By J.P. Holding| The Greek deity Dionysus (also called Bacchus) is known by most people for his patronage of wine; he is best known as one from whom, supposedly, Jesus’ miracle of changing water into fine wine was borrowed. It is quite right to note that the miracle of Dionysus comes from a record that postdates the first century, so that any influence if any at all, must have been the other way around. We will look more at this later.
But both Dionysus and the claims of copycatting, are much more complex than this, as he is “the most complex and multifaceted of all the Greek gods.” [Carp.MD, 1] Dionysus was not merely a god of wine, but a god of paradox since he was the god of the civilized theater, but also the god of wild, orgiastic behavior and drunkenness. He was a god of fertility, but also a god who comforted the dying. He is sometimes depicted as a maniacal, destructive figure and at other times, as an: innocent child; a bearded man; as an effeminate youth. He is a god of sensuality and experience:
“Dionysism throws itself wholeheartedly into savagery in seeking to possess and contact the supernatural.” [Dan.GLE, 150] And, it is: “…an expression of the sensual joys of life unrestrained by the state and not channeled by the patriarchal family.” [Eva.GE, 37] Sum it up: Dionysism is a religion that celebrates the destruction of boundaries and the blurring of categories.
Why do people claim Jesus was a knock-off of Dionysus?
The answer, of course, is that they do it by arguing fallaciously. Modern scholars deep into the study of Dionysus perceive a common thread in these stories of Dionysu as one involved in sources of illusion (the theater, altered states of consciousness) and as one who has the ability to embody opposing qualities simultaneously. [Hein.HHG, 14ff] But few outside of the copycat theorists, and few scholars, see in Dionysus any real parallel to the figure of Christ.
There are exceptions. Evans [Eva.GE] thinks there are parallels in the birth, humanity (though Dionysus was not ever regarded with the “100% God, 100% man” idea), suffering, sacramentalism and glory of Dionysus and Christ, but these are vaguely general and universal parallels or not parallels at all (as we will see).
For the most part no such parallel is seen — and the few that have been seen in the past by the less knowledgeable are starting to fade away.
Bacchae to the Future
For convenience, we must begin by laying groundwork, by summarizing the story told by the Greek playwright Euripides, entitled The Bacchae. This play serves as a source of information on Dionysus/Bacchus for scholars and Christ-mythers alike, and we will be referring to it often.
The play opens with a speech by Dionysus, who, disguised as a mortal priest of his own religion, complains about the fact that the city of Thebes. Its king, Pentheus, has refused to honor him. Therefore, he has caused the women of Thebes to go mad and run off like crazed Girl Scouts into the wilderness as a demonstration of his power – and plans to do a few more demonstrations, should Pentheus come running after the women
Well, as it happens, Pentheus does get fairly peeved, and sends out to have Dionysus arrested. After a brief exchange in which Dionysus teases the hot-headed king, Pentheus has Dionysus thrown in jail and starts planning to get the women back.
Dionysus, however, draws a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” that says “Earthquake”, but before Pentheus can deal with this problem, a herdsman arrives with stories of how dangerous the women are getting. Dionysus coyly takes control of Pentheus and convinces Pentheus to dress as a woman so he can sneak out and do some spying on the women in the wilderness — this is all part of his plan to humiliate and destroy Pentheus.
And destroy him he does. Pentheus ends up dead, torn to bits by the women, with particular honors for the grisly deed going to his own mother, who carries his head in thinking it is the head of an animal. Dionysus closes out by pronouncing judgments on everyone.
Debunking the alleged parallels
We now begin the main portion of our essay, in which we analyze, one by one, the alleged similarities between Dionysus and Christ.
1. Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25th and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger.
One critic adds to the description of D as the “wondrous babe of God, the Mystery” and “He of the miraculous birth.”
We have already noted in our article on Mithraism why the Christmas birth date is of no relevance and this comes from a later church source, St. Epiphanius, which makes it of no relevance for copycatting claims. And, at any rate, I have noted no allusion to any birth date of Dionysus in any of the literature on him yet, other than one critic’s note that D’s birth was celebrated January 6 by some in Alexandria.
Born of a virgin? Not exactly, although it depends which of the stories you want to believe. In the most popular story, Dionysus’ mother was named Semele, and she was impregnated by Zeus when that dirty old god pulled one of his usual tricks by taking the form of a lightning bolt.
Later, a jealous Hera tricked Semele into asking Zeus to reveal his glory, which ended up burning Semele to a crisp and leaving the prenatal Dionysus behind. No absentee father at first, Zeus picked up the child and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be on his own. Dionysus is thus, in a sense, “twice born” and that is the “Mystery” that the above refers to, as found in Harrison. [Dan.GLE, 65; Harr.PGR, 436]
Another story has Dionysus as the son of Zeus and Persephone. [Dan.GLE, 93; Eva.GE, 153] Yet another Asiatic version has Dionysus self-born (these last two stories are very obscure). At any rate, there is clearly nothing like a “virgin” conception or birth here, but what we do have here is the usual divine fornication to which Zeus and other Greek gods were prone.
I have found no evidence that Dionysus was ever called “the Holy Child” (not that this matters, since this is a title of Jesus given well after the time of the Apostles) and also no evidence that Dionysus was placed in a manger. Critics offer neither documentation nor footnote on this point, so barring further discovery, I will have to regard this as a “ringer.”
Other critics refer to a “sacred marriage” that was performed in an “ox stall,” a very tenuous attempt to make a connection. A classical scholar who commented on this article stated of this ceremony:
“The woman represented the LAND (*possibly* a land-goddess), not the fertility goddess…she was actually the wife of a priest-politician called the Basileus who had originally been Athens’ king. There was no question of the ‘marriage’ being intended to produce offspring, though a few modern scholars have speculated that this was its original purpose…it seems to have been the WOMAN who generally represented the goddess, not the man who represented the god. I’m prepared to be proved wrong about this, however – but I think that this holds good as a general rule. The ox-stall was nothing of the kind, but a civic building called the Boukolion (roughly translating as ox-stall). It may originally have been (meant to represent) an ox-stall, but it certainly wasn’t anything of the sort even as early as classical times.”
2. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles.
As with Mithra, there are both universals we would expect of any religious leader, especially a divine one. The Bacchae does have Dionysus telling us of his travelling around Greece, Persia and Arabia, spreading his rites and delivering miraculous judgments as needed on those who defy him.
Danielou reports that there are versions of Dionysus which have him travelling the world spreading civilization, which included an expedition to India. [Dan.GLE, 94] Detienne refers to Dionysus as the “most epidemic of gods,” for he was the god who spent the most time travelling. [Det.DAL, 4]
This is not quite the same as Jesus travelling a limited area providing moral teachings, but at any rate, there would be no other way to spread the word unless you wanted to travel, or else sent disciples around to do so, which Jesus did do. This is something Dinoysus seems not to have done. He preferred to drive his devotees — overwhelmingly women — crazy, and then leave them behind.
3. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.”
One critic says that Dionysus “is often pictured astride a donkey, which carries him to meet his passion” and notes that the scene itself was re-enacted with crowds “shout[ing] the praises of Dionysus and wav[ing] bundles of branches.”
We do have depictions in ancient paintings of Dionysus riding on a mule, in a procession with satyrs waving branches of ivy. [Eva.GE, 149]
In other words, the typical behavior offered to any kingly, triumphant figure such as a conquering king of a foreign power. The ivy branches are cultic instruments, which does not parallel the use of the palm branches in Jerusalem (as palms were symbols of Israelite ethnicity).
I do not know what the critics mean by “carries him to meet his passion.” What passion? The only reference they give, to Harrison (whose work is useful only as an archive of what is now outdated), does not depict Dionysus riding on a donkey.
Rather, it depicts a scene from Orphic eschatology with a number of people surrounding a donkey, including one hardy soul playfully pulling on its tail. Where is the “passion” element? Indeed, where is Dionysus?
Dionysus does have a sort of reputation as a bringer of peace, but this has to do with his bringing of festivals and arts as laying the ground for peace.
There is also a story where Dionysus rides an ass, but that is part of a tale in which “the ass became one of the stars in the constellation of the crab.” [Ott.DMC, 170]
At any rate, the reference to Zechariah 9 offers a more likely grounding for Jesus’ procession than ancient paintings that Palestinian Jews were unlikely to have known about.
Additionally, a historical parallel may be cited in the triumphal entry of Simon the Maccabbean (143-134 BC), who, after expelling the Seleucid enemies from Jerusalem, entered Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches” and a variety of musical accompaniments (1 Macc. 13:51). Was Simon imitating Dionysus also?
4. He was a sacred king killed and eaten in a eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification.
What we seem to have here is a case of trying to describe something vastly different than in terms that are as close to a Christian belief as possible. According to a story reported by Diodorus of Sicily, “a myth of unknown origin, contested antiquity, and uncertain meaning.” [Hein.HHG, 26]
Dionysus as an infant was set upon Zeus’ throne (a sacred king?) to play at being Master of the Universe. As he sat there, some of the Titans (bad boys of Greek mythology) snuck up with some toys and distracted him.
While Dionysus was thus distracted, the Titans picked him up, tore him to pieces (killed), and boiled and roasted everything but his heart and ate it (eaten — in a eucharistic ritual?!?). When Zeus got wind of this, he became ticked off as he often did, and blew the Titans to smithereens.
As the story goes in a later version, from the ashes of the Titans came forth the race of men (fecundity?). Dionysus himself was “eventually restored to a new life” from the heart that was left over. [ibid., Eva.GE, 153; Det.DS, 71]
On the other hand, the copycat claim may be a reference to some idea that Dionysus was regularly “killed and eaten” in a memorial ceremony akin to the Eucharist, which may have been in memory of the story above. If this is what is meant, it is no better off.
The general principle of “you are what you eat” in sacrifice was derived from the theories of Frazer [our scholar notes: “Frazer was obsessed with dying and rising gods. For a refutation of the whole category, see the very Christian-unfriendly scholar J. Z. Smith’s article on ‘Dying and rising gods’ in Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987)”] and he developed this idea rather too quickly.
On the contrary, a modern scholar of Dionysus, Obbink, tells us, “we cannot even be sure that the Greeks equated Dionysus with any of his sacrificial animals.” Otto adds: “…in everything which has come down to us about Dionysus and his cults we find nowhere the intimation that his flesh might have been eaten by a society which wanted to appropriate his divine power.” [Ott.DMC, 107] There is also no evidence of sacramentalism in the official Dionysian civic cult. [Obb.DPO, 67, 76] There is one possible exception to this, though, and we will deal with it shortly.
5. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25th.
I have found no evidence to support the “March 25th” claim. In terms of rising from the dead, there have been a variety of ideas: one, a single inscription from Thasos that describes D as “a god who renews himself and returns every year rejuvenated”, whatever that means, as we have no context with which to refer it. [Col.VFG, 280]
Two, An idea that Dionysus went into Hades to rescue his mom and came back (Frazer says that this return was celebrated annually by the Argives, and he notes that whether it was a spring festival “does not appear”).
Three, a story that Dionysus was chased and persecuted by Lycurgus and descended to the depths of the Alcyonian Sea, and to the land of the dead. [Ott.DMC, 68] Also the heart-rejuvenation above, which in another version has the heart placed in a body made of gypsum. [Harr.PGR, 490]
Frazer [Fraz.GB, 323] did try to piece together such a story of resurrection, first by appealing to a version of the Titan story in which Apollo, at the command of Zeus, reassembled the pieces and buried them. Frazer goes on to say that “the resurrection of the slain god is not mentioned, but in other versions of the myth it is variously related”.
How? Well, in one version, which has Dionysus as son of Demeter, momma reassembles the pieces and makes Dionysus young again (our scholar calls this “an eccentric minority variant”).
“it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead [in what form?] and ascended up to heaven, or that Zeus raised him up as he lay mortally wounded, or that Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus and then begat him afresh by Semele…[or] the heart was pounded up and given in a potion to Semele, who thereby conceived him.”
With such a panoply of options, it may be no surprise that at least one variation bears a superficial resemblance to what happened to Jesus (“rose from the dead and ascended to heaven”), but this vague description does not match with the Jewish concept of resurrection, which the pagans found abhorrent. Our scholar adds, “Exactly – and where’s the Dionysiac promise of resurrection for all believers?”
Most importantly, the story where he died and rose to heaven comes from the writings of the early church father Origen, in his work called Contra Celsum penned in 248AD:
“Dionysus was deceived by the Titans, and expelled from the throne of Jupiter, and torn in pieces by them, and his remains being afterwards put together again, he returned as it were once more to life, and ascended to heaven”.
This is a post-Christ resurrection story, meaning that, if anything, it was the Dionysus cults that adopted this idea from the early Christians.
There are also notes of a grave of Dionysus found at Delphi, and of a date associated with the awakening of Dionysus as an infant — November 8th, except on one island where the date is in January. [Ott.DMC, 103, 194]
6. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine.
One critic adds that the wine miracle “took place for the first time at the marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne.” I have to love this one, because while doing research for my project on The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, I found a few tart words from a secular scholar who would like to know where people who make this argument have put their heads.
Bowersock [Bow.FH, 125-8] notes, as we have above, that this story about Dionysus is known from evidence later than the Gospels; yet he notes how this story “is exploited by exegetes of the New Testament in a curious way” as the source, Tatius, is “assumed to provide reliable evidence about an otherwise unknown rite” which is then merely assumed to have pre-dated Jesus!
Bowersock calls it “a reckless way to handle evidence that belongs indisputably to a time at least a century or so after the life of Jesus.”
7. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.”
Was he? If so, it was some strange cult-title. The only regular king of kings was Zeus, ‘pater andron te theon te‘, as Homer calls him.
8. He was considered the “only Begotten Son,” “Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” “Anointed One” and the “Alpha and Omega.”
Other critics add the title “Lord God of God born” and second the title of “savior,” saying, “His followers call to him: ‘Come, thou savior.'”
The title “Lord God of God born” is referenced to page 444 of Harrison’s book [Harr.PGR] – but it is not there. The Bacchae has Dionysus’ followers saying at his appearance, “We are saved!” — but the critics do not answer the needed question, “Saved from what?” In the context, it is “salvation” from Pentheus’ ire.
It isn’t personal sin that Dionysus saves from, and may not have even been hellfire or damnation. Cole, after a study of the grave inscriptions of Dionysus worshippers, points out that
Dionysus “is not a savior who promises his worshippers regeneration, but with the stories of his own rebirth and rejuvenation, he is one who makes this life more sweet and the next one, perhaps, only a little less harsh.” [Col.VFG, 295]
Sounds like a bum deal to me! (Evans, with less detail, supposes an afterlife of sensual joy [Evan.GE, 127], but even that is no match for Christian salvation!). As is typical with the mystery religions, “salvation” has to do with some sort of pleasure experience and has nothing to do with erasing sin.
9. He was identified with the Ram or Lamb.
Dionysus was, in one story, born with horns like that of a Ram; he was in the main associated with the figure of the bull (as in the Bacchae), though much less often he assumed the form of a goat (as a symbol of sensuality). [Fraz.GB, 325-6]
10. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.
One wonders why this title does not intimate that Dionyus climbed trees, or planted trees and what is the logical chain that “intimates” that he was hung on a tree? In fact, my supposition is closer to the truth: Frazer observed that Dinoysus was “a god of trees in general” [Fraz.GB, 320-1]; one of his titles is “Dionysus of the tree” (though in Boeotia this title was rendered “Dionysus in the tree”, not “nailed to” or “fastened to”).
11. Dionysus was a baptist.
Quoting the admonition of John the Baptist that the one who follows him would take winnowing-fan in hand and separate wheat from chaff, one critic tells us that in the Dionysan mysteries, “such a fan was used in baptism by air” and refer to vase paintings showing initiates “veiled and seated with a winnowing fan being waved above their heads.”
They also note that Dionysus was known as “He of the Winnowing fan” and was at birth “said to have been cradled in a winnowing fan.” This has some truth to it, though that the winnowing fan should be used as a symbol of purifying is of no more surprise than that a vacuum cleaner machine might be.
It was a common utility used to divide the useful from the useless, so why should this mean anything? As it happens, though, the “fan” that Dionysus is associated with was actually a sort of shovel-shaped combination basket/fan which was used to winnow wheat, hold fruit (like a basket) and to hold babies. [Harr.PGR, 401-2]
On the other hand, the OT does know of the fan as a symbol for purification and separation (see Isaiah and Jeremiah, esp. Jer. 15:7); but the fan as used by John the Baptist refers to purification via judgment, whereas in the Dionysus cult, it had connotations of fertility as well as purification/new birth. [Harr.PGR, 525-6]
12. Dionysus was transfigured.
Referred to also, in comparison to Jesus’ transfiguration, is Dionysus’ episode of being “gloriously transfigured” in the Bacchae. Here again, we have a case of borrowing Christian terminology to describe a remotely similar event. Dionysus’ “transfiguration” at the end of the Bacchae involves an episode in which he appears above the wall of Pentheus’ palace “in the glory of his godhead”.
What he looks like in this form is not described, and he appears this way all at once and does not change as those present are watching.
Other supposed parallels
Next, we look at a series of correspondences offered from Jesus’ trial and execution [45, 51] from the Bacchae, where it is observed that “Like Jesus in Jerusalem, Dionysus is a quiet stranger with long hair and a beard who brings a new religion.” “Long hair and a beard” describes a substantial portion of the ancient male population. Just try catching a purse-snatcher with such a general description!
As it happens, Dionysus is far from “quiet” before Pentheus and instead engages the king in extensive smart-alecky dialogue. As for appearance, Pentheus also notes that D’s hair is quite attractive, “cascading over [his] cheeks, most seductively.” Pentheus also notes Dionysus’ pale complexion (a trait associated with women) and his “lovely face.”
What parallel does this homoerotic love tale have to the serious account of Jesus before Pilate? It is also noted that King Pentheus arrests, berates, and condemns Dionysus, who has “passively allow[ed] himself to be caught and imprisoned.” Dionysus’ passive behavior before Pentheus is compared to Jesus’ behavior before Pilate. What the critics fail to report is that D allows himself to be taken in, as it were, with a smirk.
It is all part of his plan to get before Pentheus and slowly humiliate him into getting upset, dressing in women’s clothes and getting killed…and somehow, that shade of mascara doesn’t sound like what happened to Pilate!
Jesus was given a crown of thorns, Dionysus, a crown of ivy. Well, the crown of ivy is Dionysus standard wear at all times (as the laurel was Apollo’s usual crown — Ott.DMC, 153); he is wearing it all through the Bacchae, and so are his worshippers.
Ivy also was said to have wrapped D at the time Zeus accidentally blasted Semele; its association with coolness serves as a counter to the fiery nature of the grapevine also associated with D. This is no parallel to the single and unwitting use of the thorn-crown upon Jesus. The only parallel here is the universal conception of a crown as a sign of rule.
Jesus was dressed in purple by the Roman soldiers, “so Dionysus was also dressed in purple robes.” As usual, there are differences: Jesus was dressed in the robe temporarily and in mockery; D wore the color regularly and with honor and glory. The parallel is yet again superficial and based on an ancient universal (that of purple being a royal color).
Jesus is given wine to drink mixed with gall, Dionysus’ followers ritually imbibed with wine. And yet again, a universal is at work: Wine was a standard drink for the day in daily life and in religious rituals — water being usually too contaminated, and at any rate, there weren’t many choices at the wet bar or soda machine just yet! (Bread, too — even the ancient Central Americans used it!)
Even so, in the Dionysian cult, wine was used because, as Otto tells us [Ott.DMC, 146, 148], of its fiery and often contradictory nature, by which it reflected the character of Dionysus (i.e.,”it could cause sadness or laughter; it could dispel cares or inflict misery…of all that earth produces, the vine mirrors best the god’s two faces”). No such element enters into the Christian Eucharist.
Making a comparison with the Eucharist, in which “Jesus is said to symbolically become the wine drunk by the participant,” Euripides’ Bacchae is quoted as saying that “Dionysus becomes the wine and is himself ‘poured out’ as an offering.”
While this too has an element of truth in it, not only is the nature of the symbolism different (atonement of sin vs. participation in an altered state of consciousness), but the wine of Dionysus is not drunk, it is poured out as a libation. The only commonality here is rooted in the commonality of wine as the basic drink of ancient times (again, no soda machines).
We are told that “Osiris-Dionysus” was “a sacred pharmakos, who ‘died to atone for the sins of the world.'” I have seen no evidence of this in terms of Dionysus. The footnote used by critics on this claim is explanatory in nature, not documentary, and in it they dismiss the parallel to the OT scapegoat ritual by merely claiming that such a concept was known throughout the Mediterranean.
That may be so, but a mere sentence cannot dismiss the complex of ideas linked from the OT to the NT that find no closer correspondence in pagan ritual.
What more needs be said? The Jesus-Dionysus parallel has very little to commend it. What few parallels exist are based on universal conceptions and themes. Moreover, to make his argument persuasive, the claimant must explain how and why a group of Palestinian Jews borrowed the theology and teachings of a foreign cult and founded a new religion based upon them and held these views to the point of death.
He must also explain why the parallels between the doctrine taught by Jesus and that of contemporary Judaism were so similar, not to mention why the early Christians initially maintained the trappings of Jewish religious observation (Temple attendance, circumcision, etc.).
In fact, the only Apostle who might reasonably be expected to have had any reasonably detailed knowledge of pagan religion was the educated rabbi, Saul/Paul – and it utterly defies credibility that a professed and professing Pharisee, let alone a pupil of Gamaliel, would or even could have taken control of a group of Palestinian peasants and turned them into proselytizing Messianic Dionysus-worshippers.
Bow.FH — Bowersock, G. W. Fiction as History: From Nero to Julian. University of California, 1994.
Carp.MD — Carpenter, Thomas H. and Christopher A. Faraone. Masks of Dionysos. Cornell U. Press, 1993.
Col.VFG — Cole, Susan. “Voices from the Grave: Dionysus and the Dead.” in Masks.
Dan.GLE — Danielou, Alain. Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus. Inner Traditions, 1982.
Det.DAL — Detienne, Marcel. Dionysus at Large. Harvard U. Press, 1989.
Det.DS — Detienne, Marcel. Dionysus Slain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979.
Eva.GE — Evans, Arthur. The God of Ecstasy. New York: St. Martins’ Press, 1989.
Fraz.GB — Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. New York: Avenel Books, 1981.
Harr.PRG — Harrison, Jane. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge U. Press, 1922.
Hein.HHG — Heinrichs, Albert. “He Has a God in Him”: Human and Divine in the Modern Perception of Dionysus.” in Carpenter, Masks.
Obb.DPO — Obbink, D. “Dionysus Poured Out: Ancient and Modern Theories of Sacrifice and Cultural Formation.” in Carpenter, Masks.
- Ott.DMC — Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana U. Press, 1965.
This article was inspired from an article originally featured on Tektonics and was used with permission of the author.