Last month I posted Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? but this morning I was reminded of an article I read and posted about some years back that surely calls for a date soon after 70 CE. That article does not address the date per se but it does raise difficulties for a date very much later than the days of Vespasian’s reign: 69-79.
The article is Spit in Your Eye: The Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Blind Man of Alexandria by Eric Eve (if a nearby library subscribes to Proquest you might be able to access it at no cost there) and my derivative post is Jesus out-spitting the emperor. I won’t repeat the details I set out there except where they overlap with a few points I will highlight here. (See that earlier post for the extracts from Suetonius and Tacitus describing Vespasian’s healing miracles.)
In short, the core of Eric Eve’s thesis is that the author of the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian propaganda that promoted him as a healer and as such either possessed by or strongly favoured by the god Serapis to be the rightful ruler of the world. Vespasian, you might recall (the details are in the earlier post), is known to have “miraculously” healed a blind man through the use of spittle while he was in Egypt and preparing to return to Rome to claim the emperorship.
Since Vespasian was not from the Roman aristocracy he relied heavily on propaganda programs to justify his aspirations to replace Nero and subsequent short-lived rulers. Roman historians, especially Tacitus, inform us that
while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria. . . many marvels occurred to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him (Hist. IV. 81)
The god Serapis was a composite deity constructed some generations earlier by Egypt’s post-Alexander Hellenistic rulers to encourage the unification of different peoples: (you will note the similarity with other posts suggesting the reason for the creation of Jesus was likewise to encourage a certain unity of Jews and gentiles in another context …. but we leave that for another discussion)
The Egyptian cult involved the worship of the sacred bull Osiris-Apis, or Osarapis, which became Sarapis in Greek translation. It may have been this god’s connections with the underworld and agricultural fertility that made him appear particularly suitable for the grafting on of Hellenistic elements. Sarapis took on the attributes of a number of Greek deities including first Dionysus and Hades, and subsequently Zeus, Helios and Asclepius [my note: Asclepius was the god of healing]. He may originally have been intended as a patron deity for the Greek citizens of Ptolemaic Alexandria, but he became particularly associated with the royal family, and thus, perhaps, with a ruler cult. Although Sarapis was probably intended to unite the Greek and Egyptian populations (of Alexandria, if not of Egypt), he failed in this purpose, since he never caught on with the native Egyptian population. He proved more popular with the Greek inhabitants, although his popularity declined towards the end of the Ptolemaic period. By the Roman period, Sarapis’s popularity seems to have been on the rise once more, and his cult had long since spread well beyond Egypt, aided, no doubt, by the fact that he was the consort of Isis; both deities had cults in Rome by the time of the late republic. That said, the major rise of the cult of Serapis was to come about through Flavian interest in the god. Vespasian arrived in Alexandria at a time when association with an aspiring emperor could benefit an aspiring god as much as the other way round; the Sarapis cult’s support for Vespasian helped both parties, and that may well have motivated the priests of Sarapis to play their part in the Flavian propaganda campaign.
The healings carried out by Vespasian seem designed to demonstrate the close association between the new emperor and the god. Healing was one of the powers long attributed to Sarapis, and the first healing miracle to be attributed to him was restoring sight to a blind man, one Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician. . . . In some minds Vespasian’s two healings might be taken as a sign, not simply that Vespasian enjoyed Sarapis’s blessing, but that he was in some sense to be identified with the god. This is in part suggested by the ancient Egyptian myth that the kings of Egypt were sons of Re, the sun-god, and is further borne out by the fact that Vespasian was saluted as ‘son of Ammon’ as well as ‘Caesar, god’ when he visited the hippodrome only a short while later.
Presumably the main targets of this propaganda were the population of Alexandria and the two legions stationed there, whose support Vespasian clearly needed to retain. No doubt different people will have understood this cluster of events in different ways. Some may have seen Vespasian as quasi-divine, others as a divinely aided thaumaturge and others as an exceptionally lucky man smiled on by fortuna and the gods. In any case the healing miracles and their association with Sarapis seem to have been designed more for eastern than western consumption.
The classicist and specialist in Suetonius, David Wardle, is more direct with the reason for Vespasian’s miracles:
[Suetonius] preserves the logical order of events, that, having had his kingship (in Egyptian terms) confirmed, Vespasian was now to demonstrate that he was (again in Egyptian terms) an incarnation of Serapis by performing the kind of healings that the god himself brought about. (Wardle, p. 194)
Why is Josephus silent about Vespasian’s miracles that we read about in Roman writings? In Eric Eve’s mind, the reason would have been that Vespasian’s miracles were legitimized by an Egyptian god and Josephus could not have brought himself to remind readers of such an event in his work that was attempting to demonstrate the unique status of the Jewish religion. Another point of interest is to understand why the Roman historians who wrote of these miracles by Vespasian expressed some cynicism about them. That brings us back to Eve’s point that the miracles were intended for an eastern audience, not a Roman one, especially the sophisticated and more sceptical class from which the Roman historians came.
Okay, but none of what has been covered so far is enough to establish that the evangelist was influenced by Vespasian’s propaganda.
What does become interesting is the context in which we find the healing of the blind man through the use of spittle in the Gospel of Mark. Notice what follows Mark’s account of the miracle:
8:22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
The miracle is linked to the claim that Jesus is the messiah. But notice . . . another unusual feature of this miracle is that it is performed in two stages. The spittle doesn’t work properly the first time. It only restores partial sight. And that is the point of the next episode to be narrated: Peter’s understanding of Jesus being the Messiah is imperfect. He needs further enlightenment because he still thinks Jesus will march on Rome victorious and not allow himself to be slain — Mark 8:22-33
So why should the author have introduced spittle at all? Eve:
The spitting thus seems curiously redundant. (p. 14)
Mark’s purpose is … served by creating the Vespasian allusion just before Peter’s Confession; the point of the allusion is to contrast messianic claims, not healing prowess (see below). It thus appears that wherever the other details of the Deaf Mute and the Blind Man of Bethsaida came from, spitting in the blind man’s eye was introduced by Mark to create an allusion to the contemporary story of the Blind Man of Alexandria, and the same word πτύσας used at Mark 8.23 was inserted into Mark 7.33 to maintain the parallelism between the two stories. This suggestion is reinforced by the parallel functions of the Blind Men of Bethsaida and Alexandria. The story of the Blind Man of Alexandria is part of a propaganda effort designed to legitimate Vespasian as a royal figure favoured by the gods, identified with Sarapis and as son of Ammon. The story of the Blind Man of Bethsaida leads straight into Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, followed not long after by the Transfiguration at which God declares Jesus to be his son. The similarity between the two stories thus lies not only in the common use of spittle to cure blindness, but also in the ideological contexts of which these stories form a part. (p. 15)
For Eve the pattern continues. After Peter is rebuked for not seeing clearly the truth about Jesus’ messiahship and after Jesus responds to the request of James and John to sit on thrones either side of Jesus, Jesus gives a lesson to his Jewish audience about gentile rulers:
‘You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you’ (Mark 10.42–43a). The saying could well apply to Roman or Roman-appointed authorities in general, but in the immediate aftermath of the Jewish War the Flavians would surely be the most obvious target. The contrast in healing styles between Jesus and Vespasian in the first healing of a blind man is thus mirrored in the contrast between their ways of being messianic or quasi-messianic sons of a god in material between Mark’s two blind man stories. (p. 15)
Eric Eve finds some other traces of “an implicit Jesus-Vespasian contrast elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel”. The opening words “echo the language of imperial propaganda”, especially with the word “good news” or εὐαγγελίου which “was used of announcements of victories in battle or the accession of emperors”. If the words “son of God” in Mark 1:1 are original then it can be noted that they can be interpreted as a counterpart to the emperor’s title, divi filius. More soberly…
it surely is significant, however, that the only human being to apply these words to Jesus is the centurion in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion. Vespasian’s army crucified many Jews in the course of its campaign;74 in contrast Jesus dies on a Roman cross, at which point the centurion declares not the emperor but Jesus to be υἱὸς θεοῦ (Mark 15.39). (p. 16)
Then compare the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 and imagine a 70 CE context. Here Eve quotes Gerd Theissen:
Vespasian could be regarded in the East as a ruler who usurped messianic expectations and legitimated himself through prophets and miracles. . . . As a usurper, he had to rely on loud and vigorous propaganda. The warning against pseudo-messiahs in Mk 13.21–22 could have been formulated against the background of such a ‘propaganda campaign’ for the victorious new emperor, who created peace by subduing the Jews and whose legitimacy was supported by signs and wonders. In that case, the pseudo-messiahs would not have been leaders of the revolt against the Romans, nor would they represent expectations based on memories of those leaders. On the contrary, what was being criticized was the usurpation of religious hopes by the Roman ruler who demolished the uprising. (Theissen, Gospels in Context, 267-68; cited by Eve, p.16)
Since Matthew and Luke dropped Mark’s use of spitting one may think that the propaganda of Vespasian was no longer of relevance to their readership. It is easy to see Mark’s narrative having special significance for audiences well aware of Vespasian’s propaganda.
Is not the Gospel of Mark written to readers who are experiencing persecution? If so, then we have to wonder why we know of no persecutions of Christians during Vespasian’s time. Well, I also happen to have come across an article explaining why that naive reading of the gospel should be questioned. I’ll write about that soon.
And I know many readers will challenge me when I say that there is very little evidence for any sort of popular messianic movements being responsible for the Jewish War. Josephus speaks of a prophecy of world rulership that Vespasian was fulfilling but he does not say Vespasian is a prophesied “messiah”. Again, I’ll discuss this in more depth in a future post, too.
Eve, Eric. “Spit in Your Eye: The Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Blind Man of Alexandria.” New Testament Studies 54, no. 1 (January 2008): 1–17.
Wardle, D. “Suetonius on ‘Vespasianus Religiosus’ in Ad 69-70: Signs and Times.” Hermes 140, no. 2 (2012): 184–201. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23251924
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