Who Was Apollonius? Controversial 'Bible Conspiracies' Documentary Claims Jesus Was Really Greek Philosopher

Jesus Conspiracy
A candle with the image of Jesus Christ is displayed inside St. Patrick Church on April 8, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A controversial 2016 documentary that suggests Jesus Christ was actually a Greek philosopher has produced a raft of explosive headlines this week.

The claims of Bible Conspiracies—available on Amazon Prime—have inspired such stories as The Daily Express's "Bible BOMBSHELL: Shock claim 'Jesus was famous GREEK miracle worker."

The key claim reported by The Daily Mail and Fox News, among others, is that the Christian figurehead has been confused with ancient Greek philosopher Apollonius, who hailed from the town of Tyana in modern-day Turkey.

Many details about Apollonius's life reflect those of Jesus of Nazareth, Sam Boyd, an expert in religious studies and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Newsweek. Both men are thought to have lived around the same time, have been born under "miraculous" circumstances and have been called the "son of God" by their followers, for example.

But, he added, there are also differences between the two. For example, although Apollonius' most famous biographer (Philostratus) thought the pair were contemporaries, the philosopher was most likely born years after Jesus.

The "intriguing parallels" between the religious leaders Boyd said, reflect a historical context where various "miracle workers" with similar backstories attracted notable followings. Biblical scholars, he added, often compare Apollonius and Jesus to help students understand the religious landscape of the day.

Followers have been debating the truth about Jesus and Apollonius since ancient times. Some ancient writers, like fourth-century author Heriocles, argued tales about Jesus of Nazareth were really stories about Apollonius, Boyd explained. But ancient Christian scholar Eusebius argued the opposite.

Most early traditions about Jesus make better sense in an ancient Jewish context than as borrowed tales from the life of Apollonius, he added.

"Comparisons [between] Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana are not new," John Fitzgerald, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana told Newsweek. "There are some interesting comparisons between what is claimed for Jesus and what is told about Apollonius, but no decent scholar should identify them. Jesus was certainly not Greek!"

"Apollonius and Jesus were both figures with their own peculiar stories in the ancient world," Boyd added. "They shared many themes that were likely a part of larger cultural and religious trends."

In fact, followers of various ancient religious figureheads used to accuse others of borrowing their preferred leader's stories. "As modern scholars, we look at each story on its own and try to analyze it in its historical context," Boyd said. "But the overlapping themes could appear to ancient audiences as fodder for making claims that my hero—Jesus or Apollonius—was better and more original than yours."

Although the documentary's comparison of these two figureheads harks back—however oddly—to an ancient tradition, some of its other claims don't have quite the same pedigree, Boyd said.

Bible Conspiracies' claim that aliens feature in the book of Genesis' Tower of Babel story—a tale regarded by many as a myth—for example, is "unfounded, to put it nicely."

This article has been updated with comment from John Fitzgerald.