Historical Reliability

We hear constantly from apologists that multiple attestation of miraculous events makes those events more likely than not. We hear constantly from apologists that if several sources report the same miracle story, than that makes the miracle all the more likely. Yet few, if any apologists worship Serapis, and almost none view the Emperor Vespasian with anything like the reverence due to him if their theory of history is right.

A recent article in New Testament Studies (54 (1). 2008. 1-17) by Eric Eve discusses the story of the Emperor Vespasian healing a blind man with his spittle and contrasts it to the similar healing of the man from Bethsaida in the gospel of Mark.

Here is Tacitus on this healing:

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 feel the print of a Cæsar'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 obstacles 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 Cæsar'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.

Now this is clearly eyewitness testimony of the sort that we must regard as reliable if we are to use the historical method of the apologists. In addition, the story is multiply attested albeit with slight and theologically insignificant changes in detail as we see in this passage from Suetonius:

Vespasian as yet lacked prestige and a certain divinity, so to speak, since he was an unexpected and still new-made emperor; but these also were given him. A man of the people who was blind, and another who was lame, came to him together as he sat on the tribunal, begging for the help for their disorders which Serapis had promised in a dream; for the god declared that Vespasian would restore the eyes, if he would spit upon them, and give strength to the leg, if he would deign to touch it with his heel. Though he had hardly any faith that this could possibly succeed, and therefore shrank even from making the attempt, he was at last prevailed upon by his friends and tried both things in public before a large crowd; and with success. At this same time, by the direction of certain soothsayers, some vases of antique workmanship were dug up in a consecrated spot at Tegea in Arcadia and on them was an image very like Vespasian.

Remember that Tacitus and Suetonius are considered the verifiers of the existence of the historical Jesus by most apologists. They are used repeatedly as texts to show the veracity of the gospel accounts. I am curious what stance apologists such as Dr. William Lane Craig would make of this multiply attested account of a miracle based on eyewitness testimony. If this is not considered to be a miracle, on what basis do we make that judgment? And if it is considered a miracle, why is there no St. Vespasian?

66 comments: