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: