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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.

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Zombies and the Bible

As it is almost Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve as it is properly said, which leaves many of us thinking of creepy and undead things. Well, perhaps more than usual. Over the past two years we’ve seen a pretty startling rise in the number of television shows and movies that showcase zombies, or zombie killing, as central to their plot. This has been along the same line as “teen paranormal romance” novels which are, perhaps, a telling sign that we are nearing the end of days.

So, as we look towards that spooky evening tomorrow night, I wonder how we might encounter zombies in the Bible. And I’m not talking about Zombie Jesus, because that’s a heresy.

The Bible is a varied text that ranges in genre, age, and personality from book to book. In this premodern book of books, there are any number of scenes that are odd or just downright creepy. For most of us, when we look to the Bible zombies aren’t the primary reason we read Scripture. However, there are some scenes that should remind us the undead are a topic of interest occasionally in the Christian Scriptures.

Few accounts match the description of a plague from Zechariah 14:12,

This will be the plague the LORD strikes all the peoples with, who have warred against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. 

Sounds pretty much like zombie-esque activities. Maybe a little too much like World War Z or I Am Legend. Zombies aren’t always the undead, but living people who become zombified.

One of the first descriptive accounts, and perhaps most notable, is the scene in Matthew 27:52f following the death of Jesus on the Cross. Here’s Matthew’s account: (HCSB)

52 The tombs were also openeda and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  53 And they came out of the tombs after His resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

For many, perhaps most, Bible scholars this passage is viewed as apocryphal and an unnecessary elaboration by Matthew. Obviously after the recent dust-up between Mike Licona and Norm Geisler, this topic has been readily handled. For our purposes, let’s just note the passage and move on after pointing out, that imagine being in the streets of Jerusalem and seeing this horde of zombies pouring out of graves and staggering through the streets. Then you’re realizing, “Oh, that’s just Zephaniah…let’s see how’s he’s been.”

Another possible zombie passage is found in John’s Gospel, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the Dead. The scene given in John 11:38-44 shows Jesus, going to the tomb of Lazarus and calling him out from the grave. Most folks don’t think that Lazarus would have been a zombie since the account seems to reflect that Lazarus, though still shrouded in grave clothes, had a restored body. But still, you got to say that someone who was resuscitated (I think it is different than resurrection) who is walking around for another couple of years is pretty creepy. It becomes important, then to note there are differences between those who are resuscitated and those who might be actual zombies. Yet I’m compelled to think what the difference is, since zombies could be people who have been dead for a while. Perhaps its a matter of degree.

Other examples of Jesus resuscitating someone exist, specifically in the miracle stories of Luke 7:11-17, the widow’s son, and later in Luke 8:40-56, Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps this kind of miracle was attested to in Jesus’ ministry since he is thought of as a raiser of the dead in Matthew 10:8. However, I don’t think we need to label Jesus a necromancer, since he doesn’t have the clothes in all the pictures we see of him from that era…just kidding, about the clothes.

Revelation also depicts some possible zombie scenes with dead people springing to life-like existences. The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:9-12 are raised from the dead and are cause people around them to be afraid. Also, in Revelation 20:5 there is talk of the dead being raised. It is unlikely these are zombie like states, though the Two Witnesses, given how they die might be zombies and that would surely explain their reception by others. Of course, this all means you need to read Revelation in a futurist frame of reference.

Hebrews 11:35 also speaks about women receiving dead loved ones, though this is by resurrection. It seems that resurrection talk is different than zombies for some New Testament authors. In Acts 9:40 there is a scene where Peter is thought to be dead but isn’t. Clearly this isn’t a zombie text, but more of a “not quite dead yet” scene.

The Old Testament has many scenes of people brought back from the dead. Though I will deal with 1 Samuel 28:3-25 tomorrow, the ghostly appearance of Samuel is unsettling to say the least (and perhaps the greatest ghost-story ever told.)

Outside of Samuel, we see in 1 Kings 17:17-24 a scene were Elijah resuscitates a boy from the dead and this also happens with Elisha in 2 Kings 4:32-37 when he resuscitates the Shunamite’s son. One intriguing scene is found in 2 Kings 13:26f where, after having died and, it seems, decomposed, Elisha’s bones have restorative powers. A group of men were burying a friend when they spied a band of marauding Moabites. They cast the body into Elisha’s the tomb (which was apparently open) and ran off, but the dead friend came into contact with Elisha’s bones and he sprang back to life. Now that’s a creepy story. Think about it, you run home to evade the Moabites and a couple minutes later Jeff comes walking in scratching his head and wondering why he just woken up in a crypt. Jeff died three days ago. And hopefully he isn’t hungry for brains…but it is possible.

So, I think this brief tour of zombies in the Bible we see that there are a couple of key passages worth investigating. Many will disregard these things as being outlandish or simply unreasonable. As we’ll talk about tomorrow, with Samuel, maybe a lot of this is because we’ve already made up our minds that once someone dies they immediately go into the presence of the other side never to return. I believe this kind of presupposed theology (or necro-ology) doesn’t automatically cohere with the biblical record.

Nevertheless, as you sit and ponder creepy and erie things over the next day, maybe one or two of these passages will help guide your thinking. Ultimately, those of us who are redeemed should be thankful that we have a greater Savior than anything which goes bump in the night.

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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.

17
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Apologetics

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