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Refuting Leasure

On Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Ryan Leasure posted his article “Was Apollonius of Tyana a Jesus parallel?” on the website of CrossExamined.org, in which he composes a harsh, if not to say slanderous critique of Bart Ehrman. In our article, we respond to this critique and hold up a mirror to Ryan’s accusations. We will quote extensively from Ryan’s article, but you can read the entire original post on https://crossexamined.org/was-apollonius-of-tyana-a-jesus-parallel/

Ryan Leasure holds a Master of Arts from Furman University and a Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, South Carolina. CrossExamined.org is a non-profit ministry started in 2006 that conducts dynamic I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist seminars on college campuses, churches, and high schools. With these references, quoted from the fore mentioned website, you have an idea where the critique is coming from.

From our side, we will not debate whether Apollonius of Tyana can or cannot be seen as a parallel to Jesus. The issue here is in what way Ryan Leasure builds up his critique on Bart Ehrman. The tone of his article is set in the opening lines (bold text added):

“Bart Ehrman is the most popular skeptic in America today. Writing at super-sonic rates, his books seem to find their way on the New York Times Bestseller list about every other year. Because of his rapid output and wide popularity, his views are spreading like gangrene across the American landscape (and beyond).”

The second sentence is exemplary of the fundamentalist Christian attitude towards, critical thinking, skepticism or the use of your reason as a whole. In their eyes, questioning the truth of what a Christian tells you is the truth, is a sin. If we were to reciprocate this opening statement in the same tone, we could say that Christians – as the CrossExamined ministry makes abundantly clear – are relentlessly imposing their beliefs on other people, trying to metastasize their cancerous delusions so that there will be no one left to oppose their falsehoods, thereby plunging our society back into the dark ages when knowledge was restricted to what the church allowed you to know. Ryan continues his inflammatory tone (and thus we will reciprocate):

“Additionally, Ehrman is a professor of religion at UNC-Chapel Hill where he works to cripple the faith of every young Christian who enters his classroom.”

Before Ryan gets into any decent argumentation relevant to the topic, he chooses to launch an ad hominem attack on the person that holds different views than his own. As vile a tactic it is, Christian apologists really love this one more than their neighbor. A third in to his article, Ryan finally addresses his personal fear:

“So, should Christians be worried? Does Christianity crumble in light of Apollonius of Tyana? Was Apollonius even remotely similar to Jesus? No, no, and no. Allow me to elaborate.”

Keep in mind that Ryan holds a Masters of Divinity from an unbiased, non-religious Theological Seminar. That makes him the foremost authority on the history of antiquity… at least in his own eyes.

One of Christian Cancer's main tumors.

The problem of dating

Apollonius supposedly lived between AD 15-96. That is, his life comes shortly after the life of Jesus. Yet the only source we have for his life comes from Philostratus in the third century (AD 225). In other words, there is virtual silence about this man for about 150 years prior to Philostratus’ work. […]

Sources for Jesus, on the other hand, all date within the first century when eye-witnesses to his ministry would have still been around. The Gospels come about 30-50 years after his life, and Paul writes his letters even earlier (20-30 years after Jesus). Moreover, Paul quotes or references traditional material that predates his work by decades. All that to say, Jesus’ fame understandably spread shortly after his death and resurrection.”

It is true that the earliest written record we still have access to, is the work of Philostratus. But it is not the oldest and only source that existed at that time. Most of those other sources are now lost, and we have no idea how much written material could have existed in late antiquity. Who’s to say that some of it might not have been deliberately destroyed by Christians because of the apparent parallels? Empress Julia Domna’s commissioning of Philostratus’ work is in fact attestation to the fact that there already existed popular traditions surrounding Apollonius in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire (Syria, Anatolia…), traditions and beliefs she perhaps sought to spread. Philostratus mentions the written sources he uses (contrary to any New Testament author).Whether the traditions around Apollonius and those around Jesus would have influenced each other, if at all, is impossible for us to ascertain. Note however that the earliest written source on Jesus, Saul, is from Tarsus, Anatolia. It is equally unknown where the gospels were written but proposed origins include the same regions where the Apollonius stories were going around. Either way, we simply have way too few historical data to assess this correctly. Much that can be said about the reliability of Philostratus’ biography can be said about the gospels and vice versa.

Defending the “Jesus-tradition” however, Ryan makes some assertions and backs those up with circular reasoning. He says the gospels come about 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ life and Paul’s letters 20 to 30. The problem however, in spite of the common tradition, is that no one knows when Jesus was born or when he died; and that’s assuming he existed at all of course. There are but two sources that talk about Jesus’ birth: the gospel according to Luke and the gospel according to Matthew. These only two sources utterly contradict each other. Matthew places Jesus’ birth in the time of Herod the Great, so anywhere between 37 and 4 BC. Luke places his birth at 6 or 7 AD. Moreover, neither gospels base their nativity story on direct testimony. So what year was Jesus born? Which gospel was right, Matthew or Luke? They probably were both wrong and maybe they even were intentionally. Maybe Ryan Leasure knows something that no one else in the world knows. He also states that all the sources on Jesus are from the first century. He misleadingly states this as fact. Dating the composition of the gospels is still matter of debate and is far from settled.

In his own letters Paul vehemently asserts that he came to know about Jesus through personal revelation (a hallucination to be precise) and not through witness testimony. Paul should be approached with a lot of caution, to say the least. He never identifies his sources (neither do the gospels) and gives next to no details about Jesus’ life or ministry. So Ryan situates the date of the composition of his sources on the date of Jesus’ life and death, and he dates the life and death of Jesus on the contradictory dates of the two gospels. Next he alludes to the eyewitness reports that those gospels are based on (but doesn't name any), when it is clear that large parts of their content cannot be based on witness accounts. In our article “The witness is excused” we show this in a very clear and simple way.

The problem of motive

What did Jesus’ followers have to gain for spreading the message of Christianity? Ostracism at best, and death at worst. In other words, they had no motive (money, sex, or power) to make up these stories in a hostile environment. In the end, most of them faced severe persecution for their faith.”

What were Julia Domna's motives? Power? She already was the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire. Money? She already was one of the wealthiest women in the Roman Empire. Sex? Who's to say? If that was what she wanted, she could have simply because of her position. But history seems to show that she and Septimius really loved each other. So the Christians had no motive to spread their beliefs? Was it because in those days there were no Netflix series to binge watch and they were just bored? And if the environment was so hostile, then how were they able to spread their beliefs so easily? Because, Mr Leasure, the Greco-Roman society of the Roman Empire was the most religiously tolerant society imaginable. Religious tolerance ended when Christianity became state religion under Theodosius around 380 AD. Most Christians were not persecuted for their faith. This is a myth perpetuated by Christians ignorant of history, a myth you are contributing to. The overwhelming majority of people executed in the Roman Empire in the first, second and third century was none-Christian. Are you saying that the majority of people executed were so because of religious beliefs and/or that religion was the main reason for executing people? The only systematic persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire occurred under and after Diocletian’s rule, from 303 to 311 AD, and was ended by the Edict of Milan under Constantine (312 AD). In the end, for 97 % of the first three centuries of Christianity, Christians were left to practice their religion like any other and were not persecuted. You are either ignorant of history or are intentionally misleading.

“What about Philostratus? Well, it just so happens that he was paid by the empress Julia Domna to write a laudatory account of Apollonius’ life in order to improve Apollonius’ reputation amongst the Romans and diminish Jesus’ importance.”

Maybe Christians spread their beliefs in order to improve Christians’ reputation and diminish the importance of the majority’s belief in their gods? Maybe Empress Julia commissioned Philostratus to write his books because she believed the stories about Apollonius and admired him for his reputation as a healer and miracle worker? What’s the difference with the motivation of the writers of the gospels? And of course “it just so happened” that Philostratus was paid for his work! Do you think the gospel writers would not have needed funding for their literary work? Do you think the parchment they wrote on dropped on their table without someone having paid for it? Do you think that parchment or the ink used was a common, cheap-to-come-by commodity in their day? How do you earn your daily bread, Ryan? Do you receive financial compensation for your work as pastor? If so, does that necessarily mean that you only preach Christianity because your livelihood depends on it? Maybe we are justified in thinking you are massively more biased than Philostratus.

Living during a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly across the Roman Empire, the pagan empress needed to do something to restore cultic worship amongst the citizens. Funding this project seems to be her attempt to minimize Jesus’ fame.”

The Roman empress did not need to restore cultic worship across the Roman Empire, as in fact in her time Christians were an insignificant minority of the empire’s population and cultic worship hadn’t been interrupted or abandoned. It is not impossible that the empress had heard about Jesus, but there is no historical evidence to suggest that she did. Nothing in the historical record shows that the empress did anything or took any decisions taking Christianity into account. Your entire 'motive'-argumentation is based on lies or ignorance, misrepresentation and straw man fallacies.

Philostratus Was Skeptical of Apollonius’ Miracles

“Philostratus, though, couched miracle claims with phrases such as “it is reported that” or “some believe.” Case in point. Reporting on Apollonius of Tyana’s most famous miracle (raising a dead girl to life), Philostratus reports that the girl probably wasn’t dead at all, and even states that only some believed she was. He indicates that this girl had some kind of mist coming out of her mouth prior to Apollonius “healing” her.”

All you are saying is that Philostratus was a more honest author and that he did not accept everything that was said or written about Apollonius at face value. A bit further in your article, you invoke 'embarrassing material' as evidence for the reliability of your gospels. But doesn't this equally apply for Philostratus' trustworthiness?

The Gospels are nothing like this. They make no qualms about Jesus’ miraculous activity.”

Here I fully agree. The gospel authors wrote whatever they (allegedly) heard without any concern for truth or objectivity. Their aim was not to subject the content of their writings to a critical analysis but to enhance, embellish and solidify what they believed or pretended to believe; they would add and invent stuff if they thought it fit the purpose. Their blatant bias is the first red flag to question the historical reliability of their “biographies”. Throughout his article, Ryan Leasure uses the terms ‘skeptic’ and ‘skepticism’ as an insult or deplorable flaw, but then enthusiastically embraces Philostratus’ skepticism when it suits him. His stance on critical thinking is quite confusing, if not to say hypocritical.

The Problem of Historical Errors

The Gospels provide all kinds of evidence for their historical reliability. Non-Christian corroborating sources, eye-witness testimony, an understanding of local customs, and embarrassing material all suggest that these sources are trustworthy”.

The gospels also provide all kinds of evidence for their historical inaccuracy (when exactly was Jesus born again?). There are no corroborating, non-Christian sources on Jesus’ life and ministry, there are no eye-witness testimonies (name one!), and as a whole the hundreds of contradictions between the four gospels and within each gospel respectively as well as Paul’s "own" contradictory statements all suggest that these sources are not to be trusted. Saying that there is evidence is not evidence.

While Philostratus attempts to give us a biography, many scholars acknowledge that his work reads more like a romance novel. As Boyd and Eddy remark, “while few have gone so far as to reject a historical Apollonius altogether, most scholars are rather skeptical about the historicity of major aspects of the image offered by this one source written well over a century after the figure it depicts.”

As most scholars would concur: while few go so far as to reject a historical Jesus altogether, most scholars are rather skeptical about the historicity of major aspects of the image offered by the few sources written half a century after the figure they depict. Once again, skepticism is heartily welcomed by Ryan Leasure when it is directed at an extra-biblical character, but despised when that same attitude is directed towards the fiction stories he just happens to believe in.

The Alleged Resurrection

Jesus’ resurrection is the single-most-important fact about Christianity. If he didn’t rise, Paul says, we’re still in our sins. Fortunately, Jesus did die and rise again as the Gospels report, and there’s ample evidence to back this up this claim.”

The first sentence in this quote is absolutely correct: the belief that Jesus rose from the dead changed the world. Immediately after, he again engages in a circular argument. Fortunately, Jesus did die and rise again as the gospels report, and the gospels are the evidence that he did die and rise again. Ryan is just mimicking Paul, where the latter gives “evidence” for Jesus’ resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

The Christian religion rests solely on this preposterous circular argument that has been repeated over and over for two thousand years and now once more by the scholar of history, and mind-reader Ryan Leasure.

Ryan Leasure abused his position as a pastor to rape two teenage girls and murdered them in an attempt to cover up his crime. And since it is now said that Ryan Leasure raped and killed two teenage girls, how can some of you say that he did not? Because if Ryan did not rape and murder those two girls, then what we have said he did is useless and so is your belief that he did. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about Ryan, for we have said that Ryan raped and murdered two teenage girls. But if in fact Ryan did not rape and murder two teenage girls, than your belief that he did is futile and you still believe a lie. But since we said that he did and believe that he did, Ryan Leasure raped and murdered two teenage girls”.

The above analogy should show you how ludicrous this kind of argumentation is. Based on this “undisputable evidence” Ryan Leasure should turn himself in and admit to the crimes he committed. This “evidence” can easily be summarized as: “Stop thinking and just believe what I tell you to believe”.

What’s the other “ample evidence” to back up the claim that Jesus rose from the dead? Ryan says there is but doesn’t present any. Oh, wait, don’t tell me: the gospels? Again Ryan, saying there is evidence is not evidence, no matter how many times you repeat that there is evidence.

A Parallel? Absolutely!

Ryan admits: “The point is you can find parallels anywhere.” But not between Apollonius of Tyana and Jesus the Nazorean right?

In the end, it’s not the parallels that matter, but the differences. So while the story of Apollonius of Tyana is interesting, it does nothing to disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ.”

While the often contradictory stories of Jesus are interesting, they do nothing to prove the historicity of Jesus, and do nothing to disprove the historicity of Apollonius of Tyana. Even if you would be able to show that there are no parallels whatsoever between Apollonius of Tyana and Jesus, that doesn’t prove that the stories about Jesus are true. But again, in this article this is not our focus. It is on the manner in which Ryan conducts his argumentation:

“Scholars have systematically debunked every line from the Erhman quote above. At best, he’s misleading. At worst, he’s downright deceitful.”

Unlike Ryan Leasure, who can read the minds of contemporary people like Bart Ehrman and, even more astonishingly, dead people of the 2nd century like Empress Julia Domna, we do not pretend to know what Mr Ehrman is thinking while using the “Apollonius-parallel”. We can assume that he merely uses this as a didactical tool to get people to think about what they believe. Of course, critical thinking has always been seen as a sin by authority figures – Christians in particular - and Ryan Leasure seems to be one of them. If however we are wrong in our assumption of Mr Ehrman, we will adjust or correct our statement (this is far more than what can be said about the assertions Christians utter).

When reading Ryan Leasure’s article and not having studied any of Bart Ehrman's material, one might conclude that Mr Ehrman negates the historicity of Jesus. And not only that, he does it misleadingly or worse, deceitfully. Anyone who has followed a bit of Ehrman’s work, whether by reading his books or watching his presentations knows full well that Bart Ehrman totally supports the historicity of Jesus, but doesn’t accept everything that is written about him. Personally I think that Mr. Ehrman still reads too much history in the books of magic. It should stand beyond any doubt however that Bart Ehrman does not use the example of Apollonius of Tyana and the parallels between him and Jesus to disprove the historicity of Jesus.

Ryan Leasure uses a combination of fallacies in his article (i.e. circular reasoning, straw man argumentation), misrepresents or downright lies about historical context and resorts to personal attacks as if this were a valid argument for any point of view. As such, he is misleading and downright deceitful in his attempt to discredit one of the most erudite biblical scholars of our time.

Richard Dalet PHD, October 23, 2020

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