When Bacchus Came to Jerusalem

Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) was a Greek king of the Seleucid Empire (Syria), who reigned 175-164 BCE. He captured Jerusalem in 167 BC and desecrated the Temple by offering the sacrifice of a pig on an altar to Zeus (an act known as the Abomination of Desolation).  At that time of history there were two factions within Judaism: the Hellenists, who accepted pagan practices and the Greek culture; and the Traditionalists, who were faithful to the Mosaic Law. In seeking to prohibit Judaism and Hellenize the Jews, Antiochus forbade their religious practices and commanded that copies of the Law be burned, all of which is related by Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (XII.5.4):

“…when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s altar, he slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day. He also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction. He also appointed overseers, who should compel them to do what he commanded. And indeed many Jews there were who complied with the king’s commands, either voluntarily, or out of fear of the penalty that was denounced.”

The Biblical Book of Maccabees, which tells the story of the Jewish revolt against this tyranny, informs us that :

“…when the feast of Bacchus was kept, they were compelled to go about crowned with ivy in honour of Bacchus. And there went out a decree into the neighbouring cities of the Gentiles, by the suggestion of the Ptolemeans, that they also should act in like manner against the Jews, to oblige them to sacrifice: And whosoever would not conform themselves to the ways of the Gentiles, should be put to death: then was misery to be seen.” (2 Maccabees 7-9)

The Maccabee rebellion succeeded in regaining control of Jerusalem and the Temple was cleansed and rededicated in 165 BCE. The Seleucid kings remained the region’s overlords, but the ban on Judaism was lifted.

Jewishexpert.com states: “It is claimed that Antiochus also introduced the orgiastic Bacchic rites, but this story may serve as a cover for practices that had already been occurring for centuries, such as the temple cult prostitutes mentioned in the Bible.” These queer cultic practices going on in the pagan temples are documented in the Old Testament book of Kings, some 6-800 years prior to the Maccabee revolt, and were still going strong at the time of Christ’s birth.

Hellenistic Judaism, which honoured/embraced pagan deities and beliefs alongside Jewish was around from the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE until its decline from the 2nd century CE. It’s quite certain some Jews were very happy to parade in celebration of the God of Ecstasy. Plutarch (1st century CE) informs us of Jewish worship he considered Dionysian, and that the ancients considered Bacchus “good counsellor,” as the wisest god, similar to Jewish notions about Yahweh.

Excerpt from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/dionysus-cult-of:

“The non-Jews of Alexandria and Rome alleged that the cult of Dionysus was widespread among Jews. Plutarch gives a Bacchanalian interpretation to the Feast of Tabernacles:

‘After the festival called ‘the fast’ [the Day of Atonement], during the vintage, the Jews place tables laden with different fruits in booths of thickets woven from vines and ivy. Their first festival is called by them Sukkah (σκηνή). A few days later, the Jews celebrate another festival, which one may simply call a Bacchanalian festival. For this is a festival on which the Jews carry fig branches and sticks adorned with ivy and carry them into the Temple. One does not know” – adds Plutarch – “what they do in the Temple. It seems reasonable to suppose that they practice rites in honor of Bacchus. For they blow small horns as the people of Argos do during the festival of Dionysus, and call upon their god. Others, who are called Levites, walk in front, either in allusion to Lysios (λύσιος) – perhaps ‘the god who attenuatescurses’ – or because they call out ‘Euius,’ i.e., Bacchus.

“According to Plutarch the subject of the connection between the Dionysian and Jewish cults was raised during a symposium held at Aidepsos in Euboea, with a certain Moiragenes linking the Jewish Sabbath with the cult of Bacchus, because “even now many people call the Bacchi ‘Sabboi’ and call out that word when they perform the orgies of Bacchus.” Tacitus too thought that Jews served the god Liber, i.e., Bacchus-Dionysus, but “whereas the festival of Liber is joyful, the Jewish festival of Liber is sordid and absurd.” 

From https://live.jewishexpert.com/dionysus-connection:

“…the presence of Dionysus on mosaics from the third to fourth centuries AD/CE in the finely appointed home of the apparent Jewish patriarch at Sepphoris or Tzippori, a village in Galilee, lends weight to Plutarch’s commentary. Significantly, this imagery depicts Bacchus and Herakles in a wine-drinking contest, which Dionysus wins, a theme flagrantly featured in the prominent Jewish citizen’s home. Since Herakles was a favorite of the Phoenicians, this symbolism could reflect the defeat of that faction commercially, in the wine trade. This central place for Bacchus indicates the wealth of the community depended significantly on the blessings of the grape.

“If these later Jews were aware of Dionysus and unflinchingly revered him, it is reasonable to suggest that Israelites knew about his worship and myth in more remote antiquity, particularly as they became wine connoisseurs, a trade that dates back 3,000 years in the hill country where they emerged.

“It is very significant that this site of Bacchus worship, Sepphoris, was deemed the Cana of the New Testament, where Jesus was said to have produced his water-to-wine miracle. It is clear that the gospel writers were imitating the popular Dionysus worship with the newly created Christ character.”

Published by shokti

i am shokti, lovestar of the eurofaeries, aka marco queer magician of london town. i explore the links between our sexual-physical nature and our spirits, running gatherings, rituals and Queer Spirit Festival. i woke up to my part in the accelerating awakening of light love and awareness on planet earth during a shamanic death-and-rebirth process lasting from January 1995 to the year 2000, and offer here my insights and observations on the ongoing transformation of human consciousness, how to navigate the waves of change, and especially focusing on the role of queer people at this time.

One thought on “When Bacchus Came to Jerusalem

  1. I just want to say thank you for posting all of the wonderful information lately! I am getting deep into Wicca right now, and furthering my pagan spiritual path, and your posts are very informative and helpful!!


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