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In the first century AD a man was born to a Greek family in the town of Tyana in Anatolia in Turkey, an ancient Hittite city later known as Christopolis (the city of Christ), then in the province of Roman Cappadocia. He became one of the most famous men of his time, a travelling teacher and prophet known as a miracle worker, and was celebrated for raising the dead. At the time of his death he was seen by a multitude to rise physically into the heavens until he disappeared from view. His name was Apollonios, which means worshipper of Apollo, the god of the sun (‘Apollo’ is literally ‘the destroyer’, god of plagues, wielder of the bow, and the arrow of infection: hence the name Apollyon, the angel of destruction in the Bible). Could these stories of miracles be true, and if they were, in what sense? Apollonios’ career was to contribute to some of the many stories about Jesus of Nazarus which were forming at that time in the growing religion of Christianity, in 380 AD to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. Opponents of Christianity depicted Apollonios as a rival to Jesus. How true was that, as in the first century Jesus was known only to a few Jewish sectarians in Jerusalem and converts of Paul in Greece?
The story of Apollonios presents a confusion of historical periods, each with its own preoccupations, that need to be sorted out to make a just estimate of the man. Apollonios lived about 5-85 AD. He was a member of the mystical school of ‘philosophy’ founded by Pythagoras in the sixth century BC. His life was written about by Philostratus, a Greek philosopher resident at the court of Emperor Septimius Severus shortly after 200 AD. Philostratus wrote for Septimius’ wife Julia Domna, who came from Emesa in Syria, a centre of the cult of Apollo where Apollonios was revered.
Pythagoras 540 BC
This was the time of the sage or magus. The story begins with the mysterious religious figure of Pythagoras, who was perhaps, as his name implies, involved with the cult of the Pytho, or oracular snake, who knew both past and present, and could offer safe journey to the underworld and back, so that priests could venture there and return with wisdom and guidance for their people. This was the role of the shaman in many primitive societies, and was seen in a more evolved form in the ancient Cretan civilisation. In Greece the Pytho’s place was taken over by the Destroyer, Apollo, who was said to have ‘slain’ the Pytho at famous oracles at Delphi, and Didyma, at Miletus. Pythagoras was said, in the language of those days, to be the son of Apollo. This role of shaman can be seen in other mystical bridges between the world and the underworld, such as the religion of Orpheos, and the Eleusian Mysteries. It is hidden, and misunderstood, in the story of Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden in Genesis.
Pythagoras is known through philosophers such as Aristotle, the neo Platonists and Plato himself, who created a picture of a group of thinkers who formed a precedent for the ideas of Sokrates (the ‘pre-Sokratics’). But these men weren’t all philosophers in the sense meant by Plato. We see them as founders of the Western intellectual tradition, thinkers and natural scientists who began the modern experimental approach to the investigation of the world. But in the hundred and fifty years between 650 BC and 500 BC thinkers from Miletus and Ephesos on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, such as Thales, Anaximander and Heraclitus, were doing something different (or perhaps the same), they were looking for god. God, as they defined it, was the universal principle, the unity, behind matter in all its forms. Theirs was essentially a religious quest. What made it different from all other forms of religion was their method, analytical and based on measurement. They were reasoning about god, not just worshipping it.
Some of these figures were like gurus. Heraclitus of Ephesos taught his followers using what seem similar to Zen koans. He was known as one who spoke in riddles, such as the observation that one could not step into the same river twice, that is, the world and all who live in it are constantly changing, creating an illusion which obscures the reality behind and leads to superstition. He was apparently a moral teacher who sought by his very obscurity to change his followers’ patterns of thought. A later figure, Empedocles, who came from Agrigentum in Sicily, was known as a sage and healer, one with the power to control storms. He was a priest in the rites of Orpheos, and was said to have ascended to heaven when it came time for him to die.
Pythagoras was another such figure. The famous theorem named after him was more probably taught by one of his successors; and it had previously been derived by Babylonian astronomers. In his lifetime Pythagoras was principally a religious figure. He came from Samos, an island just offshore from Miletus (and about 650 km due west from Tyana in Anatolia) and lived between 570-500 BC. Pythagoras and his followers lived in communities, like monks, and practised vegetarianism. They believed in the transmigration of souls, that men had lived many lives. It seems probable Pythagoras passed on, from cult centre on Samos or Miletus, a rite designed to gain believers access to their next reincarnation. He offered believers immortality. The Pythagorians, like the worshippers at Eleusis, had a long history, long enough to have influenced the new religion of Christianity. The sect had spread to Italy and Sicily, and eastward to Anatolia, as Apollonios became an initiate.
The religions practised by the Greeks and Romans were not all state (polis) cults designed to foster patriotism, though the imposing ruins of the temples and the stories about the gods of Olympos tend to obscure other forms of religion. Forms such as the oracular cults scattered all over the Greek world, often based on the worship of Apollo; the mystery religions of Orpheos and Eleusis; the cults of the dead, the worship of underworld deities such as Hekate; and various forms of magic. Ancient Greece had famous teachers, who gathered disciples around them as did gurus in India, or sages like Confucius did in China. Many of the pre Sokratic ‘philosophers’ were of this kind. They themselves had studied at ancient centres of knowledge such as Babylon or Thebes in Egypt. Some were said to have travelled to India. Pythagoras was this kind of religious figure.
Apollonios 50 AD
This was the time of the rhetorician or sophist. What we know about Apollonios is mainly derived from Philostratus, and he was really writing a novel, a tale of wonders to entertain the Empress, while passing it off as a history of philosophy. The figure of Apollonios was historical, and Philostratus’ account does reflect widespread second century beliefs about him though. Perhaps it could be compared as history to accounts of Alexander the Great’s life known as the Alexander Romance, a tale of wonders written down about the time of Philostratus from oral sources and translated into most languages of the Middle East and Europe.
Philostratus’ account starts by giving the portents observed at Apollonius’ birth, and then continues with his preparation for his mission by spending a period alone in the desert. He travelled to Persia and spent time with Magi (plural of the Magus, the wise man familiar from the Tarot pack), then travelled to India and studied with the sages there. Back in Greece Apollonios spent time in Ephesus, where the great temple of the Mother was located, before moving on to Lesbos and joining in the rites of Orpheos, and then travelling to Athens where he became an initiate of the Eleusian Mysteries. Apollonios travelled around the Mediterranean, advising rulers and the emperors at Rome and giving judgement in cases bought before him. He prophesied and performed miracles, and attracted huge crowds. Finally he ended up in Ionia, then travelled once again to Rome where he had a confrontation with tyrannical Emperor Domitian. Apollonios miraculously became free of his chains and was released from prison, and travelled back to Greece. On the island of Crete he was seen to ascend bodily into heaven. There was a cult devoted to his worship in later times.
The Life of Apollonios is an attempt to show that the sage’s miraculous powers were not evil, but came from god. Interspersed with Philostratus’ account of Apollonios’ life are what amount to travelogues of distant parts of the Empire, and several short stories, including ghost stories. The work is by no means a biography in the sense we use the term. Some major elements, such as the wanderings around the circuit of the Empire, are similar to stories told about Pythagoras.
Apollonios really existed, and was widely known in different provinces of the Empire. He attracted a large following, and at gatherings attempted to urge reforms of civil law and religious practice. He was a holy, revered man, celibate, who travelled with a small group of disciples. He did suffer persecution for his beliefs, but was freed from imprisonment and punishment. There seems no need to doubt this much of the story. Unfortunately no account contemporary with Apollonios exists of his life, and works such as his letters contain later additions, so his life has to be surmised from later romances made about him.
Sages such as Pythagoras and Heraclitus had lived very similar lives, and rhetoricians and sophists of the first century also led very similar lives. Rhetoricians of the time are best known through the career of Lucian, Lukianos, of Samosata, who, however, was an entertainer, one who ridiculed the efforts of more earnest philosophers, whom he characterised as con men. One such, the subject of a dialogue of Lucian, was a certain Alexander, who was a disciple of Apollonios. It seems reasonable to think there were such frauds. The extent of Apollonios’ effect on his audience makes it likely though he was something more. Rhetoricians did travel from town to town, go the the forum and try to raise an audience by speaking in a memorable way. In the Acts of the Apostles by Luke we read of Paul and others doing this. If Apollonios was a priest of Apollo he might conceivably have been trying to bring back people to a worship of the old religion, as Paul was trying to bring them to a realisation of a new one.
Like Paul, Apollonios was a mystic, one who had spoken to god. This gave him immense authority. He was a holy man, of the kind known in India as sādhu. He was a priest of Apollo, who commanded great power. This gave him the right to advise, and if necessary rebuke, both civil and religious leaders. He seemed to have addressed both the populace, like the rhetoricians did, and spoken in private to officials. According to Philostratus, he even had audience with emperors, some of whom were terrifying figures. Rebuking Nero or Domitian was sure to lead to imprisonment. Even not doing so led to prison. But the Roman Empire in the first century was a very sophisticated time and place. Credulous villagers might believe in wonder workers, but a cynic like Lucian soon stopped that.
I think the miracles and wonders of Apollonios are a later accretion. This is born out by the defense of Eusebius, a prominent third century bishop and Christian church historian who wrote against a Roman official called Hierokles who had compared Jesus unfavourably to Apollonios. Eusebius says he finds it quite believable that Apollonios was an upright philosopher, even a holy man. “I, however, my friend, used to regard the man of Tyana as having been, humanly speaking, a kind of sage, and I am still freely disposed to adhere to this opinion”. But of course he will not allow more than that.
Philostratus 220 AD
This was the time of the miracle workers and of signs and wonders. History was often mere gossip, biography uncritical tales of entertainment. Philostratus is classed as a philosopher, but he is no Plato. His anecdotal stories about the philosophers are not history nor philosophy, but romances. The only thing unusual in accounts of Apollonios are the miracles attributed to him by Philostratus. The stories told of Jesus of Nazarus also include those of miracles, unusual for a baptist, Zealot or eschatologist of his time. Could this have been a preoccupation of the second century, added to stories of earlier times?
The one hundred years 130-30 BC had been an unstable period for the Roman Empire, in which all classes had suffered, not only war and destruction, but inflation, disease and famine. When Virgil published his Eclogues in 40 BC he looked forward to a Golden Age of peace and security, mentioned in the fourth eclogue. He mentioned a child who would usher in this age of peace. Some think he was referring to Augustus, while others think it was Christ, but it was probably an abstraction such as Harmony, or Peace itself. For 200 years the Empire was secure, though suffering some incompetent or oppressive rulers.
From the reign of Marcus Aurelius however, about 180 AD, the Empire began its long period of decline, and despite the military abilities of rulers like Septimius Severus, a lot of certainty had vanished about the once invincible Roman Empire. At the same time the existence of that Empire had flooded Roman civilisation with new and sometimes debilitating ideas and beliefs. New faiths such as the religions of Isis and of saviour gods like Mithras and Jesus Christ offered safety and salvation, and Christianity prepared converts for the coming day of judgment. More and more, security was looked to by citizens in the next life, guaranteed by miracle working holy men in this one.
Philostratus completed his life of Apollonios after Septimius Severus and Julia Domna had both died, probably under the reign of the outrageous Elagabalus, a priest of the Sun from Emesa and a relative of Julia Domna. He was only fourteen when he became Emperor, a beautiful, transexual, transvestite homosexual who enjoyed public sex with his many male lovers, including his husband Hierokles, who was also his charioteer (Phaethon to his Helios). Elagabalus introduced the rites of Syrian Helios and Cybele to Rome. These did include the use of sex as an invocation to the gods, but Elagabalus took this to extremes when he indicated that he wanted applause from his courtiers when he experienced orgasm from the love making of one of his lovers. This was too much even for a Rome in decline, and Elagabalus lasted just four years before he was assassinated at the age of 18. What Rome needed most now was a miracle.
In the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, written probably in the decades prior to Philostratus’ work (about 180-200 AD) we hear of another holy man with supernatural powers, Simon Magus, said to be from Samaria. He was originally mentioned in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, but in the apocrypha Simon becomes a powerful sorcerer in battle with Peter and other disciples for converts. Both Simon and Peter compete in doing magic tricks, and of course Peter wins. Though this story is probably based on similar competitions between Moses and Egyptian priests in Exodus, where Moses’ staff has the alarming habit of changing back and forth into a snake, it is evidence for the existence of another wonder worker, this time in Syria, just after the time of Apollonius, whose exploits have been inflated as Apollonios’ probably have in the period at the end of the second century. Simon may have been a religious figure, not merely a conjuror, but only hostile Christian sources survive about him, claiming he was a dupe of Satan.
The disciples are all credited with (usually unspecified) signs and wonders, in works written in the second century, some of which were added to the canon of the New Testament. This reflects a then contemporary belief in Jesus himself as a magician, a miracle worker. I find the stories of miracles in the gospels incompatible with Jesus’s eventual fate as a pretended messiah or king of the Jews. They are not mentioned in the account of his trial as part of his indictment (where they would have been called results of possession by an evil spirit). Many of them could actually be explained as misunderstandings of a parable (e.g.: there was a teacher who gathered the people to listen and found there was only some loaves and a few fishes to feed more than a thousand. Divide it up, he said, there will be plenty for all. And they did, finding many baskets of leftovers. For his wisdom was a nourishment to them who heard). Others might reflect a religious rite, e.g., Lazarus may have undergone a symbolical entombment to be born again in a new faith when summonsed forth by Jesus. This was a rite used in the Greek Eleusian mysteries. It should be remembered the gospels were transmitted orally at first, and there was scope for some misinterpretation.
People of that age wanted wonder workers. In the triumphant religion in the next century they found many of them, from the famous Simeon the pillar sitter of Syria in the early fourth century to Irenaeus’ account of people raised from the dead in Gaul. To talk of whether miracles really occur or not is to blur the issue. The process going on is people’s willingness to believe in the possibility of miracles. After the great age of faith in the first century, of Mithras, Jesus, Isis, Demeter at Eleusis and probably Apollo and many other classical gods we haven’t heard about, came the age of consolidation. This was primarily of the victor in the contests of faiths, Christianity. The profusion of signs and wonders was proof of the divine origin of Christianity. Yet also a sign of superstition. Faith needs no proof.
Talk of Christianity though should not obscure the fact that two other main faiths exceeded it in numbers at the start of the second century. Mithraism, derived from Persian mythology but developed in the Empire as a mystery religion, was the prevalent Roman religion throughout the second and third centuries. Believers gathered in tomb like structures underground, exchanged secret handshakes, and commemorated the heroic exploits of the hero Mithras, who slew the sacred bull (as in old Cretan religion) so as to obtain life for the faithful, then ascended to heaven where he reigns with god the sun, Sol Invictus. Worshippers took part in this sacrifice through a commemorative meal where they ate of the bull’s flesh and drank its blood. Mithraism was not an exclusive faith, and initiates participated in other cults. Nor did it seek to proselyte. Through his heroic deed Mithras may have been joined to the sun, and partaken of his divinity. We don’t know of any founder of Mithraism, nor of any teacher or miracle worker, except Mithras himself.
Emanating from Egypt but spreading eventually all over the Empire, the religion of Mother Isis, and her child Horus, the Queen of Heaven and the Evening Star, eventually became the most popular of Roman religions, and despite the establishment of Christianity, was still practised until the sixth century. Isis was the saviour god, who had found the pieces of the body of her husband Osiris the sun dismembered by the god of desert storms Set and bought him back to life. She was the mother goddess, and paintings and statues of her nursing the infant Horus were seen wherever people travelled in the Empire. A vivid picture of Isis’ religion is given in the second century romance of Apuleius called the Golden Ass. An important function of Isis was as the Mistress of Spells. She was invoked by magicians who created a love spell or a death spell for their clients.
Earlier religions such as that of Pythagoras and Apollonios, of Mithras and of Isis, had given prominence to the Sun god. This made the job of Christian proselyters easier, as they explained that their religion worshipped god the son. Christians also adopted the iconography and rituals of many other faiths. This was partly as process in the prevalent tendency to syncretism, merging of religious beliefs, which was also official policy of the Empire, at least under Septimius Severus. It also made conversion easier. Members of other faiths were happy to adopt Christianity as it bought little change in their rituals, and they found it easier to think of Jesus as similar to Mithras and Mary as similar to Isis. Christianity soon had a multitude of saints, most renowned for their miracles. Other religions could not compete.
Slowly the practice of faith changed, from personal transformation through a mystery rite such as that of Pythagoras, to a public ritual with a social interface as promulgated by Apollonios, to membership of an organisation, as happened when Christianity was adopted as the religion of Empire after the rule of Constantine.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.