Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus - some thoughts

I've recently listened to the Librivox audio book of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Lucius Flavius Philostratus. I don't intend to review it here, but here are a few thoughts on the content of this book, and their implications for how we should read the gospels and Acts in the New Testament...

Apollonius is one of those characters who gets mentioned in theist-atheist debates as a sort of messiah-figure who was approximately contemporary with Jesus. He apparently lived in the late 1st century CE. What we 'know' about him we know from the biography written by Philostratus in the early 3rd century. Philostratus claims his primary source was a biography of Apollonius written by one of his disciples, Damis, but this work has either been lost to posterity or is an invention of Philostratus's own.

The main point of interest here, for me at least, is that this book is a biography of a miracle-working 'son of god' character, and so any parallels with the gospel accounts might be of interest and might be able to tell us something about the gospels. I don't think this necessarily goes any further than a might, though.

So here are a few thoughts on Apollonius that might be relevant to our reading of the NT stories as well:

The introduction is much like Luke's introduction
Philostraus introduces his work in pretty much the same way that the (anonymous) writer of the third gospel does, although Philostratus is much more wordy and 'Luke' more concise:
"It seems to me then that I ought not to condone or acquiesce in the general ignorance, but write a true account of the man, detailing the exact times at which he said or did this or that, as also the habits and temper of wisdom by means of which he succeeded in being considered a supernatural and divine being.And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows." (Book 1, Chapter 2)
This is broadly similar to Luke who says:
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1)
Both authors are disappointed by the current state of knowledge, cite their sources (vaguely), and claim to be writing a true and orderly account. As we will see, Philostratus doesn't appear to be writing something that is either true or orderly, so we should perhaps question Luke's accuracy here too?

Both feature miracle-working healers
For the most part, Apollonius does few actual miracles in the book, but there is an interlude from Book 3, chapter 38 and following, where all of a sudden lots of sick and demon-possessed people suddenly appear and all of them are healed, one by one, very much as in the gospels. As is common in Philostratus, he gives a much more detailed back story for each of the characters being healed than any of the gospels do. The purpose of all these healings, which are clearly legendary in nature, is to demonstrate the divine-man nature of Apollonius. Why should we assume the similar stories in the gospels are real and not merely fabricated to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus?

The (lack of) distinction between the narrator and the characters
It is clear that Philostratus frequently uses the character of Apollonius to make the philosophical points that he (the author) wants to make. But he also makes many philosophical observations as the narrator. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether or not Apollonius is saying something or the narrator is - they speak with the same voice. In other words, Philostratus puts his own words into the mouth of Apollonius. Biblical scholars have made the same observations about the fourth gospel in particular. Consider, for example, the famous passage in John 3:
"Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." 
At what point in this passage does Jesus stop talking and the narrator take over? Most translators opt to stop the quote by Jesus just before the most famous verse, and attribute that to the narrator, but there's nothing in the original Greek to suggest a change of voice there. Both Jesus and the narrator speak with the same voice - could it be the narrator putting his own words into Jesus's mouth, much like Philostratus does with Apollonius?

One thing is clear when reading Philostratus, his primary objective in writing the book is not to tell us about Apollonius, but it is to use the character and story of Apollonius as a means of showcasing his own ideas of the 'ideal philosopher', his own opinions, and his own knowledge on various topics. It is reasonable to suppose that all the 'wisdom' and 'facts' expressed here come not from a single human (or divine) source, but come from many different sources, which the author has compiled together, and are only presented as being the wisdom of a single man. Apollonius is portrayed as the ideal philosopher, and while there is a consistency in the things attributed to Apollonius, there is no reason to suspect that the historical Apollonius said all those things. Is the same possibly true of the bible? Could some or all of the 'wisdom' attributed to Jesus or Paul have originated from other people? There is no compelling reason to think not. Certainly, as I mentioned in a previous post, the 'quotes' of Peter and Paul in Acts seem to originate from the same source, not two distinct characters - such that there is actually no reason to suppose that either Peter or Paul was the original source...

Miracles and legends
Apollonius is presented as being a miracle worker and healer, there are no two ways about this. What is surprising to me is that there is an awful lot of narrative in which he doesn't actually do any miracles. For the vast majority of the books, his 'miraculous' deeds are mostly his wisdom on certain topics and the way he seems to know things in advance of them actually occurring (on one occasion he produces a letter to give to someone he met for the first time, which was exactly what was needed, and which he apparently wrote in advance knowing he was going to meet the guy). It is clear that the author thinks that wisdom and following the lifestyle of a philosopher are much more important than the miraculous stuff, but yet the miracles are included to demonstrate the divine character of the man. In the gospels, the ratio of miracles to teaching and narrative is much higher.

It seems like a collection of material from other sources
One thing that surprised me in the Apollonius stories was the section in Books 6 and 7 where the author gives up on trying to create a coherent narrative for Apollonius and simply strings a list of random stories about the philosopher together, joined by phrases like "And it is said that he also did..." and "On one occasion he said..." and so on. This very much suggests that Philostratus was not the author of all the stories, but really was trying to compile a full account of his subject, by collecting all the various (and occasionally contradictory) stories about him. So maybe all this stuff does pre-date Philostratus, and he is merely the compiler. That would put the original (highly legendary) stories back much closer to the time of the "actual events". I'm sure if there were Apollonius Apologists, they would use this to demonstrate the reliability of the material and the truth of the stories...

Interviews with leading authorities
In Books 7 and 8, Apollonius travels to Rome and is imprisoned, then is brought before the Emperor and pleads his case. It reads very much like the stories of Peter and Paul in prison, then being brought before the (local) authorities, etc., where the central character then gets the opportunity to make a public defence of their way of life or beliefs, commonly confounding or surprising their audience. Was this just a genre convention of the time?

Miraculous release from prison
In Acts, both Peter and Paul on separate occasions get released from prison in miraculous ways. Their chains simply fall off and they are able to simply walk out of their cells. In Book 7, chapter 38, Apollonius also miraculously steps out of his shackles, demonstrating that he could leave at any point if he chose to do so (although, in this instance he doesn't). Is this another genre convention? If so, it suggests that the miraculous escapes of Peter and Paul are no more real than the miraculous ability of Apollonius to remove his chains.

The ability to appear and disappear at will
In book 8, chapter 7, having been acquitted by the emperor, Apollonius vanishes into thin air during his trial, thus confirming - for the first time in the book - his completely divine nature. This is followed by a sudden appearance by the philosopher in an (implicitly) closed room, very much like the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the upper room in John. Thus Jesus's post-resurrection ability to appear and disappear at will appears to be shared by Apollonius. Given that nobody really believes that Apollonius had this ability, why should anyone believe that Jesus had it either?

The death of the main character
The death of Apollonius is not recorded, although several conflicting stories are mentioned. This is, of course, quite unlike the gospels, but it strikes me that it is broadly similar to Acts, where the death of Paul is alluded to, but not described. Perhaps another genre convention?

Post-mortem visitations to opponents
Following his death, Apollonius miraculously appears to one character in a striking vision, which is not totally shared by those around him, although they realise something miraculous is going on. Furthermore, this vision is not delivered to one of Apollonius's disciples, but rather to one who is largely against them and disputes the teachings of the philosopher. Of course, the vision transforms the man from skeptical opponent to fervent believer. Does that sound vaguely familiar? Sounds a bit like Paul's Damascus Road experience to me. Why should the Paul stories be considered fact and the Apollonius story be considered a fiction? Seems to me quite likely that they both emerge out of the same literary genre conventions.

So there you have it. A few comments on the semi-parallels between the NT writings and the stories about Apollonius of Tyana. Given that the Apollonius stories are definitely later than the gospels (even acknowledging the least-conservative opinions on gospel dating out there), it could be that the stories of Apollonius have simply incorporated parts of the gospel stories, so we could be dealing with literary borrowing here. But I don't think so. Certainly, the author of the Apollonius stories has no interest whatsoever in any Jewish wisdom. While Apollonius travels widely to India and Ethiopia and Rome, he never stops in Israel or makes any mention of the Jewish people or religion. The view of the gods in Philostratus is exclusively Greek in outlook, and the only foreign philosophies deemed worthy of consideration are those of India and Egypt/Ethiopia. There is no evidence of the influence of the teaching of the gospels in Philostratus at all.

It seems to me more likely that the gospels and Philostratus emerge from the same milieu of stories, rather than that there is any direct literary borrowing. But if the memes in these stories have a common ancestry, then that implies strongly that the NT stories about Jesus and Paul are not necessarily original, but descend from earlier stories of the same type, which were not necessarily about Jesus. In other words, Jesus was not unique.

Of course, this is only a mild inference from a single pass through a text, not a detailed study. Others have inevitably gone through this in much greater detail than I ever will, and I expect that there will be a whole range of opinions out there among those who have studied this more. But for me, this has added weight to the hypothesis of the non-uniqueness of the gospel stories, which further undermines my trust in the biblical stories.

Apollonius almost certainly wasn't a miracle working son of god who lived on after death and made post-mortem appearances. The evidence seems to suggest that Jesus wasn't that either.

1 comment:

Ricky Carvel said...

Wow. It just gets more complicated!