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 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

Originally, Dionysus seems to have been not only 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 (an exclusive club) 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 version of 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 depicted as 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

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

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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.

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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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12 Responses to The Mythology of Wine VII: The Wine Miracles of Dionysus and Jesus Compared

  1. Amazing! One can really see how layers of previous myths lead up to many beliefs humans hold dear today.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Manu says:

    Absolutely the best article written about Dionysus and Jesus and their wine making! You are truly a scholar and your commitment to truth is admirable! I’ve been trying to find a source that would irrefutably prove that Dionysus turned water into wine before Jesus did, but haven’t had any luck.. ideally some source written before 20 AD.. so, my question is this, “is there a definite source that can be cited to prove that Dionysus turned water into wine before it was said that Jesus did.. Or is the proof in piecing together context clues?” Any help that you can provide will be appreciated fully.. Thank You so much for your time sir.


    • Anonymous says:

      Christian scholars claim the Gospels were written in the first century, this is mostly false. Matthew and Luke were written in the second century. The text “Most excellent Theophilis” is one clue, he was Theophilis of Antioch who existed in the second century. The Gospel of Marcion is the first recorded gospel, written in the second century. Christian scholars claim that Marcion plagiarized Luke and removed his birth narrative. This is also false. Compare Luke and Matthews narrative together, obvious fiction. The fictional narrative was added on after Marcion. There’s also more detailed evidence, but those were the most obvious to me. Dionysis came first.


    • Thanks, Manu, for your comments and question. The Dionysus examples listed in my post are the ones that I’ve found so far. They all predate 20 CE except perhaps Leucippe and Clitophon, while the latter is the only instance in which the miracle occurs right in front of a person. The other miracles are still attributable to Dionysus; we just don’t see him, and people are also not there at the moment of the transformation. This seems to be why the account of Jesus’s miracle is structured so as to be more striking and superior.


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