Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Myth of Apollonius and the Reality of Jesus


Attempts are occasionally made to link Jesus to other Ancient Near Eastern itinerant teachers. An example of such a supposedly comparable figure is Apollonius of Tyana. Sometimes the goal is to show that another teacher is superior to Jesus, but usually, the aim is more skeptical. The comparison is made in order to show that Jesus is just a myth borrowed from other myths. Christians need to know the history of the early church and of the composition of the Bible. The truth is the best response to claims of fabrication.


Recently, I happened across an article that suggests Jesus and Paul were not real people, but rather they were an amalgamation of myths from the period in which they supposedly lived. As proof of this concept, the authors compare elements from Christian stories to those about a philosopher named Apollonius of Tyana.

Shallow Similarities

At first glance, the similarities do seem persuasive. Jesus, Paul, and Apollonius did all live around the same time, and came from the eastern part of the Roman Empire. They may have spoken the same languages, and had religious upbringings. They reportedly performed miracles, challenged the status quo, and were imprisoned for doing so.

The similarities between just Jesus and Apollonius go even further. According to the stories, both were the result of divine birth, were law-givers, went to heaven, and were celebrated by their followers.

Wait, did I say “persuasive?” I’m sorry, I meant vague and ambiguous. I live at the same time as Ben Shapiro, we speak the same language, and both like to talk about politics. Guess that means we’re the same person! And you never suspected it, did you?

The first problem with this theory, then, is how the evidence can be made to fit it rather than it having to fit the evidence. Even the more spectacular elements are nothing to go by. The differences between the three men are far more numerous than the similarities, and the similarities are mostly such broad categories that they are essentially without meaning.

History vs. Myth

Of course, the authors do not care about that. In fact, it is kind of their point. It does not matter to them that the details are not the same. The broader they are, the better, because it means that the specifics came about through legendary development rather than as a record of history. To them, the shared aspects are “proof” there was maybe a traveling teacher whose students made up stories about him that eventually became at least three fictional characters. It is simply an effort to invalidate the existence of Jesus so they can invalidate Christianity.

This is why it is so important for Christians to know our history. With just a few basic facts, this theory blows up. Firstly, serious scholars do not deny the existence of Paul. Some of his epistles are disputed, but most of them are accepted even in the most liberal of theology programs as having been written by him. The textual elements are just too strong to say otherwise. The details he shares and the style he uses are too exact and too personal to be the result of later mythologizing.

Just as important are the dates. Paul’s letters would have been written between about AD 45-65. We have existing copies and quotations of his works from around AD 100, which were widely disseminated throughout the Roman world. What does that mean? It means they spread fast from their time of writing. In other words, during the lifetime of those who knew and worked with Paul. If his writings had been filled with lies and myths, their authority would have been immediately challenged. The same goes for what is said about him in Acts, which also frequently corresponds with (and never contradicts) what we find in his letters. People can disagree with Paul, but calling him a myth is nothing more than wishful thinking.

This then can all be applied to Jesus. For one thing, Paul and Jesus cannot be the basis for the same myth because Paul worshipped Jesus. That one is easy enough to set aside. Then, you have the same type of historical evidence for the ministry of Jesus. In fact, His is stronger. Not only were the gospels produced during living memory of His crucifixion. They were only written at all because of His resurrection.

Remember that Jesus’ earliest followers were mostly fishermen. They were not part of the power structure of their culture, not wealthy, not educated. After Jesus died, if He had done nothing else, they would have simply scattered. They would not have made up a lie about His resurrection, boldly preached it throughout the known world, and then suffered exile and death in order to maintain it. That behavior is only explained by the fact they believed it to have happened, and they believed it because they saw Jesus returned to life.

That might not matter a few centuries removed from the events, but it was central to the initial growth of the church because it depended on eyewitness testimony. There was more to it than a set of teachings. Everything hangs on the actual person of Jesus Christ. And there was basically no time between the ministry of Jesus, of the apostles, of the writing of the gospels and the epistles, and their spread throughout the empire. There was never a chance for legend to creep into the books of the Bible as we now have them.

Deconstructing Apollonius

Aside from the very different details, that is another reason why we can distinguish Apollonius from Jesus and Paul. Everything we know about him is based on one book, written over a century after his death, and commissioned by an empress. So Apollonius was a teacher who died a natural death, was supposedly “assumed” (not resurrected and ascended) into the heavens, whose actions were not recorded until more than 100 years after he supposedly did them, and whose biography was supported by imperial imprimatur.

So there was plenty of time to tell his story, no risk to tell it, and no eyewitness testimony to back it up. The goal was to make him look good, not to record the truth. And, it should be noted, this would have been after the stories about Jesus had been spreading for nearly two hundred years. It is far more likely that Jesus inspired the tale of Apollonius than the other way around. His legend does not rise anywhere near the level of credible.

Not that the authors of the article suggest it does. Again, they do not believe in Apollonius any more than they do Jesus. But they are trying a bait and switch. They want you to doubt Apollonius, which is easy. Then they want you to equate him to Jesus, which they weakly attempt. Then they want you to transfer the conclusions about Apollonius to Christ, which requires that you not be paying attention at all. And of course, plenty of people are not paying attention. Even too many Christians do not.

Don’t fall into the trap, and just as importantly, know how to walk others out of it. This is nothing more than an effort to shatter people’s faith. Every time you turn around, there is another Apollonius, Simon Magus, or Osiris being dug out of the ancient woodwork as a supposed comparative myth to Jesus. That is why faith needs to be joined with knowledge. When you know why you believe what you do, challenges to it lose all their power and can be seen for sleight of hand they are. So it is our responsibility to have answers ready (1 Pet. 3:17).

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