Apollonius of Tyana: A Rival to Christ?
© Copyright 2004 by Gretchen Passantino
One of the persistently raised objections to the resurrection from self-professed expert non-believers goes something like this: The New Testament story of the resurrection of Jesus should never be taken as historical fact because it is obviously of the genré of literature that takes an obscure leader and makes him worthy of devotion by his disciples, regardless of the actual historical events of his life. The New Testament writers are using a common religious "resurrection"/fertility theme in their religious stories ("myths") about Jesus. The ancient world is replete with religions that use resurrection stories as authenticators for their gods, and the first century (and neighboring time periods) is full of individuals for whom their followers claim resurrection. In fact, Apollonius of Tyana supposedly did miracles and rose from the dead, too, and you don't see a whole religion forming after him!
How can Christians respond to this claim? Was Apollonius of Tyana a serious near-contemporary rival for the Jesus of history? For good background to this answer, see the article by Edwin Yamauchi on Easter Myths and "Apollonius" in Norman L. Geisler's Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. (Gary Habermas did foundational work on this in an earlier journal article, referenced in Geisler.)
Here is a quick apologetics approach that doesn’t depend on a lot of specialized historical knowledge or the memorization of lots of information. I have used this material many times over the years with those who raise Apollonius as a Jesus-imitator.
(1) You're right: you don't see a whole religion forming around him -- that should tell you something about the quality of the claims around him compared to the claims around Jesus. While the entire history of the world has been overwhelmed by the impact of Jesus Christ and his followers, only a handful of people have ever even heard of Apollonius, and his impact on human history, society, culture, scholarship, and philosophy is nearly non-existent. What accounts for this difference? The Jesus story far transcends the Apollonius story.
(2) With Apollonius you have nothing surviving from his contemporaries (his followers, his peers, or his enemies). With Jesus you have at least 9 authors, all of whom are eyewitnesses or colleagues of the eyewitnesses; and concerning only the resurrection itself you have at least 6 books (the four gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians), all written by eyewitnesses or their colleagues, and again regarding the resurrection alone you have at least 7 eyewitness accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Stephen, James) recorded and a list of witnesses of whom nearly 20 are named and over 500 are listed.
(3) With Apollonius you have no documents with material reliably dated to the century in which he lived. With Jesus you have 27 books, dated at the latest within a century of his death and at best within 40 years of his death.
(4) With Apollonius you have a small, scattered cult of followers that did not begin to develop until about 150 years after his life. With Jesus you have a large, widespread cult of followers that numbered in the thousands within six months of his death and had spread to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire within a generation.
(5) With Apollonius you have no corroboration of any of his alleged miracles -- all you have is the attempt by Philostratus to reconstruct some miracle accounts 120 years after his death. With Jesus you have accounts by the same eyewitnesses and their colleagues listed above, and the testimony of his enemies (the unbelieving Jewish leaders) that he performed miracles, but explained alternatively as by the empowerment of the devil.
(6) With Apollonius you have no reports of miracles authenticating the testimony of his followers. With Jesus you have miracles performed by his apostles and other disciples and the Apostle Paul.
(7) With the story of Apollonius you have a collection of contradictions, misstatements of fact, violations of historical fact, and clashing religious claims. With Jesus you have a clear, consistent, true message unsullied by error, falsification, misstatement, or contradiction.
(8) With the "deification" Apollonius you have a human proving he has earned the right to advance to the level of a god among many gods. With the deity of Christ you have only one God remaining God and taking to Himself an additional nature, humanity (which is logically possible since man is created in the image of God) and then proving his deity by his actions instead of earning his deity by his actions.
(9) With the "resurrection" of Apollonius you have only a couple of vague references to his "disappearance" and to "visions" of him, none of any testable value or necessitating a physical, tangible and testable body, and none of them written within the lifetime of his contemporaries. With Jesus you have records from within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, by and about eyewitnesses, and with tangible proofs (seeing, touching, eating, talking, holding), amenable to verification by contemporaries.
(10) With Apollonius you have a hodge-podge of gnostic and mystery religion ingredients stirred with liberal doses of inadequate philosophy and superstitious astrology and magic. With Jesus you have a consistent philosophy unmingled with superstition and considered through 2000 years to be the most sublime, eloquent philosophy ever devised.
(11) With the accounts of Apollonius you have a writing style that conforms to mythology and historical fiction (vie romancee in French). With the accounts of Jesus you have historical narrative combining the testimony of believers and the criticisms of unbelievers.
(12) Finally, with Apollonius you have a single, obscure itinerant philosopher who may or may not have lived, a scarce handful of incidental mentions by others long after his lifetime, one account by a partisan government employee writing for a salary 120 years after his lifetime, and no followers or religion after him. With Jesus you have an historical figure attested to by dozens of listed individuals (believers and non-believers) who were eyewitnesses, by hundreds of un-named eyewitnesses, worshipped by thousands of people within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses, and a religion that stretches unbroken from his own teachings and actions through 2000 years -- during most of which his religion has been the dominant force for human development and advancement.
Who would you rather believe?
The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead,
he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not
resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently
instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change
of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26