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Gods In The News: Was Jesus a copycat of Dionysus?

Although this video falls into the “cheesy humor” category, it addresses a once growing (and now quickly waning) movement among young postmodernists making the claim on the Internet that the story of Jesus was just a redux of various pagan myths. Due to the tireless work of JP Holding and others, the “Jesus as Myth” view has been exposed as lacking any academic credibility.

In an earlier (and even cheesier) video, we uncovered the claims of Mithra.

This one deals with Dionysus, the god of wine and song.

The script was written by JP Holding, who also plays Dionysus. Warren French plays Warner Winkerton. I am responsible for the production and editing. For a more serious and detailed treatment of the “pagan copycat” thesis see the Pagan Copycat Hub at J.P. Holding’s website.

We also cover this fallacy in our DVD, The Real Jesus.

Was the story of Jesus stolen from the Greek deity Dionysus?

By J.P. Holding

(See the text of the original article at the Tektonics.org site.)

Some observations on this essay have been offered by “Justin Martyr”, a classical scholar of our acquaintance who resides in the UK. These we have added in italics after relevant paragraphs. Our thanks to “JM” for his commentary!

The Greek deity Dionysus (also called Bacchus) is known by most people for his patronage of wine; he is best known, in the context of this series, as one from whom, supposedly, Jesus’ Cana miracle was borrowed. It is quite right to note that the miracle of Dionysus (hereafter, merely “D” for convenience) comes from a record that postdates the first century, so that any influence must have been the other way around if at all — more on this later.But both D, and the claims of copycatting, are much more complex than this, and D is “the most complex and multifacted of all the Greek gods.” [Carp.MD, 1] D was not merely a god of wine, but a god of paradox; he was the god of the civilized theater, but also the god of wild, orgiastic behavior and drunkenness. He was a god of fertility, but also a god who comforted the dying. He is depicted sometimes as a maniacal, destructive figure, and at other times as an innocent child; sometimes as a bearded man, other times as an effeminiate youth. He is a god of sensuality and experience: “Dionysism throws itself wholeheartedly into savagery in seeking to possess and contact the supernatural.” [Dan.GLE, 150] And, it is: “…an expression of the sensual joys of life unrestrained by the state and unchanneled by the patriarchal family.” [Eva.GE, 37] Sum it up: Dionysism is a religion that celebrates the destruction of boundaries and the blurring of categories.It is no more like Christianity than Buddhism. So how is it that some argue that D and Christ are twins?

Dionysus is best seen generally as the god of reversals, of the breaking of categories and of the reversal of norms. His function as god of wine etc is, I think, largely a reflex of this, though the fertility thing certainly has an importance of its own. Personally, I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘civilized theater’, since Greek theatre may have had its origins in distinctly uncivilised ritual worship (of Dionysus?).Also, the link with the theatre was challenged by Prof. Scott Scullion in an article in the last edition of Classical Quaterly (52/2002, ‘Nothing to do with Dionysos?’), though it certainly holds good for the city of Athens.

The answer, of course, is that they do it by arguing fallaciously. Modern scholars deep into the study of Dionysus perceive a common thread in these stories of D as one involved in sources of illusion (the theater, altered states of consciousness) and as one who has the ability to embody opposing qualities simultaneously [Hein.HHG, 14ff]. But few outside of the copycat theorists, and few scholars, see in Dionysus any real parallel to the figure of Christ.There are exceptions: Evans [Eva.GE] thinks there are parallels in the birth, humanity (though D was not ever regarded with the “100% God, 100% man” idea), suffering, sacramentalism, and glory of Dionysus and Christ; but these are vaguely general and universal parallels, or not parallels at all (as we will see). For the most part, as with Mithraism, no such parallel is seen — and the few that have been seen in the past by the less knowledgable are starting to fade away.

Bacchae to the Future

For convenience, we must begin by laying groundwork, by summarizing the story told by the Greek playwright Euripides, entitled The Bacchae . This play serves as a source of information on Dionysus/Bacchus for scholar and Christ-myther alike, and we will be referring to it often.

Interestingly, the parallel was seen by at least one later Christian writer, who wrote a play drawing on the Bacchae called Christus Patiens. The words of Christ to St Paul as related in Acts (‘Why dost thou kick against the pricks?’) are similar or identical to a phrase from the Bacchae, though this may conceivably be coincidence or indicate that the phrase had become proverbial (not unlikely – Pentheus would have been an excellent and prime example of a mortal who takes on a god like St Paul the persecutor). The notion that something like this means that Christianity was copied from the Dionysus cult, however, is fanciful, particularly when it involves a convinced Pharisee like Paul.

The play opens with a speech by Dionysus, who, disguised as a mortal priest of his own religion, complains about the fact that the city of Thebes, and its king, Pentheus, has refused to honor him. Therefore, he has caused the women of Thebes to go mad and run off like crazed Girl Scouts into the wilderness as a demonstration of his power — and plans to do a few more demonstrations, should Pentheus come running after the women.

Well, as it happens, Pentheus does get fairly peeved, and sends out to have D arrested. After a brief exchange in which D teases the hot-headed king, Pentheus has D thrown in jail and starts planning to get the women back.D, however, draws a Get Out of Jail Free card that says “Earthquake”; but before Pentheus can deal with this problem, a herdsman arrives with stories of how dangerous the women are getting. D coyly takes control of Pentheus and convinces him to dress as a woman so he can sneak out and do some spying on the women in the wilderness — this is all part of D’s plan to humiliate and destroy Pentheus.

And destroy him he does — Pentheus ends up dead, torn to bits by the women, with particular honors for the grisly deed going to his own mother, who carries his head in thinking it is the head of an animal; D closes out by pronouncing judgments on everyone. Needless to say, this is one story you don’t read for light entertainment!

What Has Napa Valley to do with Jerusalem?

We now begin the main portion of our essay, in which we analyze, one by one, the alleged similarities between Dionysus and Christ.* Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25th and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. One critic adds in the description of D as the “wondrous babe of God, the Mystery” and “He of the miraculous birth.“We have already noted in our article on Mithraism why the Christmas birthdate is no relevance — and at any rate, I have noted no allusion to any birthdate of D in any of the literature on him yet, other than one critic’s note that D’s birth was celebrated January 6 by some in Alexandria — and this comes from a later church source, St. Epiphanius, which makes it of no relevance for copycatting claims. Another critic has lately said that Macrobius is the source for this date, but he is also too late to be of any relevance.

Yes, exactly – and Macrobius was writing specifically about the Saturnalia, and so had a specific reason to mention traditions linking D to 12/25, even if they weren’t generally accepted.

Born of a virgin? Not exactly — although it depends which of the stories you want to believe. In the most popular story, D’s mother was named Semele, and she was impregnated by Zeus when that dirty old god pulled one of his usual tricks by taking the form of a lightning bolt. Later, a jealous Hera tricked Semele into asking Zeus to reveal his glory — which ended up burning Semele to a crisp, leaving the prenatal Dionysus behind.No absentee father at first, Zeus picked up the child and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be on his own. D is thus in a sense “twice born” — and that is the “Mystery” that the above refers to, as found in Harrison. [Dan.GLE, 65; Harr.PGR, 436]Another story has D as the son of Zeus and Persephone [Dan.GLE, 93; Eva.GE, 153]. Yet another Asiatic version has D self-born. (These last two stories are very obscure.) At any rate, there is clearly nothing like a “virgin” conception or birth here — what we have is the usual divine fornication that Zeus and other Greek gods were prone to.

Harrison, as you intimate elsewhere, is a century out of date. No credible modern scholar would refer to her as a prime authority, or at least not without also referring to a more recent scholar (Walter Burkert would be the obvious candidate – even decades before him people like Jeanmaire were writing about D, but it might be too much to expect people like these to be aware that not everything worth reading has been published in English… though Burkert at least has been translated).

I have found no evidence that D was ever called “the Holy Child” (not that that matters, since this is a title of Jesus given well after the time of the Apostles) and no evidence that he was placed in a manger. Critics offer neither documentation nor footnote on this point, so barring further discovery, I will have to regard this as a “ringer.“Other critics refer to a “sacred marriage” that was performed in an “ox stall,” a very tenuous attempt to make a connection. (A classical scholar who commented on this article related of this ceremony: “The woman represented the LAND (possibly a land-goddess), not the fertility goddess… She was actually the wife of a priest-politician called the Basileus who had originally been Athens’ king. There was no question of the ‘marriage’ being intended to produce offspring, though a few modern scholars have speculated that this was its original purpose….It seems to have been the WOMAN who generally represented the goddess, not the man who represented the god. I’m prepared to be proved wrong about this, however – but I think that this holds good as a general rule. The ox-stall was nothing of the kind, but a civic building called the Boukolion (roughly translating as ox-stall). It may originally have been (meant to represent) an ox-stall, but it certainly wasn’t anything of the sort even as early as classical times.”)The same critics also refer to “the widespread early Christian tradition” that Jesus was born in a cave, which (although Danielou knows of a tradition that D was born in a cave; Dan.GLE, 127) is of no relevance to the Biblical record — there is a strong tradition that Jesus was born in a cave, but given that caves are handy shelters for the dispossessed, the parallel is meaningless. Furthermore, they make the egregious error of claiming that “the word usually translated as ‘stable’ in the gospels is katalemna , which literally means a temporary shelter or cave.” [32]Where they get this definition is unclear. The word in question is what is translated as “inn” (as in, “no room at the…”) in Luke, and is also found in Mark 14:14 (which by that idea, actually reads, “And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the temporary shelter or cave, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?”)

As with Mithra, there are both universals we would expect of any religious leader, especially a divine one. The Bacchae does have D telling us of his travelling around Greece, Persia and Arabia spreading his rites and delivering miraculous judgments as needed on those who defy him; Danielou [Dan.GLE, 94] reports that there are versions of D which have him travelling the world spreading civilzation, which included an expedition to India. Detienne [Det.DAL, 4] refers to D as the “most epidemic of gods,” for he was the god who spent the most time travelling.This is not quite the same as Jesus travelling a limited area providing moral teachings; but at any rate, there would be no other way to spread the word unless you wanted to travel, or else sent disciples around (which Jesus did do, but D seems not to have done; he preferred to drive his devotees — overwhelmingly women — crazy, then leave them behind).

Re the second sentence: Yes – that’s a crucial difference. The Christianity of Jesus wasn’t primarily a missionary religion – it was the fulfilment of the prophets’ promises to Israel. The message wasn’t taken to the gentiles until the Jewish establishment had firmly rejected it.

We do have depictions, in ancient paintings, of D riding on a mule, in a procession with satyrs (crowds?!?) waving branches of ivy [Eva.GE, 149] — in other words, the typical behavior offered to any kingly, trumphant figure such as a conquering king of a foreign power. The ivy branches, moreover, are cultic instruments, which does not parallel the use of the palm branches in Jerusalem (as palms were symbols of Israelite ethnicity).

I do not know what the critics mean by “carries him to meet his passion.” What passion? The only reference they give, to Harrison (whose work is useful, as an archive of what is now outdated!), does not depict D riding on a donkey; rather, it depicts a scene from Orphic eschatolotgy with a number of people (not D) surrounding a donkey, including one hardy soul playfully pulling on its tail — where is the “passion” element? Indeed, where is Dionysus??

D does have a sort of reputation as a bringer of peace, but this has to do with his bringing of festivals and arts as laying the ground for peace (ibid. — and he brings a lot of despair and misery, as well!). There is also a story where D rides an ass, but that is part of a tale in which “the ass became one of the stars in the constellation of the crab.” [Ott.DMC, 170] The ass is also one of D’s many totem animals.

At any rate, the link to Zech. 9 offers a contextually more likely grounding for Jesus’ procession than ancient paintings that Palestinian Jews were unlikely to have known about; and a historical parallel may be cited in the triumphal entry of Simon the Maccabbean (143-134 BC), who, after expelling the Seleucid enemies from Jerusalem, entered Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches” and a variety of musical accompaniments (1 Macc. 13:51). Was Simon imitating Dionysus also?

What we seem to have here is a case of trying to describe something vastly different than in terms that are as close to Christian belief as possible. According to a story reported by Diodorus of Sicily — “a myth of unknown origin, contested antiquity, and uncertain meaning” [Hein.HHG, 26] — D as an infant was set upon Zeus’ throne (a sacred king?) to play at being Master of the Universe. As he sat there, some of the Titans — bad boys of Greek mythology — snuck up with some toys and distracted him.

While D was thus distracted, the Titans picked him up, tore him to pieces (killed), and boiled and roasted everything but his heart and ate it (eaten — in a eucharistic ritual?!?). When Zeus got wind of this, he became ticked as he often did, and blew the Titans to smithereens. As the story goes in a later version, from the ashes of the Titans came forth the race of men (fecundity?); D himself was “eventually restored to a new life” from the heart that was left over [ibid.; Eva.GE, 153; Det.DS, 71]

Diodorus was pre-Christ, but the idea that Palestinian Jews would have known about this sort of thing, let alone make up a religion based on it, is not even remotely conceivable.

I’m only an amateur Egyptologist, but I’d hazard a guess that this legend is based on that of Osiris’ dismemberment, which was somewhat more likely to be known in Jewish circles. On the other hand, there are also very similar elements of (child) cannibalism in kosher Greek legends, notably the tale of Tantalus.

On the other hand, the copycat claim may be a reference, rather, to some idea that D was regularly “killed and eaten” in a memorial ceremony akin to the Eucharist, which may have been in memory of the story above. If this is what is meant, it is no better off. The general principle of “you are what you eat” in sacrifice was derived from the theories of Frazer (Our scholar notes: “Frazer was obsessed with dying and rising gods. For a refutation of the whole category, see the very Christian-unfriendly scholar J. Z. Smith’s article on ‘Dying and rising gods’ in Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987)”) — and he developed this idea rather too quickly.

On the contrary, a modern scholar of D, Obbink, tells us, “we cannot even be sure that the Greeks equated Dionysus with any of his sacrificial animals.” Otto [Ott.DMC, 107] adds: “…in everything which has come down to us about Dionysus and his cults we find nowhere the intimation that his flesh might have been eaten by a society which wanted to appropriate his divine power.” There is also no evidence of sacramentalism in the official Dionysian civic cult. [Obb.DPO, 67, 76] There is one possible exception to this, though, and we will deal with it shortly.

  • Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25th. I have found no evidence to support the “March 25th” claim. In terms of rising from the dead, there have been a variety of ideas: one, a single inscription from Thasos that describes D as “a god who renews himself and returns every year rejuvenated” [Col.VFG, 280] — whatever that means, we have no context with which to refer it; an idea that D went into Hades to rescue his momma, and came back (Frazer says that this return was celebrated annually by one group, the Argives; and he notes that whether it was a spring festival — not even guessing at an exact date — “does not appear”); a story that D was chased and persecuted by Lycurgus and descended to the depths of the Alcyonian Sea, and to the land of the dead [Ott.DMC, 68]; also the heart-rejuvenation above, which in another version has the heart placed in a body made of gypsum [Harr.PGR, 490].

    Frazer [Fraz.GB, 323] did try to piece together such a story of resurrection; he did so first by appealing to a version of the Titan story in which Apollo (or Rhea), at the command of Zeus, reeassembled the pieces and buried them. Frazer goes on to say that “the resurrection of the slain god is not mentioned, but in other versions of the myth it is variously related”! How? In one version, which has D as son of Demeter, momma reassembles the pieces and makes D young again (our scholar calls this “an eccentric minority variant”). In others, “it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead [in what form???] and ascended up to heaven; or that Zeus raised him up as he lay mortally wounded; or that Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus and then begat him afresh by Semele…[or] the heart was pounded up and given in a potion to Semele, who thereby conceived him.”

    With such a panoply of options, it may be no surprise that at least one variation bears a superficial resemblance to what happened to Jesus (“rose from the dead and ascended to heaven”), but this vague description does not match with the Jewish concept of resurrection (which the pagans found abhorrent. (Our scholar adds, “Exactly – and where’s the Dionysiac promise of resurrection for all believers?”). There are also notes of a grave of D found at Delphi, and of a date associated with the awakening of D as an infant — November 8th, except on one island where the date is in January [Ott.DMC, 103, 194].




    A Cover- Story Blunder


    There’s a picture has grown into something of an icon for copycat theorists everywhere. It appears on the cover of Freke and Gandy’s Jesus Mysteries. Based on “a small picture tucked away in the appendices of an old academic book” (though what the cite is for this book, we are not told), they feature a drawing of “a third-century CE amulet” with a depiction of a crucified figure which names “Orpheus Bacchus” as the figure, another name for Dionysus. According to Freke and Gandy, this shows that “To the initiated, these were both names for essentially the same figure.” [12-13] To which we reply: That’s the initiated’s problem. The uncritical syncretism of a single person (the maker/wearer of the amulet) provides no evidence for the copycat thesis; least of all when the evidence dates several hundred years after the time of Christ (as does indeed all their evidence of D being crucified [52]).

    They also state incorrectly that there are no representations of the crucified Jesus before the fifth century; as Raymond Brown noted in Death of the Messiah, there are about a half-dozen depictions of the crucified Jesus dated between the second and fifth century, and even if this were not so, the literary depiction in the Gospels amounts to the same thing. Freke and Gandy chose rather a poor examplar to feature on their cover.

    How poor? Poorer than we realized, in fact. James Hannam (of Bede’s Library) has uncovered some new information on this picture used by Freke and Gandy that really blows them out of the water. Bede has given me permission to use this from one of his online logs; we’ll just report it here.

    Freke and Gandy do not supply a reference for the picture in their book but kindly let me know by email. The first they supplied was R Eisler, Orpheus the Fisher (Kessinger Publishing reprints), first published in 1920 and where the fourth century date for the amulet is given and it is illustrated. Interestingly it is dated to the fourth century simply by virtue of its representation of a crucifixion so could, in theory be older or more recent.

    The second reference was WKC Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion Princeton University Press, 1952. This is the second edition and discusses the amulet at some length on page 265. He mentions the views of Eisler and Otto Kern who was a very distinguished German expert on Orpheus. At the time, both considered the gem to be an ancient Orphic artifact and Eisler suggested their was a tradition of a crucified Orpheus. Pointing to the evidence of Justin Martyr, who denies there ever was a crucified pagan, Guthrie rightly rejects this interpretation.

    …But there is a final kicker to this story that Freke failed to mention. I found an endnote to the 1952 edition of Guthrie’s work (page 278) states:

    “In his review of this book [Orpheus and Greek Religion] in Gnomon (1935, p 476), [Otto] Kern [unfeasibly esteemed German expert on Orpheus] recants and expresses himself convinced by the expert opinion of Reil and Zahn [more distinguished Germans] that the gem is a forgery.”

    I looked up the review in Gnomon but it is in German so I can’t make anything of it. Still, the gem has been branded a forgery by noted experts. Luckily for Freke and Gandy that they don’t think the gem important to their thesis, but you still have to ask what it was doing on the front cover of their book. And one can also have suspicions as to why they didn’t give a reference to where the picture came from.



  • He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. One critic adds that the wine miracle “took place for the first time at the marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne.” [38]

    I have to love this one, because while doing research for my project on The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, I found a few tart words from a secular scholar who would like to know where people who make this argument have put their heads. Bowersock [Bow.FH, 125-8] notes, as we have above, that this story about D is known from evidence later than the Gospels; yet he notes how this story “is exploited by exegetes of the New Testament in a curious way” as the source, Tatius, is “assumed to provide reliable evidence about an otherwise unknown rite” which is then assumed to have pre-dated Jesus! Remarking on Morton Smith’s advance of this thesis, Bowersock calls it “a reckless way to handle evidence that belongs indisputably to a time at least a century or so after the life of Jesus.”

    Another critic in a later essay claims that the “ruins of the water-to-wine sluice used by Greek priests at Coirnth” proves that this miracles predates Christianity. But to seal the coffin, let’s add this material from the ThinkTank’s copycat savior piece:

    …the motif of changing water to wine is not present in the Dionysus legends; the jugs of Elis, for example, were not filled with water but were empty, and the fount of wine in Andros did not replace one of water…Most writers acknowledge that in the Johannine narrative there is an implicit contrast between water used for Jewish purificatory rites and the wine given by Jesus; the former is characteristic of the old order, the latter of the new…in the ancient literature Plutarch says that there was a spring at Haliartus with clear, sparkling, wine-colored, very pleasant-tasting water in which the newly born Dionysus was bathed. Also, Pliny says that at Andros, on the festival known as Theodosia, a spring in the temple of Bacchus flowed with wine. Pausanias says that at Elis the priests of Dionysus placed three large empty cauldrons in a sealed room to find them filled with wine when they returned the next day. And Ovid says that Liber, the Italian god identified with Bacchus, gave the daughters of the Delian king Anius the power to turn things into wine, a story associated with Dionysus…However, from these references it is obvious that there are significant differences between the Dionysus legend and the story in John 2: the spring at Haliartus flowed with water, and the one at Andros flowed with wine, not water that had once been wine; and the empty cauldrons in the Elis temple were filled with wine rather than water subsequently changed into wine, key elements in John’s story.

    There is no “water to wine” sluice, though there may well be a sluice that flowed alternately with water and wine, the latter of which was not changed from the former.

  • He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.”

    Was he? If so, it was some strange cult-title. The only regular king of kings was Zeus, ‘pater andron te theon te’, as Homer calls him, though some Homeric goddesses are ‘dia theaon’ (which may mean ‘goddess of goddesses’). ‘King of kings’ etc are Semitic idioms, as I’m sure you know, used to form the superlative, which is obviously formed differently in Greek.

  • He was considered the “only Begotten Son,” “Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” “Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” Other critics add the title “Lord God of God born” and second the title of “savior,” saying, “His followers call to him: ‘Come, thou savior.’”28

    The title “Lord God of God born” is referenced to page 444 of Harrison’s book [Harr.PGR] — and it is not there. The Bacchae has D’s followers saying at his appearance, “We are saved!” — but the critics do not answer the needed question, “Saved from what???” In the context, it is “salvation” from Pentheus’ ire. It isn’t personal sin that D saves from, and may not have even been hellfire or damnation.

    Cole, after a study of the grave inscriptions of Dionysus worshippers, points out that Dionysus “is not a savior who promises his worshippers regeneration, but with the stories of his own rebirth and rejuvenation, he is one who makes this life more sweet and the next one, perhaps, only a little less harsh.” [Col.VFG, 295] Sounds like a bum deal to me! (Evans, with less detail, supposes an afterlife of sensual joy [Evan.GE, 127], but even that is no match for Christian salvation!). As is typical with the mystery religions, “salvation” has to do with some sort of pleasure experience — and has nothing to do with erasing sin. (See more on titles below. A classical commentator adds that “God of Gods” does not have Christian resonances in Greek.)

  • He was identified with the Ram or Lamb.

  • His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.

    I’ve looked high and low for these titles, and so far, here’s all we have: D was in one story born with horns like that of a Ram; he was in the main associated with the figure of the bull (as in the Bacchae), though much less often he assumed the form of a goat (as a symbol of sensuality) [Fraz.GB, 325-6].

    As for the second, one wonders why this title does not intimate that D climbed trees, or planted trees; what is the logical chain that “intimates” that he was hung on a tree? In fact, my supposition is closer to the truth: Frazer observed that D was “a god of trees in general” [Fraz.GB, 320-1]; one of his titles is “Dionysus of the tree” (NOT “young man”; though in Boeotia this title was rendered “Dionysus in the tree” — not “nailed to” or “fastened to”). The pine was particuarly sacred to D, and in one instance was worshipped equally to him; he also liked the myrtle [Ott.DMC, 157].

    Some of D’s other titles I have found in various sources listed below include Fire-born, Son of the Nymphs, First-born (a common title of primacy; see our exposition here), “well-fruited,” “he of the green fruit,” “teeming,” “bursting,” various titles associated with being a bull in animal form; “the roarer,” “the loud shouter” (these titles allude to the madness element in D); “god of many forms” (referring to D’s liking for metamorphizing into different forms and animals — I did not find the Ram or the lamb in particular, but I did find the lion, lynx, panther, tiger, goat, snake, and even the dolphin associated with him!); “render of men,” “who delights in sword and bloodshed,” “womanly one,” “womanly stranger,” [!! — this in light of the effemiacy he affects in the Bacchae] “he of the winepress” — but none of the titles listed by copycat theorists are found anywhere.

  • In the Bacchae, a play that features D, the god comes to earth in human form. He says that he has “veiled his ‘Godhead in a mortal shape’ in order to make it ‘manifest to mortal men.’ He tells his disciples, ‘That is why I have changed my immortal form and taken the likeness of man.’” This is compared to the words of John and Paul describing Jesus as “the Word made flesh” and “in the likeness of sinful flesh.”

    The reason in the Bacchae that D has veiled his divinity and made himself manifest to men is specifically so he can play an enormous prank on the city of Thebes and King Pentheus, who have refused to honor him: “I will join that army of women possessed and lead them to battle. And this is why I have changed my divine form to human, and appear in the likeness of men.” D also explains that he establishes his rituals in order to make his “godhead manifest to mortal men.” Neither of these statements bears more than a superficial/universal resemblance to what is said about Jesus, for the purposes in manifestation are entirely different!

  • Quoting the admonition of John the Baptist that the one who follows him would take winnowing-fan in hand and separate wheat from chaff, one critic tells us that in the Dionysan mysteries, “such a fan was used in baptism by air” and refer to vase paintings showing initiates “veiled and seated with a winnowing fan being waved above their heads.” They also note that D was known as “He of the Winnowing fan” and was at birth “said to have been cradled in a winnowing fan.”

    This has some truth to it, though that the winnowing fan should be used as a symbol of purifying is of no more surprise than that a vacuum might be. It was a common utility used to divide the useful from the useless; why should this mean anything? As it happens, though, the “fan” that D is associated with was actually a sort of shovel-shaped combination basket/fan which was used to winnow wheat, hold fruit (like a basket), and hold babies. [Harr.PGR, 401-2]

    On the other hand, the OT does know of the fan as a symbol for purification and separation (see Isaiah and Jeremiah, esp. Jer. 15:7); but the fan as used by John the Baptist refers to purification via judgment — whereas in the D cult, it had connotations of fertility as well as purification/new birth [Harr.PGR, 525-6].

    And also, baptism was surely quintessentially Jewish rather than Dionysiac (not that there was much point in Christian-type baptism for Dionysus-worshippers, since they didn’t believe in original sin).

  • Referred to also, in comparison to Jesus’ transfiguration, is D’s episode of being “gloriously transfigured” in the Bacchae. Here again, we have a case of borrowing Christian terminology to describe a remotely similar event. D’s “transfiguration” at the end of the Bacchae involves an episode in which he appears above the wall of Pentheus’ palace “in the glory of his godhead” — what he looks like in this form is not described, and he appears this way all at once; he does not change as those present are watching. It is hard to see why this should be a parallel when images of the Wisdom figure in Judaism come much closer. (There is also no parallel for Elijah and Moses appearing!)

  • Next we look at a series of correspondences offered from Jesus’ trial and execution [45, 51] Also from the Bacchae, it is observed that “Like Jesus in Jerusalem, Dionysus is a quiet stranger with long hair and a beard who brings a new religion.” “Long hair and a beard” describes a substantial portion of the ancient male population; try catching a purse-snatcher with such a general description! As it happens, though, D is far from “quiet” before Pentheus; indeed he engages the king in extensive smart-alecky dialogue.

    As for appearance, Pentheus also notes that D’s hair is quite attractive, “cascading over [his] cheeks, most seductively.” Pentheus also notes D’s pale complexion (a trait associated with women) and his “lovely face.” What parallel does this homoerotic love tale have to the serious account of Jesus before Pilate?

    It is also noted that King Pentheus arrests, berates, and condemns D, who has “passively allow[ed] himself to be caught and imprisoned.” D’s passive behavior before Pentheus is compared to Jesus’ behavior before Pilate. What the critics fail to report is that D allows himself to be taken in, as it were, with a smirk: It is all part of his plan to get before Pentheus and slowly humiliate him into getting upset, dressing in women’s clothes, and getting killed…and somehow, that shade of mascara doesn’t sound like what happened to Pilate!

    Jesus says to Pilate, “You would have no authority at all over me, had it not been granted you from above”; D says, “Nothing can touch me that is not ordained.” Well, what else would we expect from a divine figure? Wouldn’t this be true for any such figure, true or false? And D also says a truckload of other stuff with no parallel: “I warn you not to bind me…I am sane, you are mad,” “[Dionysus] is here, close by men, and sees what is being done to me,” are examples.

    Jesus said of his persecutors, “They know not what they are doing”; D says to Pentheus, “You know not what you are doing, nor what you are saying, not who you are.” The timing on these statements is quite different; Jesus says it on the cross, to the Father, regarding his executors, while D says it as he is being led away, to and for Pentheus alone. D’s words have rather a broader philosophical edge, whereas Jesus is enacting forgiveness. The parallel here is merely superficial.

    Jesus warns that judgment will come on Jerusalem; D departs from Pentheus threatening divine vengeance. Again, what would we expect? But again, the parallel is superficial: What D says in this regard amounts to two lines: “Pentheus means ‘sorrow’. The name fits you well.” And: “…Dionysus, who you say is dead, will pursue you and take his revenge for the sacrilege.” This is no match for the lament upon Jerusalem, which has ample parallels in the OT.

    Jesus was given a crown of thorns; D, a crown of ivy. Well, the crown of ivy is D’s standard wear at all times (as the laurel was Apollo’s usual crown — Ott.DMC, 153); he is wearing it all through the Bacchae, and so are his worshippers. Ivy also was said to have wrapped D at the time Zeus accidentally blasted Semele; its association with coolness serves as a counter to the fiery nature of the grapevine also associated with D. This is no parallel to the single and unwitting use of the thorn-crown upon Jesus; the only parallel here is the universal conception of a crown as a sign of rule.

    Jesus was dressed in purple by the Roman soldiers, “so Dionysus was also dressed in purple robes.” As usual, there are differences: Jesus was dressed in the robe temporarily and in mockery; D wore the color regularly and with honor and glory. The parallel is yet again superficial and based on an ancient universal (that of purple being a royal color).

    Jesus is given wine to drink mised with gall, D’s followers ritually imbibed with wine. And yet again, a universal is at work: Wine was a standard drink for the day in daily life and in religious rituals — water being usually too contaminated, and at any rate, there weren’t many choices at the wet bar or soda machine just yet! (Bread, too — even the ancient Central Americans used it!)

    Even so — in the Dionysian cult, wine was used because, Otto tells us [Ott.DMC, 146, 148], of its fiery and often contradictory nature, by which it reflected the character of D (i.e., it could cause sadness or laughter; it could dispel cares or inflict misery — “…of all that earth produces, the vine mirrors best the god’s two faces.”). No such element enters into the Christian Eucharist.

    Homer refers to humans as ‘grain-eating’, perhaps suggesting that bread was regarded not only as a staple but almost as a defining term of humanity.

    Jesus was crucified, while in the Bacchae, Pentheus is “lifted up on a tree,” and in a Sicilian myth another foe of D is crucified, which is said to suggest that in some Mystery traditions, D was crucified or hung on a tree. This is rather like saying that a tradition of Lincoln being assassinated intimates that there is a story someplace where John Wilkes Booth is assassinated. The commonality of crucifixion as a punishment in the ancient world is enough of an explanation for D’s second foe being crucified; as for the fate of Pentheus, “lifted up on a tree” is rather a simple way to describe what happened.

    What actually happens is that after tricking Pentheus out to the location of the wild women, D stretches out and grabs the top of a tree (perhaps like Inspector Gadget?) and pulls it down so that it is “bent in a circle as a bow is bent.” He then sets Pentheus on one of the top branches, then slowly and carefully let the tree back into its original position. D then calls the women’s attention to Pentheus; they come running, and first throw sticks and stones at him, but cannot throw high enough; finally they rip the tree out by the roots, causing Pentheus to fall to the ground where he is dismembered by the raging mob. This is hardly a parallel to a crucifixion as the use of the phrase “lifted up on a tree” suggests!

  • Making a comparison with the Eucharist, in which “Jesus is said to symbolically become the wine drunk by the partricipant,” Euripides’ Bacchae is quoted as saying that “Dionysus becomes the wine and is himself ‘poured out’ as an offering.” While this too has an element of truth in it, not only is the nature of the symbolism different (atonement of sin vs. participation in an altered state of consciousness), but the wine of D is not drunk; it is poured out as a libation. The only commonality here is rooted in the commonality of wine as the basic drink of ancient times (again, no soda machines).

  • We are told that “Osiris-Dionysus” was “a sacred pharmakos, who ‘died to atone for the sins of the world.’” I have seen no evidence of this in terms of Dionysus. The footnote used by critics on this claim is explanatory, not documentary, and in it they dismiss the parallel to the OT scapegoat ritual by merely claiming that such a concept was known throughout the Mediterranean. That may be so, but a mere sentence cannot dismiss the complex of ideas linked from the OT to the NT that find no closer correspondence in pagan ritual.

    I’ve worked on the category of pharmakoi myself, and Dionysus strikes me as a poor candidate for being labelled as one. Also, pharmakoi in Greek thought were typically (I can’t speak for the mystery religions) constructed in metaphysical terms wholly different from those associated with Christ the Saviour.

    Pagan thought did not infrequently approximate to Christian thought here (a particularly awful disaster needs a particularly effective sacrificial host or pharmakos to save the whole community). The trouble is that the idea is so widespread – almost common sense, really – that it can’t plausibly be made the subject of a copycat theory (references might include Eur. Phoen.; Apollod. 3.6.7 (Menoeceus’ sacrifice); Con. Graal 10.3-6 (Sir Lancelot and the burning city); S.Thompson, Motif-Index, M362, P711.9, perh. J221.2).

    Conclusion

    What more needs be said? The Christ-Dionysus parallel has very little to commend it. What few exist are based on universal conceptions and themes. Moreover, to make his argument persuasive, the claimant must explain how and why a group of Palestinian Jews borrowed the theology and teachings of a foreign cult and founded a new religion based upon them. He must also explain why the parallels between the doctrine taught by Jesus and that of contemporary Judaism were so similar, not to mention why the early Christians initially maintained the trappings of Jewish religious observation (Temple attendance, circumcision, etc.).

    In fact, the only Apostle who might reasonably be expected to have had any reasonably detailed knowledge of pagan religion was the educated rabbi, Saul/Paul – and it utterly defies credibility that a professed and professing Pharisee, let alone a pupil of Gamaliel, would or even could have taken control of a group of Palestinian peasants and turned them into proselytising Messianic Bacchus-worshippers.

    -JPH

    Sources

  • Bow.FH — Bowersock, G. W. Fiction as History: From Nero to Julian. University of California, 1994.
  • Carp.MD — Carpenter, Thomas H. and Christopher A. Faraone. Masks of Dionysos. Cornell U. Press, 1993.

  • Col.VFG — Cole, Susan. “Voices from the Grave: Dionysus and the Dead.” in Masks.
  • Dan.GLE — Danielou, Alain. Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus. Inner Traditions, 1982.
  • Det.DAL — Detienne, Marcel. Dionysus at Large. Harvard U. Press, 1989.
  • Det.DS — Detienne, Marcel. Dionysus Slain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979.
  • Eva.GE — Evans, Arthur. The God of Ecstasy. New York: St. Martins’ Press, 1989.
  • Fraz.GB — Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. New York: Avenel Books, 1981.

  • Harr.PRG — Harrison, Jane. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge U. Press, 1922.
  • Hein.HHG — Heinrichs, Albert. “He Has a God in Him”: Human and Divine in the Modern Perception of Dionysus.” in Carpenter, Masks.
  • Obb.DPO — Obbink, D. “Dionysus Poured Out: Ancient and Modern Theories of Sacrifice and Cultural Formation.” in Carpenter, Masks.
  • Ott.DMC — Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana U. Press, 1965.

    Your comments are welcome!

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