From the beginning his mother knew that he was no ordinary person. Prior to his birth, a heavenly figure appeared to her, announcing that her son would not be a mere mortal but would himself be divine.
This prophecy was confirmed by the miraculous character of his birth, a birth accompanied by supernatural signs. The boy was already recognized as a spiritual authority in his youth; his discussions with recognized experts showed his superior knowledge of all things religious. As an adult he left home to engage in an itinerant preaching ministry. He went from village to town with his message of good news, proclaiming that people should forgo their concerns for the material things of this life, such as how they should dress and what they should eat. They should instead be concerned with their eternal souls.
He gathered around him a number of disciples who were amazed by his teaching and his flawless character. They became convinced that he was no ordinary man but was the Son of God. Their faith received striking confirmation in the miraculous things he did. He could reportedly predict the future, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. Not everyone proved friendly, however. At the end of his life, his enemies trumped up charges against him, and he was placed on trial before Roman authorities for crimes against the state.
Shirtlessness is a crime!
Even after he departed this realm, however, he did not forsake his devoted followers. Some claimed that he had ascended bodily into heaven; others said that he had appeared to them, alive, afterward, that they had talked with him and touched him and became convinced that he could not be bound by death. A number of his followers spread the good news about this man, recounting what they had seen him say and do. Eventually some of these accounts came to be written down in books that circulated throughout the empire.
But I doubt that you have ever read them. In fact, I suspect that most of you have never the name of this miracle-working “Son of God.” The man I have been referring to is the great neo-Pythagorean teacher and pagan holy man of the first century, Apollonius of Tyana, a worshiper of the Roman gods.
Apollonius lived at about the time of Jesus. Even though they never met, the reports of their lives were in many ways very similar. At a later time, Jesus’ followers argued that Jesus was the miracle-working Son of God, and that Apollonius was an imposter, a magician, and a fraud. Perhaps not surprisingly, Apollonius’s followers made just the opposite claim.
They bonded over being executed by the Romans, though. They’re cool now.
What is remarkable is that these were not the only two persons in the Greco-Roman world who were thought to be supernaturally endowed as teachers and miracle workers. In fact, we know from records that have survived that numerous other persons were also said to have performed miracles, to have calmed the storm and multiplied the loaves, to have told the future and healed the sick, to have cast out demons and raised the dead, to have been supernaturally born and taken up to heaven at the end of their life.
So why is it that we have all heard of Jesus of Nazareth, and many in fact worship him, and very few of us have heard of the supposedly equally powerful Apollonius of Tyana? One word: Marketing. Many scholars theorize that without Paul’s incessant proselytizing and church-founding, Christianity would have died out like thousand of other cults in Asia Minor at the time. Christianity’s fate as a world religion was sealed when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century CE. Just think, if Paul had seen Apollonius on the road to Damascus, one-third of the world may be pagan today.
And not this kind of Pagans. These guys are basically LARPing.