Philo and the Gospel of John

Dionysus

Dionysus

While reading Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth, I came across a couple of interesting passages which I felt were worth reflecting on and sharing here.

“The historical study of comparative religion likes to claim the myth of Dionysus as a pre-Christian parallel to the story of Cana. Dionysus was the god who was supposed to have discovered the vine and also to have changed water in wine–a mythical event that was also celebrated liturgically. The great Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (ca. 13 BC- AD 45/50) gave this story a demythologizing reinterpretation: The true giver of wine, Philo says, is the divine Logos; he is the one who gives us the joy, the sweetness, and the cheerfulness of true wine. Philo then goes on to anchor his Logos theology onto a figure from salvation history, onto Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine. In Melchizedek it is the Logos who is acting and giving us the gifts that are essential for human living. By the same token, the Logos appears as the priest of a cosmic liturgy.

“Whether John had such a background in mind is doubtful, to say the least. But since Jesus himself in interpreting his mission referred to Psalm 110, which features the priesthood of Melchizedek (cf. Mk 12:35-37); since the Letter to the Hebrews, which is theologically akin to the Gospel of John, explicitly develops a theology of Melchizedek; since John presents Jesus as the Logos of God and as God himself; since, finally, the Lord gave bread and wine as the bearers of the New Covenant, it is certainly not forbidden to think in terms of such connections and so to see shining through the Cana story the mystery of the Logos and of this cosmic liturgy, which fundamentally transforms the myth of Dionysus, and yet also brings it to its hidden truth.” (253-4)

As I noted in a post earlier this week on “Pagan Christianity”, I don’t think that parallels between (in this instance) Dionysus and Christ should be too concerning (historical dependence, perhaps; parallels, no). But Ratzinger’s notation of Philo’s interpretation of this Greek myth, and especially his recasting it as the work of the Logos. I’ve long been interested in trying to figure out what John is doing in his Gospel–obviously presenting the Good News of Christ, but there are some interesting literary features which I am yet to have sufficiently explained to me. Could it be that John is relying on Philo’s “re-writing” of the Dionysus myth to present Jesus as the Logos? I’m not sure at this point, but it’s certainly something which warrants further investigation.

What do you think about the possibility that John’s Gospel relies upon Philo’s work? How would that impact your perspective on the authority of John? How would the recasting of a pagan myth in the text of a gospel influence your thinking and theology?

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4 thoughts on “Philo and the Gospel of John

  1. It very well could rely on Philo’s work. It certainly relies on the Synoptic gospels, especially Luke. It has all the signs of Gnostic wisdom literature, where a heavenly entity is sent to reveal secrets of divine knowledge (Holy Spirit, the advocate (paraclete), Lazarus “the disciple whom Jesus loves…”

    Compare the story of Lazarus with that of a parable in Luke 16, where Abraham refuses to resurrect the beggar Lazarus and send him as a sign, requested by the rich man in torment in the flames of hell. The story of Lazarus in John is basically a reverse mirrored image of the parable in Luke, in which case Jesus resurrects Lazarus and explicitly states it’s a sign proving his identity as the Son of God. It’s much more than just simply a parallel. The author of John wrote a narrative account of the life of Jesus the way he wanted to, reworking the stories and themes of the Synoptics while also reinterpreting the spiritual theology. John even inserted his witness into the empty tomb narrative in Luke where originally, Peter had returned to the tomb alone (Lk 24:9-12.)

    Interesting. Can a gospel be trusted where a fictional character in a parable is turned into a living witness to the life of Jesus, and tells us to believe these things really happened? All the other Gnostic gospels were left out of the official canon for containing heretical teachings. John’s gospel just barely made it in when the books of the New Testament was being compiled. You may have discovered all of this information already, as this post is over 6 months old. Either way, just thought I’d attempt to enlighten you.

    – H.

      • I apologize for the grammatical flub. I meant “… when the books of the New Testament WERE being compiled.”

        Always fun to do these investigations. I have written something on Luke-Acts that you may or may not find interesting. Fairly new to blogging, but looking forward to being an (unknown) contributor to the blogosphere.

        Be well.

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