The Historicity of Miracles: The case of Julian the Apostate and a lesson for our time

June 24, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – On the 26th of this month of June in 363 A.D., the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (331-363 A.D.) died from a mortal wound he received at the Battle of Samara during the Roman army’s withdrawal from Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital. This emperor, known to history as Julian the Apostate, was a nephew of Constantine the Great, who had legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. [NB (11/22/2019): Julian is a character in my historical-fiction trilogy, Pia Fidelis. Book 1 is entitled The Two Kingdoms)

Julian apostatized from the Catholic Faith in his youth in favor of the old paganism.  Fearing the consequences of the discovery of his true beliefs, he pretended to practice the Faith, going so far as to be “enrolled in the Order of Readers” (cf. Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, III, i). Even when Julian was plucked by his cousin, the Emperor Constantius (317-361 A.D.), from relative obscurity and raised to the rank of Caesar – but still subordinate to the emperor – he continued to live a life of deception. According to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-400 A.D.):

And in order, without any hindrance, to conciliate the goodwill of all men, he pretended to adhere to the Christian religion, which in fact he had long since secretly abandoned, though very few were aware of his private opinions, giving up his whole attention to soothsaying and divination, and the other arts which have always been practised by the worshippers of the gods.

But to conceal this for a while, on the day of the festival at the beginning of January, which the Christians call Epiphany, he went into their church, and offered solemn public prayer to their God. (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 21, 2, 4-5)

Julian held his belief in the old gods of Rome and Greece a secret, only revealing his true religion upon the death of the Emperor Constantius, which left him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Schooled by Greek philosophers, it was against the warnings of his instructor, Eusebius of Myndus, that Julian in his early years ultimately fell in with Maximus of Ephesus, who was something of a magician and sorcerer. As fate would have it, it was Eusebius’ own description of Maximus’ exploits, intended to frighten Julian, which had the opposite effect of fueling the youth’s interest in the occult instead:

“Maximus is one of the older and more learned students, who, because of his lofty genius and superabundant eloquence scorned all logical proof in these subjects and impetuously resorted to the acts of a madman. Not long since, he invited us to the temple of Hecate and summoned many witnesses of his folly. When we had arrived there and had saluted the goddess: ‘Be seated,’ said he, ‘my well-beloved friends, and observe what shall come to pass, and how greatly I surpass the common herd.’ When he had said this, and we had all sat down, he burned a grain of incense and recited to himself the whole of some hymn or other, and was so highly successful in his demonstration that the image of the goddess first began to smile, then even seemed to laugh aloud. We were all much disturbed by this sight, but he said: ‘Let none of you be terrified by these things, for presently even the torches which the goddess holds in her hands shall kindle into flame.’ And before he could finish speaking the torches burst into a blaze of light. Now for the moment we came away amazed by that theatrical miracle-worker. But you must not marvel at any of these things, even as I marvel not, but rather believe that the thing of the highest importance is that purification of the soul which is attained by reason.”(Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists)

Hearing his instructor’s tale of Maximus, Julian ignored the prior warnings of Eusebius about the “impostures of witchcraft and magic that cheat the senses” and which “are the works of conjurors who are insane men led astray into the exercise of earthly and material powers.” Julian left in search of Maximus to become one of his followers, brusquely telling Eusebius as he departed:

“…farewell and devote yourself to your books. You have shown me the man I was in search of” (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists).

Maximus introduced Julian to soothsaying, divination and other occult arts of the old pagan religion.  Apparently, in one incident, in an underground pagan sanctuary, Julian engaged in some sort of divination ritual and beheld “fiery apparitions” and it is from this time that St. Gregory Nanzianzen (329-390 A.D.) considered Julian to have become possessed (cf Oration 4: 55-56), if he had not already been so. The tale is also told by Theodoret (393-466 A.D.), whose account seems to suggest that the fiery apparitions foretold that Julian would one day attain imperial office, as Theodoret says it was from the time of this encounter that “lust of empire stripped the wretch of all true religion” (cf Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, III, i).  These tales do not appear to be Christian propaganda against Julian, as they are consistent with apparitions Julian himself spoke of elsewhere to others. For example, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who had a favorable view of Julian, described his vision of an apparition which was impatient for him to accept the acclamation of the troops wanting to make him emperor and which ultimately deserted him the night before he was mortally wounded in battle (cf. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 20, 5, 10 and 25, 2, 3). There are other instances of Julian claiming he had either communicated with or been visited by apparitions (cf.  Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 21, 2, 2). Ammianus also elaborated on Julian’s bent of mind and great interest in divination, saying of him:

“Too much devoted to divination, so much so as in this particular to equal the emperor Hadrian. He was rather a superstitious than a legitimate observer of sacred rites, sacrificing countless numbers of victims; so that it was reckoned that if he had returned from the Parthians there would have been a scarcity of cattle.”(Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 25, 4, 17)

Julian’s interest in divination appears to have gone beyond animal sacrifice, as Theodoret writes of an instance where he sacrificed a young woman at the start of his his military campaign against the Parthians:

“Julian had left Edessa on his left because it was adorned with the grace of true religion, and while in his vain folly he was journeying through Carræ, he came to the temple honoured by the impious and after going through certain rites with his companions in defilement, he locked and sealed the doors, and stationed sentinels with orders to see that none came in till his return. When news came of his death, and the reign of iniquity was succeeded by one of piety, the shrine was opened, and within was found a proof of the late emperor’s manliness, wisdom, and piety. For there was seen a woman hung up on high by the hairs of her head, and with her hands outstretched. The villain had cut open her belly, and so I suppose learnt from her liver his victory over the Persians. This was the abomination discovered at Carrae.” (The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, III, xxi).

Theodoret also suggests this was not the only such example involving human sacrifice (cf  The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, III, xxii). Such is a brief survey of the sort of man Julian appeared to be in his religious beliefs.

As was said above, once Julian became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire upon the death of his cousin, Constantius, in 361 A.D., he openly declared his belief in the gods of Rome and Greece. He sought to restore the practice of the pagan religion to its former glory, attempting to further strengthen it by creating a hierarchy spanning the various cults mimicking the Christian episcopate, with himself as Pontifex Maximus at its head. Any pretense of being a Christian now gone, he no longer disguised his contempt for Christianity.  Pejoratively referring to Christ as the “Galilean” and his followers as “Galileans,” he sought to reverse the advance of the Catholic Faith.

Julian advanced in triumph to Constantinople. Hitherto outwardly a Christian, he now let himself be portrayed as under the protection of Zeus, who in his opinion possessed with Helius the same undivided creative power. He commanded all towns to reopen the temples for pagan worship, restored animal sacrifices, and assumed the duties of a Pontifex Maximus. The Christians were united in fighting their enemy. Julian issued a decree that all titles to lands, rights and immunities bestowed since the reign of Constantine upon the Galileans, as he contemptuously called the Christians, were abrogated, and that the moneys granted to the Church from the revenues of the State must be repaid. He forbade the appointment of Christians as teachers of rhetoric and grammar. Still, he copied the organization of the Christian Church; he created, for example, a form of hierarchy, the head of which was the imperial Pontifex Maximus, and urged pagans to imitate such Christian virtues as charity and mercy. (Julian the Apostate, Catholic Encyclopedia)

Seeing that direct persecution of the Church in the past had led to its rapid growth, he generally sought more subtle means to pressure its adherents, such as expelling Christians from the army (cf. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III, iv) and outlawing Christians, as mentioned above, from being teachers of rhetoric and grammar “for said he, in the words of the proverb ‘we are shot with shafts feathered from our own wing,’ for from our own books they take arms and wage war against us” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, III, iv).  The Roman historian Ammianus called the law prohibiting Christians from teaching to be “a cruel one”, as the decree forbade from doing so those Christian masters who wanted to continue to teach “unless they came over to the worship of the heathen gods” (cf. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 25, 4, 20).  Julian also passed a decree requiring religious toleration between Christians, divided then into Catholic, Arian and Semi-Arian camps.  Ammianus tells us the goal of Julian’s edict was to keep the Church weak, by keeping it divided:

“He did this the more resolutely because, as long licence increased their dissensions, he thought he should never have to fear the unanimity of the common people, having found by experience that no wild beasts are so hostile to men as Christian sects in general are to one another” (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 22, 5, 4).

When Julian became emperor, he came upon the idea to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  Julian appeared to have had three motives for this great project. Though for different reasons, he seemed to have some affinity for the ancient practice of the Jews, given his own interest in animal sacrifice; and he seemed to have a desire to erect a large monument as something of a memorial of himself. But above all these reasons, he intended to discredit the Christian religion by this undertaking. In addition to his aforementioned efforts to create obstacles to the practice of the true Faith, and to supplant it with his own hierarchical false religion with its false works of charity and mercy; Julian now sought to disprove Christianity once and for all time in one bold move. Knowing of the Lord’s prophecy regarding the temple in Jerusalem of there “not one stone being left upon the other” (cf Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6),  Julian thought he could disprove the Lord’s words and thus the Christian faith by rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

“The apostate Julian endeavouring to convict of falsehood the prophecies of our Saviour, in which he declared that Jerusalem should be so utterly overthrown that “one stone should not be left upon another…” (Epitome of the Ecclesiatical History of Philostorgius by Photius, VII, ix).

Theodoret gives the same motive in his history (cf. Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter XV), as does Sozomen (400-450 A.D.) (cf Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, V, xxii) and Socrates Scholasticus (380-439 A.D.) (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, III, xx). Therefore, with this his primary purpose, Julian set about the task of rebuilding the temple, lending along with his own enthusiasm for the project, the full might and resources of the Roman Empire.

“And although, foreseeing in his anxious mind the various accidents that might happen, he urged on with great diligence all the endless preparations necessary for his expedition, yet distributing his diligence everywhere; and being eager to extend the recollection of his reign by the greatness of his exploits, he proposed to rebuild at a vast expense the once magnificent temple of Jerusalem, which after many deadly contests was with difficulty taken by Vespasian and Titus, who succeeded his father in the conduct of the siege.  And he assigned the task to Alypius of Antioch, who had formerly been proprefect of Britain.” (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 23, 1, 2)

Accordingly, this project, along with the coming war in the Parthians in the East, were to be the legacies of Julian’s reign. The task of rebuilding the temple he entrusted to Alypius, who – according to Ammianus – was assisted by the governor of the province. The undertaking was funded in part by Jews from across the Roman empire, as well as with funds from the imperial treasury. Preparatory work was likely underway by 361 or 362 A.D., and all was ready for construction to begin in early  363 A.D., in the third year of Julian’s reign, just prior to the start of his campaign against the Parthians. The ancient historians report that materials, such as brick, stone, timber, clay, chalk and lime, had been stockpiled near the site of the temple. Thousands of workers and artisans had been assembled for the task.

On the appointed day that work began, Alypius observed the undertaking, perhaps from an elevated platform, along with other dignitaries and leading citizens, as the remaining ruins of the old temple were cleared away.  Thus, Julian’s plan had unwittingly played a part in fulfilling the Lord’s prophecy, as Theodoret pointed out: ” supposing in his vanity that he could falsify the prediction of the Lord, of which, in reality, he exhibited the truth” (cf. Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter XV).  Once what remained of the old ruins had been removed, the workers cleared the ground and excavated it to get to the old foundations (cf. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, V, xxii).  However, as they prepared the work to lay a new foundation the first of many disasters befell them.

“They destroyed moreover the remains of the former construction, with the intention of building everything up afresh; but when they had got together thousands of bushels of chalk and lime, of a sudden a violent gale blew, and storms, tempests and whirlwinds scattered everything far and wide” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter XV).

The storm with its whirlwinds put an end to the day’s activities, and it was decided to lay the first of the new temple foundation the following day.  When the next day the workers proceeded into the excavation the second of the disasters struck. There came a great earthquake that shook the earth so violently stones of the old foundation were apparently broken up and thrown out of the excavation, while houses, buildings and porticos near the temple site collapsed, killing and wounding many.  When at last the earthquake ended, workers returned to the temple site but their efforts which they had only begun to resume came to an abrupt end when fireballs erupted from the earth and temple foundation (cf. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, V, xxii; and Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 23, 1, 3). The fire killed a number of workers, and caused the others to flee the site. The tools and implements of construction were burned up in the flames, as the fire lasted a whole day (cf Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, III, xx) and the site rendered inaccessible (cf Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 23, 1, 3). Only then, after these heaven-sent disasters which followed one upon the other, was the effort to rebuild the temple set aside. Any dream of rebuilding the temple came to an end with the death of Julian shortly thereafter on June 26th.  Knowing his death near, and all his designs thwarted, he looked up and exclaimed: “Thou hast won, O Galilean” (cf. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, III, xx).

These events happened 1,655 years ago. Julian had mustered the material and financial resources, and logistical support of the Roman Empire in a grand attempt to falsify the words of our Lord. In the estimation of the world in his day, Julian must have seemed set to accomplish this goal on the day the construction efforts were to begin. There was no human power on earth which could oppose his plan. But then, in a miraculous showing of the hand of God in human history, a great tempest arose, and whirlwinds scattered building materials, followed by a great earthquake and flames erupting from the foundation and earth of the temple site – bringing Julian’s effort to falsify the words of the Lord to naught.

The Church today, like then, has been weakened over internal divisions, scandals (e.g., here and here) and confusion (e.g., Amoris Laetitia), and there are only a few voices of orthodoxy among an otherwise weak, cowardly and careerist Catholic episcopate. Among the ranks of those charged with defending the Church’s teaching are those who seem most intent on tearing it down. Our times are alarmingly dark, and help seems no where in sight. However, on the occasion of the anniversary of Julian’s death and this recollection of his failed attempt to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem there is a lesson of hope for us.  The Lord is true to His words. They cannot be falsified ever, even when there appears to human eyes to be no hope of the day being saved. Though things do now appear quite grim for the Church with various grave scandals, division and great confusion, we must remember the Lord remains true to His words and promises.

Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven. (Matthew 16:15-19)

The enemies of the Church, both within and without it, wish for Hell to prevail over it, and are striving for this end – and appear to have little effective opposition. Thus, at such a time, the memory of Julian the Apostate’s failed efforts to falsify the Lord’s words in his day, might serve as a reminder to the faithful at this moment. The Lord is in control of history.  He is true to his infallible words.  They will not be falsified – ever. How the Lord will save the Church in our time remains to be seen.  Whether by tempest, whirlwind, earthquake or by flame, or the rising up of one or more great saints, it might not be for us to yet know – but, that the Church will in the end triumph, there is no doubt. So, keep the faith, ‘always pray and never give up’ (cf Luke 18: 1) – especially in dark times, and do not worry – because it is the Lord who has promised the Church “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Victory is assured.

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, entitled Pia Fidelis, set during the time of the Arian crisis. The first book of the Pia Fidelis trilogy. The Two Kingdoms, should be out by the summer or early fall 2019 (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).





5 thoughts on “The Historicity of Miracles: The case of Julian the Apostate and a lesson for our time

  1. Great read, except for a glaring historical fallacy.

    The Pontifex Maximus, College of Pontiffs, and bishoprics go all the way back to the Roman Republic.

    It was actually Christianity that took the hierarchy from Roman paganism. Not vice-versa.


    1. Tim,

      There is no historical fallacy as you suggest.
      I no where suggested that the title “pontifex maximus” does not go back to pre-Christian Rome. The ‘pontifex maximus’ or ‘high priest’ was a title eventually assumed from by the bishops of Rome, but certainly not as implying continuity with the pagan high priests of old.

      My point was that Julian attempted to create a unified pagan ‘church’ with a hierarchy with himself as its head as pontifex maximus to compete with the Catholic Church, with himself as its head.

      Thanks for the feedback.



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