ebook editions. It traces how myths lie at the base of our seasonal holidays, shows how knowing the myths enables us to celebrate our holidays more meaningfully, and how in turn this can enrich our lives.

Final Front Cover

It is available on the website of my publisher Palgrave Macmillan and also at the online sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Hope you enjoy it. If you have questions, just ask. Some reviews are below:

“Arthur George’s The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays offers an impressively-researched and scholarly-yet-accessible study that details the historical, cultural, and mythological underpinnings of our most celebrated American holidays. George offers to both the interested scholar and general public a ‘hermeneutic key’ that opens one up to the mytho-poetic and symbolic dimensions of numerous traditional celebrations. In doing so, he offers his readers the gift of a deeper, more meaningful engagement – with both our seasonal rituals and our daily lives”
David M. Odorisio, Associate Core Faculty, Mythological Studies, and Director, the Retreat, Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA

“Arthur George sifts through a mountain of evidence about ancient and modern myths and rituals, paying attention to both the forest and the trees. The result, meticulously researched and lucidly explained, is a treasure trove of fascinating historical, mythological, and psychological insights into the often obscure religious backgrounds of American holidays and Christian holy days.”
Robert J. Miller, Rosenberger Professor of Religious Studies and Christian Thought, Juniata College, USA

“A penetrating adventure to the heart of Western sacred history! Arthur George provides a spellbinding myth-critical gaze into the cultural underpinnings of our common calendric cycle, how and why such curious holiday traditions survive and transform through the ages, now ordering our contemporary lives.”
Richard C. Miller, Author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (2015)​

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The Mythology of Wine VII: The Wine Miracles of Dionysus and Jesus Compared

We have all heard about how Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Galilee. Jesus, his mother Mary, and his disciples are at a wedding feast when the wine runs out. Mary informs Jesus of this, implying that he should do something about it; indeed, she also tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says to do. He has them fill to the brim with water six large stone water pots that are used only for Jewish rites of purification. Then he has a servant dip a cup into one of the pots and take the beverage to the head steward, and it turns out that the water has become wine. And not just any wine, but superior to the wine that the wedding party had been drinking before. And it is in great abundance (about 2 modern-day barrels). This is the first sign of Jesus’s divine identity. His disciples now believe in him.

This story is told only in the Gospel of John (2:1-11). It is different in kind from all other miracles in the Gospels, which consist of healings, exorcisms, raising from the dead, etc. When, where, or how did the story of this wine miracle originate, if not with the evangelist himself? Why did the author of John (hereinafter “John”) choose turning water into wine as the as the motif to convey the larger messages in the story?

Jesus Turning Water into Wine

The six large jars were meant to hold pure lustral water for Jewish purification rituals.

Bible scholars have been scratching their heads over these questions for centuries. Some of them think the story was contained in the hypothesized “signs source,” an account of the seven miraculous signs that Jesus gave as reported in John. But this answer probably just kicks the can down the road. Unless the story originated in the signs source itself (if there was one), this theory doesn’t answer the question of where the story originally came from and why. In recent decades, however, accumulating information from classical studies and archaeology has yielded another possible answer, namely that the story developed, at least in part, under the influence and as a competitive response to the cult of the god Dionysus. This post explores the evidence for this theory by considering the relevant myths, history, archaeology, and biblical passages.

Dionysus, His Cult, and the Dionysiac Mysteries

Dionysus perhaps was not originally a wine god, but in ancient Greece he became one as viniculture took hold in that land, to the point where myths gave him credit for introducing wine to the Greeks. The effects of drinking wine were thought to be a divine experience of a connection to Dionysus. He thus became a god of transformation, as well as of eternal life. In archaic Greece, the god’s cult involved bands of married women (thiasoi) periodically retreating to the mountain forests at night to hold an ecstatic revel rout, where through dances, perhaps some wine (though apparently in modest quantities), and other rituals they experienced the divinity of Dionysus and the release and liberation that the god afforded. In Athens there was a procession on his feast day, when his image was paraded before the crowd, after which he performed a sacred marriage ritual with the king’s wife. This was all serious religion.

In Hellenistic and Roman times, however, the Dionysus cult became less properly religious and more social in nature, involving in particular the upper classes, now including men and even children. Wine became more of a focus of the ritual. It was a mystery cult (although much of it was public), in which people joined an association of Dionysus through initiation. The ritual seems to have involved uncovering at the climactic moment a winnowing basket (liknon) in which fresh fruits and a phallus figure were placed, which revealed to the neophyte the truth of eternal life. As normal in such an initiation scenario, the initiate was thought to be born again. The group then celebrated a feast at which they drank copiously. This was thought to represent and give an experience of the feasts that initiates will enjoy in the afterlife (Nilsson 1957). This was the situation in the Roman world when the Gospel of John was written.

The Wine Miracles of Dionysus

In his role as wine god, in myths Dionysus was said perform various miracles in connection with grapevines and wine. Importantly, they all have to do with the god’s coming and appearance (epiphany), and his presence being felt among his worshippers. This happens, for example, in the spring, when he returns from the underworld and the grape vines bud and flower. Thus, in a miracle the vines bud and grow ripe grapes in the course of a single day, the day of his festival (Seaford, p. 20; Otto, pp. 98-100). Vase paintings from Apulia in southeast Italy from depict wine flowing directly from grape clusters (Seaford, p. 20 and Chs. 6-7). This presents wine as a product of the divine, with no human intervention required.

In several stories Dionysus causes wine to appear. Commentators differ over how comparable these are to Jesus’s miracle at Cana, so we need to consider them carefully:

• At Elis in the western Peloponnesus, on the occasion of Dionysus’s holiday called Thyria (“raging”), when Dionysus was thought to be present there, priests under the watch of witnesses placed three empty basins in a building under seal. The next morning when the seal on the door was broken and people entered, the basins were full of wine (Pausanias, 6.26.1).
• On the Agean island of Andros, on the night of January 5-6 at a festival known as the Theodosia, at a spring in the sanctuary of Dionysus wine began flowing from it instead, and whenever samples of it were taken out of the sanctuary they turned into water (Pliny, 31.16; Pausanias, 6.26.2; Otto, p. 98).
• At Dionysus’s temple in the city of Teos (on the Ionian coast about 40 miles north of Ephesus), which city was said to have been founded by followers of Dionysus, on fixed days each year the temple spring poured out wine, of unusual fragrance, instead of water (Diodorus, 3.66; Otto, pp. 97-98).
• On the Agean island of Naxos, wine gushed forth from a spring, a miracle that first occurred when Dionysus married Adriane there (Otto, p. 98).
• Ovid reports that Liber (the Roman Dionysus) gave the daughter of the Delian king Anius, Oino (“wine”), the power to turn anything into wine (Metamorphoses, 13.65-53; also Apollodorus, 4.3.10 (earth into wine)). Presumably, therefore, Dionysus himself could do so.
• Plutarch relates a story in which a spring near Thebes smelled like wine when the infant Dionysus was bathed in it (Lysander, 28.4).
• In Euripides’ Bacchae (706-07), a maenad struck the ground with her thyrsus, “and the god at that spot put forth a fountain of wine.”

Importantly, most of these miracles were associated with the epiphany of Dionysus at the time of his festival, evidencing the presence of his divinity. Likewise, the Cana miracle was a sign of Jesus’s divine identity.

Arguably, in none of the above examples did Dionysus actually transform the substance of water into wine. Perhaps there was only a substitution of wine for water as at Andros and Teos — although a transformation of the springs’ water into wine is equally possible — while at Elis wine was produced from nothing. Nevertheless, Dionysus clearly had the power to transform water into wine, since he conferred that same power on Oino. Further, in the Andros example, the wine transformed into water when removed from the sanctuary.

Several biblical scholars have concluded that such miracles of Dionysus lie behind Jesus’s miracle at Cana (e.g., Bultmann, John, pp. 118-19; Bultmann, Tradition, pp. 238-39; Smith, Magician, p. 35; Barrett, p. 189). Others think not (e.g., Brown, p. 101). Martin Hengel makes the hybrid argument that the Cana story does reflect competition with “Dionysus,” but more fundamentally goes back to the traditional opposition between the Jewish god and pagan vegetation deities, with which the Greek Dionysus had to some extent merged in Palestine. Thus, he argues, while the Cana story reflects this tradition, this need not involve a conscious effort on John’s part to confront the more purely Greek Dionysus (pp. 330-31). As we shall see, however, the evidence from Palestine (where John may have been from) and the place of the Gospel’s composition (Ephesus), however, suggests that John was consciously confronting the Dionysus of the Hellenistic and Roman mysteries. Indeed, the god was hard to avoid.

A fairly recent archaeological discovery is more conclusive. The Roman novel in Greek by Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, relates a myth of a hospitable shepherd from around Tyre, on the Mediterranean coast only about 40 miles from Nazareth. (Tyre was said to be close enough for people from there to visit Galilee in droves to hear Jesus teach (Mark 3:8; Luke 6:17).) Dionysus visited the shepherd, who offered him a meal at his home, but for a beverage he could only offer what the cows drink (water), since wine was then unknown. Dionysus thanked him and raised his cup to friendship, and it was now full of wine. When the shepherd drinks it, he becomes ecstatic and peppers the god with questions about it. Dionysus then led him to a vine and crushed a grape cluster, showing him how wine is made. According to the myth and to Tyreans, this is how wine came to humankind. In the plot of the novel, the myth is told in the context of the festival of “Dionysus of the Vintage” being celebrated in Tyre.

This myth is important because the beverage appears to have changed from water into wine, since no cups were switched. Also, in the late 20th century papyrus fragments of the novel were discovered that have been dated to the second century CE, meaning that the story probably dates at least back to the first half of the second century, just after the Gospel of John was written (Smith, Wine God, pp. 815-16). Before this discovery the novel had been dated to much later, and therefore had not been considered relevant to the Cana miracle. This discovery means that a myth of Dionysus turning water into wine was circulating near Galilee at that time, and perhaps within Galilee itself.

Dionysus in the Levant and Palestine in Hellenistic and Roman Times

The presence of Dionysus veneration in Palestine is important because John was probably from there. As evidence, scholars point to his unmistaken familiarity with the geography, especially in Jerusalem. Thus, he mention’s Jacob’s well in Samaria (4:5-6), the Siloam Pool (9:1-11), and the Sheep Gate Pool (5:2-9). John also takes care to translate Hebrew and Aramaic words for his gentile and Jewish diaspora audience (e.g., 1:38 – “rabbi” means “teacher”; 1:41 – “Messiah” means “the anointed one”; 1:42 – “Cephas” means “Peter”; 9:7 – “Siloam” means “Sent”). The more prominent and important Dionysus was in Palestine and the Levant, the more his cult would have competed with Christianity, and the more reason John would have had to address it.

Prior to the success of Christianity, Dionysus veneration was probably the strongest form of individual piety in the eastern Roman empire (Smith, Wine God, pp. 820-21). Dionysus had already been a religious factor in Palestine for centuries, especially among the Hellenized parts of the population. This is not surprising, since the wine industry was a staple of the local economy. Vine, grapes, and drinking cups appeared on Jewish reliefs and on coins. Images of Dionysus himself appeared on coins minted in Damascus, Scythopolis (see below), Raphia, Caesarea, Aelia and perhaps Philadelphia (modern Amman) (Smith, Wine God, p. 820).

After Alexander the Great conquered the East, the Galilean city of Beth She’an (only about 18 miles southeast of Nazareth) was made a polis, and its name was changed to Scythopolis, in honor of the Scythian guards who, according to the myths, Dionysus took with him on his expedition to India (which myth Alexander later emulated), and then settled in the city. It was also known as Nysa or Nysa-Scythopolis, in honor of the place where, according to the myths, Dionysus was raised by nymphs, the principal one being Nysa, whom Dionysus buried there (Pliny, 5.16). It was claimed that he was born at that location (Koester, p. 85) and founded the city. In the mid-3rd century BCE, Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus II, a great proponent of Dionysus, substantially built up the city. Archaeologists have uncovered statues and altars of Dionysus there, proving that Dionysus worship was firmly entrenched in the city (Eretz, pp. 2-3), even during the second century CE (see images).

Dionysus statue in Scythopolis 2nd Century CE

Statue of young Dionysus from Scythopolis (Beit She’an), Galilee, 2nd century CE

In the mid-2nd century BCE, the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, during a festival of Dionysus, forced Jews to wear garlands of ivy and walk in the procession in the god’s honor. This, among other Hellenizing measures, helped spark the Jewish rebellion known as the Maccabean revolt (167-60 BCE), which ousted Seleucid power. Thus, Jews were already in contact with and opposing Dionysian religion at least two centuries before John. Nevertheless, even when the Jerusalem temple was purified after the defeat of Antiochus I in 164 BCE, the ceremony included Jewish women carrying ivy-wound thyrsoi (2 Maccabees 10:7), a principal cult instrument of Dionysus. This points to a certain acceptance of the Dionysian cult, notwithstanding the revolt.

We see enthusiasm for Dionysus continue into Roman times. When Marc Antony, a Dionysus enthusiast, entered the city of Ephesus on the Ionian coast, he entered as Dionysus. The city’s women met him dressed as Bacchantes, the men as satyrs; people carried thyrsoi, and played harps and flutes. (Plutarch, Antony, 24.3.) Only a few decades later, St. Paul founded a church in Ephesus, and this is what he had to deal with when seeking converts. The Book of Acts claims that he had much success operating from this evangelic hub (19:1-20). One Ephesian artisan who made statues of deities reportedly complained, “You also see and hear that no only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26). A riot ensued (Acts 19:29-41).

Importantly, Greeks and Romans often erroneously identified the Jewish god with Dionysus. (Indeed, the Hebrew Bible did portray Yahweh was, among other things, a wine god, and Yahweh required daily wine offerings to him. E.g., Exodus 29:40; Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:14-15.) The Roman historian Tacitus said that some people erroneously thought that the Jews worship Father Liber (Dionysus/Bacchus) since their priests intoned to the flute and cymbals and wore ivy garlands, and because a golden grapevine decorated the entrance to the Jerusalem temple (Histories, 5.5). (Such priestly practices were not normal in Judaism but perhaps did occur during the above-mentioned aberrations; the grapevine decoration did appear on the temple that Herod built. Josephus, Antiquities, 15.11.395). In Plutarch’s Table Talk, the dining partners thought that the Jews worshipped Dionysus. As evidence, they pointed to the Jewish wine harvest festival, a festival procession in which people enter the temple each carrying a thyrsus, noisemaking and music making by worshippers, the High Priest wearing a fawnskin (like followers of Dionysus), and a “carved thyrsus” on the pediment of the temple (Moralia, 671C-672C). In 139 BCE, since, as noted, Romans erroneously thought that the Jews living in Rome worshipped the god Sabazius, who was equated with Dionysus, the Jews were expelled from Rome, since the authorities considered the cult of Sabazius (and Bacchic mysteries generally) pernicious and corrupting. Given that many gentiles were so inclined to equate the Jewish god with Dionysus, it would make sense for John to engage that audience in Dionysian terms while turning the argument to Jesus’s advantage.

Deciphering John

It is of course impossible to prove that the Cana miracle originated in John’s mind with one or more of Dionysus’s wine miracles, but it is likely that John and his audience would be familiar with the wine miracle stories of Dionysus (Twelftree, p. 192), in which case the audience would interpret the Cana miracle partly in light of that tradition. We can see why by examining John’s principal audience, the place of composition, internal evidence within John and elsewhere in the Bible, and other relevant historical circumstances.

       The Historical Context of John’s Gospel

While John’s Gospel cannot be imagined without Jewish and Palestinian influence, it would be unintelligible to the audience absent a familiarity with Hellenistic philosophy, religion, and culture (Tilborg, p. 3). This combination points to an audience in a Hellenized city having Jews and Jewish Christians, as well as gentiles who might be converted. More specifically, the material about Jews contained in John has led scholars to conclude that John and his audience were Christianized Jews who had been expelled from the synagogue(s) for claiming that Jesus was the Messiah (ABD, 3:918-19). Therefore, one goal of the gospel was to comfort this group and reassure them of the correctness of their position so they would maintain their faith.

The primary contender for the place of final composition of John is Ephesus (Brown, p. CIII; ABD, 2:548-49; NOAB, p. 1879). This is because several early Christian sources say that John was written there, because the other evidence is not inconsistent with this, because there are no clearly superior candidates, because the audience in Ephesus fits John’s targeted audience, and because the book of Revelation (another Johannine work) belongs to the area of Ephesus (Brown, p. CIII). The area of Ephesus is also a winegrowing region. In fact, after the emperor Domitian issued a decree prohibiting growing grape vines other than in Italy, Ephesians joined a delegation to Rome seeking to save the wine industry in Asia (Tilborg, pp. 93-94).

While the primary deity venerated in Ephesus was the goddess Artemis, the city’s most important god was Dionysus, right into Christian times (Tilborg, pp. 95-96). Dionysia were held there yearly, there was a Baccheion (temple of Dionysus with its own priest) on the agora, Ephesus was the home city of an association of actors and musicians who performed plays under the protection of Dionysus, and there was an association of initiates in the god’s mystery cult in he city. Statues and frescos of Dionysus adorned public spaces and homes (Tilborg, pp. 95-96). As seen in the example of Marc Antony above, in recognition of the god’s popularity in Ephesus, visiting dignitaries took on the god’s role. And for its part, the city conferred honors upon them associated with Dionysus. The city (through initiates of Dionysus) awarded Antony and Cleopatra, Hadrian, and Commodus the honor of being “enthroned with Dionysus,” and they made a statue of Hadrian with this wording on it (Tilborg, pp. 96, 195, 211-12). Antony had a Dionysus coin minted in the city.

Early Christians had a notable and tumultuous history in Ephesus. According to Christian tradition, St. John moved there, died, and was buried there. He was said to have taken Mary the mother of Jesus with him, because Jesus while on the cross made John Mary’s adopted son, and she lived in his home thereafter (John 19:25-27). In Ephesus today there stands a house said to have been Mary’s. St. Paul spent about three years there in the early 50s CE, making it his base of operations for spreading Christianity into Asia Minor. Paul’s disciple, St. Timothy, was made the first bishop of Ephesus. He was martyred when he tried to stop a religious procession in honor of Artemis and preach the gospel, and some of the celebrants turned on him and stoned him to death. This would have been about the time when the Gospel of John was written. The book of Acts also mentions people in Ephesus who had been baptized into the baptism of John the Baptist who were not aware of the Holy Spirit. Paul corrected them and baptized them, and then laid his hands on them, whereupon the Holy Spirit came on them and they began speaking in tongues and prophesizing; there were about 12 of them (Acts 19:1-7). So early Christians were competing with followers of John the Baptist in Ephesus too.

       The Miracles of Dionysus and Jesus Compared

Among other things, the Cana miracle story enabled John to show how Jesus was superior to Dionysus, much like he portrayed Jesus as superior to John the Baptist (see John 1:19-42). We see this in two aspects.

First, the miracle itself is both more dramatic and more miraculous. It happened when Jesus was visibly present in broad daylight (Dionysus wasn’t), he clearly transformed one substance into another (not always clear with Dionysus’s miracles), and there were witnesses (none when the substitutions or transformations in Dionysus’s miracles actually happened). Jesus also produced superior wine, whereas Dionysus was just responsible for wine generally without getting into gradations of quality. Since Jesus’s miracle was superior, by definition it had to differ from those of Dionysus. Differences between the Cana miracle and those of Dionysus are to be expected. These slight differences do nothing to disprove either origin from or dialogue with the mythology of Dionysus.

Second, in John 15:1 Jesus claims, “I am the true vine.” Bible scholars recognize that this statement, including through its syntax, is a contrast with whatever or whomever also claims to be the “vine” (e.g., Bultmann, John, p. 530), which for John is necessarily the false vine. This is evident from the Greek, which includes the pronoun for “I” (egō) before the verb. In Greek, this pronoun is not necessary to conjugate the verb; generally, if it is present, it is for emphasis and contrast, in this case between the true vine and the false vine. And Jesus goes on to say that he is the “true” vine, not just the vine. So the question is what or who is the object of contrast here. We must ask, “Who or what else besides Jesus (and the Father) would be most closely associated with the grapevine in the audience’s mind”? Dionysus, and by a wide margin. Grapevines, whether growing to ripeness in a single day, dispensing wine directly from their clusters, or growing over weaving looms or the masts of pirate ships, were manifestations of Dionysus and his divinity.

But this moment of for contrast with Dionysus is not the only (or even the main) purpose of the discourse in John 15:1-17; any allusion to Dionysus is ultimately secondary. When one reads the story as a whole, we see Jesus using the vine as a metaphor for John’s theology, with Jesus as the trunk, and those who abide in him and his love by keeping his commandments as the branches which can bear much fruit and will be saved and enjoy eternal life. But using this metaphor does not exclude an allusion to Dionysus as the false vine. Indeed, Dionysus symbolized the principle of indestructible life and was considered its source (Kerenyi), whereas here in John Jesus through the Father takes on that role. Jesus could have successfully drawn this metaphor of the vine and branches without first having claimed to be the only true vine in contrast to someone or something else.

Scholars agree that early Christians structured their polemics in dialogue with pagan religion and myth, using allusions and comparisons to show how their religion is superior (Litwa; Ehrman, p. 49). We see John doing this specifically in relation to his gentile and Hellenized Jewish audiences:

• First, such an audience would have understood that the miraculous appearance of wine in Cana indicated the presence of divinity (Koester, p. 85), as with the wine miracles of Dionysus. More specifically, the Cana miracle was one of epiphany (Bultmann, John, pp. 118-19), as were the wine miracles of Dionysus (see above).
• Second, the first time that Jesus is shown teaching anyone is to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a Greek name meaning “victory of the people,” probably a Hellenized Jew. He symbolizes the broader world that is still estranged from God. Jesus tells him that in order to join the kingdom of God, one must be born again (or born above), in addition to one’s ordinary earthly, physical birth. (The operative word, anōthen, means both “again” and “from above,” facilitating a play on words that works only in Greek rather than in the Aramaic that the characters would have been speaking — another indication that John was targeting a gentile or at least Hellenized Jewish audience.) The notion of undergoing a new birth would not have been familiar to most Jews at the time (Koester, p. 46), and would not have had persuasive force with them, but in Hellenistic culture personal rebirth was well known and a centerpiece of rituals in mystery cults such as that of Dionysus. Thus, John was saying that Jesus taught a superior way of being born again. At first, Nicodemus fails to understand this shows no sign of believing in him (3:1-9). Midway through the Gospel, however, he is shown trying to resolve tensions between Jesus and Pharisees (7:50), while after the crucifixion he is now an open supporter who helps Joseph of Arimathea entomb him, bringing a hundred pounds of expensive myrrh and aloes to do so (19:39-42), outdoing Mary at Bethany from the week before.
• Third, “Greeks” form a link between Cana and the passion. At Cana, Jesus told his mother that “my hour has not yet come” (2:4), a statement which looks forward to his passion. Then, as soon as he enters Jerusalem to meet his fate, some “Greeks” (perhaps Hellenized Jews) came to see him, and it was at that moment when he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:20-23). His gift of the blood of the grape at the wedding presaged the gift of his own life for us all. His mother was present at both.

Such Hellenistic orientations in John’s Gospel make it more likely that he had the Dionysian background in mind as part of the Cana story as well.

But surely Dionysus does not provide the only backdrop to the miracle at Cana. Far from it. The story has a multivalent background, and the Jewish and emerging Christian traditions involving wine need to be recognized as well. Examples include the following, which are sometimes cited by biblical scholars:

• In Proverbs 9:5, Wisdom says, “Come, . . . drink of the wine I have mixed.” Wisdom is also associated with the grapevine in Sirach 24:17. Wine was associated with Wisdom, and John’s Jesus was presented as embodying it (Twelftree, p. 193). This parallel can work without Jesus transforming something else into wine, however.
• Arguably the transformation into wine is an allusion to the Last Supper and/or emerging Christian meal traditions involving wine ultimately leading to the Eucharist, to which of course wine is central. (In John 13 there is no “Last Supper” event with the wine as Jesus’s blood and bread as his body, but this was already a Christian tradition when John wrote. Indeed, elsewhere in his Gospel John did use the bread and wine terminology to such effect (6:35-56).) But the eucharistic transformations were from wine into blood (transubstantiation), not water into wine.
• Fruitful vineyards and abundant wine were signs of God’s approval and blessing (e.g., Ecclesiastes 9:7). More particularly, in the Hebrew Bible and some Pseudepigrapha, an abundance of wine will be enjoyed by the faithful after Yahweh has intervened to restore justice and set the world straight (Amos 9:13-15; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12; 1 Enoch 10.19; 2 Baruch 29.5). An important aspect of the Cana miracle was the abundant quantity of wine that Jesus made, about 120 gallons, which equals 2 modern barrels. In 1st century CE terms, this abundance means that the Cana miracle signals the arrival of messianic times (Brown, p. 105). But the Hebrew Bible has no example of a transformation of another substance into wine, or of producing wine out of nothing.
• The theme of replacement runs through the Gospels, to symbolize Jesus’s replacement of certain Jewish religious views, practices, and institutions, which the transformation of water into Jesus’s new wine symbolizes — his teachings are transformative (Olsson, p. 19; Brown, p. 104). Indeed, the Synoptic Gospels each tell the parable of old vs. new wine and needing to put new wine (i.e., Jesus’s message) into new rather than old wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39). Analogously, in Cana, Jewish purification rituals with lustral water (which the jars were meant to hold) are contrasted with the new and superior wine of Jesus.

Still, none of the above corresponds as closely to the details of the Cana miracle as the Dionysus wine miracles do. The closest Hebrew Bible miracles are wide of the mark: Elijah multiplies loaves to feed a hundred people (2 Kings 4:42-48), but this anticipates Jesus’s multiplication of loaves and fish in John 6:5-14, not the Cana miracle. Elijah also furnished an endless supply of meal and oil to a mother, her son, and himself (1 Kings 17:8-16), and Elisha had a woman’s jar of oil fill numerous large jars of oil so she could pay her debts (2 Kings 4:1-7). None of these miracles involves wine, much less changing any substance into something else, as did the miracles of Dionysus.

John is well known for using material with a twofold (Jewish and pagan) background to weave stories with more than one meaning (Hengel, p. 318; Barrett, p. 189). The evidence indicates that an allusion to Dionysus was one element of the story, though not its principal purpose. More importantly, for John it was a story about revealing Jesus’s divine identity and causing his disciples to believe in him, about contrasting Jesus’s message with traditional Judaism, about how compassion stands above obeying technical rules of the Jewish Law, and about Jesus as the glorious fulfillment of Judaism (involving the supersession of some traditional aspects of Judaism). Such points could be made, however, using any number of other kinds of miracles in other circumstances, as seen in the other gospels and indeed elsewhere in John. So the question remains why John used turning water into wine as the motif to convey the above points. The omnipresence of Dionysus as a competing god in the environment of John’s audience and and the Gospel of John’s composition appears to provide the answer.

Postscript: See my new book, The Mythology of Wine, to learn more about wine mythology and ritual in the ancient world and early Christian Europe.


Sources Cited and Bibliography

The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992 (cited as “ABD”).

Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology.

Barrett, C.K. The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978.

Brown, Raymond. The Gospel According to John (1-XII). New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Bultmann, Rudolf. History of the Synoptic Tradition. Rev. ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1963.

––––. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History.

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Hengel, Martin. “The Dionysiac Messiah,” in Studies in Early Christology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995, pp. 293-331.

Heskett, Randall, and Butler, Joel. Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 113-26.

Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerAcademic, 2003, vol. 1, pp. 492-516.

Kerényi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Koester, Craig. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Litwa, M. David. Jesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

National Parks of Israel. Beit She’an: Capital of the Decapolis. Jerusalem: ERETZ Magazine, 1996 (cited as “Eretz”).

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 4th ed. Edited by Michael Coogan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 (cited as “NOAB”). Uses New Revised Standard Version translation.

Nilsson, Martin. The Dionysaic Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age. New York: Arno Press (1957).

Olsson, Birger. Structure and Meaning in the Fourth Gospel. Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerup, 1974.

Otto, Walter. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1965.

Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History.

Plutarch, Life of Antony.

––––, Life of Lysander.

––––, Table Talk.

Seaford, Richard. Dionysos. New York: Routledge (2006).

Smith, Morton. “On the Wine God in Palestine,” in Salo Wittmayer Baron Jubilee Volume on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday, vol. 2. Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1974, pp. 815-29.

––––. Jesus the Magician. San Francisco: Hampton Roads Press, 1978.

Tilborg, Sjev Van. Reading John in Ephesus. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996.

Twelftree, Graham. Jesus the Miracle Worker. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1999.

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The Mythology of Wine VI: Celebrating St. Tryphon on February 14

Most of us celebrate February 14 as Valentine’s Day, named after a saint who had little to do with romance. But another saint’s day also falls on February 14, that of St. Tryphon. He has a lot to do with wine, and wine with romance

As with many saints, we now know little about him, and his life is shrouded in myth and legend. He was born in the early 3rd century in city of Kampsade, Phrygia, now part of Turkey. The Greek word on which his name is based (Tryphē) means “softness” or “delicacy,” but his end was anything but. He found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time during the short-lived persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Decius. After having converted a Roman prefect, Tryphon was arrested and taken to Nicaea, where he was horribly tortured and beheaded with a sword in 250. His relics were initially taken back to his native  Kampsade, but eventually they found their way to Rome, except for his head, which is at the St. Tryphon Cathedral, in Kotor, Montenegro.

Tryphon’s earlier relations with Rome were more congenial, thanks to his reputation as a healer from an early age. According to legend, in 239 the emperor Gordianus III’s only daughter Gordijana became possessed by a demon, and none of the local doctors could cure her. Learning of Tryphon’s reputation for having healing powers, Gordianus sent for him. Upon arriving in Rome, he cured the girl. The emperor gave him a large reward, but he gave it all away to the poor on the trip home.

He is highly venerated in Orthodox Christianity, especially in Bulgaria and Macedonia, both winemaking regions. Among other things, he became the patron saint of winegrowers, and gardeners generally. He was said to have turned back a plague of locusts that were infesting the vineyards. As a result, thereafter he was thought to protect crops from pests. This role seems to have developed for him because the saint’s day falls at a time when farmers are getting ready for spring. Naturally, as in other cultures, religious rituals were held at this time of year to ensure the health of the crops and a bountiful harvest. In this respect, the cult rituals of St. Tryphon became a Christianized extension of the more ancient religious rituals relating to vineyards and wine. In the Balkans, these had involved Dionysus/Bacchus and the Thracian god Sabazius (who was identified with Dionysus).


St. Tryphon holding his pruning hook.

The rituals practiced on February 14 vary somewhat from place to place, but the one in Bulgaria is fairly typical. This is the time of year when the grapevines are pruned, so, among other ceremonies, a pruning ritual is conducted in the vineyard (often led by a priest) in which a few of the pruned canes are doused with wine; wine is also sprinkled on the vineyard itself. The ritual is supposed to give strength to the vines to recover from their winter dormancy. When the sap runs down from the cuts, this means that the saint has heard the people’s prayers, so the harvest will be rich. Accordingly, St. Tryphon became known as “The Pruner,” and he has often been depicted with a pruning hook in his hand (see illustration). At the end of the ceremony, a King of the Vineyard is selected and crowned with a wreath that makes him look like Dionysus. The villagers then return to the village and hold a feast featuring much wine drinking. This pruning ritual is still practiced today.

So when you are dining with your sweetheart on Valentine’s day, don’t forget to raise your wine glasses to that other saint. Perhaps he is responsible for how good the wine tastes and the enjoyment of your meal . . . and later romance.

Note: My new book, The Mythology of Wine, has now been published. It contains much more interesting information about wine mythology in the ancient world and early Christian Europe.


Copyright Arthur George 2020.

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