by Neil Godfrey
No, 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:
- the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
- an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
- the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
- 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
Whether or not we agree with Fortna’s description of the wine miracle as legendary (it is, after all, possible that the miracle is historical and that the storyteller has given it a Dionysiac resonance) . . . . (p. 132)
and he has the support of the ancient naturalist Pliny the Elder who, on the authority of the consul, governor and respected author, Mucianus, assures us that a god was indeed responsible for performing such a miracle annually on the island of Andros:
In the island of Andros, at the temple of Father Bacchus [another name, from 'grape', for Dionysus], we are assured by Mucianus, who was thrice consul, that there is a spring, which, on the nones of January, always has the flavour of wine; it is called διὸς θεοδοσία (Gift of the God Zeus?) (Pliny the Elder, Book 2, chapter 106)
According to Mucianus, there is a fountain at Andros, consecrated to Father Liber [another name, meaning "free one", for Dionysus], from which wine flows during the seven days appointed for the yearly festival of that god, the taste of which becomes like that of water the moment it is taken out of sight of the temple. (Pliny the Elder, Book 31, chapter 13)
This date was settled with the Julian calendar at 5th January and the arrival of wine from the subterranean spring was a form of the birth of the god of the vine.
But we leave this vignette aside for now to focus on something far more literary and comprehensive. This is where we begin to examine the first of the four types of study mentioned at the outset and that we will bring together to make a case that the Gospel of John’s Jesus is to a significant extent a variant of the myth of Dionysus. This first part — the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John — will take two posts to complete.
Bacchae, the play
It is important to keep in mind that Euripides was adapting the myths into a tragic play and so inevitably created a version of the myth that was different and new in many respects. At this point I should ask all readers who have not yet read the play to do so before continuing. But easy-going softie that I am I will give everyone a Stibbe-Coles Notes summary instead. The following is largely an adaptation of Mark Stibbe’s own summary pages 132-134. But really, if you don’t know the play you will find reading it much more enjoyable than the following, and it’s not all that long. One online site is at the Perseus Tufts page.
Dionysus enters stage
He tells the audience that
he is the son of Zeus, the father of the gods;
he has come back to Thebes, the land where he was born;
he comes to his homeland unrecognized; though a god he is disguised as a man;
and though his father is the supreme god, his mother was a human, Semele, and her tomb lies outside the royal palace of Thebes;
Semele’s sisters are still alive and they are slandering their deceased sister, Dionysus’s mother, by saying that Zeus did not really father Dionysus — that is, that Dionysus is not divine at all and was born in disgrace;
Only Semele’s father, Cadmus, has continued to defend the name of Dionysus by honouring his daughter’s tomb;
Dionysus has come to avenge his and his mother’s reputation. He strikes Semele’s sisters with a frenzied madness — they go off to the hills to act out their ecstatic dances and rites of Dionysus (Bacchus);
That is just the beginning of his punishment upon the unbelievers. He next proceeds to reveal to mortals that he is indeed the son of Zeus by confronting the king, Pentheus, himself;
Dionysus informs us that the new king of Thebes is Pentheus, the grandson of Cadmus. Pentheus is an unbeliever and hostile towards the worship of Dionysus.
He criticizes the Dionysiac worship as an obscene scandal, and accuses Dionysus of being a ‘charlatan magician’.
He mocks Cadmus and the blind prophet Teiresias on seeing them in their Dionysiac costumes.
Teiresias rebukes Pentheus with a warning, telling him that Dionysus, son of Semele, is the supreme blessing of mankind because he is the inventor of wine that takes away the suffering of mankind. He gives the true medicine for misery.
Pentheus tells them they are mad.
Arrest of Dionysus
Pentheus arrests the effeminate stranger, the disguised Dionysus, who has “duped” the old men.
Dionysus accepts arrest. (Keep in mind that as far as the Thebans are aware Dionysus is an unknown stranger who has come to Thebes with a train of women devotees of the god Dionysus. They don’t know he is himself really Dionysus.)
He is brought before Pentheus.
In the ensuing exchange Dionysus responds to Pentheus’s interrogation with riddles, unexplained allusions, all amounting to mysterious or nonsensical answers as far as Pentheus is concerned.
Pentheus orders Dionysus to be bound in the darkest prison.
Dionysus breaks free
Great earthquake, the palace falls into ruins and the prison gates are opened.
Dionysus walks free, unhurt, from the jail.
Pentheus’ mother (Agave) in the Bacchic frenzies
Pentheus hears his mother and her sisters are engaged in Bacchic frenzy outside the city;
He decides to take out an army to rout the women;
Dionysus persuades him to secretly go out and spy on their proceedings;
To remain inconspicuous he persuades him to wear women’s clothes;
Once there, Dionysus helps him to the top of a tree for a better view.
Pentheus hoisted by the fir tree
Pentheus is helped to the top of the fir tree;
The women, led by Agave, see him, attempt to stone him from a distance;
They tear him to pieces, thinking they are tearing apart a lion.
The recognition scene
Agave returns to Thebes with the head of Pentheus, believing it to be the head of a lion;
Soon Agave and the women recover from their madness;
Agave recognizes she has killed her son;
Dionysus has thus inflicted severe penalties on them all for their unbelief and his divinity is reestablished among the Thebans.
Stibbe’s list of “very broad similarities” with John’s Gospel
We now get into some of the detail of Mark W. G. Stibbe’s observations we find in John As Storyteller.
- In both the play and the gospel the prologue introduces themes of a divine being going to his home but being rejected by his family and his own people;
- The protagonist is an unrecognized deity, a stranger from heaven, facing intense hostility and unbelief from the ruling elite of the city;
- The goal of each deity is to alleviate man’s sufferings, and this through wine or symbolic wine;
- The tragedy in both works lies in a failure to recognize a promised one who is really their own (Pentheus is actually a cousin of Dionysus — Cadmus was their grandfather);
- In both the final suffering (passion/pathos) consists of
- being dressed in humiliating garments;
- being led out of the city to a cursed hill;
- being hoisted on to a tree;
- and there killed.
- In both stories the women fulfill the role of the true worshipers of the visiting deity;
- The enemies attempt to stone each deity;
- “In both stories, the deity is ambiguous and elusive, often speaking and acting in such a way as to escape definition and capture.”
- Each story is set a city that was noted as the centre of institutionalized worship, and becomes infamous for its unbelief;
- Both Jesus and Dionysus have miraculous powers;
- The tragic action is not centred on one hero only: the Jews and Pilate are also major victims in the gospel, as are Pentheus, his mother and Cadmus in the play.
But the interesting devils are always in the details. They will be the study of the next post in this series.