How do you respond to the claim that the gospels are just another embellished or fabricated story like Apollonius of Tyana and Honi ha-M’agel (the circle drawer)? What’s your knowledge of these two figures and their role in history and their relation to Christ? Thanks!
At ARS we sponsored a debate on this topic between Dr. Douglas Jacoby and Dr. Robert Price. Price took the position that the Jesus of the scriptures is entirely or at least largely a myth created by the apostles–that they are some sort of amalgamation of god-man myths such as Osiris, Empodocles, Mithra, Appolius and others. You should consider getting a copy of the debate at www.ipibooks.com. Also, I respond to the theory in my review of the debate, which is at the web site. Also, there are notes titled Jesus and Christian Apologetics at the web site. You can find it in the power point section. I am copying and pasting a Q & A similar to yours.
Let me just comment very briefly about Apollonius and Hone ha-M’agel. Both were probably real people, but we know very little about them. The parallels between Jesus and Apolonius are so overstated that if you look at the little we know of him (from only one source, more than two hundred years after he died, by the way) the claim that there are parallels proves to be a non-starter. Honi haM’agel is a pseudo-mythical figure about whom we know almost nothing, and the claims of parallels with Jesus fall apart when you look at what what little we think we know of him.
Q & A below
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of different historic information about correlations between heathen beliefs and Christian religion. I was really bewildered to hear about many coincidences… I suppose that you heard of this earlier so I will not enumerate the many examples. The most commonly mentioned one from what I read is the claim that the New Testament borrows from the story of Mithra. So sad to realize the fact that some episodes of Christianity are non-unique… I have been able to find explanations to those coincidences which appeared after the rise of Christianity, but how to explain some of the earlier coincidences?.. I will very thankful for help in this question.
It is true that many non-believing scholars have formed highly speculative theories that the early church borrowed liberally from other religious thought in creating a mythical version of Jesus and his teachings. Perhaps most famous for this tendency among scholars is Dr. Robert Price. In fact, we at ARS arranged for a debate between Robert Price and my good friend Douglas Jacoby in Houston last June. The premise of the debate was Jesus: Man, Myth or Messiah? You can get a copy of the debate at www.ipibooks.com. Price put forward his claim that Jesus is a myth, with his principle "evidence" the claim that the New Testament picture of Jesus is borrowed from various Near Eastern myths. He finds evidence of borrowing from Greek genres, mentioning Apolonius of Tyana, Isis and Osiris, Mithra, Peregrinus, Tammuz, Empodocles and many others. If you want to get a feeling for these claims and how well they hold up to inspection, you can get a copy of Price’s books "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" (Prometheus Books). Responding to the wide variety of claims of "parallels" between the New Testament picture of Jesus or claims that the Jesus of the gosples is "borrowed" from other religious figures in the first century AD is a bit complex because of the breadth of claims and aspects of how to respond. Let me simplify. (By the way, there is a power point at the web site titled "Jesus and Christian Apologetics" which covers this topic fairly thoroughly).
My response to the claim that Jesus is essentially mythical can be divided into two main categories.
1. Evidence that the Jesus of the New Testament is the Jesus of history.
2. A refutation of the spurious claims of parallels between the NT Jesus and myths which where extant in the first century.
Now, this could be a 20,000 word essay, but let me give a very brief response.
1. There is sufficient evidence, from non-Christian sources (Josephus, Talmud, Seutonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Celsus Thalus and others), from the quality of New Testament witnesses, evidence from early Christian fathers, fulfilled messianic prophecy, very early New Testament manuscripts and from the quality of the New Testament as history (especially Luke/Acts) to reasonably conclude that the Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus of history. Add to this the spectacular growth of the Jesus movement from a tiny Jewish sect to the dominant religious movement in the Roman world, which seems to only be explainable if we allow that the founders of the church really did believe that Jesus was God in the flesh and was resurrected from the dead, and we are left with clear evidence that it is the real Jesus which both inspired this religious movement and is reflected in the New Testament.
2. Then there are these supposed parallels between the Jesus of the New Testament and the Near Eastern god/man myths such as that of Mithra (a Persian religion/myth) to be dealt with. I have spent quite a bit of time looking at these supposed parallels between Jesus and Mithra, Isis/Osiris, Apolonius of Tyana, Empodocles, Krishn and others. These parallels need to be taken one at a time, which is outside the range of what I want to do in this little response. Let me summarize as follows. Such parallels without exception involve cherry picking and massive stretching of supposed parallels. I am sure that if we cherry pick from dozens of Near Eastern religions we can find parallels with just about anything we like. We can probably prove that Abraham Lincoln is essentially a mythical figure. Sure, Mithra may have had twelve disciples and Isis supposedly was resurrected (actually, he was not exactly resurrected, but kind of…, and Tammuz may have worked such and such miracle. However, when we look at the actual myths we find that the parallels are vastly exaggerated and the differences are completely ignored.
Osiris is an Egyptian god/man myth. He is obviously mythical–not a real person. According to the myth, he was killed by his brother. His body was cut up into 13 pieces. His wife Isis reassembled his body from twelve of the parts (see the parallel with the twelve apostles?). He then came back to life to rule in the underworld. The parallels with Jesus are very slight, to say the least.
Then there is Apolonius of Tyana. He was probably a real person who lived near the end of the first century. Our only source on him comes from two hundred years after his death. He was a Pythagorean from the city of Tyana who is purported to have worked healing miracles. According to our source, he saved Ephesus from a plague by suggesting the people stone to death a beggar. This being done, when they pulled off the stones used to murder the unfortunate beggar, they discovered a large black dog alive and well. Apolonius said they had found the source of the plague. Not long after this, Apolonius disappeared, never to be seen again. We have no death, no resurrection, no ascension. We have only one unreliable source which is far more easily a sign of influence from the New Testament than in the opposite direction.
If we look at the story of Mithra or of Empodocles we find that these supposed amazing coincidences amount to very little at all. It requires that we take such parallels completely out of their context to create an evenly vaguely good case for borrowing by the New Testament writers. In virtually every case, the myths from which the Jesus story is supposedly borrowed were actually recorded AFTER Jesus lived, not before!!! The only important exception is the myth of Isis, but the parallels are extremely stretched.
Here is one big difference between Jesus and these myths from which it is claimed the New Testament writers borrowed. Isis was not a real person. Neither was Krishna or Tammuz or Mithra. We know where Jesus lived, how he died, the name of his mother and father and at least two of his brothers. We have the writings of several people how met him personally. Of all these supposed mythical parallels, the only owe who is an actual real person is Apolonius of Tyana. If we look at Apolonius (the favorite example of Robert Price, by the way) we find that the supposed parallels are not real at all. Besides, the only source we have on Apolonius is from the fourth century, and all the evidence is that the story of Apolonius is borrowed from that of Jesus, not vice versa. There is good evidence that his story is amplified as an apologetic in opposition to Christianity. If you look at the supposedly convincing evicence that the Jesus story is borrowed from that of Mithra and others, this claim falls apart of its own weight if one bothers to actually look at the stories in context from which the Jesus story is supposedly borrowed. Besides, the evidence that the New Testament writers are reliable witnesses is very strong. This argument has been blown way out of proportion by scholars who have an modernist or postmodernist presuppositional agenda based on the assumption that the Jesus of the Bible cannot possibly be historical. Those who begin the investigation having already reached their conclusion cannot be trusted as unbiased sources, to say the least. You can rest assured that these arguments are virtually without basis at all and the appearance of a basis disappers in view of the strong evidence that the New Testament picture of Jesus is essentially historical.