In their 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries, authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy write, “Why should we consider the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, Mithras, and the other Pagan Mystery saviors as fables, yet come across essentially the same story told in a Jewish context and believe it to be the biography of a carpenter from Bethlehem?”
The subtitle of Freke and Gandy’s book is Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God? Is Jesus to be equated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, winemaking, grape cultivation, fertility, ritual madness, theater, and religious ecstasy? Is the Bible’s account of Jesus really a work of fiction based off Greek and Roman gods like Dionysus, as Freke and Gandy assert?
Let’s begin by answering the question of whether a historical person called Jesus of Nazareth actually lived. Dr. Bruce Metzger summarizes the majority opinion when he says, “Today no competent scholar denies the historicity of Jesus.” One reason no historian dismisses Jesus’ life is that His New Testament biographies pass, with flying colors, all historiographical standards (the bibliographical, internal evidence, and external evidence tests) established for verifying ancient personalities.
Some of the “evidence” that Jesus was actually Dionysus includes the following:
• Dionysus was born of a virgin. (In reality, no version of the Dionysus myth attributes his birth to a virgin; rather, he is yet another product of Zeus’s lechery).
• Dionysus rose from the dead. (Dionysus was torn to pieces, and there are various versions of what happened afterwards: Zeus’s mother reassembles the pieces; Zeus swallows Dionysus’s heart and then begets him again by one of his lovers; Dionysus’s heart is ground up, turned into a potion, and ingested by a woman, who then conceives him. In no myth does Dionysus ever promise resurrection to his followers.)
• Dionysus is the god of wine, and Jesus turned water into wine. (Dionysus performed no such miracle, and it’s hard to see how the god of drunkenness and carousing could be associated with Jesus in any way.)
As to whether the biographies of Christ could have been corrupted by the Dionysus myth, A. N. Sherwin-White, in his work Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, showcases the fact that it takes the passing of at least two generations before myths can develop, be introduced, and remain in the record of a historical figure. The dating of Jesus’ biographies leaves absolutely no room for that.
Where do authors like Freke and Gandy get their inspiration for believing Jesus and Dionysus are one and the same? The controversial figure Bruno Bauer (1809—1882) put forward a series of widely disputed works nearly 200 years ago arguing that Jesus never lived. His work was picked up by Albert Kalthoff (1850—1906), who followed Bauer’s extreme skepticism about the historical Jesus and went so far as to claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed and was not the founder of Christianity. After Bauer and Katlhoff came James Frazer, who wrote a two-volume book entitled The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion in which he argued the theory of widespread worship of dying and rising fertility gods in various places.
But, as previously stated, the myth that Jesus is a myth has been soundly refuted in historical and scholarly circles. In his book The Bible Among Myths, Dr. John Oswalt says, “Whatever the Bible is, it is not myth. That is to say, I have concluded that the similarities between the Bible and the rest of the literatures of the ancient Near East are superficial, while the differences are essential.”
The New Testament also denies a mythical, syncretistic Jesus in two ways. First, in the book of Acts, those hearing the account of Jesus for the first time stated, “‘He [Paul] seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean’” (Acts 17:18–20, NASB, emphasis added). The point is, if stories of dying and rising gods were aplenty in the first century, why, when the apostle Paul preached Jesus rising from the dead, did the Epicureans and Stoics not remark, “Ah, just like Horus, Dionysus, and Mithras”? Why did they consider the story of Jesus Christ to be “strange” and “new”? The same can be said of Paul’s discourse in Acts 26 when Governor Festus, a Roman, said Paul was out of his mind for preaching the resurrection. Surely Festus was familiar with Dionysus.
Second, the New Testament authors clearly demonstrate that the Jewish mind rejected syncretism and myth outright. The term myth is used five times in the New Testament, primarily by Paul, and always negatively. Peter contrasts myths with the true, eyewitness accounts of Christ: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16, ESV).
The presumed parallels between Jesus and Dionysus are flimsy at best and require stretching details to the breaking point and beyond. Are we to believe that a first-century group of devout Jews in Jerusalem stole the teachings of a foreign cult in order to create a new religion? How much of the Dionysus mythology did Peter, James, and John even know about?
In conclusion, there is no possibility that a “Jesus myth” was fabricated from the story of Dionysus (or, as the Roman called him, Bacchus). Gregory Koukl sums up the issue this way: “So why should we consider the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, and Addis as myth, yet think Jesus of Nazareth is history? The answer is because there is good primary source documentation for the latter and not for the former, for Jesus of Nazareth and not for the others. The documentation is very different. And if the historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth taken on its own merits is good, then it doesn’t matter if there are other myths that have some similar details” (from “The Zeitgeist Movie & Other Myth Claims about Jesus,” https://www.str.org/articles/the-zeitgeist-movie-other-myth-claims-about-jesus, accessed 2/17/2020).