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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