from Hugh Nibley's The World and the Prophets, ch. 3: "Prophets and Preachers"
Let us consider the common claim that a prophet is just another preacher. In every age there have been men and women claiming prophetic gifts and supernatural experiences. Some of these have been true prophets, but most of them, as the scripture reminds us again and again, have been false. To avoid the labor of distinguishing the true from the false, it has been the practice of historians simply to lump all such claimants together in a single class. To do this is to perpetrate a grave injustice against real prophets, just as to lump all professing healers together (as some people do) is a grave injustice to honest doctors. If there were only three real physicians in the world, it would still be unfair to put all doctors together in one category; and if there were only three honest prophets in history, it would be wrong to class all prophets together.
For example, Christ has been charged by ancients and moderns alike with being just another traveling healer and wonderworker, a wandering wiseman, a teacher of virtue, a thoroughly typical representative of the "lunatic fringe." Generations of scholars have been quick to point to the remarkable parallel between his wanderings, sufferings, and teachings and those of his near-contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana. The old traveling quack Peregrinus impressed the shrewd and discerning Lucian as being a typical Christian disciple. At an early period men began collecting stories and affidavits about Jesus' early life showing him to be a simple country boy with an inordinate desire to impress people. The conscientious and intelligent Celsus published one of these accounts in all good faith. According to this version Jesus made up the story about being born of a virgin because he was really ashamed of having been born in a miserable Jewish village to a poor working woman of the lowest class. "He says she was actually thrown out by her husband, a carpenter by trade, when he found that she had been guilty of adultery. Then, he says [Celsus is quoting his Jewish informant], since she had been kicked out, she wandered around like a tramp and bore Jesus in disgrace. And he, having no means of support, went off to Egypt looking for work. There he became acquainted with certain skills on which the Egyptians pride themselves. As his adeptness in these increased, he began to get exalted ideas about himself and ended up announcing that he was God."1 The same local authority can furnish specific data for this story: We even know the name of the soldier by whom Mary was pregnant—it was Panthera; and everybody always admitted that the child was not Joseph's. 2 This, Celsus finds far more plausible than any farfetched tales about virgin birth; the whole thing seems to ring true to him, he says, and easily accounts for all the events that otherwise have to be explained by miracles. We must admit that Celsus has a point. The low-class origin, the poverty, loose morals, odd jobs, magic and hocus-pocus, mounting ambition, and supernatural claims are all very plausible. One could furnish many parallels from the world in which Jesus lived. Ever since Celsus, men have seized upon superficial resemblances of Christ to other religious men of his age to prove that he was simply one of many. That makes him easy to explain. By diligent search one can match all his teachings with the teachings of others—the earliest Apologists actually used to do that, asking the pagans, "Why do you persecute us when we teach only what you do?" Christ was a homeless man followed about by disciples, so were the traveling Sophists; he was a great moral teacher, so were they; he was persecuted and reviled, so were the Stoics and Pythagoreans; his followers claimed that he was the Messiah, so did the followers of Bar Kochba and Bar Nephele; he was crucified, so were Mani and many other religious fanatics. Even his resurrection easily suggests the victory over death in the year-drama rituals of many oriental people, when the king emerges from the underworld after having been overwhelmed in combat with death. All these things have been pointed out repeatedly in order to bring Christ down to the level of everyday experience and supplant the miraculous and embarrassing by the commonplace and reassuring. But all to no avail. One does not compose music with a slide rule, and the divinity and truthfulness of Christ were never meant to be proved by history, since we are told from the beginning that that knowledge comes to one only by direct revelation from the Father in heaven.
But even on historic grounds the accidental resemblances between the Lord and other teachers are superficial and trivial compared with the great fundamental differences between them. There is a huge classic literature dealing with the activities of traveling wise men and religious teachers in late antiquity. These men all had certain well-marked characteristics. After the manner of the seven wise men, they wandered unattached through the world as spectators of God's works; Christ always stayed within a few miles of home and never evinced any interest in natural philosophy. They were all seekers after wisdom; Christ had it to give. They lived in complete detachment from society and were tolerated by rulers and governments as harmless dreamers; his organizing activities alarmed Roman and Jewish authorities. They emancipated themselves from family and friends; he lived intimately with them all his days. They performed interesting experiments and theatrical tricks to delight and impress the multitude; his miracles were all useful ones, never meant to be eye-catching. They attended the schools of others and sought to sit at the feet of great teachers; he spoke as one having authority. They did everything to attract the largest possible following; he forbade his disciples to do what would make them popular. They gained or lost students as disciples chose to follow or leave them; he chose his own disciples and bound them to him by bonds and covenants. They all (as Professor Jaeger has shown) gave political counsel and advice, seeking official advisory positions and corresponding widely with government officials by mail; he gave no such advice and wrote no such letters. The only proper place for them to deliver their discourses was in the theater, the official assembly place; he always avoided holding forth in such places. They cultivated peculiarities of dress and appearance; his disciples were criticized for not doing so. We could go on and on, but the point is clear: Christ was in all essentials the very opposite to the men with whom he is classed. In a word, he was a true prophet, and they were not: if they sometimes resembled him, it was because of their own efforts to make a noise like true prophets. The great difference was that they were only looking for what Christ had. They spoke as scribes and pharisees, hypocrites; he as one having authority. There is all the difference in the world between the two. Amid a host of like-minded seekers—many of them devout and honest men—one alone was not a seeker.