Apollonius of Tyana

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (August, 2005)

The neo-Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, whose life was recorded by Philostratus, was a contemporary of Jesus.

He was born at the beginning of the Christian era in Tyana, in Cappadocia, one of the provinces of Asia Minor. At the age of 16 he dedicated himself to the strict ascetic rule followed by Pythagoras, renouncing sex, wine, meat, and money. He wore no shoes, let his hair grow long, never shaved, and wore only linen robes. After he studied the medical arts sick people flocked to him for healing.

For five years of his life he followed a vow of complete silence, travelling without ever speaking a word. He visited Persia and India, where he studied with the Brahmans, then studied further in Egypt with the Gymnosophists, the naked philosophers of the Thebaid. He met with the emperors Vespasian and Titus, incurred the wrath of Nero, was charged with sedition by Domitian but acquitted, eventually dying at a very advanced age. According to popular tradition he ascended bodily to heaven, appearing after death.

The stories of his healing miracles are very similar to those of Jesus. When the parallels with Jesus were pointed out, conservatives claimed that the Apollonius record had been derived from the gospels, which were in existence by the time Philostratus wrote. But there is so much in them that is not in the gospels that this theory is not sufficient. It cannot be argued, however, that it went the other way, that the gospels derived their stories from Apollonius, for, as we have been seeing, the gospel accounts of healing the blind, lame and paralysed, and raising people from the dead, are a cover for events that were not healings, but promotions in ministry. The explanation would be that it was commonly claimed by such philosophers that they could perform miracles, that the pagan example set the expectation which Christians competing with them were bound to follow, and they also used such stories as an advertisement for their particular philosophy.

Here are some of Apollonius' cases: "There also arrived a man who was lame. He was already thirty years old and was a keen hunter of lions; but a lion had sprung upon him and dislocated his hip so that he limped with one leg. However when they (the sages with Apollonius) massaged with their hands his hip, the youth immediately recovered his upright gait."

"And another man had had his eyes put out, and he went away having recovered the sight of both of them. Yet another man had his hand paralysed, but left their presence in full possession of the limb."

"And a certain woman had suffered in labour already seven times, but was healed in the following way through the intercession of her husband. He (Apollonius) bade the man, whenever his wife should be about to bring forth her next child, to enter her chamber carrying in his bosom a live hare; then he was to walk once round her and at the same moment to release the hare; for that the womb would be extruded together with the foetus, unless the hare was at once driven out."

"Here too is a miracle which Apollonius worked. A girl had died just in the hour of her marriage, and the bridegroom was following her bier lamenting as was natural his marriage left unfulfilled, and the whole of Rome was mourning with him, for the maiden belonged to a consular family. Apollonius then witnessing their grief, said, 'Put down the bier, for I will stay the tears that you are shedding for the maiden.' And withal he asked what was her name.... (he by) merely touching her and whispering in secret some spell over her, at once woke up the maiden from her seeming death; and the girl spoke out loud, and returned to her father's house. And the relations of the maiden wanted to present him with the sum of 150 000 sesterces, but he said that he would freely present the money to the young lady by way of a dowry. Now whether he detected some spark of life in her, which those who were nursing her had not noticed - for it is said that although it was raining at the time, a vapour went up from her face - or whether life was really extinct, and he restored it by the warmth of his touch, is a mysterious problem which neither I myself nor those who were present could decide."

We are dealing not simply with two teachers unlike any others, but with a whole popular setting in which there were many such cultists of varying quality. It was a time as full of religious innovation mixed with fraud as our own is. The best we can make of it is that massive cultural change has always produced such phenomena, opening our minds to whatever good comes out of our own current upheaval.