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Jesus Origins

Discovering the original Christianity

A Secret Satire

Part 2

Part1: “A tale of high-class prostitution and temple seduction in Rome” is availiable here.

What’s in a name?

In an ancient satire, the names given to characters are significant. The villain Decius Mundus, “god of the world”, is Jesus. But what about Paulina, Fulvia, Saturninus and Ida?

 The targets

The satire is Josephus’ revenge for having to include the Testimonium in Antiquities. To find out who obliged Josephus to include it, we only need to ask: at whom is the satire aimed? Strangely, no one seems to ask this question, although the answer is straightforward. In both stories, the subject is the woman who is tricked and fooled owing to her credulity and whose husband is too weak to intervene. The main target then is the woman called Paulina and Fulvia, with the secondary target being her husband, Saturninus. This raises the question: are Paulina and Fulvia intended to represent the same woman?

Most scholars have not realized that Paulina and Fulvia are satirical characters but regard them as real women. Some have argued that as they are both married to a man called Saturninus, they must be the same person. Others point out that Paulina is a devotee of Isis and Fulvia, a Jewish God-fearer, so they have incompatible religious beliefs. Now, it would be incompetent for an author to have two stories, one after the other, involving a husband called Saturninus without making it clear to the reader whether or not they are two different men. And Saturninus is not the only link between the stories; there is a close structural similarity:

  • Both involve a Roman noblewoman, Paulina/Fulvia, who is described similarly.
  • Both stories centre around a temple (Isis/Jerusalem temple).
  • In both cases, the woman is strongly religious but is duped by deceivers who take advantage of her religious beliefs.
  • In both stories, when she discovers the deception, she urges her husband Saturninus to seek redress.
  • In both cases, Saturninus appeals to the emperor, who inflicts a strong punishment.

It would be astonishing if two independent stories happened to be so similar. The common factor of Saturninus is a clue that we are supposed to link the stories together. A real woman cannot both be a follower of Isis and a Jewish proselyte, but this consideration does not apply to satire. The stories are satirical, and satire has its own rules. The subject of the satire is represented first by Paulina and then by Fulvia, which is why the two have the same husband.

The satire mocks the Flavians and the Christians. This woman, then, is a Christian who is a Flavian or associated with the Flavians. Josephus satirizes her Christianity by first representing it as a pagan Egyptian mystery religion and then attacking its supposed Jewish provenance. The woman has compelled Josephus to include the Testimonium. Her husband, Saturninus, supports her, and behind them lies the power of the emperor. In the satire, the emperor is Tiberius, who must stand for the current emperor, Domitian. Saturninus is a “friend” of the emperor; the Latin equivalent is “amici.” Every emperor had his amici, a group of officeholders, equestrians, and senators through whom he carried out his administration alongside his freedmen. So Saturninus was a senior Roman close to Domitian and part of the imperial administration. Naturally, Clemens would have been one of Domitian’s amici.

These considerations enable us to eliminate Domitian’s wife, Domitia, as the subject of the satire—her husband is the emperor himself and not Saturninus. Josephus’ patron, Epaphroditus, is also eliminated because we hear nothing about his wife, who could hardly be powerful enough to be the woman of the satire. The only people powerful enough to make Josephus include the Testimonium are Domitilla and Clemens, and they fit the profile perfectly. So:

Paulina/Fulvia = Domitilla

Saturninus = Clemens

Domitilla as Paulina and Fulvia

In Paulina, we have our only glimpse of Domitilla from someone who knew her in real life. Ironically, the portrait is satirical, although not without its positive elements. Paulina is descended from noble Romans. She is universally acknowledged as virtuous, wealthy, and of “comely appearance.” She is “at the age at which women are most exuberant yet devoted her life to good conduct.” We can conclude that Paulina was not a young girl in the first flush of youth, but neither was she middle-aged. Domitilla would have been around thirty when Josephus wrote the satire, an age that fits the description well.

Her husband Saturninus is “fully a match for her in reputation.” This is a good description of Clemens, who, as her cousin, was Domitilla’s equal in background. In fact, Paulina and Saturninus sound like the perfect Christian couple. The emphasis on Paulina’s virtue and good deeds is particularly impressive, coming from a strict Jew who would have regarded most Romans as thoroughly immoral. Yet she is no quiet introvert; Josephus calls her “exuberant.” We can picture Domitilla as a lively risk-taker, a true daughter of Cerialis. This fits with our deductions about the author of Luke and Acts: she is self-confident to the point of arrogance, imaginative and inventive, but also undisciplined and careless with the facts.

Although Paulina is virtuous, she ends up playing the whore by being tricked by a fake god. Josephus takes great fun mocking her gullibility. Paulina cannot resist letting everyone know that the god has specially chosen her. After her night of passion with Anubis, she gives herself airs while telling her husband and friends everything. We have the comic portrait of the virtuous young matron proudly recounting the pornographic details of her nighttime encounter while her audience exchanges incredulous looks.

Josephus mocks both Domitilla’s religion and Domitilla herself. Paulina stands both for the virgin Mary and the young woman he knows. He sees Domitilla as a good person but is easily deceived. At this time, Christianity was intensely spiritual, and Domitilla would have seen herself as the bride of Christ. For Josephus, Christianity is a semi-pagan falling away from the purity of Judaism. He sees Jesus not as her spiritual husband but as a trickster who has lured her into adultery. Josephus represents the Christian mysteries of the bridal chamber in crude physical terms, turning Domitilla into a temple prostitute.

When Paulina discovers the truth, Josephus says that she “rent her garment,” a curiously Jewish expression of grief. Perhaps Josephus has fallen into this turn of phrase by habit. Or maybe it is intended as a further bridge to the second story.

Domitilla now becomes Fulvia, described simply as “a woman of high rank who had become a Jewish proselyte.” Her rank is high indeed, for her husband Saturninus is an amicus of the emperor. Domitilla was almost certainly a Jewish God-fearer before she became a Christian; the author of Luke shows excellent knowledge of the Septuagint Greek scriptures. Fulvia is just such a God-fearer, but she falls under the spell of false teachers led by the apostle Paul. He sets himself up as an expert on the Jewish law but is a hypocrite and a law-breaker. (We should note that in the first story, Domitilla is called Paulina. It would be too obvious to call her by this name in this second story about the corrupting influence of Paul.) The Christians are really only interested in Fulvia’s money. They take advantage of her generosity and persuade her to make expensive gifts to the Jerusalem temple, which they keep. Josephus had a reputation as a conman during his time in Galilee and was accused of enriching himself in the Jewish war. He had a strong tendency to project his own dishonesty on those around him. Because Josephus has no sincerity, he cannot believe others are sincere. So Josephus, the thief, represents the Christians as a gang of thieves.


If Domitilla is a well-meaning but gullible young woman in the satire, what about her husband, Clemens? As Saturninus, he does not share in his wife’s enthusiasms or beliefs but is entirely under her influence. When Paulina tells him she will sleep with the god in his temple, he meekly agrees. Even afterwards, when he has grave doubts about the incident, he does nothing. When Paulina finds out the truth, she is the one who urges him to take action, and he does what she tells him to do. If Domitilla is a bride of Christ, then Clemens is a cuckold.

Saturninus plays no part in the second story until Fulvia appeals to him to seek redress with the emperor. Once again, he meekly complies. By the masculine standards of Rome, Saturninus is a weak man who fails to control his headstrong wife. The portrayal is consistent with what we know about Domitilla and Clemens. Suetonius described Clemens as a man of “contemptible idleness”. Domitilla was the Christian, whereas Clemens was little more than a sympathizer. Yet he went along with her religious activities, which would cost him his life. The two are happily married, but there is no doubt who is in charge.

This leaves the question of the name “Saturninus.” Another name we have not explained is that of the freedwoman Ida, who arranges the whole deception on behalf of Decius Mundus. Saturninus is named in honour of the god Saturn, and Ida is a sacred mountain in Crete connected to stories of the origins of the gods. But why these names in particular?

If Domitilla wrote Luke/Acts, Clemens is Theophilus, “God-lover.” Josephus is aware of this name and mocks it by turning it into Saturninus. To understand how this works, we must appreciate Roman speculations about the origins of the Jews. One popular Roman theory was that the Jewish God Yahweh was the same as Saturn. In Roman myth, Saturn ruled the world before being forcibly replaced by his son, Jupiter. The Jews were seen as followers of Saturn who refused to accept Jupiter and the other gods. They originated on Mount Ida, the mountain where Saturn resided. The Jews’ name, Judaei, was derived from the Idaei, the people who inhabited Ida during the early reign of Saturn. Supposedly, these proto-Jews were cast out into the Libyan desert at the fall of Saturn before ending up in Judea. The entomology is entirely spurious but would have been convincing to a Roman. This theory is one that Tacitus reports:

It is said that the Jews are refugees from Crete who settled in the furthest part of Libya at the time when Saturn was forcibly deposed by Jupiter. Evidence for this is sought in the name: Ida is a famous mountain in Crete inhabited by the Idaei, whose name became lengthened into the foreign name Judaei. (Tacitus, Histories 5:2)

The importance the Jews placed on the sabbath was seen as evidence that their God was Saturn:

Others maintain that they do this in honour of Saturn, either because their religious principles are derived from the Idaei, who are supposed to have been driven out with Saturn and become the ancestors of the Jewish people; or else because, of the seven stars which govern the lives of men, Saturn moves in the topmost orbit and exercises the mightiest influence… (Tacitus, Histories 5:4)

Cassius Dio also connects the Jewish sabbath with Saturn: “Thus was Jerusalem destroyed on the very day of Saturn, the day which even now the Jews reverence most.” Josephus, living in Rome, would have been all too aware of these Roman speculations. He would have been enraged by these attempts to assimilate Judaism into Roman religion. To the Jews, Saturn and the other Roman gods did not even exist. Josephus would have seen Domitilla’s Christianity as another Roman attempt to appropriate the Jewish God. So Josephus mocks Theophilus, the supposed “lover of God” (Yahweh), by making him into Saturninus, a follower of Saturn, the false non-god who was the Roman idea of Yahweh.

The name Ida comes from the mountain of Saturn, which was the place of origin for the Jews, according to these false Roman ideas. In the Paulina story, Ida comes up with the scheme of establishing Decius Mundus as the fake god. So Josephus seems to be equating Christians to the Idaei, the Romans’ fake Jews who came from Ida. What is fascinating is that Josephus is satirizing the Jesus movement as being founded by a woman. He represents her as a former slave and cynical schemer who ends up being crucified in Rome. In The Rock and the Tower, I argue that Christianity was founded by the woman we know under the characters of both the Virgin Mary and Mary the Magdalene. As a person of mature age, she moved to Rome in the 50s AD and was martyred by some form of crucifixion following the fire of Rome in 64 AD. Josephus visited Rome in 61 AD and returned permanently in the early 70s AD. It seems that he knew something of Mary.

Fulvia Paulina

We come back to the names Paulina and Fulvia. Why would Josephus use these particular names in a satire whose target is Domitilla? One is a nomen and the other a cognomen, so we can combine them to give the full name Fulvia Paulina. The Fulvia were a well-established Roman gens. The most famous, not to say infamous, Fulvia was the wife of Mark Antony, who became a notable politician in her own right.

However, it is suspicious that “Fulvia” is similar to “Flavia.” Suppose Josephus wanted to choose a gens name that resembled Flavia without being too obvious. Looking at the gens that start with an F, there are a few possibilities:

  • Fabia
  • Fadia
  • Flavinia
  • Fulvia

Of these, the closest to Flavia is perhaps Fulvia. It has the same number of letters, starts and ends the same way, and five out of six letters are identical and appear in the same order. There are several hundred different gens to choose from, so this close similarity would be a remarkable coincidence. We can deduce that Josephus has chosen Fulvia as a disguised representation of Flavia.

The name Paulina is the feminine of Paul, which is surely also no coincidence in a satire about Christianity. In the Gospel of Domitilla, I show that Flavia Domitilla must be the same person as a mysterious early Christian saint called Petronella. This saint is indicated as the author of Luke in an ancient fresco. There are many links between Domitilla and Petronella, not least that Petronella is the female saint associated with the catacombs of Domitilla. The name is a feminine form of Peter, Petro in Latin. We know of only two Roman men called Petro, one of whom was Vespasian’s grandfather and Domitilla’s great-great-grandfather. This Petro was the patriarch of the Flavians. Domitilla would have been aware of this coincidence that her own family derived its descent from a man with the same name as Jesus’ chief disciple. It was normal for Romans at this time to take additional names as an adult. By taking the cognomen Petronella, Domitilla was honouring both her ancestor and the apostle Peter.

The author of Luke has two heroes, Peter and Paul: the Acts of the Apostles could more accurately be called the Acts of Peter and Paul. If Domitilla was also known as Petronella, Josephus obviously cannot use the same name, Petronella, that Domitilla was called. So he switches from Petronella (fem. Peter) to Paulina (fem. Paul). He uses Paulina in the first story because it would be too obvious in the second story about Paul. Putting it all together, we get:

Fulvia Paulina = Flavia Petronella

Or, to give her more familiar name, Flavia Domitilla.

For more, see The Gospel of Domitilla.