Josephus and Jesus I: The shifty Seduction of Paulina

Anubis or his priest, Isis Temple of Pompeii; click to enlarge

Anubis or his priest, Isis Temple of Pompeii; click to enlarge

The two earliest non-Christian mentions of Jesus appear to be in the Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus, written about 93 CE. One is a parenthetical note that a man named James is a brother of “Jesus called Christ” (Book 20, Whiston’s chapter 9, section 1,  Loeb edition section 200; or for short: The other is the famous or notorious Flavian Testimony (,

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

The authenticity of both items is disputed.

In the version of Antiquities we now have, what immediately follows the Testimony is The Seduction of Paulina, a bawdy farce with a tragic twist, set in Rome and featuring no Jewish characters. It reads as if it had been channeled from the future pages of Boccaccio, who actually did include this very tale in his Famous Women. The finding of this post is that the generously lengthy sex romp and the brief remarks about the fate of thousands of Roman Jews that follow it belong together at the end of the second chapter of Antiquities book 18, not at the end of the third chapter where they are now found.

So what?

Correct location of the two Roman stories defuses a typical argument against the authenticity of the Testimony. However, The Seduction of Paulina may well be fictitious, and may not be Josephus’ work. These concerns affect the evidentiary value of the Testimony and the identification of James.

A heady religious fantasy ... (illustration by Fortunino Matania)

A heady religious fantasy … (illustration by Fortunino Matania)

The Seduction of Paulina in brief

(Antiquities, Paulina and her husband Saturninus are a wealthy Roman couple, both of whom are virtuous and faithful in love. Mundus, a rich Roman knight, woos the married Paulina with presents. Finally, he offers two hundred thousand drachmas for one night with her. Paulina declines. Mundus resolves to starve himself to death. His servant, Ida (sometimes transliterated as Ide), dissuades him, saying she can get him into Paulina’s bed for a thrifty fifty thousand.

The thin spot in Paulina’s chastity is her devotion to the Egyptian gods. Ida bribes some priests at the temple of Isis, half paid now, half when Paulina is bedded. The chief priest tells Paulina that the god Anubis, a grotesque with the head of a jackal and the body of a man, has fallen in love with her. Would she spend a night at the temple to sleep with the god? Paulina asks her husband Saturninus, who thinks that’s a swell idea. Paulina goes to the temple. She settles in. The lights dim. Enter Mundus, whom she thinks is Anubis. They make love until early morn.

Afterwards, all goes well at first. Paulina tells her husband all about her steamy theophany. He’s still thrilled. Then she tells her girlfriends, who have more doubts about all this. Then on the third day, Mundus, for some unexplained reason, boasts to Paulina both of his conquest and also of having saved a hundred fifty grand. Paulina tells Saturninus, who tells Tiberius. Tiberius crucifies Ida and the priests she bribed, exiles Mundus, dismantles the temple of Isis, and dumps her statue into the Tiber river.

Where does Paulina’s story belong in the Antiquities?

Josephus’ history is organized chronologically, but many incidents occurred concurrently. To tell stories sequentially as coherent units, sometimes backtracking in time is needed. For this purpose, markers in the text, phrases like “at about this time,” help the reader to keep the breaks in the chronology straight.

Paulina’s tale as such has no crisply dated incidents. Tiberius may well have destroyed a Roman temple of Isis, but whether he really did is unclear. However, Josephus’ next story,, tells of the expulsion of Jews from Rome, four thousand of whom were sent to Sardinia to fight local brigands. Josephus attributes the expulsion to the complaints of a Roman, also named Saturninus, whose wife Fulvia converted to Judaism and had been cheated of valuables by four Jewish crooks, one a preacher.

Jews and those who followed Egyptian gods were both expelled from Rome in 19 CE, according to Tacitus (Annals Book II, Section 85), who also confirms the Sardinian aspect of the incident,

That same year [when Germanicus died, 19 CE]… There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia, to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy, unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites.

Although Suetonius doesn’t provide a date, he concurs (Twelve Caesars, Tiberius 36) that Tiberius acted against Jews, adherents of Egyptian religion and astrologers. He mentions conscription and a posting to unhealthy climes only as falling on Jews. Josephus writes nothing here of steps taken against any Gentiles as a group; only Jews suffer wholesale persecution in his version.

For both the few Gentile conspirators and the many innocent Jewish victims, Antiquities’ Tiberius acts upon a private petition against a few wrongdoers exploiting a trusting Roman lady who’d embraced an unRoman religion. Josephus does not disclose his source for either story.

Meanwhile, the end of the existing chapter two ( relates the death of Germanicus, which Tacitus has told us occurred in 19 CE, the same year as the expulsion of the Jews. The introductory words of the Paulina story link it temporally with whatever precedes it and pair it with the expulsion story that will immediately follow,

About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder, and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome. I will now first take notice of the wicked attempt about the temple of Isis, and will then give an account of the Jewish affairs.

The expulsion of the Jews in 19 CE is very much “about the same time” as the death of Germanicus, not at all close to Jesus’ career nor any exploit of Pilate, who began his governorship in 26 CE. Neither the Paulina story nor the expulsion of the Jews has anything to do with Pilate.

In other words, what is now found at the end of chapter three belongs at the end of the immediately preceding chapter two instead. The two Roman stories have somehow moved ahead in time together, by about six hundred words of text. Or if you prefer, around six hundred words about Pontius Pilate have crept up, cutting off some events of 19 CE from others of or around that year.

Here’s what the relevant portion of the table of contents looks like, before and after. Division into books is ancient. Chapter and section divisions are modern, following Whiston’s translation. All the chapter and section legends in the table are modern (Whiston for chapters, the Uncertaintist for sections).

Sample table of contents, before and after

Sample table of contents, before and after

What of the Testimony?

The Flavian Testimony supposedly “interrupts the flow” of Josephus’ narrative in chapter three, according to one line of argument against the Testimony’s authenticity. Some argue especially that the opening words of the Paulina block (“About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder…”) are jarring as a transition immediately after a mention of Jesus and early Christians.

Paulina’s tale and the Roman expulsion are what interrupt the flow. With them restored to their proper location within the design of the work, the “flow” is now fine. After finishing with the events of year 19, a trio of independent short stories all featuring Pontius Pilate behaving badly are followed by an explanation of how and why Pilate left office. The somber opening words of the Paulina block are now seen to follow the untimely death of the popular Germanicus.

None of that resolves the uncertainty about whether originally there was a different Testimony or no Testimony at all. The authenticity of the Testimony will be assessed from other considerations, such as the features of the text itself and the pattern of ancient citations and recollections, in future posts here at the Uncertaintist.

Is the Paulina story credible and authentic?

... with comedic potential... (James Cagney and Anita Louise)

… with comedic potential… (James Cagney and Anita Louise)

One final point about Paulina and Mundus, however, relates to the weight of the Testimony as evidence about early Christianity. There are ample reasons to doubt whether Paulina’s seduction really happened as told and whether Josephus himself wrote her tale in his Antiquities.

The story reads like fiction or a stage-skit synopsis. Ida is a stock comedy character type, the “clever servant.” Corrupt religious figures are familiar, too. The obtuse foolishness of the three rich characters, Paulina, Saturninus and Mundus, is the engine of the plot. The central situation is the mirror image of Plautus’ Amphitryon, from circa 200 BCE, where the god Jupiter masqueraded as a man to lay with his wife. In both stories, the wealthy husband is fine about sharing his lady with the god, but not with another man. The sight gag of jackal-man Anubis as a romantic partner greatly improves upon Plautus.

Even when correctly placed chronologically, the story doesn’t entirely belong in Antiquities. Josephus would have devoted about four times the length to these few dopey Gentiles that he spends on why more than four thousand innocent Jews were expelled and conscripted. That’s about ten times the length needed to tell the relevant portions of the scandal. There was a historical connection between Tiberius’ actions against Egyptian cultists and against Jews, but we’d never know by reading Josephus that any Egyptian cultists were expelled. However, we would know how many drachmas Mundus offered for a night with Paulina, how much money he saved, and where to find a used statue of Isis.

...that never gets old. (John Candy)

…that never gets old. (John Candy)

Estimating what truth lies behind The Seduction of Paulina parallels the issues surrounding the Testimony. The tragicomic yarn has moved around within the Antiquities, just as Eusebius located the Testimony in different places on different occasions. Neither seems to be composed by a Jewish author focusing on Jewish concerns. Paulina’s tale may well have dropped into the text wholly from outside, as some suspect that the Testimony did into Antiquities, just as the Adulteress Pericope appears to have somehow found its way into John, which is roughly contemporary with Antiquities.

These parallels suggest a thought experiment about the proper weight of the Testimony. Based on the Antiquities as we have it, how confident should we be that there really was a historical Ida, a servant crucified by Roman authorities for instigating a religious outrage in the early First Century?


Filed under Knowable historical Jesus

9 responses to “Josephus and Jesus I: The shifty Seduction of Paulina

  1. Pingback: Another possible forgery in Antiquities Book XVIII | occupy illuminati

  2. I am afraid you are wrong about the displacement of the Mundus and expulsion stories. They are in situ because Pilate’s rule most likely began in 18CE. It is a long and complicated story but I’ll explain if you are interested.

    • [Peter and I had a brief and cordial off-line exchange about that explanation. I thank him for that, and for his comment.]

      Suppose the expulsion of the Roman Jews did happen while Pliate ruled Judea. The seduction story still “interrupts the flow” of the Pilate block more than any proposed version of the Testimonium. The lengthy expulsion-Paulina block interrupts its own flow twice, at the beginning and the end.

      Were the current consensus dating unavailable, I would advocate the same substantive conclusions. The seduction is awkwardly placed. Its location causes easily avoidable jumping around in space. The tale has nothing to do with Pilate, Palestine – or Jews.

      However, here and now, the current consensus dating is available and it is satisfactorily well-founded. That’s how I diagnosed the difficulty and that’s what I used to explain the findings of the post. Those findings are robust against changes in form of argument.

      • There is a connection with the Mundus story with Jews – via Tactitus 2.85, where the Senate debates the expulsion of practitioners of the Egyptian and Jewish religions.

      • That both groups (and perhaps a third group as well) were expelled in the same year is discussed in the post. That doesn’t make the all-Gentile Paulina story relevant to the history of the Jewish people, nor does Josephus even claim that there’s a relationship.

  3. Actually there is a theory Pilate’s governorship really began in 17 or 18 AD and so this Chronological issue isn’t a problem at all.

    • There is some chronological problem. Josephus tells us twice in the received Antiquities that Pilate’s term began in about 26 CE, long after 19 CE, the year when Tacitus tells us the Jews were expelled from Rome.

      Josephus says Pilate succeeded Gratus whom Josephus credits with 11 years’ service under Tiberius (18.2.2). Tiberius assumed power in 14 CE. Later, Josephus tells us that Pilate’s term was 10 years, ending shortly before Tiberius’ death in early 37 (18.4.2).

      Paulina and the Roman expulsion are misplaced in the received Antiquities or else the received Antiquities twice misstates Josephus’ view of when Pilate took office. For reasons stated in the post and in the comments discussion with Peter (see above), I favor the former alternative.

      • Peter Marchant

        Isn’t it odd that the version of Josephus which has come down to us is so insistent on Pilate’s dates (when it bothers very little about the dates of any other Roman governor)? This was a crucial matter to Eusebius and co who had to counter pagan claims in the Acta of Maximunus Daia that the messiah was executed in the 4th consulship of Tiberius (7th year of his reign, 20-21). There is plentiful evidence that Christians probably altered Pilate’s dates from 18-36 to 26-36, as detailed in my article ‘The Trouble with Pilate’, to be published in the Journal of Higher Criticism in 2020. Peter Marchant.

      • That’s great about your article. Perhaps we’ll pick this up again when it comes out.

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