Dionysus is the Greek God of wine, fertility, theater and religious ecstasy. All four represented as pillars in Greek culture, Dionysian cults grew as Greek mythology and Hellenization spread throughout the Mediterranean. Being the only Greco-Roman god to have been mortal and then become immortal after death, Dionysus draws many parallels to Christ, parallels and similarities both confronted by the Gospels. This confrontation was necessary to draw from the parallels of Greco-Roman mythologies to establish distinct differences between Christianity and Hellenistic culture, affirming the divine nature of Christ to His followers.
Dionysus has a mortal mother, Semele and an immortal father in Zeus, the king of the gods. After his death, Dionysian mythology claims he rose again and in worshiping him immortality is offered to his followers. Sacraments of wine and bread (and sometimes animals or human beings raw flesh) representing his body where eaten and drank in community by his followers. Ensuing after these sacrifices was often a dissipated drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18), often leading to religious orgiastic acts. Other traditions in relation to fertility (orgiastic gatherings) and theater (a staple of Greco-Roman culture) prevalent in Hellenistic culture were regularly practiced by Dionysiac cults, and thus incorporated into the sacrificial and orgiastic practices. These practices and parallels created many challenges for the early church.
Such parallels pertaining to Dionysus and Christ produced syncretistic concerns for the early developing church and its followers. This syncretic problem was confronted by many early Christian apologists such as Justin, Clement and Origen, and was also challenged by Jesus, His disciples and apostles. Emphasis on challenging beliefs and rituals of Dionysiac cults may be attributed to Divine knowledge. For example, practice and worship of Dionysus was likely one of the, or the most prevailing and increasingly worshiped Greco-Roman deity (especially among women), beginning during the Bronze Age and extending throughout late antiquity. This increasingly followed deity presented a persisting challenge. Bringing emphasis to this concern by the early church shows the divining nature of the Word, in foreseeing the significant concerns not only of the past and present, but what is to come.
Understanding the significance of this threat to the early church can be realized in the gospel of John (2:2-11), represented through Jesus’s first recorded miracle of turning water into wine. Dionysus being such a prevalently followed god in Greco-Roman culture and the god of wine would have been the antagonist represented in attendees minds, when dissecting the miracle Jesus performs in turning water into wine.
Two themes of significance interpreted from this story pertain to Jesus’s mother requesting the miracle and the groom’s testimony of it being the “best” wine saved for the end. By including in the Scriptures by John that Mary requested this miracle, John may be making a direct challenge to women (making up a significant proportion of Dionysus followers), in declaring Christ’s superiority to Dionysus. Additionally, the testimony of the groom of Jesus’s wine (unknowingly to the groom) being the best wine also shows Jesus’s superiority to the Greco-Roman “wine god.”
Greco-Roman gods are significant in Christian study, because of the challenges they present for believers and nonbelievers alike. These parallels often challenge our faith, but in studying these similarities, our faith in Christ can be strengthened in realizing the contrast between earthy rituals and those divinely instructed by God through Jesus Christ.
Similar to the gospel writings, in current Christian Scripture interpretations and personal testimony, believers can empower their message by drawing from cultural parallels in society between it and God, by showing the superiority of Jesus and His acts in our own lives (Matt 7:16).
For those who challenge Christianity by focusing on these parallels more heavily than the contrasts, giving testimony to disprove the faith, antagonists often credit early Christian testimony to being a mosaic of previously held religious beliefs and mythologies. However, in realizing that one must draw from what is believed or known, to realize truth in what is not known, we can discover our own earthly weakness of thought. Therefore the parables and stories shared by Jesus, His disciples and apostles were all stories pulled from what their hearers should have known, in order to teach them things they did not (Jeremiah 33:3). Or in challenging terms, who can understand something from what is un-understandable? Or who can discover the unknown from things not yet known?
Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospel, Green, et. al, eds. InterVarsity Press, 2013 (2nd Edition).
Henrichs, Albert. The Modern View of Dionysus from Nietzsche to Girard. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 88 (1984), pp. 205-240.