The Miracles of Jesus and Vespasian

This weekend, I was honored to be able to present a paper at the Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society which was held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the first formal conference paper I’ve presented and it was a tremendous experience.

The title for the paper was, Evaluating the Healing Miracles of Vespasian and Jesus – Garet Robinson.

Vespasian To summarize the point of the paper, too often we hear a criticism that the authors of the New Testament simply drew on contemporary myths and stories to frame their various presentations of Jesus’ life and ministry. Especially when it comes to Jesus’ miraculous works, other examples stand as common stories out of which the Gospel writers framed and enhanced the historical Jesus.

One of the contemporary counter-examples is Vespasian, who rose to power at the end the year of four emperors in CE 69 and established the Flavian dynasty in Rome. Vespasian, for his many conquests and dramatic rise to power, also had some healing miracles attributed to him in the mid-60s during his time in Alexandria. Of his popular biographers, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio all describe these healing miracles.

As part of the method to evaluate the different healing miracles of Jesus and Vespasian, for Jesus’ part I used the data available from the Gospel of Mark and the six healing miracles which the Jesus Seminar has agreed are the most historically attested. (That will draw the ire of some for sure, but as this is a critical inquiry for apologetic purposes the method is to use the most critical scholarship to establish and evaluate the miracles regardless of my personal position.) The six hearings considered are: Peter’s mother-in-law (GMk 1:29ff); the leper (GMk 1:40-45); the paralytic (GMk 2:1-12); the hemorrhaging woman (GMk 5:24b-34); the blind man of Bethsaida (GMk 8:22-26); Blind Bartimaeus (GMk 10:46-52.)

Essentially what this boils down to is, that Vespasian has healing miracles of at least two men before a crowd in Alexandria of varying ailments after consulting some medical professionals and being assured of the successfulness of his venture. As his biographers note, because of this feat Vespasian was able to enlist the support of the Roman legion and add to his credentials (divine sanction being a plus) in the quest to become emperor of Rome.

Jesus, on the other hand, heals individuals who either seek him out or are brought to his attention, mostly in private and in the region where he was conducting most of his ministry. In each of the episodes Jesus is the only agent healing and does so without assistance from anyone else. These miracles, except Blind Bartimaeus, are attested to by the other Synoptic authors.

There are points of similarity between Jesus and Vespasian’s healing miracles:

  • They are effective to heal the individuals completely at their completion.
  • The agent (Jesus or Vespasian) is able to heal on their own without any additional assistance from someone else.
  • In the biographical accounts of the agent, there is somewhat close proximity to their life of these miracles. The Synoptics are written, by the latest account within 50 years of Jesus’ life; Vespasian’s biographies are dated later but still within 40 years at the earliest and 150 years at the latest.
  • Some aspects of the healing, spitting on the eyes or touching the individual needing to be healed, are similar between Jesus and Vespasian.

However, some differences to exist between the two story lines:

  • For those being healed by Jesus, they are beyond medical assistance and have been suffering with these ailments for quite some time. Those in Vespasian’s stories are not entirely beyond medical aid, as recorded by his biographers, and seem to only have been suffering for some short time.
  • Jesus’ healing miracles occur in the region of Galilee where he is conducting his initial ministry. Vespasian’s healing miracles occur in Alexandria, a major city for certain, but one that is far removed from the final seat of power in Rome. If Jesus’ healing miracles had been false they would have been easily seen as frauds and he would have been discredited whereas for Vespasian, only the most eager critic would have both the means and time to travel far to Alexandria and check his story out.
  • Vespasian’s healings appear to be limited to this one account, with some variance in the attestation by his biographers. Jesus’ healing miracles are multiple attested and Christus_Bartimaeus_Johann_Heinrich_Stoever_Erbach_Rheingauuniformly carry the same features. However, Jesus’ healing miracles are more numerous, even in this critical recounting, and across a wider breadth of his ministry.
  • Finally, Jesus seems to welcome those seeking healing without question of their motives or chastisement. Vespasian, however, mocks those coming and, only after being assured of his successfulness in performing the miracle, does he step forward to complete the task.

 

In the end, there is some similarity and some difference between Jesus and Vespasian’s healing miracles. Being able to consider them alongside each other is a helpful venture for apologetic and historical purposes.

As one of the observers to my session pointed out, it would be fascinating to consider if Jesus’ healing miracles stood as the example for the historical figures of antiquity (following Jesus’ life) to borrow from or mold their stories around. Usually we only hear about how the Gospel and NT writers drew from their surroundings and, as best I can surmise, we never hear about the reverse.

Hopefully, this is a step towards another discussion. The historical Jesus is an intriguing field of study and setting him alongside his contemporaries and near messianic rivals is worth our time and effort. It might be concerning for some, but in the end, with the proper methodology, I believe we reinforce the historical Jesus in such exercises.