“HEALING STEPS”: JESUS’ DIONYSIAC TOUR IN LUKE
In both redaction and use of special material, Luke presents Jesus as a new and
improved Dionysus. Luke’s correlation of the two divinities is an apologia designed to
reassure Christians and potential converts that Jesus and his followers did not possess
the Bacchic traits that were often found objectionable in the Roman world. Two
uniquely Lukan passages—8:1-3 and 18:35-19:10—evoke the wine god, and they serve
to bracket the “itinerary”1 section of the Gospel, a passage in which Jesus mimics
Dionysus by acting as a wandering missionary. Luke 8:1-3 portrays Jesus as beginning
his missionary journey followed by a group among whom a trio of women is
particularly prominent. The itinerary concludes in Luke 18:35-19:10, a detailed
encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus the tax collector which is modeled on the most
well-known Dionysus drama, Euripides’s Bacchae. Reading the itinerary in light of
these Bacchic bookends moves its traditional starting point from 9:51 to 8:1, and it
proposes Euripides’s Bacchae as a source for Luke’s Gospel.
JESUS AND DIONYSUS
Dionysiac myth and cult in the Lukan period
Though the rites of Dionysus were quite popular in the world of classical
Greece, they changed when introduced to the Roman world. Albert Henrichs writes,
“The Hellenistic and Roman Dionysus was benign, pastoral and peaceful, a recipient of
cult and a divine example of a relaxed lifestyle who offered physical and mental escape
from the burdens of the day and the ills of progressive urbanization.”2 He points to the
Dionysus ode3 in Sophocles’ Antigone as evoking this healing, helpful god,4 the version
which was the most popular deity in the Attic demes from 500 BCE to 200 CE.5
Despite the wine god’s popularity in Greece, Rome was often wary of foreign rites, and the Roman Senate banned Bacchic rites in 186 BCE. Livy records the Bacchanalian scandal which led to this prohibition, and his account of the rites and their banishment contains several details are similar to later condemnations of Christianity.
Immediately pointing out the foreign aspect of the cult, he writes that a “low-born
Greek” (Graecus ignobilis) was the one who originally imported the mysteries to
Etruria.6 These nocturnal rites spread “like a pestilential disease” (contagione morbi)7
because of the attractions of their wine and feasting (additae uoluptates religioni uini et epularum, quo plurium animi illicerentur).8 Livy then accuses the followers of nightly
mixtures of men and women, a lack of decorum and respect for age and position,
forging seals and making false statements, and even poisoning and murders. Citing the
various instances of lust and treachery, the Roman senate banned the rites in Italy.
Describing the problematic nature of the rites of Dionysus, Shelly Matthews writes,
“For many authors, the Bacchic rites epitomize the immorality and subversiveness they
A little more than a century later, around 50 BCE, Cicero proposed legislation
banning sacrifice by women at night.10 He acknowledges the potential damage to the
rites of Dionysus and the Eleusinian mysteries and claims that his proposed law is not
only for the benefit of Rome, but also for the good of all nations (Quid ergo aget
Iacchus Eumolpidaeque vostri et augusta illa mysteria, si quidem sacra nocturna
tollimus? Non enim populo Romano sed omnibus bonis firmisque populis leges
damus.)11 He explains that his proposed prohibition is designed to suppress the potential
reckless abandon that nocturnal rites could encourage.12 To bolster his case and to keep
from seeming “too severe” (ne nos duriores forte videamur)13, he offers a precedent,
claiming that Diagondas of Thebes once abolished all nocturnal rites.14 Matthews reads
his argument as an indication of the variety of opinions of women’s participation in
Bacchic rites: “Cicero is aware that his proposal to restrict women’s involvement in such rites would be contested by many of his peers in Rome and especially by educated
readers outside of the Roman capital.”15 Cicero’s dialogue highlights a seeming
ambivalence to Dionysiac rites in the Roman world; while he, himself a traditionalist, is
afraid of the consequences of women’s involvement in nocturnal rites, dissenting
opinions obviously exist.
Philo, writing in the early first century, seems to possess a positive view of
Bacchic rites. In a favorable discussion of a Jewish monastic community, the
Therapeutrics, he compares their quest for a glimpse of God to the actions of Dionysiac
devotees. He writes that the Therapeutics are “behaving like so many revelers in
bacchanalian or corybantian mysteries, until they see the object which they have been
earnestly desiring.”16 He again compares the Therapeutics to devotees of Dionysus,
writing, “Then, when each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has feasted
separately by itself, like persons in the bacchanalian revels, drinking the pure wine of
the love of God…”17 In these descriptions, he does not give evidence for a universal
suspicion of Bacchic rites, instead presenting them as analogous to other, favorably
viewed religious expressions.
Thus, while Nilsson writes that “[w]e know almost nothing of the attitude of the
different social classes to the Bacchic mysteries of the Roman age,”18 it seems clear that
they were a well-known, yet perhaps contentious, presence in that society.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Katherine Veach Dyer
Submitted to the Faculty of the
Graduate School of Vanderbilt University/Nashville, Tennessee
1 Luke 9:51-19:27 is traditionally defined as the Lukan “travel narrative” or “itinerary.” However, some scholars disagree with this distinction. C.F. Evans refers to these verses simply as the “central section” in “The Central Section of St. Luke’s Gospel,” Studies in the Gospels, ed. D.E. Nineham (Oxford:Blackwell, 1967), 41. Simon J. Kistemaker, in “The Structure of Luke’s Gospel,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25/1 (March 1982), 39, disputes the traditional title and proposes that Luke should properly be considered to be “three main sections with introductory chapters and concluding
chapters” (1-2 and 22-24, respectively) and notes that the three main segments are Jesus’ Galilean ministry (3:1-9:50), the ministry outside of Galilee (9:51-19:27) and the ministry in Jerusalem (19:28-21:38).
2 Albert Henrichs, “Between Country and City: Cultic Dimensions of Dionysus in Athens and Attica,” in
Cabinet of the Muses, ed. M. Griffith and D.J. Mastronarde (Scholars Press, 1990), 271.
3 Sophocles, Antigone 1115-1152
4 Ibid., 265.
5 Ibid., 261.
6 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 39.8
7 Ibid. 39.9
8 Ibid. 39.8
9 Matthews, 75.
10 Cicero, de Legibus 2.21
11 Ibid., 2.35
12 Ibid., 2.36: Qua licentia Romae data quidnam egisset ille qui in sacrificium cogitatam libidinem intulit,
quo ne inprudentiam quidem oculorum adici fas fuit?
13 Ibid., 2.37
15 Matthews, 79.
16 Philo of Alexandria, De Vita Contemplativa 12 (trans. C.D. Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993).
17 Ibid., 85.
18 Martin P. Nilsson, “The Bacchic Mysteries of the Roman Age,” Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 46,No. 4 (Oct. 1953), 194.