Jesus out-spitting the emperor

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by Neil Godfrey

An interesting thing happened to me while I was on my way to write this post this evening. (I was intending to expand on the discussion relating to another post but now have something much more interesting to write about.) I saw a reference online to a scholarly article that was suggesting that Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing the blind man by spitting on him may have been written in response to the rumour circulating that Vespasian had not long before performed the same miracle by spitting. Was Mark drawing the readers’ attention to a contrast between Vespasian using the miracle to declare his universal authority and Jesus using it to lead into his message about humble service?

Eric Eve of Oxford had the article published in New Testament Studies in 2008, titled “Spit in your eye: the blind man of Bethsaida and the blind man of Alexandria“.

Eric Eve knows scholars have offered multiple reasons to consider the story a fiction:

  1. For one thing, it forms a pair with the story of Blind Bartimaeus, thus framing the Markan travel section.
  2. It also forms a pair with the other spittle story, the deaf-mute at Mark 7.31–37, exhibiting striking similarities in both structure and vocabulary. As a pair, these two stories may be intended to indicate fulfilment of Isa 35.5–6.57 They also seem to relate to the continuing deafness and blindness of the disciples (Mark 8.17–18).
  3. Finally, the two-stage healing of the blind man immediately precedes Peter’s Confession (Mark 8.27–30), and is often seen as both commenting on that story and sharing structural features with it, the point being that Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah is analogous to the blind man’s perception of people as walking trees. (p. 12, my number formatting)

But to suggest a link with the similar miracle by Vespasian seems to me an obvious point to consider and I am amazed it has appeared only so recently.

Historian Suetonius’s account of Emperor Vespasian’s miracle informs us that the miracle served the propaganda purpose of certifying his claim to be emperor (that is the Roman “son of god” on earth):

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.

Returning to Rome under such auspices and attended by so great renown, after celebrating a triumph over the Jews . . . . 

Historian Tacitus also records this propaganda event remarking that it was one of many miracles, and that it happened near Palestine:

In the course of the months which Vespasian spent at Alexandria, waiting for the regular season of summer winds when the sea could be relied upon, many miracles occurred. These seemed to be indications that Vespasian enjoyed heaven’s blessing and that the gods showed a certain leaning towards him.

Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian’s feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs. He asked that it might please the emperor to anoint his cheeks and eyeballs with the water of his mouth. A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot?

At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. At one moment he was alarmed by the thought that he would be accused of vanity if he failed. At the next, the urgent appeals of the two victims and the flatteries of his entourage made him sanguine of success.

Finally he asked the doctors for an opinion whether blindness and atrophy of this sort were curable by human means. The doctors were eloquent on the various possibilities. The blind man’s vision was not completely destroyed, and if certain impediments were removed his sight would return. The other victim’s limb had been dislocated, but could be put right by correct treatment. Perhaps this was the will of the gods, they added; perhaps the emperor had been chosen to perform a miracle. Anyhow, if a cure were effected, the credit would go to the ruler; if it failed, the poor wretches would have to bear the ridicule.

So Vespasian felt that his destiny gave him the key to every door and that nothing now defied belief. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying.

Eric Eve in his article explains that the imperial propaganda machine circulated these stories throughout the region in order to impress subjects of the divine authority and power of the new emperor — despite his evident praise-worthy modesty. This occurred around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the same time when many scholars think the Gospel of Mark was composed.

Interestingly EE includes a suggestion that the passage in Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” in which Jesus warns against going after false messiahs performing miracles and prophets falsely pointing to such messiahs might be a reference to Vespasian and his propaganda machine. (Josephus adds that there was a Jewish prophecy also that was interpreted in a way to support Vespasian’s new authority.) If so, the false messiah and prophets were not Jews who invited their destruction from the Romans, but the Roman power itself that turned on them.

Eric Eve’s conclusion:

That stories about healing blind men with spittle should independently arise around 70 ce in both Mark’s Gospel and Roman propaganda would be something of a coincidence. The coincidence becomes all the more striking given the parallel function of the stories: the Blind Man of Alexandria is a story that served to help legitimate Vespasian’s claim to the imperial throne, a claim also supported by various prophecies including Josephus’s reinterpretation of Jewish messianic expectations. The Blind Man of Bethsaida leads into Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah, but a messiah apparently misconceived in emperor-like terms. Even if this were mere coincidence it seems likely that Mark’s audience would hear one story in terms of the other, but it seems even more likely that there is no coincidence and that Mark deliberately shaped the Blind Man of Bethsaida with the Blind Man of Alexandria in mind. (p.17, my emphasis)

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Jesus out-spitting the emperor”

  1. “This occurred around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the same time when many scholars think the Gospel of Mark was composed.”

    Vespasian’s ‘miracles’ were too coincidental not to have been read into Mark. No doubt the miracles were received by Suetonius and Tacitus from Flavian historians. I doubt if Mark’s audience had any idea that Jesus’s miracles had anything to do with Vespasian. The gospel of Mark could have been edited with these details much later than a time near the fall of Jerusalem. I believe this was so.

  2. “If so, the false messiah and prophets were not Jews who invited their destruction from the Romans, but the Roman power itself that turned on them.”

    In Jewish literature, Titus and the Romans are described as God’s agents, as it was God Himself who decided that the Temple should be destroyed. A similar idea seems to underlie the parable on the tenants and the vineyard. If, as indirectly suggested by the Synoptics, Vespasian is God’s agent (cf. Mark 12:9), how can Vespasian at the same time be a false messiah?

    Josephus writes, “Now this oracle [Numbers 24:17-19] certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea” (Jewish War 6.312-313). Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 4.5) and Tacitus (Histories 5.13) agree with Josephus in claiming that Vespasian fulfilled the prophecy. But is it not also true that the word “messiah” has to be read into these texts? Josephus has the Jews believe that “one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” Sueton mentions that “it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.” According to Tacitus, Jews believed that “the Orient would triumph.” However, the word “messiah” is not mentioned explicitly.

    As with regards to miracles, there is a well-written essay by Ulrike Riemer, “Miracle Stories and their Narrative Intent in the Context of the Ruler Cult of Classical Antiquity,” published in: M. Labahn et al., eds, Wonders Never Cease (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006). Riemer writes, “Some astonishing analogies become immediately apparent when biblical miracle stories are compared with the accounts of miraculous occurrences of the Roman imperial cult… Like Vespasian, Jesus restores sight by placing spittle on blind eyes (Mark 8:23; John 9:6). In other instances, the ‘healer’ is not actively involved, it being sufficient for the sufferer to merely touch his body, as in the case of the Emperor Hadrian, or his robes, and in the story of Jesus and the bleeding woman [Mark 5:27-29; Matt. 9:20; Mark 6:56; Luke 6:19]. Hadrian, we are told, had fever, and Jesus only knew that that he had been touched by sensing that ‘virtue had gone out of Him’ (Mark 5:30; Matt. 9:22). Despite the limited ability of both Hadrian and Jesus to act, a healing effect emanated from them without them becoming actively involved” (pp. 44-45).

    Riemer (p. 46), too, argues that the analogies are not coincidental: “[T]he striking similarity between Christian accounts of miracles and those of classical antiquity may be simply a reflection of the fact that such stories were so widespread… It nevertheless seems reasonable to conjecture that these accounts were included deliberately, that Christians adopted these elements of the pagan ruler cult to demonstrate the greater power of their Lord and Master.”

  3. I think the stories were not so wide spread. They would be known among Flavian historians writing Vespasian’s history in Rome. This to me points to where the editor of Mark was from. He was a Roman in Rome, influenced by Flavian historians, pulling a fast one, no doubt with Vespasian having a laugh.

  4. The oldest Gospel is the one attributed to Mark, written around 70, in Latin, as scholars today know. The Vespasian miracle happened around 70, so it is not possible to claim that the Vespasian miracles are copied from Jesus. Moreover, as one can see in Historia Naturalis, written by Pliny, the ancient romans (as the Greek) believed in the power of a man fasting spitting and this could cure many diseases. What we can clearly find here is a Roman belief inserted in a text that is supposedly of Jewish origin. Gospels were forgeries, including Roman ideas, and this is just one of the evidencies. Coins that never circulated in Judea etc, geographical mistakes, mistranslations etc. are other evidences. But if you read only the Bible and believe Mark, John, Luke and Matthew really knew Jesus you will never find any evidence.

  5. I think Eve is right: Mark knew about Vespasian. There’s more to say about this scene, though: why does the blind man speak the puzzling line about trees walking?
    Here’s the summary of my blog post, “The Bethsaida section, Part I: The blind man of Bethsaida scene.”
    If (as I and other mythicists believe) Mark wrote in Rome after 70, he must have known about Vespasian’s healing by spit. And given the propaganda value of that healing, Mark must have known that his attribution of the same power to the Jesus figure in his story would raise the question: is Jesus greater than Vespasian?
    I have an explanation for the fact that Mark went ahead anyway. Vespasian, and the elite in Rome, knew that his healing had been faked. That’s the only possible reason why Vespasian’s friends repeatedly urged him to “heal” the man. Their lives were on the line! They could not afford to fail.
    I suggest that in the Gospel of Mark, the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida is similarly fake. He isn’t blind, so he doesn’t know what a blind man who is partially healed would see. That’s why his line about trees walking doesn’t make any sense.

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