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Was Jesus’ miracle work unique?

Virtually all experts on the history of Jesus—whether Jewish, agnostic or Christian—agree that the man from Nazareth performed deeds which his contemporaries interpreted as miraculous. That he enjoyed the reputation as a healer is beyond dispute.

But is the Jesus described by scholarly consensus exceptional, or were there others in the ancient world who were also known for their miraculous powers? The answer is … yes!

There are numerous reports of healing and exorcism from the period of Jesus, some of them Greek, others Roman, still others Jewish. So, in one sense, Jesus was not as unique as some Christians might like to think. Their Lord fits into a cultural context well accustomed to the supernatural; it was a ‘magical’ world.

Having said that, there is a real sense in which the reports about Jesus are unique. The kind of evidence we have for Graeco-Roman and Jewish healers is greatly inferior to that found in connection with Jesus. How so? For the most part, the non-Christian healers appear in texts written long after the events themselves and in only one or two sources. Hence, the two fundamental historical criteria of date and multiple attestation do not produce a favourable conclusion in respect to these figures. As a result, very few scholars are willing to attach the same level of historical certainty to the Graeco-Roman and Jewish reports about healers as they do to the reports about Jesus. A sceptic wanting to dismiss all talk of miracles as legendary or fraudulent would have a much easier time with the non-Christian examples than with those found in the Gospels. Let me offer some concrete examples.

The healing god Asclepius

One type of miracle story from antiquity involves the Greek god Asclepius. Temples and shrines to this healing god were found all around the Mediterranean. People would bring their requests to the deity, often sleeping in the temple all night, a practice known as ‘incubation’, in the hope that various ailments would be cured. If the plea was heard, the beneficiary would write out a ‘thank you’ to the god and leave it at the shrine (as a votive offering). None of these has survived but some were copied out by the priests of Asclepius and inscribed onto stone monuments, stelae, which have survived. While this does not offer a true parallel to a historical healer like Jesus, it does illustrate the widespread belief in healing in antiquity.1

Emperor Vespasian as a healer?

Still in the Graeco-Roman world, there is one, almost humorous miracle story recorded by Tacitus (AD 114-117). It involves the great Roman general Vespasian, who would soon be confirmed Emperor. While in Alexandria in the north of Egypt in AD 69-70 on his way to Rome to assume the throne, he was approached by two men, one blind, the other lame, who threw themselves in front of him and begged for healing. At first Vespasian scoffed, but the poor men persisted saying that the local deity Sarapis had sent them to him. Feeling lucky and having already received ‘prophecies’ about his good fortune, Vespasian complied. Tacitus continues:

   So Vespasian, believing that his good fortune was capable of anything and that nothing was any longer incredible, with a smiling countenance, and amid intense excitement on the part of the bystanders, did as he was asked to do. The hand was instantly restored to use, and the day again shone for the blind man. Both facts are told by eye-witnesses even now when falsehood brings no reward.2  

Suetonius (AD 120) also offers an account which suggests the story was widely known.3  Indeed, that may have been the point from the start. As Professor John P. Meier (of Notre Dame University) notes, Vespasian did not belong to the rightful line of emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero—and so needed a sign of his legitimacy in addition to his military victories: and ‘there is nothing like a miracle story to give one indisputable legitimacy, which Vespasian particularly needed as he travelled from Judea via Alexandria to Rome.’4  Meier reaches the following sceptical conclusion:

  Suetonius and Tacitus seem to tell the whole story with a twinkle in their eyes and smiles on their lips, an attitude probably shared by Vespasian. The whole event looks like a 1st-century equivalent of a ‘photo opportunity’ staged by Vespasian’s P.R. team to give the new emperor divine legitimacy.5  

In other words, this is probably not a miracle story at all, but an obvious and expedient fraud.

Apollonius of Tyana

A more promising example of an ancient healer is the wandering philosopher known as Apollonius of Tyana whose precise dates are not known but who was active in the second half of the first century (dying sometime before the year 100). Born in the city of Tyana in Eastern Turkey Apollonius was said to have travelled widely throughout the Mediterranean preaching his Neo-pythagorean philosophy and performing countless wonders.

The sole source for his life is a biography published in Rome by the philosopher Philostratus (AD 172-250). Written at the behest of the Empress Julia Domna around the year 220, the Life of Apollonius contains many descriptions of healing and exorcism, including the following:

  Apollonius performed another miracle. There was a girl who appeared to have died just at the time of her wedding. The betrothed followed the bier [a ceremonial frame for carrying the corpse], with all the lamentations of an unconsummated marriage, and Rome mourned with him, since the girl belonged to a consular family. Meeting with this scene of sorrow, Apollonius said, ‘Put the bier down, for I will end your crying over the girl.’ At the same time he asked her name, which made most people think he was going to declaim a speech of the kind delivered at funerals to raise lamentation. But Apollonius, after merely touching her and saying something secretly, woke the bride from her apparent death. The girl spoke, and went back to her father’s house.6  

At first blush Apollonius of Tyana does seem to offer a real parallel to the healing ministry of Jesus, and in roughly the same period too. Ancient pagans noted these similarities and Hierocles, the governor of Bithynia (AD 303-307), even cast Apollonius as a direct rival (and superior) to the man from Nazareth.

‘The real Apollonius cannot be untangled from the admiring legends.’

However, one fact seriously undermines the parallel. Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius was written about 120 years after the death of his hero and; the work has almost no claim to historicity. The verdict of the Oxford Classical Dictionary says it all: ‘The Life of Apollonius offers pagan hagiography under a sophistic veneer, and remains suspect both in sources and details;’7  and about Apollonius himself, ‘a Neo-pythagorean holy man, whose true history and persona it is scarcely possible to grasp.’8

While the occasional scholarly attempt has been made to salvage the historicity of some of Apollonius’ life and therefore to cast him as a true equivalent to Jesus,  most scholars remain utterly pessimistic that we can know anything meaningful about this obscure figure. He no doubt existed and probably even had a reputation for Eastern magic but most would agree with Oxford University classicist, Robin Lane Fox, when he says, ‘The real Apollonius cannot be untangled from the admiring legends.’ 

Some scholars, such as Boston University’s Professor Howard Clark Kee, even wonder whether Philostratus was writing a kind of counter-Gospel crafted in the wake of Christianity’s success in Rome, offering cultured Romans their own pagan miracle-working hero. This cannot be proven but it is noteworthy that his patron for the project, Empress Julia Domna, was a keen opponent of the Jesus-movement and Philostratus was writing in the early 3rd-century when huge numbers of his contemporaries in Rome were turning to Christ. Some of the miracle stories about Apollonius, such as the one about the revival of a young girl (quoted above), also contain suspicious resemblances to stories in the Gospels.11

Rabbi Honi the circle-drawer

Turning to the Jewish world of the time, two names stand out as potential candidates for Jesus-like miracle workers. The first is Honi the Circle-drawer, active early in the 1st-century BC (he died around 65 BC), and the second is Hanina ben Dosa, who probably died sometime before AD 70. Interestingly, both men were from Galilee, Jesus’ home district, leading the great Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes of Oxford University, to make much of the connection between Jesus, Honi and Hanina. All three, he says, were part of a tradition of Galilean Hasidim or Devout ones who were known for their nearness to God and spiritual powers. 

Honi got his nickname ‘the circle-drawer’ from a curious instance of bold prayer to God. During a particularly harsh drought in Palestine, Honi pleaded God to have mercy on his people. When he received no answer and the drought persisted he decided to draw a circle around himself and vowed not to step outside of it until the Lord gave rain. The story appears in two sources. The most detailed is that of the Mishnah, compiled around AD 200:

  They said to Honi, the circle drawer, ‘Pray or rain.’ He said to them, ‘Go and take in the clay ovens used for Passover, so that they not soften in the rain which is coming.’ He prayed, but it did not rain. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood in the middle of it and said before Him, ‘Lord of the world! Your children have turned to me, for before you I am like a member of the family. I swear by your great name—I’m simply not moving from here until you take pity on your children.’ It began to rain drop by drop. He said, ‘This is not what I wanted, but rain for filling up cisterns, pits, and caverns.’ It began to rain violently. He said, ‘This is not what I wanted, but rain of good will, blessing, and graciousness.’ Now it rained the right way, until  Israelites had to flee from Jerusalem up to the Temple Mount because of the rain.13  

The report in the Mishnah dates from at least 250 years after Honi’s death—a very long period, even by ancient history standards, inviting a degree of scepticism about the details. Fortunately, the other source is much earlier. It is also much more brief. Josephus writes around AD 90, 150 years after the rabbi’s death:

  Now there was a certain Onias (Honi), who, being a righteous man and dear to God had once in a rainless period prayed to God to end the drought, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain.14  

By contrast, the deeds of Jesus almost never follow prayer. He was remembered—in sources dating close in time to his ministry—as having simply spoken such things into existence

That’s it. Nothing about drawing circles; nothing about pestering the Almighty; just a simple mention of a ‘righteous man’ named Honi who successfully prayed for rain. What are we to make of this? Despite the very late date of both sources, there is no good reason to doubt that Honi existed or that people in his day believed that it was his prayer—rather than all of the other prayers that were presumably being sent up during the drought—that led to the downfall. Personally, I suspect that the circle drawing is also historical (such an odd, meaningless detail is just the sort of thing we expect in historical memory). However, this hardly gives us a figure comparable to Jesus. The best we can say is that Honi was famous for having offered up effective prayer. By contrast, the deeds of Jesus almost never follow prayer. He was remembered—in sources dating close in time to his ministry—as having simply spoken such things into existence.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa

But what of our second Jewish example, Hanina ben Dosa, who was active a couple of decades after Jesus? The three earliest references to him are all in the Mishnah (AD 200). The first passage recalls three of his proverbs about the spiritual life.15  The second simply lists him as the last of the ‘men of deed,’ which probably should be interpreted as a reference to miracles, though some scholars doubt it.16  The third and more important text clearly refers to Hanina’s powers:

  When he would pray for the sick he would say ‘This one shall have life’ or ‘This one shall die.’ They said to him, ‘How do you know?’ he said to them, ‘If my prayer is fluent, then I know that it is accepted and the person will live. But if not, I know that it is rejected and the person will die.17  

So, it is clear from the Mishnah that Hanina was remembered as having had a special ministry of praying for the sick and, just as importantly, knowing which of his prayers would be answered and which would not. Despite the nearly 150 year time gap between the rabbi and the written report in the Mishnah, scholars generally do not doubt that Hanina existed and that he was known in his day for just such a ministry.

His ‘gift’ was simply knowing beforehand which prayers would prove successful.

Again, however, the parallel with Jesus is minimal. Hanina, like Honi, was famous only for effective prayer not—as in the case of Jesus—for personally working miracles. In Hanina’s case our source readily admits that his prayers were not always answered. He was not a healer at all. His ‘gift’ was simply knowing beforehand which prayers would prove successful.

Others added to the stories about Hanina ben Dosa. Long after the Mishnah he ‘became a magnet for miracle stories.’10  For example, the sacred commentary on the Mishnah known as the Babylonian Talmud, compiled between AD 500-550, tells a story designed to illustrate the passage from the Mishnah just quoted. We learn that two disciples of the great rabbi Gamaliel are sent to Hanina in Galilee with a request to come to Jerusalem and pray for Gamaliel’s son who was sick with a fever. Instead, Hanina goes up stairs and prays.
 
A short time later he returns and informs the men that the boy is well. ‘Are you a prophet?’ the disciples ask. Hanina replies, ‘I am not prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son, but this is how I am favoured. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that he is favoured; if not, I know that it is fatal.’ The men returned to Jerusalem and discover that Gamaliel’s son had indeed been healed the very hour of Hanina’s prayer.19  The story is similar to one of Jesus’ long-distance healings, recorded in Q20 (a common source behind Matthew and Luke).  Again, however, the date of this source—indeed, of all the sources relating to Honi the Circle-drawer and Rabbi Hanina—should make us wary about affirming anything but the broadest details about such figures. John P. Meier concludes his discussion of these Jewish ‘miracle workers’ with the following word of caution:

  … in the end one must admit that all the written sources are later than Jesus, and almost all of them centuries later. I would venture to claim that, beyond the fact that around the turn of the era there existed two Jews in Palestine named Honi and Hanina, both of whom were famous for having their prayers answered in extraordinary ways, nothing definite can be said.21  

Was Jesus unique?

In the end, even the Jewish parallels provide only partial equivalents to the picture of a healer and exorcist we find in the Gospels. What they and the Graeco-Roman examples amply demonstrate is that, whether it is the Eastern magic of Apollonius of Tyana or the answered prayer of Honi and Hanina, belief in the miraculous was widespread in ancient times.

Virtually everyone involved in the academic study of Jesus, regardless of their scepticism about miracles generally, is happy to conclude that in the case of Jesus the evidence establishes that he did things which those around him considered to be miraculous

These ‘parallels’ also draw attention to the unique nature of the sources connected with Jesus’ reported baffling deeds. Whereas the Graeco-Roman and Jewish examples of miracle working appear in one or (at most) two sources, typically dating from a century or more after the alleged event, the healing work of Jesus is recorded in no fewer than five independent sources, all of which are dated to within 40 years of Jesus. (The Jewish writer Josephus provides a sixth, though slightly later, source). 

As I said earlier, a sceptic wanting to dismiss all talk of miracles as legendary or fraudulent would have a much easier time with the non-Christian examples than with those in the Gospels. Virtually everyone involved in the academic study of Jesus, regardless of their scepticism about miracles generally, is happy to conclude that in the case of Jesus the evidence establishes that he did things which those around him considered to be miraculous. That is a conclusion without parallel in the study of antiquity.

Dr John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)


1. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin Books, 1993, 135-136; Fritz Graf, “Asclepius,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2003, 187-188.
2. Tacitus Histories 4.81. The translation is that of Clifford H. Moore and John Jackson (Loeb Classical Library, vol.249. Harvard University Press, 1998).
3. Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 7.2-3.
4. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 594.
5. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 625.
6. Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45. The translation is that of Christopher P. Jones (Loeb Classical Library, vol.16. Harvard University Press, 2005).
7. Walter Manoel Edwards, “Philostrati,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2003, 1171.
8. Herbert Jennings Rose, “Apollonius of Tyna,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2003, 128.
9. The key work here is Gerd Petzke, Die Traditionen über Apollonius von Tyana und das Neue Testament. Brill, 1970.
10. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, 253. See the thorough discussions in John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 576-581; Howard Clark Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World: a Study in Sociohistorical Method. Yale University Press, 1983, 256-265.
11. Howard Clark Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World: a Study in Sociohistorical Method. Yale University Press, 1983, 264; John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire. Cornell University Press, 1970, 181-182; more cautiously, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 580. Meier (580) notes that the story of the revived bride quoted above (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45) “looks suspiciously like a conflations of the Gospel stories of the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-43) and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17).” In a footnote the translator of the Loeb Classical Library edition of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Christopher P. Jones, also draws attention to the resemblance.
12. Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. Collins, 1973, 69-72 (for Honi), 72-78 (for Hanina).
13. Mishnah, Taanit 3.8.
14. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 14.22.
15. Mishnah Abot 3.9-10. The proverbs concern the fear of sin, the importance of deeds and the need to give people pleasure.
16. Mishnah Sotah 9.15. The phrase is translated “wonder workers” in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: a New Translation. Yale University Press, 1988, 465; so also Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. Collins, 1973, 79. However, others believe this is a hasty rendition of the Hebrew phrase: e.g., John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 585.
17. Mishnah Berakhot 5.5.
18. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 586.
19. Babylonian Talmud, b. Berakhot 34b.
20. The Q story involves the healing of a centurion’s servant in Capernaum (Matthew 8:5-13 / Luke 7:1-10).
21. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 581.