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Dionysus, Festival of
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Historic notices regarding a supposed festival of Dionysus in Judea do not antedate the time of the Maccabees. The general statement in I Maccabees (1:51,54,55) that See See Antiochus Epiphanes forced the Jews to sacrifice in the Greek fashion, is amplified in II Maccabees (6:7; compare III Macc. 2:29) into the statement that the Jews were forced to take part in the festivals of Dionysus and to deck themselves with ivy (κίσσος); hence Hippolytus ("De Antichristo," pp. 33-35, § 49), a Church father of the second century, regards Antiochus Epiphanes as the prototype of Antichrist. The entire story, however, is regarded as unhistorical. Even the account in III Maccabees, where Egyptian matters are referred to, is not plausible; for though Dionysus was the tutelar deity of the Egyptian Ptolemies, whereas the Syrian Seleucids always worshiped Zeus (Willrich, "Judaica," p. 163, Göttingen, 1900), the Dionysia were celebrated in every country that had come under the influence of Greek culture. Antiochus XI. even bore the by-name "Dionysus" (Josephus, "Ant." 13:15, § 1; "B. J." 1:4, § 7); and NICANOR, the general of Demetrius, threatened to consecrate a Temple at Jerusalem to Dionysus unless Judas Maccabeus was delivered to him (II Macc. 14:33). The Seleucids may therefore have forced the Jews to a similar worship.
It is certain (III Macc. 2:29) that the Jews of Egypt were forced to worship Dionysus, although this religious persecution took place probably only within the nomos of Arsinoe. It is further said (ib. 2:30): "Should any among them prefer to enter the community of those initiated into the mysteries, they shall receive the same civic rights as the Alexandrians." Hence the citizenship of the Egyptian Jews was dependent, under Ptolemy IV. Philopator, on their taking part in the worship of Dionysus (Lumbroso, "Ricerche Alessandrine," p. 49, Turin, 1871; Abrahams, in "Jew. Quart. Rev." 9:56); and as the Jews could not accept this condition, they probably did not become full citizens under that king.
According to Plutarch.
A myth of Dionysus is connected with the Palestinian city of Scythopolis. Pliny ("Historia Naturalis," 5:18, § 74) and Solinus (ed. Mommsen, ch. 36) derive the name of this city from the Scythians, who were settled on that spot by Dionysus in order to protect the tomb of his nurse who was buried there. The Greeks and the Romans were firmly convinced that the Jews had a cult of Dionysus, basing this opinion on some external point of similarity. Plutarch thinks that the name of the Jewish Sabbath is derived from σάβος, the cry of the ecstatic Bacchantes. More important still is his further statement that the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, as celebrated in the Temple at Jerusalem, was really a form of Dionysus worship. He reasons as follows: "The Jews celebrate their most important feast in the time of the vintage; they heap all sorts of fruit on their tables, and they live in tents and huts made chiefly from branches of the vine and from ivy; the first day of this festival they call the Feast of Tabernacles. A few days later they celebrate another feast, invoking Bacchus no longer through symbols, but calling upon him directly by name. They, furthermore, have a festival during which they carry branches of the fig-tree and the thyrsus; they enter the Temple, where they probably celebrate Bacchanalia, for they use small trumpets; and some among them, the Levites, play on the cythara" ("Symposium," 4:5, § 3). Plutarch evidently had certain ceremonies of the Feast of Sukkot in mind. Crown in Post-biblical Times. The accusation of Tacitus ("Hist." 5:5) is similar:
"As their priests sing to the accompaniment of flutes and kettle-drums, and as they deck themselves with laurel, and as a golden vine was found in their Temple, many people believe that they worship Bacchus, the conqueror of the East; but the two cults have nothing in common, for Bacchus has established a brilliant and joyous ritual, while the customs of the Jews are bizarre and morose."
Account of Tacitus.
The artificial vine, which Herod presented to the Temple, is also mentioned by Josephus ("Ant." 15:11, § 3); it still existed at the destruction of the Temple (Mid. 3:8), and was carried off by Titus ("B. J." 5:5, § 4). The account of Tacitus is thus based on fact, the same as that of Plutarch in regard to the ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles. Plutarch, furthermore, deduces the Jewishworship of Bacchus from the garment of the high priest, who wears bells on his mantle, like those that were used in the Bacchanalia at night; he refers also in ambiguous terms to a thyrsus and to drums (τνμπανα) which the high priest wears in front (on the frontlet or on the breastplate?) (ib.). Grätz ("Gesch." 2d ed., 2:254) assumes a barrel-opening festival (πιθογία = "vinalia"), which, however, can not be substantiated.
In describing the garment of the high priest, Plutarch purposely uses expressions reminiscent of the Dionysus worship, and it is probable that just such equivocal expressions, which he may have read in a Hellenistic work, led him to make the impossible assertion that the Jews had a cult of Dionysus. As a matter of fact the palm-branch prescribed for the Feast of Tabernacles was called by the Hellenists θύρσος (Josephus, "Ant." 13:13, § 5; II Macc. 10:7), which could easily remind a Greek of the Dionysia. He also intimates that he knew something about the "Feast of the Drawing of Water," which in its free joyousness resembled the Bacchanalia (Suk. 5:2; Tosef.: 4:1-5; Bab. 51b; Yer. 55b). Neither the statements of Tacitus nor those of Plutarch lead to the conclusion, as some scholars assert, that they used as their sources anti-Jewish Alexandrian works, for their statements contain nothing that is hostile to the Jews. A Greek, on the contrary, would consider it a vindication for the Jews if he could derive ceremonies of the Jewish worship from pagan practises.
In Talmud and Cabala.
Dionysus is not mentioned as a god in the rabbinical writings; it is possible, however, that in Haman's fictitious genealogy (I Targ. Esther 5:1; Il Targ. Esther 3:1) Dionysus figures as Haman's ancestor (Krauss, "Lehnwörter," 2:200, Berlin, 1899). Jastrow's statement ("Dict." p. 1306) that the "Dionysia" may be traced in an obscure Talmudic word can not be accepted. In some prayers of the cabalists the name of Dionysus appears, together with other mystic names ("Mitteil. der Gesell. für Jüd. Volkskunde," 5:31,58,71). ASS-WORSHIP.
- Geätz, Gesch. 2d ed., 2:254:
- Reinach, Textes d'Auteurs Grees. p. 143;
- Büchler, Die Tobiaden und die Oniaden. pp. 181, 196, Vienna, 1899;
- idem, in Rev. Et. Juives, 37:182 et seq.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Dionysus, Festival of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/dionysus-festival-of.html. 1901.