The Point of the Dionysiac Myth in Acts of the Apostles, #1

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by Neil Godfrey

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (...
English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (Lynn Odell) from The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The previous post in this series set out the evidence that there are correspondences between the canonical Acts of the Apostles and Euripides’ famous play Bacchae. This post continues presenting a lay version of classicist John Moles’ article, “Jesus and Dionysus”, published in 2006 in Hermathena. Do the allusions to the Bacchae and the Dionysiac myths and rituals in Acts actually “do” anything? Are they meaningless trappings, perhaps mere coincidences of imagery, or do they open the door to a new dimension of understanding of the work of Acts? If they “do” something meaningful that enhances our appreciation of what we read in a coherent and consistent manner then we have additional evidence that we are seeing something more than accidental correlations with the imagery and themes of the Dionysiac cult.

Anyone who does not know the play Bacchae can read an outline of its narrative in my earlier post linking it to the Gospel of John, based on a book by theologian Mark Stibbe.

We begin with some general points about the practice of imitative writing before addressing the significance of the use of Bacchae in Acts. Where I have added something of my own (not found in John Moles’ discussion, or at least not in the immediate context of the point being made) I have used {curly brackets}.

Why should we expect Luke to have written like this?

This conclusion should not surprise: similar intertextuality marks [Luke’s] engagement with the Septuagint, or, among Classical authors, with Homer. Hence, just as Classical texts are intensely ‘imitative’ in the sense of ‘imitating’ other Classical texts, so too is Acts. (p. 82)

At the end of this post we look at Luke’s literary predecessors who likewise drew upon Bacchae through which to frame their narratives of imperial efforts to impose paganism upon the Jews.

* 2 and 3 Maccabees

** Horace, Epictetus, Lucian

What are the chances of the author of Acts using this Greek play?

Bacchae remained for centuries a popular tragedy: it had been exploited by Jewish writers as a tool through which to explore the relationships between religion and politics, between Judaism and pagan (Dionysus) religion;* and by Stoic and Cynic philosophers** in philosophical and political contexts. The author of Acts (let’s call him Luke) knew of both these groups.

Are we really to expect Luke’s audience would have recognized all of the allusions?

* Origen (ca 249 CE), in Contra Celsum 2:34, noted thematic parallels with Bacchae.

Don’t think, however, that Luke’s knowledge of the way other authors used Bacchae and his own similar use of it in Acts means his audience must have been restricted to a sophisticated elite. Surely he would have expected some of his audience to recognize the allusions — and we know that some of them did* — but that does not mean he must have expected all of them to have done so. We will see that in Acts itself may contain the message that “while Christianity does not need great learning, it can hold its own in that world”: compare the charge against Peter and the original apostles that they were “unlearned” even though they were “turning the world upside down” with the charge leveled at Paul that when he clearly presented much learning to his accusers, that “much learning had made him mad”.

Why would Luke make use of a Greek play in a work of history?

Acts consists of a “highly varied literary texture”. {Pervo’s work demonstrating the characteristics of the Hellenistic novel that are found throughout much of Acts has been discussed on this blog.} Ostensibly the work is a form of historiography, but if so, we can note that in some types of historiography “tragedy” finds a very natural place. Herodotus’s Histories, for example, is one ancient instance of historical writing in which myth is part and parcel of the narrative. {Some scholars have also described it as a prose work of Greek tragedy.} Dennis MacDonald has identified certain Homeric influences in Acts and these Homeric episodes are themselves bound up in motifs and themes of classical tragedy.

How do the Dionysiac parallels highlight key elements in the Acts (and Gospel) narrative(s)?

First, note the key elements that are highlighted by the Dionysiac parallels:

  • the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus
  • Pentecost
  • the repeated trials (literal and figurative) of Jesus’ followers
  • the original apostles’ first escape from prison
  • the relative liberalism of the Pharisees compared with the Sadducees
  • Paul’s conversion
  • escapes from prison, first by Peter, then by Paul and Silas
  • the first converts from a pagan (rival) religion — anticipating the h

I set out here in column format the material John Moles covers in straight paragraphs. My intention is to display more visually the Bacchae content that the Acts narrative would evoke for one familiar with the popular play, and to draw attention to the ways (including structurally) those allusions deepen the meaning of the Acts narrative.



The apparently unruly Pentecost scene (“these men are drunk”) ushering in the new religion, the arrest and imprisonment of the followers of the new devotees, lead us to the warning of the wise elder, Gamaliel, that they may be fighting against God.

The Bacchants enter with a riotous reputation, their followers are interrogated, threatened and warned to desist. The venerable blind seer, Teiresias, warns the persecuting ruler that he may in fact be fighting against the god.

Gamaliel’s warning (quoting Teiresias) deters the high priest and Sadducees only momentarily.

(The warning is also for the reader who is introduced to Acts through Theophilus, “loved by god/lover of god”: we must be theophiles, not theomachs like Paul and Herod Agrippa I)

Teiresias’s warning is ignored.
Arrests, interrogation, imprisonments and miraculous escapes follow.

Arrest, interrogation, imprisonment and miraculous escape follows.

Steven’s arrest and execution re-enact and recall the fate of Jesus (compare Acts 7:60 with Luke 23:34).

Paul was complicit in Steven’s death and went on to
  • imprison men and women (Acts 8:1-3),
  • breathing out murder (contrast the Holy Spirit/Breath) and
  • bringing them in bonds back to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

Paul (in contrast to Pentheus) submits to the divine epiphany when challenged by the god for “kicking against the pricks” (again quoting from Bacchae)

Even the most hardened of persecutors can be converted, and this by the mercy of Jesus that contrasts so strongly with the hardness of Dionysus. It is a very easy thing for the new god, Jesus, to do: “a matter, almost, only of the change of a syllable. Saoul becomes Paulus, the little man who does big things among both great and small.” Acts is full of such name-plays.

Women were prominent among the devotees of the new religion;

Pentheus was “breathing” our his persecuting passion and subjecting the persecuted to bonds. Pentheus is challenged by the bull-god for “kicking against the pricks” but refuses to yield.

Added irony here given that Pentheus is also clearly attracted to “bullish things”: the god is effectively saying, “Give in to your own bullish prickings.” — (Note the study of the psychology of the persecutor; this reflects on Paul, too?)
Paul’s physical blindness accompanies his vision of Ananias and his insight into his new role.

Pentheus can see but is spiritually blind; Teiresias is blind but can see the truth.

After Paul’s conversion from persecutor to persecutee, King Herod Agrippa I (next in a line of bad kings in Luke) becomes the persecutor.

Peter becomes the focus and he, too, begins with a “god-fighting” moment: after his vision and the descent of the Holy Spirit to the gentiles he decides that he has no “power to hinder God” (Acts 11:17)
King Herod imprisons Peter as the leader of the new movement. (Acts 12:1ff)
Peter miraculously escapes from bondage and prison. Herod exalts himself and is accordingly struck down by God. (Acts 12:20-223)
Paul and Silas miraculously escape bonds and prison and the new persecutor, their jailer, chooses to submit to God when faced with the divine manifestation.
Pentheus the persecutor is the King of Thebes. Again, the same motifs of

  • the persecuting king
  • being warned he is fighting God
  • and making the wrong choice;
  • the king binds
  • and imprisons the leader of the new religion;
  • god’s servant miraculously escapes the bonds and prison;
  • the king exalts himself
  • and is struck down by divine vengeance.

Like the Road to Damascus narrative, all these ‘miraculous-escape-from-prison’ narratives show Dionysiac parallels providing a language and grammar for the description in, as it were, an ‘international’ context, of the phenomena of divine epiphany and conversion or non-conversion. These narratives also imply a kind of religious liberation theology more powerful than any worldly powers, whether Jewish or Roman. (p. 80)


The ongoing trials sustain the Bacchae parallel, and then with Acts 17 (a trial-like episode) the parallel is particularly concentrated with

  • direct use of Bacchae motifs,
  • ambiguous allusion to “your poets”
  • its explicit mention of Dionysios

Then in Paul’s third telling of his conversion, we find a direct quotation from Bacchae to confirm the validity of reading the narrative in Dionysiac terms.

So the five pointers to Bacchae are strategically dotted across the narrative:

  • Acts 5:39 “but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.”
  • Acts 9:1 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord
  • Acts 17:28 ‘for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’
  • Acts 17:34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
  • Acts 26:14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

The conclusion of Acts finds Paul again under guard but the conclusion will be treated separately in a future post.

See the previous post for details.


How can Jesus in Acts be compared with the pagan god Dionysus?

  • The prison escapes and the vision on the Road to Damascus are used to prove the divinity of Jesus just as the corresponding events in Bacchae are used to prove the divinity of Dionysus
  • Both Jesus and Dionysus are epiphanic deities
  • Both Jesus and Dionysus are divinities of tremendous physical powers, and their followers share in those physical powers
    • (Dionysus’ followers have the power to tear bodies apart limb from limb while} Jesus’ followers have the power to heal;
    • and followers of both have the power to administer summary justice — the disciples of both are to be feared (note the fates of Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus, Herod Agrippa I, Bar Jesus)
  • Both deities confront people with the choice of conversion
  • “To those who accept him, Jesus brings salvation, just as Dionysus was the great pagan ‘saviour’ god.”
  • Both deities inflict great punishment on those who do not accept them: death upon their own people {Origen interpreted Jesus’ punishment of the Jews, death and scattering, as greater than Dionysus’s punishment of Pentheus through dismemberment}; Dionysus destroyed the Palace while Jesus destroyed the Temple (as was foretold in Acts, and Acts certainly was also written after that event — as will be argued).
  • The worship of both gods could take the form of a “mystery”, and in both wine-drinking was important:
    • wine represented the blood of Jesus at the Last Supper
    • at Pentecost the apostles were mistaken for being drunk with wine
    • often the wine-drinking in Acts is presupposed but left unspecified (descriptions of ritual meal mention only the breaking of bread, e.g. Acts 20:7-12, “no doubt as one way of creating distance between Dionysus religion and Christianity.”

But Jesus lived as a man before he was worshiped as a deity

And this is exactly how Dionysus was known, too. For most of the play he was regarded (and despised) as a mortal stranger. Dionysus may well be seen through Acts as representative of all pagan gods, or the epitome of the pagan saviour deity. Dionysus, though unrecognized by others, was in fact god among his own people. He looked and behaved like a human being. {His mother was a mortal conceived by a god.}

Dionysus is the pagan parallel – perhaps the parallel full stop – for the Incarnation. (p. 82)

How the Dionysiac parallels engage Acts with 2 and 3 Maccabees

Mina of Antiochus IV.
Mina of Antiochus IV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 and 3 Maccabees address the attempts by the Seleucids and the Ptolemies to impose Dionysus (Bacchus) worship (and paganism generally) on the Jews in Judea and Egypt.

Note the following with expressions familiar to us by now from the discussion in this and the preceding post:

2 Maccabees 7:19

As for you, do not think that you will be unpunished, having taken it in hand to fight God (spoken by one being tortured against the king) — and in this narrative one god-fighter is succeeded by another.

2 Maccabees 9:7

[The king] breathing out fire, in his passion against the Jews [Pentheus was “breathing out his passion”]

3 Maccabees

Moles points readers to J.R.C. Cousland, “Dionysus theomachos? Echoes of the Bacchae in 3 Maccabees”, Biblica, Vol. 82 (2001) 539-548 that shows 3 Maccabees contains even more such references. This article can be read online here.

In both texts, the Dionysiac motifs undergird the struggles for religious liberty against political oppression. Yahweh defeats the Dionysiacs by using the same destructive methods as Dionysus.

Acts appears to contain imitations of this Dionysiac material in 2 and 3 Maccabees:

  • Theomach Saul “breathes threats and murder against the disciples” as theomach Antiochus Epiphanes “breathes fire in his rages against the Jews”
  • Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12:23 and Antiochus in 2 Maccabees 9:9 are both eaten to death by worms
  • Both kings shared the sin of aspiring to divinity — symptoms also shared by Pentheus

Luke’s literary exploitation of Dionysiac material far exceeds anything in 2 or 3 Maccabees, but it is to some extent filtered through these texts and thus (again) involves a complex process of ‘double allusion’. Luke’s engagement with 2 and 3 Maccabees also has still larger religious and political implications, of which more later. (p. 83)


Another question illuminated by the Dionysiac backdrop is the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. That will be the subject of the next post in this series.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The Point of the Dionysiac Myth in Acts of the Apostles, #1”

  1. So basically Christianity was the second (or third) attempt to impose Dionysian worship upon the Jews! Of course, there was the attempt to put statues of Caligula in the Temple and in Jewish synagogues, perhaps Nero, too, making the Imperial Cult perhaps the second attempt, especially when one realises that Julius Caesar and mark Anthony were higher-ups in the cult of Dionysius….

    1. Christianity was treated as superior to paganism in Acts and as its rightful replacement. This will become clearer in the next post. Acts was not presenting Christianity as a guise for Dionysus worship but as a religion far superior to it — and quite different from it with its merciful god who healed and raised the dead (Dionysus was the god without mercy and who demonstrated his power through killing alone), lived a life and worshiped with customs marked by self-control as opposed to drunkenness.

  2. JW:
    I’ve labeled Christians like McGrath’s irrational fear of parallels between the Christian and Jewish Bible as ParallelO(T)phobia. I hereby label their fear of parallels between the Christian and Greek (Pagan) Bibles as “Homerphobia”.

    We start here with Paul:

    1) Primary theology is that the story of his Jesus is in The Jewish Bible.

    2) “Mark” fleshes out such a story and writes the original Gospel narrative with the Jewish Bible as the primary source.

    3) Marcion’s theology is to contradict “Mark”. His Jesus is not connected to The Jewish Bible.

    4) “Matthew” moves “Mark” towards Judaism and increases the Jewish Bible as a source.

    5) “Luke” moves her Gospel away from Judaism. The Jewish Bible decreases as a source and… a new source is added, the Pagan Bible.

    We would all agree that “Luke” is the most oriented toward Greeks. In addition to having the best Greek it would also make sense to use Greek sources such as Bacchae.

    By Irenaeus of Lyons (yes, “Lyons”) time, orthodox Christianity has decided that everything was historical. This would explain how “Luke” came to be anonymous as I suspect the historical conversation went something like this:

    orthodox Christianity: Did you write “Luke”?

    “Luke”: Yes.

    orthodox Christianity: Did you know Jesus or anyone who knew Jesus?

    “Luke”: No

    orthodox Christianity: What were your sources?

    “Luke”: The Jewish Bible, Bacchae, Josephus, inspiration

    orthodox Christianity: You did not write “Luke”.

    Once the author had been eliminated as the author, the only possible subsequent author could be anonymous.


    1. Joe Wallack wrote:

      “I’ve labeled Christians like McGrath’s irrational fear of parallels between the Christian and Jewish Bible as ParallelO(T)phobia.”

      Christians invented parallelomania. They find Jesus parallels in every nook and cranny of the OT.

  3. All art, including literary composition, is at some level about drawing parallels or correspondences of some kind. But all correspondences or parallels are not, conversely, artistic or conscious imitation. We can see the human face on Mars and the man in the Moon, but such observations do nothing. They are just there as accidents of perception.

    Ditto for parallels that arise from common experiences, universal flood stories or other similar mythical scenarios. They require, and find, explanations that rule out shared cultural exchanges.

    Classical scholars and others have no problem with seeing cultural sharing and intertextuality among other literary works. Josephus and Livy in some ways imitate Herodotus and Virgil and others imitate Homer.

    Theologians have no problem with the evangelists creatively imitating what they have heard from eyewitnesses of Jesus, or stories passed down from one imitator to the next. The problem arises when stronger evidence is found nearer at hand for what it was that they were imitating or creatively reproducing.

    But even scholars who are consciously serving the cause of their Christian faith could recognize the obvious literary sources of the evangelists while they remained oblivious to (or were not seriously bothered by) the logical conclusion that there was no oral source linked to any real events. Observe the way Dennis MacDonald, for example, must take the trouble to explain that his thesis does not deny the historicity of Jesus or the gospel narrative; and the way Thomas Brodie’s work was lapped up by the dim-witted Joel Watts as the basis of his own semi-literate book (vigorously flogged on his blog) before he learned what Brodie himself said about the logical conclusions of his arguments.

    Thomas Brodie in fact makes an interesting remark in the next chapter of “Beyond the Quest” I will be posting here. He acknowledges making the mistake of pushing some weak parallels. By doing that, the scholarly discussion spotlights those instead of the main argument itself. The main argument is over whether there are sufficient strong parallels to demonstrate indebtedness of some form (not always direct borrowing). Literary allusions and correspondences are always going to range on a continuum from the most obvious and direct through to faint hints that are nothing more than possibilities or maybes.

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