About two years ago I met Classicist Trevor Luke (Associate Professor of Classics, Florida State University) at the Society for Classical Studies national annual meeting in San Francisco. Luke was presenting a paper at the time on his research regarding the healing miracles of Roman emperors. It is a common misconception that only the emperor Vespasian was associated with an isolated incident of healing a blind and crippled man in Alexandria (Suet. Vesp. 7.2-3). But Luke’s research demonstrates that there were actually several Roman emperors who were reputed to have performed miracles. As Luke explains (“A Healing Touch for Empire,” pg. 78 n. 5):
“Titus attempted to end a plague (Suet. Tit. 8.4). Pliny the Younger (Pan. 22.3) writes of sick people’s belief in Trajan’s healing power. Hadrian ended drought in Africa (SHA Hadr. 22.14) and healed two people (ibid. 25.1–4). Marcus Aurelius was credited with lightning (SHA Marc. 24.4) and rain miracles (Dio Cass. 71.8.10; SHA Marc. 24.4).”
In addition to the miracles discussed above, it should also be noted that the emperor Augustus, like Jesus after him, was attributed with a divine conception (which Luke discusses further in the blog post below). Likewise, Roman emperors were associated more broadly with the ancient Mediterranean trope of divine translation after their death, which likely influenced the formation of the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as Richard Miller discusses in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity.
What follows is the first post in a dialogue that Luke and I will be holding as part of a blog series to explore why Jesus gained a reputation as a miracle worker, and how this repute was influenced by Roman imperial ideology, as well as both Jewish and Greco-Roman motifs about miracles. I’ll be writing the next post in this exchange, in reply to Luke’s observations below. One of the points that I will be incorporating is a response to Craig Keener’s observation that Jesus, in comparison to Roman emperors like Vespasian, has a greater number of miracles attributed to him (something that I discuss in this previous book review here).
One argument that I will be proposing is that it actually makes a lot of sense that Jesus has more miracles attributed to him than Vespasian. A Roman emperor like Vespasian had a large resume upon which he could boast his reputation, which included such feats as quelling the uprising in Judea and bringing a victorious conclusion to the Roman civil war of 69 CE. For Vespasian, therefore, a couple of miracles were only a fraction of his propaganda. For Jesus, however, without his miracles, he would have been a nobody, itinerant peasant in the small region of Galilee who ended his life ignominiously by crucifixion. One or two miracles attributed to him wouldn’t have cut it, therefore, to demonstrate why the early Christians should have transferred their loyalty from Caesar to Christ.
A whole range of miracles needed to be claimed about Jesus, especially ones which modeled him on Jewish figures like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, in order to demonstrate that the Christian Messiah had fulfilled promises in the Old Testament. Likewise, by fashioning Jesus as a miracle worker on steroids, the Gospels could depict him as a figure above and beyond that of Roman emperors, which suited their apologetic purposes of promoting a counter-cultural movement quite well. Finally, whereas Vespasian was a figure in the public spotlight, for whom it would have been more difficult to invent stories that could be fact-checked, almost nobody in the broader Greco-Roman world knew anything about Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had far more creative license, therefore, in getting away with whatever miracle stories they wished to tell about Jesus, which could have very easily inflated the numerical count of miracles that are attributed to him.
I’ll be discussing these points further in my next post. For now, Trevor Luke’s first blog in starting our exchange follows below:
Years ago I started my dissertation with the goal of better understanding the first False Nero, who appeared in the eastern Mediterranean in late 68 or early 69 CE. After some time looking at impostor episodes in Tacitus, it struck me how the arrival of an impostor at the city was a natural focal point for these narratives, although oddly that was not true in the case of this most famous of impostors. A consistent theme in these arrival narratives is the outpouring of emotion on the part of those receiving the arriving ruler. Such circumstances seemed to be perfect for generating charisma, and, if you are an impostor, providing a kind of emotional cover for you to pull off your imposture. A nice example of this is the false Herodian Alexander who visited Rome during the reign of Augustus, as depicted in Josephus. Along his westward journey, his Jewish supporters equipped him in a manner fit for a king, so by the time he reached the imperial capital, the Jews of Rome were pouring out into the streets and practically bursting with excitement for the royal arrival.
This led me to consider the visit of Vespasian—who was not an impostor but a usurper—at Alexandria. The Alexandrians were somewhat notorious for getting carried away in their celebration of an imperial visit. Recall the scolding letter Tiberius sent Germanicus in connection with the latter’s visit to Egypt and also the speech Germanicus delivered to dissuade the people of Alexandria from treating him like a god, something he warned was only fitting for Tiberius and Livia. In 69, Vespasian is greeted like a god by the Alexandrian people at the Hippodrome, and then subsequently he performs the acts of a god in healing by command of Serapis, all in an arrival scenario that seems to have been calculated to provide him with maximal charisma, or majesty, a quality associated with the Roman emperor and his household from Augustus on.
The healings of Vespasian were, as far as we know, unprecedented for a traveling Roman dignitary. The only other Greco-Roman example of a healing ruler before Vespasian is Pyrrhus of Epirus, who lived in the early third century BCE, and his healings were neither a one-off event, nor were they associated with his advent at a city in the way that Vespasian’s seem to have been. Vespasian’s healing miracles were also incongruous with what we know about his personality in other contexts, and so they cry out for some kind of historical explanation of their proximate cause, or at least some illumination of the circumstances that might render them more intelligible. Suetonius is telling us something important when he speaks of Vespasian acquiring majesty in this way, but his statement is difficult to interpret because healing like a magician was not the ordinary way for Roman leaders to manifest charisma, even in Egypt.
Why go to the extreme of having the emperor heal the sick with methods commonly associated with magicians? If the approach of the sick was spontaneous, why go to the extreme of participating in a risky performance that could very well fail? The performance of the miracles strongly suggests that there was a perceived need to do so in order to legitimize Vespasian in the minds of his eastern subjects. Despite the fact that the historical deeds of Julio-Claudian emperors hardly prompt one to expect a wonderworking emperor, there are some indications that the situation was somewhat different in the so-called Greek East. Suetonius’ Divus Augustus contains the story of Augustus’ miraculous conception through Atia’s union with Apollo in the form of a snake in the god’s temple. Suetonius cites as his source the Theologumena of Asclepias of Mendes (a nome in the Nile Delta). The Syrian imperial freedman Julius Marathus reported the fictitious tale of a portent occurring a few months before Augustus’ birth which indicated the birth of a king of Rome that prompted the Senate to decree the infanticide of all children born that year. Such stories from authors of eastern origins may reflect the more miraculous folklore surrounding the emperor in that half of the empire. In the event of the visit of a man who claimed to be a worthy successor of Augustus, evidence of a divine power to match that folkloric legacy might have been demanded.
Depictions of Nero, or his impostors, in the New Testament Apocalypse and the Sibylline Oracles portray a figure of great magical power with the ability to rise from the dead, raise up the seas, and flatten mountains. Regardless of how mundane and formal the godhood of an emperor was at Rome, it appears that the popular image of Nero in the East was exponentially more magical and dramatic. If we trust Tacitus’ account of the first False Nero, the varied rumors surrounding Nero’s death or possible survival, as well as the sudden appearance of the impostor, who then allegedly took up piracy from a base on the island of Cythnus, constituted a practically perfect set of circumstances for conjuring to life a supernatural emperor. Our Roman sources, on the other hand, both understandably and predictably denigrate the Nero impostors and diminish their significance as much as possible. Tacitus blames the faddish Greeks for vainly grasping at the latest opportunity to exercise their fickle and hopeless resistance to Roman power in the person of Nero’s impostor, but it is possible that some interpreted the death and subsequent revival of Nero as the miraculous feat of an emperor whose interest in eastern magic was notorious. The Nero of the Apocalypse and the Sibylline Oracles might, at least in part, be reverberations of this uncertain time.
Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius all report another significant fact about the period in which Vespasian made his play for the empire. The Jews interpreted an oracle as predicting the rise of world rulers in Judea. All three authors conclude that their interpretation was mistaken inasmuch as they thought these rulers would come from among their own people, when it was the Flavians who were clearly the world rulers of which the oracle spoke. If we add to this list of predictions the oracle of Jupiter at Clunia that predicted the rise of a world ruler in Spain, where Galba was mounting his rebellion against Nero, we get the sense that unrest in Judea and the collapse of Nero’s regime created a chaotic situation in which many possible outcomes for imperial succession, however realistic or unrealistic, were entertained. Whoever succeeded to the imperial throne would, in the eyes of easterners in particular, need to demonstrate a divine favor commensurate with the larger-than-life image of Nero. This may help us understand some of the factors motivating the healings of Vespasian.
How did others react to such startling events as Nero redivivus and a wonderworking Vespasian? The disappointment of those Jews who rebelled against Rome in the hope of obtaining independence and reestablishing an independent kingdom was grievously compounded by the loss of the Temple at the hands of the emperor’s son Titus. It was a devastating blow that required theological justification such as one finds both in Josephus’ Jewish Wars and the Gospel of Mark. Josephus depicts the Shekinah abandoning the Temple in advance of its destruction, thus implicitly arguing that the Romans defiled nothing truly sacred because God had preempted them in abandoning the profaned structure first, while Mark has Jesus prophesy the destruction of the Temple roughly thirty-five years in advance, thus in his own way preempting the Romans even earlier than in Josephus’ account. Still, the victory of the Flavians over Jewish claims and hopes could not go unanswered. I am among those who would propose that the Gospel of Mark was written not just after the destruction of the Temple, but, in general agreement with scholars such as Peppard (The Son of God in the Roman World) and Winn (The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel), also written for the purpose of countering Roman imperial ideology, or, to put it more bluntly, the emperor’s growing reputation as a world ruler backed by efficacious divine power that manifested in rising from the dead and healing his subjects by touch.
Thus it is that after the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism, in which he is declared the son of God by God’s voice, Jesus embarks on a career of healings and exorcisms that dominate the early chapters of Mark’s gospel. According to my view, as a figure whose image is deliberately constructed as a response to the presence of a charismatic emperor in the East, Jesus brings together an unusual combination of qualities and roles for a Jewish hero. He is not just a Moses, David, Elijah, or Elisha, he is a composite of all of these figures. In a traditional Jewish context this does not make a lot of sense, but, in circumstances where the Roman emperor is a son of a god who can perform great feats of magic (Nero, Vespasian) and perhaps even rise from the dead (Nero), only a unique mash-up of Jewish rulers, prophets, and heroes will trump the competition.