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Jesus Origins

Discovering the original Christianity

A Secret Satire

Part 1

A tale of high-class prostitution and a temple seduction in Rome.

Josephus would have hated having to include a pro-Christian passage about Jesus in his Antiquities. He took his revenge by following the passage with a secret satire. Coming straight after the Testimonium, it featured two scandalous stories set in Rome. The first concerns Paulina, an aristocratic woman tricked into an act of temple prostitution. The second is about Fulvia, another aristocratic woman, whose gifts intended for the Jerusalem temple are taken by rogues. The satire is anti-Flavian and anti-Christian. The target is the member of the imperial family who gave Josephus the Testimonium, the woman who was both a Flavian and a Christian—Flavia Domitilla, the author of Luke.

In this article, we will consider the satire as it mocks Jesus, his supposed resurrection, the virgin birth and the apostle Paul. In the next post, we will follow the clues indicating Domitilla and her husband, Clemens. Both are based on my book, The Gospel of Domitilla.


The Testimonium is a strange passage in Josephus’ writings, but what comes after it is even odder. Josephus is a military historian and a historian of the Jews. He writes about Jewish wars, Jewish beliefs, and Jewish characters while showing no interest in matters that do not have some Jewish connection. But an exception to this rule comes immediately after the Testimonium:

About the same time another outrage threw the Jews into an uproar; and simultaneously certain actions of a scandalous nature occurred in connection with the temple of Isis at Rome. I shall first give an account of the daring deed of the followers of Isis and shall come back to the fate of the Jews. (Antiquities 18:65)

With these words, Josephus establishes an entirely spurious connection between his next story and the Jews. While covering events under the governorship of Pontius Pilate in Judea, he suddenly diverts to the temple of Isis in Rome. Scholars have felt a sense of disquiet at the positioning of this story, coming as it does immediately after Josephus’ account of Jesus. Are the two in some way connected? The story is scandalous and unlike anything else in Josephus.

It starts with a woman in Rome called Paulina, who was of noble birth and highly esteemed. She was happily married to a man named Saturninus, who was her match in reputation. Paulina was attractive, in the full bloom of womanhood, but also virtuous, with the marital fidelity that the Romans valued so highly in a wife. However, she had attracted the notice of a knight, Decius Mundus, who had fallen hopelessly in love with her. He sent her gifts, but she scorned his attentions. Becoming desperate, he offered her an enormous sum, 200,000 drachmas, if she would sleep with him just once. She refused.

Mundus decided that he could not live without her and resolved to die. But he had a freedwoman called Ida who, seeing his intention, devised a plan to help him get his way. She told him she would secure him a night of passion with Paulina for just 50,000 drachmas. He agreed and gave her the money. She did not go to Paulina, who was too virtuous to consent to such a proposal. Instead, she approached the priests of the temple of Isis, knowing that Paulina was an avid devotee of the goddess. Ida offered the priests the 50,000 drachmas to carry out a plan she had devised.

The priests agreed, and the eldest went to see Paulina at her house. He told her that the god Anubis had fallen in love with her. The god desired her to dine in his temple and share his bed for the night. Paulina was delighted, telling both her lady friends and her husband about the god’s summons. Saturninus agreed that she should go, trusting in her faithfulness. This idea of sleeping in a temple may seem odd to us, but not for the Romans. After Paulina reclined to eat at the god’s table and made her bed in his temple, it would be expected that he would visit her in a dream. But her experience was to be much more carnal than that.

Paulina went to the temple and had her meal. The priests then snuffed out the lights and locked up the temple, leaving her to settle down in her bed. When all was quiet, Mundus, whom the priests had hidden, came out and approached her. Thinking he was Anubis, Paulina gave him everything he desired, and they made love all night long. Mundus slipped away in the early morning before the priests began to stir.

The next day, Paulina proudly told her friends and husband about her experiences. They were incredulous, but because of her reputation, they did not know what to believe. On the third day, Mundus, his passion quenched, approached her:

Well Paulina, you have indeed saved me 200,000 drachmas which you could have added to your fortune, yet you have rendered perfectly the services I urged you to perform. As for your attempt to flout Mundus, I was not bothered about names but about the pleasure of the act, so I took the name of Anubis as my own. (Antiquities 18:17)

Paulina was horrified and rent her garments in grief. She went to Saturninus and begged him to seek justice. Saturninus appealed to the emperor Tiberius. After ascertaining the facts of the case, Tiberius ordered Ida and the priests to be crucified. The temple of Isis was razed to the ground, and the goddess’ statue was dumped in the river. Decius Mundus escaped with a sentence of exile since he had the excuse of passion.


 After these “insolent acts” of the priests of Isis, Josephus introduces his second story, what happened “at the same time to the Jews in Rome.” There is another Roman noblewoman who was called Fulvia. Like Paulina, she was also married to a man named Saturninus, a coincidence that has caused further consternation among commentators. Whereas Paulina worshipped Isis, Fulvia worshipped the Jewish God—she was a God-fearer. However, she had fallen under the spell of a gang of Jewish rogues led by someone who had broken laws in his homeland. This man had put himself out as an interpreter of the Mosaic Law and was joined by three crooked confederates. Fulvia was duped by this group and met regularly with them. They persuaded her to send gifts of “gold and purple” to the temple in Jerusalem. But it was all a fraud from the start—they sold the gifts and spent the money. When Fulvia found out, she urged Saturninus to report the matter to Tiberius, “whose friend he was.” But instead of punishing the guilty parties, the emperor ordered all Jews to be expelled from Rome. Josephus says that four thousand were sent to the island of Sardinia for military service. They endured many hardships because of their reluctance to break the Jewish law.

This second story does concern the Jews and is potentially more realistic than the type of thing that Josephus would write. But the offense is too trivial to merit the punishment of an entire people, and there are strange similarities with the Paulina story.

Tacitus also covers the exile of the Jews from Rome, as does Suetonius. Most likely, Tacitus is using Josephus as his source, for the Paulina story is echoed in a story about prostitution among senior Roman women, and he uses the Testimonium as his source for the information he gives about Christians in his account of the fire of Rome. But Tacitus makes significant changes:

  • The Paulina story is omitted entirely.
  • There is no mention of the destruction of the temple of Isis and the cultic statue of the goddess.
  • There is no mention of Fulvia or Saturninus as the reason for the Jewish expulsion.
  • The expulsion is dated to 19 AD rather than c.30 AD in Josephus.

We can be confident that Tacitus would get the date right because he was a senator with access to senate degrees. So Josephus has moved the episode to correspond to Pontius Pilate’s term as prefect of Judea. As Tacitus loved scandal, we would have expected him to make some brief mention of Paulina and Fulvia. His omission of both stories indicates that he did not believe Josephus’ account. Josephus appears to have made up Paulina and Fulvia.

Did Josephus hate the Flavians?

What were Josephus’ real feelings about Vespasian and the Flavians? As Vespasian’s and Titus’ client, he was showered with favours by both. As their official historian, he recorded their military achievements in his first book, “The Jewish War”. Vespasian even gave Josephus lodgings in his own former house.

And yet Josephus had fought against them as a general of the Jewish forces in the war. He would have seen many of his former friends and comrades brutally killed by the Romans, often executed in cold blood. Josephus was also a temple priest, but he watched as Titus fired the temple and massacred 100,000s of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem, many by crucifixion. Josephus, however, was a narcissistic personality. Things that happened to others may not have mattered much to him. But he would have felt personally humiliated seeing the temple treasures paraded through Rome during the joint victory awarded to Vespasian and Titus. The defeated Jewish generals of each place, dressed in the ragged remains of the clothes they wore that day, were paraded on special tableaux. Was Josephus, the defeated general of Jotapata, paraded with them? Jotapata was a major victory for both Vespasian and Titus, and Josephus must have been an eyewitness to the parade, for his account is detailed.

And so we come to the idea that Josephus is revealing his true feelings towards the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Revenge is sweet, but has to be secret, for if detected, Josephus would face certain execution.

Mocking Vespasian and his favourite god, Serapis

To the ancient mind, the most incredible part of Josephus’ two stories would be the claim that Tiberius ordered the destruction of the temple of Isis and the goddess’ cultic statue dumped in the river. The Romans were very superstitious. If Tiberius had taken such an outrageous action, we would surely have heard about it from Roman writers. But none of the Roman accounts mentions this destruction of the temple or the mortal insult to the goddess. There is, it is true, a similar incident in Rome’s past. Dio tells us that in 53 BC, the Roman senate decreed that those temples in Rome built by private individuals for the Egyptian gods Serapis and Isis should be torn down. This was because “they did not believe in those gods”. But the Romans came to regret this action, which, according to Dio, caused great calamities. Within ten years, the senate voted for a new public temple for Serapis and Isis to appease the gods’ anger. It was this temple in the Campus Martius that Josephus says was destroyed by Tiberius.

There was further action against the Egyptian rites under Augustus. In 28 BC, the emperor banned the Egyptian rites within the city boundaries, and a similar action, this time including the suburbs, was taken by his governor Agrippa in 21 BC. Although the rites were banned, Augustus made strict provisions to maintain the temples. The gods’ temples, which are sacred spaces, must not be desecrated.

Certainly, the temple of Isis was standing during Vespasian’s reign because it is depicted on one of his coins. It had either been rebuilt or, more likely, never been destroyed. But why would Josephus lie about such a thing? Although he calls it the temple of Isis, it was actually the temple of Isis and Serapis. And Serapis was Vespasian’s favourite god.

Vespasian was said to have accomplished some healing miracles that were surprisingly similar to Christ’s. In Alexandria, there were two men, one blind and one with a withered hand. Serapis appeared to both men, telling them to go to Vespasian. The men went and appealed to the emperor to cure them. He was sceptical and reluctant to agree for fear of ridicule, but his advisors urged him to attempt the cure. He took some of his spittle and rubbed it into the eyes of the blind man whose sight was restored. He then imprinted his heel on the other man’s withered hand, which was made whole. There were many witnesses, and Tacitus reports that those present attested to the miracles “to this day.” There was no motivation for them to lie, for, by that time, the Flavian dynasty was extinct.

Vespasian’s healing power supposedly came from Serapis. While the outcome of the civil war in Rome was still uncertain, Vespasian went alone to the temple of Serapis in Alexandria to take the auspices and forbade anyone else to enter. After making his offerings to the god, he turned around and saw that the freedman Basilides had brought him sacred branches, garlands, and cakes. But Basilides was actually ill in bed many miles away and unable to walk. When Vespasian left the temple, he heard that Vitellius’ army had been defeated, and he was now the undisputed emperor of Rome. This was taken as further proof that Vespasian was especially favoured by Serapis.

In Josephus’ story, Paulina and Decius Mundus spend the night in the temple of Isis. Vespasian and Titus spent the night before their triumph in Rome for the Jewish War in the very same temple. They would have chosen that temple not because of Isis but because of Vespasian’s special connection to Serapis.

Domitian also had an interest in this temple. The goddess Isis was believed to have protected him when his life was in great danger during the civil war. Domitian had escaped from the burning temple of Jupiter Optimus dressed as a follower of Isis.

The story of Paulina is, in part, aimed at Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Josephus carefully avoids directly mentioning Vespasian’s patron god, Serapis, but the god’s temple is razed to the ground. The cultic statue of Isis, Domitian’s protective goddess, is dumped in the river. Josephus is taking literary revenge for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and that victory parade through Rome.

Mocking Jesus and his resurrection

Josephus may be satirizing the Flavians, but his main target was Christianity. Certain aspects of this have been known for a long time but have been generally ignored because they do not fit established theories about the Testimonium.  Let us take the story of Paulina first.

The name Paulina happens to be the female form of Paul, another sign that something is going on below the surface of this story. Paulina was a common Roman name, so this has been dismissed as yet another coincidence.

What about the name of the love-struck villain, Decius Mundus? The cognomen Mundus is suspicious. It means the world/the earth/the sky/the heavens, what we would call the universe. It was also used euphemistically for the underworld. But Mundus could also mean “perfumed,” so it can be argued that Decius Mundus is presented as a perfumed ladies’ man. We should bear in mind that Josephus needs to keep his satire hidden and would choose a name that does have some such explanation.

The nomen Decius was carried by two famous patriots, father and son, who sacrificed their lives for Rome. But this apparently respectable Roman name has a hidden meaning. If we omit the two central letters, Decius becomes Deus—“god.” So:

De(ci)us Mundus = God of the World/God of the Universe

It would be incredible if this were just a coincidence. Decius Mundus represents Jesus Christ in a satire that mocks the Christian idea of Jesus as the god of the world. Josephus says this god is nothing more than a perfumed deceiver and villain.

In the story, Decius Mundus assumes the identity of the Egyptian god Anubis. The dog-headed Anubis was a god of the dead and the underworld. When Mundus tells Paulina that it does not matter if he is called Mundus or Anubis, his words have a hidden meaning—Mundus could also mean Hades. Mundus’ transformation into Anubis represents Jesus’ descent into the underworld after his crucifixion until his resurrection on the third day. The Testimonium says that Jesus appeared on the third day to those who loved him. Josephus would have secretly regarded all this as nonsense. His Jesus, Anubis, is also resurrected and appears to Paulina “on the third day” when he reveals the fraud. So, not only is Mundus called the God of the world, but he also corresponds to Christ in both death (becoming Anubis) and resurrection on the third day.

Equating Jesus with Anubis is a further mockery. Roman statues show Anubis looking absurd with a human body and the head of a dog. So Jesus is represented as having a dog’s head, an unclean animal to the Jews. The satire evokes the image of the foolish Paulina in bed kissing this supposedly dog-headed god without noticing that he was a perfectly normal man.

A further link to Christianity is that Ida and the priests are crucified. Mundus escapes the death penalty. But then, as a supposed Roman citizen, he could not be crucified, and perhaps no other death would be appropriate.

The satire is a secret, derisive commentary on the preceding Testimonium. But there is more to it than that. Commentators have long recognized that the story also appears to mock the virgin birth of Jesus, which the Testimonium does not even mention.

Mocking the virgin birth

The virgin birth occurs in only two gospels, Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s description of the divine conception is very brief: “His mother Mary was pledged in marriage to Joseph, but before their coming together, she was found to be with child of the holy spirit.” This Matthew nativity cannot have been the source for the Paulina story, and instead, we must turn to the Gospel of Luke. Several similarities show that the Paulina satire (P) is based on the Luke nativity (L):

L: The angel Gabriel appears to Mary in her house and gives her a message: “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! … Behold, you will conceive and give birth to a son.”

P: The oldest priest of Anubis comes to Paulina and gives her a message: “he said he had been sent to her by the god Anubis; the god had fallen in love with her and bade her come with him.”

L: Mary answers the angel: “May it happen to me according to your word.”

P: Paulina’s reaction to the priest is similar: “The message was what she would have wished.”

L: The angel describes the act of conception: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

P: Paulina enters the temple, and the god comes to her bed.

L: The pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, who recognizes her special state. The two women rejoice together, and Mary sings the Magnificat about how she is blessed.

P: After Paulina’s night-time experience, she tells her husband and then her friends: “before the ladies, her friends, she put on great airs in talking about him.”

The point here is not exact literary correspondences but that Josephus is satirizing the form of the virgin birth story that did not exist before the Gospel of Luke. Early Christians also recognized that the story was a satire on the virgin birth. Albert Bell has pointed out that the fourth century Christian writer going by the name Hegesippus included the story in his account of the Jewish War based on Josephus. Hegesippus’ version was much shorter than Josephus’ story and made the connection with the virgin birth story in Luke more obvious. For example, Paulina becomes pregnant after encountering the “god” and the language is closer to the Luke account. Hegesippus clearly knew that Josephus had intended the story as an anti-Christian satire.

We have seen that Acts shows familiarity with book twenty of the Antiquities. Assuming Luke was written a year or two before Acts, it could not have been completed much earlier than the Paulina story. How could Josephus know Luke’s version of the virgin birth so early?

He got it from Domitilla, the author of Luke. We can be confident that the Luke nativity existed before Josephus wrote about Paulina because the Testimonium shows close links to the Emmaus story at the end of Luke. Domitilla must have read her nativity account to an astonished Josephus. Ironically, he would have been among the first to hear the story, which would exert such an influence on Western culture. He would also be its first critic.

Mocking Acts’ favourite apostle, Paul

The second story is the second part of the satire. There are links between the two stories; most obviously, the husband in each is called Saturninus. There are also close structural similarities. Fulvia, a God-fearer, is conned by some bad Jews. This is how their leader is described:

There was a certain Jew, a complete scoundrel who had fled his own country because he was accused of transgressing certain laws and feared punishment on this account. Just at this time he was resident in Rome and played the part of an interpreter of the mosaic law and its wisdom. (Antiquities 18:81-2)

Which sounds suspiciously like a description of Paul. The Acts of the Apostles, written by the same person who wrote Luke, is almost entirely about two apostles, Peter and the author’s hero, Paul. So Josephus is not just mocking the Luke virgin birth, but also the author of Luke’s fandom of Paul.

A Jew such as Josephus would certainly have looked upon the apostle to the Gentiles as a lawbreaker. Paul tells us that he was given the thirty-nine lashes five times by the Jewish religious authorities. And he was an interpreter of the “mosaic law and its wisdom” in his letters. He argued that Christians were free from the old law because it had been superseded by a new law of the spirit. Josephus would have hated this idea. And according to Acts, Paul resided in Rome while under house arrest and taught both Jews and Gentiles.

In the satire, Paul is joined by three confederates “no better in character than himself.” They must represent three other apostles, most likely Peter, James, and John Mark, the three leaders whom Paul says he met in Jerusalem. The four persuade Fulvia to send “purple (cloth) and gold” to the Jerusalem temple. This also matches something that Paul did. He mentions a collection for the Jerusalem church in several of his letters. In the story, the four use the gifts “for their personal expenses,” which is exactly what happened. Paul was collecting to meet the living expenses of the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, including James and the others. The Jews did send wealth and gifts for the Jerusalem temple, but that was not the purpose of Paul’s collection. Josephus either misunderstood the collection or deliberately misrepresented it to make his satirical point that the Jesus movement is led by fraudsters and thieves.

In the story, the actions of the “bad” Jews (the Christians) result in the exile of the “good’ Jews from Rome. There were certainly no Christians around in 19 AD, which is where Tacitus placed the expulsion, but Josephus could have been conflating two different episodes. As well as an expulsion under Tiberius there may have been one under Claudius, who reigned until 54 AD. The evidence that Christians caused this Claudian expulsion comes from Suetonius:

The Jews he expelled from Rome since they were constantly in rebellion at the instigation of Chrestus. (Suetonius, Claudius 25)

Chrestus was a common slave’s name—it meant “useful”—but there was confusion in Rome between Chrestus and Christ, and most likely, Christ is meant here. It seems that Christian activity in Rome before 54 AD caused trouble with the Jews, which resulted in their expulsion from the city. Acts also refers to a recent expulsion of the Jews from Rome, which would fit this period. So Josephus could be combining the two expulsions for his satirical purpose and placing them during the governorship of Pilate to locate the story after the Testimonium.

To satirize Paul, Josephus must have had some knowledge of his letters. Acts alone is insufficient; it does not even mention the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. We have seen that Josephus’ autobiography, the Life, also shows some knowledge of Paul’s letters. Josephus is unlikely to have a copy of texts that would only have circulated among Christians. So his source would have to be Domitilla. We can expect her to have talked to Josephus about Paul and read extracts from his letters in an attempt to convert him to Christianity. What better way to persuade the pharisee Josephus than to quote the arguments of the former pharisee Paul? Mixed into all this would be her notions about Paul, which were coalescing into the form of Acts. So Josephus would have had access to a rich seam of information about the Jesus movement.

Part 2: “What’s in a name?” is available here.