Miracle Claims and Alleged Double Standards: Jesus vs. Apollonius

Miracle claims from ancient times are all over the place, and relying on them as proof for religious beliefs can be a real puzzle. You don’t want to be a stubborn Humean skeptic and just brush off every miracle story you hear, but you also don’t want to fall for just any wild tale. It’s all about finding that sweet spot between skepticism and openness, so you don’t get sucked into wasting your time investigating any and every old miracle claim out there.

Anyway, in a recent video, I discussed the DOUBTS filter—a concept coined by philosopher Tim McGrew and utilized in his debate with Zachary Moore. Here’s a concise overview of the criteria:

  • D – Distance: If the initial report of an event occurs at a great distance from the actual occurrence, skepticism is warranted.
  • O – Opinions Already Established: When miracles align with preexisting opinions and biases, caution is necessary.
  • U – Uncertain and Undetailed Event: Even if an event genuinely happened, if it can be reasonably explained as a natural occurrence, skepticism is justifiable. Lack of detailed information about a supposed miracle also raises doubts.
  • B – Belated Reports: When the first accounts of a miracle surface long after the event, skepticism is reasonable.
  • T – Trivial Events: Miracles unrelated to any significant purpose should be treated skeptically.
  • S – Self-serving Miracles: If a miracle claim appears to be motivated by human desires, such as power, greed, or fame, it should be scrutinized.

These criteria offer a common-sense framework for discerning credible claims from dubious ones. In my previous discussion, I mentioned Apollonius of Tyana as an example failing the tests of distance and belated reports. Philostratus, his biographer, didn’t write until more than a century after Apollonius’s death, and many of his alleged miracles took place in far away lands. But one critic claims that there are earlier sources that I failed to mention, and here I am, a dumb, dishonest apologist who clearly hasn’t bothered with his homework!:

I am willing to bet a large amount of money that Erik didn’t actually read Philostratus because if he did, he would know that Philostratus was very careful to establish that he got his information about Apollonius from an eyewitness:

There was a man, Damis, by no means stupid, who formerly dwelt in the ancient city of Nineveh. He resorted to Apollonius in order to study wisdom, and having shared, by his own account, his wanderings abroad, wrote an account of them. And he records his opinions and discourses and all his prophecies [Philostratus: Apollonius 1.3]

To put together a journal of such matters—that he was well able to do, and carried it out as well as the best. At any rate the volume which he calls his scrap-book, was intended to serve such a purpose by Damis, who was determined that nothing about Apollonius should be passed over in silence, nay, that his most casual and negligent utterances should also be written down. [Philostratus: Apollonius 1.19]

Why does Erik believe what the Gospel of John says about the Beloved Disciple but not what Philostratus says about Damis?

Kamil Gregor

Well, it looks like I’ve got a decision to make: either ditch the whole Jesus thing or make some extra space in my heart for Apollonius! Maybe I can even arrange for Jesus and Apollonius to be roommates in there.

Here’s the deal: Philostratus crafts a narrative using a hodgepodge of common knowledge and an alleged account of Apollonius attributed to Damis, his supposed loyal witness. This source attributed to Damis conveniently appears, supposedly provided by Empress Julia, the wife of Severus, with no supporting evidence or external references to its existence.

So apart from the fact that this account is brimming with miraculous events, it’s rather challenging put a lot of stock in the historical accuracy of its existence, given the glaring lack of corroborating evidence. Some scholars even cast doubt on the existence of Damis, viewing him as a mere literary creation by Philostratus to advance the narrative. Philostratus says Damis lived in the ancient city of Nineveh, a city that had been destroyed in 612 BC by the Medes. It’s theoretically conceivable that a few souls might have stuck around in the general neighborhood of Nineveh after its catastrophic demise. However, let’s not forget that the city itself had lost its status as a bustling urban hub and had greatly declined. Yet, Philostratus, in his ever-creative way, seems to portray it as if Nineveh were still some kind of travel hub where his buddy Damis was from. It’s abundantly clear that Apollonius still falls short of meeting the criteria.

Now, let’s compare source material with what we have for Jesus. Sure, we’ve got the Gospel of John, plus three other Gospels that John might have had a hand in or at least knew about. Unlike Damis, there is little serious doubt about the existence of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, even if their authorship is in question by scholars. These sources are copiously quoted by the early church fathers and are unanimously attributed to them.

We can dig into these texts, subject them to scrutiny, and assess their trustworthiness. If they turn out to be reliable, careful, and honest sources (which I strongly argue they are), then it’s likely that the resurrection stories they tell align with what those original eyewitnesses asserted. According to Christian claims, these eyewitnesses fearlessly proclaimed that Jesus, whom they regarded as ‘the prince of life,’ rose from the dead after the Sanhedrin handed him over for crucifixion. They did not mince words and even accused those involved. They maintained that Jesus ate with them, allowed them to touch him, and spent 40 days with them before ascending into heaven. These are at least intriguing claims that warrant investigation, considering their content and context, as it’s improbable they were either lying or mistaken.

The big difference here is that we actually have access to those four Gospels, with two of them being attributed to apostles and two attributed to companions of the apostles. This availability allows us to critically evaluate their content. In contrast, the account from Damis, shrouded in mystery, doesn’t even remotely come close to the level of transparency and verifiability that we can actually investigate.

Even if we were to give Philostratus the benefit of the doubt and say his account passed the belated reports test (B), it would still flunk the (D) distance criteria. Apollonius reportedly performed most of his miracles in places like Spain, Asia Minor, India, and Egypt, which are quite a hike from where Philostratus penned his account.

Now, let’s dive into a bit of fishiness surrounding Apollonius. Philostratus got the gig to write Apollonius’s biography thanks to the empress Julia Domna. Why is this important? She just happened to be the mother of Emperor Caracalla. Caracalla was the one who funded the construction of a temple dedicated to Apollonius. You’ve got to think Philostratus might have had a bit of motivation to jazz up Apollonius’ story a bit. So Apollonius falls short on the opinions already established (O) criteria too. There’s also no context of persecution for saying Apollonius was a wonder worker. So, yeah, Apollonius doesn’t exactly pass the DOUBTS filter with flying colors.

So how exactly does this ‘revelation’ of Damis rattle the core of my initial argument? This is clearly not a straightforward apples-to-apples comparison. It’s important to remember that the DOUBTS filter isn’t designed to conclusively prove that a miracle didn’t happen. Its purpose is to underscore that miracle claims failing on one or more filter points are not the most promising starting points for our investigation and Apollonius fails on a number of points.

This is a weak objection. Skeptics, let’s clear something up: This filter we’re talking about? I can’t understand why, as a skeptic, you can say it’s a bad thing. In fact, I’d think that you’d find it to be pretty darn useful. And when I nudge you to take another look at Christianity (because it actually passes the filter) and get a solid grasp of its argument, it’s because I see blatant misunderstandings or misrepresentations like this. And if you happen to stumble upon a claim that sails through this filter and you’re curious for me to check it out, don’t worry, I will. And I won’t blame the criteria.

While you’re here, watch the debate between McGrew and Moore. It’s worth your time:

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