Was the Story of Jesus Borrowed From Pagan Myth?

A popular skeptic, Bart Ehrman, tries but fails to make the life of Jesus look like an ancient fable.

By David Marshall Published on December 13, 2016

Bart Ehrman has become the public face of skeptical Jesus scholarship in America. He is erudite, prolific, and knows evangelical Christianity from the inside. Interview with a Vampire author Anne Rice is one who has been deeply influenced by Ehrman’s “humble, polite and patient” interpretation of Jesus, praising him for “bridging the gap” between leading New Testament scholarship and amateurs like herself.

Answering Ehrman’s arguments in my new book, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, I discovered that he is also bridging another gap for thousands of Americans: out of Christianity, into unwarranted disbelief.

  • The nephew of a church friend recently defected from Christ after reading Ehrman.
  • A youthful web acquaintance attended an initial session on the historical Jesus at Ohio State a few weeks ago. The professor echoed one of Ehrman’s favorite arguments against the Christian faith, based on supposed resemblances between Jesus and a late 1st Century sage named Apollonius of Tyana. Talking with another Christian student afterwards, neither knew how to answer this analogy, the second student finding it intriguing.
  • The pastor of a Seattle-area church I have spoken at told me several members of his church became “radicalized” by Ehrman’s teachings, and left.

Yet I have also concluded that Dr. Ehrman is not merely wrong; he simply cannot be trusted anymore on ancient books. Ehrman grossly misrepresents old texts to coax believers away from Christ. Read fairly, those works actually demonstrate the utter uniqueness and deep historical credibility of the Gospel accounts.

Is This Where the Story of Jesus Came From?

For brevity’s sake, let’s focus on Apollonius, the most popular “Jesus double.” Ehrman wonders how Jesus “became” God, and offers Apollonius as an answer. In fact, as we’ll see, his reliance on Apollonius only raises another question: Why would anyone think this fantastic philosopher even begins to explain Jesus?

Ehrman begins his book How Jesus Became God by explaining that he introduces Jesus to new students by unveiling the following portrait:

Before he was born, his mother had a visitor from heaven 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. As an adult he left his home to engage on an itinerant preaching ministry. … 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. And he did miracles to confirm them in their beliefs: he could heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. At the end of his life he aroused opposition among the ruling authorities of Rome and was put on trial. But they could not kill his soul. He ascended to heaven

The punch-line is that all this is true, Ehrman says, not of Jesus, but of Apollonius. Hearing this from so skillful and authoritative a teacher, students naturally have little defense against concluding, “So Jesus was just one of many miracle-working sages!”

Too Many Differences To Take It Seriously

The minor problem is that almost every detail of Ehrman’s sketch is patently bogus.

In fact the visitor at Apollonius’ birth did not come “from heaven.” “Out of Egypt” (the title of Anne Rice’s own book about Jesus) would more accurately describe Mrs. “Of Tyana’s” pre-natal visitor. Proteus, the “Old Man of the Sea,” slept on the island of Pharos in the Nile Delta where the great lighthouse would arise, shifting shapes to avoid being forced to reveal hidden truths to mortals.

“Unusual divine signs in the heaven” is an exaggeration: there was just one. Apollonius’ mother was led into a field pluck flowers, then a thunderbolt rose into the sky and disappeared.

“Itinerant preaching ministry” is misleading too. Apollonius hated open-air preaching. Nor was Apollonius actually called the “Son of God.”

What about the assertion that Apollonius raised people from the dead? Not really. The sage met a young Roman bride who had suddenly passed away. It was raining, but he detected a vapor coming from her mouth, whispered a spell, and she came to. A proper diagnosis serves in place of a resurrection.

Amusements and Misrepresentations

Apollonius’ other “miracles” are often quite amusing. He rescues a youth about to marry a vampire. He cures a satyr of lechery by plying it with beer. He cures a boy bitten by a rabid dog, by having the dog drink water, then lick the wound. On the other hand, in what French literary scholar Rene Girard called a “horrible” miracle, the sage eggs on a mob to stone a beggar to death in Ephesus. By contrast, Jesus saved people from stonings.

Ehrman misrepresents Apollonius’ trial on two counts. The philosopher was tried not at the end of his life, but two years earlier. No one attempted to “kill his soul” or even his body: the emperor’s retinue was deeply impressed by his eloquence, and the emperor begged a further interview.

Oops — Wrong Year!

Worst of all, Ehrman fails to inform readers that Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written some 150 years after the gospels.

So Ehrman does not merely pick facts like cherries to flavor his pie, he fills his empty tin with pitted and fly-pocked fruit from under the neighbor’s fence.

Worst of all, Ehrman fails to inform readers that Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written some 150 years after the gospels. Its author was paid by empress Julia Domna, whose husband and son persecuted Christians. So Philostratus had both motive and opportunity to borrow material from the gospels to help his sage compete with the upstart Jewish carpenter.

Truly the Stuff of Legend

Ehrman also neglects to point out (or recognize?) how profoundly Life of Apollonius differs from the gospels, regardless of any copying. Apollonius wanders the ancient world engaging in Saturday Night Live style conversations in James Bond style settings. Elephants shoot arrows with their trunks. Monkeys farm pepper fields. Various species of dragons (“not one ridge is without them”) populate India. Apollonius’ teachings are asinine to the point of comedy (in my book I fit them into the mouths of Steve Martin and Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live Classic), though people respond as if his banal teachings were divine oracles.

Jesus: A Tour-de-Force Original, Written In Letters of Flame

The crowd around Jesus was right: “No one ever spoke (or acted) as this man.” Nor has anyone since.

By contrast, the words of Jesus are eternally astounding: a tour-de-force original, blazing from the texts as if written in letters of flame. Christ wields aphorisms, parables and hyperbole with an eloquence that sets him beyond the front rank of moralists — this un-credentialed wood-worker from Galilee. His teachings rock disciples to their core, even as he reaches out in compassion to those on the margins, looking each individual in the eye, as Apollonius never did. The ground rumbles, and ancient prejudices about women, outsiders and children shift as Jesus steps up to a well in Samaria, or walks over to a blind beggar crying out from the curb. Our gospels come from four distinct sources, none of which demonstrates the authorial genius that might explain the astonishingly coherent portrait they produce.

Why then does so eminent a scholar as Dr. Ehrman push Apollonius, with his crude geography, amusing zoology, and risible dialogue, onto stage to introduce the greatest man in history to gullible young pups?

Nor is Ehrman alone. Critics of Christianity have been pointing to Apollonius since Hierocles (another persecutor of Christians) in the Third Century. Thomas Jefferson, the Jesus Seminar, Elaine Pagels, Paula Fredriksen, Reza Aslan and even more radical critics like Richard Carrier all cite Apollonius to discount the gospels.

What Makes This Bogus Analogy So Popular?

What then explains Apollonius’ popularity?

Simple. Skepticism cannot endure that Jesus should stand alone. In two millennia of searching, Apollonius is the closest anyone can find to Jesus. Never mind that it’s no good: it’s the best they can do. (Though Ehrman recently has also begun to promote a Hasidic Polish rabbi, Baal Shem Tov, who converses with 500 year old talking frogs!)

Skeptics, not Christians, should be disheartened at such “wild and crazy” analogies.

The crowd around Jesus was right: “No one ever spoke (or acted) as this man.”

Nor has anyone since.

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