Often Called “the Greek Jesus,” Philosopher and Magician Apollonius Achieved More Fame Than Christ

Dr. Boaz Vilallonga, PhD
Feb 17 · 7 min read
Apollonius of Tyana, bust by Barthélémy de Mélo in Versailles. Source: Coyau, Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Jesus, we cannot avoid extrapolating his current fame to the ancient times. However, Jesus was far from being the most famous divine savior in late Antiquity, during early Christianity. He had a tough rival, much more popular than him: Apollonius of Tyana.

Apollonius was a Greek, celibate, and ascetic philosopher born around the year 3 BC in Tyana — what was then known as Cappadocia, and today as Turkey. Apollonius was a contemporary of Jesus. He was, in fact, his Pagan counterpart and rival. Jesus was issued from a small and stigmatized Eastern religion: Judaism. Apollonius was a member of the Neopythagoreans, a Greek Pagan philosophical sect well versed in the mystical and magic side of mathematics and geometry. Like Jesus, all we know about Apollonius comes from highly laudatory narratives — and highly fictionalized, according to scholars. Apollonius writings have not survived. Scholars have no doubts that Apollonius existed.

Unlike Jesus, Apollonius had a long and fruitful life. He lived up to the year 100 AD. Most of his life is known through a biography written in the 3rdcentury by the Greek sophist Philostratus. Philostratus was able to write the biography thanks to the notes of Damis, one of Apollonius’ disciples. Philostratus recounts Apollonius prolific travels all over the known world: Rome, Hispania, North Africa, and also Mesopotamia and India. In his travels, Apollonius worked miracles, impressed the audiences with his teachings and magic powers, and preached an ascetic and vegetarian life. Even though experts dismiss the authenticity of Apollonius’ journey to India, this was seen as a great achievement for an ascetic philosopher of such wisdom. Pythagoras, whom the Neopythagorean philosophers were followers, was also believed to have visited India.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, “Selbstporträt als Christus,” 1892.

In fact, it matters very little whether Apollonius visited India or not. When studying foundational spiritual figures, we need to be able to separate the historical fact from the narrative. Jesus, Krishna and Buddha follow the same pattern. Historical facts are important, but they may not be that relevant when depicting this type of ascetic and wise figures. Scholar Joseph Campbell acknowledges that religious figures do not need facts in order to validate the message they are embodying.

As great religious teachers, the respective following crowds of Jesus and Apollonius professed an intense hatred to each other. Jesus followers in late Antiquity, like early Christian authors Eusebius, Lactantius, Augustine and John Chrysostom, depicted Apollonius as a satanic sorcerer full of deception and evil powers. On the other side, Pagans used Apollonius to diminish the stature of Jesus as savior and wonder-worker. The divide between Apollonius and Jesus resumed when the Neopythagorean sage was used to attack Christianity and the Church starting the 17th century. Hence, Apollonius has consistently been used as an alternative to Christ in history.

We should not be surprised about all these parallels between Jesus and Apollonius: they are specular figures.

The opposition between Jesus and Apollonius was not only restricted to their followers. In fact, Jesus and Apollonius held very different theological views. Even though both advanced wisdom and healed through miracles, their faith was quite opposed. In the Gospels, Jesus preaches the Kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of God, calls for repentance, conversion and return to the Father. According to Philostratus, Apollonius preaches a rather different God — a God unmoved by prayers, sacrifices or any kind of worship. While Apollonius does not deny the existence of many gods, he presents a One God. Apollonius’ God does not interfere in human affairs, and actually men can only access God through the nous — the intellect. This is a very Greek concept. The nous is one of the cornerstones of Western philosophy and rationalism. Because God is pure intellect, only the human intellect can attain God — nothing else. The God of Jesus is a personal God, creator and savior, heavily involved in human affairs; while the God of Apollonius is the God of philosophy and reason. It is also the opposition of a God of faith to a God of wisdom.

The philosophical portrait of Apollonius does not contradict his esoteric and magic character — characteristic of the Neopythagorean sect. Apollonius was, like Jesus, at odds with the political and religious establishment. He was denied access to the Orphic mysteries because he was considered a wandering magician — and magicians were the lowliest people in the religious scene. According to Philostratus, Apollonius confronted Roman Emperor Domitian and survived to the ordeal — unlike Jesus when he was presented to Pontius Pilate.

Statue of a wandering philosopher, probably Apollonius of Tyana himself. Gortya, Crete, c. 200 AD. Source: Zde, Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the mystic and magic character of Apollonius was well appreciated by Greek philosophers like Porphyry and Iamblichus, of the Neoplatonic school — a revival of Plato’s tenets. The idea of God that Apollonius may have proposed in his teachings was not far from the God of the Neoplatonists: a God equated to the Good, a perfect and complete all-encompassing idea. Also, the notion of the mystical union with God through the intellect is a recurring theme heavily used in Plotinus — the most important representative of the Neoplatonic school — , although it has older roots. It is worth mentioning that Neoplatonism ended up influencing not only Christianity but also Gnosticism and mysteries like the Chaldean oracles or the Hermetic tradition. We can see a deep connection between all these philosophical and esoteric schools and sects.

We should not be surprised about all these parallels between Jesus and Apollonius. They have an Eastern origin. They had miraculous births. They had a wandering preaching ministry. They gave precedence to the spiritual over the material. They performed miracles, healed the sick, fought demons and raised the dead. They had troubles with the authorities. Finally, their bodies ascended to heaven and were divinized by their followers. Even their iconography depicts both men bearded with long hair and simple robes. To sum up, both figures come from the same substratum. They are playing with similar myth and religious material. The material is combined and rearranged in order to produce the right narrative. This does not mean that Apollonius and Jesus did not exist. This idea is crucial and worth reiterating: existence is an aspect wholly irrelevant to the function and purpose of religious figures. Their existence as great influential teachers is, perhaps, the only true historical fact that we can attest. The rest is the product of creative religious plasticity and recombination — what is called syncretism.

Apollonius and Jesus are an exemplary byproduct of ancient syncretic religious evolution.

Syncretism is the way ancient religion created and transformed different myths and religious systems in Græco-Roman time between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD. It was an organic phenomenon — the result of a single political and cultural space, and the opening of imperial trade across vast and plural lands. Alexander Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire put in contact many different civilizations. The outcome was the creation of new religions, gods, cults and myths based upon existing material. As mythic archetypes playing an essential role as wise and spiritual heroes, both Apollonius and Jesus are an exemplary byproduct of ancient syncretic religious evolution.

Apollonius, the Greek Jesus par excellence, may have influenced the creation of the figure of the Christ — the Gospels are a Greek narrative product in the end. However, we still need to assume that both figures and their narratives may have circulated in parallel without exerting any influence. This is hardly conceivable when both men are part of the same syncretic Græco-Roman religious substratum of the first century AD.

Even though Apollonius was more famous than Jesus, Apollonius lacked a unified body of doctrines and followers. He did not have a great doctrinal systematizer and organizer — Jesus had Paul of Tarsus. The pluralism and plasticity of ancient, Pagan religions did not play in favor of Apollonius’ survival, while the triumph of unified, organized and hierarchical Christianity guaranteed Jesus’ success.

This is the original script for the video lecture of the same title published on Youtube.

Dr. Boaz Vilallonga, Ph.D. is a research scholar at the Department of Classics of Columbia University. He obtained his doctorate in history of religion from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France.

Dr. Boaz studies the relationship between ancient religion and modernity. Besides his scholarly work, Dr. Boaz runs a spiritual coaching practice in New York City, where he helps people awaken the spiritual self and achieve a full, meaningful life.

Proficient in ten languages, Dr. Boaz has had an intense spiritual journey, from Catholicism — a tradition in which he is ordained priest — to Judaism. Equipped with this rich Catholic and Jewish background, Dr. Boaz believes in the power of syncretism and interspirituality.

Dr. Boaz Vilallonga, PhD

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NY spiritual director. Former Religion scholar at Columbia University. Art, nature, spirituality & history www.drboaz.nyc

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