The Dionysian Background of Ephesians 5:18 -- By: Cleon L. Rogers, Jr.

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 136:543 (Jul 1979)
Article: The Dionysian Background of Ephesians 5:18
Author: Cleon L. Rogers, Jr.

The Dionysian Background of Ephesians 5:18

Cleon L. Rogers, Jr.

[Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., Director, German Theological Seminary, Seeheim, Germany.]

In Ephesians 5:18, Paul wrote, “And be not drunk with wine, in which is excess, but be filled with the Spirit” (AV). Why does he contrast drunkenness with the filling of the Holy Spirit? Often this question is answered by referring to one or more comparisons between drunkenness and the Spirit’s filling, such as submission to and dominance by an outside control, loss of one’s rational functions, etc. But is this really what Paul was saying?

Is it not possible that Paul was referring to something more explicit in his own culture? This article is a presentation of the view that the wild, drunken practices connected with the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine, form the general cultural background for Paul’s two commands in Ephesians 5:18.1

Interpreting a passage of Scripture in its cultural setting is not new. It is a well-known and widely practiced axiom that any writing must be interpreted in the light of its cultural setting. Some obvious cultural or historical matters forming the background of the New Testament are clear and have been the subject of many profitable studies.2 In addition to specific culturally couched terms, there is the general cultural New Testament background consisting of historical, social, economic, and religious conditions.

Some of these cultural matters form a tacit background to the New Testament writings, though they are not specifically mentioned by the New Testament writers—perhaps because they were so commonplace and well known that they did not need elaboration. For example, Paul does not explicitly relate his injunctions against immorality to the cult of Aphrodite (e.g., 1 Cor 6:18–19) or to the other pagan deities, but hardly anyone would doubt that such worship in the city of Corinth or in Ephesus forms the cultural background for the general commands against sexual sins.

In the same manner, Paul may have had in mind the drunken activities of the Dionysian cult as he penned Ephesians 5:18. After an examination of the support for this suggestion, the significance of the Dionysian cult to Paul’s commands in Ephesians 5:18 will be discussed.

Support for the Dionysian Background

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