Dionysus in Acts

Scholars have previously discussed the Dionysiac presence in Acts, which is particularly tied to Euripides’ Bacchae. Otto Weinreich argues that Acts is directly dependent on the text of the Bacchae, 19 and other scholars have highlighted similarities between the two works. Dennis R. MacDonald20 and Matthews 21 both propose that the character of Lydia as well as Paul’s encounter with the mantic slave girl in Acts 16:11- 40 are inspired by the tragedy. Additionally, Acts 24:16, which says, “it is hard for you to kick against the goads” (πρός κέντρα λακτίζειν) evokes Bacchae 795, which refers to “a kick against the goads” (πρός κέντρα λακτίζοιµι). In both texts, the phrase appears in the context of theomachy, as Paul fights Christ and Pentheus fights Dionysus. Acts and the Bacchae also share scenes in which an earthquake shakes a prison and breaks the shackles of a prisoner held unjustly for his religious beliefs. 22 If Luke utilized Dionysiac material in Acts, it is probable that he also did so in his Gospel, but this possibility is heretofore unexplored. To examine the Dionysiac material in Luke is to add to scholarship by highlighting the continuity of the theme through the whole of the Lukan corpus.

Dionysus in non-Lukan Christian writings

Luke was not alone in linking Jesus and Dionysus. Another New Testament example of a connection is found in John 2:1-10, the wine miracle at Cana, and scholars  have highlighted Dionysiac tendencies in John. 23 The Cana miracle echoes the Dionysiac wine miracles recorded by Pausanias. 24 3 Maccabees, likely composed in Alexandria in the early- to mid-first century, has also been observed to share themes and attributes with the Bacchae. 25 Furthermore, patristic evidence shows that comparisons of Jesus and Dionysus date to the early years of Christianity. Justin Martyr, pagan parallels and apologia Justin Martyr, writing shortly after Luke in the early second century, demonstrates a Christian problem with conflation of pagan cults. He freely admits that Christianity has many parallels in Greco-Roman myth and literature, but he argues that Christianity is nevertheless superior. And if we assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this, as said above, be no ordinary thing to you, who say that Mercury is the angelic word of God. But if anyone objects that he was crucified, in this also he is on a par with those reputed sons of Jupiter of yours, who suffered as we have now enumerated. For their sufferings and death are recorded to have been not all alike but diverse; so that not even by the peculiarity of his sufferings does he seem to be inferior to them; but, on the contrary, as we promised in the preceding part of this discourse, we will now prove him superior—or rather have already proved him to be so—the superior is revealed by his actions. 26 Here, Justin willingly embraces parallels in Greco-Roman myth, urging his audience to  see Jesus in familiar terms yet asserting Jesus’ superiority. He goes on to construct an argument that demonstrates that Christianity is thoroughly enmeshed in Greco-Roman ideas and stories. In Chapter XXIII, Justin outlines his points: First, that only Christian doctrines are true—not pagan stories 27 ; second, that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God28 ; and finally, that before the birth of Christ, demons helped pagan poets and religious figures to anticipate Christ’s actions and attributes, thus explaining many of the parallels between Christianity and Greco-Roman cult. 29 He reiterates comparisons in XXIV, noting, “Though we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ.” 30

Along with other sons of Zeus/Jupiter, 31 Bacchus is one of the divinities Justin specifically mentions in comparison to Jesus. His list of similarities between Dionysus and Jesus is telling; it provides an early second-century understanding of the story of Dionysus. The attributes he chooses to highlight are that Dionysus was sired by Jupiter and born to Semele; that he discovered wine; that he was torn into pieces, died, and rose again; and that he ascended into the heavens. Furthermore, Justin compares the use of wine in the Christian and Dionysiac cults, claiming that the introduction of wine into the pagan mysteries was an imitation of biblical prophecy. 32 In his apologias, Justin constantly and consistently addresses the issue of pagan parallels to Christianity, demonstrating its importance. Furthermore, he demonstrates a Christian willingness to highlight parallels with paganism, choosing to concede similarities and use them to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity.

Origen and Celsus, pagan parallels and apologia Christians were still being accused of mimicking paganism by the time of Origen’s writing in the first half of the third century. In Contra Celsum, he responds to critiques of Christianity by the pagan Celsus. Celsus’s text, True Doctrine, dates to around the year 170 CE, easily within a century of the composition of Luke; Origen’s response to it came a few decades later. 33 Contra Celsum records criticisms of Christianity that are also evident in Justin Martyr’s writings. Some scholars see such a similarity that they believe that Celsus was writing a direct response to Justin.34 One of the major themes that emerges from Contra Celsum is that Christianity was considered by the Romans to be a foreign cult or superstition. Celsus compares Christians to devotees of foreign deities Cybele, Mithras and Sabazios35 and alludes to Christian practice as like the “superstitions” of Egypt. 36

He also makes a direct connection between Christianity and the followers of Dionysus, comparing Christians to “those in the Bacchic mysteries who introduce phantoms and terrors.” 37 Luke’s creation of a Christian apologia using Dionysiac allusions came during a time period in which opinions about “foreign” religions varied. His carefully crafted itinerary plays on common comparisons of Jesus to Dionysus, and it argues that Jesus was superior to Dionysus. This tactic was an attempt to cultivate success in the Roman world in two ways: First, it addressed common concerns about Christianity, dismissing the arguments of those who thought of Jesus as analogous to Dionysus and his religious  message as potentially harmful. Second, it spoke to those who were sympathetic to Dionysiac rites, calling to mind familiar figures but showing Jesus and his followers to supercede their pagan counterparts.


Katherine Veach Dyer
Submitted to the Faculty of the
Graduate School of Vanderbilt University/Nashville, Tennessee


19 Otto Weinreich, Gebet und Wunder (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968).

20 Dennis R. MacDonald, “Lydia and her Sisters as Lukan Fictions,” in A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 106.

21 Shelly Matthews, First Converts: Rich Pagan Women and the Rhetoric of Mission in Early Judaism and Christianity (Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 82-92.

22 Acts 16:26, Bacchae 585-625

23 Ryan Carhart, “The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae: An Intertextual Study,” unpublished M.A. thesis from Claremont Graduate University; presented at 2007 SBL Annual Meeting. See also Peter Wick, “Jesus gegen Dionysos? Ein Beitrag zur Kontextualisierung des Johannesevangeliums,” Biblica 85 (2, 2004), 179-198. Wick argues that this miracle is designed to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority to Dionysus.

24 Pausanias, Desc. Gr. 6.26.1-2. This passage records that the priests of Dionysus in Elea set empty, sealed pots in the sanctuary of Dionysus during the Thyia, then seal the temple doors. The next day, the doors are opened and the pots are found to be full. It also asserts that the Andrians claim that at their feast of Dionysus, wine flows abundantly from the god’s sanctuary.

25 J.R.C. Cousland, “Dionysus Theomachos? Echoes of the Bacchae in 3 Maccabees,” Biblia 82 (2001), 539-548; John B. Weaver, Plots of Epiphany: Prison-escapes in the Acts of the Apostles (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004), 79-82.

26 Justin Martyr, Apology I, XX; translation from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988).

33 Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 94-95.

34 Ibid., 101.

35 Contra Celsum 1.9

36 Ibid. 3.17 37 Ibid. 4.10

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