It is accepted in New Testament Studies and Historical Jesus scholarship that the Jesus of history garnered a reputation for feats of miracle healing and exorcism . However, some critics attempt to render doubt concerning this area of Jesus’ public ministry by comparing him to other figures of the Greco-Roman world such as Apollonius of Tyana (15-100 CE). The critic argues that Jesus is hardly unique in his ability to work miracles , or, more radically, that Jesus is a copy of Apollonius . This article will examine these claims seeking to argue that the historical Jesus could not have been copied from Apollonius.
Apollonius of Tyana
We learn from the Greek writer Lucius Flavius Philostratus (c. 170 – c. 247) that Apollonius was a figure of the first century. He was a charismatic religious teacher and miracle worker. Philostratus’ work Life of Apollonius is an extensive eight book apologetic presenting Apollonius as a wielder of divine power and a champion ambassador of Greek culture. The text is largely fictionalized in its presentation of Apollonius as an exemplary portrait of an ideal life .
Book 1 begins with a description of the birth of Apollonius where he is already said to be “greater than Pythagoras” (1.2). This is followed by his youth and his devotion to piety and learning. Apollonius is often depicted as a visitor to religiously significant locations such as temples, tombs, shrines, and hero-sanctuaries across Rome, Greece, and Egypt. These visits intend to establish Apollonius’ piety and is the author’s attempt to transform him from a wandering pilgrim into a prophet. In some cases, Apollonius even corrects the rites of priests and lectures them in their holy places, thus presenting him as a sort of master and expert of religious piety. We learn that when he visited the shrine of Aphrodite at Paphos he “gave the priests much instruction with regard to the ritual of the temple” (3.58).
In the second book, Apollonius traveled to India. He stayed there for four months during which he visited wise sages with whom he conversed about reincarnation, justice, and philosophy. It is thought that Apollonius had a fascination with these ideas and possibly expounded a mixture of Pythagorean doctrines and Indian concepts to whoever he could. He later traveled to Greece where he criticized the Athenians on their cultic practices and their appetite for the gladiatorial games in the theater. Apollonius is depicted as an expert because he not only corrects them but also instructs the Athenians on religion and ritual. He is said to have “corrected the rites” at all the Greek shrines he visited (4.24). We also learn that while he visited the city of Alexandria the city’s citizens “gazed upon him as if he were a god” (4.24). Philostratus elsewhere depicts him as a larger than life figure,
“When the rumour of his arrival was confirmed, they all flocked to see him from the whole of Greece, and never did any such crowd flock to any Olympic festival as then. People came straight from Elis and Sparta, and from Corinth away at the limits of the Isthmus; and the Athenians too, although they were outside the Peloponnee…” (8.5).
Apollonius is no longer simply a pilgrim but a recognized prophet or divine human being. His divinity is fully appreciated and even the Olympian god Zeus is said to have given him money (8.17). Philostratus also presents Apollonius as having engaged with important officials during his travels. He has a confrontation with the tyrant Nero (4.35-47), Domitian (book 7 and 8), and is viewed favorably by Vespasian (5.28) and Aelianus (7.15-21). In the final two books, Apollonius is arrested and imprisoned by Domitian. During his trial he defends his innocence and then, to Domitian’s amazement, miraculously disappears from the emperor’s court (8.8).
Apollonius was also the leader of several disciples, one of whom was Damis. It was at the beginning of his journey, while in Nineveh (1.19), that he first met Damis. Damis became his lifelong companion and disciple, and apparently kept a record of Apollonius’ discourses, ideas, and prophecies. A descendant of Damis’ family is said to have given this record to the empress Julia Domna (c. 160 – 217 CE) and that Philostratus used this record when he composed his work (1.3). However, it is controversial within scholarship as to whether or not this is accurate and if Damis existed. It has been suggested that he is a fictional creation of Philostratus’ and therefore unlikely to be the author of any such text .
It is not possible to have any certainty concerning how Apollonius died. There are several stories but none of which Philostratus considers definitive. These include Apollonius dying from old age, being assumed into heaven in Crete, or disappearing into a temple of Athene at Lindos.
Criticism and Comparing Apollonius to Jesus
Many scholars view Philostratus’ work Life of Apollonius as “a romance of travel” that functions as a justification for a figure who came to be regarded as divine . Because the text does not present itself as a matter-of-fact biography, many of the details of Apollonius’ life and travels are uncertain, especially when one takes into consideration such things as its imaginative and legendary geography, locations, lands, and peoples. For example, the text speaks of men who are four and five cubits high as well as hobgoblins (2.4), pygmies, and shadow-footed people (6.25). Along with real animals, such as leopards (2.2) and elephants (2.6), we also find fiery worms (3.1), unicorns (3.2), dragons (3.6), and griffins (3.48).
Despite a number of its fictional and fantastical settings and beasts, most scholars believe that Life of Apollonius does preserve some objective history. Although “Little is known about the historical Apollonius… [He] appears to have been a wandering ascetic/philosopher/wonderworker of a type common to the eastern part of the early empire” . Scholar Graham Anderson explains that,
“The problem posed by the Life is where and how to draw the line between stylistic presentation, rhetorical exaggeration, and just plain falsehood. The solution may not always lie in detecting deception by Philostratus as often as possible, but rather in recognizing how often it is inseparable from artistic license, sophistic reflex and bona fide historical reconstruction from treacherous sources” .
Comparisons and parallels between Apollonius and Jesus have been drawn by some critics. On the radical fringe, a few have alleged that the gospels (the primary sources for Jesus) are fabrications because their authors copied the myths and legends of Apollonius and applied them to Jesus. One conspiracy theorist claims that “it appears that the stories of both Jesus and Paul were in part fabricated from that of Apollonius… the gospel tale must be regarded as an obvious attempt at competition” to the Life of Apollonius .
Unfortunately, the author’s list does not include a single footnote for readers to follow. This means that the list is at best uncorroborated and therefore unhelpful. But let’s note some parallels between Jesus and Apollonius. We read, for example, that Jesus and Apollonius both could expel demons and perform healing miracles (3.38; cf. Mark 3:20–30, 7:24-30, 9:14-29; Matt. 12:22–32, 15:21-28, 17:14-21; Luke 9:37-49, 11:14-23, etc.). Like Jesus, Apollonius was worshiped as a divine being (8.15; cf. John 20:28). Some people also feared his supernatural power (4.44), which could arguably be seen as similar to Jesus’ miracles being condemned by his opponents as the ominous work of satan or sorcery (Mark 3:20-30; Matt. 12:27). In one case, Apollonius vanishes miraculously from a court and Jesus also vanishes from the sight of his disciples (Luke 24:31). The final chapter of Life of Apollonius refers to a miraculous appearance made by Apollonius after his death when he reappears to teach that the soul is immortal (8.31; cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-9; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:11-23). Similarly, stories concerning Jesus’ resurrection permeate the gospel traditions in which he appears to select followers, skeptics, and enemies (Acts 22:6-13; Gal. 1:11–16; 1 Cor. 15:1-9). Importantly, There are other interesting feats in the Life of Apollonius, such as Apollonius’ knowledge of all languages (1.19) and his learning of the language of the birds and animals (4.3), although these find no parallel to Jesus.
But what should one make of these parallels? Do they support conspiracy theories about Jesus being copied from the legends of other figures? It is difficult to sustain such a hypothesis. First, it important to review the date and reliability of our sources. As noted already, although most believe that Apollonius existed as a historical figure, much of his life remains uncertain. This is because of the work’s fictional presentation and lengthy time-gap between Apollonius’ death and Philostratus’ writing of his Life of Apollonius. Philostratus lived well after Apollonius and his work is at least 130 years removed. Such a time gap raises the questions of legendary development and embellishment.
Second, Jesus can’t have been copied from legends in the Life of Apollonius authored by Philostratus between the years 200 and 220 . The entire New Testament, including the four gospels, however, were all completed in the first century and before Philostratus was born in the latter part of the second century.
Although we must certainly not be uncritical about our sources for the historical Jesus, it remains a fact that the sources attesting to him are superior in important ways. The gospels and the New Testament are much earlier than the Life of Apollonius. As noted, the sources for Jesus in the New Testament range from twenty to sixty years of his ministry and death. Further, several extra-biblical sources, such as the work authored by Josephus Flavius, Cornelius Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, all refer to Jesus and all date within a century of his death. We have not even mentioned materials probably earlier than the Gospel of Mark such as Q, unique material to Luke (L), and unique material to Matthew (M). Moreover, even the most skeptical historians acknowledge that the gospels contain authentic historical details about the ministry of Jesus. They believe that a general outline of Jesus’ ministry and what he set out to achieve can be produced .
Third, the genre is also important. Although all ancient authors have biases and motives for writing, there is good reason to suppose that Philostratus’ had the motivation to create and embellish stories of Apollonius. Philostratus was commissioned by empress Julia Domna to compose an account of Apollonius. He set out to fulfill her request. However, as some historians have noted, he had very little information to work with to compose his account as Apollonius . Historians Maria Dzielska and Sandro Stucchi remark that,
“Philostratus, as a man of letters and sophist full of passion for Greek romance and for the studies in rhetoric, was hardily interested in the historical Apollonius… His legend arose after his death thanks to his pupils and first biographers; Philostratus, at the behest of Julia Domna Augusta, became its subsequent propagator. To satisfy the empress’s demand, who asked him to narrate the life and achievements of Apollonius, he had to invent this figure, as it were, anew. Thus, using his literary imagination, he turned a modest Cappadocian mystic into an impressive figure, full of life, politically outstanding, and yet also preposterous” .
Philostratus had a motive for creating stories and never intended his Life of Apollonius to read like a biography. However, most New Testament scholars agree that the gospels we have for Jesus are Greco-Roman biographies or a form of ancient biography . As Donald Hagner reports, “It is clear that the Gospels present themselves as historical narratives in story form. Inasmuch as they center on the life of Jesus, perhaps the closest analogy from antiquity are the lives (bioi) or biographies of famous individuals, whether heroes, immortals, or founders of schools of thought” . Even though the gospel authors had their share of motives and biases, they still intended to write history and communicate to their readers the actual events from the ministry of Jesus.
What can we say in summary? We suggest the following. The Life of Apollonius composed by Philostratus is dated much later than the New Testament and the gospels. It is removed by more than a century of the latest book of the New Testament to have composed in the 90s CE. In other words, there could not have been any Christian scribe copying details and legends from the deeds of Apollonius and then applying those to the historical Jesus. If there was indeed copying then it must have been Philostratus copying from the gospels or the life of Jesus and then applying such details to Apollonius. However, historians know that similarities do not necessitate copying because a causal connection needs to be established before we can agree that one source’s author copied from another. This has not been established between Jesus and Apollonius. Further, the gospel authors intended to compose a form of biography. Philostratus did not.
- Harvey, Anthony Ernest. 1982. Jesus and the Constraints of History. Duckworth. p. 6; Aune, David. 1988. The New Testament In Its Literary Environment. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. p. 57; Evans, Craig. 1993. “Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology.” Theological Studies 54:3-36. p. 34; Witherington, Ben. 1997. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. Westmont: InterVarsity Press; Blackburn, Barry. 1998. “The Miracles of Jesus.” In Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans, 353-395. Netherlands: BRILL. p. 356; BOCKMUEHL. 2001. The Cambridge Companion to Jesus. Cambridge University Press. p. 67; Keener, Craig. 2010. The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus. Available; Paul Meier quoted by Craig Keener in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). Ada: Baker Books; Borg, Marcus. n.d. The Mighty Deeds of Jesus. Available.
- Craig, William Lane. 2006. Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? The Craig-Ehrman Debate. Available.
- Archaya S. n.d. Apollonius, Jesus and Paul: Men or Myths? Available.
- Abraham, Roshan. 2014. “The Geography of Culture in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana.” The Classical Journal 109(4):465-480.
- Bowie, Ewen L. 1978. “Apollonius of Tyana: Tradition and Reality.” ANRW 2.16.2: 1652-1699. p. 1665-1666.
- Jones, Christopher P. 2001. “Apollonius of Tyanatheressage to India.” GRBS 42:185-199. p. 198–199
- Francis, James. 1998. “Truthful Fiction: New Questions to Old Answers on Philostratus’ “Life of Apollonius””. The American Journal of Philology 119(3):419-441. p. 419.
- Anderson, Graham. 1986. Philostratus: Biography and Belles Lettres in the Third Century A.D. Croom Helm. p. 123.
- Archaya S. n.d. Ibid.
- Early Christian Writings. n.d. Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus. Available.
- Borg, Marcus. 1999. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
- Dzielska, Maria., and Stucchi, Sandro. 1986. Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History. Italy: L’Erma di Bretschneider. p.14-15.
- Dzielska, Maria., and Stucchi, Sandro. 1986. Ibid. p. 14.
- Stanton, Graham. 2004. Jesus and Gospel. England: Cambridge University Press. p. 192; Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Ada: Baker Books. p. 130.
- Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 130.