Let me share a story I heard the other day. You might recognize the hero in this tale, a remarkable person who lived some two thousand years ago.
As the story goes, his mother had a visitor from above before he was born. This visitor told her that her son wouldn’t be like anyone else. (Scary!) He would have a very different birth and childhood. As a child, he impressed the religious leaders as being very knowledgeable. As an adult, he displayed great charisma and uncanny insight.
He became an itinerant preacher, one of many in his time. He wasn’t interested in material goods but wanted to give comfort and a strong message of hope to the poor, the downtrodden, those with crippling diseases, and the marginalized. He developed a following, but his strong message alienated the leadership. Eventually, political leaders trumped up charges and brought him to the Roman authorities, who put him to death. Although he was dead, those who believed in him felt his presence; some even saw him in person as he tried to convince them that there is life after death. Eventually he ascended into heaven, and a few of his close followers wrote a book about him.
Can you guess who this man was? I suspect a great many of you think you know. It certainly sounds like Jesus of Nazareth—but it’s not. This story comes from Cappadocia, Turkey. Apollonius of Tyana was a Greek religious philosopher who lived from 15 to 95 CE, close to the time of Jesus. His life seems so similar to Jesus’s.
Does this raise any questions for you? It does for me.
For example, could Apollonius’s biographer have written a tale similar to the Jesus story, perhaps to give Apollonius god-like credibility? Philostratoa the Elder (circa 170–247 CE) wrote Apollonius’s biography around 200 CE, even though he had never met Apollonius. By then, all the gospels had been written (70–120 CE) and Jesus had been elevated to be God. Why not write a biography sounding similar to the life of Jesus? This wouldn’t have been the first time a writer enhanced a subject’s reputation using “borrowed” data about other great people.
In my book Cramming for the Finals (Summit Run Press, 2017, p. 53), I talk about “Nine Jesus Look-Alikes.” I found my information in Kersey Graves’s book The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. I felt that my readers didn’t need to read about all sixteen in order to get the point. History had recorded the lives of people who sound very much like Jesus—or vice versa. Let me share some examples. In 1700 BCE, Thulis (or Zulis) of Egypt suffered a violent death, was buried, arose, and ascended to heaven, where he became the judge of the dead. Sound familiar? Quirinius of Rome (circa 500 BCE) was also born of a virgin!
I’m not going through all the others—I simply want to ask a question. Do you think that some of the stories about Jesus in the Bible are not necessarily the truth but were told primarily to elevate Jesus to a god-like status?
Interestingly, the first time one hears a Nativity story about Jesus is about 95 CE in Matthew’s Gospel—nine decades after Jesus was born. Luke tells his Nativity story maybe a hundred years after Jesus’s birth. If they were true stories, why hadn’t Paul shared them? Mark’s Gospel, written around 70 CE, is the earliest—why didn’t Mark tell a Nativity story?
What’s your guess?
My thought is that the Nativity stories weren’t around until the Followers of Jesus felt a strong need to make sure that even Jesus’s birth was seen as special, if he were to be God’s specially chosen Messiah.
How do you feel about this sort of thinking? Does it make sense, or does it offend you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.