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Meet Apollonius of Tyana (1st-Century Fridays #2)

Meet Apollonius of Tyana (1st-Century Fridays #2) July 2, 2021

Hi and welcome back! It’s 1st-Century Friday! To start us off, let’s dive into one of the strangest contemporaries of Jesus that we know of: Apollonius of Tyana. He was born right around the same time Jesus would have been, but he lived a lot longer before dying in a similar fashion. And somehow, history has largely forgotten him. Well, we haven’t. Today, let’s check out this fascinating rival for 1st-century affections — and check out what we can of his writings.

a handsome gent
A sculpture in Versailles of Apollonius of Tyana. (Wikimedia, CC-SA.)

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting ancient figures that were contemporaneous with Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous,” not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of evidence that their Savior actually existed. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

More Than a Man.

A well-known writer and religion teacher used to open his classes with this introduction to a certain figure from the past:

Even before he was born, it was known that he would be someone special. A supernatural being informed his mother that the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual. He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead.

But at the end of his life, he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment. Still, after he left this world, he returned to meet his followers in order to convince them that he was not really dead but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.

That writer is Bart D. Ehrman.

The person he’s talking about is Apollonius of Tyana.

Surprised? Did you think he meant Jesus?

I sure did, the first time I heard this anecdote.

Everyone, Meet Apollonius of Tyana.

Apollonius of Tyana  lived from 3 BCE – 97 CE, but he was possibly born in 15 or 40 CE. He left behind a huge number of letters, most contested as to authorship, and also some books, most of which are long gone, though some are mentioned or quoted by other contemporaneous writers.

Tyana was an ancient city located in Anatolia (Turkey); it’s about 700 miles away from Jerusalem.

Apollonius’ native tongue was probably Aramaic, though his reputation is one of a sort of savior of Greek culture. That reputation may derive in part from his birth into a wealthy Greek family.

According to one historian and archaeologist, Brian Haughton, Apollonius received a very good education in Tarsus. Yes, Tarsus, where Saul/Paul the Apostle claimed to have been born. Tarsus is a very old city that was the capital of Cilicia, a province in the Roman Empire. Cilicia stretched along the southern coast of Turkey, bounding the Mediterranean Sea on the northeast side.

At some point, Apollonius learned medicine from a temple of Aesculapius at Aegae, also called Aigai. Aigai was also part of Cilicia. Then, he rounded out his education with some philosophy from the school of Pythagoras, which was likely in Croton, a town near the toe of the boot of Italy.

Afterward, Apollonius apparently got around. He became a wandering mystic who spread the ideas of his faith, neo-Pythagoreanism, and he tried to learn as much as he could along the way.

Similarities Between Apollonius and Jesus.

A lot of people besides Bart D. Ehrman have observed that Apollonius’ story bears a number of similarities to that of Jesus.

In the 220s-230s, a philosopher called Philostratus finished an extensive biography about Apollonius. Apollonius was apparently one of the neo-Pythagoreans, a group trying to inject mysticism into Hellenistic philosophy. They operated between the 1st-c. BCE to the 2nd-c. CE. Neo-Pythagoreans conceptualized a dualistic, ascetic mind-body distinction that would sound very familiar to today’s Christians.

Philostratus implies some supernatural things about Apollonius, namely that he had ESP and was taken up into Heaven at his death. In addition, Philostratus tells us that Apollonius went to India. Obviously, none of this has been verified.

In the late 3rd century, a Neoplatonic philosopher named Porphyry noted that Jesus’ miracle claims weren’t unique — and pointed to Apollonius as a non-Christian with similar stories.

In the 3rd c. as well, someone who persecuted Christians, Hierocles, claimed that Apollonius was way more miraculous and wondrous than Jesus.

And in the 3rd or 4th c., someone made an inscription in stone about Apollonius. It’s called the Adana inscription after the museum that has it. One translation of it reads:

This man, named after Apollo, and shining forth from Tyana, extinguished the faults of men. The tomb in Tyana (received) his body, but in truth heaven received him so that he might drive out the pains of men (or: drive pains from among men).

Sometimes, ancient writers elevated Apollonius above Jesus. As you might guess, such comparisons got the Christian leaders of the time very cranky. Eusebius, an early bishop and liar-for-Jesus, wrote a retort to Hierocles that claimed that Apollonius was just a sorcerer in league with demons.

In the 17th-18th centuries, we see lots more comparisons between Apollonius of  Tyana and Jesus.

And then people seemed to forget all about him.

What Apollonius Wrote.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much that we know for sure was from Apollonius. None of it centers around Jesus, though, or mentions a single thing Jesus supposedly did. He also doesn’t mention Christians.

Here are some of the writings attributed to Apollonius:

  • On astrology. Lost set of four books. Mentioned by an ancient writer called Moeragenes, who is considered unreliable. Philostratus wasn’t sure these books actually exist.
  • On sacrifices. “Certainly existed.” Philostratus wrote that he’d seen it “in several cities and in the houses of several learned men.” In fact, we have little quotes from it in other books. This book, which was written in Aramaic, declares that God doesn’t want sacrifices or worship, but rather intellectual communion with humans.
  • A hymn in honor of Memory. Long lost.
  • The doctrines of Pythagoras. Also lost, but it’s mentioned by other ancient authors so may have existed.

We also have a ton of Letters of Apollonius, over a hundred in all. However, most of them probably weren’t written by him. They do perpetuate the image we have of Apollonius as an ancient “magician,” which at the time basically meant a traveling weirdo philosopher who pursued and spread mystic ideas. His version of “God” was the one we find in other mystic philosophical works, especially from that time. The god-being Apollonius offers is transcendent, both one with everything and also entirely separate from all, and completely above paltry things of the world and flesh.

You can read what we have of his at the very useful site Sacred Texts. It won’t take you long to read it all, I reckon.

Basically, we have way more evidence to support Apollonius having been a real person than we do for  Jesus — not that that’s saying much.

(If Christians could find even ONE piece of evidence supporting Jesus’ existence during those critical years of 30-35 CE, it’d be one piece more than they have right now.)

What Did Apollonius Believe?

Nothing about the beliefs of Apollonius sounds much like Christianity. His god was one who loved learning and education, but he disdained sacrifices and worship generally, and oh, he absolutely despised blood and animal sacrifices.

As a neo-Pythagorean, Apollonius apparently felt that people needed to purify themselves by abstaining from bodily pleasures and sensuality. That part would sound familiar to Christians today; most of them observe a similar kind of ascetic dualism.

One of the few things we can be (more) certain he wrote himself addresses this exact topic:

In no other manner, I believe, can one exhibit a fitting respect for the Divine being, beyond any other men make sure of being singled out as an object of his favor and good-will, than by refusing to offer to God – whom we termed First, who is One and separate from all, as subordinate to Whom we must recognize all the rest – any victim at all; to Him we must not kindle fire or make promise unto Him of any sensible object whatsoever. For He needs nothing even from beings higher than ourselves. Nor is there any plant or animal which earth sends up or nourishes, to which some pollution is not incident.

Instead, Apollonius thought, people needed to approach this god in a completely different — one might even say daring, considering the times — way:

We should make use in relation to Him solely of the higher speech, I mean of that which issues not by the lips; and from the noblest faculty we possess, and that faculty is intelligence, which needs no organ.

So there’s that. Sacrifices are off the menu in his cosmology. Education and intelligence is in.

Y’all, I also don’t think this guy would have approved at all of the modern fundagelical practice of speaking in tongues.

Did Apollonius Ever Talk About Jesus?

Nope. Not a word. He didn’t really talk specifically about Judaism either, though. But then again, we really don’t have much of his writing that we can be fairly sure is actually his.

I mean, a 2nd-century biography with obvious fantastical elements? One written by someone obviously motivated to sell its subject as a divine figure?

That isn’t exactly trustworthy.

(Shots fired.)

Apollonius was certainly floating around in the right part of the world to have heard about Jesus, if the usual dates for his lifetime are accurate. However, there’s no sign at all that Apollonius ever heard of Jesus or his ideas. His writing sounds a lot more like what I’ve read from the Platonists and Stoics of the time.

Based on what I’ve seen of Apollonius, I strongly suspect he’d have considered the Crucifixion myth to be grotesquely barbaric, if not outright evil on a cosmic scale. It represents a human sacrifice made to appease a bloodthirsty, vengeful god. Even worse, that cruel god praised this sacrifice — and its victim was his own son. Sure, that son was also kind of himself, incarnated, as Christians came to think of it. But that doesn’t make things better at all.

No, the Jesus story does not fit very well at all with the ideas and opinions of Apollonius. If Apollonius had known anything about the supposed rock star of Jerusalem, he’d likely have condemned a lot of what Jesus supposedly taught.

Grading Apollonius as a First-Century Source.

Ultimately, Apollonius is from the perfect timeframe, yes. Indeed, for much of his life he was almost 1-for-1 contemporaneous with Jesus! And he’s from the vaguely-correct part of the world, and traveled enough (and spoke/wrote the correct languages) that I’d have expected him to have heard about what was happening in Jerusalem.

However, we don’t have a lot of known writings of his to evaluate. What we do have sounds almost completely antithetical to Christianity — except for its dualism, which wasn’t unique at all to Christianity in the first century. Even quotes attributed to him, which I chose not to bring into this post for what are probably obvious reasons, don’t talk about Christianity.

Thus, I give this source a B rating. It’s useful in a lot of ways, even tantalizing. But there’s just not enough of this source to be a definitive contradiction to the existence of Jesus in 1st-century Jerusalem.

Still, I’m glad I know about him, and I look forward to meeting more writers from this tumultuous era.

NEXT UP: The practice of pastoral plagiarism is alive and well, I see, and still found even in the highest levels of evangelical leadership. We’ll review this practice tomorrow — and take a stab at what it tells us about their flavor of Christianity. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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