Post Author: Bill Pratt
Let’s briefly cover some historical background. The Roman emperor Vespasian ruled from A.D. 69 -79; his reign ended with his death. Writing about Vespasian some 25 years later, the Roman historian Tacitus reported a famous incident where Vespasian is said to have miraculously healed two men – one blind and one lame.
This miracle account is important because it has been frequently compared to the miracles of Jesus, and in particular, to his miraculous resurrection from the dead. The argument that skeptics make goes something like this: “The accounts of Vespasian’s healing miracles are as well evidenced as the resurrection of Jesus. People of the ancient world were credulous enough to believe both Vespasian’s miracles and Jesus’s miracles. However, sophisticated modern people do not believe that Vespasian actually healed the two men. Therefore, since the evidence for his miracles is at least as good as the evidence for Jesus’s reported resurrection, a sophisticated modern person should also not believe Jesus’s miraculous resurrection.”
The most famous skeptic to put forward the miracles of Vespasian as a defeater to the resurrection of Jesus was the 18th century philosopher David Hume. In his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume claims, “One of the best attested miracles in all profane history, is that which Tacitus reports of Vespasian, who cured a blind man in Alexandria, by means of his spittle, and a lame man by the mere touch of his foot; . . .”
Hume goes on to report that Tacitus is known for his “candour and veracity” and that his sources for the miracle report were also of “established character for judgement and veracity.” Hume concludes with the following: “If we add the public nature of the facts, as related, it will appear, that no evidence can well be supposed stronger for so gross and so palpable a falsehood.”
In other words, as far as ancient reports of miracles go, the miracles of Vespasian are as well evidenced as you can get, yet we know today that the whole affair was a fraud.
But has Hume accurately reported the circumstances around this miracle account? Has he properly understood Tacitus’s account? It seems the answer is a resounding “no.”
Timothy and Lydia McGrew, in their essay “The Argument from Miracles” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, respond to Hume:
Hume’s presentation here is so careless that it struck his opponents as disingenuous. The “candour and veracity” of the historian are beside the point, since the manner in which Tacitus introduces the story indicates plainly that he disbelieved it. Hume’s characterization of the persons on whose authority Tacitus relied in relating the miracle as “of established character for judgement and veracity, as we may presume” drew special scorn from Campbell, for Tacitus says nothing of the sort.
Scholars who study Tacitus’s works consider his account of Vespasian’s miracles to contain numerous “ironical and sarcastic” elements, a point that Hume seems to have completely missed. According to Glenn Miller of the Christian Thinktank, “This account [of Tacitus’s] has so many tongue-in-cheek elements in it — even for a court historian — it is hard to be ‘impressed’ by Vespasian’s performance.” Miller also explains, “Tacitus uses this miracle story to paint a VERY unflattering portrait of Vespasian, all couched in conventional forms.”
The McGrew’s continue:
The entire affair bears on its face the marks of obvious imposture. It was conducted in Alexandria, the first major city to declare in favor of Vespasian’s imperial aspirations, and it was done in honor both of the emperor, for whom a divine sign would be most convenient, and of the local deity. At Vespasian’s request, physicians examined the two men who claimed to have received visions in the night telling them to appeal to Vespasian to be cured; the physicians reported that the blind man was not totally blind, nor the lame man totally lame, and added that any glory for a successful cure would redound to Vespasian himself, while any blame for a failure would fall back upon the two supplicants for having fraudulently represented the oracle of Serapis.
Vespasian, when presented with these two men, wanted a physician to confirm that the men could be healed before he would attempt it. In case the healing didn’t work, according to Tacitus, the “the onus of failure would belong to the poor beseechers.” This was a win-win for Vespasian, because if he succeeded, he would get the credit, and if he failed the men would be blamed!
W. Adams, a contemporary of Hume, notes, “Where then is the wonder that two men should be instructed to act the part of lame and blind, when they were sure of succeeding in the fraud, and of being well rewarded (as we may well suppose) for their pains?”
The McGrew’s add:
As for Tacitus’s reference to living witnesses, there is no mystery here. If the fraud was perpetrated publicly as described, there were doubtless many people who saw the two men leap up and claim to have been healed. There is no need to suggest that the witnesses were liars; it suffices that they were at most somewhat credulous. There was no need for them to inquire too closely since – unlike the apostles – they had absolutely nothing to lose in maintaining their account of what they had seen. “No evidence,” Douglas concludes drily, inverting Hume’s claim, “can well be supposed weaker.”
The McGrew’s conclude by assessing the Vespasian miracle story in comparison to the resurrection of Jesus.
At every point, the case of Vespasian differs critically from that of the resurrection. Indeed, from a Bayesian point of view, the wonder would be if, under the circumstances, some story of a miraculous demonstration in favor of Vespasian were not forthcoming. Given our background knowledge, the Bayes factor for the testimony is so close to 1 as to give us virtually no epistemic traction: the report was almost as strongly to be expected if the two men had been parties to the deceit as if they had genuinely been healed. It is absurd to suggest that the evidence for these miracles bears comparison with the evidence for the resurrection.
A newly appointed emperor in a city taking sides in an imperial political contest needs a miracle as a stamp of divine approval. Two men willingly come forward to provide the “miracle” needed. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Even the ancient Roman historian who reports this miracle doesn’t believe it, his account dripping with sarcasm and irony. Are we to seriously believe that Vespasian’s “miracles” rival the resurrection of Jesus? No truly objective person could possibly think so.