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



Jesus the Corn King: Examining some Parallels Between Jesus and Dionysus
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 Iliadand 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 4thcentury 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]
Studies in comparative myth have shown how Jesus shares the dying and rising god mytheme.[5]
Even the beloved Christian apologist C.S. Lewis acknowledged the Dionysian elements in the Jesus 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.[6] Lewis obviously 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 “Corn King.”
The dying and rising Dionysus was more than just symbolic of the seasons, however, as in Euripides play The Bacchae (405 BC) it is said that through Dionysus’ death and the spilling of his blood, like wine, freed his followers from sin.[7]
Other similarities exist too. After his discussion with King Pentheus, facing the charges of claiming divinity, Dionysus is refers to himself as a lion walking into a net (The Bacchae, line 1036). These uncanny parallels can be seen in Jesus of the Gospels as contained in the discussion with Pontius Pilate, for the same charges against him,[8][9]and Jesus too is likened to the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. Although it could be claimed this is a rather loose parallel, it is interesting to note that both figures were likened to lions as well as having wine symbolism, are both dying and rising corn-gods, and offer salvation from sin.
In fact, the Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus discourses the parallels are so ripe and numerous that the only way to really take them all in is to read both accounts side by side. It almost seems as if those anonymous Greek writers of the Gospels were so enamored with the discourse between Dionysus and Pentheus that they retold it using their favorite character Jesus Christ, another dying and rising Corn King, with ties to wine rituals (Mat. 9:11, Luke 5:30, John 2:5-11, John 6:55-56).
Other notable similarities are in Dionysus frequent drunkenness and the accusations of Christ drinking more than he should, so much so it is said he was unable to sit up straight while drinking with known drunkards and that he was a glutton and a drunkard (Mat. 11:19), an accusation he never denied.
At the marriage in Cana (John 2:1-11), Jesus turns the 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 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? Or did he think his subsequent parable would go down better with a 180 gallons of wine? Whatever the case may be, there was no doubt that Jesus loved his wine.
Now these parallels do not mean that various aspects of the Jesus narrative was based in any way on the Dionysian myth, but the parallels are so numerous that it would be unwise to dismiss such a possibility.
In fact, the Pontius Pilate and Jesus dialog mirrors the King Pentheus and Dionysus dialog in such profound and undeniable ways that I am more than inclined to think it was the template for that particular discussion found in the New Testament. Both Jesus and Dionysus are interrogated by the authoritarian figure of the land, they both get asked similar questions about their intentions, both give similar answers, the most notable being that they both claim to ‘bare witness to the truth’, and they both are accused of sedition and ultimately killed in what represents a symbolic sacrifice to cleanse their followers sins.
Additionally, 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. King Penthius, 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 (in this case the all female Maenads), the followers of Dionysus.
Besides the above dialog other similarities exist between Jesus and Dionysus as well. In Euripides The Bacchae, Dionysus refers to himself as the Child of God and Jesus is frequently referred to as the Son of God, and both are atoning for the sins of their people. 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 the case of Dionysus and the winged Gabriel in the case of 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 their blood spilled and their lives snuffed out (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’.
Given these similarities, I have to ask myself were the Gospel writers, who were educated Greeks and 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 a 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 prevalent here in association to Jesus if not to pay homage to the Dionysian myths by retelling them using the new Corn King? It makes sense that those living in the first, second, and third centuries would have been familiar 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 the pagan gods of the old religion and replace them, thus gaining status as the definitive Corn King.


[1] See Dennis MacDonalds 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: PausaniasDescription of Greece 6. 26. 1 – 2, and cf. AthenaeusDeipnosophistae 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] See: Burkert, Walter, 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 see: Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price, 2000, pp. 86-93, and all of chatper 7. Also see James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
[6] C.S. Lewis, The Complete Signature Classics, 2002, HarperCollins, p. 402.
[7] See the Gilbert Murray translation of The Bacchae, lines 800-1199. Available online: http://www.bartleby.com/8/8/3.html
[8] 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.
[9]  Martin Hegnel, Studies in Early Christology, 2005, p.331.
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