Here is a provocative and intriguing post on a topic not widely known outside the realm of Roman historians: the miracles attributed to the Emperor Vespasian (which sure sound a lot like the miracles attribued to Jesus, written in Gospels produced just at the time of or after his reign.)

The post is by Platinum member Ryan Fleming.  Platinum members are allowed to write posts for other Platinum members.  It’s a great perk of the highest level of blog membership!  And when we have a few in the bag, Platinum members vote for which of them can appear on the main blog.

This is the current winner.  It raises a number of intriguing possibilities about this little-known set of narratives of obvious importance to understanding Jesus and the Gospels.  What do you think?



Roman historian Tacitus (56 CE to 120 CE) in The Histories, Book IV, Section 81, and Suetonius (69 CE to 122 CE) in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars wrote of miracles Vespasian performed in the temple of Serapis in Alexandria Egypt. In one case he healed a blind man by anointing his eyes with his spit, and in another he healed a paralyzed man (withered hand or leg) by touching the hand or leg.

It is tempting practice to compare these miracles with nearly identical acts attributed to Jesus in the Canonical Gospels and debate which came first, the Jesus stories or Vespasian stories:

Curing blindness with spit: Mark 8:23-25, John 9:6-7

Curing blindness: Matthew 9:29-30, 20:34, Mark 10:51-52, Luke 18:41-43

Restoring withered hand: Matthew 12:9-13, Mark 3:1-5, Luke 6:6-10

Paralytic man to walk: Matthew 9:2-7, Mark 2:3-12, Luke 5:18-25

This post briefly examines five scenarios, and there may be others proposed in responses. As a spoiler, I believe Scenario (A) is the most likely. Scenarios (B) and (C) are very unlikely. Scenario (D) is also possible, but I do not believe there are written accounts to suggest it. Scenario (E) seems unlikely.

Scenario (A): In response to the Jewish Revolt in Judea, Vespasian leads a Roman military campaign through Judea in 66 CE. Prior to leaving Rome, or while passing through Judea, Vespasian or his advisors hear stories of miracles performed by a Jewish man in an obscure movement in Judea. Dr. Ehrman in his book, The Triumph of Christianity, estimates that the number of Christians in 60 CE was around 1,000 to 1,500, and then around 7,000 to 10,000 Christians in 100 CE. This would result in 2,000 to 2,800 Christians in 66 CE – justifying the adjective of “obscure” for that time. Seeking an element of propaganda (political power struggle to become emperor, or shortly thereafter to cement his divine image as emperor), Vespasian plagiarizes these stories for his own use. He is not concerned with “plagiarism” since the Christian movement is so obscure, and documentation at that time was not prevalent to warrant worries of plagiarism. Early Christian leaders obviously hear about Vespasian’s claims, and are familiar with similar stories about Jesus, but what can they do? Do they attempt a plea to some type of Roman authority against the Roman Emperor claiming he is plagiarizing Jesus’ miracles? There may have been a few dedicated, brave (or stupid) early Christian fathers who attempted to claim Vespasian was plagiarizing, but for whatever reason, their arguments were ignored or thought unimportant, and subsequently lost to history. Thus began the uneasy and eventually unanswerable position of early Christian leaders that the stories of Jesus’ miracles existed first. They could have potentially avoided such conflict by writing those miracles out of the Gospels, but for some reason chose not to (religious convictions, principles, perception of cowardice, etc.).

Scenario (B): As the Christian movement grows beyond obscurity, early Christian leaders hear of Vespasian’s miracles. The element of miracles is also associated with the early Christian movement as evidenced by references in Paul’s seven letters prior to 66 CE (Galatians 3:5, 1 Corinthians 12:10, 12:28, 12:29, 2 Corinthians 12:12, Romans 15:19). Even though the Vespasian miracles are well known, early Christian leaders decide to attribute these same documented miracles to Jesus, and write them into the Gospel stories. It is unclear why they would do so, introducing such an obvious conflict with the Roman Emperor – maybe trying to take advantage of a popular propaganda scheme that seemed to be working well? So, the early Christian leaders knowingly introduced the uneasy and eventually unanswerable question as to which came first. Why would they purposefully introduce conflict with the Roman empire as Christianity was starting to take hold – even in Rome herself?

Scenario (C): The position presented by Jesus Mythicists; the entire story of the Jesus movement was fabricated by high-up Roman authorities during or after the time of Vespasian, thus naturally incorporating stories associated with Vespasian’s miracles. This position ignores or discredits arguments of an historical Jesus in Judea prior to the Jewish Revolt of 60 to 70 CE.

Scenario (D): The miracles attributed to Vespasian were associated with some other miracle worker besides Jesus. Since Paul was talking about miracles in his letters, the early Christian leaders first adapted these miracles to Jesus, and then within the span of only a few years, Vespasian also adapted these same miracles stories – somewhat similar to Scenario (A), but with an earlier third source origin. The other version of this scenario is that Vespasian first adapted these miracles and then the early Christian leaders wrote these same miracles into the Gospels. This version is essentially Scenario (B), and for reasons I mention above, is unlikely.

Scenario (E): The similarities are accidental and simply coincidence. Two separate documentations of two similar miraculous stories, particularly the uniqueness of using one’s spit to cure blindness, within the span of a few decades seems unlikely.

The purpose of this post is to argue that the Vespasian miracles are not proof that the miracle stories in the Gospels were introduced after the Jewish Revolt. If one thinks about it carefully, the Vespasian miracles can be used as evidence these particular miracle stories existed prior to Vespasian and were adapted into or originated by early versions of the Gospel stories (written or verbal) prior to Vespasian.

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2023-11-30T12:52:57-05:00November 30th, 2023|Public Forum|

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  1. dankoh November 30, 2023 at 11:03 am

    The problem I have with any of these scenarios is that all assume a provenance (some of them different). But we don’t actually know which came first. Vespasian became emperor before any of the gospels were written (possibly excepting Mark). Suetonius and Tacitus (and also Dio, who has the same story) all wrote after the gospels were in circulation. That makes it really very difficult to do a proper evaluation of your scenarios.

    Now, a scholar of the NT once posited to me that the rationale for the Jesus miracles was this: There were many miracle workers in the first century, generally associated with some god, who specialized in doing one type of miracle. The gospels, so the argument goes, portrays Jesus doing all the miracles that each of these other miracle workers were doing, so as to assure followers of those gods that they follow Jesus’s god and still get the miracles.

    This leads me to propose Scenario (F): Vespasian similarly wanted to show that he had the favor of those same gods by doing the same miracles. That is, the stories are not coincidentally related, but derive from a common source.

    • rfleming November 30, 2023 at 1:25 pm

      The idea of using one’s spit in the procedure to cure blindness is unique and occurs in two written sources associated with events in the first century CE. Your Scenario (F) sounds similar to my Scenario (D), i.e., there was a third source of this story attributed to other “miracle” workers at that time, or it was simply a common story circulating in the Roman world at that time. I think this is entirely possible, but I am not aware of any written sources to support this idea. This does not mean this scenario isn’t possible since associated written sources could have been lost, or such stories were only word-of-mouth.

      However, if we assume my Scenario (D) or your Scenario (F), it still begs the question which story (the Vespasian miracles or the Gospel miracles) plagiarized this unique approach first. I am simply explaining why I think the Gospel miracle stories (plagiarized or original) existed before the Vespasian story. Some people suggest the Vespasian miracle stories predate the Gospel stories, but I find it difficult to understand why Gospel writers from that same time would plagiarize such a well-known story.

    • Matre November 30, 2023 at 4:45 pm

      I take issue with the comment re Suetonius and Tacitus writing after the gospels were in circulation. What , if anything was in ‘circulation’ for a start was not by any means what we recognise as ‘canonical’. Neither Roman writers were interested in the religions of the provinces other than they had import to the running of provinces (Tacitus) or the bigging up of the lives of yer current emperor and validating their right of rule through linkages of marriage, adoption, ancestry, especially of the divine nature. Hence Vespasian’s ‘miracles’. He is the divine monarch and chief priest of the Roman religious culture.

      • dankoh December 1, 2023 at 4:28 am

        By the end of the first century CE, Roman writers and authorities were starting to take note of this new sect, even if only to disparage it. The gospels then in circulation were probably not in the form we now recognize as canonical, but that hardly matters for this purpose.

  2. dankoh November 30, 2023 at 11:09 am

    A further comment on Scenario (A): I have trouble imagining Vespasian paying any attention to a small dissident sect of Judaism at a time when he was fighting a war against Jews in general (though admittedly he idled for a couple of years waiting for an emperor who could hold the throne long enough to give him policy direction). Nor would have much cared what they were saying about their founder, for the same reason.

    • rfleming November 30, 2023 at 1:53 pm

      I am not suggesting Vespasian would have given any level of concern about a small dissident sect of Judaism while he was waging war against the Jews, nor would he have been aware or concerned about the “founder” of the obscure movement. I am suggesting that Vespasian may have heard stories of using one’s spit to cure blindness, and for some reason (probably typical Roman propaganda to promote Roman Emperors as gods) decided to adapt this story to his own use.

      It’s hard to believe Vespasian, or members of his staff, originated the idea of using one’s spit to cure blindness. Roman propaganda would have been efficient at spreading the story of Vespasian’s miracles, and I think it would have become well known throughout the Roman empire. The high visibility of these stories is why I doubt the Gospel writers would have plagiarized them after they were known to be associated with Vespasian.

      I agree, we cannot know for sure which miracle story predates the other. I am simply presenting an alternative argument to those who feel the Vespasian miracles are a proof time stamp to predating the Gospel stories.

      • dankoh November 30, 2023 at 2:14 pm

        I had suggested a possible reason why the gospel writers might have wanted to show Jesus doing the same miracles as others were doing – that it would make Jesus more acceptable to followers of other miracle workers. That would not be plagiarism, but duplication.

        • rfleming November 30, 2023 at 2:53 pm

          Okay, I see your distinction – the Gospel writers, post-Vespasian, could have used the Vespasian miracle stories to purposefully gain wider acceptance and credibility in the Roman Empire. However, this seems like a risky approach that would have had a decent chance of backfiring, creating the appearance of an obvious conflict with a well-known story rather than a sense of acceptance.

          • dankoh December 1, 2023 at 4:32 am

            Do you have any knowledge of miracles being attributed to other emperors? That would help in analyzing your scenarios. Another factor that occurs to me is that Vespasian was the first emperor who was not from the nobility, and that may have been a reason to ascribe miracles to him. (I’m not quite clear on whether this is part of your Scenario (A).)

          • rfleming December 1, 2023 at 10:33 am

            The Greek historian, Plutarch (46 CE – 119 CE) wrote in Concerning the Fortune of the Romans that Julius Caesar had dominion over the waves of the sea. In reference to a boat pilot fearful of putting to sea due to violent waves, Plutarch quotes Caesar as saying, “Put on, brave fellow, and fear nothing, but commit the sails to [the goddess] Fortune, and expose all boldly to the winds; for thou carriest Caesar and Caesar’s fortune.” This was not a miracle, but it attributed supernatural power to Caesar. However, I believe you are correct that Vespasian was the only emperor attributed to performing miracles – aside from Marcus Aurelius’ so-called “rain miracle”, 100 years later (Cassius Dio, Roman History).

    • rfleming November 30, 2023 at 2:27 pm

      To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Jesus miracle stories were authentic events of a supernatural power. I am suggesting that these miracles stories likely predated Vespasian’s campaign against the Jews (66 CE). It is well accepted that Paul’s seven letters predate Vespasian, and his letters speak of miracles associated with the early Christian movement. There are any number of human explanations associating the performance of “miracles” during Jesus’ “ministries” to gain attention for the movement.

  3. stevenpounders November 30, 2023 at 4:55 pm

    I think you put far too much stock in the notion that the gospel writers would be concerned about “plagiarism”. The gospel writers plagiarize each other in obvious ways while also creating contradictions in the same plagiarisms. Texts of any sort were not widely available for readers to compare, much less be concerned with plagiarism.

    Unlike the anonymous sources for the gospels, the sources for Vespasian’s healings are known: Tacitus, Suetonius, and one you left out, Lucius Cassius Dio. Tacitus even gives an indication of his own sources, stating: “They who were present, relate both these cures, even at this time, when there is nothing to be gained by lying.”

    Serapis was known as a god of healing. For example, Diogenes Laertius records that the philosopher Demetrius, the son of Phanostratus, of Phalerum credited Serapis with healing his blindness in the 3rd century BC.

    I think it far more likely that the writer of the gospel of Mark plagiarized the healing of the blind man from stories of Vespasian, and the other gospels clearly plagiarized Mark.

    • rfleming November 30, 2023 at 7:16 pm

      That is an excellent point regarding the writers of the Canonical Gospels copying other sources, even creating contradictions, and potentially claiming to be someone they were not.

  4. nanuninu November 30, 2023 at 6:27 pm

    John 21:25, many other things. Here’s one: Jesus would often sneeze on people to cure them of their allergies.

    • rfleming November 30, 2023 at 7:17 pm

      Thank the gods for Zyrtec.

  5. stevenpounders November 30, 2023 at 7:04 pm

    Also, the use of spit in curing the eyes is not unique to these two stories. Pliny the Elder records it in Book 28, Chapter 7 of his Natural History. There is a reference in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to Thoth treating Horus’ damaged eye with spit. Certainly applying substances to the eyes as a curative is a practice found in many ancient writings.

  6. improv58 December 1, 2023 at 8:00 am

    Thanks for this unique perspective article.

    From good old wikipedia :

    “Vespasian also gave financial rewards to writers.[44] The ancient historians who lived through the period such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus speak suspiciously well of Vespasian while condemning the emperors who came before him.[45] Tacitus admits that his status was elevated by Vespasian, Josephus identifies Vespasian as a patron and saviour. Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder dedicated his Natural Histories to Vespasian’s son, Titus.[46]

    Those who spoke against Vespasian were punished. A number of Stoic philosophers were accused of corrupting students with inappropriate teachings and were expelled from Rome.[47] Helvidius Priscus, a pro-Republic philosopher, was executed for his teachings.[48] Numerous other philosophers and writers had their works seized, destroyed and denounced for being deemed too critical of Vespasian’s reign, some even posthumously.[48]”

    Seems like Vespasian may have exerted some influence over his miracle stories ?

  7. Bennett December 1, 2023 at 9:11 am

    Since there seems to be no way to definitely resolve this ‘issue’, I’ll put in my two cents.

    I think that stories of people working these miracles were just so common that they naturally got worked into any narrative about various individuals whose followers were seeking to establish authority. All the Roman emperors were deified, and by the time of Vespasian many were being treated as gods before they died. Some miraculous events were required for this process, so naturally such stories were circulated. It would have been natural for non-Jewish Christians to incorporate this process into the new religion.

    The point is, it’s not necessary to imagine one copied from the other. Miraculous doings were the currency of important people’s stories.

  8. R_Gerl December 1, 2023 at 5:31 pm

    It seems the gospel writers and early Christians were using ideas that originated outside their new religion. In ancient Greece (as well as Egypt and Mesopotamia) it was believed that evil spirits cause sickness. The New Testament gospels have Jesus curing people by removing evil spirits from their bodies. Hippocrates had the idea that spit could treat various disorders. The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus has spit being used to treat eye infections. And Matthew 6:22-23 seems to be either a reference to the much older idea of the evil eye or to Plato’s idea that the eye emitted light to give body vision. So, it seems like the early Christians had no problem borrowing ideas from past thinkers. In this respect, there is no way to tell if Vespasian’s people were borrowing ideas from a virtually unknown sect, the early Christians, or the other way around. As someone else posted here, they could both have been using common miracle motifs of their day. On the other hand, since the movement Jesus started was a copy of John the Baptist’s movement, perhaps John the Baptist had a reputation for doing miracles like these.

  9. rhh1 December 9, 2023 at 6:26 pm

    Tacitus Histories 4:81 (from Perseus)

    With respect, the whole tenor of this is very different from the portrayal of Jesus as a healer in the Synoptics. He does not doubt his capacity to heal (or to expel demons). Jesus does not need the approval of priests or the crowd.

    Healers, known worldwide, always healed people from common symptoms. Isn’t that all that is in common between Vespasian and Jesus?

  10. vkSG84s December 25, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    Why call scenario B unlikely? Christian leaders decide to attribute these same documented miracles to Jesus, and write them into the Gospel stories.
    Paul did much the same thing, say Crossan and Borg in The First Paul (Chapter Four): “In fact, almost all the sacred terms and solemn titles that we might think of as Christian creations or even Pauline inventions were already associated with Caesar Augustus, the first undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, from 31 BCE to 14 CE.”
    Weren’t many of these miracles foretold by Isaiah? Such that the gospels would feel obliged to fulfill those prophecies in their accounts of Yeshua?

    • rfleming December 25, 2023 at 1:34 pm

      Great point regarding the commonality of early Jesus-movement concepts with Roman tradition and Caesar Augustus (son of a god and himself divine) granting Scenario B good possibility. The Greek historian, Plutarch, wrote of Julius Caesar having dominion over the sea and calming violent waves (similar to Matt 8:26-27). Roman historian, Livy, wrote in The Early History of Rome, I.3 that the founders of Rome, the brothers Romulus and Remus, as having been born of a Vestal Virgin, Sylvia, with the god, Mars, as their father. In I.40, Livy referred to “Romulus, the son of a god and himself divine.” Plutarch wrote of “Queen Tanaquil… dressed up the virgin… in a room together with this apparition… Lar the household god… or Vulcan… but which-soever it was, Ocresia was with child, and gave birth to Sevius [the sixth Roman King, 579 to 535 BCE].”

      In the first century BCE, the Greek historian, Nicolaus of Damascus, wrote in Life of Augustus, that at the funeral of Julius Caesar’s sister, Julia, in 51 BCE, when Octavian would have been about twelve years old, “he gave an oration before a large crowd and received much applause from grown men.” Similar to Luke 2:42-47.

      • rfleming December 25, 2023 at 2:55 pm

        As a side note, the items of Roman culture and tradition noted in my reply above existed before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and prior to the birth of the Jesus movement (c. 30 CE). I believe there is evidence of Roman influence on the Jesus movement from its very beginning in addition to a gradual infusion over following decades.

    • rfleming December 25, 2023 at 2:03 pm

      I suppose we can see why the Gospel writers would associate the prophecies in Isaiah with the Jesus movement. However, we know the “unto us a son is given” in Isaiah 9:6 was referring to Hezekiah, the 13th king of Judah, son of Ahaz (12th king of Judah, c. 716 – 687 BCE) during the Assyrian crisis. Messianic references in Isaiah were associated with the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, (550 – 530 BCE, Isaiah 45:1) who conquered Babylon, essentially freeing the Jews from bondage and their exile from Jerusalem. These “prophecies” were associated with significant events and people in Jewish history and had nothing to do with the Jesus movement some five to seven hundred years later. I imagine there are many Jewish historians who consider the Gospel writers (as well as modern day Christians) as simply flattering themselves to think the writings in Isaiah had anything to do with their movement.

      • vkSG84s December 26, 2023 at 12:40 pm

        Thank you. Maybe we could say that the admirers of Yeshua appropriated admirable attributes and titles from other (rival) traditions, however old or new, near or far?

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