By J.P. Holding| In ancient times there was once a Teacher. This Teacher was a lofty idealist who represented the highest consciousness and intelligence his society had to offer; he regarded himself as appointed by God for his task, and he operated a ministry with an eye towards revolutionizing conduct.
His methods were simple and direct: He went straight to the public, offering his direction at no charge; at the same time, he shunned official institutions.In time, this Teacher gathered followers who absorbed his message, so that he would eventually be recognized as the founder of a movement. However, he angered the authorities of his day, was put on trial, and condemned to death.
After his execution, the Teacher’s followers were dismayed for a time; yet the inspiration their Teacher had given them lived on in their hearts. Wishing to restore the Teachers’ reputation, which had been injured by his trial and execution, they published – as much as 20 to 30 years later; how long exactly we cannot be certain – the Teachers’ sayings and deeds, and an accounting of his personal traits; for the Teacher himself had written nothing of his own volition to remember him by.
In our modern times, the view of the Teacher has been, at times, skeptical. Many recognized his genius, and accepted what his followers reported as absolutely true; but still others maintained that his followers were so dedicated to him that his true sayings and personality could not be recovered from their texts.
His life was said to be so dramatized, idealized, and pragmatized that there was no way to reach the original Teacher; some even went as far as to say that the Teacher never actually existed and was a construct of his followers!
Thankfully, however, more moderate forms of criticism have prevailed, and it is recognized that while each of the Teacher’s biographers were in their own way painting a portrait of the Teacher, they did report the Teachers’ life and sayings with a good measure of fulness and accuracy.
They did not, to be sure, report the Teachers’ exact words – as of course would never be possible under the circumstances – but they did accurately report the Voice of the Teacher in their writings.
By now, of course, you realize that my diversion above describes Jesus – and yet, that is not who I am talking about! In fact, these are the very descriptions applied to none other than Socrates [Vota.GCB, 30-34]; his followers were Plato and Xenophon, who each wrote a biography of their master.
The point of this exercise, as it relates to common skeptical objections, is to show that alleged close parallels between the biography of Apollonius (written by Philostratus) and the New Testament gospels incidences of demons being cast out by Apollonius; Apollonius raising the dead; Apollonius on trial, Apollonius performing general miracles; Apollonius spouting wisdom – cannot serve as a means of learning anything about the Gospels.
Truly enough, some have tried to put Jesus and Apollonius on the same footing: It even got to the point where F. C. Baur postulated that Apollonius never existed, much in the same vein as our modern Christ-mythers. [Mead.ApT, 48]
However, there are several reasons why the Gospels and the work of Philostratus cannot be considered in tandem:
1. Apollonius is not representative of the bioi genre
Some find contact points in that the Gospels and the story of Apollonius are in the same genre, ancient biography. But this genre also contains Tacitus’ Agricola, a very sober piece of literature, and other “serious” biois.
Furthermore, the biography of Apollonius violates a number of the conventions of ancient biography: It is over 4 times longer than any other biography known from ancient history, having some 82,000 words ([Burr.WAG, 169] – and I would add, it is rather tedious reading); it contains geographical, historical, and ethnographical information of the type found in “sophistic novels” of the time (ibid., 172); and finally, it has the traits of both novel and romance. It has rightly been wondered if this work belongs in the bioi genre at all!
2. Apollonius is not the closest semblance to the life of Jesus
In highlighting these many similarities to the events recorded in the Gospels, critics imply that the depiction of miracles being performed by Apollonius, his penchant for spouting wisdom, and the fact that he was put on trial, makes the Life the best comparison to the Gospels.
As we have seen, however, there is a far better biographical comparison available: Socrates. (Indeed, the performance of miracles is the ONLY thing that Apollonius and Jesus have in common that Jesus and Socrates do not! Unlike the latter pair, Apollonius was NOT executed!) Moreover, in a comparison between the Gospels and the Life, Votaw [Vota.GCB, 21-2] notes 8 similarities, but 10 differences.
Talbert places the Life in the “B” category of ancient biography: an effort to dispel a false image. What is this false image that Philostratus is trying to dispel? Quite simply, Apollonius had been accused of being an evil magician, both by a contemporary named Euphrates [Ph.LAT, x] and by an author named Moeragenes [Talb.WIG, 94-8]; Philostratus, therefore, was aiming to show that Apollonius’ powers were “by-products of his philosophical virtue or saintliness.” (ibid., 125)
He ignored Moeragenes’ books of Apollonius’ life, saying that “he paid no attention to them, because they displayed an ignorance of many things which concerned the sage.” [Ph.LAT, ix]
Philostratus also therefore concentrated on Apollonius’ teaching (which reflects a high degree of virtue, and much of which may go back to the real Apollonius); on the other hand, there does seem to have been some indication that Apollonius was a miracle-worker – though whether he was an effective one is another issue!
However, we then fall upon the third, and most important point:
3. The stories of Apollonius were written some 150 years after the crucifixion of Jesus!
Whether through neglect, carelessness, or outright deception, in omitting this fact critics allow the reader to assume that the Gospels are somehow copied from or influenced by the Apollonius stories.
If anything, the evidence would point to just the opposite: Philostratus copied what was in the gospels; although it is not necessary to think that he did. (As Mead puts it [Mead.ApT, 35]: “…as a plagarist of the Gospel story Philostratus is a conspicuous failure.”)
The small similarity in genre between the Gospels and the story of Apollonius is fascinating, but the incredible DIFFERENCES between the material are far more important – and as we have noted, this leads some scholars to take Apollonius’ story out of the genre of bioi entirely! The reader should be aware that:
The Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written no earlier than AD 217.
This is over 100 years after Apollonius lived – twice as long as the time between the life of Jesus and the latest proposed date for the first Gospel writing (75 AD) and four times longer than the earliest proposed time (50 AD).The author, Philostratus, was born around 172 AD. This means that whereas there were still people alive when the Gospels were written who could confirm or deny their historicity, in the case of Apollonius, everyone who knew him was long dead and buried. This makes a substantial difference when comparing the texts.
The Life is filled with all manner of material that distinguishes it from the Gospels.
We have alluded to this generally; now let’s get down to specifics! Cartlidge and Dungan describes the contents thusly: “…a virtual catalogue of every rhetorical device known to the professional sophistic writers of that time: sudden supernatural omens, minidialogues on the favorite topics of the day, colorful bits of archaeological lore, plenty of magic, rapid action scenes, amazing descriptions of fabled, far-off lands, occasional touches of naughty eroticism, and a whole series of favorite ‘philosophical’ scenes…” [Cart.DSG, 205]
The Life is rooted in a problematic source.
Philostratus’ source, the diary of Damis, is “full of historical anachronisms and gross geographical errors.” [Meie.MarJ, 576-8] Elsewhere, Philostratus makes use of imaginary official letters, inscriptions, decrees and edicts. [Cart.DSG, 205]The Gospels have been cited for minor geographical and historical errors, some of which have suitable explanations, but none may be described as “gross,” and they have NEVER been found guilty of faking official documents.
Furthermore, Philostratus was PAID to write his work – by Julia Domna, the mother of the emperor Caracalla, who had donated funds to build a temple dedicated to Apollonius. (ibid.) This in itself is not necessarily problematic, save that the same critics who use Apollonius to make comparisons all too often reject the Gospels as “biased” or as “confessional” documents.
Apollonius does not enjoy the level of secular attestation that Jesus does.
The earliest historical reference to Apollonius comes from Dio Cassius’ Roman History, 68:17 – and he is given less space than Josephus gave to Jesus. [Wilk.JUF, 37]
|A Career of Unusual Events
If someone says that the Life of Apollonius sounds like one of the New Testament Gospels, perhaps they need to read both again. Consider these selections from the Life:
Reporting Apollonius’ birth, Philostratus says that Apollonius’ mother had fallen asleep in a meadow, where the swans who lived in the meadow danced around her, then cried aloud, causing her to give birth prematurely. [Ph.LAT, 13]
Apollonius specifically condemns the practice of taking hot baths. (ibid., 47)
Apollonius professes to be able to speak all human languages – without ever having learned them. (ibid., 53)
He also learns to speak the language of birds. (ibid., 57)
He professes to have seen the chains of Prometheus while traveling in the Caucasus mountains. [Mead.ApT, 60]
He and his party encounter a hobgoblin, which they chase away by calling it names. [Ph.LAT., 125]
Apollonius states that captive elephants cry and mourn at night when men are not watching; but when men come around, they stop crying because they are ashamed. (ibid., 145 – this comes as part of a very long section devoted to elephants, which was taken from Juba’sHistory of Libya – Mead.ApT, 60n)
A short paragraph by Philostratus describes different types of dragons. (ibid., 245-7)
Apollonius confronts a satyr and puts it to sleep by offering it wine. (ibid., v. 2, 107-9)
During his trial, Apollonius causes the writing to disappear from the tablets of one of his accusers. [Mead.ApT, 188]
Does any of this sound like what we find in the Gospels? Of course not; the Gospels lack the outrageous and dramatic flair that is found in the story of Apollonius. Thus they should not be used in comparison.
In short, to compare the Gospels with Life of Apollonius is to compare apples with tangerines. There is a vast gulf of difference between the two. It is inaccurate and/or misleading to say that the Gospels are in ANY way comparable to the story of Apollonius, or that we can learn anything about the historicity of the Gospels by studying the work of Philostratus.
Burr.WAG Burridge, Richard. What are the Gospels? Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1992.
Cart.DSG Cartlidge, David and David L. Dungan. Documents for the Study of the Gospels. Philadelpia: Fortress, 1980.
Helm.GosFic Helms, Randall. Gospel Fictions. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988.
Meie.MarJ Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Mead.ApT Mead, G. R. S. Apollonius of Tyana. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1980. (Originally published 1819.)
Ph.LAT Philostratrus. The Life of Apollonious of Tyana. Cambridge:Harvard U. Press, 1912.
Talb.WIG Talbert, Charles H. What Is A Gospel? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
Vota.GCB Votaw, Clyde W. The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies in the Greco-Roman World. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970.
This article was originally featured on Tektonics Apologetics and was republished with permission from the author.