Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Alleged Miracles Of Vespasian

In a thread on miracles attributed to the Roman emperor Vespasian, I commented that one of the factors to take into account when evaluating miracle reports is the atmosphere in which the reports are made. Is it a serious or a trivializing atmosphere? Are sources named or unnamed? What is the distance of time from the supposed event to the report of that event? Etc.

Let's read what the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Vespasian's alleged healing miracles. As you read this, take note of the occasions when Tacitus uses words like "superstitions" and suggests bad motives:

"In the months during which Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the periodical return of the summer gales and settled weather at sea, many wonders occurred which seemed to point him out as the object of the favour of heaven and of the partiality of the Gods. One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his blindness, threw himself at the Emperor's knees, and implored him with groans to heal his infirmity. This he did by the advice of the God Serapis, whom this nation, devoted as it is to many superstitions, worships more than any other divinity. He begged Vespasian that he would deign to moisten his cheeks and eye-balls with his spittle. Another with a diseased hand, at the counsel of the same God, prayed that the limb might feet the print of a Caesar's foot. At first Vespasian ridiculed and repulsed them. They persisted; and he, though on the one hand he feared the scandal of a fruitless attempt, yet, on the other, was induced by the entreaties of the men and by the language of his flatterers to hope for success. At last he ordered that the opinion of physicians should be taken, as to whether such blindness and infirmity were within the reach of human skill. They discussed the matter from different points of view. 'In the one case,' they said, 'the faculty of sight was not wholly destroyed, and might return, if the obstacies were removed; in the other case, the limb, which had fallen into a diseased condition, might be restored, if a healing influence were applied; such, perhaps, might be the pleasure of the Gods, and the Emperor might be chosen to be the minister of the divine will; at any rate, all the glory of a successful remedy would be Caesar's, while the ridicule of failure would fall on the sufferers.' And so Vespasian, supposing that all things were possible to his good fortune, and that nothing was any longer past belief, with a joyful countenance, amid the intense expectation of the multitude of bystanders, accomplished what was required. The hand was instantly restored to its use, and the light of day again shone upon the blind. Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood." (The Histories, 4:81)

Glenn Miller comments:

"This account has so many tongue-in-cheek elements in it--even for a court historian--it is hard to be 'impressed' by Vespasian's performance. Not only does the motif of 'God has selected YOU to be emperor' appear here several times, but Vespasian is portrayed as just another calculating and manipulative mortal: He checks with physicians to gauge his risk of failure, he is motivated by fear and flattery, he has a backup plan to blame failure on the patients, and he laughs in ridicule at the notion of his divine power. Tacitus uses this miracle story to paint a VERY unflattering portrait of Vespasian, all couched in conventional forms. But the crowning blow is the last sentence, making the obvious point that at the time of the alleged event there WAS a motive for lying! The cat is out of the bag, and the reader obviously knows that there actually still IS a motive for the witnesses to continue the story--to demonstrate that they weren't lying for gain! It is really hard to take this seriously--Tacitus obviously did not--as a case of embellishing a narrative with miraculous elements 'in honor of a dead leader'…[Meier notes this in his work, that 'a number of commentators consider it ironical and sarcastic', mentioning Tacitus scholars Ronald Syme, Chilver, and Townsend. [MJ:2:612, n.82]]"

Did Jesus behave like Vespasian did (doubting his own powers, consulting political assistants, etc.)? Do the gospel writers make suggestions about the unreliability of their sources the way Tacitus does? Does Tacitus name the witnesses? Did the gospel writers have the sort of political, financial, etc. motives that the people claiming miracles for Vespasian would have had? Did the people who allegedly saw the Vespasian miracles suffer and die for their testimony? Do we have eyewitness accounts from these men associated with Vespasian, as we have eyewitness accounts from Paul, for example? Did any enemies of Vespasian convert to become followers of him, comparable to what happened with James and Paul in the context of Christianity?

When we ask questions like these, how does the Vespasian/Jesus parallel hold up? It doesn't hold up well. If Vespasian did have some miracles associated with him (performed by him or by some other being on his behalf), would that fact contradict Christianity? No. Are the reported miracles of Vespasian comparable to those of Jesus in terms of variety and depth of power? No.

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