Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels (1997)
We all have read the tales told of Jesus in the Gospels, but few people really have a good idea of their context. Yet it is quite enlightening to examine them against the background of the time and place in which they were written, and my goal here is to help you do just that. There is abundant evidence that these were times replete with kooks and quacks of all varieties, from sincere lunatics to ingenious frauds, even innocent men mistaken for divine, and there was no end to the fools and loons who would follow and praise them. Placed in this context, the gospels no longer seem to be so remarkable, and this leads us to an important fact: when the Gospels were written, skeptics and informed or critical minds were a small minority. Although the gullible, the credulous, and those ready to believe or exaggerate stories of the supernatural are still abundant today, they were much more common in antiquity, and taken far more seriously.
If the people of that time were so gullible or credulous or superstitious, then we have to be very cautious when assessing the reliability of witnesses of Jesus. As Thomas Jefferson believed when he composed his own version of the gospels, Jesus may have been an entirely different person than the Gospels tell us, since the supernatural and other facts about him, even some of his parables or moral sayings, could easily have been added or exaggerated by unreliable witnesses or storytellers. Thus, this essay is not about whether Jesus was real or how much of what we are told about him is true. It is not even about Jesus. Rather, this essay is a warning and a standard, by which we can assess how likely or easily what we are told about Jesus may be false or exaggerated, and how little we can trust anyone who claims to be a witness of what he said and did. For if all of these other stories below could be told and believed, even by Christians themselves, it follows that the Gospels, being of entirely the same kind, can all too easily be inaccurate, tainted by the gullibility, credulity, or fondness for the spectacular which characterized most people of the time.
The Minor Evidence: Messiahs and Miracles Galore
Even in Acts, we get an idea of just how gullible people could be. Surviving a snake bite was evidently enough for the inhabitants of Malta to believe that Paul himself was a god (28:6). And Paul and his comrade Barnabas had to go to some lengths to convince the Lycaonians of Lystra that they were not deities. For the locals immediately sought to sacrifice to them as manifestations of Hermes and Zeus, simply because a man with bad feet stood up (14:8-18). These stories show how ready people were to believe that gods can take on human form and walk among them, and that a simple show was sufficient to convince them that mere men were such divine beings. And this evidence is in the bible itself.
Beyond the bible, the historian Josephus supplies some insights. Writing toward the end of the first century, himself an eye-witness of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, he tells us that the region was filled with “cheats and deceivers claiming divine inspiration” (Jewish War, 2.259-60; Jewish Antiquities, 20.167), entrancing the masses and leading them like sheep, usually to their doom. The most successful of these “tricksters” appears to be “the Egyptian” who led a flock of 30,000 believers around Palestine (Jewish War, 2.261-2; Paul is mistaken for him by a Roman officer in Acts 21:38). This fellow even claimed he could topple the walls of Jerusalem with a single word (Jewish Antiquities, 20.170), yet it took a massacre at the hands of Roman troops to finally instill doubt in his followers.
Twenty years later, a common weaver named Jonathan would attract a mob of the poor and needy, promising to show them many signs and portents (Jewish War, 7.437-8). Again, it took military intervention to disband the movement. Josephus also names a certain Theudas, another “trickster” who gathered an impressive following in Cyrene around 46 A.D., claiming he was a prophet and could part the river Jordan (Jewish Antiquities, 20.97). This could be the same Theudas mentioned in Acts 5:36. Stories like these also remind us of the faithful following that Simon was reported to have had in Acts 8:9-11, again showing how easy it was to make people believe you had “the power of god” at your disposal. Jesus was not unique in that respect.
Miracles were also a dime a dozen in this era. The biographer Plutarch, a contemporary of Josephus, engages in a lengthy digression to prove that a statue of Tyche did not really speak in the early Republic (Life of Coriolanus 37.3). He claims it must have been a hallucination inspired by the deep religious faith of the onlookers, since there were, he says, too many reliable witnesses to dismiss the story as an invention (38.1-3). He even digresses further to explain why other miracles such as weeping or bleeding–even moaning–statues could be explained as natural phenomena, showing a modest but refreshing degree of skeptical reasoning that would make the Amazing Randi proud. What is notable is not that Plutarch proves himself to have some good sense, but that he felt it was necessary to make such an argument at all. Clearly, such miracles were still reported and believed in his own time. I find this to be a particularly interesting passage, since we have thousands of believers flocking to weeping and bleeding statues even today. Certainly the pagan gods must also exist if they could make their statues weep and bleed as well!
Miraculous healings were also commonplace. Suetonius, another biographer writing a generation after Plutarch, reports that even the emperor Vespasian once cured the blind and lame (Life of Vespasian 7.13; this “power” being attributed to the god Serapis–incidentally the Egyptian counterpart to Asclepius; cf. also Tacitus, Histories 4.81). Likewise, statues with healing powers were common attractions for sick people of this era. Lucian mentions the famous healing powers of a statue of Polydamas, an athlete, at Olympia, as well as the statue of Theagenes at Thasos (Council of the Gods 12). Both are again mentioned by Pausanias, in his “tour guide” of the Roman world (6.5.4-9, 11.2-9). Lucian also mentions the curative powers of the statue of a certain General Pellichos (Philopseudes 18-20). And Athenagoras, in his Legatio pro Christianis (26), polemicizes against the commonplace belief in the healing powers of statues, mentioning, in addition to the statue of a certain Neryllinus, the statues of Proteus and Alexander, the same two men I discuss in detail below.
But above all these, the “pagans” had Asclepius, their own healing savior, centuries before, and after, the ministry of Christ. Surviving testimonies to his influence and healing power throughout the classical age are common enough to fill a two-volume book (Edelstein and Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, in two volumes, 1945–entries 423-450 contain the most vivid testimonials). Of greatest interest are the inscriptions set up for those healed at his temples. These give us almost first hand testimony, more reliable evidence than anything we have for the miracles of Jesus, of the blind, the lame, the mute, even the victims of kidney stones, paralytics, and one fellow with a spearhead stuck in his jaw (see the work cited above, p. 232), all being cured by this pagan “savior.” And this testimony goes on for centuries. Inscriptions span from the 4th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. and later, all over the Roman Empire. Clearly, the people of this time were quite ready to believe such tales. They were not remarkable tales at all.
This more general evidence of credulity in the Roman Empire shows the prevalence of belief in divine miracle working of all kinds. I will now present you with three historical individuals who truly flesh out the picture.
The Major Evidence: Apollonius, Peregrinus, and Alexander
Apollonius, Peregrinus, and Alexander are three rather interesting religious founders about whom we know even more than we do of Jesus. The first, Apollonius of Tyana, is often called the “pagan Christ,” since he also lived during the first century, and performed a similar ministry of miracle-working, preaching his own brand of ascetic Pythagoreanism–he was also viewed as the son of a god, resurrected the dead, ascended to heaven, performed various miracles, and criticized the authorities with pithy wisdom much like Jesus did.
Naturally, his story is one that no doubt grew into more and more fantastic legends over time, until he becomes an even more impressive miracle-worker than Jesus in the largest surviving work on him, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratus around 220 A.D. This work is available today in two volumes as part of the Loeb Classical Library, published by Harvard University Press, a set that also includes the surviving fragments of Apollonius’ own writings (if only Jesus had bothered to write something!) as well as the Treatise against him by the Christian historian Eusebius. There were other books written about him immediately after his death, but none survive.
Even Eusebius, in his Treatise against Apollonius, does not question his existence, or the reality of many of his miracles–rather, he usually tries to attribute them to trickery or demons. This shows the credulity of the times, even among educated defenders of the Christian faith, but it also shows how easy it was to deceive. Since they readily believed in demons and magical powers, it should not surprise us that they believed in resurrections and transmutations of water to wine.
We also know that the cult that grew up around Apollonius survived for many centuries after his death. An inscription from as late as the 3rd century names him as a sort of pagan “absolver of sins,” sent from heaven (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., 1996). The emperor Caracalla erected a shrine to him in Tyana around 215 A.D (Dio Cassius, 78.18; for a miraculous display of clairvoyance on the part of Apollonius, see 67.18). According to one account, the ghost of Apollonius even appeared to the emperor Aurelian to convince him to stop his siege of Tyana, whereupon he also erected a shrine to him around 274 A.D. (Historia Augusta: Vita Aureliani 24.2-6).
Later Arabic sources even discuss the fame and potency of certain relics associated with him, which remained in use well into the sixth and seventh centuries, the last of them apparently destroyed by crusaders in 1204 A.D. So popular was the belief in the power of these “talismans” that the Church was forced to accept their use, even while condemning Apollonius and his shrines as demonic (see sources below). And so, we see here an independent confirmation that blind belief in the divine status and miraculous powers of mere mortals easily captivated the people of this time, a fact that even modern Christians must admit.
An even more colorful story is that of a crazy fellow called Peregrinus, nicknamed “Proteus,” who set himself on fire during the Olympic games in 165 A.D. to prove his faith in reincarnation. The notion of suicide as a proof of such faith was not new. Indian Brahmans had immolated themselves before Western audiences on several occasions before, the most famous being Calanus, at Susa, in front of Alexander the Great, and Zarmarus, at Athens, in front of Augustus (Plutarch, Alexander 69.8). What is most relevant, however, is the fascinating story told about him by the skeptic Lucian in his satirical work, “The Death of Peregrinus.” Lucian knew Proteus personally, and he gives us a look at what the story of Jesus might have been had a skeptic been around to give us a different account.
While Aulus Gellius had also met this man in Athens, and was impressed enough to call him a man of “dignity and fortitude” (Attic Nights 11.1-7), Lucian had another point of view. He describes the vainglorious motivations of Proteus, and the duped mobs clamoring for a miracle. He also mentions the gullibility of Christians, who, he says, were easily duped by scam artists (13). Indeed, after the death of Peregrinus, people reported that he was, like Jesus, risen from the dead, wearing white raiment, and that he ascended to heaven in the form of a vulture (40). The punch line is that this latter story may have been a deliberate invention of Lucian himself (39), told to gullible followers, and later recounted to him as if it were fact, showing the effects of the rumor mill at work. Indeed, even people who were in the same city at the time were ready to believe that an earthquake accompanied his death, reminding us of the absurd miracles surrounding the death of Jesus recounted without a blush in Matthew 27:51-54. How easy it was for such stories to be believed! Even if this tale is filled with rhetoric on the part of Lucian, his criticism of gullibility would have no weight if it did not ring true.
Peregrinus also had a small cult following after his death. His staff was treated as a religious relic (Lucian, The Ignorant Book Collector 14), his disciples preached his doctrine (Lucian, Runaways), and his statue healed the sick and gave oracles (Athenagoras, cited above). But his bid for religious glory was not as successful as another man, Alexander of Abonuteichos. Lucian dedicates an even longer and more vicious account of his personal contacts with this man, whom he calls “the quack prophet.” The account alone is detailed and entertaining, but for our present purpose it illustrates how easy it was to invent a god and watch the masses scurry to worship it. His scam began around 150 A.D. and lasted well beyond his death in 170 A.D., drawing the patronage of emperors and provincial governors as well as the commons. His cult may have even lasted into the 4th century, although the evidence is unclear.
The official story was that a snake-god with a human head was born as an incarnation of Asclepius, and Alexander was his keeper and intermediary. With this arrangement Alexander gave oracles, offered intercessory prayers, and even began his own mystery religion. Lucian tells us the inside story. Glycon was in fact a trained snake with a puppet head, and all the miracles surrounding him were either tall tales or the ingenious tricks of Alexander himself. But what might we think had there been no Lucian to tell us this? So credulous was the public as well as the government, that a petition to change the name of the town where the god lived, and to strike a special coin in his honor (Lucian, Alexander 58), was heeded, and we have direct confirmation of both facts: such coins have been found, dating from the reign of Antoninus Pius and continuing up into the 3rd century, bearing the unique image of a human-headed snake god. Likewise, the town of Abonuteichos was petitioned to be renamed Ionopolis, and the town is today known as Ineboli, a clear derivation. Even statues, inscriptions, and other carvings survive, attesting to this Alexander and his god Glycon and their ensuing cult (Culture and Society in Lucian, pp. 138, 143).
As for his influence, Lucian tells us that Severianus, the governor of Cappadocia, was killed in Armenia because he believed an oracle of Alexander’s (27), and Rutilianus, the governor of Moesia and Asia, was also a devout follower, and even married Alexander’s daughter. Indeed, Alexander’s “god” was so popular that people rushed all the way from Rome to consult him (30), and even the emperor Marcus Aurelius sought his prophecy (48). From this it is all the more apparent that religious crazes were a dime a dozen in the time and place of the Gospels, helping to explain why a new and strange religion like Christianity could become so popular, and its claims–which to us sound absurd–could be so readily believed.
The final lesson from the case of Alexander and Peregrinus is that Lucian’s skeptical debunking never persuaded any believers, showing that even the rare skeptic, no matter how convincing his arguments and evidence, could have no practical effect on the credulous. The vast majority would never read or hear anything he wrote, and most of those who did would dismiss it. Indeed, believers were hostile to critical thought and would shout the skeptics down and drive off even suspected doubters in their midst, as actually happened in the case of Alexander: before every ceremony, the congregation would cry “Away with the Epicureans! Away with the Christians!” (and atheists and unbelievers in general: 38) since these two groups had a reputation for trying to debunk popular religion (this hostility could even come to slander and violence: 25). In effect, this was like clamping their hands over their ears and humming, deliberately refusing even to hear reasonable arguments, much less to consider their force.
From all of this one thing should be apparent: the age of Jesus was not an age of critical reflection and remarkable religious acumen. It was an era filled with con artists, gullible believers, martyrs without a cause, and reputed miracles of every variety. In light of this picture, the tales of the Gospels do not seem very remarkable. Even if they were false in every detail, there is no evidence that they would have been disbelieved or rejected as absurd by many people, who at the time had little in the way of education or critical thinking skills. They had no newspapers, telephones, photographs, or public documents to consult to check a story. If they were not a witness, all they had was a man’s word. And even if they were a witness, the tales above tell us that even then their skills of critical reflection were lacking. Certainly, this age did not lack keen and educated skeptics–it is not that there were no skilled and skeptical observers. There were. Rather, the shouts of the credulous rabble overpowered their voice and seized the world from them, boldly leading them all into the darkness of a thousand years of chaos. Perhaps we should not repeat the same mistake. After all, the wise learn from history. The fool ignores it.
Glenn Miller has written a rebuttal to this essay (“Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?” 2002), in response to which I changed some of the language above so as not to give a mistaken impression of my meaning. Miller’s title has little to do with my essay, since I am not arguing here (even if I do elsewhere) that anyone in particular “invented” the miracles of Jesus. Rather, I am merely presenting a survey of the social and intellectual context in which those miracles came to be believed.
As to the remainder of Miller’s criticism of this essay specifically, I plan to respond in a future rebuttal (which will be announced here). But one simple point must be made even now: almost all of Miller’s relevant evidence comes from the educated or even scholarly elite (like Lucian), and thus in no way represents the average man or woman in antiquity, who by their very circumstance wrote nothing for Miller to examine. I would guess that skilled skeptics and skeptical viewpoints like those Miller finds probably could not be found in much more than 10% of the population of the time, if even that–but whose existence I acknowledged even in the original draft of this essay.
The fact that pagan miracle working is not much heard of today is in large part due to the more effective Christian propaganda during the Empire and, of course, a thousand years of censorship afterward. An excellent discussion of the former, and how it contributed to the eventual success of the Church, is given by Thomas Matthews in The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Christian Art (1993). For a broad comparative study of holy men of all faiths (Christian, pagan, and Jewish) in the time of Jesus, an excellent source is Sage, Saint, and Sophist: Holy Men and their Associates in the Early Roman Empire, by Graham Anderson (1994). Both are highly recommended.
The most extensive study on the historicity of Apollonius as well as his cult and legend can be found in the otherwise dry work by Maria Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History, translated by Piotr Pienkowski (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1986). Interested scholars should begin there. In particular, the source tradition on his magic “talismans” is a complicated affair, but their history and reluctant acceptance by the Church is discussed at great length by Dzielska in chapter 3. As for Lucian, his works about Peregrinus and Alexander are available in a very readable and engaging English translation in Lionel Casson’s Selected Satires of Lucian (1962). These two stories are a very fun read, and well worth seeking out. An excellent survey and analysis of Lucian’s works and his surrounding culture is available in Culture and Society in Lucian by C. P. Jones (1986). This is, in fact, a must-read for anyone interested in the contrast between free thought and gullibility in the Roman Empire. It has entire chapters dedicated to Peregrinus and Alexander. Finally, Lucian’s Philopseudes (or “Lover of Lies”) is a virtual treasure trove of examples of ancient credulity and superstition that is a must-read source on the subject (it can be found in vol. 3 of Lucian’s works in the Loeb Classical Library).