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Dionysus (Eph 5/18)

"And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be ye filled with the Spirit" (Eph 5:18).
Possibly Paul is referring to something quite explicit rather than merely warning against drunkenness, necessary as such warning may have been. Considering the cultural background of first-century Ephesus, it may well be that Paul has in mind the wild, drunken practices connected with the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine.

Dionysus was not an invention of the Greeks, but probably had his origins in Thracia, Lydia, or Phrygia. (The equivalent Lydian name is "Bacchus".)

The name "Dionysus" signifies "son of Zeus". The worship of Dionysus spread throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, and even remote India (Cleon L. Rogers, Jr, "The Dionysian Background of Ephesians 5:18", Bibliotheca Sacra, July-September 1979, pp 250,251).

The city of Ephesus itself was filled with the worship, not only of Diana (or Artemis), but also of Dionysus -- according to the ancient historian Plutarch.

The cult of Dionysus was so widespread and common that anything having to do with grapes or wine was at once connected in the popular mind with the worship of the wine-god. To talk of wine and drinking immediately brought Dionysian expressions into the conversation, and to live a riotous, wanton, debauched life was characterized as being a "Dionysian" (Ibid, p 253). Witness also the English "bacchanalian", from Bacchus. JB Norris speaks of the social gatherings of the heathen, "where idolatrous rites were practised and the singing waxed merry and lewd" (FCE 123,124).

As with the worship of Diana, that of Dionysus was heavily sexual. This worship, like. the nature religions of the Canaanites, with emphasis on pornographic images and vulgar songs, was supposed to please the god so that he would grant to his devotees the gifts of health and fertility (Jonathan Goldstein, I Maccabees, The Anchor Bible, p 133).

Another feature of the festivals was wild, frenzied dancing and uncontrolled ravings, in connection with wine drinking and heated music. This activity was expected to induce Dionysus to enter the body of the worshipper and fill him with his "spirit", so that he would partake of the god's strength, wisdom, and abilities. The person so affected would be able to speak inspired prophecy, with poetic genius (CEph 115). One result of such a "service" was the feeling of release from the pressures and stresses of the drudgery of daily life (Rogers, p 255).

If this is indeed the cultural background of Eph 5:18, then the inclusion of this verse in Paul's letter is not as sudden or incidental as it might first appear. Rather, the entire context now takes on a new light:
"Excess" refers to the dissipation of a life habitually given over to drink. The word "asotia" literally means "without salvation", or "incurable" -- a fit description for the behavior of the follower of Dionysus: "an abandoned, dissolute life" (EM Spongberg, Ephesians, p 99).

The idolater believed that, by drink and wanton behavior, he could be filled with Dionysus, thereby being "inspired" to poetic or artistic heights and forgetting the ordinariness of daily life. But Paul says, the true believer should be "filled with the Spirit", so as to know true wisdom and true fellowship with God, being "lifted up to heaven", not literally but in spirit (Eph 1:3,20; 2:6). [There is a sense in which even twentieth-century believers may be "filled with the Spirit", and that is, as Paul elsewhere tells the Ephesians: "the eyes of your understanding being enlightened" (1:18); "that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith" (3:17); that you will be "renewed in the spirit of your mind" (4:23); etc.]

Instead of the "sexy" drinking songs of Dionysus, the true believer must sing "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph 5:19).

Immorality, either in thought or deed, is not the way of approach to the true God. Rather, the marriage relationship is the gift of God for the realization of righteous joy (Eph 5:22-33).


It should be easy to see that what has been discussed here is not mere first-century history. Take only a passing glance at the "entertainment" of our western world -- its inordinate consumption of alcohol and drugs; its "rock music" and accompanying lewd posturings (euphemistically called "dance"); 2nd its deification of the naked body, and of sexual attraction and prowess! Truly Dionysus is "alive and well" today; he just goes by other names! Should we, who are called to be "children of light" (5:8), "walk" even for a moment in such debauched company?

"Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be ye filled with the Spirit."

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