The Most Saintly First-Century Philosopher: Apollonius Tyanus

Apollonius Tyanus: The Most Pious "Son of God"

Apollonius Tyanus
Photo by amr osama from Pexels

Having traveled throughout Syria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and India during the same era that Jesus supposedly preached, Apollonius of Tyana (c. 3 BCE - 97 CE)[1] was considered by many to be the greatest religious figure of the time.[2]

According to his prime biographer, Flavius Philostratus of Athens, Apollonius was a philosopher, philanthropist, and humanist of the highest degree. 

He discussed philosophy, morals, and religion wherever he roamed and performed miracles including healing the sick and raising the dead (Vita Apollonii, IV.45, and VI.43). He and his traveling companion and diligent chronicler, Damis of Hierapolis, set out to make the world a better place. 

Apollonius was vegetarian in both his diet and his wardrobe. When he did wear shoes, never were they made from animal hides, but from cloth or vines. Jesus, by contrast, stagnated in the sands and stones of Galilee, making wine and killing trees, apparently uninterested in the rest of the world. 

While visiting kings of faraway lands, Apollonius would chastise them for various moral transgressions, intervene in their affairs, and then depart to continue his journeys after refusing the treasures those kings wished to lavish upon him in appreciation of his wise counsel.

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While in Alexandria, he once spotted twelve men being led to execution for robbery; it is claimed he sensed that one had been falsely accused. Apollonius approached the captors with his claim and thus saved the innocent man from the executioners (VA, V.24).

Yet another magic-man? Of course, Apollonius had no supernatural powers. That is absurd. But Jesus did? The detailed chronicle of his life was recorded by Philostratus (based on the writings of his acolyte Damis and several others, as well as information Philostratus collected “from the many cities that were devoted to him” [VA, I.2]) consists of both fact and legend.

Other ancient authors wrote of Apollonius, such as Maximus of Aegeae (Hadrian’s secretary), Moeragenes[3], and Lucian, as did Soterichus Oasites, epic poet of the third century.[4]

Historian Cassius Dio wrote (around 200-222 CE) of an Apollonius event occurring in Ephesus in 96 CE.[5] Philostratus wrote his biography of Apollonius around 220 or 230 CE, a hundred years before the concoction of any canonical Bible. 

Philostratus was one of the most competent and famous historians of the time, yet nowhere in any of his writings do we find a mention of Jesus. [6] Funny, that? According to the account by Philostratus, Apollonius had a divine birth (VA, I.5), practiced celibacy (VA, I:13), and cured the ill and the blind (VA, I.9). 

He cleansed entire cities of plague (VA, IV.10-11), could foretell the future (VA, I.37, IV.6, IV.18, IV.43), spoke to and fed the masses (VA, IV.13), was worshipped as a god (VA, IV.13; IV.44; and I.19), and was, in fact, the son of god (VA, I.6). 

Second-century Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) wrote that he learned from Apollonius “to be free with a certainty beyond all chance, not to look to anything else but reason even for a moment.”[7] Nowhere in the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth do we get an equivalent gem of dialectic or remotely sage advice elevating reason above blind faith; from Jesus, we are, in fact, gifted quite the opposite. 

But Apollonius did not discard all the accepted theological weltanschauung of his day. Like Jesus and like most superstitious people of the times, Apollonius believed in Greek gods. Face it, the New Testament even recognizes goddess Diana (Acts 19), as well as gods Jupiter and Mercurius (Acts 14). 

And here I thought Christianity was a monotheism. Like Jesus, Apollonius thought demons could control people (VA, IV.20). 

Yet Apollonius was uncommonly humble, believing that any praise of gods was taking on a subject beyond human power (VA, IV.30). He gave a sermon on a mount to the Ephesians, urging them to study only truth, philosophy, and wisdom (VA, IV.2). 

Compare this to Jesus’ own mount masterpiece. For just one example, read Matthew 5:28-29 wherein he says if you find yourself attracted to a woman, pull out your eyes and piss on your brain.[8] 

What impetus would humans have, then, to indeed “go forth and multiply” (as ostensibly commanded by the god of Moses) without feeling some physical attraction? 

Upon my first thorough reading of the New Testament, I came away with the realization that Jesus considers an erect penis to be an abomination of lowly status on par with pigs or fig trees bearing no fruit (Lev 11:7, and Mt 21:19). 

I see concurrence with Paul: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1). And you know god not only hates fags (Lev 18:22), but also dykes (Rom 1:21-26). 

Now back to our philanthropic Pythagorean protagonist. If you read the Vita Apollonii you shall see that Apollonius’ compassion and righteous deeds don’t justify violence the way Christianity has throughout its history. 

The world might have been quite a different place had his writings, along with those of Damis, Maximus of Aegeae, Moeragenes, Lucian, Soterichus Oasites, and others been widely distributed and allowed to come down to us through history, instead of being suppressed by Christian censorship. A large-scale cult of Apollonius would have no warrant to kill witches or disobedient children or Canaanites. 

Or anybody. In one of his letters to Apollonius, Emperor Titus (39-81 CE) gushed with praise, “... I have indeed taken Jerusalem, but you have captured me.”[9] 

From the steps of the temple in Olympia, Apollonius amazed everyone “not just by his ideas but also by the way he expressed his thoughts” (VA, IV.30). 

When the judges of the Olympic Games requested his presence, Apollonius wrote, “For myself, I would come for the spectacle of the physical struggle, except that I would be abandoning the greater struggle for virtue” as we can see from the Letters of Apollonius still available even today.[10] 

Emperor Caracalla (188-217 CE) built a temple to Apollonius. Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211 CE), in his court at Rome, had statues erected of both the man Apollonius and (the chimerical?) Jesus. [11] 

Emperor Marcus Aurelius reported that he came upon many other statues of Apollonius during his military expeditions.[12] 

Apparently, even some modern Christians can barely come to terms with the fact that Apollonius, a Jesus contemporary, was also a reputed miracle worker and much more altruistic than their Christ. 

The (no doubt Christian) writer of the article on Apollonius in the Penny Cyclopaedia claims, “It is almost needless to remark that the Life of Apollonius is a heap of absurdities and impossibilities” yet he admits to the other corroborative texts about our noble sage. 

Would he have written the same about the Bible? Apollonius was worshipped for centuries after his death, most notably by Roman Emperor Alexander Severus who reigned from 222 to 235 CE.[13] Philostratus wrote that Apollonius was the “son of Zeus” (VA, I.6); thus he was the son of the Big Guy in the Sky. 

Believers in Jesus claimed Apollonius was an imposter, and followers of Apollonius claimed Jesus was the imposter.[14] 

Will the real Messiah please stand up? Making the case for a historical Apollonius is slightly problematic since Christian authorities throughout the ages have suppressed as much information and as many artifacts as they could.[15] (After all, how many people do you know who have ever heard of this great man?) 

Fortunately, the Vita Apollonii works of other historians, and many physical artifacts have escaped Christian censorship and destruction. The hurdles arrayed together in attempts at obfuscation and obscurantism, it turns out, are feeble and easily overcome. We are left with many reliable articles of evidence.

CSI: Tyana

Artifacts supporting his historicity include the statues of Apollonius in Rome erected by Emperor Septimius Severus, as well as those recorded by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, as previously mentioned. 

An ancient Sanskrit text was found in India with the names Apollonius (Apalūnya), Damis (Damīśa), and others mentioned by Philostratus, substantiating the Indian travels of Apollonius and Damis.[16] Among the artifacts in the Adana Archaeology Museum in Turkey is a fragment inscribed with a four-line poem attributed to Apollonius.[17] 

Among his works are a Biography of Pythagoras, as well as four books On Sacrifices (VA, III.41). Copies of the letters of Apollonius can be viewed in their original Greek at the US Library of Congress.[18] Emperor Hadrian owned almost all of Apollonius’ letters (VA, VIII.20). 

A Book of Wisdom of Apollonius, written around the fifth century CE, describes a temple of Apollonius in Tyana, a man adored by “all people.” The Historia Augusta describes the life of Emperor Aurelian, including Aurelian remarking on a statue of Apollonius as his army marched through Tyana.

Apollonius’ deeds were recorded and preserved in his home city of Tyana, placed in the Apollonius temple, and later referenced in the twelfth century by Tzetzes (yet not extant today). [19] 

Some doubters have proposed that Philostratus made up the Damis character. But Flavius Damianus, one of the richest men in the late second century, was a close friend of Vespasian. This would precisely be the Roman name given to a descendent of a man named Damis if said descendent was so revered to be bestowed praenomen and cognomen.[20] 

Julia Domna, the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, possessed the chronicles of Damis (gifted to her by a Damis descendant) and she provided them to Philostratus, asking him to construct a history of Apollonius. 

Damis had volunteered to accompany Apollonius as companion, chronicler, and guide, as he spoke Persian, Armenian, and Cadusian and was familiar with the geography and land routes to Babylon.[21] In assembling his Vita Apollonii, Philostratus used the writings of Damis, Maximus of Aegeae, Moeragenes, and others. 

Before Philostratus, both Lucian and Soterichus Oasites wrote of Apollonius, and Philostratus’ work is largely regarded as supplementary to a biography of Apollonius, άπομνημονεύματα (“apomnemoneumata”) or “memoirs” written by Moeragenes.[22] 

Moeragenes’ work is mentioned by Church Father Origin in Contra Celsum (c. 240 CE), but it does not come down to us today. 

And it seems that Apollonius did, in fact, intervene publicly in affairs of the cities he visited; Philostratus related an incident wherein an angry mob planned to burn alive the governor of Pamphylia, with Apollonius resolving the situation peacefully (VA, I.15). This episode is independently corroborated by Maximus.[23]

Doubting Osmond

Having said all this, one notes that Osmond de Beauvoir Priaulx expressed his doubts regarding Damis’ veracity about the journeys through India.[24] 

I must, however, point out that the travels and tales and miracles claimed of Apollonius are much more believable than those told by the authors of the Gospels, much of Apollonius being supported by the attestations and physical proofs provided herein. 

Christians can only wish they had 1/1,000th the archeological and textual support for their champion as we do, in fact, have for Apollonius.

Gentle Jesus

Greek philosopher Dion Pruseus (39 - 120 CE) produced his Orations in the first to second centuries. Dion once mentioned an unnamed, distinguished first-century philosopher who “enjoyed a reputation greater than any one man has attained for generations” and who admonished the Athenians for gladiator shows at the theater of Dionysus.[25] 

Might this first-century philosopher have been the angelic son of god, Jesus the Christ? For various reasons, many historians think that this distinguished man might be Musonius Rufus, a close friend of Dion. 

Why not Jesus, then? For the past two millennia, people have been praising Jesus, calling him some remarkable and wonderful things. 

This is not at all likely because we see no record of Jesus upbraiding gladiator spectacles in speech. Jesus was not, by any means, a peaceful figure. He said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). 

Jesus actually praised genocide (Mt 11:21-24, Jude 1:5-8), exposing that the prophesied Hebrew “savior” was actually a violent racist. As we know from the scriptures, Jesus advised the savage whipping of slaves (Lk 12:47).[26] 

Jesus demands the utmost of hatred from any would-be disciples (Lk 14:26). So why would Jesus decry violence? Certainly, Jesus did not have anything to say in this regard. 

Nor did he ever declare as immoral slavery, pedophilia, rape, genocide, incest—or even those oh-so-violent gladiator games. Jesus had other, less important fish to fry. 

Or multiply, I suppose. It seems very likely to me that Dion referred not to Jesus, nor Musonius Rufus, but to Apollonius, especially as we see an exact correlation in a letter from Apollonius, Epistle Apollonius 70 “To the People of Sais,” chastising Athenians for their gladiator shows. 

Wrote Philostratus: He also corrected the following practice at Athens. The Athenians used to assemble in the theater below the Acropolis and watch human slaughter... This too Apollonius denounced, and when the Athenians summoned him to the assembly, he said he would not enter a place that was impure and full of gore. 

This he said in a letter and added: “I am surprised that the goddess has not already left the Acropolis when you pour out the blood of this kind for her” (VA, 4.22). Philostratus adds, “These are the most earnest of his disquisitions at Athens on that occasion that I have discovered.” 

Perhaps Apollonius was indeed the first-century philosopher about whom Dion raves and not the man Musonius Rufus, and certainly not the seemingly schizophrenic character “Jesus Christ.” 

Or my assertion could be wrong. It has been argued that Dion may have referred to a Roman man; if true, it would probably not be Apollonius.[27] 

As an aside I must also point out that both Dion and Musonius lived shortly after “Jesus” and neither man ever wrote of Jesus or of Christians, yet both men certainly should have, if the fantastic tales of Jesus had been true.

Hail Julia!

If not for Julia Domna, we would probably have very little information about Apollonius. It was at her behest that Philostratus wrote his Life of Apollonius, which comes to us in full from almost two thousand years past. 

Sadly, Julia took her own life before Philostratus could finish his epic work of eight volumes. 

The historicity of the genuinely “saintly” (for lack of a better term) figure Apollonius Tyaneus is far stronger than any evidence for one other son-of-god figure supposedly conceived by a miraculous union between a holy ghost and a lowly human virgin. 

One must assume that this ghost had some magical method of godly sperm-delivery: his angelic penis, or a turkey baster, perhaps? We have only the scantest of clues regarding exactly what shaped young Apollonius, rendering him a man of such benevolence. 

The yokels of Tyana recorded—as Philostratus thus propagated—that on the day of his birth swans danced around his mother in a meadow and a lightning bolt accompanied his divine nativity. We do know his family was wealthy, and he studied philosophy as a youngster, embracing the noble doctrines of Pythagoras. 

Philostratus wrote that Apollonius did not die, but was resurrected and physically elevated to heaven (VA, VIII.30-31). I surely doubt it; but if Christians claim it for their alleged savior, I feel entitled to hold the same as true for the Sage of Tyanus.

More from the author:


By Michael Paulkovich

Michael B. Paulkovich is a columnist for American Atheist, an aerospace engineer and freelance writer who also contributes to Free Inquiry and Humanist Perspective. He is a contributing editor for The American Rationalist and the author of No Meek Messiah. His next book, Beyond the Crusades, was published in 2015 by American Atheist Press.


  1. Dawkins, Richard, on Q &A: Adventures in Democracy (television program)
  2. Dio, Cassius, Roman History. Harvard University Press, 1914. 
  3. Dzielska, Maria, Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History. L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1986. 
  4. Elsner, Jas, “Beyond Compare: Pagan Saint and Christian God in Late Antiquity.” Critical Inquiry, Spring 2009. 
  5. Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, ed. & trans. Christopher P. Jones. Loeb Classical Library, 2005. 
  6. Herzog, Johann Jakob, et al., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910. 
  7. Kuhn, A. B., A Rebirth for Christianity. Wheaton: Quest, 2005. 
  8. Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society or the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, No. 88, Vol. II, London: Charles Knight, 1833, p. 168-9. 
  9. Priaulx, Osmond de Beauvoir, The Indian Travels of Apollonius of Tyana and the Indian Embassies to Rome. London: Quaritch, 1873. 
  10. Reitzenstein, Richard, Hellenistische Wundererzählungen. Leipzig: Tübner, 1906. 
  11. Sator, Darwin, The Crisscross Double-cross. Victoria: Trafford Publishing, 2002. 
  12. Temporini, Hildegard, Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986. Trickler, C. Jack, A Layman’s Guide To: Who Wrote the Books of the Bible? Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2006. 
  13. Waite, Charles B., History of the Christian Religion to the Year Two Hundred. Kessinger, 2003. 


  1. Note that Dzielska, with reasonable evidence, pushes Apollonius’ previously accepted dates forward by several decades.
  2. Sator, 82.
  3. “Moeragenes” or Μοιραγέυει in Philostratus, I.3—or “Meragenes,” in Waite 103; or “Moiragenes,” Dzielska 45.
  5. Dio, History, 67:18:1
  6. Herzog, vol. I, 232 - “…there is no evidence that Philostratus had any knowledge of the Gospels and the Acts, and the life of Apostle Paul is a much closer parallel to Apollonius than that of Christ, who was no peripatetic philosopher.”
  7. Aurelius, Meditations, 1:8.
  8. Sorry, that second part came from Clarence Beeks in “Trading Places.” Jesus commands only that you pull out your eyes. The dogma and superstitions within Christianity are what cause followers to piss on their brains.
  9. Waite, 115.
  10. Jones, 25.
  11. Riedweg, 125; and Waite, 112.
  12. Dzielska, 58-59.
  13. Sator, 83.
  14. Trickler, 216-217.
  15. See for example Elsner, 660-1.
  16. V. Bhattacharya, The Āgamaśāstra of Gaudapāda, LXXII-LXXIV. A few years ago I added this fact to Apollonius’ Wikipedia entry. And you are welcome.
  17. Bowie, from Temporini, II 16.2, 1687-8.
  18. Eilhard Lumin, Ex Officina Commeliniana, a text from the year 1601 CE: Epistolae Apollonii Tyanei, Anacharsidis, Euripidis, Theanus, aliorúmque ad eosdem. Heidelberg: Ex officina Commeliniana, 1601. See LC Control No. 2008570706, call number PA3487 .E4 1601, Jefferson Collection (Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room [ Jefferson LJ239]).
  19. Dzielska, 58.
  20. Bowie, from Temporini, II.16.2, 1670.
  21. Priaulx, 2.
  22. Reitzenstein, 40.
  23. Bowie, from Temporini, II 16.2, 1690.
  24. Priaulx, 62.
  25. Dion, Oration 31:122. To read the text go to:
  26. For more, see “Bible Bunk and Holy Horrors,” American Atheist, 1st Q. 2012.
  27. E.g. Bowie, from Temporini, II 16.2, 1688.
First published on American Atheists Magazine 2012 (4th quarter). Republished on Fadew courtesy to the author.

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