In a certain way, Christ is both priest and offering, a self-sacrifice transcending both concepts. This is something the classical world found disquieting.
The extent to which the pagan classical world and Christianity are able to tell a common story has had an uneven history. In late antiquity, the Church Fathers were reluctant disciples of the classical poets and philosophers, and certainly not overt ones. The medievals could still find arguments against looking at the pagans at all, but since the Renaissance, Christianity and the classics have been the subject of all sorts of contrasts and comparisons. The dual helix of classicism and Christianity has been the genetic matrix of our Western world, and it is a helix that continues to shape our world, even as it has moved into a so-called post-Christian phase.
Below are a few topics which bring the classical world in dialogue with Christianity:
Anagnorisis: In Homer’s Odyssey, nurse Eurycleia recognizes Odysseus by his scar, while in the gospels, Thomas the Apostle refuses to “recognise” Christ as genuinely resurrected until he’s seen and touched his wounds. The former recognition (Gr. anagnorisis) is accidental, the latter called for. Odysseus’s scar causes him to be unwittingly recognized by his nurse, while Christ’s stigmata acts as a proof of authority, the evidence confirming the report. We can ask what would have happened to the two stories if the scar and the wounds hadn’t been an issue: if the nurse hadn’t recognized the scar (or Odysseus didn’t have one) and if Christ had rejected Thomas’ challenge. We might also ask, if Thomas hadn’t made his demand, would someone else have.
I think we can be sure that the returned Odysseus would still have managed to kill the suitors and recover his wife, estate, and kingdom. What is less certain is whether Christ’s authority and the truth of his claims would have remained unaffected. Who would still believe his resurrection? Odysseus’s scar is an add-on to the story; the story can unfold well without it. Christ’s wounds, on the other hand, are as crucial to the story as Odysseus’s initial departure for Troy was. Without them, we wouldn’t have a story at all.
Silentio: In her despair, Virgil’s Dido kills herself. Aeneas meets her again in the Underworld, but turns away, without saying a word to him. Before Pilate, Christ doesn’t open his mouth or respond to the accusations. Stoic silence in both cases, but worlds apart in their own separate narratives. It is not enough to die. Sacrifice requires death, but also truth.
Revelatio: In Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysus lets himself be captured by King Pentheus (the man of suffering), while remaining disguised as a priest and leader of the maenads. Questioning him about the rites in the woods, Pentheus shows both skepticism and fascination. Though chained and locked up, Dionysus breaks free and causes havoc in Pentheus’ palace. We recall another figure led in chains to a man of authority whose reluctance to accept the uncomfortable truth was matched by his desire to hear more of it. Typologically, Christ—as an acknowledged prophet and suspected leader—re-enacts before Pilate Dionysus’ appearance before Pentheus—only with the humility of which the god of wine was ontologically incapable. Christ’s response to Peter at his capture in Gethsemane puts him in a close, though inverted, relationship to Euripides’ Dionysus:
Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Mat 26:53)
In his captivity, Dionysus does exactly that, but without the angels. Ancient gods don’t need backup. Dionysus blows his disguise and reveals his numinous power, which Christ does not, at least not before he dies and is buried, but even then the revelatio is of a different kind. We don’t know whether early readers of the Gospel expected Christ to “go Dionysiac,” especially after the oeno-centric Last Supper, but Christ certainly addressed the deep-seated classical expectation that revelatio follows, or even frustrates: passio. It is only justice, we might say, that the god be revealed as god and avoid the embarrassment of being demeaned and wronged. Yet, that is exactly what Christ did: He turned his back on the classical world and set up new beginnings.
Nietzsche was right to see Christ sometimes as a Dionysian avatar—though he often saw him for the wrong reasons. What he didn’t see is that Pentheus, the conservative, moralistic and immobile force in the world and in us, is also the suffering world (Pentheus’ name is related to pathos). He is also the world in need of a sacrifice. In a certain way, Christ is both Dionysius and Pentheus, priest and offering, a self-sacrifice transcending both concepts. This is something the classical world was not ready for. Just like it was not ready for the divine comedy, through which the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection subvert the canonical schema of tragedy-comedy-satire. Christ doesn’t conform to any pre-existing categories, and that the classical world found disquieting. As mythos (Greek for story), the Christian narrative would have forced Aristotle’s Poetics into a second revised edition. And, interestingly enough, what we have in the post-Incarnation world is a second revised edition of the universal script.
Christ came into a world that knew how to ask the question, but found no answer to it. Like the chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon:
‘I’m helpless. Who can raise the dead with words?’
When the answer finally came, the old world was still not ready for it.
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The featured image is “The Birth of the Sun and the Triumph of Bacchus” (1761) by Corrado Giaquinto (1703–1766) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.