The mythical meaning of gods (Dionysus, Jesus) being given historical settings

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic re...
Image via Wikipedia

Theologians draw out spiritual lessons from the tale of God sending his Son in the flesh, performing miracles and teaching truths incomprehensible to most, and then dying and returning once again to heaven so he can be with many more followers here and now who do understand and appreciate his fleshly advent. The same theologians even explain history in terms of this theological drama. Followers of Jesus were so shocked by the unexpected demise of their hero on the cross that they feverishly set about fabricating this spiritually meaningful tale to compensate for their disillusionment by restoring among themselves a new faith and hope for a future life.

The possibility that that spiritually meaningful story might have been the original source of the tale of the historical advent of Jesus seems not to occur to them. (No, I am not saying the story was fabricated overnight ex nihilo. All stories and genres have their antecedents, and such antecedents to the Gospel story and genre are a lot more in evidence in the record than we are conditioned to quickly acknowledge.)

But let’s do a little comparative religious study to see if another ancient cult can shed any light on the question of Jesus’ historicity.

The apparent historical coming of Dionysus to Greece, and the beginning of his cult there, was celebrated every year with a procession re-enacting his coming at a festival in his honour. The Greek playwright Euripides produced what became one of the most well-known plays in the ancient world, the Bacchae, which dramatized the events of this supposedly historical coming of the god.

I quote from John Taylor, Classics and the Bible, an outline of this “historical” play:

Dionysus has come to Thebes [the Greek city] disguised as a priest of his own cult. He brings a new form of worship from the east, but his origins lie in Thebes. He is a son of Zeus and the Theban princess Semele, though his divinity has been denied even by her sister Agave, mother of the young king Pentheus. He has made the young women of Thebes mad and sent them to celebrate his ecstatic rites on Mount Cithaeron. Cadmus, the aged and abdicated founding king [of Thebes], father of Agave and Semele, accepts the new religion, as does the seer Teiresias. But Pentheus is violently hostile: he has the disguised Dionysus imprisoned, though the miracle-working god shows this to be futile. Pentheus falls gradually under the power of his captive, who induces him to dress as a woman and spy on the mountain revellers. They detect and in deluded frenzy dismember him. Agave in triumph bears his head to Thebes believing that her prey is a lion. A recognition scene reveals the terrifying truth. (pp. 61-62)

John Taylor discusses a number of remarkable similarities between scenes in this play and those we find throughout the Gospel of John (in particular the trial of Jesus before Pilate) and others in Acts, such as the conversion and imprisonment of Paul.

There are other ways in which the Bacchae may be seen as a prefiguring of the later Gospel narratives, too. Dionysus often speaks in brief moralizing phrases with double meanings; he is a polarizing figure who divides not only characters within the play but also audiences and students of the play ever since; appeals are made that one can still believe in the god while at the same time being rational enough to reject some of the mythical miraculous tales told about him; and the character and narrative are drenched in ambiguities and ironies.

But Taylor informs us that behind all this, scholars have widely accepted a certain core historicity behind the tale of the arrival of the Dionysian cult to Greece as found in this drama, and that in retrospect it is possible to see that the historical character of the original tale was from the beginning integral to the myth — and its mythical meaning — itself.

[M]any scholars continued to assume a basic historicity in the story of his arrival from abroad. But the ambiguity in the myth (describing the native of Thebes who is also a newcomer from the east) symbolises what is surely his real nature, as a construct of the Greek imagination: a symbol of disruptive difference, and a radical reconciler of opposites. The epiphanic aspect of Dionysus, stressed in particular by W. F. Otto, is now seen as central to understanding his myth and cult. The account of his arrival in one city in the heroic past  encapsulates his character, because it describes also the impact of ‘the god who comes’ on the individual heart and mind. (p. 67, my emphasis, and with link to Otto’s book — see chapter 5 here)

John Taylor follows by observing a similar meaning in the “history” of Christ:

Historians of Greek religion here use (whether knowingly or not), the language of existentialist theology, according to which the true significance of the story of the Christ who came at one point in history, and promised to come again, is that he comes now to those who hear his message. The language of encounter is Pauline, but in other respects this existentialist perspective has its roots in the fourth gospel. (pp. 67-8)

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

9 thoughts on “The mythical meaning of gods (Dionysus, Jesus) being given historical settings”

  1. John Taylor discusses a number of remarkable similarities between scenes in this play and those we find throughout the Gospel of John (in particular the trial of Jesus before Pilate) and others in Acts, such as the conversion and imprisonment of Paul.

    Perhaps Taylor’s Classics and the Bible indeed does discuss some “remarkable similarities” between the play and the Gospel of John, but the play summary that you quoted does not include any similarities at all (much less “remarkable”), as far as I can see.

    1. Correct. It was not ny purpose in this post to address all the similarities in any depth. I mentioned that it is possible to see some similarities between certain scenes in the Gospel of John and the Bacchae (such as the nature of Jesus’ trial before Pilate and King Pentheus’s interrogation of Dionysus), but only to add this to a list of different kinds of similarities recognized between the Bacchae and biblical literature. (The influence of the Bacchae on Luke is much better known.) This was only to prepare the way for a comparison of a much more significant similarity between the myth of “historical coming” of Dionysus (as we find expressed in the play) and the presumed historical “historical coming” of Jesus.

      The “historical coming” of both is essentially a metaphor for the god’s coming to/into the believer(s) here and now. The myth is an assurance that he comes now, and will come again, living in and among believers.

    2. The similarities between the narrative of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Bacchae can be found (more or less) on pages 131-147 of Mark Stibbe’s John as Storyteller on Google Books. This is the main source referenced by John Taylor.

      It is somewhat amusing to see the way Stibbes goes to pains to stress he is not disputing the historicity of Jesus or his trial before Pilate, even when he admits that the simplest (but ‘least likely’?) solution (pp. 137 and 139), finding a way of escape from the simplest solution through the same specious back-door as Gilbert Bilezikian in his comparison of the Gospel of Mark with Greek tragedy. That is, the life of Jesus just happened to fall neatly and comfortably into precisely what was required to produce a Greek tragedy, despite it being active and eventful enough to have produced a world full of books. Or in Stibbes’ case, he suggests that the death of one the author believed to be his spiritual king evoked all the paradigmatic elements of tragedy that we find in Euripides’ play.

  2. “There are other ways in which the Bacchae may be seen as a prefiguring of the later Gospel narratives, too…”

    I get the same feeling as when reading Dennis R. MacDonald’s book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000). However fascinating the parallels may be, I fail to understand whether MacDonald is making a compelling case for an intertextual relationship between Mark and Homer. With regards to the Bacchae, Peter Kirby (“Euripedes and Luke”) writes, “Although I doubt that Luke had Euripides in particular in mind when composing any certain passage of Acts, my study has made clear the substance of the argument made by critics, which is, that the stories were inspired and shaped within the context of Greco-Roman civilization…”

    However, when it comes to the Fourth Gospel and Pilate’s questioning of Jesus, the parallels are too striking to write off. It is only understandable that the similarity between the roles of Pilate and Pentheus keeps coming up for discussion over and over again. Personally, I became aware of the topic after watching Ingmar Bergman’s opera version of Euripides’s play in 1991. Ten years later, I found a discussion of the supposed parallels in Freke & Gandy. John Taylor’s book seems well worth reading. Thanks for reviewing it in such detail. Mark Stibbe’s book, too, is a great reference.

  3. There are many NT echoes of other literature that are probably best explained as an osmosis of the literary culture, but there are others that are just too specific in their details, and dense in their frequencies, that it seems foolishness not to think there is direct borrowing in mind — and the Bacchae and Acts fall in that latter clump, surely. Then there are lots of in-betweens, naturally. Wherever we place individual scenes along this continuum, the fact that we have such a packed continuum at all must surely be factored in to any discussion of genre and authorial intent that relates to historicity.

  4. It looks like I stumbled on to this discussion 3 years too late, but I do have a question. Is it possible that we are understanding these possible connections from an understanding of the NT and then seeking the same in other ancient literature? Are we giving meaning or overlaying meaning to the other literature that has its origins in meanings that we discovered in the NT literature? OR do ancient pre- Christian authors discuss these very meanings themselves relative to their view of the ancient literature and what it is trying to communicate?
    Thanks so much for your help.

    1. Oh my god! How embarrassing for me to read something I wrote three years ago. I have just corrected a few howlers in the original article and tidied up some points of expression but really should do much more.

      Anyway, as for your points: Yes, it is possible as you say, but in this case it appears that Taylor is drawing upon the scholarship of another field and noticing its potential relevance to his own. So I don’t think we have in this instance theologians projecting NT concepts/hopes etc into the classical literature.

      The conclusion to be drawn from Taylor’s observations, I think, is that the authors of the gospels were part and parcel of the same world that produced narratives about other gods or “man-gods”. Accordingly it might be doing more justice to the gospels to study them in comparison with the stories of other ancient divinities who appeared on earth (and to their own people) unrecognized and in human form than it would be to try to separate them from such literature. In other words, it is a mistake to study them as if they are truly unlike anything else the ancient world produced and a bigger mistake to consider them as having more relevance to us than the ancient world that produced them.

      I don’t know if that response sheds any more light on the question you raise or if I have just added to confusion. Let me know.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading