Jesus, a new Dionysus Triumphantly Entering Jerusalem?

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by Neil Godfrey

The last few days I’ve been distracted from my planned reading and posting as a result of reading something quite unexpected by Andreas Bedenbender in Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg. Since I don’t read German (except sort of through machine translators) and since most of Bedenbender’s references are in German, and since I don’t sit in a major library, that has been no easy task. But the gist of the surprising suggestion arises from one particular Greek word behind the passage in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, 10:8 (RSV):

And many spread their garments upon the way; and others branches (στιβάδας), which they had cut from the fields.

Branches cut from the fields, presumably from trees in the fields. Would not they become an obstacle for any donkey trying to navigate the road? Other evangelists do not use that word, “branches”. Compare:

Matthew 21:8 uses κλάδους, also translated as “branches”, but not the same word as in Mark.

Luke 19:36 scraps that Markan detail completely and says only that the crowd spread their garments on the ground. No branches at all.

John 12:13 uses a different word again, “branches of palm trees” (τὰ βαΐα τῶν φοινίκων), and more sensibly than in Mark implies that they were waving them rather than setting up an obstacle course for the donkey.

Now it appears that Mark’s word for “branch/branches”, (στιβάς / στιβάδας), is unique in the Bible:

For στιβάς is found, for example, in Euripides and Herodotus, but in the New Testament it is nowhere except in Mark 11:8. It is missing in the LXX, in the Greek Pseudepigraphen to the AT, in Philo and Josephus. What, then, did Markus take after “straw-shafts,” when “branches” were within his reach? That κλάδος, which he used in 4:32 and in 13:28, will scarcely have disappeared! (Bedenbender, p. 312, adapted from machine translation.)

So Mark elsewhere used the more common word for “branches” and that makes his use of “stibas” in the triumphal entry scene more odd.

Andreas Bedenbender does not argue “strongly” for Jesus’ triumphal entry in the Gospel of Mark being invested with Dionysiac allusions, but he does point to some details that make the question reasonable.

We have already mentioned the unrealistic detail of dumping branches cut from trees in the fields in the way of a donkey. (Mark’s gospel is permeated with surreal details like this one; I will do another post of Bedenbender’s list of them.) Bedenbender suggests that the author was setting up a contrary thought to the garments being placed on the road: the garments smooth out the road, and so have a positive effect; the first line the crowds cry out is “Hosanna” or praises to Jesus. All good so far. But the next phrase is the stumblingblock: they expect him to come as a Davidic conqueror. That’s not so good. Recall Jesus called Peter Satan for making the same proclamation after the transfiguration.

And many spread their garments on the road,
and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields.

And those who went before and those who followed cried out,

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! …..”

Garments, good; branches, bad; Hosanna, good; kingdom of David, bad.

Mmmm… okay, what else does Bedenbender say?

He says that “stibades” played a special role in the cult of the god Dionysus, or Bacchus. The cult

was characterized typically with στιβάδες, usually with fresh hay or with ivy.

We tend to think of Dionysus/Bacchus as the libertine god of wine; but in ancient myth he was so much more than a common dirty minded cross-dressing drunk. He was also the conqueror of Asia. He conquered as far as India. Alexander the Great was said to have emulated him. Alexander’s successors are known to have identified with Dionysus. Ptolemy IV of Egypt offered privileges to Jews who would voluntarily be branded with Dionysiac emblems, according to 3 Maccabees. Antiochus IV of Syria attempted to institute Dionysiac rites among the Jews, according to 2 Maccabees 6.

  • Enemies of Rome took on the persona of Dionysus, most notably Mithridates.
  • Mark Anthony presented himself as the “new Dionysus” from Egypt in his war with Octavian.
  • Virgil in his founding epic for Rome made a point of comparing emperor Augustus favourably with Dionysus:
    • For there is Caesar, and all the line of Julius, who are destined to reach the brilliant height of Heaven. And there in very truth is he whom you have often heard prophesied, Augustus Caesar, son of the Deified . . . . Yes, not even Hercules ever traversed so much of the earth, . . . . nor even Bacchus (=Dionysus) himself when he drove his tigers from Nysa’s high crest and in triumph guided their yoke with reins of vine. . . . (Aeneid, 6. 804f, Jackson Knight’s translation)

But Dionysus was not himself, personally, a warrior god. Again, an adaptation of a machine translation from another German source:

See Merkelbach, 1988, 71: “You could give yourself without fear, because enemies of Dionysus could not exist. Without being a warrior himself, the god overcame all enemies, as the mythical tales of his victories over Pentheus, Lycurgus, and his victorious campaign against the Indians showed.” (Merkelbach, R. 1988. Die Hirten des Dionysos. Cited in Bedenbender, p. 313)

We have seen other commentary comparing the Dionysus of the play by Euripides being compared with Jesus. Like Jesus, Dionysus has the power to conquer enemies by his mere presence, a word, a thought.

Not all Jews were thought to be so opposed to the Dionysiac customs as were the Maccabees.

  • Valerius Maximus, according to an article by Peter Wick (“Jesus gegen Dionysos?”, in Biblica, 85 2004), tells us that Jews in Rome in 139 BCE wanted to introduce the cult of Jupiter Zabazios, a deity associated with Dionysus.
  • Tacitus informs us that some people believed that the Jews did indeed worship Dionysus, also known as Liber:
  • But since their priests used to chant to the accompaniment of pipes and cymbals and to wear garlands of ivy, and because a golden vine was found in their temple, some have thought that they were devotees of Father Liber, the conqueror of the East . . . .
  • Mention is also made of an unusual coin dated 55 BCE inscribed with a commemoration of a Roman victory over a Jewish “Bacchius”. (There’s a whole book out there written about this single coin, but it doesn’t look easily accessible to me so I am unable to check the arguments.)

DENARIUS, “BACCHIVS IVDAEVS” – FIRST JUDAEA CAPTA COIN, 55 B.C.E. Obverse: Turreted head of Cybele right, surrounded by inscription Reverse: Bacchius presumed to be Aristobulus kneels right, camel at side, extending olive branch, IVDAEVS on right, BACCHIVS in exergue Bacchius is unknown to history as the name of the ruler but scholars explain the meaning of the coin as a Roman Judaea submission type, and the first one at that. As the coin was struck at the time of the defeat of Aristobulus AND includes the caption IVDAEVS it evidently refers to the submission of Aristobulus the High Priest to Pompey.

We may say, I think, that Dionysus was a major god who was seen to represent the great conquerors of the East and opposed to Rome. Jews were also thought to have worshiped him, or at least in some way their god was associated with or a mutation of him.

But all of this may seem like a very long bow, and indeed it is, if all we have is but one word in Mark.

But there is more.

Guess what animal was closely associated with Dionysus! Did you say donkey? Correct!

Dionysus and his followers were depicted with and riding donkeys. (Or one author says the animal was a mule and suggests that the reason was that it represented pointless, entirely hedonistic, sex. I’m not sure how he can tell the difference between a donkey and a mule from the pottery paintings, though.) Drinking cups honouring Dionysus could be shaped like donkey heads.

Bedenbender further tells us that the god Dionysus was sometimes called Kyrios, or Lord. He suggests the possibility of an echo in the way Jesus requisitioned the donkey for his entry, verses 2 and 3.

“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord (Κύριος) needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”

Bedenbender, as I said above, does not argue the point in any “strong” sense. He offers the idea as a “probability” at the very best. But he does see an analog in Acts that contributes somewhat to the possibility that Mark was intending an allusion to Dionysus here.

Recall in Acts 14 that Paul and Barnabas enter the town of Lystra, heal a man crippled from birth, and suddenly find themselves being equated with pagan gods, Zeus and Hermes. No sooner to Paul and Barnabas pull out all stops to prevent the locals from sacrificing to them than the crowd turns on them — at the instigation of Jews arriving from Antioch and Iconium — and stone them. Jesus enters Jerusalem and received as a pagan deity one day, and not long afterwards, at the instigation of the Jewish leaders, the same mobs turn on him demanding his crucifixion.

Other scholars have seen in Mark’s narrative allusions to a world outside of, and opposed to, the Jewish nation in Palestine at the time, including ironical roles for Jesus:

Given the gospel’s interest in facing and condemning the view that Jesus came to become a great earthly conqueror, it would not be surprising if the author added a mock or ironical triumphal entry scene with Jesus being welcomed as the god who historically conquered all earthly enemies in the east and threatened to do the same to Rome. And since the Gospel of John introduces a wealth of Dionysian allusions, it is not unreasonable think that his foil, the Gospel of Mark, knew of them, too. And don’t forget the dog that did not bark: why did the evangelists subsequent to Mark drop that tell-tale(?) word, στιβάδας?

And you thought that Zechariah 9:9 was all we there was to enable us to interpret Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.




  • David Fitzgerald
    2017-08-27 01:41:58 UTC - 01:41 | Permalink

    Fascinating! Articles like these are why I love you so, Neil…

  • Gregory Doudna
    2017-08-27 08:35:42 UTC - 08:35 | Permalink

    On the “Bacchius Iudaeus” coin of 55 BCE and the book by James M. Scott, “BACCHIUS IUDAEUS: A Denarius Commemorating Pompey’s Victory over Judea” (Gottingen, 2015): I wrote the following question to the author on Dec. 30, 2016, sent to the email address on his university website, but received no reply.

    “Dear Prof. Scott,

    “I recently purchased your book, “Bacchius Iudaeus”, and this past week read the whole thing with great interest.

    “I followed your argument except at one critical point in your conclusion. From your argument, I believe you well establish that:

    • the figure on the reverse is the Jewish king (Aristobulus II)
    • Pompey presented himself as an eastern Dionysus
    • the inscription on the reverse of the coin means “Dionysus of Judea” or “Judean Dionysus”.

    “So I followed and was with you up to that point. But you conclude from this that the inscription on the reverse (Judean Dionysus) applies to the figure on the reverse (the subordinated Jewish king).

    “Please forgive if I missed your answer to this question in the book (did not mean to do so or waste your time if you did answer it in the book, if I did miss it), but:

    “(my question) why do you assume the inscription on the reverse applies to the figure on the reverse, instead of the figure on the obverse (Pompey)?

    “In your Appendix (pp. 131-141) I see many examples of reverse legends which apply to the figure on the obverse. These examples have Dionysus–presumably unmistakably Dionysus–images on the obverse.

    “By analogy would not “Bacchius Iudaeus” apply to Pompey on the obverse, and since the reverse is not an “obvious” picture of Dionysus but reads by analogy with the Nabatean coin you discuss as a routine conquest of a native king (the Jewish king) … is it clear that there is any claim in that coin that the Jewish king is intended also to evoke Dionysus? Simply because of the inscription, which seems fully satisfactorily explained as applicable to the figure Pompey on the obverse?

    “If you follow me, that is my question.

    “(I am aware of your argument that later allusions or confusion over the Jewish god/worship being Dionysus is part of a backward argument that this Pompey coin represents an early stage of those later allusions … I understand that.)

    “But I provisionally concluded from your very interesting study, slightly different from your conclusion: that the most likely interpretation seems to be that the reverse inscription applies to Pompey on the obverse, and that the image on the reverse (parallel with the Aretas coin) is a routine image of conquest (Ari II kneeling in submission), with the Jewish king defeated and kneeling before Pompey/Dionysus — not that that coin is representing or evoking the defeated Jewish king Aristobulus II himself as Dionysus.

    “That is: the meaning of the coin is that the defeated Jewish king (who is not Dionysus) is being portrayed as worshipping Pompey/Dionysus.

    “Would that work? Would that not be a fully satisfying alternative (better?) explanation of all of the facts that you bring out in the monograph?”

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2017-08-28 05:53:54 UTC - 05:53 | Permalink

      That makes sense.

    • Gregory Doudna
      2017-08-28 19:35:15 UTC - 19:35 | Permalink

      As the James Scott study and references therein bring out, the obverse of the coin, Cybele (not Pompey directly), was closely associated with Dionysus and evokes Pompey’s conquest of the East. On the inscription on the reverse there is an ambiguity discussed by Scott: “bacchius” can mean Dionysus the god, but it can also mean “devotee of Dionysus”, worshipper of Dionysus. The ambiguity is so difficult to resolve that Scott suggests the coin-designers may have intended both meanings, a double-entendre–though in his conclusion Scott seems to weigh in favor of the single meaning of the god Dionysus.

      Scott discusses whether the figure on the reverse (Aristobulus II, per highly reasonable argument) is intended to represent the god Dionysus himself (Scott argues “no”) or is rather intended as an image standing in the place of the god (Scott argues “yes”, on the grounds that Pompey had entered the temple in Jerusalem and found no actual image of Yahweh, therefore portrayed the acting high priest, Aristobulus II, as the next best way to portray the Jewish god, whom Pompey/Pompeians were identifying with Dionysus).

      Scott cites a comparative example in coins of Scythopolis in which an actual local cult of Dionysus was portrayed in Roman coins as Dionysus endorsing Roman (Pompey via Gabinius) rule. However, the parallel is not quite exact, given that Scott’s argument is that Pompey’s claim that the Jewish temple cult was worship of Dionysus is an “interpretatio Romana”, a Roman interpretation/equation of the Jewish Yahweh with Dionysus, but not an equation necessarily self-understood by the Jews.

      Scott gives a detailed and erudite survey of the contexts and issues surrounding the Bacchius Iudaeus coin, especially in the context of Pompey’s power in Rome following his third Roman Triumph of 61 BCE and his dedication of a theatre-temple in Rome in 55 BCE aggrandizing his conquests, of which the Jewish nation and its king were one. The coin was issued in Rome among others in this context by a pro-Pompey subordinate of Pompey for the purpose of aggrandizing Pompey, and likely at the direction of Pompey, as Scott summarizes.

      I believe the answer to the question of my letter to Scott (why did Scott not identify the inscription of the reverse as an allusion to Pompey instead of to the image of Aristobulus II on the reverse?), is: it is the totality of the positive argument for the interpretation which Scott gives in the entire book. But it seems to me that Scott does not establish that the coin-designers intended the figure on the reverse (Aristobulus II) to represent a high priest of Dionysus (= Yahweh), standing in for an image of Dionysus himself.

      If the inscription means “Judean worshipper of Dionysus”, then I propose the sense is: “Aristobulus is worshipping Dionysus/Pompey”, an image of the Jews’ subordination to the mighty conqueror Pompey. In this reading the inscription on the reverse indeed would apply to and be illustrated by the image on the reverse, but it would be an image of the Jewish ruler (pictured) subordinated to Dionysus/Pompey (unpictured on the reverse, evoked on the obverse and by ancient known context)

      If, however, the inscription means “Judean Dionysus”, then I propose the allusion is to Pompey himself, as the Judean Dionysus, conqueror of the Jews, with Pompey’s conquest evoked both by Cybele on the obverse (= associated with and whose worship was almost identical with Dionysus, standing for Roman conquest of the East), and by the kneeling subordinated Jewish ruler of the reverse. By this second reading, the ancient reader of the ancient coin would know that the coin was about Pompey’s conquest, that the inscription “Judean Dionysus” referred to Pompey himself, and that the conquered Judean/Jewish ruler was Aristobulus II. As for Pompey called “Judean Dionysus”, compare Pompey called “hierosolymarius”, “the Jerusalemite”, at Cicero, Letters to Atticus 2.9.1.

      If both of these meanings of the word “bacchius” are viable in light of the discussion of Scott’s study, is Scott’s suggestion of an ancient intentional double meaning (as one possibility Scott sympathetically discusses) in the end possible or true?

      But my point: neither of these two arguably viable readings have either Aristobulus or the god of the Jews as a priest of Dionysus or Dionysus, in terms of ancient contemporary intent of the coin-makers. Thus, my difference from the Scott monograph, which enters only at the final stage of interpretation/synthesis.

      Yes, Tacitus and others later unquestionably dealt with claims and counterclaims that Yahweh = Dionysus. But is it established that the 55 BCE bacchius iudaeus coin is testimony to or reflects an instance of such? Scott argues that that coin does. I question that, for reasons given. It seems to me that Scott’s monograph is brilliant in erudition but that it misfires in the specific synthesis/interpretation of the data. I will be interested in what other classicists assess.

      Note that even if Scott’s interpretation is accepted (i.e. that the coin portrays Aristobulus as a high priest of Dionysus), Scott is not claiming that Aristobulus or the Jews believed they were worshipping Dionysus. Scott’s claim is that the Romans were creating the Yahweh = Dionysus equation, not that the Jews had already done so or thought so in Jewish self-understanding. As to whether Yahweh-worship had Greek gods in its cult history/worship practices, etc., those would be distinct issues concerning which this coin does not contribute either positively or negatively, by my reading.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2017-08-28 21:26:22 UTC - 21:26 | Permalink

        It will be quite some time before I can hope to access Scott’s book but I do have one question based on another review by G. Anthony Keddle on academia.edu: Does Scott also argue that Pompey presented himself as a New Dionysus conquering the East? I don’t understand how that suggestion ties in with what I gather is his main argument about the “Bacchius” on the coin.

        • Gregory Doudna
          2017-08-29 01:15:39 UTC - 01:15 | Permalink

          Yes he does. He has a section (pp. 34-41) entitled “Imitatio Dionysi” developing just that. (“Pompey promoted himself as an imitator of Dionysus … the theatre-temple complex [of 55 BCE in Rome, built by Pompey and dedicated to Dionysus], the fourteen statues of the nationes [including Judea] within it, and the denarii minted around the time of the dedication very likely stem from Pompey’s Dionysian pretensions. Pompey used Dionysian imagery to identify himself with the mythical conqueror of the East.”)

          You home in on the problem of Scott’s thesis: he has Dionysus conquering Dionysus. The defeated Jewish ruler as Dionysus of Judea subordinated to Pompey the New Dionysus does not seem to make sense.

          Here is as close as I can find to Scott proposing to explain this in terms of his interpretation, from the conclusion:

          “The two sides of the coin are in fact in dynamic interaction with each other: Cybele, a Roman goddess of victory for the Romans who is portrayed on the obverse, is strongly connected with Dionysus in Greco-Roman tradition. The submission scene on the reverse, it was argued, portrays the image of Bacchius Iudaeus in the form of his earthly representative, the Judean high priest/king–the only image of the otherwise unseen god that was accessible, as Pompey found out through personal inspection of the Holy of Holies, perhaps on the Day of Atonement itself. It is the earthly representative–and not the Jewish god himself–who kneels in submission to the conqueror. Hence, the Bacchius Iudaeus coin magnifies Pompey’s victory over the East as the ‘New Dionysus,’ while simultaneously linking it to earlier Republican victories through Cybele … as in Plutarch’s later sympathetic portrayal of the God of the Jews and his cult in the Jerusalem Temple, Pompey seems to have emphasized the similarities of their cult with that of Dionysus” (p. 127).

          • Neil Godfrey
            2017-08-29 01:28:43 UTC - 01:28 | Permalink

            One thing I have gotten out of all of this is a nice little bibliography (English, French and German) of discussions on possible links between Yahweh and Dionysus. It will take me a little time to go through them all. It’s an idea I no doubt have stumbled across in the past but have till now chosen to ignore.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2017-08-27 09:38:13 UTC - 09:38 | Permalink

    Through Jim Davilia’s site I see two articles related to questions raised in the above post:

    and more in depth, published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2011

    Both by Nissam Amzallag.

    I cannot comment on either of the articles yet. The main one is 29 pages and I’ve only just now been alerted to them.

  • Gilbert Schwarz
    2017-08-27 18:02:46 UTC - 18:02 | Permalink

    Dear Neil, if you send me the German quotes, I’d be happy to translate them into English.


    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-08-28 09:35:00 UTC - 09:35 | Permalink

      Thanks, Gilbert. I’ll keep your offer in mind as I prepare another post from the same book.

  • Bob Jase
    2017-08-27 18:33:50 UTC - 18:33 | Permalink


  • Stephan Huller
    2017-08-27 22:57:07 UTC - 22:57 | Permalink

    A carefully reading of Celsus’s original argument reveals that he said (a) the Dionysian cult associated with Linos was the ‘true logos’ from which all other cultures true (this is Herodotus’s claim but Celsus seemed to have taken it over) and (b) the story of Christianity (presumably the gospel) was a poor, imperfect copy of this ‘true logos’ associated with Dionysus and ritually preserved by Linos – the Christians aren’t even among the ‘first nations’ all of who venerate this original logos.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-08-28 04:14:24 UTC - 04:14 | Permalink

      Can you give us references to point us to the particular books and sections in Origen’s Contra Celsum?

      • mbuckley3
        2017-08-29 00:56:16 UTC - 00:56 | Permalink

        The reference to Linos is at c.Celsum 1.16.

        Tacitus’s golden vine tallies with Josephus’s description of the Herodian temple (BJ 5.5.4), which describes a golden vine, with man-size grapes, over the entrance to the inner sanctuary.This may have been a replica of a Hasmonean original, as Josephus tells of Aristobulus presenting Pompey with such an item in 63 B.C.E., later seen by Strabo in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome (Ant. 14.3.1).

        Josephus uses Dionysiac technical terms to describe the ‘lulav’ : ‘thyrsus’ (Ant.13.372), ‘eiresionè (Ant.3.245), which at least shows that those terms, like ‘stibas’, were ‘live’, explicatory, in the first century.

        The locus classicus for the contemporary view of the Judean cult resembling that of Dionysus is Plutarch’s ‘Who is the god of the Jews?’ (Quaest. Conviv.671C ff.).

        The coins of Antigonus Mattathias (40-37 B.C.E.) depict ivy and grapes; those of the first revolt, vine leaves; those of the bar Kokhba revolt, vine leaves and grapes.

        As for the actual cult of Dionysus in C1-C2 Palestine, some have tried to use as evidence Achilles Tatius 2.2-3.3. More securely, there is plenty of numismatic evidence from several Palestinian cities, notably Scythopolis (Beit She’an).

        ‘Ironically’, coins referencing the cult of Dionysus are plentiful from Aelia Capitolina, i.e. Jerusalem re-founded as a non-Jewish city by Hadrian.

        There is certainly much to be gained in trying to be sensitive to visual cues when attempting literary analysis. Hope some of this helps !

  • db
    2017-08-28 00:20:42 UTC - 00:20 | Permalink

    Per Amzallag, “The first point is the broad diffusion and popularity of the cult of Dionysus in ancient Israel”. Can we get an exact time period and geographic area? Does it include: Judah, Samaria, Idumaea, the Decapolis and costal (Paralia)–city states, the territorial environs of Syria, Phoenicia, Arabia (Nabataeans) ?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-08-28 04:15:17 UTC - 04:15 | Permalink

      I’ll be posting on Amzallag’s views in the coming weeks, I expect.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-08-28 05:52:42 UTC - 05:52 | Permalink

    I’m not sure how he can tell the difference between a donkey and a mule from the pottery paintings, though.

    That shouldn’t be hard to do.

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