Christ and Dionysus

Tony SigI’m really loving my Greek and Roman Mythology class.  On the one hand, it’s a 1000 level course, so the ‘difficulty’ is pretty minimal, but being a four credit class instead of a three means that we get a ton of reading in the original sources.  Amongst other things, it has been very interesting for me to read these ‘myths’ and ‘see parallels’ in certain Scriptural images.  As a friend of mine recently confirmed, it is hard to look at Noah the same after reading the Epic of Gilgamesh.

So I find myself confronted with how to understand these things.  Of course I want to affirm the ‘uniqueness’ of Christ (and I do!) but it is intellectually irresponsible to apologetically argue that Christ, as represented in Scripture – that is, on a textual as compared to an ontological level – is a totally  unique ‘apocalyptic event’ without precedence in other sacred literature.  (I take this to be at least a part of what Hans Frei argues.)

A classic example is a confusion that sometimes happened as Christianity came into contact with its neighbors.  Jesus was sometimes understood as a sort of Dionysus figure – Christ as Vine; as transforming life in the Eucharist; and as Harrower of Hell, were taken to be parallels to certain Dionysian myths.

There are two thinkers in particular who have been helping me, though in many ways they take radically different positions.  Rowan Williams has a sort of take on this in an essay entitled “The Finality of Christ” in his astounding “On Christian Theology.”   Williams wants to see Jesus “not dehistoricized or absolutized as an icon of significance, but neither [as] depicted as the teacher of one among several possible ways of salvation.  He is presented as the revelation of God: as God’s question, no more, no less.  Being a Christian is being held to that question in such a way that the world of religious discourse in general may hear it.” (105)

+Williams represents here a sort of chastened iconoclasm, trying to worm between the simplistic options of ‘exclusivism,’ ‘inclusivism’ and ‘pluralism’ as commonly conceived.  I’m not totally convinced of this essay on all points, but his christological focus I think is indispensable in understanding other faiths and ‘myths’ in light of Christ.

On the other hand I’ve been ruminating on C.S. Lewis’ “Reflections of the Psalms.” Famously Lewis makes a (rather good) case for understanding certain myths as ‘pointing to’ Christ.  He is most convincing when talking about Plato’s picture of the ‘Perfectly Just Man’ who is scorned by society as a disruptor of the peace and subsequently crucified.  Lewis goes on to say “when I meditate on the Passion while reading Plato’s picture of the Righteous One, or on the Resurrection while reading about Adonis or Balder…there is a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and mean and what I believe to be the truth.  I know that connection and they do not…One can, without any absurdity, imagine Plato or the myth-makers if they learned the truth, saying, “I see…so that was what I was really talking about.  Of course.  That is what my words really meant, and I never new it.”  And with his typical generosity he concludes “(Or may we more charitably speak, not of what Plato and Virgil and the myth-makers ‘would have said’ but of what they said?  For we can pray with good hope that they now know and have long since welcomed the truth; ‘many shall come from the east and west and sit down in the kingdom’)”

As it stands I’m not looking for the mythic ‘middle’ or ‘third way’ between these two, but I’m feeding off both and trying to see the truth of what they’re saying; I’m looking for the Christ in Dionysus not because I want to cheapen the truth of Christ, who remains the Way, Truth and Life – but I’m looking for him because I believe that it is in him that all things cohere.


  1. Hey Tony – Very nice post. I wonder, though, why the uniqueness of Christ’s story – which I do hold to rather adamantly – need preclude what you’re after here. The story of Jesus, of course, doesn’t begin in the gospels, but with the people of Israel (if not before). He is, before being the incarnation of general humanity, the incarnation of Israel (and Yahweh, of course). That is utterly unique, and something to be celebrated and treasured (though not hoarded and boasted about). Yet in no way does it preclude other narratives from pointing to Jesus in some way; it simply clarifies (in, I believe, a definitive way) him to whom they point. Think Paul in Athens.


    1. Hey Brad,

      Sorry, I may not have been clear enough. I’m not saying that the Gospel is derivative or anything, nor that Christ’s story isn’t unique (I’m pretty sure there weren’t Greek gods or Jewish Messiah’s walking around also indicating that they were acting as YHWH and who will give his Holy Spirit to his people after having reconciled the world to the one Trinitarian God in an atoning death and bodily resurrection!), but only that, as I said in the post, that there are to be found in other faiths and myths, very similar themes, even themes like the Resurrection. Really by your comment I think we’re saying the same thing, or at least that’s what I have in my head.


  2. I think we’re probably on the same page, but just to clarify, you wrote, “it is intellectually irresponsible to apologetically argue that Christ, as represented in Scripture – that is, on a textual as compared to an ontological level – is a totally unique ‘apocalyptic event’ without precedence in other sacred literature.” I’m with you on the “without precedence” but not on the “unique,” which I think describe two different things. But yes, we are in agreement here.

    (Not that my opinion matters, of course…) 🙂


    1. What I have in my head by saying that are those arguments that pit “Hebrew” vs “Greek” thought (and the like, ie- the “Greek Fall” of the Church in the Patristic era, etc…), as if preserving some cultural or theological purity legitimizes the Christian Gospel. But I’m not sure what you mean by “unique.” I may or may not agree with you here. I don’t think there is a culturally neutral way for anything to be expressed and so there is a sense in which the Gospel is not a total novum since it came to birth in the real world.

      For my part I think sometimes “uniqueness” looks like a sort of myth that attempts to make the phenomenon of salvation a totally transcendent series of acts rather than as situated ones. Usually I see this as a grasping for ‘kantian’ish’ demonstration in order to establish authority. But I doubt this is what you meant.

      (I value your opinion)


  3. No, again, I think we’re in agreement. I just constantly have Israel in mind here, which was quite unique theologically/theopolitically, with a singular vocation definitively fulfilled in Christ. Biblical Israel was not “just another” culture or people, although it was very much a culture and people – arguably a normative one for the rest of the world. Entirely unique; entirely “real world,” so to speak. Indeed, more “real world” than the rest. That’s the context for Christ and for the birth of the church, so it seems at the same time unique and “situated,” although its situatedness is itself arguably unprecedented. To put it simply, transcendent or “like the rest” (not your words) are not the only options.


    1. I see us moving closer together here, the question I would have then is how would you understand the ‘influence’ of the various ‘other’ peoples who were in contact with and also shaped Israels self-understanding? For instance the number of Near Eastern myths that made their way into the Scriptures, or Israel’s steep theological failures where revision was necessary later on? There were plenty of other peoples who had warrior deities who protected the people, who had a cultic system, who ‘cared for’ and ‘loved them,’ etc… Israel was formed yes, by the address of the Word of God and the Calling of YHWH, but “where they were at” such that it can be problematic (for me anyway) to portion them off. Israel had to learn her identity.

      So is this “uniqueness” of Israel some empirically verifiable “fact” or isn’t it rather that we assert by faith that in fact Israel is/was unique/normative as understood in light of Christ? In other words, what I’m trying to say is that I can only go with you so long as we’re talking about the truth perceived by faith in Christ, not an otherwise ‘verifiable’ fact, the attainment to knowledge of which has no need of the Spirit of God.


  4. Thoughtful post to be sure. I do share Brad’s pause on the statement about the Christ not being a “totally unique apocalyptic event.” Tony has nuanced this a bit in the dialogue. But the offense of the incarnation and the cross is that it is utterly unique and the singular apocalyptic event, from both the standpoint of the believer and non-believer alike.

    He has touched upon an extremely complex problem however. This is that we do have the problem of common mythologies that may precede the basic Gospel story (historically)which share a great deal of mythopeic imagery on the one hand and that all narrative belief systems are actually inherently exclusivist on the other. To the first problem I would suggest that all human longings tend toward and eschatological hope of salvation and renewal. It is rooted in an universal sense that things are not as they should be and we want to hope in something beyond what lies at hand (problem of evil? etc?). I believe that this was fundamentally the thought of Tolkien that lead to Lewis’s change in thinking. In short, redemptive narratives and mythologies dominate all cultures because man sees his need (to one degree or another) for the Gospel to be true (forgive the oversimplification here). This then makes the point in time when the true Gospel narrative is revealed in history far less important than that it just is universally true.

    On the second, I am persuaded with my own tradition of Dooyeweerd and Plantinga that all belief systems are inherently exclusive. The argument for religious pluralism (all religions are a way) is in fact a religiously exclusive statement. It states that the individual making it is sure every religion claiming exclusivity is wrong in doing so and that only the religious pluralist is exclusively right. Alvin Plantinga has a good essay “A Defense of Religious Pluralism” in his collection The Analytic Theist.

    In reference to the ancient Near Eastern literature such as the Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and other epic cosmologies, it has been observed that the question of mythical borrowing has always produced something of a “chicken or the egg” conundrum. One thing OT scholars are in agreement on is that the primeval narratives (Gen 1-11) are unequivocally some of the oldest materials in the Hebrew Bible. While the Sumerian epics have the advantage of having been inscribed on clay and buried int he sand for several thousand years, there is still no way to prove that the Gilgamesh epic itself is older than the cosmologies inherited by ancient Israel. We also have similar cultural borrowing of Sumerian stories being found among much later Assyrian language and literature. This of course does not answer the question, but I will suggest there is more than one way to look at it and most likely, it is unsolvable. Thanks


    1. Todd – I think we’re pretty much in agreement. I don’t deny that Jesus, admitting the proper covenantal scheme, is not the decisive revelation of God, but only that he arrived “within” an already elaborate set of mythic stories which cannot be merely dismissed as not “pointing” to and resembling his own. I don’t think you were saying that, I’m just clarifying.

      Also, my point is not dependent on the Gilgamesh correlation, I simply use it because it is so well known and it illustrates the point.


  5. Well, Israel is not a creation ex nihilo, to be sure, at least not in an ongoing sense. However, even other ANE contributions to Israel’s self-understanding were conditioned and redefined (sometimes radically) by what Yahweh was doing with it. This is evident at the least by the way certain sources extraneous to Israel entered into the Scriptures, yet were never left to their own devices but were redefined and put to the service of Yahweh’s “project.” You mentioned other peoples, but I wouldn’t reduce Yahweh to the category of those deities (especially since as opposed to all of them, he claimed to be Lord of ALL nations, establishing Israel as a singular – though perhaps proto-typical – theopolitical community to witness to and embody that lordship), and for that reason, cannot reduce Israel to the category of those nations. This touches on part of my problem with current apocalyptic renderings: the Israel of the Old Testament is much more an apocalyptic “event” than it is given credit for. Jesus is in continuity with, and is the culmination of, that apocalyptic activity; he is not something entirely new where there was nothing before.

    I don’t think asserting by faith is to be dichotomized with empirical examination (since both include traditions received, observations reflected upon, and conclusions drawn according to particular disciplines and their presuppositions and habits). That said, the fact that I rely upon a primarily narrative-canonical approach to Scripture suggests that I am probably sympathetic your concern here.


    1. I would still venture to say, Brad, that Israels uniqueness is to be found in the election and covenant of YHWH; and while this reality expresses itself in the concrete life of Israel at many points, the truth of Israel is not dependent on pure performance. I just got done reading Hosea, but the same could be said of many books, in it, Israel is condemned precisely because it does look exactly like the other nations! Baal worship and all that (to which YHWH replies by indicating he is their fertility God!). Also don’t forget God condeming other gods for not being just, etc… There is to be found a certain ambiguity as to strict monotheism at several points in the OT.

      – trust me, I don’t dig binaries and dialectics, so consider it heuristic where it seems I’m prying apart faith and reason or contrasting transcendent and “like the rest”.


  6. Todd, regarding your comment: “the offense of the incarnation and the cross is that it is utterly unique and the singular apocalyptic event, from both the standpoint of the believer and non-believer alike.”

    I alluded to this point above (as our posts came in for a landing at about the same time, apparently). I don’t believe it is “utterly unique” except that it includes Israel. It is not unique apart from Israel, as Christ was first and foremost the incarnation of Israel (wrt the human dimension). The offense of Jesus in his own context was that he was fulfilling Torah definitively over against the powers OF HIS OWN PEOPLE who relied on a distorted covenant and system of teachings/laws that empowered them to aggrandize themselves, to the hindrance of the people from participating in the reign of God.


  7. Well said Brad. I appreciate your point about covenant Israel. On another note I thought I would commend K. A. Kitchen’s “Ancient Orient and Old Testament as a good analysis in ANE literature and comparative methodology. John H. Walton also has a critical but balanced survey of ANE Lit. called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.


  8. Tony – I would agree that we are in general agreement. I recognize that the Noah/Gilgamesh epic was secondary to your point. I just chimed in on that because I have done a little work in comparative methodology and there is methodological bent in the field toward treating the biblical text as always being on the “borrowing” side of relationship. I admit that there has to be some, like Egyptian sources int he Proverbs. But at the same time, It is just not verifiable who borrowed from who, or more likely stories int he primeval narrative and other ANE epics may share a common source. but are not directly connected at all. Thanks for the thoughtful posts.


  9. Tony, when I speak of Israel (just as when I speak of the church), I’m speaking normatively, i.e., what Israel is called to be in election and covenant, and then indicted for not being. So of course, I recognize Hosea here saying precisely this; but that does not in any way subvert Israel’s distinctiveness, but rather undergirds it as Israel is critiqued for diverging from its singular covenant. I also think you might be tending toward too much of an historical-critical reading. Yahweh does not reduce himself to a fertility God, but rather as creator and sustainer (consistent with his identity proved in the exodus and declared in Torah), rendering the other gods mere parodies and counterfeits. That’s the theological gist there. I don’t think there’s a concern about monotheism per se (although I don’t think we have to be real strict about when we locate the eclipse of henotheism by monotheism in Israel’s life – certainly Exod 3 and the plagues would indicate superiority of a monotheistic conception in Torah, though it may not have totalized until later). Whether these gods are addressed as though they exist, or addressed personally in a rhetorical fashion of condemning the systems and nations they personify (which I think is much more likely), what is clear is that Israel is Yahweh’s primary apocalyptic activity at that point. Again, I don’t think we’re disagreeing, but it’s worth discussing such nuances.


    1. You’ll have to forgive my own ignorance in the details of OT scholarship and theology. I had a 1000 course as a pentecostal school in OT so it’s not like I can speak with authority! Actually, I’ve read a fair amount of good ole’ Brueggemann so that’s not entirely true. If I slipped into a historical-critical mode it’s because it’s what I’ve been taught so far. If you know more about the OT, as it seems you do, I might have to ask for an introductory bibliography to OT awesomeness. I know I need to get to know Christopher Seitz and Childs but I’m pretty much an outsider looking in at this point.

      That being said, honestly, I’m right there with you.


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