Daily Archives: 2013-04-29 22:45:26 UTC

Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae

diojesusNo, I am not going to argue that Christianity grew out of the worship of Dionysus or that original idea of Jesus was based upon Dionysus. Rather, I am exploring the possibility that the portrayal of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John is in significant measure a variant of the Greek Dionysus myth.

This possibility arises, I suspect, when we bring together the following:

  1. the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
  2. an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
  3. the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
  4. an anthropologist’s structural analysis of myths, in particular the methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss (this brings together key themes and information from the above three areas in a manner that strongly indicates the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of John is a Christian variant of the Dionysus myth.) — And yes, I will take into account the several works of Jonathan Z. Smith supposedly overturning the possibility of such connections.

This should hardly be a particularly controversial suggestion. Most theologians agree that the Christ we read of in the Gospels is a myth. These posts are merely attempting to identify one source of one of those mythical portrayals.

Let’s look first at what Mark Stibbe (John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel) tells us about the literary affinities between the Gospel of John and the Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Though the Greek play was composed five centuries before the Gospel it nonetheless remained known and respected as a classic right through to the early centuries of the Roman imperial era. Moreover, we have evidence that as early as Origen (early third century) the Gospel was compared with the play. See Book 2, chapter 34 of Origen’s Against Celsus.

But Stibbe does not argue that the evangelist directly borrowed from the play. Despite the many resonances between the two he writes:

It is important to repeat at this stage that I have nowhere put forward the argument for a direct literary dependence of John upon Euripides. That, in fact, would be the simplest but the least likely solution. (p. 139)

It certainly would be the simplest solution. The reason Stibbe thinks it is the “least likely” option, however, is the fact of there being significant differences between the gospel and the play. What Stibbe has failed to understand, however, is that literary imitation in the era the Gospel was characterized by similarities and significant differences that generally served to set the new work apart on a new thematic level. The classic illustration of this is the way Virgil imitated Homer’s epics to create the Aeneid. The differences that are just as important as the similarities and that even establish the very reason for the imitation. But all of this is jumping ahead to the next post.

Let’s look for now at the similarities, similarities that according to Stibbe may well be explained simply by the evangelist’s general awareness of the “idea of tragedy” in his culture.

Water into Wine

It is often noted that Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana reminds us of the myth of Dionysus turning water into wine. Stibbe writes that such a miracle is entirely possible read more »

Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus

Please don’t eat the Bible

I was glancing over at the Exploding Cakemix recently, keeping abreast of the latest mythicist-bashing, and I happened to notice a story about a guy who said:

[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

Now I’ve heard of people using the Bible for rolling papers in a pinch (not recommended), but it never occurred to me to eat it. I know that if you’re stuck on a disabled bus in the wilderness you should eat your boots and the seats before you eat your fellow passengers. But the Bible? I’d need loads of ketchup.

Dr. John Dixon

Dr. John Dickson: Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Anyhow, it turns out this John Dickson guy is a real professor with a doctorate and everything. He teaches real students at a real college university for real cash money. So we should sit up and take notice.

The historical Tiberius versus the historical Jesus

Dickson’s post is the usual litany of supposedly solid evidence that we’ve all seen before. Most of it is of the “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” variety. But there was something new there, at least for me. He writes:

The [sic] Tiberius provides a good example (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified). Our best sources for Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius, both composed eighty or so years after the emperor’s death in AD 37. The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion, ruling out the suggestion that even the basic details of Jesus were part of a process of legendary accumulation.

My interest is piqued. I like Roman history. But what’s this claim from our expert about the “best sources” for Tiberius? Emperors, even mediocre or bad ones, leave big footprints. But sometimes it’s the smallest bits of evidence that persist. Like this one:

Roman Coin: Tiberius Caesar

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus

Moving the goalposts

If you take a few minutes to read the comments, you’ll see that someone mentions the fact that the Romans minted coins during Tiberius’s reign, and that we actually have some that we can pick up and hold in our hands. In the ancient history trade they call that “primary evidence.” He or she goes on to explain why it’s important to corroborate claims in texts with primary evidence.

And certainly the coin is persuasive physical evidence, but, as some guy who goes by the initials RMW explains, it’s like totally unfair. He responds:


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