Instead of being very much like Jesus, Dionysus was the kind of 'god' you might encounter in your nightmares;
he rewards his devoted acolyte Agave by causing her to rip her son
Pentheus to pieces with her bare hands. The more you know about
Dionysus, the less resemblance you see between the two.
But not all cases of resemblance between the things of God and
the existing worldly, pagan culture into which the gospel
proclamation went forth are equally spurious. In some cases, the
inspired authors do seem almost to be quoting. Take, for example,
Paul's analogy between the church and the human body:
"For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,
so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith;
ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching;
he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness."
"For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.
For in fact the body is not one member but many.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?
And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?
If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?
But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.
And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
But now indeed there are many members, yet one body.
And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.
And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty,
but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it,
that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.
And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.
And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues."
(1 Corinthians 12:12-28).
Is Paul's imagery of Christ's commonwealth as a body wholly without
precedent? Not really. The Romans were the people who gave Karl Marx his vocabulary for
class struggle; their history recounted many pitched battles,
almost, amongst the various social orders. On one occasion, the
plebeians departed from the city and encamped outside, proposing
either to return if their demand for debt forgiveness was met, or to
move on to greener pastures if not. They were enticed back to the
city by Menenius Agrippa's simile, that the commonwealth is like a
human body, reported in Livy and Dionysius:
"'A commonwealth resembles in some measure a human body.
For each of them is composite and consists of many parts; and no one
of their parts either has the same function or performs the same
services as the others. If, now, these parts of the human body
should be endowed, each for itself, with perception and a voice of
its own and a sedition should then arise among them, all of them
uniting against the belly alone, and the feet should say that the
whole body rests on them; the hands, that they ply the crafts,
secure provisions, fight with enemies, and contribute many other
advantages toward the common good; the shoulders, that they bear all
the burdens; the mouth, that it speaks; the head, that it sees and
hears and, comprehending the other senses, possesses all those by
which the thing is preserved; and then all these should say to the
belly, "And you, good creature, which of these things do you do? What
return do you make and of what use are you to us? Indeed, you are so
far from doing anything for us or assisting us in accomplishing
anything useful for the common good that you are actually a
hindrance and a trouble to us and — a thing intolerable —
compel us to serve you and to bring things to you from
everywhere for the gratification of your desires. Come now, why
do we not assert our liberty and free ourselves from the many
troubles we undergo for the sake of this creature?" If, I say,
they should decide upon this course and none of the parts should
any longer perform its office, could the body possibly exist for
any considerable time, and not rather be destroyed within a few
days by the worst of all deaths, starvation? No one can deny it.
Now consider the same condition existing in a commonwealth. For
this also is composed of many classes of people not at all
resembling one another, every one of which contributes some
particular service to the common good, just as its members do to
the body.'" (Dionysius of Hallicarnassus,
Roman Antiquities, Book VI, Chapter LXXXVI, pp. 109-111 Loeb Volume
This imagery, of the commonwealth as a complex whole made up of
mutually inter-dependent parts, was so compelling as to induce the
plebeians to give up their secession on the spot. Martin Luther returned
to the original in his analysis of Paul's simile: ". . .because
Christ and all saints are one spiritual body, just as the inhabitants
of a city are one community and body, each citizen being a member of
the other and a member of the entire city. All the saints, therefore,
are members of Christ and of the Church, which is a spiritual and
eternal city of God. . ." (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, A
Treatise Concerning the Blessed Sacrament, Section 4. Volume II,
Kindle location 68). Luther continues his analysis: "To receive the bread
and wine of this sacrament, then, is nothing else than to receive a
sure sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all
saints. As though a citizen were given a sign, a document, or some
other token as a proof that he is a citizen of the city, a member of
the community. . .To carry out our homely figure: it is like a city
where every citizen shares with all the others the name, honor,
freedom, trade, customs, usages, help, support, protection and the
like, of that city, and on the other hand shares all the danger of
fire and flood, enemies and death, losses, imposts and the like. .
.Here we see that whoever wrongs a citizen wrongs the entire city and
all the citizens; whoever benefits one deserves favor and thanks from
all the others." (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, A Treatise
Concerning the Blessed Sacrament, Section 4-5. Volume II, Kindle
location 79-81). Now, Paul said believers made up the body of Christ,
he said nothing about any 'city;' and yet Luther is willing to make a
connection that runs through Livy.
Should the devil have all the good metaphors? Living up to the atheists' demand, that every single statement in scripture be sui generis,
said only then for the first time, puts impossible pressure upon the
Holy Spirit and the human authors He inspires, who are left wishing
to say something, and perfectly well able to say it, but not allowed
to do so because someone has said it before. What strange prison of
the mind have these unfortunate men found their way into, to be unable to say '2
plus 2 equals 4,' because it's already been said?
The world of classical antiquity is like a country-side flooded
by rising sea levels. Once there were mountains and plains connected
by roads and rivers, yet the rising tide has left only isolated
mountain-tops, the few texts surviving. It can look like one author
is quoting another, when he is only quoting a common-place,
something he heard in school; and who knows where the first author
heard it, anyway? An example:
"Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."
Is this theory of the origin of war altogether original? Not really; the pagan philosopher Plato says, in the Phaedo,
"Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body.
. ." (Plato, Phaedo, 66).
There being no real evidence of an interest in Plato on the part of James, it seems
more likely this was a common-place he heard in school, than that he had the 'Phaedo' opened on his desk to this
passage. Plenty of other authors say much the same thing; this trope of 'war
comes from desire' is far from uncommon: "For, both among the Greeks and
barbarians, the wars between one another, and between their own
different tribes, which have been so celebrated by tragedians, have all
flowed from one source, namely, desire of money, or glory, or pleasure;
for it is on such subjects as these that the race of mankind goes mad."
(Philo Judaeus, The Decalogue, Chapter XXVIII.) The truth of the diagnosis is apparent; it is not those whose treasure is stored up in heaven who
start fights, whether wars for conquest or bar-room brawls. Since
it is true, why not say it, even if someone,— probably
many people, though it remains, isolated, here and there,— said
The reader familiar with classical literature comes to the gospel
as a traveller through the desert to a cooling stream. That the good
news sounds a novel note, in that society devoted to one-upsmanship,
cannot be denied. There is extant a certain relief depicting the
emperor Claudius kneeing in the back the conquered peoples of
Gaul, or Britannia; this was their understanding of empire, 'I've got my
boot resting upon your neck.' After a while they didn't make statues like that
anymore, though perhaps the cynic may object that the reality didn't
change so much as did their way of talking about it. The young
people who are willing to be persuaded that the Bible is derivative
and other things original, ought to study those other things
diligently,— they are worth reading on their own merits, and richly
repay the effort invested in studying them. But once having done so,
the conviction that the gospel is derivative must fall by the