My church is going through John’s Gospel: Wisdom from Ephesus With Michael Card for its weekly Bible study. Two things stood out to me at last night’s meeting.
1. A group of us was talking about the topic of Jesus going to hell during the time between his’ death and his resurrection. One person (whom I will call Joe) was offering his opinion and, in the course of his talk, he said that he believed that Jonah died inside of the great fish, but God brought Jonah back to life. Joe was referring to Jonah 2:6, which says (in the King James Version): “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.” Were there mountains and bars in the belly of the great fish? Probably not. Consequently, according to Joe, Jonah was in Sheol.
I can see Joe’s point. I can also think of reasons that some might disagree. They might view Jonah 2:6 as poetic or metaphorical rather than literal. Moreover, they might interpret Jonah 2:6 to mean that God rescued Jonah from a near-death experience, not that God resurrected Jonah from the dead. It was interesting to hear Joe’s interpretation, though. I’ve heard the view that God raised Jonah from the dead before, but I did not hear that view justified through an appeal to Jonah 2:6.
2. Michael Card in the DVD was saying that elements of the Gospel of John spoke to the place where John was writing, Ephesus, as John challenged the paganism of the city. Ephesus had a god of healing, Asclepius, and snakes were used in some of the healing rituals that were carried out in his name. In John 3, we see Jesus appealing to the story in Numbers 21 about the brass serpent that the Israelites looked upon to receive healing, as Jesus likened himself to the brass serpent. In Ephesus, there as a high regard for Dionysus, who changed water into wine. In John 2, we see a story about Jesus changing water into wine. According to Michael Card, Jesus in John’s Gospel was taking back the glory from the pagan god Dionysus.
I already knew about some of this information because I had read Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened. And Lee in his book about Revelation discusses the similarities between a miracle that was attributed to Vespasius and one of Jesus’ miracles. Some Christian apologists maintain that Dionysus actually was not said to have changed water into wine. See here. Personally, the sources discussed in that link look rather ambiguous to me. But let’s say that there was a pagan story that Dionysus changed water into wine. Should we really go all ga-ga over a Christian who said that Jesus did miracles that pagan gods were said to perform? It’s like how some scholars treat the Hebrew Bible: P wrote Genesis 1 to say that the God of Israel, not Marduk, was supreme. So someone’s saying that one’s own god is better than another by claiming that his god can do what is attributed to another god. Big deal? I don’t find that particularly powerful!
But suppose that John was saying that his audience in Ephesus could know that Jesus changed the water into wine because his Gospel was eyewitness testimony? Someone in the group was saying that John 2 was probably powerful to some of the pagans at Ephesus because the stories about Dionysus were legends, whereas the story about Jesus changing water into wine was a fact. John may have been trying to make that point: the Ephesians could trust eyewitness testimony to a miracle more than a legend about Dionysus.
Am I convinced by this, though? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if people had eyewitness stories about healing from pagan cults. The pagan cults were popular, after all. I’m sure that they were effective in bringing healing, at least some of the time, otherwise who would use them? And, when these cults weren’t effective, their defenders could perhaps explain that away: the person seeking healing was not pleasing the god enough, or the god had a reason for that person to remain sick. Elements of Christianity have that same approach today.