Jesus v. Apollonius: The Ancient Debate Over the Real Son of God
The answer as to how many claimed to be the real son of God: more than you would think.
The ancient world was home, for a brief period, to a remarkable divine person. Even before he was born, it was clear that he was no ordinary human. Prior to the birth, a figure appeared from heaven to his mother and told her that the child she would deliver was no mere mortal, but a divine being.
When he grew up he became an itinerant preacher: he traveled from town to town and village to village proclaiming his message. He gathered disciples, healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. But his actions attracted negative attention: his opponents fabricated charges against him and he was executed. After his death some of his followers claimed that he had appeared to them; that they had touched him; or that he had ascended into heaven. Some of those followers went on to spread his message and after some time the story of his life was written down.
This is not the story of Jesus. The man was born in Central Anatolia; became a follower not of John the Baptist, but Pythagoras; and set up shop at the Temple of Asclepius.
This is the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a neo-Pythagorean teacher and holy man of sorts whose biography is preserved in the writings of a later follower named Philostratus. Now, Bible Conspiracies, a new documentary on Amazon, is claiming that the Jesus story is based on that of Apollonius.
It’s easy to see the problem: one of the central claims of Christianity is that Jesus is unique. His birth was a one-time unprecedented event that began an extraordinary ministry on earth followed by a lowly painful death and a glorious resurrection. For many, it’s central that Jesus was one of a kind. Apollonius and Jesus lived around the same time, and there’s no reason to ever think that they met. The idea that there were other holy men wandering around the ancient Mediterranean invites the question: is it only the success of his followers that made Jesus special?
The parallels between Jesus and Apollonius are even more elaborate than I have described so far; just as with Jesus, supernatural signs occurred at his birth. Just like Jesus (in the Gospel of Luke at least), Apollonius was something of a child prodigy. He had conversations with spiritual authorities which revealed that his understanding of the spiritual world was superior to theirs. And, just like Jesus, some of Apollonius’s teaching emphasized avoiding a focus on material possessions (although, in the spirit of full disclosure, almost all of the ancient philosophers gave that advice).
There is one, pretty substantial problem with the idea that followers of Jesus just borrowed from the Life of Apollonius story: Philostratus wrote in the third century A.D., after followers of Jesus had already written down the four canonical gospels we find in the New Testament. So even if they were influenced by the stories about Apollonius, they certainly weren’t plagiarizing. But long after their deaths both the followers of Jesus and those of Apollonius would claim that the others group followed a fraud and that their founder was the true Son of God.
But the Apollonius story raises an important question: just how many Sons of God were there in the ancient Mediterranean? And the answer is: more than you would think.
In the first place there were “godly men” like Apollonius of Tyana, Asclepius, and Pythagoras. These were seemingly human individuals whose powers defied ordinary experience. And, certainly in the case of Apollonius, they left a group of followers behind them. Then there were others who actually promoted themselves as “Sons of God.” Foremost among them was Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar, whose propaganda presented him as “son of the divine Julius Caesar.” And, like Apollonius, Augustus was a rough contemporary of Jesus (he died in 14 A.D.). Coins describing him as a “son of God” flooded the ancient Mediterranean, including the regions of Judea and Galilee. Other emperors, like Vespasian, were rumoured to have performed miraculous healings. According to the historian Cassius Dio, rumors of Vespasian healing people circulated in Egypt. Stories like this almost certainly functioned like propaganda, but they nevertheless contribute to the general sense that special men could heal the sick.
The idea that a human being could be the child of the gods actually goes back further, to the ancient Greeks. Not only was Zeus known for fathering numerous heroic figures (like Herakles), Alexander the Great promoted the idea that he, too was divine. Philip II of Macedonia, his father, claimed to be a descendant of Herakles, while the priests at the temple at Siwa told Alexander he was the son of Zeus. And, according to legend, just like Jesus, the birth of Alexander was supported by a number of unusual and miraculous events: lightning bolts that struck without harm; victories in battle; and the strange destruction of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Early 20th century scholars, following the work of German academic Reitzenstein, believed that healing stories like those that surrounded Apollonius greatly affected the way that followers of Jesus described him. They provided a framework into which the character and importance of Jesus could be placed. An established way of thinking about heroic figures as “divine men” affected the way that they wrote their own biographies of Jesus. More recently, scholars have criticized how affected Hellenized Jews (like the followers of Jesus) were by these stories, and have questioned whether or not Jesus really fits the mold. After all, as incredible as it is to perform miracles, there is nothing heroic about dying on a cross.
But for Christians, there is one really important takeaway. At the time, Jesus’ miracles were remarkable, but they weren’t completely unprecedented. There were a number of individuals who were believed to perform miracles, and even Christians acknowledged that non-Christians could perform miraculous acts. On certain occasions—Moses versus the magicians at the court of Pharaoh, or when the Apostle Peter battled a man named Simon Magus in Rome—we get to see what happens when followers of the God of Abraham come up against pagan miracle workers. And it’s clear that representatives of other religions movements can perform miracles too. Unlike in the modern world, adjudicating between the truth of particular traditions is less a binary of who can and cannot perform miracles, and more a qualitative distinction about how good those miracles are, and how long they last.