The God Who Comes

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I quoted John Taylor where he referenced chapter 5 of Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter Friedrich Otto. That chapter is titled “The God Who Comes”. It is about this distinctive characteristic of the god Dionysus — that, unlike other gods, he comes to mankind visibly, that is, “in the flesh”. That post pointed to a strong theological or religious meaning that such a “historic presence” promised for ongoing and future intimate relations (even entering into the persons of devotees now) in the cults of both Dionysus and Jesus.

For those who are too impatient to read that chapter online (it is available in its entirety on Google books) here are a few excerpts.

One could almost substitute “Jesus” and “Gospel of Mark’ or such for Dionysus and his narrative in the following discussion and one would continue to nod in assent with all that is said. Jesus is far from the violent figure towards humans that Dionysus is, but one reads commentaries on Mark speaking of the “violence” with which Jesus enters “history”, with his overpowering of demons and in other ways suddenly turning the world upside down. The same commentators speak of the urgency with which Jesus acts and demands responses from those he encounters.

The cult forms give us the clearest evidence of the violence with which he forces his way in — a violence which affects the myth so passionately. These forms present him as the god who comes, the god of epiphany, whose appearance is far more urgent, far more compelling than that of any other god.

He had disappeared, and now he will suddenly be here again.

Other gods, like Apollo, also go off into the distance and return. But only Dionysus disappears in an incomprehensible manner from the circle of his followers or is swallowed up in the deep. As surprising as is his coming, so is his going away. In the Agrionia festival in Chaeronea the women searched for him and returned finally with the tidings that he had fled to the Muses and lay concealed among them. According to the belief of the Argives, he had plunged into the lake of Lerna. That signified, at the same time, his plunge into the underworld. . . . An Orphic hymn says that he rested for two years in the sacred house of Persephone after his departure. 

Gosh. Even Dionysus had variant and contradictory tales about his post-mortem existence. No wonder contradictory tales about the resurrection appearances of Jesus posed no problem when the pagans converted to Christianity. (Yes, yes, I am only being flippant. I know one can protest — if inclined — that the reasons for the differences have their own differences.)

And now the one who had disappeared was supposed to reappear suddenly with his tipsy look and his dazed smile, or he was supposed to burst forth out of the darkness in the form of a savage bull.

They were waiting for him — the choruses of women, true images of those higher beings, who followed Dionysus everywhere. In Elis it was the dancing chorus of “the sixteen women,” who invoked the god with the words: “Come, Lord Dionysus, attended by the Graces, into the holy temple of Elis, rushing into the temple with your bull’s hoof, venerable bull, venerable bull!”

Revelation 22:17, 20 “Come, Lord Jesus!” But disrespectful sceptics can’t allow thoughts of venerable bull to enter since Jesus is a ram.

They knew, in short, that the one who would appear would be a wild creature who would bring, through his demonic violence, a breathtaking excitement.

Mark’s Jesus is notably possessed by the spirit at the beginning of his gospel, and he never rests until his spirit leaves him on the cross. One must look to Paul’s letters and some indications in Acts to see evidence of spirit possession among early Christians.

In Athens he was invoked at the festival of the Lenaea, which got its name from the Lenai, a chorus of frenzied women worshippers of Dionysus, related to the Bacchae, maenads . . . . It must have been they, above all the others, who called to the god to come, similar to the “sixteen women” of Elis. “Summon the god!” was the cry of the daduchos in the night celebration . . . . In Argos, trumpets which had been concealed under the leaves of the thrysi were sounded when he was called up out of the lake of Lerna, and a sheep was lowered into the mysterious abyss for the warder of the gates . . . to release him.

Even so, at the sound of the trumpets those who are asleep in death shall awake . . . . The message of the risen god was heralded by women. No, no, I am not suggesting this proves that Christianity was some sort of mutation from Bacchic festivals. But it does say something, surely, about the wider culture from which the Christian narrative was born and first grew.

There were other myths that varied the way the god came to his followers from his long absence:

In wintertime on the heights of Parnassus the choruses of the Delphic and Attic thyiads employed an unusual method to call Dionysus to rise up, to appear among them and lead them madly over the mountain top. They awakened him as Liknites, as a child in the cradle. He had, therefore, just been born and not yet gained consciousness.

The nymphs who suckled him as a babe became his devotees once he grew and led them in their frenzies across the mountain.

So there were different mythical details, but the same mythical idea. In some places the god was worshiped as the one who sailed to them from across the sea, in others as the one who rose up from the lake, in others as a newborn babe who was about to suddenly open his divine eyes. In all of them there was the singing of hymns to Dionysus to invoke his presence.

The unique immediacy of his appearance is expressed in the general festivals by a series of special forms. Wheras the other gods, however exciting of their coming may have been (and Callimachus’ hymn gives us a famous example for Apollo), are invisible when they enter their temples on their feast days, Dionysus arrives in the flesh, i.e., in a plastic image. In Sicyon, one was not permitted to see the images of Dionysus Bakcheios and Lysios the whole year through. Only on one holy night were they brought into the temple. . . . In Athens the image of Dionysus was driven to his sanctuary in a ship on wheels. . . .

The strongest proof for the might and triumph of his coming is his marriage at Athens with the wife of the Archon Basileus.

Otto cites a number of ancient sources for this last detail, including Aristotle and Demosthenes:

The King occupied the building now known as the Boculium, near the Prytaneum, as may be seen from the fact that even to the present day the marriage of the King’s wife to Dionysus takes place there. (Aristotle — part 3 of Athenian Constitution)

[S]he entered where no other of the whole host of the Athenians enters save the wife of the king only; and she administered the oath to the venerable priestesses who preside over the sacrifices, and was given as bride to Dionysus. (Demosthenes, from Against Neaera)

He whom the women attend, he who always has a favorite at his side, stepped over the threshold of his earthly home and took possession of the mistress of that house. . . . That is something quite different from the sacred nuptials of a god and goddess celebrated in cult. There is absolutely no comparison. . . .

The sacred nuptials in Babylon and Egypt involved the woman being separated from all men and having to belong to the god in his temple.

The Athenian Basilinna, however, does not belong to Dionysus in this way. She is not a woman whom the god has chosen as his companion, as was the case in Babylon . . . . She is the wife of the distinguished official who has the name of king. Nor does she pay her respects to the god in his temple, but, on the contrary, he presents himself to her in the house of her husband, to make her his through his embrace. . . . Dionysus puts himself in the position of the king. He, the confidant of women, claims the queen in Athens, when he comes. This event is of such importance that it had necessarily to be preceded by a great public ceremony of the entry of the god . . .

Just as the appearances of Dionysus, in general, are different from those of the other gods because of their physical immediacy, so there is no precedent in the history of cult for the rite of sexual intercourse with the queen. This visit truly shows that he is the god who appears. In no other act of his epiphany is his nearness revealed with such impetuousness in taking possession.

We all know about the union of Christ and the church being symbolized in the Bible as a marriage. In my previous post I remarked on John Taylor’s observations that the Gospel of John appears to have several features that echo the famous play about Dionysus by Euripides (Bacchae). But there are some features of that gospel that Taylor did not address, but that do not wander far from the above theme of the god’s coming being epitomized sexually.

Jo-Ann Brant has studied certain novelistic features in the Gospel of John, some of which relate directly to sexuality. I have discussed some of her views in an earlier post, Novelistic Plot and Motifs in the Gospel of John. Three scenes in particular point to the author using sexual imagery and motifs to deliver his spiritual message:

  1. the playful flirting between Jesus and the married Samaritan woman at the well,
  2. the sensual scene of Mary anointing Jesus feet with costly nard,
  3. and Jesus’ finally fulfiling his mother’s wishes for his own wedding by substituting a death (a symbolic or spiritual marriage) for a literal marriage.

If these three descriptions of anything from that most spiritual of all gospels sound scandalous, then read Jo-Ann Brant’s work, or my blog post outlining it.

Brant does not associate these scenes with Dionysian themes. Not at least as far as I recall. I am mentioning them merely as a bit of free-association following on from Otto’s discussion of the cult of Dionysus, filtered through the associations of this with the Gospel of John in John Taylor’s discussion in Classics and the Bible. If you think it’s over the top to even mention this then you are entitled to ignore it. But maybe I should post a little more on the other associations between the Bacchae and the Gospel of John. They go well beyond the wine symbolism.

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18 thoughts on “The God Who Comes”

  1. Neil,

    I agree that the NT gospels exhibit a “paganization” of “Jewish” ideas, and I also agree with those who feel this is because there was a conscious effort to make messianic Judaism Rome-friendly (like Eisenman and History Hunters International), in a war for hearts and minds that went along with the wars from 66 CE to Bar Kochba. I agree that the Jesus of the NT gospels is a myth.

    I think the only place we really differ is on our speculations for the reasons why there are references to Jesus having a “family” in (arguably) Paul, (arguably) Josephus, Hegesippus and the Gospel of the Hebrews. In the past
    you have said you see a trend in Christian origins to bring Jesus down to earth, and that this might explain what you suspect are interpolations in Paul and Josephus, and the belief of Jewish Christians that Jesus was a man.

    I’m having trouble visualizing how Jewish Christians would have been influenced by Pauline Christians, except for the Nazoraeans, who were said to believe in the virgin birth and used a complete Matthew. It’s seems odd to me that Ebionites would reject Paul and Pauline Christianity but then take on, albeit in an “extreme” and
    “heretical” manner, this one element of what you are seeing as a trend of making Jesus a real man.

    If we accept that “Jesus” (not the NT Jesus, but whoever he “was”) was a real person, we don’t need to see certain interpolations in Paul and Josephus, references that do not exist in orthodox or gnostic Christianity (in the case of “the brother of Jesus” in Josephus), or did not sit well with them (in the case of the “brother of the Lord” in Paul). Orthodox and gnostic Christians thus make odd candidates for interpolating these references, and it’s hard to see how Jewish Christians could have done it, or why they would have. An “historical Jesus” makes this issue easier for me to understand.

  2. Hi John,

    I am not sure I understand the problem you see. If the humanizing of Jesus began as a symbolic or parabolic tale that was later interpreted literally in some quarters, and the Ebionites are traced back to some of those who embraced this literal view, then I don’t see any need to complicate the picture by introducing Pauline Christianity into the trajectory — except to say that Ebionites rejected Paul.

    I am missing something, sorry.

  3. Assuming that the “brother of Jesus” reference in Josephus and the “brother of the Lord” reference in Paul are interpolations, who would have done it? To my knowledge, no orthodox or gnostic uses the expression “brother of Jesus” (besides Origen when referring to Josephus), and no orthodox or gnostic is comfortable with the idea of James being a brother of Jesus. I’m not seeing any good candidates for doing these interpolations, even taking into consideration the idea of a trend in some quarters of bringing a mythical Jesus down to earth.

    As far as I can tell, the only people who did not qualify what it meant to be a brother of the Lord or of Jesus were Jewish Christians like Hegesippus or the Ebionites, and their view of Jesus was not shared by the orthodox of gnostics. They seem unlikely to have had the means or wherewithal to interpolate these passages into Josephus and Paul, passages that were never accepted at face value by gnostics or orthodox Christians.

    It seems more likely to me that these passages are orignal to Paul and Josephus, who, unlike the gnostics and orthodox, would have had no need to “explain” what they meant. It’s easier to picture Marcion removing the reference in Paul, because his motive is clear, than it is to picture the orthodox or (other) gnostics adding it, when they all had “problems” with it.

  4. I think “brother of Jesus” is original to Josephus, however I think that “called Christ” is not and that the passage originally referred to the actual Jesus being discussed in that section.

    I believe that the gloss came as a result of Origen’s use of the phrase “called Christ” in his commentary on Matthew, which oddly enough contains the same phrase at 1:16.

  5. That sounds possible, and I don’t have a problem with thinking that the “brother of Jesus” could have been the “other” Jesus discussed in that section, other than it’s hard for me to imagine that someone (who?) interpolated “called Christ” into Josephus before Origen’s time. Notice that Origen is true to Paul’s wording of “brother of the Lord” when he talks about that. This makes me suspect that he is also being true to Josephus’ wording of Josephus that James was “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.”

    Matthew (and John) also arguably post-date Josephus. Mason and Eisenman persuade me that Luke used Josephus as a source, so it is not impossible that Matthew (and John) got the phrase “who is called Christ” from Josephus.

  6. I never said that this was interpolated before Origen. What I meant was that the interpolation was the result of Origen’s reference to the phrase “called Christ”, while discussing the Josephus reference in his work on Matthew. In other words, I do not think that Origen was directly quoting the text of Josephus when he used this phrase in his Matthean Commentary.

    1. I didn’t mean toi imply that you said it was interpolated before Origen, and I should have written my comment better. I got the same impression you did after I saw what I posted. For some reason on this “thread” I can’t express my properly.

      I like what you are saying. Tthe only thing that makes me suspect that it’s not the case is that, to my knowledge, Origen only uses the expression “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ” when he refers to Josephus. When he mentions it in Against Celsus 1.47, he also mentions Paul’s “brother of the Lord” reference, so it appears that he is giving an accurate citation of both accounts.

      1. That is the standard line, though it is that standard line that I view as suspect. Like I said, in my view, it is not unlikely that Origen simply quoted Matthew, for the title, as Matthew use this precise expression at Mat 1:16 and there is nothing in the Josephus reference to lead one to think that the James being referred to was actually a Christian, especially when one considers the players and the outcome of the little story.

        1. Origen does not mention the James passage in Ant. 20, which has the players and the little story I assume you are referring to. Either Origen was confused about his source, or there was a lost passage somewhere in Josephus that ascribed the fall of Jerusalem to James.

          Perhaps Origen used Matthew 1:16 every time he mentioned the lost passage (but who wrote “the brother of Jesus” part there?), and then this was later interpolated into another passage in Josephus about a different James, who also had a brother named Jesus, in Ant. 20. It’s not impossible, but it seems simpler to assume that the entire expression is original to Josephus, in both the lost passage and Ant. 20, and Matthew and John got “who is called Christ” from him, just like Luke also used him as a source.

          I’m not convinced that the word Christ had the same baggage in the first century that it came to assume in the second century. I don’t see what the big deal would be if Josephus did say that Jesus was called Christ. It just means “messiah,” a normal enough Jewish concept. Origen says Josephus didn’t believe it, in any event. Josephus also implies that the Jews who started the war with Rome were messianic because their biggest motivation was “an ambiguous oracle, that was also found in their sacred writings, how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” that they applied to themselves (War 6.312), and he didn’t believe that, either.

          I wouldn’t expect Josephus to call James (or anyone else in Palestine) a “Christian” in any event, any more than the Jews who started the war. It may not have been an expression that existed in Palestine in the first century. Even Acts says that Christians were first called Christians in Antioch (11:26).

          1. Actually I think that Origen is specifically citing the episode in Antquities as the reason for the fall of Jerusalem. Specifically the execution of James the Just, whom Origen conflates with Paul’s James. The “called Christ” was, imo, a later marginal gloss that occured due to Origen’s use of this phrase in describing this event.

            Again the reason why I believe this to be the more likely case is because of the actual story being told in Ant. 20, which leads me to conclude that the Jesus being referenced was, in fact, Jesus, the son of Damneus, as referenced in the passage, and of whom the passage was about in the first place.

  7. I have read this and the other posts it summarizes before, but I don’t recall if they mention Robert’s idea that Origen is referring to the Ant. 20 James passage instead of a “lost” one. That’s a new one to me.

    I’m not convinced by the idea in Neil’s post that Origen confused Hegesippus with Josephus, as I am unaware of any evidence that Origen knew Hegesippus, and he says that the author of the James passage did not believe in Jesus as the Christ, which could not be said of Hegesippus.

    I’ve been mulling over your idea, Robert, and I’d like to pick your brain a bit, if you don’t mind.

    When Origen refers to the Josephus’ John the Baptist passage in Against Celsus 1.47, I can see those things in Josephus:

    “For in the eighteenth volume of the Judaic Antiquities Josephus testifies to John as having been a baptist and promised cleansing to those who were baptized.”


    “John, that was called the Baptist … commanded the Jews … to come to baptism … for the purification of the body” (Ant. 18.116-117).

    (On a side note, I don’t know the Greek, but I notice that Josephus says that John was “called the Baptist,” which seems similar to Origen’s/Josephus’ statements that Jesus was “called Christ,” though some argue that the John passage is an interpolation, too.)

    It’s possible that Origen was reading into Ant. 20 concerning the stoning of a different James who had a brother named Jesus, perhaps because (like Clement of Alexandria) he knew of a tradition that James the Just had been stoned. It’s also possible that Josephus never mentioned Jesus “who is called Christ” and Origen thus only inferred that Josephus did not accept him as such. But it seems odd that Origen’s details about James are not actually in Ant. 20, like the details of John the Baptist, which can be seen in Ant. 18. Is it enough to think that these details are from Origen reading into Ant. 20, or confusing Hegesippus with Josephus? I am open to your idea, Robert, but I need more convincing.

    I’m still leaning towards the idea that there was a lost passage that was removed because of the objections of Origen and Eusebius, and that “Jesus who is called Christ” is original to Josephus, like “John, that was called the Baptist,” and that that’s where Matthew, John and Origen got the expression. That would not be odd considering that Luke may have used Josephus. I suspect there must have been something more than silence that gave Origen the impression that Josephus “did not accept our Jesus to be Christ.”

    “And in such a way among the people did this James shine for his justice that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Judaic Antiquities in twenty books, wishing to demonstrate the cause why the people suffered such great things that even the temple was razed down, said that these things came to pass against them in accordance with the ire of God on account of the things which were dared by them against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wondrous thing is that, although he did not accept our Jesus to be Christ, he yet testified that the justice of James was not at all small; and he says that even the people supposed they had suffered these things on account of James.”

    “But he himself, though not believing in Jesus as Christ, in seeking the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these things happening to the people, since they killed the prophecied Christ, even says, being unwillingly not far from the truth, that these things befell the Jews as vengeance for James the just, who was a brother of Jesus who is called Christ, since they killed him who was most just.”

    “… Titus destroyed Jerusalem, as Josephus writes, on account of James the just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but, as the truth demonstrates, [actually] on account of Jesus the Christ of God”


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