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 the Gospel’s composition appears to provide the answer.

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.

Copyright Arthur George 2020.

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Upcoming Lecture on the Mythology of Christmas

On Wednesday, December 4, at 5:30 p.m., I’ll be giving a talk about the mythology underlying our Christmas story and customs at the Solvang Public Library. It’s fascinating stuff, based on my upcoming book about the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays. All within striking distance are invited!


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Speaking at Mythologium Conference August 2-4, Morro Bay, California

The Mythologium mythology conference is coming up on August 2-4 in lovely Morro Bay, California, at which I’ll be speaking on the topic of “The Depth Psychology Aspects of the Christian Myth.” Registration is on the conference website. We have a great lineup of speakers in a great location. Come join us!

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Easter Mythology: The Resurrection Accounts as Shaped by Greco-Roman Myths

In a prior Easter-related post I wrote that “dying and rising” gods don’t provide a good mythological model for the resurrection story of Christ. Rather, I mentioned that Greco-Roman myths provide a better inspiration and template, but I did not elaborate on that then. So here goes.

We must remember that St. Paul and the evangelists in the Gospels were writing for a particular audience. These writers were all living and evangelizing in Greco-Roman cities in the Mediterranean world, and their audience of church members and potential converts came mainly from such cities. Especially after the Jewish War (66-70 CE), in which Jerusalem was destroyed and its Jewish-Christian assembly was dispersed, Christianity focused on the gentile world. This audience spoke Greek (and in the West Latin) and was steeped in classical myths and legends. Paul and the evangelists had to communicate to their audiences in a way that was most understandable and persuasive to them in a familiar way. So they wrote in Greek, and, as we shall see, utilized common Greco-Roman mythological motifs that the audience would recognize, containing the right signals. In order to make their case for Christ persuasive, they had to hit the hot buttons. As a result, Christ was accorded the traits and actions of a Greco-Roman hero or god (Litwa; MacDonald; Miller).

For purposes of the resurrection story, it helped that classical myths and legends were rife with stories of miraculous happenings during and after the death of iconic Greco-Roman figures (e.g., Heracles, Romulus). In one way or another, they were portrayed as being deified upon death. This was thought to be a fitting epilogue to the glorious life of someone who had performed great deeds and brought great benefits to the people. The audiences did not necessarily believe that these stories of apotheosis were true, nor were they asked to believe in their historicity. Rather, the motif was an archetypal protocol (Miller). Indeed, Plutarch, who did not believe them, called them “fables” (27.4), from which the modern New Testament scholar Richard Miller adopted the term “translation fables,” because the bodies were “translated” into a divine form, and explicitly or implicitly carried up to heaven.

Much as the mythological hero motif and the related “birth of the hero” motif contain standardized elements, so did the classical translation fables. In analyzing 77 examples of such fables, Miller identified 15 common elements often present in them (Miller, p. 35). These include:

  • The translation rectifying an injustice, undoing a tragic loss, or vindicating the person
  • A vanished or missing body
  • A post-translation appearance by the translated individual, particularly on a road, before one or more eyewitnesses
  • A post-translation didactic speech by the translated individual
  • An ascension, often by winds or into the clouds

We see these elements in Christ’s story. He was executed as an innocent man, and his resurrection vindicated him. His tomb was found empty and the body was nowhere to be found. Then he appeared to the disciples, when he provided further teachings and instructions. And finally he ascended into a cloud (Acts 1:9).

In addition to such standard elements, scholars have found links to classical stories in other details. For example, the cup which Jesus refers to in the garden of Gethsemane and from which he must figuratively drink (Mt 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk 22:42; Jn 18:11b) could be based on Socrates’ willingness to drink his cup of hemlock, which had become proverbial (Miller, p. 162; see Keener, p. 1084). While some commentators argue that the cup alludes to writings of Hebrew Bible prophets or to psalms, that approach fails to recognize that any such allusions would have been lost on the gentile audience.

Noel Coypel Apotheosis of Hercules

The apotheosis of Heracles above, together with that of Romulus, served as a model for the many other translation fables in the Greco-Roman world. Painting by Noel Coypel (1700).

It is not feasible to cover here even a portion of the many classical translation fables, so for purposes of comparison I have selected just one, that of Romulus, because, with the possible exception of Heracles’s apotheosis, Romulus was the quintessential example in the archetypal translation tradition, and was the figure most familiar and dear to Romans. He was conceived when Mars slept with a vestal virgin and thus was the son of a god, and whereas Romulus founded the kingdom of Rome, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God. According to the story of Romulus’s death, once he had put Rome on firm foundations, his father, the god Mars, decided that it was time to take him back into heaven. So one day when Romulus was reviewing his troops on the Field of Mars, he disappeared. Some people apparently thought that some senators killed him, tore him up, and spirited away the body parts, but a myth also arose that Mars had raised him up. Just in relation to Easter events we find at least the following parallels:

  • Like Jesus (as the Word) in the Gospel of John, Romulus was preexistent and divine, came from the divine realm to incarnate for a specific earthly mission, and returned to heaven (Litwa, p. 166).
  • As Romulus was dying on the Field of Mars, clouds came, the sun disappeared and the sky went dark, and thunder clapped (Plutarch, 27.6-7; Ovid, Fasti, 4:492-96); he disappeared in a mist or cloud (Livy, 1.16). When Jesus was dying, darkness came over the land, and at the moment of his death the earth shook (Mt 27:45, 51). He ascended to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9).
  • When Romulus died, his body (and clothing) disappeared and people wondered what had happened. After Jesus died, his body could not be found in the tomb, and people apparently suspected that the disciples had stolen it. So Matthew countered that notion by having Pilate station guards at the tomb (27:63-66). After the body nevertheless disappeared, the guards were bribed to claim that the disciples stole it while they were asleep (Mt 28:12:13).
  • After Romulus disappeared and his body could not be found, the confused people hurried away from the Field of Mars (Plutarch, 27.7-8). This aspect of the event was so famous and important that, according to some ancient accounts, the day was celebrated as a holiday annually throughout the Roman world as the day of “The People’s Flight” (Poplifugia), thus ensconcing Romulus’s ascension as the quintessential resurrection story in the Roman world. The original ending of Mark, where the women fled the tomb upon discovering that the body was missing, may be modeled on this tradition, thus also implying that Jesus was taken up.
  • The people concluded that Romulus had become a god and ascended to heaven, and began to worship him (Plutarch, 27.7-8; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.808-28; Litwa, p. 168). This parallels Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and subsequent worship of him (e.g., Mt. 28:17; Luke 24:45-53; Acts 1:1-8). In both cases there are eyewitnesses to the ascension (see immediately below).
  • After the death of Romulus, his intimate friend Julius Proculus reported that while traveling on the road he had seen Romulus coming toward him. When he asks Romulus what had happened, Romulus replies, “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. . . . And I will be your propitious deity, [called] Quirinus” (Plutarch, 28.1-3). As noted, sightings of resurrected humans, particularly on a road, were a common feature in such Greco-Roman translation fables. This recalls the encounter of two disciples with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-49), as well as St. Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-19).
  • Romulus offers Proculus (and Rome generally) parting advice and instructions (Plutarch, 28.2; Ovid, Fasti, 2:505-09). This parallels the parting instructions that the resurrected Christ gave to his disciples (Mk 16:14-18; Mt 28:18-20; Jn 20:21). Both Romulus and Christ rose to heaven after giving their instructions (Acts 1:9).
  • In both cases, their admirers recognized his divinity after his death and resurrection, calling him the son of God (Litwa, pp. 164, 166-67) (of Mars in Romulus’s case (Livy, 1:16)). In Mark (15:39) and Matthew (27:54) even the Roman centurion testified to this.
  • Both Romulus and Christ were resurrected and immortalized bodily (corporeally). This was a useful parallel because the Christians taught that the resurrected Christ existed in bodily as well as spiritual form, whereas the Greeks in general thought that the soul is immaterial and that an immortal exists only as spirit after death.

Interestingly, after relating the story of Romulus’s death and translation, Plutarch raises doubts about its historicity because it appears to parallel similar stories that were told about various Greek men and women who disappeared upon dying, including Alcmene (mother of Heracles), Aristeas of Proconnesus, and Cleomedes of Astypaleia; in other words, because the story was following familiar mythological motifs (28:4-6). The Church father Tertullian also noted that both Romulus and Jesus reportedly were taken up to heaven in a cloud, but argued that this was “far more certain” to have occurred Christ’s case than in that of Romulus (21.23).

The Romans began regarding some of their emperors (the better ones) as divine. Sometimes emperors were considered divine while still alive, but more commonly they were deified after their death; sometimes they claimed divine ancestry. In this capacity, the emperor was called the “Son of God”; Augustus put this title on coinage bearing his image.

This practice of deifying emperors presented a challenge for Christians. When Christ’s followers decided that he was the divine Son of God, this placed Christ in direct competition with the emperors. For Christians, Christ rather than any emperor was the divine Son of God, and this competition shaped how Christians packaged their myth. As Bart Ehrman observed, Christians were elevating Christ to divinity “under the influence and in dialogue with the environment in which they lived” (p. 49). Christ had to be portrayed as greater than any emperor. One consequence was that the moment when he became divine was pushed back further and further in time. Instead of becoming divine upon his resurrection as seems to have been the case initially (Rom 1:4; Acts 13:33), the moment when he became divine was pushed back to his baptism, then to his conception in Mary’s womb, and finally to even before the creation when he was a divinity in heaven (Jn 1:1-3). No emperor was able to make such a grand claim.

The use of the Greco-Roman model in telling the resurrection story does not necessarily mean that the mere event of the resurrection was invented out of whole cloth by writers from the gentile world many years after Jesus’s death. Nobody in the gentile world outside Palestine would have heard or cared about the provincial peasant Jesus unless a strong tradition about him had already evolved in Jesus’s homeland, which despite the tradition of Jesus as a teacher ultimately seems to have been centered on belief in his resurrection. Paul had heard the resurrection story only a few years after Jesus’s death, when he was persecuting members of the Jesus movement. Most New Testament scholars think that belief in the resurrection most likely originated among Jesus’s followers, who were illiterate and not well versed in classical culture, and spread from there. The building blocks in the telling of the story as we have it, however, do follow the classical template.

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Diodorus of Halicarnassus, Roman Histories.

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

Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (2003).

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

Livy, History of Rome.

MacDonald, Dennis. Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2015).

Miller, Richard. Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity. New York: Routledge (2015).

Ovid, Fasti.

Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Plutarch, Romulus.

Shapiro, H.A. “’Hêrôs Theos’: The Death and Apotheosis of Herakles,” The Classical World 77:7-18 (1983).

Smith, Jonathan. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1990).

Tertullian, Apology.

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My New Article Just Published

Some time ago the Joseph Campbell Foundation asked me to write a short article for its MythBlast series, on the occasion of celebrating Joseph Campbell’s birthday this month. The article was just published yesterday. It is entitled The Mythology of Celebration, and it discusses the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays and how we can celebrate them more meaningfully and spiritually by understanding and participating in the myths underlying them. See it here. The article is something of a preview of my upcoming book called The Dance of the Horae: The Mythology of our Seasonal Holidays.


The Horae were originally Greek deities tied to the vegetative seasonal cycle, which itself was known as The Dance of the Horae. The Horae were said to dance their way through the course of the seasons. Painting by Edward John Poynter, Horae Serenae (1894).

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Mythology of Wine Lecture, March 13, 2019

Readers of this blog will recall that I wrote five posts late last year about the mythology of wine (listed below the flyer). Now on March 13, 2019, at 5:30 p.m., at Carr Winery in Santa Ynez, California, I’ll be giving a talk about the mythology of wine that will include but go beyond what was in my earlier blog posts. And you may also enjoy Carr wine during the event! I look forward to seeing some of you there!

Carr Winery talk flyer

The Mythology of Wine – A First Sip

The Mythology of Wine II: Ancient Canaan and Old Testament Israel

The Mythology of Wine III: Ancient Egypt

The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece

The Mythology of Wine V: Wine in the Mythology of Christ

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Christmas Mythology VI: Myth, Our Self, and the Divine Child

Our Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus the Divine Child. The Divine Child is an archetypal figure in myth and psychology, for good reason. If we tend to him properly, he can help integrate our psyches and enhance our spirituality. The Christmas holiday prompts us to do so. There is no better Christmas gift to ourselves.

From the mythological, psychological, and spiritual perspectives, the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus together with his suffering and resurrection can be understood as representing the integration of our total psyche (the “Self”, capitalized), specifically the integration of the unconscious part of our psyche with the conscious part (the “self,” not capitalized) (Jung  1969a, pp. 36-71). Carl Jung called this integration process “individuation,” which results in a person reaching a higher level of consciousness and self-awareness, and being more advanced spiritually. As a symbol of the Self, Christ represents both the dynamic process of individuation as well as the result, the more integrated Self. This endeavor can be considered “religious” in nature because at the deepest level of our collective (transpersonal) unconscious lies an archetype of unity and totality that Jung calls the “God-image,” which is the deepest source of our numinous experiences of “divinity,” and the integration process draws upon it (see Edinger 1996a). Numinous experiences have a lasting emotional impact on us and drive much of our thinking and behavior, including in the individuation process. This happens in everyone, atheists included, and it is the realm that mystics from various religious and non-religious traditions access during their sacred experiences, including in some forms of meditation.

The Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Christmas story begins when Mary becomes pregnant, known as the incarnation. In these Gospels, Jesus was both human and divine at his creation in the womb. In both accounts, this happened through the action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in order to understand the incarnation (and so too the Christmas event) from a mytho-psychological perspective, we first must understand the Holy Spirit from that perspective.

The Holy Spirit is a creative divine force or energy that acts as a mediating agent between God and the cosmos, especially humans. In the New Testament, Jesus is both conceived and baptized through the Holy Spirit. He performs his miracles through it (e.g., Mt 12:28; Lk 11:20; Acts 10:38), and confers it upon his disciples when commissioning them to preach and perform healings (Mt 10:1, 20; 28:16-20; Lk 9:1-2). It descends upon the disciples at Pentecost, which enables them to proclaim the gospel, including in many foreign tongues (Acts 2:1-13). St. Paul spread the gospel through it, and he said that it dwells within Christians, who can then live as Christs (e.g., Rom 8:9-11). The Spirit was intended to have a continuing effect and provide ongoing guidance, in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16-17, 26) (Jung 1969a, pp. 88-89). The Spirit has a deifying effect, which is noticeable to others. This was exemplified when Paul and Barnabas, who carried the Spirit, were mistaken for gods (Zeus and Hermes). Those who saw them remarked, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11).

In psychological terms, the Holy Spirit is the psychic energy (libido) that brings “divine” archetypal unconscious content into consciousness. Technically it is not the substantive unconscious content itself, but is the carrier of varied contents from various archetypes; yet the contents and the psychic energy hit consciousness together, so the two are inseparable and “operationally they are synonymous” (Corbett 1996, p. 15). It is literally felt somatically, in the body, indeed an incarnation. The result is an overwhelming numinous emotional experience. When this content and spirit incarnate, they take on a personally meaningful quality that psychologists call “soul.” Soul has a lasting effect on ego consciousness and also grows over time as new content is integrated, which is why the Christian myth can speak of the Paraclete. On the other hand, to the extent a person fails to integrate archetypal unconscious content, he or she is said to suffer a loss (or lack) of soul. This is characterized by a lack of energy and motivation, listlessness, and often some degree of depression, because one’s ego consciousness has no inspiration or inner guide.

More technically, these archetypal contents and spirit form the core of complexes that structure our personality (Corbett 1996, p. 60). This means that what we know as the “divine” forms the structure of our minds, and hence also the character of what we think of as the external world. In particular, when an archetype is felt strongly, to ego consciousness it feels like something “other,” as if it is from the external world, when actually it is external only to ego consciousness. Hence the appearance of external divine beings, including the God-man. When we perceive the “Holy Spirit” as something external affecting someone else, we are projecting this psychic energy onto heroic figures (Jesus, Paul), often using solar imagery. Idealized people are seen as the carriers (or even the source) of spirit, and of divinity itself (Corbett 1996, pp. 150-51). This gets us to the Divine Child figure, to be considered shortly below.

Divine Child in Manger and Adoration of the Magi

Nativity scenes typically show signs of the presence of divinity (halos, angels, the star and light from it). The magi represent the recognition and acceptance of the Divine Child; so do the angels, from the heavenly perspective. The donkey and ox are humble animals who serve people, and so represent the humbleness of the ego needed in order to accept the Divine Child and achieve integration. Lambs and oxes are also sacrificial animals, so Christ was considered a sacrificial lamb. The ego must sacrifice part of itself to achieve integration.

While in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels Christ’s incarnation was literalized as a one-time historical event, mythologically and psychologically the implication is that incarnation can occur in any and all of us. St. Paul’s teachings come close to this. Further, we see other versions of such incarnation in various mythic and religious traditions, which suggests that the process of incarnation of the “divine” is an archetypal psychic process. Thus, in ancient Egypt the king was the god Horus born to a mortal woman, and in India Vishnu incarnated at times of need, while a Bodhisattva incarnates in order to liberate humanity (Corbett 1996, p. 128). The archetypal nature of the Christ story is also evidenced by Christianity’s spread and acceptance in the many cultures of the Mediterranean. As Jung put it, “Christ would never have made the impression he did on his followers if he had not expressed something that was alive and at work in their unconscious. Christianity itself would never have spread through the pagan world with such astonishing rapidity had its ideas not found an analogous psychic readiness to receive them” (Jung 1969b, p. 441). As a result, Christians were able to live more spiritually integrated lives.

More specifically from the mythological standpoint, the incarnation of Jesus was considered a kind of second creation. The first creation marked the emergence of ego consciousness, through which we are able to see opposites, as seen by Adam and Eve gaining the “knowledge of good and evil” in the Eden myth. Jesus was seen as the second Adam (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45). Jesus as the second Adam works mythologically because he represents a yet higher, more integrated consciousness, and therefore also a more developed and differentiated God-image. His birth through incarnation of the divine marks the dawn of this higher consciousness, quite literally a spiritual birth; he is thus available as a symbol of the Self. With that understanding, we can now consider the meaning of Jesus exemplifying the Divine Child.

            The Birth of Jesus and the Divine Child Motif                                              

The archetypal figure of the “Divine Child” has great importance in myth and psychology. The child archetype is an emanation from the collective unconscious (Jung 1959b), meaning that “divine” child figures arise from it, in miraculous births (Jung 1959b, p. 161 n. 21). A child represents the “potential future” (Jung 1959b, p. 164). Within us, the Divine Child represents “the preconscious, childhood aspect of the collective psyche” (Jung 1959b, p. 161), meaning content of the collective unconscious that is not yet integrated with ego consciousness. The Divine Child is a “symbol of unity” to be born from the tension of opposites (Jung 1969a, p. 31), thus giving hope of change for the better. Hence he is a savior figure who promises to provoke integration and redeem us.

But the Divine Child does more than represent potential: His coming actually initiates the individuation process because of the incarnation. The Divine Child is a numinous symbol resulting from this moment, representing the wholeness that can achieved from it. Since in this moment humans feel the divine, it is only natural that it will be mythologized, historicized, and celebrated through a sacred holiday.

When unconscious content rises up, it needs to be recognized and accepted by ego consciousness in order to be integrated and embodied as soul. Thus, when the Divine Child appears he must be recognized, accepted, and adored. In the Christmas story, we see this process at work in the accounts of the adorations of the magi and the shepherds, as well as the chorus of angels (Corbett 1996, p. 149). This also appears to be happening when the fetus John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb just as the pregnant Mary appears before John’s mother Elizabeth (Lk 1:41).

When confronted with such powerful unconscious material, ego consciousness will suffer. When the Divine Child appears, inevitably he will clash with “the establishment” of our ego consciousness – the Pharisees, scribes, priesthood, and Romans of our self – which will oppose and reject him in order to preserve the status quo (i.e., the ego’s dominant position). This is why in the “birth of the hero” mythological motif the special child is abandoned back to nature (i.e., back to the unconscious), often to be brought up by animals or otherwise in primitive conditions. This same process is reflected in the story of Herod and the massacre of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. Herod, the reigning King of the Jews, fears Jesus as a threat to his kingship; he and the Romans are ego consciousness running rampant. Such is the precariousness of individuation. But the nature of culture heroes is to overcome this opposition in order to bring benefits to humankind, including higher consciousness.  Accordingly, the child-hero inevitably breaks free and evolves toward independence, and so in the “birth of the hero” motif he is often described as gaining in wisdom and accomplishing extraordinary deeds at a young age, like Jesus.

It is the Divine Child figure in particular who can accomplish this because in a young child the ego is only budding, not yet dominant, and so is still more integrated with the unconscious; the opposites are not yet sharply contrasted. Being in such a state, a child appropriately represents not merely the potential for wholeness of the Self, but also the way to achieve this. He is well-suited for the task because he is carried by powerful numinous spirit (psychic energy) yet is less threatening that much other archetypal content.

Accordingly, Jesus uses child imagery in his teachings. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 18:4 that “unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (likewise Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17; Gospel of Thomas 22, 46.2). Mark’s Gospel provides a larger narrative context for this metaphor of integration. The enacted “parable of the child amongst” in Mark 9:33-37 can be read according to this psychological framework. In verse 34 the disciples’ egos are driving their behavior, so they are seeking greatness and preeminence, which hinders their spiritual growth. So Jesus teaches them that if anyone would be first, he first must be last and be a humble servant. (In the ancient household, where this scene takes place, a child has the lowest status.) So as Jesus the God-man physically embraces a child in a house, he teaches that a person first must identify oneself with a child and in an important sense become mentally like one, with the ego having no pretensions to greatness. Psychologically, the story shows the need to tame ego consciousness by becoming like a child so that self-aware individuation can occur. This can establish a new pattern for human relationships that will leave no occasion for strife, which is what at the beginning of this story had been occurring among the disciples.

The goal of the individuation process in New Testament terms is the Kingdom of God. Psychologically speaking, this is the point where the Self has become integrated. This is why, for example, Jesus can say that there is no marriage in the Kingdom of God; instead people will exist there like angels in heaven (Mk 12:25). The opposites, in this marriage example the masculine and feminine principles, will have been resolved and integrated. The idea is similar in religions worldwide. In Hinduism, for example, the Divine Child Ganesha is born from the spirit of his father Shiva and part of the body (earth) of his mother Parvati. He is a unity not only of male and female, but also of spirit and matter, and of heaven and earth. As such, he represents the integration of opposites in the psyche and the path toward spiritual enlightenment (see generally Lilla 2016).

In summary, the conception and birth of the Divine Child represent the incarnation of the divine within ourselves. This birth is a spiritual birth, both his and potentially ours. This Child symbolizes potential for our future. Recognizing and accepting him, as the magi did, results in integration. Christians concretized this in terms of the future realization of the Kingdom of God, or salvation by going to heaven. Psychologically, however, this is an internal affair. Jesus himself spoke in such terms, telling the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, he taught:

  • “When you give rise to that which is in you, what you have will save you” (Saying 70).
  • “The kingdom is within you. . . . When you know yourselves, . . . you will know that you are the sons of the living Father” (Saying 3).

Observing Christmas offers us the chance to focus on our own incarnation by celebrating the Divine Child. He is born not in a far-off place, but within ourselves. We each can have our individual way of “putting Christ back into Christmas.”

Sources and Bibliography      

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

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

———. The New God-Image: A Study of Jung’s Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications (1996) (cited as Edinger 1996a).

———. The Aion Lectures: Exploring the Self in C.G. Jung’s Aion. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books (1996) (cited as Edinger 1996b).

Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).

Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959). Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1, pp. 111-47 (cited as Jung 1959a).

———. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959). CW, vol. 9.1, pp.149-81 (cited as Jung 1959b).

———. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (1969). CW, vol. 9.2 (cited as Jung 1969a).

———. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East (1969). CW, vol. 11, pp. 355-470 (cited as Jung 1969b).

Lilla, Jenna. “Baby Ganesha: divine child as image of enlightenment” (2016). Blog post at

Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).

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