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Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies.
« Apollonius of Ephesus Apollonius of Tyana Apostolic Fathers »

Apollonius of Tyana

Apollonius of Tyana. The life of this philosopher is related by Philostratus, but the entire fabulousness of his story is obvious. The prodigies, anachronisms, and geographical blunders, and entire absence of other authority are fatal to it (see H. Conybeare in the Guardian, June 21, 1893, and Apollon. Apology, Acts, etc, Lond. 1894). Philostratus indeed claims the authority of "the records of cities and temples, and Apollonius's epistles to the Eleans, Delphians, Indians, and Egyptians"; but the cities and temples are nameless.

What, then, can we really be said to know of Apollonius of Tyana? That he was born at Tyana and educated at Aegae, that he professed Pythagoreanism, and that he was celebrated in his day for what were considered magical arts, are the only facts that rest on altogether unexceptionable authority. The account of his opposition to the Stoic Euphrates may perhaps also be taken as authentic. His reputation as a magician is confirmed by the double authority of Moeragenes and Lucian (Pseudomantis, c. 5). Yet there are also reasons for believing that he was more than a mere magician, and even a philosopher of some considerable insight. Eusebius (Praep. Ev. p. 150 b) quotes a passage from his book On Sacrifices (with the reservation "Apollonius is said to write as follows"), which if really his is certainly remarkable. All later authorities base their accounts on the Life by Philostratus; except Origen, who quotes Moeragenes. Hierocles mentions Maximus of Aegae, and Damis, but probably only knew of them through Philostratus. We now come to the collection of letters still extant which are attributed to Apollonius. Prof. Jowett (in the D. of G. and R. Biogr.) thinks that part may be genuine; but Kayser and Zeller reject them summarily, and most writers on Apollonius barely mention them. Zeller even says that they are obviously composed to suit the Life by Philostratus. We do not think that this opinion can be held by any one who attentively compares the letters with the biography; and we think it probable that the letters, whether genuine or not, were composed before the work of Philostratus, and hence form our earliest and best authority respecting Apollonius.

The question arises, Had Philostratus in the biography any idea of attacking Christianity by setting up a rival to Christ? Hierocles, at the end of the 3rd cent., was the first person who actually applied the work of Philostratus to this purpose, as is said expressly by Eusebius, who replied to him. The Deists of the 18th cent., both in France and England, used them thus; but whereas Hierocles would admit the miracles both of Christ and of Apollonius, Voltaire and Lord Herbert had an equal disbelief in both. Naturally, none of these writers held that Philostratus wrote in direct imitation of the Gospels, as it would have marred their point to do so. But equally naturally the orthodox writers, beginning with Huet, bp. of Avranches, and coming down through Paley to our own day, have considered Philostratus a direct though concealed antagonist of Christianity. This view has been opposed in Germany by Meiners, Neander, Buhle, and Jacobs, and in England by Watson (Contemp. Rev. Feb. 1867). Baur took an intermediate view in his Apollonius von Tyana und Christus, Tübingen, 1832), which in its main outline will we think commend itself as by far the most probable account. According to this view Philostratus wrote with no strictly polemical reference to Christianity, but, in the eclectic spirit of his time, strove to accommodate Christianity to the heathen religion. We are disposed to believe, without attributing to Philostratus any formal design of opposing or assimilating Christianity, that he was strongly influenced by its ideas and history.

The central aim of his biography is to set forth, not merely wise precepts in the abstract, but an example of supreme wisdom for humanity to imitate. It is not implied by this that Philostratus considered Apollonius as entirely and necessarily unique among men; but it is implied that he considered him as more than a mere teacher of doctrine, as a pattern to men in his own person, as one in whom wisdom and truth were incorporate. He wished men to honour Apollonius himself, and not merely to study or believe certain truths delivered by Apollonius. This cannot, we think, be doubted by any one who reflects on the whole tone of the book. Apollonius is called "divine"; his disciples stand in an altogether different relation to him from that in which the disciples of Socrates stand to Socrates; they do not argue with him as equals with an equal; they follow him, listen to him, are rebuked by him. His miracles, again, do not result from his being in possession of any secret communicable to other men, but arise from his own nature and wisdom. Such a character must remind us, however different in some respects, of the Christ of the Gospels. But was any character like this, or approaching to this, drawn by any heathen writer before Christ? We think not. Philosophy and magic, the search after knowledge and the search after power, were familiar to men who had never heard of Christianity; but this ideal is different from either, and from both of them united. Those who affirm that Philostratus never thought of the Christian history in his work, say that he intended Apollonius as a rival to Pythagoras. But by whom was Pythagoras portrayed as this superhuman ideal? Not certainly by any writer of the centuries before Christ. Even Plutarch (Numa, c. viii.) does not set him up as an ideal exemplar. Is it possible that the age of Caracalla and Severus, so eclectic, so traditional, so unoriginal, can of its own mere motion have gone off into this new and unheard-of line?—unheard of, that is, unless, as we must, we suppose it to have been borrowed from Christianity. The Christians were not then by any means an unknown sect; so well known were they that Alexander Severus (with a singular parallelism to the supposed conduct of Philostratus) placed Christ with Abraham, Orpheus, and Apollonius himself, among his household gods. Secondly, the resemblance to the Gospel histories is in particular instances very broad indeed. The miraculous birth of Proteus, and the circumstances attending it; the healing of demoniacal possessions (was the idea of such possessions in any way familiar to the Greeks?); the raising of the dead; the appearance of Apollonius to two of his disciples after his deliverance from Domitian; his ascent to heaven, and appearance after his death, these are points of similarity that cannot be evaded: and, taken together with the central idea of the book, they seem to imply that Philostratus consciously borrowed from the Gospels. It should be noticed that the very striking resemblances between the biography of Apollonius and the Gospels are resemblances in externals; the inner spirit is entirely different: in the one we find the self-contained philosophic spirit, striking even amid all the rhetoric and tawdry marvels with which Philostratus has dressed it; in the other, the spirit of the insufficiency of self.

Those who wish to examine the whole question respecting Apollonius should consult Baur, op. cit.; Kayser's Philostratus; Zeller's Philosophie der Griechen; and the writers noticed above.

[J.R.M.]

« Apollonius of Ephesus Apollonius of Tyana Apostolic Fathers »

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