This Is My Flesh: John’s Eucharist and the Dionysus Cult
by Jae Hyung Cho
(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2022), $22, 155 pp.
The supposed influence of paganism upon the Bible is a perennial fascination. It is an area of biblical studies which has some popular purchase outside of the Church: The osmosis of The Da Vinci Code means few Christians have been spared the experience of someone helpfully enlightening them that Christmas is really just a Constantinian Saturnalia, or that Horus had already been there, done it, and got the T-shirt when it came to Easter. Yet the idea of pagan influence on the gospels’ account of Jesus has academic currency beyond mere cocktail conversation: In This Is My Flesh: John’s Eucharist and the Dionysus Cult, Jae Hyung Cho advances the argument that “the Johannine Eucharist is influenced by the sacred meal tradition and the Dionysus cult in Greco-Roman religion, which is different from the Synoptics and Paul’s writings that focus on Jewish Passover meal traditions.”(ix) The evidence Cho cites is drawn from various sources. He uses the work of Walter Burkert and other historians of Greek religion to adduce statements about the eating of flesh (omophagia) in the worship of Dionysus, and the Greek conception of sacrifice (thysia) as a sharing in the god. Following Morton Smith, he cites the 2nd century novel of Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, which includes the story of Dionysus transforming water to wine and refers to wine as the “blood of the grape.” He also takes inspiration from Rudolf Bultmann and the now largely discredited Religionsgeschichtliche Schule of Göttingen in the mid-20th century, following Bultmann’s preference for the Greco-Roman world as an ostensibly more informative context than Jewish culture for interpreting John’s gospel, especially for passages that have been connected with the Christian eucharist, such as the changing of the water to wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2) and the discourse about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood (John 6). For these passages, Cho argues that “the Dionysian influence overwhelms the Jewish wine tradition,” since the audience of John’s gospel was primarily Gentiles and Hellenized Jews, so that “the wine miracle of Dionysus was more apparent to them than were the echoes of the Old Testament.”(89)
There are several issues at play here. Cho assumes that since the Jewish world of the NT was “Hellenized,” it can be fairly assumed that Dionysiac overtones would have resonated with meaning for the original audience. This is a naive understanding of how Hellenization worked in the Jewish world of the NT. For instance, Euripides’ Bacchae was the most well-known and popular Greek tragedy in the Hellenistic period. Its lines and images were highly familiar throughout the entire Greek-speaking world, and it is not at all implausible that some of this imagery should have found its way into the NT, much as we might well find Christian pastors in our own day making reference to Star Wars or other popular culture. That mention of wine conjured up Dionysian resonances is indeed plausible. It is another question, however, how deep or significant such cultural resonances are for understanding the NT gospels. Cho, however, shows no hesitation:
“Jesus’ wine miracle in John 2:1–11 is one of the most remarkable Dionysiac images in the Bible. The motif that Jesus turns water into wine does not come from the Jewish tradition, but originates from a typical Dionysiac legend. Hengel’s arguments show that Palestinian Judaism and Christianity adapted the wine miracle of the Dionysiac cult under the massive Hellenistic stream.” (128)
Cho here appeals to Martin Hengel, one of the giants of 20th century NT studies in Germany, to support his claim that the source of Jesus’ miracle at Cana is “Dionysiac imagery” and “not the Jewish tradition.” But this is exactly what Hengel’s arguments do not do. On the contrary, Hengel explicitly states that “The fact that the Septuagint already interpreted the much-hated Canaanite cults with terms derived from the mysteries of Dionysius shows that Greek-speaking Judaism saw his mysteries as dangerous competition.” By selective quotation, however, Cho makes it seem as though Hengel were in agreement with his claim that Bacchic symbolism was an influence on the fourth gospel’s presentation of Jesus. Cho writes, “Hengel’s statement shows that because of their familiarity with wine, Jews could easily accept the wine miracle, which implies that the Dionysus cult had already widely influenced the Jewish religion.” (90) In fact, Hengel says no such thing. Rather, he claims that “The wine and vine play an important role in connection with the Jewish expectation of the Messiah.” In proof of this, Hengel adduces Genesis 49, where Jacob blesses Judah by saying that
“In wine he washes his garments,Gen. 49:11-12
His robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine…”
This passage antedates the rise of the cult of Dionysus in classical Greece, let alone the Hellenization of Palestine. Far from being evidence of Bacchic influences on the gospels, it shows that Judaism had a rich complex of messianic wine-symbolism from the Hebrew Bible without any need of Hellenic influences. It is this Hebraic wine-background, and not Bacchic religion, that is the basis for the appearance of “the wine-cup, pitcher, grape-leaf, and grape […] on the coins of the uprisings of 66-73 and 132-135.” These Jewish rebellions against Roman rule were motivated by eschatological-Messianic considerations and were fueled in part by anti-Gentile animus reminiscent of the Maccabaean revolt of the 2nd century BC. It is true that there were Jews who attempted to identify YHWH with Dionysus in the 2nd century BC. However, the Maccabees crushed those Jews and branded them as apostates.
In other instances, Cho turns a deaf ear to the details of the Biblical text. For instance, he claims that the intended audience of John’s gospel is Gentile Christians, for whom “changing water to wine is the clear sign of Dionysus.” (91) The phrase “water pots according to the purification of the Jews” (John 2:6), however, is a signal that the miracle at Cana should be understood in light of its Jewish cultural context; likewise, the rebuke spoken by Jesus to his mother is a distinctively Jewish idiom, τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί; (2:4), a phrase which serves to link the entire story to another account of the transformation of water in 2 Kings 3. There is thus extensive Hebraic background to the story that accounts for its diction and imagery in minute detail. Yet Cho prefers the loose parallel of Dionysian imagery. The result of this mistaken choice will be to mislead readers by the introduction of Bacchic overtones that were never intended by the gospel writer or heard by his original readers.
It is typical of Cho’s Bacchanalomania that he misrepresents the significance and volume of similarities. For instance, he follows Dennis Smith and Hal Taussig in their attempt to characterize the Christian Eucharist as a meal shaped by the influence of the Greco-Roman symposium. This is already a methodological blind alley, for the things in common between Greco-Roman commissationes/symposia and the Christian Eucharist are unmarked—i.e. noise, not signal—while the load-bearing and meaningful aspects are derived from the Passover and from Jesus’ own ministry, as they had to be, since these were the sources of the Eucharist’s covenantal, redemptive-historical, and ritual meanings. It is true that the Greco-Roman background provides the posture of reclining—which, however, the Jews treated as symbolic of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt (m.Pes. 10.1, b.Pes. 99b), thereby filling even a Greco-Roman custom with covenantal significance in terms of Israel’s scriptures. Cho, however, goes beyond even Smith and Taussig, and attempts to link the Eucharist to sacred meals in honor of Dionysus:
“Western Christianity oppressed [sic] the Dionysiac features (such as madness and emotion), and focused on reason and beauty, characteristics of the god Apollo. However, by seeing Jesus in the Dionysiac tradition, one may better understand the cannibalistic language and mood in the Johannine Eucharist and Jesus’ tragic death and resurrection in the broad Greco-Roman concept, which lead the reader to the inclusive religious dimentions [sic].” (134)
It is as though Cho has two dials on his stereo receiver, one to control the volume of Jewish/Biblical parallels and another to control the volume of Greco-Roman and Bacchic ones. He has turned the former down to zero and cranked up the latter to eleven. Thus, “In John 12:12–17, with waving palm branches (12:13), the followers of Jesus greeted him as he rode on the back of a donkey just as the satyrs waving ivy branches acclaimed Dionysus who was also sitting on a mule.” (88) On the contrary, as NT Wright puts it, “Within his own time and culture, [Jesus] riding on a donkey over the Mount of Olives, across Kidron, and up to the Temple mount spoke more powerfully than words could have done of a royal claim. The allusion to Zechariah (and, with that, several other passages) is obvious.” It is a mistake to imagine that anyone in Jerusalem witnessing the arrival of Jesus on a donkey would have thought, “Aha! He is imitating Dionysus!” They were too busy thinking about Israel’s king in Zechariah. As for the similarities Cho points out, they arise from the shared imagery of every arriving and victorious ruler. But this is not very marked or deeply significant: any number of other triumphant monarchs might have been adduced with equal plausibility. By contrast, Jesus’ selection of a donkey as the steed of choice is a careful echo of the details of Zechariah 9:9—all the more so in Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus carefully adds a donkey colt to his train as well (Mt. 21:5-7), in order to embody the full Hebraic parallelism from Zechariah (“a donkey…a colt, the foal of a donkey”). No one in Jerusalem missed the meaning. They hailed Jesus with “Hosanna to the Son of David!” — and not with “Euoi!”
Mistaken though I believe Cho’s central thesis to be, it remains the case that there are some details of the fourth gospel that cannot easily be explained by recourse to the Jewish background. Chief among these is the overtly cannibalistic language of John 6. Cho’s explanation of this as an echo of omophagia, the consumption of raw meat by maenads and other worshipers of Dionysus, is not entirely convincing, not least because he does not explore or adduce ancient Greek texts about it, but only cites claims from E.R. Dodds and Walter Otto, without a close examination of the texts on which they are based. For instance, Cho cites Otto and Mayerson claiming that omophagia “was supposed to bestow upon its participants the power of the god who had been killed and eaten” and “make the worshippers experience Dionysus’ divinity and his own life drama.” (46) These are evocative claims that characterize the working of omophagia as congruent to Christian understandings of the Eucharist as participation in Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:16). Without detailed examination of the textual basis for these claims, however, they are hard to evaluate.
Setting to one side such unproven claims of similarity between omophagia and the Eucharist, Cho is correct to say that cannibalistic language of John 6:53-56 is difficult to explain from Jewish sources. To gloss it as a piece of Hellenic syncretism, however, creates even larger and more scandalous problems. It is best to consider the Greek cult of Dionysus a piece of praeparatio evangeliae rather than a major influence on the fourth gospel.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Colvin (PhD Cornell University) is a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church and is a Visiting Fellow at Davenant Hall. He is the author of The Lost Supper (Fortress, 2019). He lives on Vancouver Island. He will be teaching an upcoming summer Davenant Hall course on “Pastoral Epistles and Early Church Polity.” You can register for the class here. Registration ends June 17th.
M. Hengel, Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the Pre-Christian Period, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1980), 72. ↑
For discussion, see Hengel, Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians, 103, with citation of 3 Macc. 2:32. ↑
See my remarks on this idiom here: https://colvinism.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/on-the-meaning-of-τί-ἐμοὶ-καὶ-σοί-in-john-24/ ↑
With apologies to Samuel Sandmel. ↑
E.g. the essays collected in Dennis Smith and Hal Taussig, Meals in the Early Christian World (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012) and Smith and Taussig, Many Tables: The Eucharist in the NT and the Liturgy Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001). ↑
“Volume” is one of seven criteria of intertextual echoes famously proposed by Richard Hays in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yake U. Press, 1993), 29-31. The others are availability, recurrence, thematic coherence, historical plausibility, the history of interpretation, and satisfaction (i.e. exegetical payoff). How many does Cho’s book satisfy? ↑
N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), ch. 11.3.2. ↑
Less than satisfying accounts of the passage have been given by Dunn, Bauckham, and, I confess, the present writer. See Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), ch. 5 (“Sacraments?”); James D.G. Dunn, “John 6: A Eucharistic Discourse?” New Testament Studies 17 (1971), 328-38; and Matthew Colvin, The Lost Supper: Revisiting Passover and the Origins of the Eucharist (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019), 111-118. ↑