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


Posted: Dec 24, 2001  |   Back to the Miracles Index  |  Summary



6. Did the authors create miracle stories/accretions  about their dead leader which were fashioned and expressed in ways that would make him look like a miracle-working man to prospective Greco-Roman converts? Isn't this what Josephus and Philo did with the man Moses--embellished his profile with miraculous elements?  In this scenario, the gospel accounts are deliberately written in such a way as to invoke some culturally-common image of a 'divine man' or 'divinized hero', with a view to convincing others that "Jesus was the best so far, so join our group". The attempt is to get the reader to associate Jesus with some specific figure (e.g., Asclepius) or with some generalized notion of 'god-like human hero' (a notion constructed from many exposures to many such figures, so that a grid for noticing 'family resemblances' can be assumed among the potential readership).

Blackburn expresses this position quite clearly:


"Study of Gospel miracle stories has long been heavily influenced by the belief that early Greek-speaking Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, formulated these accounts so as to assimilate Jesus to the typical miracle-working divine man (theios aner) with which the Hellenistic world was familiar" [NT:JSOTGP6:185]


As does Kingsbury:


"Since Mark appears to have written his Gospel in a Hellenistic setting, it can be assumed that he was familiar with this concept of divine man. Indeed, to proclaim Jesus effectively or to instruct or edify Christians, Mark could be expected to have draped Jesus in the cloak of the divine man. Hence, from all indication it would seem that exactly the Hellenistic concept of divine man provides the best avenue of approach for gaining insight into mark's presentation of Jesus" [Kingbury, cited at [X02:JCDMSG:37]



As it turns out, this is quite a slippery question--there are many, subtle sub-questions hiding in there:



 I think, given the complexity of this, that we will have to 'amble' through these questions first, then try to synthesize our findings. So, let's dive in…




Did Josephus and Philo, in fact, 'divinize' Moses into a superhuman, miracle worker?


This is very easily answered 'no'.


We have already seen that Josephus downplays the miraculous elements in his Antiquities of the Jews, and that the pre-Rabbinic Jewish writers 'embellish' Moses and selected other biblical heroes (most notably Abraham) in naturalistic ways--not supernaturalistic ways. For example, Abraham gets turned into the inventor of the plough, and Moses becomes the inventor of naval warfare. Abraham becomes an ancestor of the Spartans(!), and Moses teaches hieroglyphics to the Egyptians--but neither personally do miraculous deeds themselves, nor are they accorded truly 'divine' status by the Jewish authors.


" 'Philo actually tones down Moses' miracle working activity...Both Philo and Josephus carve Israel's heroes info figures besides miracles-workers; for all of Artapanus' embellishments of the Moses tradition, he seems little concerned to turn him into a miracle-worker.'...All of this therefore calls into question the hypothesis that Hellenistic Jews had begun a fairly widespread process of assimilating their heroes to pagan miracle workers." [Holladay, cited at [X02:TAMMT:102]]



Some of the Jewish authors, such as Ezekiel the Tragedian and Artapanus exalt Moses, but it falls very short of divinizing.


1. Ezekiel the Tragedian (remember, writing in poetry!) has Moses on the throne of YHWH in a dream, but the interpretation of it by Jethro in the text is more or less the OT party line of Moses as ruler [X02:TAMMT:60-61]:


"(Moses relates his dream to Jethro) On Sinai's peak I saw what seemed a throne, so great in size it touched the clouds of heaven. Upon it sat a man of noble mien, becrowned, and with a scepter in one hand while with the other he did beckon me. I made approach and stood before the throne. He handed o'er the scepter and he bade me mount the throne, and gave to me the crown; then he himself withdrew from off the throne. I gazed upon the whole earth round about; things under it, and high above the skies. Then at my feet a multitude of stars fell down, and I their number reckoned up. They passed by me like armed ranks of men. Then I in terror wakened from the dream" [OTP:2:811-2; note that there is nothing here which cannot be found in OT texts and which are amplified in Jewish tradition--see [HI:JWSTP:126f]]


The interpretation by Jethro amounts to nothing more than world rulership and prophetic reach--elements fully in Jewish tradition of the time:


"And his father-in-law interprets the dream as follows: 'My friend, God gave you this as sign for good. Would I might live to see these things transpire. For you shall cause a mighty throne to rise, and you yourself shall rule and govern men. As for beholding all the peopled earth, and things below and things above God's realm: things present, past, and future you shall see."



2.  "While Artapanus undoubtedly had great reverence for Moses, it cannot rightly be claimed that he transforms him into a god. Holladay has pointed out that Artapanus appears to put some distance between himself and the exalted claims made by others concerning Moses: he was called Musaeus 'by the Greeks,' and he was called Hermes (= Thoth) and deemed worthy of divine honors 'by the [Egyptian] priests'" [X02:TAMMT:64]




But those writers most 'bioi'-oriented in their depiction of Moses (i.e. Philo and Josephus), can use the 'god-like' adjective (theios) because this adjective is used of ANYONE who does a high-quality deed of some type. A person doesn't have to be a 'divine man' to do a 'divine-like' act of charity, bravery, or oration…


Philo calls him theios twice..."It follows as a consequence of this that, when Moses is appointed 'a god unto Pharaoh' he did not become such in reality, but only by a convention is supposed to be such...That the wise is said to be a god to the foolish man, but that in reality he is not God, just as the counterfeit four-drachma piece is not a tetradrachm. " (Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiari Soleat 160-162)]


"For Philo, theios was an appropriate designation for the man who, during his life in the body, excelled all others in escaping the claims of the phenomenal world and participating in the aretae of God. Moses was theios because he was so godlike." [X02:TAMMT:67-68]


"F.H. Colson introduces his edition of the Life of Moses by commenting on the 'essential fidelity with which Philo adheres to the narrative of Scripture'. There is, he says 'little or none of the legendary accretions' found in Jubilees, Pseudo-Philo, Josephus and the later rabbinic tradition. He goes on, however, 'There is, of course, any amount of amplification.' Fidelity which allows amplification but not legendary accretion..." [JSOTGP3:106]


Josephus applies the term theios to Moses three times, but two of these are put on the lips of Egyptians. In Ant 3.180, he uses the term to describe Moses, but the term doesn't look like it means 'divine' (in the wonder-working or theological sense) here.


"It is possible theois in Ant. 3.180 primarily means 'inspired'. Holladay has shown that for Josephus the prophets are theioi because the theion pneuma used them as a channel of communication" [X02:TAMMT:69]


"Thus Moses is probably theios  not only because he is inspired, but also because the immense degree of his arête (merits) constitutes him as a very godlike man." [X02:TAMMT:70]


Feldman actually translates the theois aner phrase as 'man of God', and consistently points out that this is NOT ascribing divinity to Moses: "it is not to assert Moses' divinity…That Josephus has no intention of asserting Moses' divinity is clear from the proof that he gives…does not mean divine in the most literal sense." [HI:FJTC3:279]


And, oddly enough, even when these authors mention Moses' biblical miracles (i.e., not invented ones), they don't use them to 'support' some exalted view of Moses (as the objection might be understood as implying about the gospel writers and Jesus):


"Finally, in none of the three writers is there an explicit attempt to deduce Moses' exalted status from his miracles. This is true for Artapanus even though he, unlike Philo and Josephus, does show a tendency toward emphasizing Moses' (biblical) miraculous powers." [X02:TAMMT:72]



What we end up with here, is that whatever embellishments these non-Rabbinic Jewish writers made to the stories about Moses were NOT in the nature of adding invented miracle stories. Therefore, if this motive were somehow present in the evangelists, it will not be because they had precedents in earlier or contemporary Jewish authors.


"Our study has failed to produce evidence to substantiate the position that Hellenistic Jews, in an effort to propagate their faith to Gentiles, tended to heighten thaumaturgic motifs, either in their portrayals of Israel's heroes or in their own understanding of history" [Holladay, cited at X02:TAMMT:5]





How widespread, influential, and socially-accepted were these 'miracle workers' or 'divine men', to the first century audiences?


Here we are confronted with a large mass of chaotic data, but much of it is very inconsequential. We will, however, have to examine most of the human figures that could be candidates for this category of 'wonder worker'. Simple 'gods' are not in view here, but only figures that were believed to have been humans once in their 'career', before achieving some level of divinity…We need to be sure, however, that we try to 'scale' this, and try to assess the relative 'visibility' or 'mindshare' these figures have.


Once we have gotten a handle on the extent and number and visibility of these figures, we will ask the question about how influential they seemed to be, especially on literature. In other words, we want to assess how much of a 'big deal' they were in changing people's beliefs, actions, worldview, behavior. Were they just entertainment  figures to be discussed for fun at the dinner table (or school), or did people literally 'drop out and tune in' to their message and directives?


Finally, we need to assess their place in the social system--which classes in the social structures would this type of figure appeal to? Which classes would have found them unacceptable (and therefore a negative inducement to 'believe')?


The most comprehensive list and discussion of these figures I have found are in  Theios Aner and the Markan Miracle Traditions: A Critique of the Theios Aner Concept as an Interpretive Background of the Miracle Traditions Used by Mark. Barry Blackburn. Tubingen: Mohr, 1991. (revision of Ph.D thesis of 1986 for Univ. of Aberdeen), cited throughout as [X02:TAMMT]. Many of the healers are also discussed in Wehner Kahl, New Testament Miracle Stories in the Religious-Historical Setting: A Religionsgeschichliche Comparison from a Structural Perspective, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994. [X03:NTMSRHS]



Blackburn divides the Hellenistic "human-plus" miracle-workers into three categories: seers, healers, and workers of other miracles.


Seers are the most widespread:


"The most common form of miraculous power is some form of divination" [NT:JSOTGP6:190]


Blackburn lists 13 figures in this category: Amenophis, Amphiaraus, Amphilochus, Tiresias, Idmon, Mopsus (son of Chloris), Phineus, Cassandra, Calchas, Mopsus (son of Manto), Parnassus, Telemus, Democritus. [However, divination, prediction of the future, and supernatural knowledge can also be ascribed to some of the non-Seer figures as well.]


And traveling seers were not uncommon:


"Certainly, itinerant priests were not unknown in Rome, either, but they seem to have specialized in divination." [HI:MIAW:49]


These figures are not very relevant to our discussion, though:


"It is certainly fair to conclude that divination and healing are fairly common miraculous powers among our figures, but neither encompasses all, and what is more, divination, the most prevalent power, plays a comparatively minor role in the miracle traditions associated with Jesus in the Gospels." [NT:JSOTGP6:190]



The most relevant category is that of healers, and in this category Blackburn lists 13 figures as well. The below table will highlight some of the characteristics of this data:




# of events







Machaon (son of Ascy)



(descendent of Asclepius)

Podalirius (son of Ascy)



(descendent of Asclepius)

Polemocrates (son of Machaon)



(descendent of Asclepius)

Nicomachus (son of Machaon)



(descendent of Asclepius)

Gorgasus (son of Machaon)



(descendent of Asclepius)

Alexanor (son of Machaon)



(descendent of Asclepius)




(only on a temple inscription)




(only on a temple inscription)

Iatros Hros



(only on a temple inscription)




(only on a temple inscription)

Menecrates of Syracuse



only did epileptics; a comical figure



used his foot

only did spleens


To this we might add Melampus (from Herodotus) who is said to have done a shamanistic healing of the madness of the women of Argos, using drugs, songs, and rituals.


With the (possible) exception of Asclepius (more on him below), these figures do not quite look like miraculous healers at all. Half of these are quasi-mythological, almost none of them have any narrated events of healing, they ALL use regular medicinal practices and means of the day (except the guy with the 'magic big toe'), and we have no real indication that they healed more than once.


The structuralist study by Kahl notices this last point too, in his analysis of miracle stories/narratives (as opposed to general descriptions):


"In fact, the two characteristics (being an immanent bearer of numinous power and having more than one healing miracle story attributed to it) are shared only by Jesus in the gospels and Apollonios in Philostratus' Vita. Since Philostratus' Vita dates from around 220 C.E., it is evident that the description of Jesus in the gospels is distinct from the other extant contemporary traditions of the first century C.E. insofar as the BNP's [Bearers of Numinous Power] of those stores are transcendent figures. Indeed, we know of only one other case in the entire miracle story tradition of antiquity before Philostratus' Vita Apollonii of an immanent bearer of numinous power, and then only in a singular version of his miracle, Melampous according to Diodorus of Sicily. The immanent 'miracle workers' of Jewish and pagan miracle stories before or from around the turn of the eras are, with this one exception, PNP's [Petitioners to Numinous Power] and/or MNP's [Mediators of (another's) Numinous Power]. [X03:NTMSRHS:236; note--well before the time of Jesus, Asclepius had become a transcendent figure, like Yahweh, and healings attributed to A are not of the 'wonder worker' model any longer.]



The "other miracles" category contains 15 individuals (some mythic):


Other Miracle Workers








air-walker, [subdue storms (post-Jesus)]





charm nature (rocks, animals)


Argonaut: Orpheus



charmed nature (term of derision by 5th BC)


Argonaut: Calais and Zetes





Argonaut: Euphemus


gift from Poseidon

ran over water, only toes touching


Argonaut: Periclymenus


gift from Poseidon

self-metamorphism into animals


Aristeas of Proconnesus

4 or 5

soul travel?

post-mortem appearances




(pythg), various means

wind-stayer, music-on-anger, a trance-healing?





57-year long nap, but mostly prediction


Hermotimus of Clazomenae


(soul travel?)

prediction when soul-traveling





shamanistic healing




student of Orpheus

gift of flying from North wind?





turned into snake, deluded people





mostly knowledge, 2 places@once




(pythg), charms

lived in a vault for 3 years (only miracle?)



Now, the striking thing about this list is that it doesn't match the gospel miracles very well at all. Even the two maybe's aren't very close: (1) the post-mortem appearances are said to have been not really post-mortem at all, describing the soul-travel of Aof P during a trance like state; and (2) the poetic account in Argonautica is a whimsical image of someone so fast they can run over water only touching down into the water infrequently with their toes--not actually a 'miraculous power' so to speak at all. ["After them from Taenarus came Euphemus whom, most swift-footed of men, Europe, daughter of mighty Tityos, bare to Poseidon. He was wont to skim the swell of the grey sea, and wetted not his swift feet, but just dipping the tips of his toes was borne on the watery path. ", I.179-84. Commentators later ascribed this in scholia to a gift from Poseidon.]


If we slice the data a different way, we can state the data as close as possible to the gospel narratives:


"The miracle traditions that fall outside divination and healing are too numerous for exhaustive recitation, but some examples will illustrate their variety: (1) Resuscitations  of the dead were associated with Asclepius, Empedocles, Apollonius, and Alexander of Abonuteichos, (2) control of the elements (wind, hailstorms, or violent seas or rivers) was ascribed to Orpheus (by his music), Abaris, Epimenides, Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Apollonius, (3) Amphion and Orpheus could charm rocks, animals, and (in Orpheus' case) trees, by their music, (4) Pythagoras persuaded animals to do his bidding, (5) Musaeus, Calais and Zetes, Abaris (riding on Apollo's arrow), and Lucian's Hyperborean magician had the ability to fly, (6) Pythagoras was seen teaching in two cities on the same day and hour, (7) the power to walk (or run) upon water was associated with Euphemus and the Hyperborean magician, (8) Periclymenus and Nectanebus sometimes assumed different (usually animal) forms, (9) a katabasis to and anabasis from Hades was achieved by Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Zalmoxis, (10) Hermotimus, and in later tradition Aristeas and Epimenides, could send their souls on journeys, (11) the Hyperborean practiced love-magic, (12) Abaris engaged in a continual fast, (13) Epimenides took a 57 year nap, (14) Apollonius exercised or chased away demons and (15) Nectanebus caused another to have a deceptive dream (16) Melampus understood bird language, and Apollonius animal and human languages, (17) Epimenides and Pythagoras knew the former incarnations of their souls, (18) Pythagoras recognized human souls in animals, and (19) he could hear cosmic music. [NT:JSOTGP6:190]


But if we pull out of this list the post-Jesus accounts (e.g., Apollonius, Alexander of Abonuteichos) and post-Jesus traditions ascribed to earlier figures (e.g., Abaris calming storms), we still end up with a very wide gap between these stories and the gospel accounts. There just doesn't seem to be much overlap in this category at all. And exorcism, as a category, is not represented at all in the pre-Christian accounts (note: seven exorcisms are ascribed to Jesus in the gospels).


 But back to our current discussion…


Our lists, then, yield 13 seers, 13 healers, and 15 odd-miracle workers, for a total of 41 pre-Christian miracle workers. Of these, a third are seers and of little/no relevance to our quest. Of the remaining 28, at least a third are mythic figures (from poetic accounts in Homer, Pindar, the Argonautica, etc) or assimilated 'students of' figures (being colored by the features of their teacher/father/founder).  This means we only end up with less than 20 real people to whom miracle working was ascribed  (but not necessary with any actual miracle stories), of which 20 people half look like regular physicians.  [We should also note that there are only three main healing deities of this period, even though in principle any could heal: Heracles/Hercules, Isis, Asclepius, cf. [HI:MGRA:11]]


Even the healing miracles ascribed to Asclepius seem somewhat irrelevant to this study:


  1. The miracles ascribed to Asclepius in the several centuries before Jesus occurred at his temples (and through his priests and through dreams), as from the divine/transcendent Asclepius;

  2. The miracles done when he was a human (pre-Homer) look like regular medicine (with an occasional incantation thrown in):


    "Given the modern connotation of 'miracle,' it might appear misleading to so describe Asclepius's healings since he employed herbs (drugs and salves) and sometimes performed surgery. Moreover, Homer and Pindar say that Asclepius was educated in the healing arts by his centaur teacher, Chiron. Nevertheless the degree to which Asclepius' medicine is intertwined with magic and miracle is illustrated in Ovid's account of the healing of Hippolytus: 'Straightway he drew from an ivory casket simples that before had stood Glaucus' ghost in good stead….Thrice he touched the youth's breast, thrice he spoke healing words: then Hippolytus lifted his head'" [X02:TAMMT:25]


  3. The number of during-human-status miracle narratives can be counted on one hand.


[We will, however, have to come back to Asclepius, since the pagan reactions to Jesus sometimes involved and appealed to his tradition.]


This basically nets out at around 10 or so 'famous' miracle workers, going into the first century AD…???!!!


On the surface, of course, this is not quite the mass of miracle stories we might have expected, given this question.


Let's do a quick sanity check on this.


Let's use Wendy Cotter's excellent sourcebook  Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook for the study of New Testament Miracle Stories [HI:MGRA].



Again, this only leads us to about ten (at most) non-Jewish miracle working heroes, going into the time of the gospel writings. I personally find this quite under-whelming (smile), and begin to wonder about how realistic this question might be after all…



But there's even something odd about the timing of these figures…


If we look at the human-life dates of these miracle working healers and odd-miracle workers (those that show up in literature, instead of local inscriptions only), an interesting fact appears:



Apprx dates?

First Mention







12-10th centuries BC



Machaon (son of Ascy)

12-10th centuries BC



Podalirius (son of Ascy)

12-10th centuries BC



Polemocrates (son of Machaon)

12-10th centuries BC

Pausanias (2nd cen AD)


Nicomachus (son of Machaon)

12-10th centuries BC

Pausanias (2nd cen AD)


Gorgasus (son of Machaon)

12-10th centuries BC

Pausanias (2nd cen AD)


Alexanor (son of Machaon)

12-10th centuries BC

Pausanias (2nd cen AD)


Menecrates of Syracuse

4th cen. BC

Ephippus (4cen BC)



319-272 BC

Plutarch (post-Jesus)


Other Miracle Workers





8-6th centuries BC

Nichomachus (in Porphry)



12-10th centuries BC



Argonauts: Calais and Zetes

12-10th centuries BC

Pindar (6th-5th cen BC)


Argonauts: Euphemus

12-10th centuries BC

Pindar (6th-5th cen BC)


Argonauts: Periclymenus

12-10th centuries BC




pre 12-10th centuries BC

Pausanias (2nd cen AD)


Aristeas of Proconnesus

6th century BC

Herodotus (5th cen BC)



495-435 BC




7-6th centuries BC

Xenophanes (B.C.570 BC)


Hermotimus of Clazomenae

pre-6th cen BC

Apollonius (2nd cen BC?)



12-10th centuries BC




12-10th centuries BC

Plato (5-4th cen BC)



4th cen. BC

Ps-Callisthenes (post-Jesus?)



12-10th centuries BC

Simonides (6-5th cen BC)



6th century BC

Xenophanes (B.C.570 BC)



6th century BC

Herodotus (5th cen BC)




What is striking about this list is that there are no figures in the 250+ years before the birth of Jesus! No miracle working men (at least as witnessed to in the literature, and therefore of greater than purely local 'reach') show up in almost all of the Hellenistic age (300-30 BC). This is frankly amazing, and needs to be considered carefully as we examine the assumption that 'miracle working humans were common'…and we should also note that the vast majority of these figures do not engender any cults or temple sites. They are isolated figures in the ancient literature--not worship-generating, disciple-creating, religious figures.


This observation fits well with estimates by scholars:


"This period [Hellenistic] may well have been the least superstitious period of antiquity, even if we have to allow for the continued existence in concealment of an undercurrent of the usual superstitions and belief in miracles. However that may be, a change sets in with the beginning of late antiquity. Popular belief in miracles and superstition revived." [MSECT:269]


"The clearest example of this change through time, however, is the charismatic miracle-workers. The last representative of this type, Menecrates, lived in the 4th century BC. If we except King 'Eunus', who is more like a Hellenistic mercenary captain than the charismatic miracle-workers, for 300 years we hear nothing of charismatic miracle-workers. Our sources may of course be incomplete, but even if we assume that there were more charismatic miracle-workers than we know of, they can hardly have had a very large following. In the 1st century AD this changes. [MSECT:271-272]


"It is in this light that we must judge the accounts we possess of other miracle-workers in Jesus' period and culture. We have already observed that the list of such occurrences is very much shorter than is often supposed. If we take the period of four hundred years stretching from two hundred years before to two hundred years after the birth of Christ, the number of miracles recorded which are remotely comparable with those of Jesus is astonishingly small. On the pagan side, there is little to report apart from the records of cures at healing shrines, which were certainly quite frequent, but are a rather different phenomenon from cures performed by an individual healer. Indeed it is significant that later Christian fathers, when seeking miracle workers with whom to compare or contrast Jesus, had to have recourse to remote and by now almost legendary figures of the past such as Pythagoras or Empedocles." [HI:JATCH:103]


"In the second century C.E. there is a fair amount of evidence to support the thesis that philosophers were generally inclined to be less critical in assessing extraordinary phenomena than in the centuries immediately preceding and more cordial toward religion generally and mainstream piety and its wonders specifically." [X04:PCCM:104]


"In the Second-Sophistic period [beginning 2nd century AD] the pagan gods were extraordinarily active. They not only appeared to humankind in person or in dreams. They were also diligent in giving out oracles. The paganism of the High Empire does indeed have a vibrant feel to it." [HI:AREPJC:167]



Blackburn documents that the growth in traditions about Pythagoras has a 'pause' in the Hellenistic period. The 4th century BC saw a flurry of legendary embellishment, then all was quiet until 50 AD:


"From beginning of the second century BC until around the middle of the first century AD, nothing new is added to the superhuman portrait of Pythagoras, and in fact very little of what has already surfaced is repeated....In contrast to this paucity, the hundred years between 50 and 150 A.D. compares favorably with the fourth century B.C. in the amount of old and new information that its authorities produce." [X02:TAMMT:41f]


Even the miraculous healings of Asclepius are commonly over-stated:


"The Epidaurian Temple Record is a list of cures, and of miracles going further than cures, which took place there…Most of the recorded cures are no more than cures, which might be put down to natural causes, or to skilful treatment by the priest. Others, such as the disappearance of the spear-point and the transfer of Pandarus's mark, at least seem miraculous, and the latter has a moral as well. The record shows that the miracles were few, and even the simple cures were not numerous. There were enough to sustain hope and faith, and to attract funds for maintenance. But obviously, if the priest had been able to improve Asclepius's score themselves, or even pretend to have done so in the past, the number claimed would have been greater. It was clearly understood--too clearly to leave room for major deception--that beyond a certain point, human agency had no power in the matter. If Asclepius chose to work a miracle, then he would, but it was the god's doing and he did not often choose." [Miracles, Geoffrey Ashe, RoutledgeKeganPaul:1978, p.18,19]



We have noticed in earlier sections of this series, that ascriptions of "divinity" (in the G-R, not Jewish sense) became more common during the Hellenistic period, but also was based on different grounds. In contrast with the shaman-like divine men of pre-Hellenistic times, humans with 'better than average ability' could be accorded divine honors:


"The miracle-working 'God-man' becomes the historically active superman. It is now kings and mercenary captains who are regarded as 'divine' (as opposed to ecstatic shamans of the archaic and classical period). Ultimately anyone can count as 'divine' if their superhuman gifts create a numinous aura round them: statesmen, poets, philosopher, athletes, doctors...The Hellenistic 'Godmen' are a living example of euhemerism. Extraordinary human abilities are overlaid by a divine aura."[MSECT:267]


We saw that divine status was given to those individual who "lived as a god in life"--in the doing of benefactions and public service. As the world became more 'historical' (perhaps), the emphasis on miracles declined--the issues "worrying" people in the Hellenistic age were more along the lines of anti-localization, clash of power, cultural organization, and the like. Remember, even Philo called Moses theois because of his great arête. There was the 'entertainment' value of the bizarre (i.e., paradoxography), but the serious data we have of the time indicates that the "stage" was empty when Jesus of Nazareth began His ministry.


[The facts about Apollonius of Tyana (the only semi-recent proposed miracle-worker, although generally dated AFTER the life of Jesus)  are quite obscure, since Philostratus--as we saw in the previous piece--went 'novelistic' in his writing of the story. And, as also noted several times on the Tank, there is a definite element of copying/competition going on in  Philostratus' work. Lightfoot, in her chapter in [HI:LGRW], calls the Vita a 'novel of travel and wanderings' (as did Hagg) and points out the almost reactionary nature of the account:


"Another bizarre production of late paganism which may well have been written under the influence of these Christian lives of holy men and quite transmutes its pagan inheritance is a Life of Apollonios of Tyana, a holy man from Cappadocia in the second half of the first century CE. His biographer, Philostratus, is the same man as the author of the Lives of the sophists, but here shows himself in a very different guise, narrating an eight-book story of an ascetic pagan saint who 'wooed wisdom and soared above tyrants', discoursed with mages and Brahmins and Egyptian divines, foresaw the future, raised the dead, and quite confuted everyone with his esoteric wisdom culled from the traditions of Pythagoras. Paganism appears in this text as defiant, perhaps embattled, asserting itself against the upstart Christians. At one point, Apollonios is brought to trial before the Emperor Domitian [note: 81-96 AD], suspicious of a man who claims to be a god. Apollonios takes an option apparently unavailable to Christ in a similar position before Pontius Pilate: confounding his captors he simply vanishes into thin air. Pagan biography has here become fantastic wish-fulfillment--an assertion of unanswerable superiority before tyrannical Rome on the one hand, and the galloping blight of Christianity on the other." [HI:LGRW:279]



[Now, it should be pointed out that there are two categories of people excluded from our survey here: (1) individuals who are accorded divinity due to 'good works' or 'wisdom', but without a miracle-tradition about them (e.g. Socrates, Heracles); and (2) obscure individuals who are vaguely associated with "extraordinary powers", but who are NOT accorded any divinity/higher status (e.g., Thales of Gortys  who 'stayed a plague' according to Pausianas--only two words in the text.). The former category, of course, would argue against the need for inventing miracles for Jesus, and the individuals in the latter category (a total of seven folk, most of whom I cannot find the first scrap of information on) would be too unknown to have been of consequence for creation of a 'paradigm' for this.]



But let's be sure to ask the influence and acceptability questions now.


  1. How much influence over subsequent literature did these few figures have, and what was the nature of that influence? And to what extent did they influence 'religious affiliation'?


    The first part of this question is the easiest to answer, since only two of these figures (Asclepius and Pythagoras, and to some extent Empedocles) spawned any significant literary residue/memory at all, with the others barely getting mentions in the various writings of antiquity. These other figures get a sentence or two in commentaries and historical works, but almost never show up in the inscriptions of temples or as characters in literary/dramatic works. [Four of our healers are known ONLY through single inscriptions at temples, in a city or two. These, of course, cannot be considered influential because of their very local character.] People with higher education (e.g., grammarians and rhetoricians) might have recognized their names, and some might have even remembered (from childhood readings of Homer) some of the odder events (e.g., running on the top of the water?), but the vast majority of the populace would know neither the deeds nor the names of these other figures.


    With Asclepius and Pythagoras, however, we DO have a stream of literature created about them, since they were "founders" of schools, traditions, or movements.


    Pythagoras. A quick thumbnail of the sect and its history can be found in [REF:ABD, s.v. Pythagoreanism]:


    "The history of Pythagoreanism can be divided into three periods, namely, Early Pythagoreanism, the Hellenistic period, and Neopythagoreanism.


    "Early Pythagoreanism. Our most important sources for early Pythagoreanism are accounts by Aristotle, his student Aristoxenus, and the historian Timaeus of Tauromenium. Most of these accounts are only extant in texts from late antiquity, especially in the various biographies by Pythagoras that became very popular in the imperial period. Most important of these texts are D.L. 8.1–50, Porphyry The Life of Pythagoras, and Iamblichus On the Pythagorean Life.


    a. The Pythagorean Life. The Pythagorean community was famous in later antiquity for its communal living and sharing. This did not apply equally to all members, however. A distinction was made between esoteric and exoteric members: the former shared totally in the Pythagorean life, while the latter kept less strict ritual and dietary observances and were less involved in the esoteric doctrines of the sect. A period of rigorous and extended probation was required before a candidate was accepted as a full member of the community. At that point he had to take a solemn oath not to reveal any of the Pythagorean doctrines…The esoteric Pythagoreans dressed in white linen and followed a strict daily regimen which included prayer and meditation, physical exercises, discussions of their doctrines, and a common evening meal. They were forbidden to eat beans and certain kinds of meat. Great emphasis was laid on various purificatory rites, which included a daily bath.


    b. Pythagorean Doctrine. Pythagoras himself did not leave any writings, and it is therefore difficult to ascertain which teachings originated with him. According to a testimony in Porph. VP 18 that probably can be attributed to Aristotle’s student Dicaearchus, Pythagoras taught the immortality and the transmigration of the soul, the eternal cyclic recurrence of events, and the kinship of all living things…Since Pythagorean doctrines were not committed to writing, oral tradition played an important role in the transmission of their teaching. Apart from anecdotes about the life of Pythagoras, teachings were transmitted in the form of akousmata, that is, orally transmitted maxims and sayings, also known as symbols because of their allegedly secret nature. The akousmata are mainly concerned with a ritual piety, and together they form a catechism that regulated every aspect of the Pythagorean’s life.


    "The Hellenistic Period. We have very little evidence that Pythagoreanism continued after the time of Archytas of Tarentum (ca. 380 B.C.). It is quite probable, however, that there were individuals and perhaps even small groups throughout the Hellenistic period who considered themselves to be Pythagoreans and who preserved the Pythagorean dietary and ritual regulations…Be that as it may, during the Hellenistic period a spate of Pseudopythagorean writings made their appearance, most of them under the name of some ancient Pythagorean. These writings cover a wide variety of subjects and are heavily influenced by Academic and/or Peripatetic doctrines. Most scholars date them at the very end of the Hellenistic period, that is, in the 1st century B.C. and later, although Thesleff (1961) has argued that some of them may be as early as the 4th century B.C. and that few, if any, are later than the 1st century B.C.


    "Neopythagoreanism. From the 1st century B.C. onward there was a revival of interest in Pythagoreanism. The polymath Nigidius Figulus (100–45 B.C.), the philosophers Quintus Sextius (fl. under Augustus), Sotion the younger of Alexandria (a teacher of Seneca), Moderatus of Gades (end of 1st century A.D.), Nicomachus of Gerasa (fl. ca. A.D. 100), Numenius of Apamea (fl. ca. A.D. 150), and the wandering prophet and miracle worker Apollonius of Tyana (1st century A.D.) all considered themselves Pythagoreans…The basic features of Neopythagoreanism were an interest in arithmology, a belief in the transmigration of souls, and an emphasis on the need for the purification of the soul, which was accomplished through ascetic and theurgic practices.


    The original movement was controversial and persecuted:


    "Even after his death, c. 500 BC, Pythagorean societies continued to flourish in Croton and elsewhere in Magna Graecia. The members seem to have been active in the politics of the time and, presenting a unified front, were no doubt a powerful force; they became unpopular and eventually (c. 450 BC) the societies were broken up and the members exiled or killed." [HI:COCCL, s.v. Pythagoras]


    "Part of Pythagoras' teaching was religious and mystical, and it was presumably this aspect which led his contemporary Heraclitus to regard him as a fraud. Another contemporary, Xenophanes, mocked the most celebrated aspect of his teaching, his doctrine of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), with the story that Pythagoras once claimed to recognize a friend's voice in the howling of a puppy which was being beaten." [HI:COCCL, s.v. Pythagoras]


    Pythagoras and followers were often regarded as 'magicians' since they used music and incantations to perform their miracles:


    "The second motif unfolds itself as Nicomachus reveals how Pythagoras was able to hear the cosmic music and thereby was able to heal both physical and organic illnesses by means of music and incantations." [X02:TAMMT:45]


    "Apuleius, therefore, had the reputation of being both a [Pythagorean] philosopher and a magician. Ramsey MacMullen has shown that Apuleius and other philosophers, spiritual descendants of Pythagoras, claimed powers 'to do more than other mortals.' Apuleius was a 'theurgos', a name attached to the highest, most respected class of magicians…Apuleius may, indeed, have dabbled in magical arts…make it seem entirely possible that the depiction of him as a magician was close to the truth." [PREC:107,8,9]


    "Cicero, likewise abusing his opponent Vatinius, charges him with just the kinds of activities characterized by Pliny as 'magical'. Under the cloak of so-called 'Pythagoreanism', Cicero claims, Vatinius indulged in calling up spirits and sacrificing young human victims to the gods below…" [HI:RRE:1:155]


    Diogenes Laertius cites a disciple of Empedocles--Gorgias--as describing his teacher's works as 'magic' [cited at HI:MGRA:189]


    But the incantations they used were NOT directed at daimones and spirits, but at the underlying principles of the world:


    "In the first category [of healers], are the two Pythagoreans, Pythagoras himself and his famous disciple Empedocles. The lore that they Pythagoreans were able to 'chase away pestilences' arises from the fact that Pythagoras and his disciples, like Empedocles, probed the secrets of Nature. It was only to be expected that Nature's intelligent entities would come to know these philosophers intimately. Thus, it is no surprise if Pythagoras an Empedocles could call upon their 'insider' knowledge of nature to chase off an epidemic. We need to remember that in the cosmology of Greco-Roman antiquity, the elements of creation are both living and rational entities." [HI:MGRA:35]


    "Pythagoras is credited with the first probings of the new cosmology. For him, such a step was a movement into the world of sacred laws and secrets of the universe. Thus the life of philosophy according to the myth of Pythagoras was almost monastic in its discipline, asceticism, moral rectitude and community sense, all in the name of worthiness for communication with the divine laws of cosmic order…Since Pythagoras was privy to nature and its laws, it is only expected that stories would include his communication with the rational elements of nature, and theirs with him…Such stories emphasize in various ways the special status of Pythagoras, and the authority his knowledge gave him over the very natural elements whose secrets had been revealed to him." [HI:MGRA:144]



    And the movement itself was largely inconsequential--except through its teachings (not its literature):


    "…the Pythagoreans…in the early Hellenistic period and before the blossoming of Neo-Platonism [3rd century AD] they existed only in individual conventicles without any great influence." [NT:JH01:I:245] and "the Pythagorean movement hardly had any great significance in the Hellenistic period between 250 and 50 BC; it existed above all in literature [note: of other systems] and perhaps in small conventicles." [[NT:JH01:2:165n873]


    The central tenets were confused with Orphism (in Roman imperial times), and was disdained (as philosophy) by 2nd century BC Rome (even to the point of burning their manuscripts). It disappeared when it was absorbed into Neo-Platonism of the third and fourth centuries AD.


    Unfortunately, most of the solid information we have about Pythagoras' influence/belief comes from late sources, "contaminated" by Christian elements!


    "The Epicureans are better known than the Pythagoreans because much of the evidence about the latter derives from neo-Pythagoreans of the early fourth-century CE such as Iamblichus, who, in a large-scale enterprise to revive Pythagorean philosophy, incorporated many Christian anachronisms into the master's teaching." [HI:MC:34]


    Pythagoras' thought had a great deal of influence, but largely because it was so early. Bits and pieces of it show up in Plato, and just about every other related system (Plotinus, neo-Platonism). Most of the influence, however, is derived from the mathematical aspects of his teaching (e.g. the first late Hellenistic advocate of his was Publius Nigidius Figulus, who was a key player in the world of astronomy and astrology, [HSC:308]. The Pythagoreans were early astronomers [HI:MRE:173f].) and from the emphasis on ritual and asceticism--not from the 'how to control nature through miracles' element. There are, however, two individuals, claiming to be his students or followers, who are said to have been wonder-workers after the fashion of Pythagoras--Empedocles and Apollonius of Tyana--although the normal 'rank and file' neo-Pythagoreans do not advertise their own ability to do such.


    The revival of Pythagoreanism in the late Republic might easily be due to his views of political action and theory--cf. [HI:AREPJC:168]


    Now, we have to ask the question of literary influence: were there any written quasi-biographical account of Pythagoras, widely circulating before the construction of the gospels, so that it/they could have functioned as a paradigm/template for the evangelists? The closest we have is a very concise list of ten miracles supposedly collected by Aristotle in some lost treatise on Pythagoras. This list seems to show up in the 4th century BC (as evidenced by Apollonius the Paradoxographer, preserved in later sources), and is repeated by various authorities until it gets expanded in the Christian era. This, of course, is NOT a biographical account (or semi-bioi) by any means. So, the answer is 'no'--we do not have a template of a miraculous life upon which to pattern the gospels. There is a distinct question even as to how widespread  the knowledge of the miracle traditions about Pythagoras were at the time of the gospels, since the Neo-Pythagorean movement was only beginning surface in the literature then. [E.g., we only have one pre-Jesus neo-Pythagorean--the Publius Nigidius Figulus figure; the rest are late Augustus and later.]



    Asclepius. Strictly speaking, we have seen that this figure is NOT in the category of human/hero wonder-workers at the time of Christ. Asclepius was in Homer (and actually was pre-Homer and perhaps pre-Troy), and so the vast majority of subsequent literary references are to THAT Asclepius (i.e., the heroic, human, mythological one) and are made in poetic and dramatic texts. The vast majority of inscriptional data, on the other hand, are to the divine Asclepius as functioning in his temples.


    "As one of the immortals, as god of medicine, he was revered from the classical period [480-323 BC] to the end of antiquity. For Homer, for Hesiod, even for Pindar, Asclepius was mortal."[HI:ACIT:2:1]


    As we have mentioned above already, he consistently used herbs, surgery, and healing arts (during the days of his humanity), and even the priests/workers at some of his shrines later did the same.  [His later tradition had early split into the 'scientific' tradition (represented by Hippocrates, Galen, and the shrine at Cos ) and the 'mystical' (represented by the shrine at Epidauros). But even the later temple-cures by the god Asclepius were mostly 'medical': "Thus healing was attempted through the application of drugs or water-treatments intended to alter the sufferer's internal state; even when the god Asclepius intervened directly; the general method he used was the same as that of human doctors, except that the drugs prescribed were often more bizarre." [NT:RCJ:100]]. His earthly life looked very much like a physician, and in fact, this is what he is called in Homer. His miracles were confined to healing, of course, and did not encompass exorcisms or nature miracles. He shows up in the major Christian-pagan debates of the early church, and the legends even of his early human life were still known (vaguely) and used in the arguments. [Although we should note that it is Asclepius the GOD that is contrasted with Jesus in most of the discussions of that time. This would be comparing 'apples to oranges' for our purposes here.] Every school kid would have had to have worked through the genealogy of Asclepius and his descendants, in Homeric exercises (Homer doesn't actually record any miracles by A.). But the general details of his fame would have been known via education and via teaching at the various Asclepius shrines. So, the literary influence is substantial.


    There was, however, no full length bios of him written--even Plutarch excludes him. One doesn't write bioi about Homeric figures. And there was no literary collection of his miracles, whether done as a hero or done as a god. There were collections at each temple/shrine, of course, in the inscriptions and figurines, but no prose literary piece (other than an occasional panegyric) to function as a paradigm. The closest we come is the piece written by the rhetorician Aelius Aristides, recounting his experience of healing, plus other tales and background, but this is mid-second century and too late to influence the gospels.




  2. What about  their place in the social system--which classes in the social structures would this type of figure appeal to? Which classes would have found them unacceptable (and therefore a negative inducement to 'believe')?


    Pythagoras. Here we have a little something to go on. At the time of the gospels, we have two clues: (a) the adoption by the upper-class, as interested in philosophy; and (b) adoption by some of the fringe upper-class, since the dietary restrictions required money. The life style might still have been disdained by Roman leadership, since it was vegetarian . This later issue involved some risk (hence my word 'fringe'):


    "In Rome the elite continued to police the religious behavior of its own members--as we can see from anecdotes about individuals who were persuaded or forced to conform to conventional practices. Seneca, for example, tells us that in his youth he was persuaded by Pythagorean arguments and renounced meat. 'Foreign cults were subject to expulsion [i.e. in the Tiberian period], and abstinence from certain meats counted as one of the marks of superstition.' At the request of his father, he returned to a normal, carnivorous diet." [HI:RR1:229]


    As noted above, there is also the likelihood that the political activism of Pythagoras was held up as an exemplar (for the elite) in Republican times:


    "In addition to these factors, the Pythagoreans of the early empire could point to the especially positive morality of Pythagoras in the human community. The story of his life was dominated by his political role in the cities of southern Italy and by his teaching there, which was mystical and esoteric, yet designed to influence the masses and to promote stable government. All forms of ancient philosophy (even Cynicism) were linked with and interested in upholding elite rule at the same time as they sought to reform it according to their own beliefsThus Pythagoras' example of reinforcing the rule of the Thousand at Croton, by advising them how to gain the consent of the ruled…added to his list of credentials as a figure-head of Greek philosophy." [HI:AREPJC:168; note: I personally am not so sure this level of biographical detail was available 'early empire', since all the sources cited for this paragraph come from Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Diogenes]


    The cost of the dietary and ascetic practices, the support for the elite, and the philosophical depth of the system might have made it inaccessible to the common folk, and perhaps 'impractical' for the merchant class:


    "His rules must have been hard to follow for people who had to work for a living, since, as Burkert notes, the many prohibitions and taboos, such as not to travel by the main road and not to speak in the dark, meant 'an almost frightening constriction of one's freedom'; moreover, the Pythagorean rule always to wear white linen clothes could only have been realized by really wealthy people." [HI:FMR:74]



    As for Asclepius' appeal, it was considerable. He seemed loved by all, especially the poor. Artemidorus [late 2nd century AD] classes him in with the 'terrestrial' level gods in this hierarchy: "Olympians for the great, celestials for the middle class, and terrestrials for the poor" (T.259 in [HI:ACIT:1:119]).  Some of the miracles at his temples were ridiculed through their history (e.g., Aristophanes [late 5th century BC] and Lucian [mid-2nd century AD]), but there were few/no attacks on Asclepius' character by the pagan authors. It might be worthy to note, however, that for some reason Asclepius got "transformed from divine friend-in-need to a cosmic savior" in the mid-late 2nd century AD--long after the circulation of the stories about Jesus [X04:MECW, chapter 3].


    But, unlike Pythagoras, it would be inappropriate to speak of 'conversion' to his cult. In the syncretistic world of that time, a supplicant would likely try temples of Isis, Heracles, and Asclepius until one of them worked (e.g., Aelius Aristides tried Serapis first, then Asclepius)…It was largely an economic transaction in many ways--one miracle, one act of devotion.


    "Apart from the attendant priests and assistants at the shrine [Epidauros], there is no indication of a cult group, nor of any ongoing ritual or cult in which the beneficiaries participated. It was enough for the keepers of the shrine that the ailing brought gifts; it was enough for the sick that they--or at least some of them--went away cured. It was a simple quid pro quo transaction." [X04:MECW:81f]


    In some cases, however, when the miracle was extraordinary, the patient would make vow-like commitments to long-term worship, support for the temple, or proclamation of the teachings (e.g., Aelius Aristides, mid 2nd century AD). But you didn't typically 'embrace' Asclepius until a miracle had occurred to you "up close"--narrative accounts on temple walls might encourage you, but not 'persuade' you…It took first-hand experience.




So, where does this leave us so far?


  1. The most common type of ancient miracle was divination, which is of little/no relevance to our question.

  2. Of the 13 healers--most of which have no actual stories of healings--half are attested in a single inscription (with no literary remains), and the other half are related to Asclepius.

  3. The healers connected with Asclepius look like regular physicians--using herbs, healing arts, and surgery.

  4. The patterns of literary stories are completely different from those of Jesus.

  5. In the "Other Miracles" category we have 15 figures, with the miracles recounted (generally a single miracle) being at wide variance from the gospel miracles.

  6. Out of the combined group of seers, healers, and 'other'--41 names--only ten or so even come close to looking like a 'human miracle worker'.

  7. Of these 41 figures, none appear within 250 years of the birth of Jesus, and the vast majority are from the 5th century BC and earlier.

  8. There are NO miracle-working divine men in recent G-R culture at the time the gospels are being formed.

  9. Even the number of miracles attested to (by divine men or not) in this period is 'astonishingly small'.

  10. Of the ten figures, only TWO have any serious 'mindshare' in the pagan world: Asclepius and Pythagoras. The rest are bit players or one-hit-wonders, at best.

  11. Pythagoras exerted considerable philosophical influence, but this was largely through Plato.

  12. Followers of Pythagoras were few in number from the time of their early destruction/disruption, through Late Antiquity.

  13. The revival of Pythagorean thought in the mid-first century BC was related to his more 'magical/mystical' elements and to his political activism.

  14. Pythagoras' ability to do miracles was related to incantations and magical practices, but of a type where they 'spoke' or 'sang' to the elements themselves (not invocation of a spirit).

  15. Pythagorean life would have been largely restricted to the elite.

  16. There was no biographical account of him--to function as exemplar--in existence before the time of the evangelists.

  17. Asclepius--the most common figure compared to Christ in the first three centuries AD--is not actually an appropriate figure for comparison, for several reasons.

  18. Asclepius' actions looked--back in the days of his human life--like those of a regular physician, with the use of medicine and surgery.

  19. Asclepius switched from being 'human' to being 'god' no later than 480 BC--five centuries before Jesus.

  20. As a Homeric figure, Asclepius and his descendants influenced all the post-myth literatures (e.g. commentaries) and Homer-based education; however, there were no paradigmatic prose biographical works about him in this period.

  21. Asclepius had wide appeal, but unlike Pythagoreans, did not espouse a 'way of ascetic life' or 'mystical views'. There was nothing exclusive about the cult of Asclepius in this period.



So, at least among the 'usual suspects', we don't find enough well-known and influential human-figures to create anything like an 'expectation' or paradigm for representing Jesus.




But there is another whole category of wonder-workers of the period--the magicians and sorcerers. They show up in the literary tradition, but also show up in the legal codes as negative agents. And we need to see where they fit in the social complex of the day.


There is ample evidence that magic was generally believed, socially unacceptable, illegal [e.g., Tacitus mentions at least 10 criminal cases in which magic was a key component], yet widely practiced. It was dangerous business to be charged with sorcery, and quite a risk to do a miracle which might attract that accusation/charge:


 "Even among the pagan classical writers magic, which was associated with the Persian magi, was held in low repute" [NT:JSOTGP6:90]


"Magic was illegal in the Roman Empire and regarded as socially deviant, outside the boundaries of acceptable religious practice. Accusing another person or group of practicing magic was a powerful tool of social dominance in the ancient world." [NT:DictPL, s.v. "Magic"]


"Religion and magic were considered distinct, but they are not easily distinguished in the ancient world. In spite of laws against its practice, magic was widespread. As a somewhat artificial modern construct, the word magic as applied to ancient religion is used for efforts to compel supernatural forces by means of certain material objects and verbal formulas. Curse tablets sought to bring punishment on an enemy, and amulets were used to ward off potential attacks by evil forces. An extensive magical literature is preserved on papyri, often containing, it seems, the recipe books of practicing magicians" [NT:DictLNT, s.v. Religions, Greco-Roman]


"A definition of magic may best take into account its illegal and antisocial character by using the theoretical framework-- the sociology of deviance, i.e., by understanding magic as a form of deviant behavior. This leads to a two stage definition. First, magic is that form of religious deviance in which individual or social goals are sought by means not normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institutions. Second, such religion's deviance is magical only when the goals sought are considered virtually guaranteed through the management of supernatural powers. Probably any social institution that functions to improve or rectify human existence will have deviant counterparts that pretend to provide benefits more effectively, concretely, and rapidly than the dominant institution; thus legal systems have their deviant counterparts in kangaroo courts and lynch law, medical institutions in quackery, and religion in magic. If the central characteristic of magic is religious deviance, then what is magic depends upon the judgment of those who represent dominant social norms and values, rather than upon any universal beliefs and practices attributed to magic and magicians. Thus, as indicated below, even though Jesus and the early Christians were not infrequently charged by both Jews and pagans with practicing magic, they certainly viewed their own beliefs and practices in a totally different way. The distinction between “magic” and “miracle” then, is primarily based on perspective. Early Christian “miracles” were regarded as “magic” by Jewish and pagan opponents, while pagan “miracles” were labeled “magic” by the early Christians…Modern anthropologists have also found it useful to distinguish between witchcraft and sorcery, based on distinctions found in the languages of some, though certainly not all, modern small-scale societies in the third world (cf. E. E. Evans-Pritchard). Among anthropologists “witch” is widely used as a technical designation of a person with innate supernatural powers (e.g., the evil eye), while “sorcerer” denotes a specialist who has farmed from a master practitioner the craft of controlling or using supernatural powers. The former is feared but usually tolerated, while the latter is feared and subjected to various penalties from persecution or ostracism to death." [ISBE, s.v. "Magic, magicians"]


"Magic presupposed the existence of thousands of spirits—good and evil—involved in the affairs of day-to-day life. These spirits were thought of as gods and goddesses (e.g., Apollo and Artemis), divine mediators (e.g., Hermes, angeloi, paredroi), spirits of the untimely dead (biaiothanatoi), astral spirits, underworld spirits or various kinds of chthonic, or terrestrial spirits. The practice of magic also assumed a system of inner connections between physical objects in the universe. An action performed on one object was thought to have a corresponding impact on another (the principle of sympathy and antipathy)…Those who engaged in the ancient art of magic sought to solicit the help of various gods and spirits or to utilize the system of correspondences throughout the universe. This was achieved through various acts of ritual power…[NT:DictLNT, s.v. Magic and Astrology]


"At a later time [under the Republic], under the influence of Roman laws, the defixiones were clearly illegal. Yet, like astrology, which was also generally illegal, they flourished, both early and late…But it is not enough to say that defixiones were illegal because they sought to do harm to, even to kill, other persons, for that is not true of either love spells or prophylactic amulets. Two important questions thus remain unanswered: first, why did they flourish and, second, why were they declared to be illegal or, at the very least, dangerous and threatening? We will find a single answer to both questions…We have already seen that defixiones must be treated as a familiar feature of ancient Mediterranean cultures. What is more, they cut across all social categories; on this point there is virtual unanimity. The reason for their pervasive presence lies in the observation that they worked, or that they were believed to work, which comes to the same thing. Their success and effectiveness also explains why they were treated as illegal or dangerous. Dangerous not because they always intended harm but because they worked. Better yet, they worked in ways that could not be controlled by the legal, social, and political centers of ancient society. Indeed, at times they stood outside, perhaps in direct opposition to those centers. The idea that magoi could dispense power on matters of central importance to human life; the idea that any private person, for nothing but a small fee, could put that power to use in a wide variety of circumstances; and the idea that all of these transactions were available to individuals who stood outside and sometimes against the "legitimate" corporate structures of society-all of these ideas presented a serious threat to those who saw themselves as jealous guardians of power emanating from the center of that society, whether Greek, Roman, Antiochene, or Rabbinic. Here was power beyond their control, power in the hands of freely negotiating individuals." [HI:CTBSAW:23f]


"The divergences resulted first from the fact that in Rome the practices of sorcery had always been fought by the civil authorities and, therefore, the accusation of magic was much more serious than in Greece…" [HI:MIAW:36]


"A person who was accused of magic was thus one on the margins of society, who, through his or her actions, set off a process that seemed to threaten the social structures; that person's success provoked a crisis within the group" [HI:MIAW:64; note--this was a common accusation against the Christians, as "culture-destroyers"]


"On the other hand, even in the simplest case of binding spells, many names on the tablets of defixiones belong to the upper classes, and even to the elite…in Julio-Claudian times, magic seems to be an established weapon in the political struggle." [HI:MIAW:84f]


"Paulus, Sentences 5.23.15-18; [is] an anthology of legal opinions, attributed to an important Roman jurist (ca. 210 C.E.). "Magical practices," however imprecisely defined and understood, had been outlawed in Rome from the time of the Twelve Tables (fifth century B.C.E.)  Under Sulla (81 B.C.E.), the Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficiis added venena (poisons/charms) to the list of prohibited offenses and made the possession, sale, gift, or production of poisons/ charms, including those used for amatory purposes, subject to punishment; the punishments depended on the social standing of the offender. Both earlier and later prohibitions no doubt cover the use of curse tablets but this passage from Paulus is the only one to make specific mention of them. The passage represents a significant expansion in the range of prohibited offenses [HI:CTBSAW:258f]:


"Whoever performs or commissions unlawful nocturnal rites, in order to cast a spell, to curse or to bind someone, will be crucified or thrown to the beasts. . . . It is the prevailing legal opinion that participants in the magical art should be subject to the extreme punishment, that is, thrown to the beasts or crucified. But the magicians themselves should be burned alive. It is not permitted for anyone to have in his possession books of the magical art. If they are found in anyone's possession, after his property has been expropriated and the books burned publicly, he is to be deported to an island or, if he is of the lower class, beheaded. Not only the practice of this art, but even knowledge of it, is prohibited.


"The [Greek] classical period was familiar with two kinds of magic, which one may call black and white magic. The Greek language adopted the term 'magician' as a loan-word from Persian, where it denoted a highly respected, learned and wise member of a priestly caste. Even the New Testament permits us to sense something of this, when 'magicians from the rising of the sun', wise men from the East, come looking for the new-born Jesus (Mt 2:1). The other, negative significance of this word, with which we are familiar, did indeed become dominant in the course of time…"[HI:MPEC:15f]


"Pliny, Natural History 28.4.19; probably published in the 70s of the first century C.E. In this enormous compendium of fact and fancy, Pliny includes several informative excurses on magia, its origins and its expansion; he also indulges in a consistent polemic against an imprecisely defined group whom he calls magici (28.10-31; 30.1-13). Pliny certainly attests the wide public belief in "this most fraudulent of arts (which) has held complete sway throughout the world for many ages. Nobody should be surprised at the greatness of its influence" (30. 1). " [HI:CTBSAW:253]





As can be gathered from the above quotes, magic and magicians were not accorded much honor among the literary class (both high and medium strata), even though they were apparently used by them in "special circumstances". From Plato to Pliny to Philo, contemporary magicians are 'low esteem' figures; and were often expelled from cities or prosecuted by law:


"Begging priests and soothsayers go to the doors of the wealthy and convince them that if you want to harm an enemy, at very little expense, whether he deserves it or not, they will persuade the gods through charms and binding spells to do your bidding" [Plato, Republic, book 2 (364C)]


"Now the true magical art, being a science of discernment, which contemplates and beholds the books of nature with a more acute and distinct perception than usual, and appearing as such to be a dignified and desirable branch of knowledge, is studied not merely by private individuals, but even by kings, and the very greatest of kings, and especially by the Persian monarchs, to such a degree, that they say that among that people no one can possibly succeed to the kingdom if he has not previously been initiated into the mysteries of the magi. (101) But there is a certain adulterated species of this science, which may more properly be called wicked imposture, which quacks, and cheats, and buffoons pursue, and the vilest of women and slaves, professing to understand all kinds of incantations and purifications, and promising to change the dispositions of those on whom they operate so as to turn those who love to unalterable enmity, and those who hate to the most excessive affection by certain charms and incantations; and thus they deceive and gain influence over men of unsuspicious and innocent dispositions, until they fall into the greatest calamities, by means of which great numbers of friends and relations have wasted away by degrees, and so have been rapidly destroyed without any noise being made." [Philo, On the Special Laws, 3:100f]


"Astrologers (and magicians) were also formally expelled from Rome and Italy in the first century A.D., as they had been in 139 and 33 B.C. Astrology itself (unlike magic) was not seen by the Roman authorities as intrinsically dangerous. Certain aspects of astrology (such as some personal horoscopes) were regarded as perfectly acceptable forms of divination: emperors and other members of the Roman elite could consult astrologers without incurring obloquy, and astrology might even support imperial power - regularly predicting, for example, a future emperor's rise or military triumphs. But astrology- - like all techniques which claim to offer knowledge of the future- - could also be deeply threatening; it could predict an emperor's downfall as much as his success. The emperor Tiberius found it necessary to act against astrologers and magicians in A.D. 16 with the discovery of a conspiracy against himself. Two decrees were passed by the senate, laying down, first, the expulsion of astrologers and magicians from Rome and Italy, and secondly the death penalty for non-Romans and exile for Romans who were still practising these arts in the city.  The Tiberian senatorial decree set the precedent, but raised explicitly some of the definitional problems that we have already noted (what was to count as astrology within the terms of the law?). Lawyers debated whether mere knowledge of astrology was punishable, or only its actual practice. At first they decided that knowledge was not prohibited, but subsequently their views diverged. In any case, emperors repeated the Tiberian ban seven times during the rest of the first century A.D. (with one further doubtful case in the later second century A.D.)…" [RRE:1:231f]


"The enchantment wrought by magic regularly had two major objectives: causing death and instilling love…But using magic to commit murder remained an offence punishable with the utmost severityCausing someone to fall in love by means of magic also carried the death penalty. [RRE:1:234,235]


"By contrast with these revered and holy men, there undoubtedly existed practitioners of more dubious arts--magicians, sorcerers, necromancers and all those other possessors of psychic powers who inevitably plied their trade in a society which took seriously the forces of evil. That such people were not uncommon is proved by the frequency with which the charge of sorcery is referred to in Jewish legal writings and to the appearance of Jewish names and spells in the magical papyri…But no one doubted that a genuine sorcerer was a serious menace to society…" [HI:JATCH:104,105]



It is important to note that the types of miracles done by magicians are NOT the ones adduced by the evangelists, or by any of the pagan miracle-worker figures either. Accordingly, this category--like that of 'seer'--doesn't have much relevance to our discussion. The types of 'miracles' done by magicians of the period are generally harmful and/or coercive. For example, healing miracles are NOT represented widely in spells, since they were the province of other 'specialists', and since they were not very closely associated with demons/spirits (the province of the spells/magic):


Of the 540-odd tablets listed in the Greek Magical Papyri ([NT:GMPIT]), a mere 68 (12.6%) of them have any relationship to healing-type miracles. And of these 68, a full 40 deal with headache, fever, stings and bites, coughs, and eye problems. Most spells are largely of the "attack/counter-attack/preclude attack" types (apart from the 'coerced love' spells, of course).


Out of the 976 parallels to the NT from the Hellenistic world given in [HCNT], only 16 are listed in the index as having to do with 'magic', and of these only one is both from the magical texts and is a similar event to something in the NT (in this one case it is an exorcism).


"Nor do these functions (healing and divination) correspond to magic in the imperial period according to the image that we get from the papyri and inscriptions. Certainly, healing and especially divination of all kinds are important here, but the black magic of the defixiones and the erotic practices are more predominant." [HI:MIAW:53]


"Healing, curiously enough, has receded to the background in the strata represented by the magical papyri; it is mainly left to either Asclepius or scientific medicine." [HI:AMC:69]


"Greeks would not deny the power of magic and demons or the ability of the gods to punish whom they will, but they believed such external interference in human affairs to be the exception rather than the rule. It was rare for the gods to intervene directly with mankind by inflicting ill-health on the guilty." [NT:RCJ:100]


"Otherwise there is very little evidence to indicate that magic played much of a role in medicine from Homer to Galen (2nd cent. A.D.). Sophocles (Ajax 11.581-82) notes that a good physician does not sing incantations over pains that should be cured by surgery. The author of  'On the Sacred Disease' disparaged 'magicians, purifiers, charlatans, and quacks' who resorted to incantations to treat epilepsy." [NT:JSOTGP6:114]



We should also note that this phenomena--like the 'miraculous' in general--seems likewise to increase in 'volume' about the time of the appearance of Christ:


"Magic was an important part of the fictional repertoire of Roman writers, but it was not only a figment of the imagination of the elite and its practice may have become more prominent through the principate - a consequence perhaps of it too (like other forms of knowledge) becoming partially professionalized in the hands of literate experts in the imperial period. So, for example, the surviving Latin curses (often scratched on lead tablets, and so preserved) increase greatly in number under the empire, and the Greek magical papyri from Egypt are most common in the third and fourth centuries A.D. " [RRE:1:220]




We have already seen from our data that the social-class of the magician was quite undesirable, but what of their literary influence? Did magicians inspire people to write books about them, or to model literary heroes after them?


The literary influence is almost nil. We don't have any magician authors, we don't know any of their names (except from the NT!), they are consistently disparaged (in groups), the magical literature is all suppressed by the secular government (cf. Augustus' burning of 2,000 oracle works--Suetonius, Lives, 31.1-1-4), and the only literary uses of magician figures are cases in which someone is defending themselves against the charge of being one (e.g. Apuleius)!


"We do not know exactly how magicians at Rome perceived their magical power, how they won followers to their craft, how far they viewed their own activities as subversive. The surviving literature of this period preserves no authentic magician's voice…" [RRE:1:220f]


In Cotter's source book [HI:MGRA], in the category of "Heroes with the power of magic", she adduces only two examples: Empedocles (discussed under Pythagoreans) and Apuleius (post-Jesus). The only other figures given are satirical figures from Lucian! We clearly don't have 'paradigmatic critical mass' for this category to be a literary influence on gospel authors.


What is again odd here, is that we don't have the names or biographical details about any of these figures. It makes sense, of course, since they are marginalized individuals and since their craft is a very, very secret one, but to my knowledge the most detailed accounts/names of real magicians in the period come from the Book of Acts in the New Testament. We have actual names and minor biographical details about a handful of magicians in the Mediterranean area. But the other references (disparaging ones) in the non-biblical materials refer to them generically, almost without exception. [The later rabbinic literature is more specific in this, since it actually reports legal charges of sorcery against its opponents.]


A brief word about comparing these types of wonder-workers. We end up with only three examples of well-known wonder-workers (Asclepius, Pythagoras, the generic magician), of which Asclepius is not truly representative of the category (i.e., his miracles are NOT by a human, but by a god; his miracles are done in temples, not during his 'travels'; his miracles are more medical in technique, than 'miraculous'). We might could contrast their methods by looking at how they each would perform a healing miracle, noting, however, that their methods would overlap to some degree and in some cases (i.e., each would use elements from the other categories in some cases: "the methods of healing used both in what we may call 'rationalistic' and in temple medicine had much in common--the priests had recourse to drugs, prescriptions concerning diet, and phlebotomy, just as some of the rationalistic doctors did not rule out amulets and prayers…" [HI:MRE:45]):


Worker type



Medical arts, herbs, surgery, health regimen


Ritual and incantation, addressed to cosmic forces


Ritual and incantation, addressed to spirit beings



We once again end up at the same, surprising point: the number of exemplary wonder-workers in the pre-Jesus world is 'astonishingly small', and the literary exemplars of narrative miracle stories is almost non-existent (much less, non-paradigmatic). These figures seem to explode on the scene after the gospels are circulating, as there also seems to be an increase in interest in miracles and an expansion of the gods into to 'bigger figures' (e.g., Asclepius is transformed from a healing-only god to a Cosmic Savior in the mid/late 2nd century AD, noted above).




How common was the practice of creating, writing, and disseminating miracle narratives about one's religious teacher/leader  to 'sell him' to others?


Let's look at the possible cases of this in our period.


  1. We have already discussed the cases of miracles being ascribed to would-be Emperors or favors-dispensing Emperors, but this is very rare (as we noted) compared to cases of portents and oracles.


  2. After the gospels were formed, we will have the use of historical romances (with their fantastic and titillating tales) as a main propaganda device for cults, but this is too late to count for our purposes (since the romances are too late):


    "The dominant function of the romance apparently became propaganda in connection with a cult: the earliest surviving example may be the Ephesiaca of Xenophon; the best known is the Metamorphoses of Apuleius…" [X04:MECW:193; note: Kee uses Merkelback's dating of the Ephesiaca at 2nd century BC, but this early date is not the general view. It is dated 2nd century AD by Hagg [HI:TNIA], late first century AD by Lesky [HI:AHGL], late first century/early second AD by Lightfoot [HI:LGRW], and 2nd century AD by R.B. Bailey.]


    "The Ephesica was reworked in the third century A.D. as propaganda for the Sol Invictus cult."  [X04:MECW:193n48]


    "By the end of the second century of our era both pagan and Christian writers, both believers and skeptics, were exploiting the possibilities of a popular Hellenistic genre, the romance, to propagandize for their particular values and aims. Whether the message was that of the scornful satire of Lucian of Samosata concerning Alexander the False Prophet or the credulousness of the apocryphal Acts of Paul, whether it was an extended narrative in praise of Apollonius of Tyana as philosopher or the vivid account of the bewitching and conversion of Apuleius, devotee of Isis, the medium was that of the romance." [X04:MECW:252]



  3. We have a clear case, apparently, with Pythagoreans (from Iamblichus, 4th century AD; but see further below):


    "[the Pythagoreans state the miracles of Pythagoras] in order to render their opinions worthy of belief. And as these are acknowledged to be true, and it is impossible they should have happened to one man, they consequently think it is clear, that what is related of Pythagoras, should be received as pertaining to a being superior to man, and not to a mere man. " [Vita Pyth, 143f, cited at [X02:TAMMT:49], although this is a reference to 4th century Pythagorean votaries--not pre-Christian ones. This might not actually reflect the practice of pre-Christian neo-Pythagoreans, the movement of which was in progress already at the birth of Jesus (see the discussion on Pythagoras above).]



  4. For most of the religious cults of our period, we have almost no evidence that they were 'mission-oriented' or 'conversion-oriented' enough to even want to do this. And some cults actually discouraged 'public proclamation' (e.g., Isis).


    "Of all the pagan cults known to have been widely disseminated in the early Roman empire, perhaps only one was, at least potentially, a proselytizing religion, and that was the imperial cult, the worship of emperors." [HI:MC:30; note than none of our figures are mentioned here by Goodman.]


    "The many inscriptions found in shrines proclaiming to passers-by the power and benevolence of the divinity may be included in these categories; their prime aim was simply to praise the god, on the assumption that the gods, like men, love to be honoured." [HI:MC:32; note that the point of the testimonies was praise, not 'evangelism']


    "Simply to latch on to a new cult could be not only foolish but dangerous. Isis threatened with death those who came uninvited to her festivals." [HI:MC:26]



  5. Although it might make sense for adherents to do this, we have no real warrant to believe it actually did occur--at least for most of the cults in our period:


    "As was pointed out, many of the Hellenistic miracle workers were succeeded by cults and/or a group of disciples. It is only logical, therefore, to assume that priests and disciples were instrumental in transmitting and enhancing the supernatural deeds of the miracle worker's career, and that these records were sometimes useful in attracting devotees to the cult or disciples to the brotherhood. On the other hand, that most of these cults used such miracle traditions in an aggressive attempt to gain adherents is not borne out by our admittedly incomplete data; many of these cults were content to remain bound to one geographical locality and those that demonstrated a desire to branch out (e.g., Asclepius) appear to have placed most of their emphasis on the miracles of the hero's (or god's) postmortem life. Only with respect to Pythagoras and Apollonius [the post-Jesus version, btw] can one easily discern that the miracles of their earthly lives were pressed into service for comparatively wide-ranging and aggressive propaganda." [X02:TAMMT:93n575]



  6. We might also note that in the case of Apollonius, Philostratus is somewhat 'embarrassed' about the miracle tradition--the OPPOSITE we would expect in propagandistic embellishment and display:


    "Philostratus, when presenting the character of Apollonius to the empress who was his distinguished patron, makes much of this aspect of his hero's gifts [knowledge of future events, prediction], and is correspondingly reserved about other examples of miraculous powers; for it was in such knowledge that the true Pythagorean was expected to excel…" [HI:JATCH:106]


    "Philostratus himself shows a certain skepticism about some of the feats attributed to his hero Apollonius…" [HI:JATCH:102]


    "As a Neo-Pythagorean himself [Philostratus], he would have been caused no little embarrassment by the miracle stories [of Apollonius]." [HI:MGRA:43]



  7. The same is true for dissemination of philosophical teachings in our period--there is no evidence for a 'conversion' or 'missionary' motive:


    "The search for universal proselytizing will prove equally unproductive in a scrutiny of the process by which philosophical ideas were diffused in the Roman empire. This may seem surprising, for it has been quite widely supposed that philosophers in the Hellenistic period and after were eager to covert to the tenets of their philosophy as many individuals as they could reach. In the ancient world the idea was sometimes expressed quite crudely, as in Lucian's satirical picture of 'The Sale of Lifestyles'" [HI:MC:32]


    "In sum, it seems unlikely that adherents of any of the distinctive philosophies of the early Roman empire sought converts to their own self-defined groups." [HI:MC:36]


    "…philosophical notions were disseminated just as Hellenism itself spread in the eastern empire and Latin in the west in the same period--by imitation and emulation. There was no place here for the strong notion of a proselytizing mission to win converts to a particular, clearly self-defined group." [HI:MC:37; note--the Cynics and Epicureans, however, did 'evangelize' aggressively, but NOT to win converts and NOT by appealing to miracles in ANY sense (cf. [HI:MC:32ff])]



  8. We have often noted in this series that miraculous embellishments were done in poetry and drama, not in narrative prose. When a follower or descendant wanted to honor (or 'sell'?) a teacher, they did it with encomium/eulogy. Biographical accounts, for example, that have a encomiastic slant to them will have separate sections of praise--but of virtue and noble deeds, not of miraculous feats. Praise was for character and benefactions, even of exalted teachers. The Philostratus that writes the 'odd' Life of Apollonius can write the serious Lives of Sophists without any miraculous embellishment of these ideal figures.  By holding such moral exempla up before their audiences, the authors and orators of the day hoped to influence their society for good. They were changing behavior by the virtuous acts of their literary subject--regardless of whether the individual existed or not. A writer could make up a story about a fictional character in poetry, and influence audience to "good behavior" by the simple exposure to this character/story. But there was no need--in that system--to argue for the historicity of this fictional figure, nor for the truthfulness of the events/actions ascribed to him/her. It was efficacious for the audience to simply 'watch the story'.  Correspondingly, there was no real need to 'authenticate' the figure with miracles, historical details, etc. And this explains, in part, why there is so little 'appeal to miracle' as authentication in our period; ''appeal to miracle" as an example of what a good leader would do for his people, on the other hand, is often done--but generally in poetry…and when embellishment was decided on as a 'selling strategy' (for defensive purposes, for example), it did not take the form of the miraculous, but rather that of the culturally heroic. As noted above, Abraham didn't become a miracle worker--he became the inventor of the plough…And divine paternity was not argued from the miraculous at all:


    "It is true that several, but by no means all, miracles workers were believed to have been fathered by a god (e.g., Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon) but I found no examples of a pagan miracle worker called, or confessed as, ho huios tou theo (the son of god). Nor do I know of any case where the miracle worker's divine paternity (or maternity) is deduced from his miraculous deed(s). " [NT:JSOTGP6:189]



  9. Even the possibly exceptional case of Pythagoras seems questionable. We noted that there was an appeal to his pre-mortem miracles in the 4th century, but we had already noted earlier that no new miraculous material had been added between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD. So, to say that they used miracle stories as "proof" is not the same thing as saying they invented the stories. In this case, they were simply reporting existing tradition. This then doesn't constitute a clear counterexample at all.



  10. There WERE arguments for the 'divinity' (in the G-R, non-Jewish sense of the word--theios) of individuals made during our period, but they did NOT use miracles as proof of power. It is only AFTER the gospel period that miracles were used in this way:


    "It is doubtful whether the concept of a Hellenistic 'divine man' in the sense it is always used, ever existed before the middle of the second century A.D. Before that, the term designated poets, artists, statesmen, and philosophers" [Eduard Schweizer, cited at [X02:JCDMSG:103f]


    "It is perhaps possible to take a barometric reading of the changing cultural climate of this phase of the Hellenistic period by comparing the perspectives on this point represented by Plutarch and Seneca in the first century [A.D.], Lucian [of Samosata] in the second, and Philostratus and Porphyry in the third ... Plutarch and Seneca confidently display the divine sage Socrates and his moral courage in the face of death in order to dismiss attempts to authenticate figures as divine on the basis of miraculous displays. Lucian is fighting on several fronts in an attempt to maintain this criterion, but the growth and convergence of the cults of such figures as Peregrinus and Alexander show he is fighting a bitter and losing battle against popular response. Philostratus and Porphyry, by contrast, appear to have made peace with Lucian's opposition; and although they are still aware of the philosophical standard, they maintain that Apollonius and Pythagoras were divine by describing their heroes as both sages and miracle workers." [Tiede, cited at [X02:JCDMSG:104]; notice that the first century climate was AGAINST adducing miracles as data!]


    "Its application with reference to miracle-workers does not appear until the latter half of the second century A.D." [X02:JCDMSG:105]


    "After the mid-second century A.D., appeals to miraculous or magical displays of power to authenticate figures as divine become increasingly common." (Lane, [X02:JCDMSG:106]


    "It seems unlikely, therefore, that first century Hellenistic, let alone Palestinian Jews, would have been receptive to the proclamation of Jesus as the 'divine man.' Gundry points out that it is erroneous to think that, 'as the tradition concerning Jesus moved out into the wider Hellenistic world, aretalogists spun miracle stories around him in order to portray him as a miracle-working divine man. For in literary circles of the first century, Hellenistic divine men gained authentication from their exemplification of moral virtue.'" [X02:JCDMSG:106; note that we have seen this before in Jewish writers--Moses was honored because of his virtue, not his power.]



  11. Most of the information about a religious figure or cult would come either from temples (if you happened into one of them) or from public festivals in honor of the deity. The Roman calendar was filled with religious festivals in which one god or another was honored with parades, orations, games, and sometimes free meals, and the provinces had their own additional days for local figures. Most information a "commoner" would have about a deity would come from the meager information gleaned at these events. But you didn't have to 'believe' anything to participate in most cases, although some events would be closed to initiates only (e.g., Cybele). Pagan religion was largely NOT a system of beliefs at all, but rather a set of shared behaviors and shared values. These non-systems didn't really require "support", since they were not in competition with one another generally, and since there were few hard 'demands' placed on the populace:


    "Most of the evidence about pagan cults in general is derived from inscriptions and buildings. Precisely because there was usually no philosophy in paganism, rationalizations of pagan religious behavior are rarely to be found in ancient evidence: a writer like Varro or Plutarch discussing pagan cults was interested in the origins of shrines and the peculiarities of particular rituals rather than the overall justification and meaning of such worship. Extant discussions of the theory of pagan worship by pagans are therefore limited to the works of a few philosophers, such as Cicero." [HI:MC:21]




What this leads us to is a surprising result: creation of prose narrative miracle stories about one's religious/philosophical leader was (almost) non-existent in our 'formative' pre-gospel period. (It might have flourished afterward, but it is not present in any non-trivial amount in the couple of centuries before the birth of Christ.) There is, therefore, no data to support the thesis that it was 'standard practice' or 'universal custom'.




What were the 'risks' associated with doing that?


If an author decided to invent miracle stories about their religious leader in this period, and use them as support for the authenticity or divinity or even superiority of their leader, he or she would be conscious of several major risks in doing so. The inclusion of miracle stories--patterned after some earlier figures even--would open their leader up to possible misinterpretation, in several different areas:


  1. The miracles might be understood as magic or sorcery. As one might suspect from our discussion on magic and sorcery, there was a HUGE risk of being 'branded' as a magician or sorcery, if one was alleged to have performed miracles. [This goes double for performing exorcisms, obviously.]


    We noted that magicians were consistently outlawed, disparaged, exiled, banned from the cities, and our later witnesses (Paulus) indicate stiff penalties for all who even associated with such figures or possessed magical books. Accordingly, any author that represented his narrative hero as a miracle worker ran the risk of his hero being labeled 'magician'.


    "It follows that anyone who deliberately performed miracles was taking a serious risk, the risk of being taken for a sorcerer or magician; and that this risk seriously curtailed the options open to him. " [HI:JATCH:105]


    Accusations of magic, of course, were frequent between rivals: everybody called their rivals' miracles "magic". Jesus was branded such commonly (e.g., Talmud, Celsus), Apollonius was too, as was Apuleius.  It was a charge that was almost certain to be leveled at you--and so you had better either (1) embed your legal defense into the narrative--a la Apuleius; or (2) be ready to die for your belief in the truthfulness of your writing…


    "If, then, the primitive church were going to hand on the traditions about the mighty acts of Jesus, they ran the risk of telling accounts that at best were ambiguous, at worst capable of making Jesus appear to be just another of those wandering magicians so familiar to the Hellenistic world. Given those circumstances, the fact that such stories were preserved at all is perhaps the most persuasive evidence that Jesus did in fact do such things." [Achtemeier, [X02:JCDMSG:137]



  2. There was a lesser risk, too, associated with which wonder-working model you decided to emulate. If you made your hero look like Asclepius, then he or she wouldn't look like Pythagoras. If you made your figure look like a traveling Cynic philosopher, then he or she would not be 'welcomed' by the Mithraists.  If you got too 'similar' to one, you might alienate the followers of their 'rivals'.



  3. In a Jewish milieu--in which the gospel authors were still very much still living and working--you have the MAJOR risk of making Jesus look too 'pagan' or 'Hellenistic'. If you dressed Jesus up like a Hellenistic wonder-worker, you risked alienating your Jewish audience.


    "Perhaps the most important questions which the present writer could pose are: If Jesus is to be viewed as just another divine man, can it account for the large following of Palestinian Jews? Can this account for His immediate and devoted followers in contrast with the following of Hellenistic divine men which usually did not occur until generations later? Could that following have continued to exist in the face of unparalleled persecution?" [X02:JCDMSG:370]



  4. If you used 'bigger and better' miracles to show how much 'bigger and better' your Jesus was, you might risk getting mentioned in one of the paradoxographer's "List of Freaks" books, and ending up as only dinner-time conversation and entertainment. This genre, remember, concerned the collection of bizarre tales, but wasn't taken seriously, as other 'leisure reading' wasn't either:


    "On a less elevated level, fabulous tales such as the ghost stories in one of Pliny's better-known letters, or the animal fables of Phaedrus, might be told for entertainment at dinner parties." [HI:LGRW:457]


    [It should also be noted that the more bizarre miracles of Pythagoras--and the 57 year nap of Epimenides--were collected by a paradoxographer--Apollonius in the 2nd century BC…One has to wonder how seriously these stories were taken, before they were pressed into service in the neopythagorean revival…]



  5. If your miracles looked too much like Homeric or ancient heroic figures, you might risk getting 'de-mythologized' or 'rationalized away' or flatly contradicted by those writers who specialized in this. We have already seen that the readers/writers of the day practiced debunking Homeric myths in school--in preparation for 'debunking' witnesses in forensic settings later--and you can bet that they had a field day when hearing about miracles. For a specific (but earlier) example dealing with our list of Heroes (above), one of our wonder-workers listed was Orpheus, of Argonaut fame. Palaephatus, a friend of Aristotle, wrote a book called "On Unbelievable Tales" in which he debunked a number of mythic events. He has an entry on Orpheus which begins with "Also false is the myth about Orpheus--that four-footed animals, snakes, birds and trees (!) followed him as he played his lyre" [cited at [HI:OUT:65]]. Or, if you put forth exalted weather-working claims (a la Empedocles), you might be get lambasted by a near contemporary:


    "Where Empedocles Fr. 111 talks of raising and quelling the winds, and of bringing rain or drought, On the Sacred Disease [note: in the Hippocratic corpus] attacks those who 'claim to know how to…make storms and fine weather, rain and drought…and all the rest of their nonsense', calling them all 'impious rogues'." [HI:MRE:37]



  6. And this last point raises a major risk--the risk of getting 'associated with' the tricksters, charlatans, impostors, and frauds that ARE mentioned in the literature of the day. Although few are mentioned by name or example (with Lucian giving us perhaps the most 'insight' into some of these…smile), they were frequently complained about in the literature of the day. [Although we should notice that many--if not most--of these figures were diviners and not 'big miracle' workers.] Not only were the leaders themselves portrayed as frauds and deceivers, but their followers (and, in our case, their propagandists) were labeled as unscrupulous, vile, and counter-virtue. The risk of prejudicing your audience AGAINST your cause was much greater (using literary means) than the possible chance of 'impressing them' with miraculous claims (and with so many of them, in the case of Jesus). That this risk was real vis-à-vis the Christians is obvious--since these charges were actually leveled by Celsus in his attack against the Christian faith. We had seen in an earlier piece that the Romans specifically 'looked down on' the Greeks for their belief in 'excessive' miracles, and Luke would have been painfully aware of this tendency in his audience.


Thus, to populate a biographical narrative with miracle stories (invented or shaped to resemble those of miracle-working heroes of prior history) entailed considerable risks, several of which did indeed materialize in early Christian history. It would therefore NOT be axiomatic that "inventing miracle stories for your leader would be helpful to the cause" at all…Indeed, it might hurt your chances of reaching some groups in your world.





Were there specific divine men, with very highly defined 'miracle type' that the gospel writers could target for emulation?


We have seen already that there were very few specific figures to be emulated (i.e., Asclepius, Pythagoras), and that there WERE characteristics that would describe their (healing) miracles.


Asclepius' miracles in our period were essentially confined to healings--as they were in the hero's human life--through the use of medical arts and priests. The non-divination miracles of Pythagoras (different from the miracles of his followers, perhaps) had only one characteristic: they were done by music or speech to the elemental forces of the cosmos, and were based on esoteric knowledge of numbers and relationships. Technically speaking, within that system they would not have been considered 'super-natural' at all; they were 'intra-natural' since the forces invoked were actually entirely natural (just unknown to less privileged mortals).


If we look at the list of miracles of Pythagoras thought to be performed by him in our period, this is what we see (from Apollonius the Paradoxographer, see [X02:TAMMT:39]):


1. Pythagoras predicted that a corpse would be found on a cargo-laden ship in the harbor of Metapontum.

2. In Caulonia he successfully prophesied that a white bear would appear.

3. At Tyrrhenia he bit a poisonous snake and killed it.

4. Upon crossing a river a superhuman voice greeted him.

5. On the same day and hour he was seen teaching in Croton and Metapontum.

6. At Olympia he revealed that he had a golden thigh.

7. In Croton he stroked a white eagle.

8. Many other miraculous things are related concerning Pythagoras.


If we omit the divination/seer miracles (#1,2), we have two animal miracles (#3,6), a generic "many other" statement (#8), two things ABOUT him (#4,6), and one multiple-place(?) miracle. There is no real pattern here to 'target', nothing that would indicate something was 'Pythagorean'.


Empedocles, who is thought to be Pythagorean (in some traditions) has a much wider repertoire, although the claims are a bit strange.


He actually claims to have become a god, and claims to be able to teach his students how to control wind, old age, drought/rain, and resurrect the dead. However, these are his own statements in poetry (hexameter verse), and the interpretation of this is very, very uncertain.  His terminology has turned out to be very slippery, redefining words and myths freely. He is actually said to have been able to do sorcery (goeteuein) by one of his students (but the source is pretty unreliable--Satyrus), and is mostly famous for his 4-elements theory of nature which made it into the Academy. He doesn't apparently inspire either sustained temple worship or a continuing band of disciples (like his alleged teacher Pythagoras), so he is not a very good example for our quest here. But we might notice the three miracles that are associated with his name in pre-Christian times [X02:TAMMT:52]:


1.        "When the etesian winds once began to blow violently and to damage the crops, he ordered asses to be flayed and bags to be made of their skin. These he stretched out here and there on the hills and headlands to catch the wind and, because this checked the wind, he was called the 'wind -stayer' [Timaeus]


2.        He healed a woman in a trance, thought dead by the physicians.


3.        He calms a violent youth down by singing a verse of Homer to him.


If there is a pattern here, it is that they are scarcely miraculous (smile)…


The closest we are going to get to finding a pattern will be in the means of healing miracles--the chart we saw earlier on the means of healing is about the highest level of specific differences we will be able to come up with. Anything lower than that (e.g., healing or miracle) will simply be too vague to be a 'target' for a literary attempt at 'imitation'.




If so, do the miracles in the gospels match those miracles "closely and obviously enough" for us to believe the original hearers would make the connection?



This is pretty straightforward:


  1. The gospel exorcism accounts have virtually NO representation in pre-Christian G-R literature (and minimal examples afterward, e.g. Apollonius, Magical Papyri)--this would have been 'useless' to a tactic of 'dressing Jesus up' as a Hellenistic wonder-worker. [already noted above]

  2. The absence of divination from the activities of Jesus--the most common form of G-R wonder--indicates not much attempt to 'dress Jesus up' this way. [already noted above]

  3. The gospel miracles have almost no overlap with the non-healing miracles;

  4. The healing miracles are likewise substantially different from pagan accounts.

  5. In fact, all this stuff looks very, very Jewish instead…



But let's go over the "other miracles" (non-healing) and the healing miracles again…


First, we can easily note the lack of close parallels between Jesus' miracles and the "other miracles" list we had built earlier. The two possible cases of overlap we noted were quite different.


This lack of overlap has three important implications.:

  1. If there WAS a pattern in those "other miracles", it was NOT followed by the evangelists;

  2. None of the individual miracles are copied--it's almost like they were AVOIDED by the evangelists

  3. Even the individual miracles are not copied and 'improved upon', to make Jesus look 'bigger, stronger, faster' than these figures. There are no 100 year long naps, no appearances in THREE places at once, no turning into BIGGER animals.


It's almost like the evangelists were unaware of these (implying the absence of a paradigmatic model of wonder-worker, of course), or deliberately avoiding them. In any event, the data of the gospels certainly doesn't match these 'other miracle' types.



Secondly, we can also see some basic differences between the gospel accounts of Jesus' healings and the healings of our three figures (Asclepius, Pythagoras, magicians).


The difference between Jesus and magicians is very striking, with implications for the other figures also:


"So it is in the case of comparisons made with magic. There are superficial parallels, to be sure, but there are so many important features missing that few have followed Morton Smith. Scholars have accordingly concluded that Jesus' ministry of miracles was in important ways distinctive." [NT:JHC:215-6]


"Smith concedes that as a matter of fact the canonical Gospels do not represent Jesus as a magician or as one who used magical rites, but this is an understandable 'cover-up' because 'magician' was a dirty word." [NT:JSOTGP6:95]


"The evidence for magical practices in the gospels is slim. Jesus used saliva in healing the deaf-mute in Mk. 7:32 ff. and the blind man in Mk. 8:23. The word ephphatha …is not a meaningless word like abracadabra, and Mk. himself provides a translation which is contrary to magical practice. It...means “be opened” or “be released". The idea is that of the whole person being opened…The accounts of the healing of the woman with the issue of blood (Matt. 9:20 ff.; Mk. 5:25-34; Lk. 9:34-8) do not significantly differ in any way which demonstrates that any one of the evangelists is more interested in magic than the others. The woman herself has a faith which might seem to border upon superstition, in that she believed that she would be healed if only she could touch the clothes of Jesus. But this must be seen against the background that her unclean condition prevented her from coming openly to him. All three evangelists avoid any support for connecting the healing with magic in giving Jesus’ reply, “Your faith has saved you” Whereas magicians used names in connection with spells, the way that the name of Jesus is used in healing and casting out evil spirits stands out in marked contrast. Neither Jesus nor the apostles used secret rituals or esoteric signs to gain control over supernatural powers. Still less is there any trace of trying to coerce a reluctant God to further one’s own ends. [NIDNTT, s.v. "magic"]


Spittle was NOT a 'magical thing', but either medicinal


"There is also considerable evidence that spittle was commonly used to treat eye diseases. Benjamin Gordon notes: 'Spittle was among popular therapeutic agents used in ocular practice by ancient physicians...The cure of inflammatory diseases of the eye with spittle was also popular among the Romans and Egyptians...In Egypt, spittle was used as a solvent for disturbing films in the eyes'. The use of spittle for healing purposes is also attested in rabbinical sources (BB 126b; Shab. 14.14d; 18; Sotah. 16d,37). Vermes comments, 'Even in regard to healing, the closest he (Jesus) comes to the Noachic, Solomonic and Essene type of cure was when he touched the sick with his own saliva, a substance generally thought to be medicinal.'" [NT:JSOTGP6:139]


…or a deliberate object-lesson to the Pharisees:


"Saliva was regarded as having healing properties—under certain circumstances (cf. b. Bat. 126b: “The saliva of the firstborn of a father heals [diseases of the eye], but the saliva of the firstborn of the mother does not heal”)" [WBC, at John 9.6; note that this passage immediately follows an argument with the Jews over Jesus' unique and privileged sonship with the Father. If the spittle image was intended to provoke the thought found in the later Talmud, then the healing of the man would have illustrated that the Son was the 'firstborn of the Father' in a way others--especially the Pharisees--weren't!]


Even the special category of exorcisms, which would open the figure of Jesus up to possible accusations of sorcery, were radically different from accounts given in the magical papyri and other evidence:


"But, by contrast with the stories told by Lucian, for example, there is a complete absence of technical language, mysterious rites and formulae or hocus-pocus of any kind. Even the story of the Gerasene swine, though it for once reveals the name of the demon and uses a sensational means of demonstrating its departure, has no trace of secrecy or esoteric techniques. Jesus evidently opted for a type of miraculous healing which was bound to be dangerously ambiguous; but, at least according to the records, he carried it out with the absolute minimum of those technical procedures which would most surely have aroused suspicion about his true credentials and motives." [HI:JATCH:109]


"According to Lucian, Syrian and Palestinian exorcists used incantations and spells to threaten the demons out of the afflicted. Such incantations were ordinarily whispered or uttered in an abnormal voice (cf. Sanh 11.1). Often the incantations had to be recited carefully word for word, with prescribed procedures exactly followed...its power lies in its verbal form, in the sound and rhythm of its words, and has no connection with the intentions of the utterer or with the subject…The words of Jesus, except for the parallels to exorcistic commands, such as 'Get out', certainly do not resemble the elaborate magical incantations which are known from pre-Christian Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Greco-Roman magic." [NT:JSOTGP6:131, 133]


"Though others even in his lifetime appealed to the name of Jesus (Mark 9:38-39; cf. Acts 19:13-17) in their exorcisms, what is striking about Jesus' exorcisms is that he does not appeal to Solomon or any similar authority. According to van der Loos, 'It strikes us that, though the pagan exorcists made such frequent use of some name or the other, this was never the case with Jesus'. Foerster declares: 'The crucial thing is that demons are expelled by a word of command issued in the power of God and not by the invocation of a superior but essentially similar spirit, nor by the use of material media'. " [NT:JSOTGP6:134]



As for Asclepius, the main difference is the lack of dreams and medical procedure; and as for Pythagoras, the main difference is the lack of song/incantation. Most of Jesus' healings are done with a simple command "I so will". Sometimes he also used touch--which has always been therapeutic in the world--but mostly just an act of pure will. That the touch ("I perceive power has gone out of me") was not a magical 'flow' was well stated by Erasmus long ago:


"Those who touched the hem of Jesus' garment were healed of their diseases, but observe that those who smote him, scourged him, nailed him to the cross, touched his very naked flesh but no one of them was cured of anything. The physical contact achieves nothing without faith. There is no profit in touching Jesus to one who has not first been touched by him." (on Mark 6.56, cited at [NT:JSOTGP6:137]



Apart from medical procedure, though, there was also a fundamental difference in heart between Jesus and the god Asclepius in our period, well stated by Edelstein and Edelstein:


"To be sure, despite the similarity between the two physicians [note; on the cures effected, NOT on the means to those cures, btw], fundamental differences existed between them. That which was revolutionary in Christ, that which was novel and unheard-of did not find any correspondence in Asclepius: Jesus came to heal not only the sick in body and soul; he extended his help to 'the sinners and publicans.' Asclepius, as a Greek god, had rejected those who were impure, those who did not think holy thoughts. In this respect--and the distinction was a crucial one, for it set Christianity apart from paganism--Asclepius and Christ were at variance. Yet, just because the heathens were reluctant to accept the new dogma that God would commune with sinners and would heal them, they clung the more steadfastly to Asclepius, who had achieved the same as Christ without adopting an attitude so repulsive to the ancients, without even demanding faith from his adherents." [HI:ACIT:134f; can a Christian read this quote without moist eyes of gratitude for the free grace and warm love of our precious Lord?! "a friend of sinners…"]




At this point in our discussion, I should point out that the scholarly world has generally abandoned the position that the miracles of Jesus reflect Hellenistic 'background', in favor of a Jewish 'background'. In other words, the parallels we have been discussing above are not taken as seriously today in NT scholarship, since the Jewish background (next article…) is a much "closer fit" for finding possible parallels.


"It is becoming increasingly evident today that in the scientific study of the New Testament, the Jewish backgrounds rather than the Grecian parallels offer the soundest basis of approach" (Longnecker, [X02:JCDMSG:112])


"many of the New Testament miracles stories bear such clearly Jewish features that it is difficult to see how they could have been inspired by the purely pagan theios aner concept." (Nicol, [X02:JCDMSG:112)


"almost all of the parallel themes and motifs in question can also be documented in OT, Palestinian Jewish, and/or rabbinic literature where the miracle worker is God or, more significantly from the perspective of this study, one of His authorized and divinely-endowed human representatives." [NT:JSOTGP6:196]


"The fact that this three-fold pattern exists in the Jewish instances just cited, and also in other biblical, pseudepigraphical, and rabbinic miracle stories, surely means that one should not automatically assign the formulation of the Gospel miracles stories to Greek-speaking Christians. Even Bultmann judged that a Palestinian origin was possible for Mark 1:40-45, 2:1-12, 4:35-41, 5:25-34, and 6:34-44/8:1-9, and more recent interpreters usually admit that some of the Gospel miracle stories were circulated within the early Aramaic-speaking church." [NT:JSOTGP6:204]


(on stilling the storm): "Jesus makes no Christological affirmation...Even Bultmann rejects his customary appeal to Hellenistic parallels and finds an early Palestinian origin for this miracle." [NT:JSOTGP6:343f]


"The miracles of Jesus are interpreted more carefully and more realistically in context, with the result that they are now viewed primarily as part of charismatic Judaism, either in terms of piety or in terms of restoration theology (or both). The older notion that the miracle tradition is relatively late and of Hellenistic origin, perhaps the product of theios aner ideas, has been largely abandoned." [NT:JHC:5]


"Although some have criticized Vermes' inference that Jesus was essentially a Jewish hasid, or holy man, most agree that Jesus' ministry of miracles parallels more closely the lives of Jewish personalities such as Honi, Hanina ben Dosa, or Theudas, than it does the lives of various Hellenistic magicians and wonder workers, who have been put forward." [NT:JHC:4n7]


"What becomes clear is that Jesus' ministry of healing and exorcising blends in well against his Jewish environment. We find little reason to appeal to so-called 'Hellenistic' traditions. Nor do we find it warranted to identify Jesus with one particular class of Jewish figures to the exclusion of others. In some ways Jesus resembled the prophets of restoration. In some ways Jesus' messianic ideas coincided with Davidic traditions, possible even paralleling ideas that may have been associated with Simon ben Kosiba. Even  the miracles themselves potentially conveyed messianic and/or restorative significance."[NT:JHC:243]


"The Jewish analogies, often ignored or underplayed, tend to undermine the confident use of Hellenistic parallels to prove that themes and motifs associated with various miracle-working theioi andres and theoi have accreted to a Palestinian Jesus tradition which was basically devoid of them." [X02:TAMMT:183]


"Thus, against this background [e.g. provision of food, manna, drink in OT stories], plus later rabbinic stories which attest to the continuing interest in miracles involving the miraculous supply of food and drink [e.g., b. Taan. 24a; 24b-25a; b. Yoma 39a; b. Shab. 33b; Tanh. B., Berschit 3.16; Tg. Yer. I on Gen 27.25] , even Bultmann concluded that the Markan feeding stories were of Palestinian origin." [X02:TAMMT:196]


"This chapter, perhaps more than any other, points to the incredibly rich miracle tradition inherited by the Jews of Jesus' day. Both the O.T. and later literature familiar to Palestinian Jews abound in miracles performed by God alone and through human agents. But miraculous power from God was not dead in the period between the first century B. C. and the second century A.D.: one hears of Palestinian-Jewish exorcists and healing, rain-making charismatics such as Honi (and his grandsons Abba Hilkiah and Hanah), Hanina, Jacob the min from Kefar Sehaniah, and Phineas ben Jair. And when one moves forward to encompass the rabbinic miracle (and magical) traditions up to and including the Babylonian Talmud, the mass of material rivals that offered by the Hellenistic realm." [X02:TAMMT:229]


So, if we had to judge on the basis of how close the miracles stories are to one another--in narrative details--we would clearly have to conclude that the gospel authors did NOT try to assimilate Jesus to these Hellenistic miracle-working figures.




Are there OTHER elements (non-miraculous) in the gospels that would argue against this, by perhaps alienating the intended audience?


This question is about literary strategy. If the gospel authors were trying to 'sell Jesus' to a G-R audience--to the extent that they made up miracle stories to make Him look like pagan heroes--then we would expect them to also omit/exclude material that would be grossly offensive to such an audience. After all, if truth really didn’t matter that much, and 'church membership' was more important than sincerity and integrity, then by all means they should have 'hidden the bad spots'…


To test this is somewhat straightforward--we simply have to see what non-miraculous elements in the gospels (esp. Mark and Luke) would have been repulsive/offensive to the pagan audience, and therefore counter-productive to any gains made from invented miracle stories. If we find some of these, and they are either "qualitatively or quantitatively putrid" to G-R audiences, we have another argument that the gospels were not crafted in this way. [It is, however, NOT in itself a conclusive argument, since one could argue that they invented the 'pleasing' miracle stories to 'soften' the effects of the negative stuff, a sort of 'anesthesia' for the bad news. But we will have to judge this AFTER we try to compile our list--to see how 'bad' the problem is.]


Actually, there is a TON of data that would be so contrary to G-R expectations and 'requirements', even about the very character of Jesus (not to mention His Jewishness!). Let's list just a couple of the more offensive/glaring of these:


1. We have already noted above the comments by Edelstein/Edelstein on the difference between Asclepius and Jesus, the friend of sinners. They used the word 'repulsive' to describe how the pagan would have felt about this aspect of the heart of Jesus toward sinners.



2. The pagans had a very, very difficult time with Jesus' meekness:


"But the story of Jesus is quite different. When Jesus was asked to respond to the accusations, he was silent [note: in contrast to Socrates' trial]. It is with this very point that Origen begins his apology, and which he goes on explaining for the first two paragraphs of his preface. There was no apologia--let alone a triumphant, self-assertive one. This the pagans found impossible to understand, unacceptable, and ignominious. Celsus, too, does not omit to criticize the meekness with which Jesus underwent his trial (2. 33ff., 67-8). This is what Hierocles was out to criticize by contrasting it with Apollonius' trial, in the course of which Apollonius not only defends himself, but then miraculously disappears (cf. Against Hierocles, 38; Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 5. 3. 9).  Indeed, Apollonius is made to improve on Socrates. If Socrates said that they could take his body, but not himself or his soul, Apollonius repeats this, only to correct himself to say that they cannot even take his body (Against Hierocles, 38). Macarius Magnes has to respond to the same kind of criticism, perhaps already going back to Porphyry (Monogenes, I)…How the pagans thought about this is illustrated in more detail by the way in which the case of Apollonius of Tyana is described by Philostratus in his Life (8. 5-6), on which Hierocles draws. We do not know whether Philostratus wrote the Life to present Apollonius as a much more attractive alternative to Jesus. But, whatever his intentions, he goes out of his way to describe Apollonius, when asked to account for himself in front of the notoriously tyrannical Domitian, as facing the emperor down in no uncertain termsA forceful, fearless apologia which puts the accuser in his place is what the ancients expected of a wise or holy man." [HI:AREPJC:144f]



3. And His death by crucifixion was a horrible, horrible offense and scandal to the pagan mind. Porphyry records an oracle of Apollo, given in answer to a man's question about what he can do to dissuade his wife from Christian belief:


"Let her continue as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by judges whose verdict was just, and executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron." [cited in [Crux:4]]


Hengel sums up the attitude in our period (for both Jews and Greeks, btw): "A crucified messiah, son of God, or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman, or barbarian, asked to believe such claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish." [Crux:10]


"Here the theios aner argument meets an insurmountable obstacle. If the centurion [at the crucifixion] were familiar with the gods and 'divine men' of the Greco-Roman culture, it would be out of his frame of reference, indeed in direct contradiction to it, to call Jesus a son of God at this point of degradation and death...a confession evoked by an earthly triumph would have been expected; a confession in the wake of the crucifixion scarcely squares with a Hellenistic background." [Edwards, [X02:JCDMSG:132]



There are many more items that could be listed, from Jesus' non-elitist following, to His egalitarian view of women, to His exclusive claims to authority, but these are enough.


As for the question of trade-offs between these negatives and the possible 'positives' of hero-looking stories, we would have to decide that the evangelists 'failed' to produce a convincing and "acceptable" Hellenistic wonder-worker figure, if that's what they were trying to do. Celsus, who would certainly qualify as a good judge of this(!), soundly rejected Jesus as a 'divine hero'. Wilken sums up Celsus' estimate of Jesus, vis-à-vis 'hero status': "Jesus was a low-grade magician, not a great hero like the men of old." [CRST:105]. In other words, the gospel portrait of Jesus did NOT measure up (overall) to the G-R wonder-working heroes we have been discussing. The portrait in the gospels just didn't 'sell Jesus' well enough to hit this target…and our discussion so far would explain why not: the gospel authors were not trying to






  1. The pre-Rabbinic Jewish authors did not create miracle stories about Moses, to dress him up like a Hellenistic "divine" wonder-worker.

  2. The most common type of alleged miracle worker was that of seer and/or diviner, a category that has no relevance to our study.

  3. The 13 candidates in the 'healer' category were essentially physicians.

  4. The 15 candidates in the 'other miracles' category were ascribed miracles that had almost no overlap/match with gospel miracles.

  5. Of the combined 41 figures, most are either irrelevant, totally mythological, or pure physicians.

  6. The main healer--Asclepius--is NOT an example of a human wonder-worker, since most of the attested cures are by the postmortem god Asclepius (and the cures STILL look medical).

  7. Of the ten possible candidates left, none of them are within 250 years of the birth of Christ, and most are 5 centuries earlier.

  8. There are NO Hellenistic wonder-working human figures in the literature for 250 years before the birth of Jesus.

  9. This period of time appears to be the least superstitious period in ancient history, with the number of reported miracles (even at Asclepius shrines) being small.

  10. Most of these 10 figures did not inspire any temple cult, body of followers, or literature.

  11. The two dominant candidates left were Pythagoras, (maybe) Asclepius; but the category of magician was added to this group.

  12. Pythagoreans used incantations and ritual to perform their miracles (most of which were divination and NOT healing).

  13. Neither Pythagoras nor Asclepius (nor any magician) generated literary traditions that could have served as an exemplar or paradigm for the gospel authors.

  14. The Pythagorean cult was very small until the time of the Neopythagorean revival around the birth of Jesus, and was 'absorbed' into Neoplatonism by the 4th century AD.

  15. Magic 'miracle working' was illegal, socially disparaged, widely used, and dangerous to be charged with before Roman law.

  16. The miracles done by magicians have almost no overlap with the miracles reported in the gospels.

  17. The number of exemplary wonder-workers (even from the remote past!) in the pre-Jesus world is astonishingly small, and the literary exemplars of prose narrative stories is almost non-existent.

  18. The use of miracles to authenticate a religious teacher does not appear in the historical record until well after the gospels are written and circulating.

  19. Most cults were not missionary-minded enough to generate 'aggressive propaganda', and neither were most philosophical groups.

  20. Even though the Pythagoreans argued from the miracles of their founder (in our period), there is no evidence that they themselves invented those stories.

  21. We have no data to warrant belief that ANYONE in our period invented miracles to 'sell' their religious leader to others.

  22. We have data that warrants belief that 'selling efforts' in our period were confined to demonstration of a leader's virtue/merit, and not their power.

  23. Creation of prose narrative miracle stories about one's religious/philosophical leader was (almost) non-existent in our 'formative' pre-gospel period (much less, paradigmatic).

  24. There was considerable risk associated with the presentation of miracle stories allegedly performed by one's teacher, ranging from adverse legal action (e.g., crucifixion!) to bad PR (e.g., being branded as insane, trivial, or charlatan).

  25. There was almost no pattern to the miracles done by these wonder-workers, and the few patterns that emerged in the healing miracles DID NOT MATCH the patterns recorded in Jesus' healing miracles.

  26. There were major differences in the miracle-patterns of the gospels and the 'common'  miracles in the Hellenistic figures (e.g., mostly divination, no exorcisms, ritual/incantation means).

  27. The scholarly world has abandoned the position that Jesus' miracles are to be derived from Hellenistic miracle workers, and moved on to finding antecedents in Jewish literature.

  28. There are several other features in the gospels (non-miraculous) that would indicate that the evangelists were NOT catering to a G-R audience.

  29. The overall presentation of Jesus in the gospels did not match up with pagan 'expectations' of a divine miracle-working man--Celsus told us that himself…


Accordingly, I have to conclude that the data does not support the belief that the evangelists invented miracle stories about Jesus, fashioned after Hellenistic wonder-workers, in order to 'sell Him' to others. In fact, the data was substantially counter to that belief.



On to the next one…


Glenn Miller

Dec 24, 2001

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