Ancient Jewish Rituals…To Bacchus?

Despite the salacious title of this blog post, this is exactly what some ancient Romans thought the Jews were doing when they celebrated their festivals—praising Bacchus! Because much of the accoutrements of these Jewish gatherings resembled the décor of rituals to Dionysus, Romans mistakenly believed that Jews were also down with worshiping the God of wine. (Hint: They weren’t.)

I came across this account from Plutarch in Jack N. Lightstone’s book The Commerce of the Sacred, and thought I would share it with you. I think it illustrates the extent to which syncretism abounded in Greco-Roman culture. Back in the day*, it was common to see different Gods with similar attributes as being manifestations of the same deity. That a Roman would automatically assume that a festival replete with ivy, vines, and wooden staffs was analogous to their own celebrations is a striking marker of the religious syncretism of this era.

And now, I give you Plutarch!

At this, all did urge him and beg him to go on. “First,” he [Moeragenes] said, “the time and character of the greatest, most sacred holiday of the Jews clearly befits Dionysus. When they celebrate their so called Fast, at the height of the vintage, they set out tables of all sorts of fruit under tents and huts plaited for the most part with vines and ivy. They call the first of the days of the feast Tabernacles. A few days later they celebrate another festival, this time identified with Bacchus not through obscure hints but plainly called by his name, a festival that is a sort of ‘Procession of Branches’ or ‘Thyrsus procession,’ in which they enter the Temple [sic] each carrying a thyrsus. What they do after entering we do not know, but it is probable that the rite is a Bacchic revelry, for in fact they use little trumpets to invoke their god as do the Argives at their Dionysia…The Jews themselves testify to a connection with Dionysus when they keep the Sabbath by inviting each other to drink and enjoy wine…All this surely befits (they might say) no divinity but Dionysus.”

– Plutarch, Questiones Convivales

Lightstone observes that the scene depicted here was not one celebration, but probably many different festivals distilled into one recollection. Still, it is interesting that the Romans perceived the Jews, not as having their own set of distinct rites, but being sympatico to Roman traditions. It is also a great description of the symbology attendant to Greco-Roman Dionysian cult. While this was not the intent of Lightstone’s analysis (he is more focused on what this reveals about Jewish festivals in the ancient period), these parenthetical comments on Bacchic festivals cannot escape one’s notice.

*1st century CE


Lightstone, Jack N. The Commerce of the Sacred: Mediation of the Divine Among Jews in the Greco-Roman World. Columbia University Press: New York. 2006.

Photo by Trevor Dennis.

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