Bart Ehrman similarly accepts youth into his classrooms, but offers them a radically different message: The Kingdom of God, if there be a God, had nothing to do with Jesus. In fact, Jesus was "not unique:" there were any number of sages very much like Jesus. Take Apollonius of Tyana, for example!
But Ehrman tells numerous half-truths and even falsehoods, invents some facts and obscures others, so as to convince his kids and readers into accepting this alleged parallel. He is evidently hoping no one will actually read Life of Apollonius of Tyana, and see how badly such arguments regarding Apollonius have failed. They have been batted around since the 3rd Century, and have been pushed in recent times by figures as diverse as the Jesus Seminar, Reza Aslan, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Price and Richard Carrier (the latter two brought him up in debates with me).
My goal in this post, frankly, is to take Bart Ehrman and Apollonius down. I intend to expose Ehrman's slippery scholarship, and some of the facts that he does not seem to want his audience, young or old, to hear. I no longer think he deserves to be described as a respectable historian: he has, in my opinion, left the path of responsible scholarship, and veered onto the path of shameless advocacy. He is also overlooking what is really significant about the very texts on which he claims to be an expert. I am also presently writing a book which will make the case for the gospels, and against Ehrman and his ilk, in greater detail: here's an opening round.
(Update: an improved version of this argument can now be found in my new book, Jesus is No Myth.)
I. Ehrman's Argument
In his 2014 book How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman tells how he introduces Jesus to students in his introductory course on the New Testament at the University of North Carolina. Ehrman begins his main argument in that book by relating how he introduces Jesus to students. He doesn't start by talking about St. Paul, who wrote the earliest and largest portion of the New Testament. Nor does he begin with Mark, author of the first Gospel. Rather, he begins by telling his students stories about a traveling Greek sage named Apollonius of Tyana, by the Athenian writer Philostratus.
Here is the story Ehrman tells "his kids." I affix letters to points I will discuss below. I almost ran through the entire alphabet, but limited myself to twenty-five distortions or falsehoods in Ehrman's introductory pages on Apollonius and Jesus.
Besides these twenty-five, Ehrman commits two enormous sins of omission, which render his comparison worse than moot, but a travesty. I will discuss those two omitted facts briefly in Part III, then at more length in the upcoming book.
Ehrman begins by describing a certain messianic figure:
who told her that her son would not be a mere mortal but in fact would be divine. His birth
was accompanied by unusual divine signs in the heaven(a)
As an adult he left his home to engage on an itinerant preaching ministry (b) . . .
He gathered a number of followers around him who became convinced that he was no
ordinary human, but that he was the Son of God (d).
And he did miracles (e)
to confirm them in their beliefs (f):
he could heal the sick, cast out demons (g),
and raise the dead (h).
At the end of his life (i)
he aroused opposition among the ruling authorities of Rome and was put on trial. But they could not kill his soul (j).
He ascended to heaven (k)
and continues to lives there till this day. To prove that he lived on after leaving this earthly orb, he appeared again to at least one of his doubting followers (l),
who became convinced that in fact he remains with us even now. Later, some of his followers wrote books about him, and we can still read about him today . . . ” (How Jesus Became God, 11-12)
The man Ehrman is referring to here is not Jesus, as readers or listeners might suppose, it is Apollinius of Tyana, "a pagan and a renowned philosopher!"
What is Ehrman's point? He makes that clear (if it isn't already) on page 17: "We should not think of Jesus as 'unique,' if by that term we mean that he was the only one 'like that' (n)-- that is, a human who was far above and very different from (n) the rest of us mere mortals . . . "
In the five pages between the first quote above and this explanation --- Jesus was not unique --- Ehrman gives numerous other "telling" details to support the moral of the story:
"Christian followers of Jesus who knew about Apollonius maintained that he was a charlatan and a fraud; in response (o), the pagan followers of Apollonius asserted that Jesus was the charlatan and fraud (p, q)."
"Scholars have had to investigate the Gospels of the New Testament with a critical eye to determine which stories, and which parts of stories, are historically accurate with respect to the historical Jesus, and which represent later embellishments by his devoted followers (r). In a similar way (s), scholars of ancient Roman religion have had to analyze the writings of Philostratus with a keen sense of skepticism (t) in order to weed through the later legendary accretions to uncover what we can say about the historical Apollonius."
"Hierocles mocks the Gospels of the New Testament, as they contain tales of Jesus that were 'vamped up by Peter and Paul and a few others of the kind -- men who were liars and devoid of education and wizards.' Reports about Apollonius, on the other hand, were written by highly educated authors (not lower-class peasants) and eyewitnesses to the things they saw (u) . . . Apollonius and Jesus were seen as competitors for divine honors: one a pagan worshiper of many gods, the other a Jewish worshiper of the one God (v) . . . "
"What is striking is that they were not the only two (w). Even though Jesus may be the only miracle-working Son of God that people know about today, there were lots of people like this in the ancient world (x). We should not think of Jesus as 'unique,' if by that term we mean that he was the only one 'like that' (y) -- that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals . . . "
This is, to be blunt, a pack of lies and half-truths. Ehrman is picking cherries with a rapidity and selectivity that would make Edward Scissorhands sob with envy. Having written hese lines, having admitted to scamming his students in service of his own skepticism to this extent, the gig ought to be up for Bart Ehrman as a respectable scholar.
I find a quarter century of errors here, one short of a full alphabet.
II. Twenty-Five Soldiers in Ehrman's War of Error
(a) “Before he was born, his mother had a visitor from heaven . . . "
Actually the visitor, Proteus, came not from heaven, but from an island of Pharos off the Nile Delta, where the great lighthouse had been built. He was the same god who, in The Odyssey, changes shapes until Menelaus forces him to answer various questions, including where Odysseus has gone. He was not an angel from God, as in the gospels -- the parallel Ehrman seeks to create.
(b)"Who told her that her son would not be a mere mortal but in fact would be divine. His birth was accompanied by unusual divine signs in the heaven."
Actually just one "sign" appeared, a thunderbolt going up. (My own son's birth, by the way, was accompanied by many signs in the heavens -- fireworks lit off in Nagasaki harbor, to celebrate the return of a cruise ship to the city where it had been built.) There were also dancing swans.
(c) "As an adult he left his home to engage on an itinerant preaching ministry . . ."
On the contrary, Apollonius seems to have first left home just as he went on a several-year period of silence. Later, he left for India because he felt "it was a young man's duty to go abroad to embark upon foreign travel," as Philostratus explains.
Apollonius did engage in occasional preaching, or hectoring, but it is misleading to describe his "ministry" as one of "itinerant preaching." Mainly he dialogues with the best sages he can find and with kings and the like, correcting priestly ritual wherever he goes. He seems to find preaching to the masses a bore, and requires a cold bath and a rubdown afterwards.
(d) "He gathered a number of followers around him who became convinced that he was
no ordinary human, but that he was the Son of God."
I have found no claim in Philostratus that Apollonius was "the Son of God," or even the son of a god. (Though that is, indeed, common in the ancient world - probably more than half the Argonauts are sons or grandsons of gods.)
Philostratus says that Proteus and Apollo both identify him as incarnations of themselves (not sure how that would work), but not that his followers saw him as "the Son of God." The book is long, however, and I may have overlooked such a claim -- it would be helpful if Ehrman offered footnotes here. (I might add that I once spent some time with a troubled young man in Taiwan who said a spirit lived inside him that called itself both the "son of Jesus" and the "son of Mazu" the sea goddess. He did not remind me of Jesus. Had Apollonius made such claims, one might suppose he had heard the Gospel story, as had that young man. But I don't think he did.)
(e) "And he did miracles (f) to confirm them in their beliefs"
This is questionable on two counts. I am not sure, first of all, that the wonders Apollonius allegedly worked (and there is no actual evidence that he worked any at all, unlike Jesus, as I shall explain later) should be called "miracles," or can be accurately compared to the works of Jesus. And secondly, it is not very apparent that he "did" them -- whatever they were -- to prove anything, as Jesus is said to do in John for instance.
Apollonius may be said to have healed one or two people, and he also sometimes declines to heal because the sick person had their illness coming to them. He often knows the future, and once he disappears from an emperor who wishes for an interview. (He seems to regard getting interviewed by kings much as Forrest Gump regarded his frequent visits to the White House.)
But Apollonius' "wonders" tend to be couched in pseudo-scientific terms. For instance, when a boy with rabies is brought to him, he tells the crowd to make the dog that bit him and gave him rabies drink water, then lick the boy's wounds. This heals both of them, not miraculously, but because Apollonius has allegedly used his wisdom to diagnose an effective cure for rabies. Similarly, he "cures" a satyr by getting it drunk, after which it stops chasing women. Or he tells a crowd in Ephesus to stone a beggar to death, and as the beggars is dying, his eyes glow, revealing that he is actually a monster. That's the kind of "miracle" you run into in Life of Apollonius of Tyana.
This is magic, or pseudo-science, not "semeion" or signs of God's purposeful and good action in a world He has created and desires to redeem, as in the Gospels. Ehrman may not recognize the difference, but he ought to, if he's a good scholar. The English word "miracle" fools modern readers into identifying things that are not, in fact, the same, but it is the job of scholars to tease out such clear differences.
(g), "and raise the dead."
In one town, Apollonius encounters a funeral procession for a bride who has suddenly died -- maybe. But Philostratus notices that a mist was still visible coming from her lips, even in the rain. So probably she had not really died, but again, the sage astutely recognized her true condition. So he probably did not "raise the dead."
(h). "at the end of his life"
Actually the event refers to here occurs two years before Apollonius passes away. Ehrman is, again, straining to make Apollonius' life parallel that of Jesus more closely.
(i) "he aroused opposition among the ruling authorities of Rome and was put on trial. But they could not kill his soul"
The judge was the emperor Domitian. Ehrman neglects to tell his readers, and presumably his students, that Domitian not only "could not kill his soul," but did not kill his body, unlike Pilate and Jesus, and, in fact, didn't even try. Domitian asked Apollonius four silly questions -- why did wear such odd clothing, why did his followers call him a god (because "good" = "god"), how did he know about the plague in Ephesus beforehand, and had he really engaged in an act of human sacrifice? The emperor listened to Apollonius' pompous rebuttals, as Domitian's own retainers cheered, and then Domitian feebly gave in and acquitted him on all charges. The "parallel" is completely phony, in other words, and Ehrman is skating perilously close to an outright lie.
(j). "He ascended to heaven"
No, he didn't. Philostratus notes that Damis says nothing about his sage's death, but that he has heard a variety of rumors. One of those rumors is that he went into a temple in Crete, and people could hear young maidens singing, "Hasten thou from earth, hasten thou to Heaven, hasten." So as obviously fradulent a biographer as "Damis" is, even he does not say anything about Apollonius' death. And NO ONE, even rumors from Crete, actually record him ascending to heaven, though that is no doubt implied. He just disappears. And plainly Philostratus does not even begin to believe this rumor, one among many.
(k) "and continues to lives there till this day."
I have yet to find any mention of this alleged fact. Again, footnotes would help.
(l) "To prove that he lived on after leaving this earthly orb, he appeared again to at least one of his doubting followers, who became convinced that in fact he remains with us even now."
In a dream. No one else could see him.
(m) "Later, some of his followers wrote books about him, and we can still read about him today . . . ”
Ehrman is wording things carefully, again, to deceive his students and readers without telling direct lies. The account (book, not "books") we can read today is not by one of Apollonius' followers, but by Philostratus, a court writer who lived 150 years later. Apollonius' "follower" Damis was the alleged author of most of the stories that Philostratus tells, but he was probably a complete fiction. (See below.)
So yes, we can read about Apollonius, but not by one of his early followers, nor by anyone nearly so close to the facts as any of the authors of the gospels were to Jesus' life and ministry. (As I shall also demonstrate in the upcoming book.)
(n) "We should not think of Jesus as 'unique,' if by that term we mean that he was the only one 'like that' -- that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals . . . "
But Jesus was unique. Certainly Apollonius was nothing like him, as any clear-thinking person who actually reads both sets of accounts, should see in an instant. All right, it takes longer than that to get through the book, but only a few pages are enough to recognize that this story is nothing at all like the gospels, and Apollonius nothing like Jesus.
Indeed, in his "mythicism" book, Ehrman admitted there are "scores" of differences between Apollonius and Jesus. Why doesn't he mention any of those now? How can Ehrman pretend to settle the question of "uniqueness" while ignoring the existence and relevants of those "scores" or dissimilarities?
In fact, there are scores of differences. Some are far more important than the ephermeral and gussed-up parallels that Ehrman claims. The differences between the two men are even more harmful to Ehrman's argument than the vacuity and falsity of this series of alleged parallels. I'll explain briefly below, and in detail in the book.
(o, p, q) "Christian followers of Jesus who knew about Apollonius maintained that he was a charlatan and a fraud; in response, the pagan followers of Apollonius asserted that Jesus was the charlatan and fraud."
Ehrman puts the order backwards, again purposely deceiving his readers and his students to support his thesis, it seems. Later he correctly notes that it was Herocles, a persecutor of Christians, who launched the first attack, and Eusebius who responded. So why did he feel the need to reverse the order in this summary? Clearly, because it makes Christians look petty and defensive to say "They started it."
Nor do I think "charlatan and fraud" are very accurate descriptions of Eusebius' charges. Again, Ehrman is inappropriately simplifying to force parallels from a rock.
Also, the Christian charge, as Ehrman has simplified it, is in any case probably correct. Apollonius WAS a "charlatan and fraud," or certainly the book about him is. "Damis" describes, among other things, pepper-farming monkeys, levitating sages, an India replete with uncountable dragons, drunken satyrs, a woman half black and half white, phoenixes, griffins, and a city of sages which fawns attacked and left goat marks on the rocks -- many of which he claims to have witnessed for himself, along with the chains of Prometheus on two separate mountains. (He was a big guy.) Eusebius rightly laughs at such silliness. A modern scholar points out that NOTHING Damis relates about India beyond where Alexander the Great traveled has proven correct. No one but a fool would take "Damis" seriously, even in the Third Century: to do so now, would be delusional.
Ehrman again omits all such salacious details, because they would make his argument look ridiculous -- as it is.
(r) "Scholars have had to investigate the Gospels of the New Testament with a critical eye to determine which stories, and which parts of stories, are historically accurate with respect to the historical Jesus, and which represent later embellishments by his devoted followers."
I question that Ehrman and the liberal scholars who praise his book (it comes with blurbs from Pagels, Coogan, Collins, and Fredriksen) always examine the gospel with as critical, and observant, an eye as they ought. If they did, they wouldn't write the nonsense that they do. (See my The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,' for instance.)
(s) "In a similar way, scholars of ancient Roman religion have had to analyze the writings of Philostratus with a keen sense of skepticism."
Saying that "scholars have to read both sets of documents critically" is not a parallel between the documents, it is a description of what historians do. So this should not appear in a list of parallels between the texts.
In any case, since there is no reason to believe anything Damis says, and many reasons to disbelieve his tales, one does not need a very critical eye to dump the whole wad. How "critical" do you have to be to doubt a tale without provenance about an India that bares no resemblance to the real India, and that is filled with monsters from Hogwarts, and locals who speak Greek?
By contrast, the gospels not only lack dragons, Luke can be shown to have gotten hundreds of details about the 1st Century world correct. Of course one still needs to read critically, since that is what wise people do and what scholars are paid to do. But only a fool would apply the same level of skepticism to the two sets of writings.
(t) "in order to weed through the later legendary accretions to uncover what we can say about the historical Apollonius."
Ehrman neglects to point out that the gospels were written within 30-60 years of Jesus' life, which was short so his younger followers would still have been living. By contrast, Apollonius of Tyana was written 150-250 years after the sage's adventures, whatever they were. So this is not a similarity, it is a difference. In the same way, if you tell me, "When I was a boy, I lived in Sicily," that's evidence. But if you say, "When George Washington was a boy, a little bird tells me he cut down an apricot tree, too," that is not evidence.
(u) "Hierocles mocks the Gospels of the New Testament, as they contain tales of Jesus that were 'vamped up by Peter and Paul and a few others of the kind -- men who were liars and devoid of education and wizards.' Reports about Apollonius, on the other hand, were written by highly educated authors (not lower-class peasants) and eyewitnesses to the things they saw . . . "
Ehrman ought to know, and say, better. And even Hierocles ought to have known that Paul and Luke at least were highly educated.
(v) "Apollonius and Jesus were seen as competitors for divine honors: one a pagan worshiper of many gods, the other a Jewish worshiper of the one God . . . "
This doesn't make sense. How were they "competitors" for "divine" honors, if the gods were different? Runners who run in two different races are not "competitors." And in what sense does saying they worshiped God or many gods, restate or detail or prove (that's what a colon is for) the claim that they competed for divine honors? Worship meaning honoring God, not God honoring you. Ehrman grows incoherent as he slips into the late stages of parallelmania.
(w) "What is striking is that they were not the only two."
What is striking is that Ehrman has deluded himself into thinking he has proven that Jesus and Apollonius belong to a single category in the first place. We still only have one: let's not talk about three or four or twenty, just yet.
(x) "Even though Jesus may be the only miracle-working Son of God that people know about today, there were lots of people like this in the ancient world."
No, there weren't. And Bart Ehrman shows in this passage that he can't find a single parallel to Jesus, without twisting, suppressing, and inventing evidence.
(y) "We should not think of Jesus as 'unique,' if by that term we mean that he was the only one 'like that'-- that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals . . . "
Yes, we should. See Part III.
III. Ehrman's Errors of Omission
This will be short: I will just offer two, and will not expound on them at length here. (Jesus is No Myth offers dozens.)
(1) Ehrman neglects to inform his readers (and students?) that Life of Apollonius of Tyana was sponsored by an opponent of Christianity, Julia Domna. Since the book was written 150 years after the gospels, it is entirely possible that Philostratus read the gospels, or heard about them, and deliberately copied the "parallels" that Ehrman cites (those that survive analysis at least in attenuated form) into his book. Philostratus doesn't seem to have been beneath altering a few facts. But if he read or borrowed from the gospels, then any "parallels" would tell us nothing at all about Jesus, or the environment in which Jesus ministered. It would merely show that some who came after him and needed to compete with Christ -- not he with them -- had to spruce up their heroes' biographies to stay on the field.
When we debated, Robert Price neglected to point out the very same fact, when he was pushing Apollonius of Tyana.
(2) Yet ironically, In Did Jesus Exist, Dr. Ehrman wrote:
"My view is that even though one can draw a number of interesting parallels between the stories of someone like Apollonius and Jesus (there are lots of similarities but also scores of differences), mythicists typically go way too far in emphasizing these parallels, even making them up in order to press their point." (210)
As we have seen, in his more recent book, "making similarities up" has become an activity in which Ehrman himself does not scruple to engage. Plus imagining wisps of smoke as flesh and blood.
But what about those "scores" of differences Ehrman mentioned? Is he wrong there?
No, he is not. Ten years ago, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, I showed that there are, in fact, not only scores of differences, but scores of substantive and important differences between the gospels and Apollonius. I systematically analyzed the four gospels and found 50 characteristics that they share, with few exceptions. I then analyzed Life of Apollonius of Tyana, finding that it shared only eight of these characteristics, and those mostly only to a weak extent. (And I suspect now I may have been too generous.) So that's 42 traits they do not share -- scores, right there. And of course one could find many, many more, on a smaller, less systematic basis.
Why doesn't Ehrman mention those "scores" of differences in How Jesus Became God? If you say A and B are the same, aren't you honor-bound to point out how they differ? If I say, "Really, the sun is just a big beach ball," that's fine, because everyone knows that I'm using poetic hyperbole. But Ehrman's readers haven't read Life of Apollonius of Tyana, and doesn't know he is snookering them, unless he points out differences as well as "similarities" to Jesus.
Many of those differences render any comparison between Jesus and Apollonius not merely moot, but laughable.
In Jesus is No Myth, I describe 30 criteria which powerfully support the historicity of the four gospels. Many of those are extremely important, and obvious. For instance, Jesus was one of the greatest aphorists the world has ever known. He treated women in a revolutionary and respectful way. He cared for the marginalized, rather than having them stoned to death, as Apollonius did. Even more traditional criteria that Ehrman himself recognizes, like multiplicity and embarrassment, apply to the gospels but not to LAT. So much more do the Double Similarity, Double Disimilarity that NT Wright has described, and the Undesigned Coincidences which Tim and Lydia McGrew make use of. I argue that both characteristics, and many others, mark the gospels as historically credible.
How can an honest scholar claim that Jesus was "not unique," yet ignore such central characteristics that serve to radically highlight his uniqueness, and of the gospels that tell his story? To only notice similarities (or alleged similarities) and ignore differences, is just cherry-picking. That is junk scholarship, in fact cheating one's students not only of the facts, but of proper scholarly methodology that they should learn to evaluate facts. One cannot be allowed to take note of (even falsifying, as we have seen) traits that confirm your thesis, while ducking your head in the sand at the sight of traits that disconfirm it.
Yet Ehrman presents himself as one of a select community of objective scholars whom the unwashed masses should carefully listen to.
In fact, he's taking candy from babies. He's tricking undergrads with deceitful and in some cases blatantly false parallels to undermine the uniqueness of Jesus -- while (more importantly) saying nothing of "scores" of unique traits that make Jesus unlike anyone else in the ancient or modern worlds, and that swamp his thesis. He also neglects to mention dozens of vital traits that show Apollonius was a common and rather tedious figure by comparison to Jesus, and that the account of his life is not historically credible. Furthermore, he fails to properly point out that Philostratus had both motive and opportunity to borrow from the gospels, in which case Ehrman's thesis about how common such messiahs were is Dead On Arrival.
Ehrman has a soft voice and an urbane manner, and is extremely well-informed. He is probably the most influential liberal New Testament scholar today, and has gained immense credibility in some circles. He plays the role of objective NT expert superbly.
But to some extent, it has become an act, and one of which I, for one, have grown tired. He has turned from scholarship to dishonest hucksterism, and it is time to call him out.