Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the Jesus and Dionysus posts (sharing the 2006 Hermathena article by John Moles) . . .

The status of Christianity against Judaism

The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.

Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.

The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.

Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.

See Kauppi: Foreign But Familiar Gods for three posts addressing the details.

Creating a new work by weaving together allusions to more than one earlier master was consistent with literary practice and the art of mimesis in that day.

In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).

Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.

The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness are cut down by the narrator.

“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.

The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion

At one level Dionysus represents the totality of pagan gods and here (in Acts 17) we find Paul using a “recognized Jewish proselytizing technique” to bring pagans to Christ through their own gods.

Similar instances of the “outside innocent visits corrupt city” trope:

  • Virgil, Eclogue 1
  • Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogue 7
  • Dio Chrysostom, 7.22-63
  • Libanius, 26.6, 27.6

Paul’s entry into Athens is portrayed through the familiar literary trope of the “outside innocent visits corrupt city”. (An historical Paul would have known that Athens, of all gentile cities, would be as he found it!) Luke drops the part of the convention of initially mocks the innocent newcomer and goes straight to presenting him as the censorious observer and judge, even the “Cynic ‘scout'”.

Paul’s charge that the Athenians are

being as fearful of divinities as it is possible to be in all respects (17:22)

cuts two ways:

  • he is being bluntly accusing (they are too superstitious!);
  • he is also pointing out for them the way to the true god.

Jewish proselytizing did indeed appeal to pagan religious and philosophical traditions.

So if Jesus is being compared subtly with the pagan gods, chief representative here being Dionysus, then Dionysus is not being condemned outright.

Pagans are being led to the truth of the Jesus-god through the medium of the closest analogue to Jesus among their own gods. In this respect, too, Paul’s performance in Athens functions as a sort of meta-or self-relflexive narrative for the whole narrative of Acts.

There is a message here alike for potential pagan converts, led along the Dionysiac path to Jesus, for Christian proselytisers this is the right way to approach pagans), and for the many Jews who compromised with paganism (follow Jesus, not Dionysus).

Earlier Stephen, who anticipates Paul in so many important ways, stressed how Moses had learned ‘the whole wisdom of the Egyptians’ (7:22). So there is a level on which Dionysus stands also for the generality of the pagan gods. (p. 86, my formatting)

Note that as in Peter’s speech at Pentecost (2:14-36) Paul’s speech stresses the critical factor of

‘knowing’ and not ‘knowing’ and on bad and good divinities; ‘recognition’ of the true god himself is what this sequence is all about, and so followers of the bull god himself meekly come over to the right side.

Thus when “the Dionysiac” (Dionysius) and “the heifer” (Damaris) meekly come over to the right religion we are seeing the beginning of the conquest of the Dionysiac religion by Christianity.

(Such “climactic naming as a means of resolving implicit interpretative problems is a common trick in Classical literature, the best parallel here being the delayed dramatic appearance, in the Dionysiac novel Daphnis and Chloe, of a character named Dionysophanes: ‘Dionysus made manifest’.)

Definition of Jesus

We return to the world of puns, so rich throughout Acts.

Paul quotes Cleanthes and Aratus and announces that “we are his offspring”, he is speaking of “the unknown god”. To the Jew, this will be the god who cannot be named, Yahweh. To the Greek who knows his poets, this will be Zeus.

Furthermore, the reference to being the offspring of Zeus will recall the epithet “Zeus-born”, i.e. Diogenes.

We cannot fail to compare here the fact that Jesus himself is divine by virtue of being the literal “son of God” through a human mother. And Dionysus himself, as the name [dio] indicates, is the son of Zeus and a human mother.

The appearance, at end of the Athens sequence, of the name Dionysios, therefore clinches the process of definition: Dionysus, wrong son of wrong god: Jesus, right son of right God.

Epicurus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epicureans make an appearance in Acts 17, too. Epicureans are named after their founder, Epicurus, the name meaning “helper”. Later when before Agrippa II (Acts 26:22) Paul invokes the “help that comes from God”, thus introducing the only place in the New Testament where the word ἐπικουρία appears.

Thus the pagan ‘helping’ philosophers are helpless to help: help only comes from the Christian God (p. 87).

Again, the figurehead on the ship carrying Paul to Italy (Acts 28:11) was the Dioscuri (Διοσκούροι), the name signifying for pagans the “sons of Zeus” — and again gods of ambiguous human parentage. They were the divine saviours and “helpers”. The name Διοσκούροι is etymologically linked to ἐπικουρία. So Luke is presenting once again the question of who is the real helper, saviour, god of Paul.

We saw in earlier posts (again via John Moles) how the name of Jesus was synonymous with Healer. In Acts, too, we find Jesus being portrayed (“etymologised”) as the Healer (10:38; 4:22, 18; 28:27). Just prior to the mention of Jesus in Acts 17 we read of Jason, the Greek name that is the equivalent of the Jewish-Greek Jesus and that means “healer”. (See the earlier posts for the details of the link between Jason and Jesus.) When Jesus is first mentioned in Acts 17 the philosophers would most naturally understand his name as “healer”.

So once again Jesus surpasses Dionysus, this time as a healing god.

I have lost much of the tone and subtleties of John Moles’ argument in reducing it to these points, so the following paragraph will not follow smoothly from what I have written so far, yet it will give added awareness of the richness he sees in Acts 17:

So much for the religious implications of Acts 17. But it is also appropriate to register an aesthetic judgement. Acts 17 is quite brilliantly conceived, and it is very Classical in its problematising boundaries, both spatial and temporal, its use of mirror technique, its self-reflexivity, its obliquity of implication, its density of meaning, its clever punning, and its sheer overall poise. The next sequence, however, is even better. (p. 88)

And that next sequence is the discussion of the brilliant ending of Acts. . . .

(But before then I will catch up with installments of another series or two.)

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2”

  1. Wow. That’s a pretty blatant fabrication for Acts 17:34; Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris (heifer) coming over to the right religion. Thanks for the posting.

  2. John Moles adds a footnote: “The combination of at least some historical distortion*, of the climactic naming and of the name’s thematic density persuades me that ‘Dionysios’ and ‘Damaris’ are fictional.”

    * The historical distortion is a reference to Gerd Lüdemann’s “Early Christianity according to the Traditions in Acts” in which he notes the contradiction with I Cor. 16:15 over the identity of the first converts of Achaea.

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