Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Of all the true or fabulous personages of profane antiquity Bacchus is to us the most important. I do not mean for the fine invention which is attributed to him by all the world except the Jews, but for the prodigious resemblance of his fabulous history to the true adventures of Moses.

The ancient poets have placed the birth of Bacchus in Egypt; he is exposed on the Nile and it is from that event that he is named Mises by the first Orpheus, which, in Egyptian, signifies “saved from the waters,” according to those who pretend to understand the ancient Egyptian tongue, which is no longer known. He is brought up near a mountain of Arabia called Nisa, which is believed to be Mount Sinai. It is pretended that a goddess ordered him to go and destroy a barbarous nation and that he passed through the Red Sea on foot, with a multitude of men, women, and children. Another time the river Orontes suspended its waters right and left to let him pass, and the Hydaspes did the same. He commanded the sun to stand still; two luminous rays proceeded from his head. He made a fountain of wine spout up by striking the ground with his thyrsis, and engraved his laws on two tables of marble. He wanted only to have afflicted Egypt with ten plagues, to be the perfect copy of Moses.

Vossius is, I think, the first who has extended this parallel. The bishop of Avranches, Huet, has pushed it quite as far, but he adds, in his “Evangelical Demonstrations,” that Moses is not only Bacchus, but that he is also Osiris and Typhon. He does not halt in this fine path. Moses, according to him, is Æsculapius, Amphion, Apollo, Adonis, and even Priapus. It is pleasant enough that Huet founds his proof that Moses is Adonis in their both keeping sheep: “Et formosus oves, ad flumina pavit Adonis.”

He contends that he is Priapus because Priapus is sometimes painted with an ass, and the Jews were supposed, among the Gentiles, to adore an ass. He gives another proof, not very canonical, which is that the rod of Moses might be compared to the sceptre of Priapus. “Sceptrum tribuitur Priapo, virga Mosi.” Neither is this demonstration in the manner of Euclid.

We will not here speak of the more modern Bacchuses, such as he who lived two hundred years before the Trojan war, and whom the Greeks celebrated as a son of Jupiter, shut up in his thigh. We will pause at him who was supposed to be born on the confines of Egypt and to have performed so many prodigies. Our respect for the sacred Jewish books will not permit us to doubt that the Egyptians, the Arabs, and even the Greeks, have imitated the history of Moses. The difficulty consists solely in not knowing how they could be instructed in this incontrovertible history. With respect to the Egyptians, it is very likely that they never recorded these miracles of Moses, which would have covered them with shame. If they had said a word of it the historians, Josephus and Philo, would not have failed to have taken advantage of it. Josephus, in his answer to Appion, made a point of citing all the Egyptian authors who have mentioned Moses, and he finds none who relate one of these miracles. No Jew has ever quoted any Egyptian author who has said a word of the ten plagues of Egypt, of the miraculous passage through the Red Sea, etc. It could not be among the Egyptians, therefore, that this scandalous parallel was formed between the divine Moses and the profane Bacchus.

It is very clear that if a single Egyptian author had said a word of the great miracles of Moses all the synagogue of Alexandria, all the disputatious church of that famous town would have quoted such word, and have triumphed at it, every one after his manner. Athenagorus, Clement, Origen, who have said so many useless things, would have related this important passage a thousand times and it would have been the strongest argument of all the fathers. The whole have kept a profound silence; they had, therefore, nothing to say. But how was it possible for any Egyptian to speak of the exploits of a man who caused all the first born of the families of Egypt to be killed; who turned the Nile to blood, and who drowned in the Red Sea their king and all his army?

All our historians agree that one Clodowick, a Sicambrian, subjugated Gaul with a handful of barbarians. The English are the first to say that the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans came by turns to exterminate a part of their nation. If they had not avowed this truth all Europe would have exclaimed against its concealment. The universe should exclaim in the same manner at the amazing prodigies of Moses, of Joshua, of Gideon, Samson, and of so many leaders and prophets. The universe is silent notwithstanding. Amazing mystery! On one side it is palpable that all is true, since it is found in the holy writings, which are approved by the Church; on the other it is evident that no people have ever mentioned it. Let us worship Providence, and submit ourselves in all things.

The Arabs, who have always loved the marvellous, were probably the first authors of the fables invented of Bacchus, afterwards adopted and embellished by the Greeks. But how came the stories of the Arabs and Greeks to agree so well with those of the Jews? It is known that the Hebrews never communicated their books to any one till the time of the Ptolemies; they regarded such communication as a sacrilege, and Josephus, to justify their obstinacy in concealing the Pentateuch from the rest of the world, says that God punished all foreigners who dared to speak of the Jewish histories. If we are to believe him, the historian Theopompus, for only designing to mention them in his work, became deranged for thirty days, and the tragic poet Theodectes was struck blind for having introduced the name of the Jews into one of his tragedies. Such are the excuses that Flavius Josephus gives in his answer to Appion for the history of the Jews being so long unknown.

These books were of such prodigious scarcity that we only hear of one copy under King Josiah, and this copy had been lost for a long time and was found in the bottom of a chest on the report of Shaphan, scribe to the Pontiff Hilkiah, who carried it to the king.

This circumstance happened, according to the Second Book of Kings, six hundred and twenty-four years before our vulgar era, four hundred years after Homer, and in the most flourishing times of Greece. The Greeks then scarcely knew that there were any Hebrews in the world. The captivity of the Jews at Babylon still more augmented their ignorance of their own books. Esdras must have restored them at the end of seventy years and for already more than five hundred years the fable of Bacchus had been current among the Greeks.

If the Greeks had founded their fables on the Jewish history they would have chosen facts more interesting to mankind, such as the adventures of Abraham, those of Noah, of Methuselah, of Seth, Enoch, Cain, and Eve; of the fatal serpent and of the tree of knowledge, all which names have ever been unknown to them. There was only a slight knowledge of the Jewish people until a long time after the revolution that Alexander produced in Asia and in Europe; the historian Josephus avows it in formal terms. This is the manner in which he expresses himself in the commencement of his reply to Appion, who (by way of parenthesis) was dead when he answered him, for Appion died under the Emperor Claudius, and Josephus wrote under Vespasian.

“As the country we inhabit is distant from the sea we do not apply ourselves to commerce and have no communication with other nations. We content ourselves with cultivating our lands, which are very fertile, and we labor chiefly to bring up our children properly, because nothing appears to us so necessary as to instruct them in the knowledge of our holy laws and in true piety, which inspires them with the desire of observing them. The above reasons, added to others already mentioned, and this manner of life which is peculiar to us, show why we have had no communication with the Greeks, like the Egyptians and Phœnicians. Is it astonishing that our nation, so distant from the sea, not affecting to write anything, and living in the way which I have related, has been little known?”

After such an authentic avowal from a Jew, the most tenacious of the honor of his nation that has ever written, it will be seen that it is impossible for the ancient Greeks to have taken the fable of Bacchus from the holy books of the Hebrews, any more than the sacrifice of Iphigenia, that of the son of Idomeneus, the labors of Hercules, the adventure of Eurydice, and others. The quantity of ancient tales which resemble one another is prodigious. How is it that the Greeks have put into fables what the Hebrews have put into histories? Was it by the gift of invention; was it by a facility of imitation, or in consequence of the accordance of fine minds? To conclude: God has permitted it — a truth which ought to suffice.

Of what consequence is it that the Arabs and Greeks have said the same things as the Jews? We read the Old Testament only to prepare ourselves for the New, and in neither the one nor the other do we seek anything but lessons of benevolence, moderation, gentleness, and true charity.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01