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Jesus Origins

Discovering the original Christianity

Flavia Domitilla and the Testimonium

She was in the room where it happened

The emperor’s niece and mother of the emperor-designate, a known Christian, would have attended Josephus’ readings of Book 18 of his Antiquities of the Jews. Her presence is vital to understanding the Testimonium. Even more so if she is the author of Luke and Acts.

This is the second in a series of posts about Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum, the earliest account of Jesus from a non-Christian author. The posts are based on my book “The Gospel of Domitilla”.

Part 1 is Josephus’ Impossible Testimonium. In that post we explored the contradictions around the Testimonium Flavian:

  • The Testimonium is intimately linked to the Gospel of Luke and has the same detailed structure as the conversation on the road to Emmaus.
  • It must have been present in more or less its current form in the Antiquities of the Jews as published in 93/94 AD. Later Christian scribes have not significantly altered it.
  • The pro-Christian Testimonium could not have been written by Josephus, who saw himself as a pious Jew.

We are led to an apparent paradox that Josephus cannot have written the Testimonium but must have included it within the Antiquities. The only explanation to resolve this paradox is an external influence acting on Josephus. An influence strong enough to persuade Josephus to include the passage against his own Jewish beliefs and the anti-Christian atmosphere of Domitian’s Rome.

The mystery, though, lies deeper than just the existence of such an influence. The Testimonium shows the same structure as the Emmaus conversation and has other similarities to the Gospel of Luke and Acts. We have seen in the previous post how this similarity disproves the long-established theory that Josephus wrote something neutral or sceptical about Christianity that was later revised by Christian scribes. This would not have given rise to the close structural agreement with the Luke passage. The previous post also explains why the Testimonium cannot be a later interpolation. So how can we account for the close link with the Gospel of Luke?

We are left with only one explanation—the Testimonium was written by the author of Luke and passed to Josephus to incorporate within the Antiquities. The similarity with the Emmaus conversation occurs because they are two pieces written by the same person at around the same time. An author’s mind tends to run in grooves when repeating similar content. Either the author of Luke wrote the Emmaus conversation a short while before they supplied Josephus with the Testimonium. Or it was the other way around, and the author of Luke had worked with Josephus on the passage for his Antiquities just before writing the Luke resurrection narrative. Such repetition is very typical of the author of Luke. For example, the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is given three times with variations in Acts.

The Testimonium is just the kind of short summary that the author of Luke loved to write. Its brevity is unlike Josephus, who tends to explain the reasons for events and give more circumstantial detail. The author of Luke often provides potted summaries of what has transpired, something we do not find in the other gospels. They loved miracles but were uninterested in theology: the Testimonium stresses Jesus’ “surprising deeds” and his resurrection after three days.

But if the Testimonium shows this close connection to the Gospel of Luke, then the person passing it to Josephus must be intimately connected with the author of Luke. Josephus would have hated including the passage in his Antiquities, so the person must be someone he could not refuse. Given Domitian’s disapproval of Christianity, this person must have been very senior. Realistically, only a member of the imperial family would have been capable of ordering Josephus to include the Testimonium. And it just so happens that we know of just such a person who has been linked to Christianity—Domitian’s niece, Flavia Domitilla.

In the Gospel of Domitilla, I propose that Flavia Domitilla was the unknown author of Luke and Acts, which she wrote probably in conjunction with members of her household. So who was Flavia Domitilla? And was she even a Christian?

Flavia Domitilla the Christian

In the early 90s AD, Flavia Domitilla was the emperor’s closest blood relation, the daughter and only child of Domitian’s beloved sister. The emperor was childless and did not want to divorce his wife, Domitia, whom he loved. He sent her away at one point, probably because she failed to give him a surviving heir, but he took her back. So he adopted Flavia Domitilla’s two boys as his successors, renaming them Domitian and Vespasian. The children were doubly qualified to wear the imperial purple and rule the greatest empire in the world as Domitilla’s husband Clemens was the grandson of Vespasian’s brother.

Flavia Domitilla was in a position of incredible importance and power. The people in Rome in the early 90s would have expected her to be the mother of the emperor eventually. And as her sons were still young, she and her husband would become regents if Domitian died suddenly. Put simply, Josephus could not say no to Domitilla.

If Vespasian and Titus were the Flavian’s past, Domitian the present, Domitilla and her family represented Rome’s future. So her downfall in 95 AD sent shock waves through the empire. It led to the assassination of Domitian and changed the course of history, bringing in the reign of Nerva and the adoptive emperors.

Domitian executed Clemens and exiled Domitilla to the island of Pandateria. We hear nothing more about her two sons. There is some mystery about her downfall, and the contemporary account of Suetonius passes over much in silence. We must fall back on Cassius Dio, who wrote his Roman history c.200 AD. This is a later than we would wish, but Dio had good access to early sources and is generally reliable. Dio tells us that the couple had fallen into “Jewish ways” along with many others and that the charge against them was “atheism”.

“Jewish ways” would indicate that they were either Jewish sympathisers, the Godfearers of the Gospel of Luke, or Christians. “Atheism” meant a refusal to worship the Roman gods. Romans applied the atheism law almost exclusively against Christians. Although the Jews were considered atheists, they had been given a special dispensation. So Dio’s statement is strong evidence that Domitilla and Clemens were Christians.

This conclusion is disputed by those who consider Domitilla and Clemens to have been Jewish. Had Clemens been circumcised, then he and Domitilla would undoubtedly have been regarded as atheists. The dispensation given to the Jews is never going to apply to a member of the imperial family! However, we know from the letters of Paul that gentile males were very, very reluctant to accept circumcision. Indeed, this was a major factor in Christianity’s success. And if Clemens had submitted to the knife, surely Dio would have mentioned such a fascinating fact. But he only says that Domitilla and Clemens fell into “Jewish ways”.

This leaves the idea that Domitilla and Clemens were gentile Jewish sympathisers—Godfearers. But Godfearers were not regarded as atheists. There is no example of a Godfearer refusing to sacrifice to the emperor or being charged with atheism. The Romans had no problems with anyone worshipping the Jewish god, who was equated to Saturn or Jupiter. And there was no Jewish prohibition against Godfearers worshipping the Roman gods alongside Yahweh. As gentiles, they came under the Law of Noah. It was the much more extensive Law of Moses that forbade the worship of other gods. But the Law of Moses only applied to Jews and not to gentiles. A Godfearer could continue to give sacrifice to the emperor and the gods because there was nothing in the Law of Noah to prohibit such worship. They may not have believed in these gods in their hearts, but Roman religion was not about belief but about what you did and was seen to do.

Christians were regarded as atheists because they applied the Law of Moses, including the ten commandments, to themselves. So a Christian could not worship the pagan gods nor give sacrifice to the emperor as god. And as Christians, they did not benefit from the special Jewish dispensation. Which is why the atheism charge was applied almost exclusively against Christians.

We do not have to rely solely on Dio’s statement to conclude that Domitilla was a Christian. We have other independent lines of evidence. The early church historian Eusebius tells us that multiple Roman historians affirmed that a Flavia Domitilla, the niece of Clemens, was exiled to an island for being a Christian. There can be little doubt that this is the same woman. My book explains how Domitilla became confused as Clemens’ niece rather than his wife through a simple grammatical ambiguity. Eusebius confirms what we have deduced from Dio’s earlier statement, that Clemens’ and Domitilla’s downfall was due to their Christianity. And Eusebius specifically identifies Domitilla as the Christian of the couple.

We also have the fact that Flavia Domitilla became a Christian saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. We know from Jerome that her cult was already established by c.385 AD and that she was a particular object of devotion among Christian women. There is no comparable evidence for Clemens’ Christianity, although he may be the supposed (not actual!) author of the letters of Clement, the early “bishop” of Rome. The sceptics try to explain all this as a Christian appropriation of the Jewish Domitilla. But there is no evidence for such an appropriation. The Christians were not well inclined towards those who converted to Judaism. And there is not another single comparable example of such supposed appropriation.

Then there is the physical evidence of the Roman catacombs. Domitilla is most famous today for the Domitilla catacombs in Rome. She was reputed to have donated the land on which these extensive Christian catacombs were built. Remarkably, archaeology has uncovered inscriptions confirming that this was indeed the case. The Victorian era regarded it as self-evident that Domitilla was Christian. But in the twentieth century, this was disputed by sceptics who pointed out that the catacombs only developed a hundred years after her time and that there is no evidence of very early Christian burials at the site. The sceptics concluded that Domitilla donated the land for her pagan freedmen and women but had nothing to do with the Christian catacombs that developed a century later.

Amazingly, this sceptical view is often reported as a fact, although there is no evidence to support such a positive conclusion. The first issue is that Christian graves were indistinguishable from pagan graves until the late second century. There is virtually no evidence of Christian burials before this time anywhere in Rome, even though there were many Christians. The Christian nucleus of the Domitilla catacombs developed very early, in the second half of the second century, when Christian graves first appear in the archaeological record.

This brings us to the main point. If Domitila were a Christian, that would explain the development of the Domitilla Christian catacombs. It was normal for a household to convert to Christianity alongside their mistress, and we know that others were put to death alongside Clemens. These Christian martyrs can be expected to have included some of Domitilla’s freedmen who would have been buried in the cemetery she established. The Christians of the subsequent centuries wanted to be buried as close as possible to the graves of the early martyrs. So we would expect the site to develop over time as a Christian burial ground centred on the tombs of the martyrs. Which is exactly what we find.

If Domitilla were not a Christian, then we would have to put down the development of the Christian Domitilla catacombs to pure chance. This is possible, but the probability of such a random development is lower. And it is significant that the Domitilla catacombs did not develop as a site of Jewish burials as we might expect from a Jewish sympathiser.

Finally, there is a later Christian text, Acts of Nereus and Achilleus, dating from c.500 AD. It shows Domitilla as an early Christian saint and martyr, with Nereus and Achilleus as her devoted Christian attendants. It is relatively late and is undoubtedly a rather silly production. It has been widely regarded as having little historical value, but such a conclusion is unjustified. The author of such apocryphal works would take earlier traditions and weave a fantastic tale around them. And is fascinating that some of the information in the Acts have been confirmed by archaeology.

Nereus and Achilleus are two of the three martyrs connected to the church at the heart of the Domitilla catacombs. In the Gospel of Domitilla, I explain how they were most likely Domitilla’s freedmen, two ex-gladiators who would have acted as her personal guards. They would have converted to Christianity under her influence and been killed in Domitian’s persecution because former gladiators were too dangerous to leave alive. In a world without guns, a gladiator, trained to kill in the arena, was the ultimate weapon.

As Domitilla’s freedmen, Nereus and Achilleus would have been buried in her cemetery. When the catacombs were built, the saint’s bones could have been translated into specially hewn tombs underground. Such movement of bones on the same site was common, particularly for martyrs. Later, in the 300s, a sanctuary and then a church were built over the tombs.

With such good, multiple, independent lines of evidence, we can be confident that Domitilla was a Christian. Although any individual piece of evidence can be disputed, the probability of them all being false is very low. This has not generally been recognised, and the idea that Domitilla was a Jewish sympathiser rather than a Christian is quite prevalent. All too often, a case is analysed by coming to a conclusion and then nit-picking away any conflicting evidence. Historical evidence from this period will inevitably contain significant “noise”. So the evidence must be evaluated as a whole, choosing the highest probability solution that explains the evidence in total.

She was in the room where it happened

Josephus was the Flavians’ pet expert on Jewish history. Domitilla had known him since she was a young girl when he moved to Rome. He even lived in Vespasian’s old house, which may have been one of Domitilla’s childhood homes. And he may have helped convert her to Judaism. Most likely, Domitilla was a Godfearer before she became a Christian. If so, Josephus would have been bitterly disappointed by her conversion to Christianity. But she was too important both in her own right and as the mother of the future emperor. He desperately needed her influence and was always one to please the powerful.

Which brings us to how the Testimonium found its way into the Antiquities. Josephus would have invited Domitilla to readings of the later books of the Antiquities, including Book 18 in which the Testimonium is found. So, she would have been in the room where it happened, the small gathering where Josephus’ scribe read out his draft account of the prefectship of Pontius Pilate. Imagine her feelings when Josephus said nothing about Jesus.

Book readings in the Roman world

How was a book published in the ancient world? Making each copy was expensive and time-consuming as it had to be laboriously written out by hand. A scribe might take a year to produce a single copy of an extensive work such as Josephus’ Antiquities. You would not make many copies in advance unless you were very sure of your market. The best approach was to produce copies to order. To drum up interest, the author would hold readings to expose the work to the target audience and fish for these orders.

Readings were not just a marketing tool; they also helped the author fine-tune the work. Ancient authors did not have access to word processors or typewriters. If they were wealthy, they would dictate to a scribe, and if not, they would have to learn to write themselves. But it was as difficult for an author to dictate the final work straight off as it would be today. So a book would typically go through a few iterations, starting with a collection of notes, then a good draft, and finally a corrected polished version. Readings were an integral part of the process. Pliny the Younger gives us an account of his authorial methods:

First of all, I go through my work myself; next, I read it to two or three friends and send it to others for comment. If I have any doubts about their criticism, I go over them again with one or two people, and finally I read the work to a larger audience; and that is the moment, believe me, when I make the severest corrections… (Younger Pliny letters 7:17)

This would be the standard approach for works such as history. Pliny’s audience would be select: “I do not invite the general public, but a select and limited audience of persons whom I admire and trust…”. Such readings would not only help perfect the work but were also valuable in building support. A person who had contributed was more likely to order a copy and recommend it to their connections.

Josephus would not have waited for the Antiquities to be complete but would have given readings as he progressed. There was a very long interval between the Jewish War, finished in the 70s AD, and the Antiquities which was finally published 93/94 AD. Book readings would have been essential to maintaining his reputation as an active historian. Who would he have been invited to attend? His patron, Epaphroditus, would be there by right; it was part of the payback for a patron to host such gatherings. Both Josephus and Epaphroditus would have wanted the most distinguished audience to attend. Domitian was a lost cause because of his anti-Jewish bias and because Josephus had been a favourite of his hated brother, Titus. Perhaps they could attract the emperor’s wife Domitia, who Josephus said: “conferred many favours on me.” But the two members of the imperial family we can be confident would have attended are the two interested in Jewish matters, Domitilla and Clemens.

Domitilla would have reclined on a couch listening to the reading of book eighteen of the Antiquities. It would have been a leisurely occasion with food, drink, and much discussion. Usually, an author would read the work himself, but Josephus admits his diction in Greek was poor, so most likely one of his scribes, a slave or freedman, was the reader. The section on Pontius Pilate would have been of intense interest to Domitilla. It would have started with the story of Pilate bringing the ensigns into Jerusalem and the disturbance that caused. Then came the story of Pilate taking money out of the temple to pay for an aqueduct, causing more unrest. After this, there may have been a brief notice of Jewish unrest in Rome and then the story of a Samaritan who led his supporters to the top of Mount Gerizim and Pilate’s brutal response. This last event caused Pilate’s removal; the Samaritans accused him of an unjustified massacre, and Vitellius, the governor of Syria, sent him to Rome for judgment.

Domitilla would have been astonished that there was no mention of Jesus. She was finishing the Gospel of Luke and knew that Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion was the most important thing to have happened under Pilate. Naturally, she would point this out to Josephus, who would admit that he knew nothing of Jesus in Judea at this time. It was customary for the audience to make contributions to the work and even draft passages for inclusion. So Domitilla would offer to send him a section on Jesus, for which kind offer Josephus would have thanked her profusely.

When Domitilla’s contribution came, Josephus may have been tempted to tone it down, but he had to be very careful. Some editing to suit his style could be justified, but he could not upset an imperial lady by significantly changing her production. So Josephus had to include a brazenly pro-Christian text in his Antiquities. Even worse, the text accused Jews such as himself for Jesus’ death. He could not refuse Domitilla but would not have been happy. Josephus prided himself as a consummate trickster who would always win in the end. The man who had arranged for a whole cave of people to commit suicide would not allow the Testimonium to stand in his Antiquities without a riposte. He will get his revenge on the person who made him include the Testimonium, a person he regarded as a foolish and gullible young woman whom the Christians had seduced. It is Josephus’ revenge that provides conclusive evidence of her involvement in the Testimonium.

None of this proves that Domitilla was the person who actually wrote the Testimonium and the Gospel of Luke. An alternative is that the author was someone in her circle, with Domitilla as the conduit between that person and Josephus. But the evidence as a whole, as detailed in The Gospel of Domitilla, points to her being the author of Luke/Acts, probably in conjunction with Christian members of her household.

Before we come to Josephus’ revenge, we will look at the mutual influences between Luke/Acts and his books. It has long been known that Acts and perhaps Luke have been strongly influenced by Josephus. But we will see that Josephus, in his Life, also shows knowledge of Luke/Acts and is desperately trying to impress the author of these works.

We will also see the evidence that confirms that the author of Luke attended readings of the Antiquities. Acts shows a puzzling fuzzy knowledge of Book Twenty, best explained by the author attending a pre-publication reading. Flavia Domitilla, the author of Luke/Acts, really was in the room where it happened.