Sunday, April 13, 2014

Jesus the Corn King: Examining some Parallels Between Jesus and Dionysus

“BEHOLD, God’s Son is come unto this land
Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she
Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand
Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semelê,
Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man…”

– Euripides (The Bacchae)

According to the biblical scholar and historian Dennis MacDonald there are extensive connections between the Gospel stories found in the New Testament and the Greek myths and legends of old. In fact, MacDonald has gone further than anyone by showing that these links are more than just mere parallels but has shown, in many instances, these links to be exact copies of Greek phrases lifted right out of the Iliad and Odyssey.[1]
If these borrowings are undeniable, as MacDonald contends they are, then what about other parallels and similarities to the ancient Greek stories and the New Testament? Shouldn’t these exist as well? I contend that they do, and more specifically, I contend that the Jesus narrative closely follows, if not borrows from, the myth of Dionysus.
Modern scholars such as Friedrich Holderlin, Martin Hengel, Barry Powell, Robert M. Price, and Peter Wick, among others, have argued that there are distinct parallels between the ancient Dionysian religion and early Christianity. Perhaps more striking than this, however, are the parallels between Jesus himself and the pagan god Dionysus, especially when it come to ritual, wine, and symbolism.[2]
In fact, there seems to have been a direct rivalry between early early Christianity and the popular Dionysian religion. Scholar E. Kessler has detailed that the Dionysian cult had developed into a monotheism by the 4th century CE giving direct competition to early Christianity.[3] It does not take a leap of faith to imagine this rivalry existed prior to the Dionysian cult’s transformation as well.
Meanwhile, Peter Wick has shown how Jesus turning water into wine at the Marriage of Cana (John 2:1-11; and John 2:3-5) was intended to show that Jesus was superior to his pagan counterpart Dionysus.
Wick notes that the numerous references to wine, miracle and wine, and ritual and wine cannot possibly represent a Christian vs. Jewish controversy, as there is no discernible wine symbolism in Judaism, but that the entire book of John is laden with such wine symbolism as it is meant as a Christian attempt to depict Jesus as superior to Dionysus. [4]
The biblical historian Robert M. Price, citing the second century Greek geographer Pausanias, tells us that

Jesus changes water into wine in John 2:1-11, in apparent imitation of the annual miracle of the priests of Dionysus at Eleia. “The worship of Dionysos is one of the principal Elean cults, and they say the god himself visits them at the feat of Thuia…. The priests take three empty basins in the presence of the citizens and of any foreigners there may be and deposit them in a building. The priests themselves and anyone else who wants put seals on the doors of the building; the seals can be inspected the next day, and when they go inside they find the basins full of wine (Pausanias Guide to Greece 6.26.1-2). This would not be the only Dionysian legacy in the Gospels. John’s True Vine discourse is another. Some ancient writers considered Dionysus and Yahveh to be the same deity, and the Sabazius religion of Asia Minor certainly seems to have been built on that premise.[5]

Studies in comparative myth have shown how Jesus shares the dying and rising god mytheme with many other ancient gods.[6] Jesus’s mythic qualities are also highly reflective of many of the mythical and mystical beliefs of other cultures and traditions which predate him.
Even the beloved Christian apologist C.S. Lewis acknowledged the Dionysian and mythic elements in the Jesus Christ narrative often referring to Jesus as the dying and rising “Corn King” which parallels the symbolic celebration of the harvest, which Dionysus is traditionally representative of.[7]
Lewis clearly took his language from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, in which Frazer refers to the archetypal “sacrificial-scapegoat,” such as the dying and rising gods Osiris, Lityerses, Adonis, and Bacchae as the “Korn King.”
The dying and rising Dionysus was more than just symbolic of the seasons, however, as in Euripides play The Bacchae (circa 405 B.C.E.) it is said that through Dionysus’ death and the spilling of his blood, like wine, freed his followers from sin.[8]
In The Bacchae, Dionysus frequently refers to himself as the Child of God whereas Jesus is frequently referred to as the Son of God in the Gospels. Each of them are considered by their followers to be God incarnated as man. Both are raised by foster parents with royal ties (King Athamas and his wife Ino in the case of Dionysus and Joseph and Mary of the royal bloodline of King David in the case of Jesus) and in both cases the foster parents are instructed by angelic figures (the winged Hermes in for Dionysus and the winged Gabriel for Jesus) to raise the child in a specific way or manner. Both infants are birthed in secrecy while fleeing from the powers that would seek to have them killed (the ever jealous queen of the gods Hera in the case of Dionysus and King Herod the Great in the case of Jesus). Both Jesus and Dionysus get sentenced to death and both overcome death. After being reborn it is said each will be “exalted on high.”
Perhaps even more significant, however, are the Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus discourses which contain parallels so ripe and numerous it almost seems as if those anonymous Greek writers of the Gospels were so enamored with The Bacchae discourse between Dionysus and Pentheus that they simply retold it using their own dying and rising god figure, Jesus Christ.
In fact, the Pontius Pilate and Jesus dialog mirrors the King Pentheus and Dionysus dialog in such profound ways that I am strongly inclined to think it was the template for that particular discussion found in the New Testament.
Comparing the Gospel stories of Jesus’ trial with the trial of Dionysus in The Bacchae, we discover that both Jesus and Dionysus get arrested and, subsequently are interrogated by the appointed ruler of the land; Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus respectively, who then proceeds to take time out of their very busy schedule to share a philosophical exchange with the offenders. Pilate is worried about another insurrection thinking Jesus might be attempting to lead a revolt, whereas Pentheus is worried that Dionysus’ influence will continue to spread a rebellious kind of madness among the people who worship him. After they are questioned about their intentions, both give vague responses in much the same way, the most notable being that they both claim to “bare witness to the truth.”
Finally, after the lengthy philosophical exchange, both of our demigod protagonists are accused of sedition and ultimately killed in a blood sacrifice to cleanse their followers sins. But this is just the summary overview. If you were to actually read The Bacchae a little bit more in depth, you would find that there are many more parallels worth considering as well.
For example, after his discussion with King Pentheus, facing the charge of treason for claiming divinity (which, we shall not forget, Jesus faces similar, if not the very same, charges against himself),[9] [10] Dionysus refers to himself as a lion walking into a net (The Bacchae, line 1036) thus predicting his own demise. This mirrors Jesus’ prediction of his own death as well. Although it could be claimed a rather loose parallel, Jesus too is likened to the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. It is simply interesting to note that both figures were likened to lions by those who authored their stories.
Other parallels between Jesus and Dionysus include the previously discusses fact that both share direct ties to wine symbolism (cf. John 2: 1-12 with The Bacchae lines 254-56; 493-96; and 834-35). At the marriage in Cana, Jesus turns water into wine, and takes on the ceremonial role of Dionysus who fills the empty wine flasks of his followers. It is worth noting that, along with the guests, Jesus and his disciples had drunk all of the wine (whether or not they get drunk isn’t mentioned, but one can assume it a likely possibility given what follows). This prompted the call for more wine, and instead of performing the Dionysian miracle of simply refilling everyone’s flask just once, Jesus goes above and beyond and changes six stone water jars, each holding 30 gallons, equating to roughly 180 gallons of water into wine.
Needless to say, 180 gallons of wine is far more than required for such a small wedding. Was Jesus trying to get everyone drunk? We might be forgiven for wondering if the Gospel writers weren’t overcompensating in trying to make Jesus into the new Dionysus, or perhaps this is this just another example of the Bacchean spirit of drunkenness being embedded in the story of Jesus? It is appropriate then that Jesus, like Dionysus, was also accused of drinking with known drunkards and that he himself was a known glutton and a drunkard (Mat. 11:19), an accusation he never denied.
Further similarities between Jesus and Dionysus include the fact that each of their sacrifices guarantees the salvation from sin for their followers (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 with The Bacchae line 1037), and both are sacrificed on a hill (cf. Mark 15:22 with The Bacchae line 1047), and both rise into the heavens upon the clouds (cf. Matt. 26:64 and Mark 14:62 with The Bacchae lines 1685-86), and both are referred to as God’s true Son (cf. 1 John 5:20 with The Bacchae line 1050).
Finally, it is well worth mentioning that throughout their final hours before death both are surrounded by their most loyal female followers (in the case of Jesus the book of John mentions it’s the three Marys – his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the wife of Cleopas – and for Dionysus it’s Agave and her women attendants) and upon rising from death it is specifically these loyal female followers who discover them risen.
Now these numerous parallels do not guarantee beyond a reason of doubt that all or any of the aspects of the Jesus narrative was based in any way on the Dionysian myth, but I feel that the parallels are so numerous, so uncanny, with the very order of events corresponding to one another, that it would be unwise to dismiss such a possibility offhand.
As for the antagonists, both Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus, meet similar ends dying atop mountains. According to legend, Pontius Pilate is filled with sorrow and remorse after Jesus’ death, and commits suicide during the first year of Caligula’s reign, while another legend places his death at Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland. Likewise, King Pentheus, whose name literally means ‘man of sorrow’ (from the greek word péntho [πένθος] which means sorrow), is driven mad and runs into the woods of Mount Cithaeron, and is killed when he runs into the Bacchanalia (the all female Maenads), the followers of Dionysus, who cut off his head.
Given these similarities, I have to ask myself: were the Gospel writers, who were educated in Greeks and were trained in the ancient myths and stories of their culture, wouldn’t have put such references into the Gospel narrative of Jesus deliberately? If it is all just one big coincidence, what a coincidence indeed! A whole string of them! All seeming to form a distinct pattern connecting Jesus to Dionysus!
As noted earlier, there is no prevalent wine-symbolism in Jewish culture, but suddenly it is ripe within Hellenistic Christianity and the Jesus narrative. Why should it be so prevailing here in association to Jesus if not to pay homage to the Dionysian myths by retelling them using the new dying and rising Corn King? It makes sense that those living in the first, second, and third centuries would have been familiar quite with the Dionysian myth and Euripides’ The Bacchae, and would have instantly seen the parallels. I can only imagine that in the Hellenistic minds of the time, Greeks seeing Jesus as the new and improved Dionysus would be more inclined to accept Christianity. Why shouldn’t they?
It is only modern Christians, most of whom haven’t read Euripides and remain largely unaware of these parallels, who would find the suggestion that the Gospel writers were deliberately trying to make Jesus into a revamped Dionysus a troublesome consideration. But to those early Greeks, in a time when Christianity was rapidly expanding, such deliberate parallels would have made excellent pieces of early Christian propaganda for gaining pagan converts and allowing Jesus Christ to usurp one of the most popular and prominent pagan gods of the old religion and replace him, thus gaining status as the definitive Corn King.

[1] See Dennis MacDonald’s two books on this topic: The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark and Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? by Yale University Press.
[2] See: Pausanias, Description of Greece 6. 26. 1 – 2, and cf. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 2. 34a
[3] E. Kessler, “Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire,” Exeter, pp. 17-20, July 2006.
[4] Peter Wick, “Jesus gegen Dionysos? Ein Beitrag zur Kontextualisierung des Johannesevangeliums,”  Biblica (Rome:Pontifical Biblical Institute) Vol. 85 (2004) 179-198.
[5] Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, 2003, Prometheus Press, pp. 158-59.
[6] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985, pp. 64, 132. Also see: The Christ Myth (Westminster College Oxford Classics in the Study of Religion) by Arthur Drews, 1998, p. 170. Also: Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price, 2000, pp. 86-93, and all of chapter 7. And James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
[7] C.S. Lewis, The Complete Signature Classics, 2002, HarperCollins, p. 402.
[8] See the Gilbert Murray translation of The Bacchae. Available online:
[9] Barry B. Powell. Classical Myth Second ed. With new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1998.
[10] Martin Hegnel, Studies in Early Christology, 2005, p.331.

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Advocatus Atheist