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.


About that Camel and Abraham

camelLast week a bit of a media kerfuffle emerged after several media outlets reported that a “new discovery” cast doubts about the “accuracy and truthfulness” of the Bible. This was not stunning news, these kinds of report happen often. Specifically here, the pieces were referring to an archeological discussion about camel bones.

The reports appears to center around a piece written by Martin Hiede, back in 2010, titled “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological andInscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia,and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible.”

Certainly other, more informed folks, have written about this and given their more informed perspectives on the archeology behind this. Essentially, these qualified archeologists were excavating the site of an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley when they found some leg bones from camels. After dating the bones to about BCE 900, they also noted that the bones showed no signs of domestication. This brings doubt to the use of camels in Genesis 12:16; 24:35; 30:43; 37:25 where camels are referenced in ways that demonstrate domestication.

However, the reports of the Bible’s utter demise seem, yet again, to be overstated.

As a means of working through this “new issue” let’s apply a couple of thoughtful apologetic processes consider the claim:

  • One of the first things I did upon hearing that the Bible’s testimony was suddenly both under scrutiny and possibly undermined, yes that should be read ironically, was consult a couple of technical commentaries I have in my study. One of the commentaries, Nahum Sarna’s excellent installment for the JPS Torah Commentary, written in 2001, points out the issues of early domestication against the certain archeological evidences (pg 96.) Sarna points out that this issue has been known for a while and there are some responses. He suggests that, perhaps, we are dealing with a different species of camel than is found elsewhere. So, two points here: 1) this isn’t a new problem and 2) very good, very informed scholars have already provided some responses.
  • Then we look deeper at the archeological discovery and note that negative evidence is tenuous at best and, in the words of Professor Hiede, “Proving that something did not exist at some time and place in the past is every archaeologist’s nightmare because proof of its existence may, despite all claims to the contrary, be unearthed at some future date” (337) This is not an exhaustive discovery since the site being excavated isn’t the entire ancient world. Other evidences may spring up in the future, the responsible action is to note the challenge and not make wild claims.
  • Even if this text comes from a later redactor, a reasonable claim in Old Testament scholarship, including evangelical scholars, this doesn’t mean the text suddenly a) isn’t inspired, b) isn’t coherent with the teaching of the Bible. We stand at such a distance from the inscripturation of the biblical text, especially the Hebrew Bible, that many references and idiomatic language can be lost in translation. However, an honest and forthright investigation of the text doesn’t take every “new story” uncovered four years after its publication and blow it up out of context.
  • If we trust in the media establishment to communicate authentically and with scholarly nuance we are setting ourselves up for failure. As Anthony LeDonne has aptly pointed out, even the media’s reporting they are confusing 900 BCE with CE 900…a difference of 1800 years. When scholars in the field, such as Alan Millard write concise letters to the editor much of the issues are cleared up. This is because these scholars have seen the issues before and also know of the contrary data that exists. Archeology is not the enemy of the faithful, yet too many reporters make their money off false-dichtomies like this.


The biblical text can be confusing at time and, in light of the scant archeological data around it, hard to comprehend as well. However, we will all do well to consider the actual arguments being offered and then see where scholars are in dealing with the primary issues. For evangelicals, and other Christians, we can have confidence in an inspired text that, though thoroughly troubling at times, is an inspired text that accomplishes what it sets out to do when properly understood amid its pre-modern times.

Feb 2014



Testing Miracle Claims

Over the past several weeks I’ve been working through my comprehensive examinations for my PhD. Part of my course of study has taken me through the topic of miracle claims and how we might go about evaluating them.

One of the best studies concerning miracles comes from Graham Twelftree in his work Jesus the Miracle Worker which explores, critically, the topic of miracles and the ministry of Jesus Christ. In the text, Twelftree explores four areas of inquiry concerning miracles: the contemporary views of miracles, surveying the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels, evaluating miracles in historical Jesus research, and some specific miracle categories.

Part of the discussion that Twelftree develops are historical tests for miracle claims. Since there are some other miracle claims from antiquity which often are compared to the miracles of Jesus, some historical criteria are important for comparison and evaluating miracle claims. Part of Twelftree’s discussion presents seven tests for miracle claims, taken in part from Robert J Miller’s work with the Jesus Seminar.

Twelftree’s seven criteria for testing miracle claims (specifically of Jesus but this can be applied broadly) are:

1. Burden of Proof – this helps formulate neutrality on the part of the testifier, it also prevents questions from being decided prior to inquiry or based on insufficient evidence.

2. Demonstration – shows how a valid position arises when the reasons for accepting it far outweighs the reasons for not accepting it.

3. Historicity – as Twelftree notes, this essentially is a default position, for it notes there is no other way to account for a story arising in history unless thoroughly discredited by a lack of affirmation from these tests.

4. Multiple Attestation – a story which arises in multiple, independent sources.

5. Dissimilarity – this is a preliminary evidence for historicity if the story is not essential to the narrative design and does not employ specific Christological themes that are distinctive to the Gospel in which the story arises.

6. Plausibility – is the scene plausible given the reconstructions of the text in which the scene is found and its relation to the overall narrative.

7. Coherency – is the saying or scene presupposes an authentic saying or if act is independently established, it is historical.

In these seven tests, Twelftree provides a helpful method for application to not just New Testament miracles, but others from antiquity. With many other claims of miracles that exist in antiquity, through these tests the miracle stories of Jesus are able to vetted alongside those others to evaluate if they are historical and probable.

I would add an additional criteria of evaluation to these, which has been noted by others include Dr Gary Habermas:

8. Timeliness – is the recording of the event done within an appropriate historical time frame of the actual story or event itself. Is it within a generation or two?

The issue here is that for many competing claims of miraculous works in antiquity, the recording of the event is done within reasonable proximity to the actual event and was able to survey eyewitnesses and primary sources to communicate the event reliably. For instance, in the scene where Pythagoras healed the sick and removed pestilence is reported by Porphyry in The Life of Pythagoras which was written in CE 223 whereas Pythagoras lived in 582-500 BCE. The event is recorded over eight hundred years later.

Jesus’ miracles are attested to by individuals who wrote about them within a generation and had access to the eyewitnesses to the events and, perhaps, primary source data. As Luke describes in his own Gospel, there was a plan of consulting these sources Luke 1:1-4. Likewise, the other Gospel writers and early New Testament documents have been widely established to have been written within close proximity to the death and resurrection of Jesus as to be faithful to meet this test.

So, these tests for miracle claims are helpful when we begin to compare the works of Jesus to others and also as we test the claims of the New Testament. Twelftree’s methodology is a fine framework that can be applied generally to this kind of historical research.

Even if one takes away possibly dubious miracle claims for Jesus work and ministry (which we don’t have to do) you are left with a suitable set of miracles that stand apart from other messianic claimants and humanly figures in antiquity. These tests provide a helpful lens for evaluating such claims.

Later on I’ll summarize my research comparing Jesus’ miracles with Vespasian. I’ve found Vespasian to be, possibly, the best test case outside of Jesus’ stories in the Gospels for encountering miracles in antiquity.

Sep 2013



Harris’ Bible Contradictions Chart: A study in deconstruction

About two years ago, Fast Company pushed out a piece via their twitter feed provocatively called  “Infographic: What the Bible Got Wrong.” Now, why Fast Company, a secular business publication, would have any interest in describing the chart as, “[managing] to make an ancient text — over which men have fought wars and women have sacrificed babies — look downright silly.” is beyond reasonable comprehension. However, the power of visualizations like this is important to note in our present day, media driven society.

The chart cited originates from Sam Harris’ Project Reason site and has elicited plenty of conversation.  As an initial observation, the chart is an excellent example of simplifying a complex argument through a graphic representation. On first glance the chart is overwhelming, it appears to demonstrate massive contradictions across the 66 books of Christian Scripture. Most of my atheist friends I have pointed to this chart, and one had it specially framed and put on their office wall. This chart has found new life on the site:

The chart also is a good representation of how a provocative issue, like errors in the Bible or anything about “rethinking” Jesus, can sell like umbrellas in a rainstorm.

However, as we  take a closer look at the chart and don’t get overwhelmed by its possible implications we see there is not much beyond the flashy graphic.

After adopting their work from another person (which came out two years prior to Harris’ chart,) Harris’ chart attempts to immediately shock the cursory glance by suggesting that there are such insurmountable contradictions within the Bible that they should stun any believer or non-believer to think the Bible is coherent, honest, or valid. Of course, this is the point of this wildly erroneous infographic.

So in evaluating the graphic we begin by noting several of its features:

1. The chart is broken up into several parts that are all important: the arching lines are the most prominent, but also below the lines are the various chapters of the entire 66 books of the accepted Christian Bible measured according to their verse length, then below this top half of the chart is a numbered list of the 439 Bible contradictions, finally some bottom information which is essential to understanding the chart.

2. Now, the amount of lines on the graphic exceeds 439 lines.

3. As well, there is little evidence that any of the arching lines in the above chart correspond to the contradictions listed. As a result, the force of the graphic is unrelated to the contradictions below. Since multiple references occur for different numbered contradictions, there is little way of showing how these have worked themselves out graphically in a singularly colored chart.

4. You’ll note on the bottom left hand corner of the chart Harris’ group points out that the biblical translation they are using is the King James Version only. Since it “The King James Bible was used due to its popularity, perceived authenticity, lack of copyright restrictions and the fact that it has not been subjected to cosmetic editing, as have some of the more modern versions of the Bible.”

This is a compelling statement that should immediately discredit their work. The last update of the King James Version was in 1769. Since 1769 the amount of credible, peer reviewed, academically recognized biblical studies research that has occurred is the same amount of difference of the scientific worldview from 1769 to the present. The Dead Sea Scrolls were unknown, the Critical Text was unknown, Ugaritic was unknown, archeological studies were in their infancy, the list can go on and on.

As a result it is highly disingenuous and discrediting for Harris’ group to suggest that the 1769 KJV is the best text since all the contemporary versions have been “cosmetically edited.” Suffice to say, the “editing” in the contemporary versions isn’t cosmetic, it is rigorously backed, highly research multi-disciplinary updating.

5. The list of 439 contradictions (expanded to 464 on the site) is actually not a list of contradictions. It instead contains a host of perceived errors, scientific inaccuracy, sexual discrimination, unresolved questions, and other issues that Harris’ group find to be on contradiction not always to the Bible, but to their worldview primarily.

6. As one begins to evaluate these “contradictions” it becomes clear that the vast majority are easily dismissed and have been dismissed by competent, credible scholarship.

For instance, here’s one taken at random: #48 Did Jesus Baptize Anyone? Of the texts given (which correspond to entries from the Skeptics Annotated Bible) are not actually in contradiction or show any discrepancy. Instead, the narrative as the Gospel of John records it, there is a clarification given on 4:2 (which clearly was only a paragraph or two later in the original texts) that explains 3:22 in that Jesus was overseeing the baptism carried out by His disciples.

Other examples abound within the chart. (I’ll anticipate responding to a few more later this week, however I do not simply have the time to respond to all right now.)

Upon closer investigation, even without the aids of competent scholarship, most of the “contradictions” are easily resolved by a plain text reading of Scripture using basic hermeneutical principles that most lay people are familiar with.

Ultimately what we are left with in Harris’ chart is a stunning graphic that has no basis. Yet the atheistic response seems to attempt to build a fortress upon this weak ground.

Others have responded to this and poor texts like Dennis McKinsey’s ill fated Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy. A couple of good examples are Norm Geisler’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties and Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible DifficultiesOther resources abound though the scholarly consensus is that the vast majority of these 469 contradictions aren’t actual challenges to the Bible. This isn’t to say there are difficult spots within the biblical text, but it is, instead, to point out how rejected these tired new atheist arguments are in the broader academic circles.

Tomorrow, I’ll go through a discussion the Bible study group I lead had about this chart and how we can practically lead our people to see poor argumentation for what it truly is and then believe stronger.


Why Names in the New Testament Matter

Every year (or several times a year) we hear about what the most popular baby names are for newborns. One of the fun things to do is to compare lists from different decades. For instance, here is a list of baby names from 2012 and 1912:

Now this kind of popular social science commentary has an apologetic appeal. One of the growing areas of research in NT studies has been to cross-reference the names of individuals and towns with the growing number of ancient external documents to evaluate how the NT lines up with its first century environment.

The idea is this: that if the New Testament documents were written far beyond the time of the first century the pseudo-authors wouldn’t have accurately ascribed first century names to their subjects or towns.

Think of it like this: let’s say you were to write a novel based in the early 1800s in rural Kentucky. You are going to have to give names to characters and towns. It is unlikely that, without research, you’d naturally come up with common names and accurate towns for that period.

In Richard Bauckham’s recent text Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, he evaluates the use of names in the New Testament with their first century lists of common names. The New Testament does extremely well.

Drawing on data from Tal Ilan’s 2002 study Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Bauckham evaluates the New Testament’s use of names against the lists established by scholars working outside Christian research. As he compares the lists, Bauckham finds several key things:

1. That the NT, the most popular names of the era appear at similar rates of popularity. The most popular men’s name of the era is Simon which is also the most popular NT name for men. For women, the most popular name is Mary which, in correspondence with the NT, is the most popular name for women there as well.

2. Where the Gospel writers make an additional contribution is found in the specificity of the names used and identifications of individuals based on their family or area of origin. For instance: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas, Mary of Bethany, Mary the Mother of Jesus, etc.

3. One of the strengths of the Gospel testimony is that it appears to have been written by individuals of the same era as the original historical acts they describe, and it is informed by eyewitnesses who were present and others who were later interviewed for the source data.

One of the strengths of Bauckham’s work is the detailed historical scholarship he brings together to  prove his case. Ultimately, what one is left with is a reinforced basis for holding to the early authorship of, at least, the Gospel texts and some other New Testament books. (You can still hold to traditional authorship and dating while allowing Bauckham’s work to bolster some claims.)

Some of this data has been covered in a great discussion from a recent Vertias Forum titled, The Story of Jesus: History or Hoax? which is worth your time to give a full listen and thoughtful consideration.

On the other hand, the so-called Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of: Thomas, Mary, Judas, etc) don’t fair well at all. Whereas the NT authors have an affinity to using correct names and specific differentiation of individuals, the Gnostic Gospels do neither. There is a generalizing trend in the Gnostics that is different from the Gospels in the NT. This pushes against a view that the Gnostic Gospels had a source that would have been close to the events of which they speak.

So, we are left with an additional confirmation that the New Testament is a set of documents written in close historical proximity to the events it describes. It was written by eyewitnesses and informed by their accounts.

When one considers the various non-biblical religious texts, and also the Gnostic Gospels, there is a lack of credibility in these documents. They seem to be written significantly after the events they describe and are often descriptions of events not supported by eyewitnesses. The New Testament fairs well when one compares it to other documents in these regards.

As scholarly consensus continues to grow support for historical, orthodox Christian claims about the foundational documents of our faith, how much better equipped are we to answer the scurrilous charges of the critics.