Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?

 


Updated: Nov 2, 2001  |   Back to the Miracles Index


 

Next question:

 

Did the authors consciously intend to embellish some non-miraculous historical core of tradition with miraculous stories in honor of their dead leader, in keeping with the general practice of doing so for 'divine' emperors or Greco-Roman political/military heroes? In this scenario, these accretions would be expected to be taken as seriously and/or as literally as those ascribed to Vespasian, Augustus, or Alexander the Great (that might mean taken lightly or taken literally, depending on how one understands the latter examples). Did perhaps Jesus instruct them to do this, ahead of time, as Alexander the Great employed a court biographer to 'glamorize' his exploits?

 

We need first to understand this practice, and then see how relevant it might be to the gospel literature.

 

 

Since this question is about precedents to the gospel writing (or the traditions prior to the gospel construction), we have to consider only the literature and traditions that are prior to Nero's reign (54-68 AD). All of the gospels are written by then (or certainly the traditions are fully formed) and quite probably the Synoptics were in final form before that during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD).

 

If we applied this criterion rigorously, we would exclude any miracles of Vespasian (69-79 AD), the vast majority of legends associated with the Alexander Romance (3rd century AD), and the Rain-making incident of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD).

 

We are specifically discussing miracles said to have been performed by these figures, and NOT about omens, prophecies, or signs given to them. The gospel miracles are done BY Jesus, not TO Jesus, and although there are gospel elements of a testamentary nature (e.g., the voice of God at a few events, prophecy of Anna), these are not miracles performed by Jesus. [Remember, the question is whether the gospel authors added miraculous elements to the deeds of Jesus, transforming those deeds into miracles of His.]

 

With this in mind, how many miracles were ascribed to Alexander the Great, Augustus, and (for comparison) Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius?

 

Specific miracles performed by (or miraculous aspects of background of) these figures attested by our time are:

 

For Alexander the Great (prior to the Alexander Romances of the 3rd century AD), there are none. The closest we come to one is where the sea rolls back before his army, and appears to 'bow in worship' to him. But, this is described as an independent action of the sea--in recognition of Alexander's lordship--and is NOT initiated or instigated by any action of Alex himself. In other words, this event was NOT a miracle performed by Alexander.

 

The description of this event is given in Eustanthius (relying upon Callisthenes):

 

"Even though he [Callisthenes] does not make the sea part before him [Alexander] in delight [as in Homer], as in making way before Poseidon, nevertheless [he] says that it withdrew from before his march as though recognizing him, and that it too did not fail to know its lord so that in arching itself and bowing it may seem to do obeisance [proskunein]" [cited at HI:MGRA:157]

 

There are, of course, TONS of omens, prophecies, and various signs/portents that surrounded Alexander, but these are NOT the stuff we are talking about here. By the time the gospels were formed, there was NO 'precedent' in the case of Alexander, for making up miracles about Jesus.

 

For Augustus, there is only one miracle performed by him--the silencing of the frogs when he was a toddler:

 

"As soon as he [Augustus] began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at this grandfather's country place' he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there." [Suetonius, Aug. 94.7]

 

That's it--no exorcisms, no healings, no resurrections, no nothing…The list of miraculous aspects of Augustus' life constructed by Suetonius are all omens and portents about his emperorship. The lone miracle described is this one about the frogs.

 

There are no emperor-performed miracles ascribed to Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, or Claudius either. For example:

 

"Unlike Augustus or perhaps Scipio Africanus at an earlier time, Caesar does not seem to have been the subject of a popular legend during his lifetime. There was apparently no story about his miraculous birth, or about omens that showed his divine destiny during his infancy. Such a legend is an important element in creating belief that a man is divine. In Caesar's case it was his death at the hands of assassins that brought him into the number of the gods "not simply on the lips of men passing decrees but in the conviction of the masses."[HI:DRE:77]

 

 

So, at least for Graeco-Roman emperors/rulers, there IS NO pre-gospel "precedent" to make up miracles and 'add them to the story'…and so the answer to this question is clearly 'no'.

 

And there didn’t seem to be an influential precedent after the Gospel literature either.

 

Before the third-century AD, we have no emperor-performed miracles ascribed to Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellus, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrain, Antionius Pius, Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Julianis, or Severus--even though a couple of these required divine worship!

 

By the third century, we have only TWO emperors that were credited with miracles: Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius. Vespasian is credited with two healing miracles in Egypt (discussed further below), and Marcus Aurelius is credited with praying (successfully) for rain. [Marcus Aurelius' case is a 'divine aid' miracle, actually, which is NOT performed by himself. The 'divine aid' type of miracle shows up in the third century again in events associated with Severus and with Probus in Gaul.] That's all--hardly a 'standard practice' of biographers to make up wholesale miracles about their rulers.

 

…………………………………………………………………………

 

But let's go a little further, and explore three semi-related topics:  (1) full deification of the leader in question;  (2) ascription of divine titles/honors to such individuals; and (3) ascription of divine omens, prophesies, and claims to divine 'connections'.

 

 

 

1. First, we need to remember that the G-R ( Greco-Roman) concept of deity was a much broader notion than that of the Jews, and that the lines between human, hero, and god was quite blurred:

 

"To appreciate this approach, however, it is necessary to say a few things about how men and women of this time conceived of the gods, and how they understood the relation between the many gods and the one supreme God who ruled over all. We are inclined to think of God as one, single and solitary, and to conceive of the category of divinity as having only one member, the one God. To the ancients, however, there were many different forms of divinity, and, as observed in the previous chapter, sophisticated thinkers such as Porphyry or Celsus believed that though there was one supreme God this did not prevent people from believing in other lesser gods. The term divine designated a category of a being stretching from the one high God down through the Olympian gods, the visible gods (e.g.,  the stars), the daimones, and finally to heroes or deified men. The supreme God presided over a company of gods…The various categories of the divine are not firmly fixed. It is possible for certain deities to ascend or descend in the hierarchy of divinity. This can be seen particularly in the case of heroes, for heroes were once outstanding men who in the course of time were elevated to divine status because of the character of their lives or the wondrous works they performed…Plutarch says that some heroes are borne upward, 'from men into heroes and from heroes into daimones…But from the daimones a few souls still, in the long reach of time, because of supreme excellence, come, after being purified, to share completely in divine qualities'" [CRST:148,149]

 

"In most cases it is impossible now to reconstruct exactly how any individual emperor negotiated the delicate boundary between (god-like) humanity and outright divinity; but Roman historians regularly use accusations (right, wrong--or, no doubt, often exaggerated) that an emperor was claiming the status of a god as a symbol of his utter transgression of all the rules of proper behavior." [HI:RR1:209]

 

 

"Nero did not seek lifetime deification in Rome…though as we shall see several times in the course of this book, the boundary between being like a god and outright divinity is very hard to draw." [HI:RR1:210]

 

"He [Alex the Great] was familiar with the cult which the Greek cities offered to their supposed founders and to the dynasties of kings who had once ruled in them. Some of them were the heroes of the epic tradition; with them were associated other names of purely local fame as kings or great men…He knew their worship, either as gods or as heroes. If they were gods, the offerings were made by day and the place where they were made was called a temple. If they were heroes, a lower order of divine beings rather like the saints, their sacrifices were made by night and the place where they were offered was the tomb. The cult followed the regular forms of the worship of the dead…But in a religion where the line between gods and heroes was not sharply drawn, the reverence could develop in a way not possible in a religion that tends toward monotheism. A hero could pass into the realm of the gods." [HI:DRE:7f]

 

"It is clear then that for men of the legendary past Alexander was familiar with an official cult in the Greek cities either as heroes or as gods. But he had also seen heroic honors given to men who were known not from legend but from a credible historical record, for in the historical period the founder of a new colony or the citizen to whom a city looked as a savior sometimes had the cult at his tomb taken over by the state who replaced the family in fulfilling the offices of the dead." [HI:DRE:8]

 

"Moreover, Alexander was apparently familiar with heroic honors for living men as well…there was an occasional man of distinction who was called founder or savior of a city and who received from the whole citizen body a form of cult during his lifetime." [HI:DRE:8,9]

 

"For the educated man the philosophies contributed to the idea of the divine in man. There was in their teaching a strong current of skepticism that led to a lack of faith in the gods of the state. At the same time there was a tendency to exalt man and consequently lower the position of the gods and so to make narrower the gulf that separated man and god." [HI:DRE:51f]

 

"Let us summarize briefly the foregoing discussion of the preparation that can be found at Rome for the eastern idea of the divine king. With a tradition of a time when kings had ruled at Rome, a cult of the first of those kings as founder, and a persistence in the triumph and the pompa circensis of the early king as impersonation of Jupiter, the Romans combined a state religion which apparently did not permit the enrollment of men with the gods or even, in the historical period, the assumption by the state of the cult at the tomb of the great man. At the same time the Romans in their native beliefs as seen in private cult had some sense of the divine in man, for they called their dead men gods and worshipped in the Genius and the Lar the spirit of the living man and of the dead ancestor. Moreover, the gods of their state religion had become meaningless and formal, and the inclusion of a mortal among the gods would not bring to the men of the day the same shock that it would have caused in a time when the native religion was strong. At the same time, through change in population and the widened contacts of her citizens, the religious beliefs and philosophical teachings of the identity of man and god that had been current in the Hellenistic world had found their way to Rome. With them went a widespread belief in immortality, and particularly in the glorious immortality of the preeminent man, that might prepare the way for the deification of the glorious dead which the state religion did not countenance." [HI:DRE:54]

 

"Another god in the outworn state religion meant little in Caesar's time…" [HI:DRE:241f]

 

"In Egypt the divine kingship was open and unabashed. In the Greek world there had long been a tendency to the heroization of prominent individuals. In legend the hero was in the strict sense a demi-god, the son of a god by a mortal mother. Heracles and Asclepius are good examples. It is important that the hero did not receive divine honours: sacrifice was made so that the offering poured down to the ground rather than ascending to the sky: the link is with the ancestral dead. Such cult was offered to the founders of cities, or at Athens to the victors of Marathon. There were in Greek piety two strains: one emphasized the distance of man from god, the other aspired to equality with the divine. For the Greek world, however, the decisive change came with Alexander. He enlarged the horizons, and his miscellaneous empire demanded new perspectives. In Egypt his divinity was a matter of political necessity: it was made slightly more palatable to the Greeks by his foundation of Alexandria: nowhere in the world could Alexander be denied the title of city-founder. In Persia he was honoured by prostration: whatever this implied to the Persians, to the Greeks it meant divinity." [RRE:88f]

 

"But when he [Nero] had a daughter by Poppaea, he had her put in the heavens as diva Virgo. Poppaea herself, whom he kicked to death when she was pregnant, had divine honours: which cost the incredulous Thrasea a lawsuit." [HI:TGAR:140]

 

 

 

2. Most of these humans who were given divine 'status' were NOT considered to be gods on earth, but rather were 'elevated' to divinity UPON THEIR DEATH. This apotheosis ("elevation to divine status") was generally NOT thought to be possible during one's lifetime. These individuals were 'voted into' deity (which essentially meant that the state took over the funeral cult, and the commonfolk had one more celebration/party to enjoy per year!), because of their god-like lives. They lived like the gods, in their victories and benefactions, and so 'earned' their post-mortem divine status. Since divine status basically meant state cult on earth, and immortality for their souls with the gods, this looks strangely like Western concepts of "going to heaven"…Since the souls of the dead in standard G-R religion did NOT 'go to heaven' (but rather to the underworld) and since immortality was defined as 'living with the gods', this deification looks almost like 'salvation' instead of 'deification'. [Indeed, the constant emphasis on 'earning divine status through good works' is VERY out-of-synch with first-century Jewish theology.] This was first applied only to military and political heroes, but was expanded to culture heroes later.

 

 

"Emperors and members of their families were given divine honours by vote of the senate only after their death and then only in recognition of the fact (so the official version went) that they had, by their merits, actually become gods." [HI:RR1:209]

 

"In most cases it is impossible now to reconstruct exactly how any individual emperor negotiated the delicate boundary between (god-like) humanity and outright divinity; but Roman historians regularly use accusations (right, wrong--or, no doubt, often exaggerated) that an emperor was claiming the status of a god as a symbol of his utter transgression of all the rules of proper behavior." [HI:RR1:209]

 

"…for the emperor was deified after his death for having acted like a god during his lifetime." [HI:TGAR:138]

 

"Diodorus's early books are filled with the names of inventors, lawgivers, founders, originators of the arts and sciences, and great achievers who later gained immortality because of their benefactions." [HI:DSFC:61]

 

"Diodorus notes the benefactions of dozens of individuals, most of whom were deified for their service to humanity." [HI:DSFC:66]

 

"But Diodorus employs a formula frequently found in the Bibliotheke that, by ruling so wisely and making so many benefactions, they [Dionysus and Heracles] were also immortalized there [in India]." [HI:DSFC:67]

 

"The theme of civilizers, inventors, and city builders with their resultant deification occurs regularly in the early books of the Bibliotheke. Almost seventy times in the first five books and the very few fragments of book vi, Diodorus records a benefactor's gift to humanity and the consequent divine election." [HI:DSFC:71]

 

 

"Now the explanation that 'deities had been generals, admirals, and kings who lived a long time ago' is a classic Euhemerian sentiment, and it is an interpretation found frequently in Diodorus's sources. But the theme of lawgivers, inventors, and the like also receiving divine election by a grateful humanity is not found in any of Diodorus's sources outside of what is preserved in his work. Diodorus may well have reshaped much of the traditions he used, emphasizing that civilizing gifts also earned mythological characters their immortality." [HI:DSFC:71f]

 

"In the historical narrative, too, Diodorus emphasizes the theme of deified culture hero. He notes the deification of nearly a dozen individuals, and at times his attribution of divine honors is somewhat exaggerated." [HI:DSFC:73]

 

"Now it is true that Varro, writing De Gente Populi Romani just after 43 B.C., lists several instances from antiquity where great kings were subsequently deified; he may well have done so in order to justify Caesar's controversial apotheosis and ingratiate himself to Octavian, divi filius." [HI:DSFC:75]

 

"After his death Augustus was promoted to the divine status long held by Caesar--a transition that was, inevitably, as predictable and smoothly managed as it was (in the usual paradox of apotheosis) outrageously unbelievable. The expectation was expressed in his lifetime that he would ascend to his rightful place in heaven, and immediately after his death Augustus was duly made a divus." [HI:RR1:208f]

 

 

 

3. When a ruler attempted to demand or procure such divine statue BEFORE death, they were looked on with suspicion and disapproval.

 

"In most cases it is impossible now to reconstruct exactly how any individual emperor negotiated the delicate boundary between (god-like) humanity and outright divinity; but Roman historians regularly use accusations (right, wrong--or, no doubt, often exaggerated) that an emperor was claiming the status of a god as a symbol of his utter transgression of all the rules of proper behavior." [HI:RR1:209]

 

"So it was recounted that Gaius Caligula, after a popular start to his reign, began to make assertions of his own personal divinity: he is said to have sat between the statues of Castor and Pollux in the temple in the Forum, showing himself to be worshipped by those who entered; he wore the clothing or attributes of a wide range of deities, and established a temple to his own godhead. For his biographer all this demonstrated that Gaius was no longer emperor or even king, but monster; and stories of Gaius' reign (however exaggerated) survived as a warning to subsequent emperors not to destroy the Augustan norms." [HI:RR1:209]

 

"His younger son, Domitian, on the other hand, (though in many respects he was a strong traditionalist) is said to have demanded to be address  as dominus et deus noster, 'our master and god'" [HI:RR1:210]

 

"And a century later, Commodus identified himself so closely with Hercules that he had Hercules' lion-skin and club carried before him in the street and converted the great Colossus…into a status of himself as Hercules. All this is reported with horror by the eyewitness senatorial historian Cassius Dio." [HI:RR1:210]

 

"The pattern was set, and the saner emperors followed it, though from time to time a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex would appear and demand worship in his lifetime, Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus." [RRE:91]

 

 

4. There was also a geographical difference in how this was understood. In Egypt, the ruler WAS God (not the god's 'son' per se). In Rome, the rulers were generally NOT allowed worship and deification within their lifetime. But in the Roman provinces, the Roman leaders and military heroes could be worshipped and given very 'high' divine titles and cult. Augustus, for example, was NOT worshipped in Rome during his lifetime, but WAS worshipped and called divine by some of the Roman subjugated territories. There were, as we shall see, some 'political' and ambition issues associated with who could 'worship the Emperor more loudly' than the others…

 

"Though Dio sees cults of the emperor as a unifying factor across the empire, he draws a crucial distinction between different forms of imperial cult: cults offered to the living emperor by subjects of Rome and the practices of the centre. 'For in the capital itself (he writes) and in Italy generally no emperor, however worthy of renown he has been, has dared to do this <i.e. have lifetime cults of himself>; still, even there various divine honours are bestowed after their death upon such emperors as have ruled uprightly, and in fact shrines are built to them." That is, official public cults in the capital were restricted to deceased emperors (and members of their families); for the living emperor vows were offered on his behalf to the Olympian gods.  Dio further distinguishes between the cults offered by subjects of Rome (Greeks and others) and those to be performed by Roman citizens resident in the provinces. Whereas the subjects of Rome had cults of the living emperor, Roman citizens had cults of the Roman type. [HI:RR1:349]

 

"The custom of voting divine titles to living rulers was common in the Eastern Mediterranean regions, where there were extremely ancient and powerful traditions of divine kingship, especially in Egypt. The famous Rosetta Stone, discovered near one of the mouths of the Nile in 1799, contains a lengthy announcement in flowery Egyptian style proclaiming the divinity of a Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy V Epiphanes (210-180 B.C.E.). Issued in three languages around the year 196 B.C.E. at Alexandria, when the king was twelve years old, it says in part: 'In the reign of the young king by inheritance from his father, Lord of the Diadems, great in glory, pacifier of Egypt and pious toward the Gods, superior over his adversaries, restorer of the life of man ... king like the sun, Great King of the Upper and Lower Lands, child of the Gods through the love of the Father ... living image of Zeus, Son of the Sun, Ptolemy the immortal ... priest of (the divine) Alexander (the Great) and the Savior Gods and the Benefactor Gods and the Gods of the love of the Father, the God visible (or manifest), for whom thanks be given.,'" [DSG:6]

 

"Both in life and in death, the genius [guardian spirit] of Augustus received cult throughout Italy, while in the east and throughout the empire he was worshipped as a god, thus setting the fashion for future rulers." [PE:128]

 

"Furthermore, nothing is known at Rome which exactly corresponds to heroic honors to the living man such as we have seen existed in various Greek cities. If we are right in explaining those honors as a cult of the man's daimon, it would be in accord with the importance of the Genius in Roman private cult to find a public cult of the Genius of the preeminent man. But there is no record of such a cult until it became a feature of the imperial worship." [HI:DRE:47]

 

 

"In 167 BC Prusias of Bithynia came to Rome and greeted the senators: 'Hail, Savior gods'" [RRE:90]

 

 

5. We have to note here the importance of literary genre again. Divine honors were officially voted by the ruling bodies, whether the Roman senate or the city-councils in the G-R cities. But the ascription of various divine honors and divine benefactions often preceded such official deifications. These ascriptions generally showed up in literary and speech forms KNOWN for containing exaggeration, flattery, and hyperbole. Poetry, panegyric, drama, and encomium were standard vehicles for such not-perfectly-accurate portrayals of events and character. These forms were expected to contain such elements and the audience knew this (and indeed, delighted in such literary expertise and showmanship). And the audiences discounted the 'content' by some "percentage", because of this. But no one complained--there was different truth for poetry and panegyric than for history and historical biography. And, of course, official documents--although generally not containing such 'elastic' genres-- could also contain 'official versions' of events that approximated 'praise' genres at times.

 

[Definitional note: "Usage: Eulogy, eulogium, encomium, panegyric. The idea of praise is common to all these words. The word encomium is used of both persons and things which are the result of human action, and denotes warm praise. Eulogium and eulogy apply only to persons and are more studied and of greater length. A panegyric was originally a set speech in a full assembly of the people, and hence denotes a more formal eulogy, couched in terms of warm and continuous praise, especially as to personal character. We may bestow encomiums on any work of art, on production of genius, without reference to the performer; we bestow eulogies, or pronounce a eulogium, upon some individual distinguished for his merit public services; we pronounce a panegyric before an assembly gathered for the occasion."]

 

"Famous philosophers were also revered in this way. For example, the Roman poet Lucretius (94-55 B.C.E.), said this in praise of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (c. 340-270 B.C.E.): "…he was a God…a God he was…Which makes him seem to us with better reason a God'" [DSG:6f]

 

"Letters to the empire at large could also be a useful way of announcing imperial triumphs. Ammianus Marcellinus writes with some annoyance that in the wake of his nephew Julian's victory over the Alemanni at Strasbourg in 357, the emperor Constantius claimed the success for himself and dispatched one of those edicts in which, carried away by the eloquence of his flatterers, he told lies about many things. He often claimed, according to Ammianus. to have defeated foreign nations and raised up foreign kings when he was nowhere in their area. If one of his generals won a battle over the Persians while he was in Italy, he would send missives "to the ruin of the provinces" describing the way that he had fought in the front rank and omitting to mention the general anywhere. The imperial records office was full of documents in which he praised himself to the skies (16.12.67-70). In other words. Constantius did for himself what the author of a third-century handbook on rhetoric urged a good orator to do in an oration on any emperor: "you will have opportunity here to link up a passage on wisdom, saying that he himself was the planner, the commander, the discoverer of the moment for battle, a marvelous counselor, champion, general and orator" (Men. Rhet. 2.374.21-25 trans. Russell and Wilson). To judge from the extant examples of such letters preserved in the corpus of the writings of Julian (several justifying his revolt against Constantius in 361), these letters could be quite long." [PE:116]

 

"At the time of Harian's accession in 117, ten days of celebration were ordered, and one papyrus preserved part of an account of a public display in which an actor playing the God Apollo said that he had come to the people to announce the new emperor after having escorted his predecessor to heaven in a chariot drawn by white horses." [PE:129]

 

"Accession ceremonies, as well as the periodic celebration of the cult, provided fora for spreading news of the emperor's accomplishments. Hymnodoi and Sebastologoi who celebrated the emperor with hymns and rhetorical encomia are attested throughout the Greek east, and the images of the emperor would be paraded through the streets so that people could know what he looked like. The whole performance was, of course, highly stylized, and, to judge from Menander Rhetor's handbook on the way to compose speeches for all occasions, a consistent image of power was more important than accurate discourse on the facts of the reign. This situation was very much in keeping with the sort of material that could be obtained from the emperors themselves." [PE:129]

 

"The extant portion [of Fronto's history] suggests that it more closely resembled a rhetorical encomium, setting forth the official version of the vents, than a modern equivalent of Tacitus' Histories." [PE:131]

 

"…Cicero was not above manufacturing a few visions for himself to fill out the poem that he wrote on his travails. They were appropriate to an epic hero." [PE:149]

 

"Even in the early second century Scipio Africanus the elder is perhaps a case in point, though it has been shown that many of the details of his 'legend' sound like inventions of panegyrists who contributed to the idea of the divine connections which he and his family tried to foster." [HI:DRE:55]

 

"Propertius told how, when the battle opened, the archer god who had so often rescued Octavian's Trojan ancestor was seen winging his arrows from Octavian's ship. The appearance of the god was used by the poets to explain the flight of Cleopatra which turned the tide of battle." [HI:DRE:139]

 

"By the time of Ovid and Manilius the expression of Augustus' divinity-sometimes described as already achieved on earth, though more often recognized as not finally accomplished until after his death-are more conventional. They are already tinged with the language of flattery that is so distasteful in the works of Lucan and Martial in the century that followed. Horace and Ovid are probably indicative of the development in the cult among the educated supporters of Augustus in Rome. From deep admiration that expressed itself readily in the language of worship they came gradually to a conventional acceptance of his divinity and then unfortunately to the attribution of divine qualities to him in the language of conventional flattery." [HI:DRE:236]

 

"Mention of Cicero's historical epic, the Marius, prompts the question from Atticus, the historical purist, whether Cicero may not have invented salient details in the epic. There are readers, he notes, who do not know what is true and what false. Cicero replies that a historical poem offers a poet's truth, not that of a witness, and Q. Cicero adds that they are different laws for poetry and for history, of which the standards are, respectively, pleasure and truth." [NHAGR:135]

 

"For just as the former work, being in the form of an encomium, demanded a summary and somewhat exaggerated account of his achievements, so the present history, which distributes praise and blame impartially, demands a strictly true account and one which states the ground on which either praise or blame is based" [Polybius, Hist. 10,21,7-8 (Loeb)" (cited at HI:RH:135]

 

 

6. Now, this last fact opens up a HUGE problem about ascription of divine titles and honors to individuals--the problem of motive. The fact that oration and literature is a public act, and historically was funded by patrons (generally involved in political struggles and rivalries), creates a distinct temptation to use such genres as propaganda and fodder in political wars. And indeed, the stories surrounding the divinity issues of Caesar, Octavian, Vespasian, and Alexander all show how dominant this factor is.

 

When would-be successors to a throne would be competing with one another, they would all try to convince the populace that THEIR connection to the gods was 'better' and 'closer' than their competitors. When cities were vying for preferential treatment by a ruler, they would heap on the praise and 'increase the worship level' of said ruler--often in competition with other cities. When court historians and employees of the ruler issued panegyrics of divine honors to their employer, the question of motive was implicit.

 

Competitors to the throne would heap (and create) prophecies and omens that THEIR rule was the one approved by God, and would therefore be the best for the city/nation/empire. Whoever had the 'most divine signs' would often win the 'political race'. Once they won--assuming they were sane--all such manipulation seemed to cease!

 

This is incredibly well documented, especially for the Roman emperors.  Legends DID grow up before their death, but only those deliberately created in the context of power struggles…

 

"After his death Augustus was promoted to the divine status long held by Caesar--a transition that was, inevitably, as predictable and smoothly managed as it was (in the usual paradox of apotheosis) outrageously unbelievable.  The expectation was expressed in his lifetime that he would ascend to his rightful place in heaven, and immediately after his death Augustus was duly made a divus.  His funeral, creation and burial in the Mausoleum were grand versions of the traditional funeral of the Roman nobility; but afterwards a senior senator (who was said to have been handsomely rewarded for his pains, to the tune of a million sesterces, by Augustus' widow Livia) declared on oath to the senate that he had actually seen Augustus ascending to heaven."  [HI:RR1:208f; note the fraudulent miracle claim.]

 

"The Augustan system marks a change from the tone of the period of the civil wars after the death of Caesar when Octavian was commonly thought to have held a dinner party of the Twelve Gods, himself appearing as Apollo--dangerously straddling the border between fancy-dress and blasphemy.  In addition, official coins from the mint of Rome of the early 20s B.C. showed Octavian as Apollo, Jupiter and Neptune, and the original plan for the great new temple of the Pantheon ('All the gods') was that it should be named after Augustus and have his statue inside it…After 27 BC, Augustus no longer employed such imagery…"  [HI:RR1:209]

 

"These provincial cults of Roman power were generally an innovation of the imperial period, even when there had been a provincial assembly under the Republic.  They were not normally imposed by Rome, but arose from and enhanced the rivalry between individual cities and the standing of those who served as high priests of the provincial cults…rivalry between different communities for the emperor's attention may have played a part…" [HI:RR1:352,357]

 

"The rhetoric of imperial edicts was carefully constructed to create an appropriate imperial image…" [PE:114]

 

"Even when direct official participation is not specifically attested, it may be suspected that it often lay behind acts or the form of acts commemorating the emperor…" [PE:121]

 

 

"Accession ceremonies, as well as the periodic celebration of the cult, provided for spreading news of the emperor's accomplishments. Hymnodoi and Sebastologoi who celebrated the emperor with hymns and rhetorical encomia are attested throughout the Greek east, and the images of the emperor would be paraded through the streets so that people could know what he looked like.  The whole performance was, of course, highly stylized, and, to judge from Menander Rhetor's handbook on the way to compose speeches for all occasions, a consistent image of power was more important than accurate discourse on the facts of the reign.  This situation was very much in keeping with the sort of material that could be obtained from the emperors themselves."  [PE:129]

 

"It was an impressive example of the capacity of the central government to inform (or misinform) its subjects through the exploitation of local media for communication or amusement, and people actually came to believe that the teenage emperor was leading the army in person."  [PE:130]

 

"The Rain Miracle connected with Marcus Aurelius was well known because the emperor had seen to its broad advertisement throughout his realm, and it provided a model for a similar claim to divine aid for Severus, as well, possibly, as the story that bread fell from heaven to save the army of the emperor Probus in Gaul during the 270s.  It is a little less clear how the sudden dark cloud that enveloped Rome just before the death of Commodus impinged upon the consciousness of the oracular author who recorded it, but the civil wars that followed it, if not Severus himself, who had published throughout the empire the sings connected with his rise to power, may have done something to perpetuate its memory."  [PE:145]

 

"It is likely that a fair amount of time was spent discussing precisely these issues [omens], for it was as essential to the emperor as it would have been for the republican senate to control the record of 'authentic' divinely inspired prophecy.  This is why Augustus had burned 2,000 prophetic books in the Forum that were deemed 'false,' and it is also why he had moved the books from the Capitoline to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine."  [PE:151]

 

"Another of his predictions that attracted public notice was that Caligula had as much chance of becoming emperor as he did of riding over the gulf of Baiae on horses.  Caligula subsequently built a bridge across the bay and drove across in a chariot, at which point his courtiers let it be known that he was fulfilling the prediction."  [PE:159]

 

"If things had worked out in Gemellus' favor as he wished, this incident might have been used by Tiberius to bring Gemellus to public recognition in a way that might have recalled Tiberius' earlier reliance upon signs of divine favor as he maneuvered for power in the last decade of Augustus' life.  As Thrasyllus' prophecy was used to explain Caligula's behavior, so members of the court could make private personal contact with the divine well known in the upper echelons of society, and Tiberius' reputation as an astrologer could only have helped.  In the case of Thrasyllus' prediction about Caligula, we are told precisely that this prediction was communicated by the emperor's intimates.  A similar process may be divined behind the report that the favor of the Roman people was inflamed on Nero's behalf by reports of prodigies.  There were two versions (at least).  One had Nero protected by two serpents, the other, Nero's, reduced the number to one (Tac. Ann. 11. 11.3).  Augustus is said to have "put the story about" that he had put his left boot on the wrong foot on the day that a mutiny in the army almost ruined him  (Plin. NH 2.25).  It is fair to assume that he did this through his friends.  Such storytelling may also lie behind the account of Titus' visit to the oracle of Aphrodite on Paphos where a private consultation soon became public knowledge (Tac. Hist. 2.3-4).  It is firmly attested that Julian told his friends that he saw the genius of the Roman people on the night that he was proclaimed in Paris, and that he saw her again (complete with cornucopia) leaving his tent on the night before he died (Amm. Marc. 20.5.10; 25.2.3)."  [PE:160]

 

"…and a man named Apollonius the Syrian (a Platonic philosopher) revealed that an oracle at Nicephorium had predicted the same thing [Hadrian's future as emperor].  In Apollonius we can see once again the role of a court favorite in 'leaking' prophetic information to the world."  [PE:162]

 

"Every emperor about whom any detailed information has survived advertised some sort of divine favor, and it was not just court favorites who spread it abroad.  The panegyic was the ideal way to let the emperor's followers know what was important, and it is therefore not surprising that the younger Pliny equipped Trajan with an oracular indication of future greatness, in the extensive panegyric that he worked up…"  [PE:162]

 

"Two centuries later, the panegyrics delivered before the emperor Constantine revealed all sorts of secrets about that monarch and his dealings with the god, suggesting a complicated pattern by which information passed from the inner sanctum of imperial power to speakers drawn from the upper echelons of Gallic society, whose words could be expected to publicize the message of the moment.  Thus, the panegyrist from Autun who delivered a speech in honor of Constantine was a former imperial servant who had sons in the imperial service, one of them evidently a reasonably well placed lawyer in the imperial financial service, an advocatus fisci.  He was therefore an appropriate person not only to reveal the secret of Constantine's descent from Claudius to the world, but also to describe an encounter between the emperor and Apollo after the death of Maximian .  He further observed that Constantine was the person to whom the "divine songs" of the prophets referred when they mentioned a person destined for dominion over the whole world .  The orator of 313 who noted that Constantine had "a secret connection with the divine mind" that ruled the world when he invaded Italy the year before, was also experienced in speaking before the emperor, and knew that this was the line for the year ."  [PE:162f]

 

"Just over a century before Constantine began his ascent to power, Septimius Severus, the first emperor since Vespasian who actually had to fight for the throne, seems to have bolstered his claim by publication of the signs of divine favor well beyond the circle of court favorites.  [PE:163]

 

"Vespasian seems to have been a master of the arts of religious subversion.  Prophecies were spread throughout the east about the coming of anew monarch from that region, and his eldest son, Titus, made a public visit to Paphos to obtain a similar prediction.  Vespasian even healed the sick at Alexandria.  But these events may have been less striking to the Roman audience than the sudden turning of a statue of Julius Caesar on the Tiber Island so that it faced east rather than west…The statue's sudden change of direction may have been a subtle reminder to the emperor arranged by Vespasian's friends at Rome…In the context of imperial politics such as those described in the last few paragraphs, the agents of prophetic disruptions were almost certainly to be found among the personal friends of aspiring emperors, and in cases in which civic protests against Rom may be divined behind readily explicable (in human terms) signs of heavenly anger, members of the local aristocracy may have been involved."  [PE:173]

 

"Quite different from Agesilaus in his attitude toward divinity was Clearchus, tyrant of Heraclea on the Black Sea (363-352) who, intoxicated by wealth and power, 'forgot that he was a human being.'  He called himself the son of Zeus and evidently thought of himself as Zeus in person.  He dressed like the image of the gods and called his son Thunderbolt.  He deliberately made use of his divine pretensions to strengthen his tyrannical rule…"  [HI:DRE:12]

 

"Even in the early second century Scipio Africanus the elder is perhaps a case in point, though it has been shown that many of the details of his 'legend' sound like inventions of panegyrists who contributed to the idea of the divine connections which he and his family tried to foster."  [HI:DRE:55]

 

"Here are all the elements of a legend that might have led the way to a genuine cult; the only difficulty is in determining how far it was a legend created by propaganda and how fare it took hold upon popular fancy."  [HI:DRE:56]

 

"There can be no doubt of Caesar's own interest in the recognition of his divinity…Under the ideal of government which they had in mind they were themselves the authors of their own divinity.  At the same time it is possible that there was spontaneous worship for both Caesar and Alexander. Certainly not all Caesar's divine honors were self-inspired.  Many of them were invented by flatterers; some of them were even the invention of men who wished to increase the hostility to him."  [HI:DRE:76f]

 

"…Octavian himself, though publicly he explained the comet as the apotheosis of his father, is said to have associated it privately with his own rebirth and so to have turned it as he did the other signs of Caesar's godhead to his own gloryOctavian lost no time in taking advantage of the situation.  He seems to have attached the star to every statue of Caesar that was set up, and the symbol henceforth became a regular sign of Caesar's godhead."  [HI:DRE:91f]

 

"One of the first acts of the triumvirate was the deification of Julius Caesar.  Just as the group which has succeeded Lenin in Bolshevist Russia fortified its position by what we may term the canonization of Lenin, the Roman triumvirate established its prestige by referring its authority to a god and by securing the worship of that god in formal state cult."  [HI:DRE:96]

 

"For the events of the period we must turn to later writers whose accounts of the triumvirate are inevitably very much affected by the masses of pamphlet literature which the partisans of Antony and Octavian issued against each other…It is the incompleteness of the entire picture rather than the lack of details about the divine pretensions of the leaders which makes it hard to gauge the significance of the development in the conception of the absolute monarchy during these years.  Claims to divine ancestry and to personal identification with godhead were apt to exaggerated by the pamphleteers who wrote for the opposing forces, and the stories of Antony masquerading as Dionysus, of Octavian as Apollo, and Sextus Pompey as Neptune have lost nothing in the telling.  But there can be no doubt of the fact that all sides used their divine associations as a means of propaganda with the people both in the East and among the easternized plebs of Rome."  [HI:DRE:102f]

 

"Certainly Octavian did what he could in the next few years to give prominence to his association with Apollo."  [HI:DRE:119f]

 

"It is clear from the case of Sextus Pompey that these claims to divine connections on the part of the leaders were used largely as a form of propaganda.  While Antony was playing Dionysus and Octavian was encouraging the stories of his relations to Apollo, Sextus, devoting himself to naval warfare and remembering with pride the dominion over the sea which his father had once had, was claiming to be the son of Neptune…It was reported that he wore a sea-blue cloak, instead of the usual purple one, to emphasize the relationship.  He made constant sacrifices to Neptune, the god's favorite horses and even men, it was asserted, being thrown into the sea, and he attributed it to the favor of the god when his opponent's feet was destroyed by a storm."  [HI:DRE:120f]

 

"Augustus was not even now in theory a god on earth.  The poets of the period, in spite of the new note of flattery that is characteristic of Augustus' later years, still speak of godhead as something that he will attain after his death."  [HI:DRE:203]

 

"Then there was the legend that had already formed about Augustus before his death and that grew to great proportions afterwards.  Although the victorious Caesar had never inspired a legend, there grew up about his unwarlike successor a series of stories that recall the mythical incidents of the lives of great conquerors such as Alexander and Charlemagne.  Like Alexander he was credited with a divine father.  Both before his birth and in his youth his greatness was said to have been foretold by marvelous signs.  The legend is best known from a series of stories in the biography of Augustus written a century after his death by the wonder-loving Suetonius."  [HR:DRE:232]

 

"Another story quoted on the authority of a Syrian freedman of Augustus is a version of the slaughter of the innocents which was also told of a wonder child born in Palestine in the reign of Augustus."  [HR:DRE:233]

 

"The stories are worth recording only because their very existence seems to indicate that there was a public sufficiently convinced of the destiny of Augustus to be interested in them.  About these stories the same question arises that is constantly asked about Augustus' divinity.  Did they originate through channels of propaganda or were they spontaneous expressions of devotion to the emperor?  Certainly the omens that Augustus himself recorded and perhaps the story vouched for by his Syrian freedman may be classed as propaganda, but that was not necessarily the case with all the stories.  The gratitude and admiration that Augustus inspired as a deliverer undoubtedly had their influence in building up his legend." [HI:DRE:234…note 'gratitude and admiration' were generally expressed in the 'exaggeration' genres.]

 

"By the time of Ovid and Manilius the expression of Augustus' divinity-sometimes described as already achieved on earth, though more often recognized as not finally accomplished until after his death, are more conventional.  They are already tinged with the language of flattery that is so distasteful in the works of Lucan and Martial in the century that followed.  Horace and Ovid are probably indicative of the development in the cult among the educated supporters of Augustus in Rome."  [HI:DRE:236]

 

"Augustus himself seems to have had a sense of humor about his divine honors.  When the people of Tarraco told him that a palm had sprung up on his altar, he interpreted it as a sign that a fire was rarely kindled upon it.  There is no indication that he cared for adulation in itself.  The simplicity of his court, the informality of his relations with his friends, his prohibition of the name dominus in address are indicative of his attitude…But for Augustus the imperial cult was primarily an instrument of politics.  His own conception of the worship is indicated by his attitude toward his Jewish subjects.  In Alexandria and in Rome and doubtless elsewhere in the empire he exacted from them no images and no sacrifices that were contrary to Jewish customs."  [HI:DRE:236,237]

 

"Here was a form of divinity [Eastern, Greek versions, in which men could become gods] which was truly effective because it accorded with popular belief, and Octavian, who depended on the fact that he was the son of a Divus for the authorization of his power, could have secured from Caesar's example alone an indication of the form of divine monarchy…"  [HI:DRE:243]

 

But Alexander is important, a model for ambitious Romans from Pompey to Caracalla…The Hellenistic age is also important.  The mood is now very different.  The Athenians received Demetrius with the most fulsome flattery, calling him the only true god, all the others being asleep, absentees or non-existent; they gave him the Parthenon for his palace.  There had been no cult of Alexander during his lifetime; now Ptolemy introduced one; the motive was political, the result religious.  Ptolemy II deified his predecessor and Berenice, and instituted a festival in their honour; this practice became regular except in Macedon; after their deaths Seleucus became Seleucus Zeus Victor and Antiochus became Apollo Saviour. By the late270S Bc a cult of the reigning monarch was established in Egypt for the Greeks, though it was not identical with the Egyptian ritual. The great divine titles were Saviour and Benefactor. "  [RRE:88f]

 

"The imperial cult is found most vigorously in the Asiatic provinces.  A city which was given official permission to be the center of the provincial cult was styled neokoros or 'temple-warden' and the cities vied with one another for the title."  [RRE:93]

 

"Now it is true that Varro, writing De Gente Populi Romani just after 43 B.C., lists several instances from antiquity where great kings were subsequently deified; he may well have done so in order to justify Caesar's controversial apotheosis and ingratiate himself to Octavian, divi filius."  [HI:DSFC:75]

 

 

7. But not everybody accepted such talk--even with such a watered-down view of divinity…the deification of mortals was often opposed, abused, and even ridiculed--even if the government 'said so'.

 

"(Cassius) Dio also implies that educated people routinely disbelieved whatever they were told by the central government, even when they had no evidence to hand (53.19.4)."  [PE:137]

 

"There was another side to the emperor.  This was the power that lay behind the governor who traveled from city to city dispensing a brutal justice for all to watch, the power supported by the ubiquitous tax gatherer or the local centurion.  The inhabitants of the Roman world way not have been well informed, but there is no reason to believe that the emperors ruled a population of morons either.  The emperors' subjects had their own paradigms to help them determine the broader significance of the deeds that were reported to them, paradigms that did not depend on their masters, and sources of information that were beyond the control of their masters."  [PE:137]

 

"The Roman republican aristocracy was loath to admit that any of its members could be in direct, personal communication with a god.  The Roman people, on the other hand, seem to have been deeply fascinated by this possibility.  Thus there was a constant tension between the claims of individuals and the claims of the state."  [PE:149]

 

"Shortly after Lysander lost his power, the Spartan king Agesilaus refused the divinity that was offered him by the people of Thasos.  He is said to have asked the envoys who came to announce his divine honors whether they had the power of making men into gods.  Receiving an affirmative reply, he said, 'Go make yourselves into gods first.  Then I will believe that you can make me one too.'"  [HI:DRE:11f]

 

"As a matter of fact the true Roman had become too indifferent and skeptical toward the gods of the state religion to be very much shocked by the inclusion of men with the gods."  [HI:DRE:51]

 

"For the educated man the philosophies contributed to the idea of the divine in man.  There was in their teaching a strong current of skepticism that led to a lack of faith in the gods of the state.   At the same time there was a tendency to exalt man and consequently lower the position of the gods and so to make narrower the gulf that separated man and god."  [HI:DRE:51f]

 

"After his death [Claudius] he was enshrined as another divus; his apotheosis was made the subject of a keen satire which shows the attitude of a sophisticated Roman toward the ceremony."  [HI:DRE:240f]

 

"Another god in the outworn state religion meant little in Caesar's time…"  [HI:DRE:241f]

 

"Vespasian, who, feeling his death-agony approaching, remarked with blunt humor, 'Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god.'  [RRE:91f]

 

"The mood continued; in the second century A.D., as one able ruler followed another, he deified his predecessor, sometimes, as with Hadrian, dragging a reluctant senate with him.  When Marcus Aurelius deified his colleague Lucius Verus, the subject was less worthy, but one feels that the burden of Lucius dead was somewhat less than the burden of Lucius alive.  The process became cynical. Caracalla murdered his brother Geta, and acceded to his deification with the words…'he can be in heaven, provided that he is not on earth.'" [RRE:92]

 

"The apotheosis of the pathetic Claudius and the farcical account Seneca gives of it in his Apocolocyntosis ridiculed the institution."  [HI:TGAR:140]

 

 

8. And even when some actually used that type of language, there are strong indications that they did not MEAN it as such--they didn't take the language of deification 'theologically' per se.

 

"After the excesses of Nero, who sought to rival various gods, came the down-to-earth Vespasian, who on his deathbed (so it was said) made a joke about his own apotheosis."  [HI:RR1:210]

 

"Archeologists have discovered hundreds of coins, inscriptions, epitaphs, and writings from the Hellenistic-Roman period (300 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) that use the titles of "Visible God" (theos epiphanes), "Savior" (soter) and "Benefactor" (evergetes).  Grateful city councils, pious provincial assemblies, the priesthood in the Roman Senate, and a wide spectrum of public and private religious assemblies, commonly assigned these titles to kings, generals, statesmen, philosophers, poets, and physicians; in some cases, even to famous athletes!  They became so commonly used that they were, in some cases, little more than pious clichés"  [DSG:8]

 

"Vergil, whose father's farm was saved from confiscation, has given us in his first eclogue a spontaneous expression of worship for Octavian which is indicative of the ready way in which an Italian and a Roman could turn to the forms of personal cult as the natural means of making his gratitude known."  [HI:DRE:111]

 

"Horace, who had once been opposed to Augustus, is especially significant for the genuineness of his sentiments and the ease with which in all sincerity he falls into the language of worship.  He even views the Genius as a revealed god and fails to make a distinction between it and the emperor's person.  But, like most of the educated men of his day, he had little faith in the old gods of the state and his references to the emperor as a being on the same plane as the gods are rather an expression of deep personal admiration than of real religious fervor. "  [HI:DRE:236]

 

 

Consider for a moment, in the context of the above, the healing miracles of Vespasian. Tacitus' account shows--quite subtly--some of these elements:

 

"Throughout those months in which Vespasian was waiting in Alexandria for the season of the summer winds and a calm sea, many miracles happened, by which were exhibited the favor of Heaven and a certain leaning toward the divine in Vespasian.  One of the commoners of Alexandria, who was known for the loss of his sight, threw himself before Vespasian's knees, praying to him with groans for a remedy for his blindness, having been so ordered by the God Serapis, whom the nation, being most pious, worships more than all others.  And he prayed to the emperor that he should stoop to moisten with his spit his cheeks and the eyeballs.  Another, whose hand was useless, ordered by the same God, prayed that Caesar should step on it with his foot.  Vespasian at first laughed; then, at the same time, he was moved to fear by the thought of the infamy of failure and to hope by the prayers of the men and the voices of flattery.  Finally he ordered it to be determined by physicians if such blindness and debility could be conquered by human powers.  The physicians handled the two cases differently: in one, the power of sight had not been destroyed and would be restored if the obstructions were removed.  In the other, the joints had fallen into deformity; if a healing force were applied, it would be possible to restore them.  This was perhaps the wish of the Gods, and the emperor had been chosen for divine service.  At any rate, if the healing was achieved, Caesar had glory; the onus of failure would belong to the poor beseechers.  Therefore, Vespasian, sure that his good fortune was able to achieve anything and that nothing was incredible, with smiling face, standing amid the excitement of the tense multitude, did what he was asked.  Immediately the hand was changed to a useful one and the day shone again for the blind man.  Both cases are told by those who were present, and even now when lying has no reward.  [Tacitus, Histories 4.81, cited at DSG:155]

 

This account has so many tongue-in-cheek elements in it--even for a court historian--it is hard to be 'impressed' by Vespasian's performance.  Not only does the motif of 'God has selected YOU to be emperor' appear here several times, but Vespasian is portrayed as just another calculating and manipulative mortal: He checks with physicians to gauge his risk of failure, he is motivated by fear and flattery, he has a backup plan to blame failure on the patients, and he laughs in ridicule at the notion of his divine power.  Tacitus uses this miracle story to paint a VERY unflattering portrait of Vespasian, all couched in conventional forms.  But the crowning blow is the last sentence, making the obvious point that at the time of the alleged event there WAS a motive for lying!  The cat is out of the bag, and the reader obviously knows that there actually still IS a motive for the witnesses to continue the story--to demonstrate that they weren't lying for gain!  It is really hard to take this seriously--Tacitus obviously did not--as a case of embellishing a narrative with miraculous elements "in honor of a dead leader"…[Meier notes this in his work, that "a number of commentators consider it ironical and sarcastic", mentioning Tacitus scholars Ronald Syme, Chilver, and Townsend. [MJ:2:612, n.82]]

 

 

So, where does this leave us in regards to claims to divinity and miracles on the part of Roman Emperors (e.g., Augustus and Vespasian)?

 

  1. There are almost no claims of direct miracles performed by emperors, with the only one about Augustus (i.e., the silencing of the frogs as a toddler) likely being a ‘portent of coming power’ and the one by Vespasian likely invented by someone in Vespasian’s train.

 

  1. The various signs and portents and omens and claims to divine connection were political tools, generally constructed, leaked, and distributed by members of the warring factions—all with ties to the living leader and all with massive financial (and biological!) stake in the outcome of the conflict over power.

 

  1. Once someone was in power, the claims and divine pretensions seemingly ‘stop’ and life goes back to normal—except for the random, insane megalomaniac.

 

  1. There is no ‘natural growth of legend’ occurring here at all—it’s mostly either (a) well-crafted propaganda or (b) attempts on the part of others to ingratiate themselves via flattery into the good graces of a current or prospective emperor.

 

  1. The vast majority of the wilder claims occur in genres of praise, flattery, poetry, and drama—not the more sober genres of history and biography.

 

  1. Most self-claims to pre-mortem divinity were considered foolish and reprehensible; and when others ascribed ‘divine titles’ to emperors, it often was only an expression of deep appreciation, recognition of authority (e.g., conquering general), or recognition of superior personal benefaction (not a theological statement).

 

  1. Almost all of the divine attributions are about living leaders, not dead ones; and in the case of dead leaders, it is made by or to someone who owes their power (or continuation of their power/authority) to the continued respect for the authority of the dead leader (e.g., Octavian as “son of the god Julius”).

 

 

What is interesting about this to me is that there are not MORE miracle-claims than there are. Omens and portents abound, but not miracles. Even Julius Caesar, remember, spawned NO legend of miracles or even portents. And all the Roman emperors since Augustus would have had countless panegyrics performed before them, with no doubt countless embellishments--all according to the rules and regulations of rhetoric. But none of these exalted claims and praise outbursts turned into 'legends' and miracle reports. Why?

 

It seems clear to me now that this is due to the 'practiced skepticism' of the literature writers and readers of the time…[I will discuss this further when we get to the article on gullibility.]

 

The G-R educational system of the time had basically three levels: primary education (boys and girls, 7-11 years old, of reading/writing/math), secondary education (boys, 12-15 years old, literary subjects taught by a grammaticus), and rhetorical training (boys over 16, composition and rhetoric, taught by rhetoric trainers).

 

Anyone able to compose even semi-literary compositions (e.g., poetry, encomia, gospels, medical treatises) would have had to undergo at least some rhetorical training.

 

The problem for would-be myth-creators arises from the actual nature of some of this training.

 

First, the students all had to learn how to embellish and add imaginary details to any story, which would automatically create an embellishment-detection capability in every one of them!

 

"From early childhood, when their nurses had told them stories of the animal kingdom to keep them quiet, and from their primary school days, when they had laboriously copied out fables, boys had become familiar with the delightful world of Aesop, in which animals met and talked and behaved like human beings, and in which there was always a moral to adorn the tale. Now they had to try their had at writing these fables for themselves, first telling the story orally, and then writing it down in their own words. ..It was necessary to learn to expand the fable, to make more of it by developing the details. It was the most natural thing in the world that animals should hold conversations with one another, but the fox and the wolf did not think and speak like the sheep, or the lion like the lamb. So the young writer was encouraged to build into the story little speeches, in keeping with the characters and the circumstances…Then again, expansion could often be achieved by the introduction of descriptions, with circumstantial details…" [HI:EAR:254f]

 

But the real problem came with analysis, in which the myths and fables were actually analyzed critically!

 

"The easiest exercises, which were always taught early in the course (though not necessarily in the same order), were those based on the instructive Saying (chreia), the Maxim (sententia), the Fable (apologus, fabula) and the mythological Narrative (narratio). Here there was the advantage that all of these had been used at the primary level simply for writing-practice, whether by copying or dictation, and for learning by heart. Now boys had to reproduce them in their own words, and explain and expand them in short essays…Theon…not satisfied merely with explanation and expansion, he required his pupils to proceed to a confirmation and refutation of the Saying, Fable or Narrative, and argue that it was sound and plausible, or the reverse." [HI:EAR:253]

 

"As with the previous exercises, the rhetoricians had several varieties of treatment which could be applied to the [mythological] narrative. They might require it to be expanded or contracted, or to be cast in different sentence-forms, or to be rounded off at the end by an appropriate epigrammatic comment, a stylistic feature much appreciated in the Silver Age of Latin. But the most advanced treatment, which was sometimes put later in the course as a separate exercise, was what was known as Refutation and Confirmation (anaskeue and kataskeue); that is, the writer had to examine a given story from the point of view of its general credibility, and then write an essay either arguing that it was lacking in likelihood, or supporting it as quite feasible. The material here was largely drawn from poetry, especially mythology. Favourite subjects were the stories of Apollo's love for Daphne, Medea's murder of her children, Arion's adventure and escape on the dolphin. Homeric themes could also be used, as that of Chryses and his daughter at the beginning of the Iliad. Theon also includes legends from prose sources. In each case, there were guide-lines laid down for procedure; after setting out the alleged facts, the pupil should ask himself, according as he wished to substantiate or refute, whether the account was clear or obscure, possible or impossible, seemly or unseemly, consistent or inconsistent, expedient or inexpedient. He should argue accordingly, bearing also in mind at each stage the person, the act, the place, the time, the manner, and the motive. Although boys were thus exercising their wits and critical faculties mainly in the realm of mythology, the search for arguments based on likelihood had a quite important application later; for in criminal cases, both in the rhetoric schools and in the courts, considerations of likelihood came very much to the fore when tangible evidence was limited or lacking. It is also interesting to note that Quintilian wishes the early Roman legends to be examined critically in this way - can we believe the story of Valerius and the raven, Romulus and the she-wolf, Numa and Egeria?  The credibility of early Roman history, then, was a subject which does not entirely belong to modern times." [HI:EAR:263]

 

 

Given that most, if not all, of your potential audience would have grown up debunking myth and fable, how comfortable would you be in making up miracle claims about ANYBODY?!

 

Indeed, you can sense this 'eager skepticism' in the audience Lucian describes when he advises writers not to add praise and embellishments--lest they get chewed up by the 'malevolent' critics:

 

In history, anything really fictional does not even give pleasure; while any element of encomium is obnoxious to the reader, whichever way it goes-if you are thinking, that is, not of the common mob but of those who will listen judiciously or even with malevolence. Nothing will escape these people. They see sharper than Argus, and have eyes all over. They weigh up every sentence with the precision of a money-changer, so as to reject the counterfeit and accept only the true, lawful currency, with its proper mark. This is the audience to have in your mind's eye when you write history. Never mind about the rest, even if they burst themselves with praise. If you neglect the real critics and season your history too highly with fables and encomia and such flattering stuff, you will soon make it look like Heracles in Lydia." [Lucian, How to write history cited in HI:ALC:537-9]

 

 

Omens and portents were often simple 'reading' of patterns in nature, and although the significance of the events could be disputed, they were not the subject or ridicule, attack, or scorn--as was miracle and mythological fable. So, it's not all that surprising that there are so very few miracle-claims among the G-R literary culture (as opposed, perhaps, to the more popular audiences--but we will have to assess this issue later).

 

If your education allowed you to write literature like the gospels of Mark and Luke, then you would know the risk of ridicule/dismissal you would face, should you decide to include miracle stories (and so many of them) in your prose Bioi narrative. One main reason for doing so--in the face of this risk--would be if you were deeply convinced that these miracles actually occurred, and that the settings and details surrounding them would help convince the reader to take them seriously too…in hopes of communicating your experience of the fact that Life and Immortality--because of love for the reader--had actually broken into history…even your own personal history…

 

 

 

 

Now, before we compare this to the gospels of Mark and Luke, let’s note that the same set of dynamics are present in the case of Alexander the Great.

 

1. First of all, we need to recognize that ATG (Alexander The Great) did have “court historians” who were hired to write up his exploits in poetic/epic form.  These would correspond to the various court favorites and poets in Roman times. These accounts were supposed to be embellished—according the rules of poetry and panegyric—but there WERE limits to how far truth could be stretched.  We see the same genres of panegyric, poetry, and encomia present in the less-sober and more fanciful versions of his adventures and character.

 

"Callisthenes, probably a great-nephew of Aristotle, with whom he also compiled the List of the Pythian Victors was born about 370, accompanied Aristotle to Assos and to the Macedonian court and put his writing into the service of Macedonian ideas with a Panhellenic accent.  In this sense he panegyrically extolled the deeds of Alexander, whom he accompanied on his expedition…That his name was attached to the fabulous Alexander romance is due to the fanciful way in which he wrote history."  [HI:AHGL:627]

 

"Ptolemy's work, a factual report covering the wide range of his experience, is contrasted by that of a group of authors who willing submitted to the lure of representing unusual subject matter in a romantic way…the orator Hegesias…whom we must consider as belonging to the extreme fringe of the rhetorical historians."  [HI:AHGL:766]

 

"The most lasting effect was achieved by the work of Clitarchus, who wrote in about 310, after Alexander's death but before the publication of Ptolemy's memoirs.  According to Cicero he did this rhetorice et tragice.  Following the conqueror's career from his accession until his death, he founded the popular tradition with its fictional features."  [HI:AHGL:766]

 

"The inconsistency of judgment betrays a certain inconsistency of purpose.  In Arrian's work panegyric and moral criticism blend together in an uneasy union.  Other writers insisted oh a distinction of genres. Polybius, for instance, distinguishes his early encomiastic biography of Philopoemen from a history proper.  The former, being panegyrical, demanded a brief report, designed to enhance the actions, whereas history, which contains praise and blame alike, requires a true statement, clearly put, with the considerations that accompanied each action.  The contrast is highly pertinent to Arrian.  At one level his work is avowed panegyric.  He claims to give an account of Alexander's achievements which will do them credit and is explicit that his work is a literary tribute.  On the other hand there were facets of his sources' picture which he could not accept, and it was his duty as a conscientious historian to single them out for criticism.  That was a commonplace of historical thinking…and it is hardly surprising that Arrian felt it incumbent upon him to reprove some of Alexander's actions in the interests of truth and utility. But the greater aim was the encomium of Alexander…"  [HI:FAASHI:152f]

 

"Strabo refers to Callisthenes' narrative as a classic example of historical flattery."  [HI:FAASHI:5]

 

"Callisthenes account of the consultation of Ammon was clearly a well-known passage and regularly cited as an illustration of partial and interested writing.  It fell within the wider context of his general picture of the king, which was widely denounced as flattery."  [HI:FAASHI:6]

 

"Indeed most of the citations [of Cleitarchus, a Roman historian of Alexander] are critical. Demetrius focuses on his stylistic impropriety, Curtius Rufus on exaggeration and invention, Cicero on rhetorical mendacity.  The general impression conveyed by the fragments alone is therefore far from favourable.  It suggests a taste for the tawdry and colourful, a predilection for sensationalism, a preoccupation for rhetoric which encouraged exaggeration and preferred imaginative fiction to sober truth."  [HI:FAASHI:7]

 

"Polybius…conceded that, while Callisthenes might be criticized for his flattery of Alexander amounting practically to deification, the fault was mitigated by the fact that--as all conceded--Alexander did have something superhuman in his character."  [HI:AGFF:291]

 

"But it was some events during Alexander's campaigns against Persia that seem to have stirred more interest in the subject.  The first of these events, in the late 330's, was a poetic outburst on the subject of Alexander's divine birth by a woman of Erythrae named Athenais, who evidently recalled 'the ancient Sibyl' to the mind of Callisthenes. "  [PE:75]

 

"Consequently, they [encomiasts] fail to achieve their main object.  The subjects of their praises, especially if they are men of a spirited cast of mind, come to dislike and despise them as flatterers. Aristobulus [court biographer of Alexander] once composed an account of a duel between Alexander and Porus.  He made a particular point of reading this passage aloud, because he thought he would give the king great pleasure by inventing heroic actions for him and attributing to him imaginary deeds far in excess of the truth.  Alexander however seized the book--they were sailing on the  Hydaspes--and threw it straight into the water.  'And that's what I ought to do to you, Aristobulus', he said, 'for the duels you fight on my behalf, and the elephants you kill with a single spear.'  It was entirely natural that Alexander should be angry...So where is the pleasure in all this, except for anyone foolish enough to enjoy praises which can be refuted out of hand?"  [Lucian, How to write history, 12 [HI:ALC::537ff]]

 

 

2. And, as we saw with the Roman emperors, much of this was ‘political’ in origin and deliberate on ATG’s part (and later, on the part of his successors, who all claimed his legacy—in the Octavian and Julius model):

 

"His [ATG] divinity was supported [after his death] from Egypt by semi-romantic essays, the appearance of which may perhaps be due to organized propaganda such as the official form of his cult indicated.  Soon after his death a Macedonian, Leon of Pella, wrote his account of the gods of Egypt in the form of a letter that purported to have been written by Alexander to his mother Olympias.  It gave the supposed revelations of an Egyptian priest to Alexander as to the nature of the gods.  These writings…supported the godhead of Alexander by declaring that the other gods had once been men like him and at the same time gave aid to the claims to divinity that the new kings themselves [the 4 generals] speedily made."  [HI:DRE:26,27]

 

"It was partly the readiness of the Greek cities of the mainland and of the Ionian coast and islands to welcome a savior that gave rise to the cult of the successors of Alexander. Divine honors were given to them even before they took the name of king…"  [HI:DRE:28]

 

"And Lucian, like Arrian, is cynical about his [ATG’s] motivation: 'I accepted the oracle for my own purposes…the barbarians thought they were fighting against a god, so I conquered them the more easily.'"  [HI:FAASHI:142]

 

"Plutarch also ascribed the ruin of Callisthenes, Parmenion, and Philotas to the insidious actions of flatterers, the gangrenes and cancers of the court.  But Plutarch's picture is highly unflattering to Alexander, who is said to have been 'worshipped, dressed up, and molded like a barbarian idol'…"[HI:FAASHI:145]

 

"Ephippus, again, says that Alexander also wore the sacred vestments at his dinner parties, at one time putting on the purple robe of Ammon, and thin slippers and horns just like the god's, at another time the costume of Artemis, which he often wore even in his chariot, wearing the Persian garb and showing above the shoulders the bow and hunting-spear of the goddess, while at still other times he was garbed into the costume of Hermes;…yet often, again, he bore the lion's skin and club in imitation of Heracles."  [Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 12.537, cited at [HCNT:466]]

 

 

 

 

3. But even this tradition of exaggeration was not accepted as ‘authoritative’ at all—there were both those who seemed to write to COUNTER these claims and those that wrote to attack the very character of Alexander, in addition to those that simply would not believe:

 

 

"Foremost in this group [of Alexander historians], in view of his position and reliability, not according to his period, is Ptolemy Lagu.  He was already close to Alexander in Philip's reign, went to war with him as a cavalry officer and had been his personal aide from 330 onward.  He wrote the history of his great king when he was the ruler of Egypt, obviously in his old age.  It is quite conceivable that he was led by the desire to oppose would-be history of Alexander with his superior knowledge…Arrian is our main source for Ptolemy, giving us a picture of an unbiased work…"  [HI:AHGL:766]

 

"It was only in Alexander's own Macedonia that his divinity apparently found no favor. Antipater, the greatest of his Macedonia generals, was the only one who after the death of the king refused to call him a god; he declared it impious to do so…"  [HI:DRE:27]

 

"Among the writings which appeared soon after 323 was also the one of Ephippus of Olynthus, who sharply attacked Alexander's personality on the basis of good information; it was probably not unique in this respect."  [HI:AHGL:767]

 

"Indeed Alexander's pretensions to divinity are rarely the subject of discussion during the early Empire.  Seneca, the most persistent critic, never refers to them but selects other traits for denunciation.  On a less exalted level Lucian satirizes Alexander in his Dialogues of the Dead and contrasts the fact of his mortality with his claims to divinity.  But those claims are based solely on his presumed relations with Ammon; it is not suggested that he demanded worship in his own right.  And Lucian, like Arrian, is cynical about his motivation: 'I accepted the oracle for my own purposes…the barbarians thought they were fighting against a god, so I conquered them the more easily.'"  [HI:FAASHI:142]

 

"That is how Arrian approaches the subject.  He accepts that it was a defect in his hero to have referred his birth to the divine."  [HI:FAASHI:142]

 

"At all events the selection of parallels must be Arrian's own, his aim to show Alexander was the equal and more than the equal of the most distinguished mythological heroes but not encroaching upon the territory of the gods."  [HI:FAASHI:143]

 

"Now the conventional criticisms of Alexander view his as a classic instance of the corruption of power.  Whether his arrogance or immoderation was inbred or the effect of unbroken and good fortune, it was manifested in a series of arbitrary and tyrannical acts.  The best catalogue is probably given by Livy, in his indignant contrast of Roman virtue with the degeneracy of the Macedonian king."  [HI:FAASHI:144.

 

"Callisthenes…there is a Homeric scholion citing his description of the Pamphylian Sea doing obeisance before Alexander…The passage [in Polybius] is designed to prove Callisthenes' incompetence, and indeed Polybius does isolate real faults in his account--gross exaggeration of Persian numbers and a eulogistic bias towards Alexander and his Macedonians."  [HI:FAASHI:4f]

 

"He [Strabo] is emphasizing details [in Callisthenes] which he considered biased to flatter Alexander, and there is every indication that he was retailing standard  criticisms.  Plutarch also singles out the episode of the guidance by ravens, and long before, early in the third century, Timaeus of Tauromenium had arraigned Callisthenes as an example of unphilosophical adulation for his concentration on ravens and frenzied women."  [HI:FAASHI:6]

 

"In the ideal of Hellenistic kingship as developed by numerous philosophers, and in royal propaganda and civic petitions, the ideal king is supposed to be a soter, a saviour.  It is remarkable therefore that Alexander is here [in Polybius] shown as the opposite of a soter, as a man from whom one cannot find soteria."  [HI:AGFF292]

 

"Among enlightened Greeks the tradition of rejecting divine predications about human beings was widespread, especially in connection with Alexander the Great, sometimes with reference to their all-too-human needs.  Thus Plutarch's Moralia, 'Sayings of Kings and Commanders': Antigonous 7, 'When Hermodotus in his poems wrote of him as 'The Offspring of the Sun,' he said, 'The slave who attends to my chamber-pot is not conscious of that!'" [HCNT:105]

 

 

4. These are, of course, the same set of dynamics that we find in the Roman emperors: political machinations, genre-based flattery and embellishment, and yet still a crowd of skeptics that know better (or at least oppose the tradition from its very beginnings).  Even Callisthenes—one of the ‘embellishers’—was said by tradition to have been executed by Alexander when he refused to worship the one he was writing praise for!

 

Ferguson’s summary contains many of these elements:

 

"In Egypt the divine kingship was open and unabashed.  In the Greek world there had long been a tendency to the heroization [note: not “divinization” in the sense of a ‘big god’] of prominent individuals.  In legend the hero was in the strict sense a demi-god, the son of a god by a mortal mother. Heracles and Asclepius are good examples.  It is important that the hero did not receive divine honours: sacrifice was made so that the offering poured down to the ground rather than ascending to the sky: the link is with the ancestral dead.  Such cult was offered to the founders of cities, or at Athens to the victors of Marathon.  There were in Greek piety two strains: one emphasized the distance of man from god, the other aspired to equality with the divine.  For the Greek world, however, the decisive change came with Alexander.  He enlarged the horizons, and his miscellaneous empire demanded new perspectives.  In Egypt his divinity was a matter of political necessity: it was made slightly more palatable to the Greeks by his foundation of Alexandria: nowhere in the world could Alexander be denied the title of city-founder.  In Persia he was honoured by prostration: whatever this implied to the Persians, to the Greeks it meant divinity. in 324Bc he demanded the recognition of his deity by the Greek states: they acceded, not very seriously.  At Sparta the decree ran, 'Since Alexander wants to be a god, let him be a god.'  Probably these moves were political.  But Alexander is important, a model for ambitious Romans from Pompey to Caracalla…The Hellenistic age is also important. The mood is now very different.  The Athenians received Demetrius with the most fulsome flattery, calling him the only true god, all the others being asleep, absentees or non-existent; they gave him the Parthenon for his palace.  There had been no cult of Alexander during his lifetime; now Ptolemy introduced one; the motive was political, the result religious.  Ptolemy II deified his predecessor and Berenice, and instituted a festival in their honour; this practice became regular except in Macedon; after their deaths Seleucus became Seleucus Zeus Victor and Antiochus became Apollo Saviour.  By the late270S B.C. a cult of the reigning monarch was established in Egypt for the Greeks, though it was not identical with the Egyptian ritual.  The great divine titles were Saviour and Benefactor.  Jesus alludes to the latter: 'The rulers of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and those in authority are called Benefactors.  But not so with you.'"  [RRE:88f]

 

5. The real fictionalization of Alexander doesn’t begin until after Arrian’s time, in which ATG had ceased to be a ‘historical person’ and was more a ‘literary launch-pad’ than anything else, and the Alexander literature than goes into full fictional bloom with the Alexander Romance in the Third century AD.

 

"[Arrian] was an intensely active member of the Greco-Roman aristocracy of the second century AD, who chose to write about a man dead for more than four centuries and a man who had become less a historical figure than a rhetorical exemplus, invoked as an illustration of every conceivable virtue and vice."  [HI:FAASHI:16]

 

"The literary qualities of his work [Arrian's on Alexander] were admired in antiquity, and he became a model of historiography…Style was fundamental.  The manner of presentation had little to do with the techniques of historical research.  Arrian's readership was far less concerned with the actual facts of Alexander's reign than with their literary dressing.  That is the main thrust of Lucian's little treatise on historiography, which glosses over the collection of material in a few perfunctory sentences but dilates on the arrangement and stylistic embellishment of the collected facts."  [HI:FAASHI:38]

 

 

 

At this point, we might note a couple of the more obvious differences between the gospels of Mark and Luke, and the patterns of divine ascriptions above:

 

  1. The gospels actually describe many miracles performed by Jesus.  The imperial-topic divinity-related literature does not.

 

  1. The gospels use prose narrative to describe any/all supernatural characteristics of Jesus.  The imperial-topic literature appears in the genres of poetry, drama, and praise.

 

  1. The gospels actually do not 'praise' in the sense of panegyric or encomium, using rather the indirect style of history and historical (non-rhetorical) biography to portray the character of Jesus.  Imperial-topic and supernatural-laden literature is generally addressed to the Emperor ("O great Augustus, you are a way-cool dude") or includes laudatory summaries after a narrative account ("This action by our great emperor shows his great cool-icity")

 

These characteristics of the literatures amply demonstrate that the answer to our original question is clearly 'no'--Mark and Luke did NOT add miracles to honor their dead leader, after the paradigm of the Roman/Greek rulers.

 

Additionally, we might note the absence of a comparable motive and the presence of a contrary ethic:

 

·         The motives for financial gain (or of saving one's family, neck, and fortune) present in the G-R political situation simply would not have been present in the situation of the evangelists in the reign of Nero.  For example, there were no court appointments available to the persecuted leaders of the apostolic church to dole out to sycophantic court-poets! And there were no 'cushy jobs' in the persecuted and outcast church at the time these gospels were written…

 

·         The contrary ethic--besides the aversion to myth and fable we noted in earlier installments in this series--can be seen in Jesus' explicit denunciation of such Imperial manipulations and power-seeking.  Fergeson notes this in his summary:

 

"The great divine titles were Saviour and Benefactor. Jesus alludes to the latter: 'The rulers of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and those in authority are called Benefactors. But not so with you.'."  [RRE:88f]

 

And BBC gives the context: "Jewish people were well familiar with the Gentile model of authority: ancient Near Eastern kings had long claimed to be gods and had ruled tyrannically; Greek rulers had adopted the same posture through much of the eastern Mediterranean.  Jewish people would view the Roman emperor and his provincial agents (who often showed little concern for Jewish sensitivities) in much the same light.  Rulers and others who doled out favors from the vantage point of power were called “benefactors”; the practice of benefaction was widely praised in Greek circles. Jesus’ reminding the disciples that seeking power is a Gentile (i.e., pagan) practice is tantamount to telling them they should not be doing it."  [BBC, at Lk 22.24]

 

 

[This last point would also preclude the possibility of Jesus' commissioning his followers to write such embellished writings--after the fashion of Alexander.  He might have instructed them to write up His teachings--as a rabbi or teacher or whatever--but NOT as a 'ruler of the Gentiles'.]

 

So, I think we can safely conclude that the evangelists did NOT make up miracles "to honor their dead ruler after the fashion of pagan rulers."

 

On to the next one…

 

Glenn Miller,

November 2, 2001


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