Are the Healing Miracles of Vespasian Believable?

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.

13 thoughts on “Are the Healing Miracles of Vespasian Believable?”

  1. Actually, the point made is that miracles were referred to by historians contemporary to the New Testament Writings, and no current historian (that I know) considers the miracles to be history simply because they were recorded.

    We utilize a method whereby we understand portions of Tacitus are true, portions are undetermined and portions—such as the miracle claims regarding Vespasian—are not true. Further, this miracle by Vespasian is also recorded by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. We have miracle accounts by Josephus that historians do not believe happen; miracle accounts by Herodotus that historians do not say happened; miracle accounts by Lucian historians do not say happened.

    Even Christians agree there are historical tales concerning New Testament events (such as Papias’ account, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Acts of Peter, Acts of Pilate, Acts of Paul, etc. etc. etc.) that do not contain historical miracle accounts.

    If we discount and disregard the miracle accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio regarding Vespasian, what surprise is it…using the same method we equally disregard the miracle accounts in Mark as being non-historical?

  2. We disregard the miracle accounts regarding Vespasian because there is clear evidence of fraud. There were obvious reasons for the two men to lie, it was an easy hoax to pull off, and even Tacitus thought it was obviously a farce. I fail to see any parallels to the New Testament accounts of the resurrection.

  3. A literalist Christian has placed themselves in a peculiar intellectual position.

    Of all the millions of miracle claims in history, the 39* miracles listed in the NT are the most strongly evidenced of all miracle claims, ever. When we create a list of all miracle claims, from most evidenced to least evidenced, the 39 NT claims just happen to occupy positions 1 to 39. All the miracle claims from other religions, all the miracle claims from the apocrypha, and all the non-religious miracle claims, can only be, at best, the 40th most strongly evidenced miracle claim.

    Consider the evidence for the most strongly evidenced extra-biblical miracle claim. (perhaps the hindu milk miracle). The evidence for this is weaker than the weakest NT miracle.

    And furthermore, in addition to this peculiar ordering of miracle claims, the cutoff point for what to believe and what to dismiss, also just happens to be in between number 39 and 40. Such that we coincidentally accept all the NT claims, and dismiss all the extra-biblical miracle claims.

    And still furthermore, this cutoff point represents a huge gap in probability. Such that the 39 miracle claims above the cutoff point are very highly probable, and the 40th and below miracle claims, are extremely improbable.

    This truly is a strange position to hold.

  4. I don’t see the problem for there being a cut off point for some miracles being credible and others not. For example, in a murder trial the first three witnesses testify that John committed the murder, while 5 other witnesses say that John did not commit the murder. The task of the jurors is to decide which witnesses are telling the truth. If the first three witnesses have better credentials/reasons than the other five, than to say that witnesses # 1-3 are credible and witnesses 4-8 are not credible is a reasonable decision to make. So the fact that there is a cut off point is not a problem. It comes back to the credibility of the witnesses, which is the point of this article.

  5. Your failure to see parallels between the New Testament miracle accounts and other contemporary miracle accounts does not require me to gouge out my own eyes to make the conversation equal. I was merely pointing out the larger discussion in hand, in case some lurker dare get caught under the impression only Tacitus wrote on Vespasian’s miracle. Or only Vespasian’s miracles were recorded contemporaneously. Or only Christians are able to perceive bias in historical accounts.

    I apologize if I gave the impression I expected you to grapple with answering the tougher question regarding methodology in determining historicity within accounts describing miracles. I can assure you, I have no such expectation.

  6. Dagoods, leaving aside your insult directed toward me(I thought you were better than that), the methodology question is answered. The Vespasian miracles have an extremely plausible naturalistic explanation, and therefore we deduce that no miracle occurred.

  7. Boz, you misunderstand a couple things. First, nowhere have I ever stated that every one of the miracle claims of the NT are more strongly evidenced than all of the non-Christian miracle claims ever made. I have no idea where you got this idea.

    I have said that the resurrection of Jesus is one of the best evidenced miracle claims of antiquity, but that is a far cry from your claim.

    Second, Christians need not deny that miracles that aren’t recorded in the Bible have occurred. God can perform miracles whenever he wants to serve his purposes. Restricting our belief in miracles to those recorded Bible is not only not necessary, but unreasonable.

  8. Bill Pratt: The Vespasian miracles have an extremely plausible naturalistic explanation, and therefore we deduce that no miracle occurred.

    Correct. And when we equally scrutinize the miracle accounts of Christian writings, the accounts also have an extremely plausible naturalistic explanation and we equally deduce no miracle occurred. The very point the skeptic is attempting to impress upon the Christian apologist.

    The question remaining whether the examination in all cases is equal.

    What I see instead are Christians granting every benefit of the doubt possible to their miracle claims (including the Resurrection) and destructing other miracle claims with meticulous microscopic precision. Any possible selfish motivation in the resurrection appearance accounts? Ignored. Possible selfish motivation in other miracle accounts? Highlighted, trumpeted and paraded as reasons to dismiss it. Nuance, irony and sarcasm in Christian miracle accounts? Dismissed as babblings of skeptics. Nuance, irony and sarcasm in other miracle accounts? Pointed out with a scoff as to how any one can believe.

    All we are asking for one thing when we point out the Vespasian miracle accounts. Turn the same microscope set to the same intensity from looking at Vespasian miracle accounts to the Christian miracle accounts. And all we can hope is that for an instant—for a brief shining moment—before the Christian turns down the power when looking at their own miracle accounts, they can understand for a second why skeptics are not persuaded by the Christian accounts.

    Alas, what we see is that we study the accounts far more thoroughly than the Christian. I have read Tacitus AND Suetonius AND Cassius Dio on Vespasian’s miracle. (Suetonius and Cassius Dio are not even mentioned in this blog entry.) I have studied other contemporary historians like Philo and Josephus. Studied past historians, like Herodotus, and present myth-making like Roswell.

    And, of course, studied Christian miracle accounts including New Testament writings, 1st Century writings, 2nd Century writings and modern-day miracle claims.

    But if I remain unconvinced, I am told with a pretentious sneer I am not being “truly objective” (and we all know who the “truly objective” are, don’t we?) in a pejorative manner. I have studied more, read more, debated more, and am willing to discuss more than the Christian apologist…yet because I do not share their belief, I am disdained with dripping scorn.

    Insulted, Bill Pratt? Welcome to my world…

  9. I see miracles like Vespasian’s all the time on TV and I don’t believe them. They catch my curiousity, but why do I not believe them? Because they are done on a stage for show to provide credibility to a person in order to get more funds sent their way. I see an ulterior motive which actually ends up bringing disbelief on my part for their miracles. People are interviewed at these shows, much like the case of Vespasian.

    Now, do I believe the miracles of Jesus just because I read them in a couple of books? No. As a matter of fact, if there was no resurrection, I would not give them the light of my day. The resurrection is unique – something nearly impossible to fake, at least as it is reported. As I’ve said before, and am still working on the paper with regard to, there is more to belief in the resurrection than the “facts” of the text. Whether they be Habermas’ fact’s (in the biblical texts) or Dagood’s facts (of the grand collection of assorted texts). There is a bigger picture with lots of pieces to the puzzle. When that bigger picture is seen to give strong validity to the resurrection, then you have reason to believe the rest of the biblical miracles. Textual criticism is not going to make or break what may be true or not. Textual criticism is limited to the text. There indeed is much more to the picture than the isolated texts and this discussion will never end if textual criticism is the only method applied to the arrive at truth of any claim in an ancient document.

  10. Dagoods,
    I am still amazed that you equate the miracles of Vespasian with the resurrection of Jesus. Throughout your long and detailed responses to me on this blog (hundreds of words), with citations to every conceivable text from ancient history, you persist in equating miracles like that of Vespasian to the resurrection accounts.

    I applaud your research, but you consistently fail to provide any balance or any objectivity when you write on this blog. To any fair-minded person, there are obvious important differences between the Vespasian miracles and the resurrection, yet you will never grant those differences. That lopsidedness makes it very hard to think you can be objective about the resurrection.

    You have mentioned Vespasian numerous times in this blog in the past, but never once did you say that Tacitus’s contemporary account is understood by historians to be ironic and sarcastic. Never did you point out the obvious and powerful motives for fraud. Never once did you point out the ease with which this fraud could be perpetrated and still fool people.

    Where is the objectivity that you claim to have? I just don’t see it, at least when it comes to this issue of the resurrection.

  11. Bill Pratt,

    Notice I use the words “miracle account” where you use the terms “miracle”? This is an important difference. We are looking at explanations of how the accounts came to be—NOT the miracles themselves. Why and how did a person record these events?

    Of course there are differences between Vespasian miracle accounts and the Resurrection accounts. (Interesting you do not want to submit other New Testament miracle accounts to the same scrutiny–only the resurrection.) They are written by different people about different persons by different authors to different audiences. The fact differences exist is…well…pretty obvious.

    The differences do not favor Christianity. Vespasian’s miracles account was written by three (3) different authors—Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio (why do you always skip the last two?) with no discrepancy. The Resurrection accounts between 1 Cor., Matthew, Luke/Acts and John have major discrepancies.

    Tacitus was writing history; the gospels are writing bios–a similar genre but the gospels have polemic and propaganda intent. Tacitus was critical of the miracle accounts (hence the irony and sarcasm), the gospel writers were favorable to ALL accounts written—NO criticism of any sort appears.

    We know who Tacitus is; the authors of the Gospel (and 1 Cor. 15 tradition) are anonymous. We have extended works written by Tacitus; the gospels we have limited works. We know who Tacitus was writing to; we conjecture who the gospels were written to by their contents.

    Frankly, the biggest reason I focus on similarities, and not the differences, is because I do not think the differences help the Christian position and I want the Christian to see the similarities; to understand the writing and culture of the time. Otherwise we are going to get bogged down on the incidentals.

    Motives for “fraud”? Certainly a person could have motive to manufacture a tale to please a person in power. (I think “fraud” is too strong a word.) Lucian mocked how quickly such tales could grow. But likewise a person could equally have motive to manufacture a resurrection appearance. Especially f such appearances gave a person honor, authority, or esteem in the Christian community (as implied by Paul in 1 Cor.). Further, the authors of the Gospels would have motive to manufacture appearances—such as Doubting Thomas—to make a doctrinal point to intended recipients, like reinforcing Jesus came back in bodily form, not just a spirit. Or Luke’s use of Jesus saying, “Stay in Jerusalem” to found the church there.

    Everyone has motives to make up stories. Why would the New Testament writers (or the accounts they record) be exempt? The issue is NOT the persons of Vespasians’ account are paragons of virtue—far from it. It is the opposite—they are not, just like the persons promulgating the resurrection accounts.

    Finally…I am not objective. No one is—that is humanity. I try to employ as objective a method I can, but I sometimes fail. What I prefer is to review the actual arguments—the actual evidence—rather than pick only the small portion favoring my position and vociferously imply all who disagree with me are not “truly objective” or not “fair-minded” or “not balanced.”

  12. Your arrogance and vision of yourself as self-important is laughable. You continue to ignore the solid reasoning offered by Bill Pratt on this issue.

    And I think it’s obvious that your anti-Christ agenda has no room for reasoning.

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