Josephus sends up Saul … and the Christian story?
(extract from Jesus the terrorist, O Books, 2010)
In the Jewish War, written and published just after the uprising, Josephus studiously avoided references to the Jewish messiahs who might have appeared as the genuine article. There was thus nothing to counter his slavish reference to Vespasian as fulfilling the Old Testament star prophecy. Two major incidents during Pilate’s rule as procurator appear in both the Jewish War and Antiquities, the posting of the ‘idolatrous’ standards in Jerusalem and the quelling of the temple funds protest. The culminating mishap, when Pilate crushed a movement under a Samaritan messianic figure, only appears in the later work. Fifteen years or so on, it would seem that Josephus felt that it was safe enough to mention this.
There appears to be nothing in either work relating to the rise of the Jewish messiah Yeshua and his claim to kingship apart, that is, from the forged notice posted in Antiquities around the time of Constantine’s bishop, Eusebius.
But, disregarding this, there is an extraordinary piece of text in Antiquities, sandwiched between the descriptions of Pilate’s soldiers clubbing panic-stricken demonstrators in Jerusalem and his heavily-armed infantry slaughtering the followers of the Samaritan Taheb at Mount Gerizim. Just where there should have been a description of Yeshua’s capture, trial and execution, Josephus chooses to digress with a long and gossipy tale about a woman deceived into having sex followed by a shorter story, oddly linked to the first, about the theft of funds collected for the temple in Jerusalem.
In outline, the first story deals with a woman named Paulina of noble Roman descent married to Saturninus. Another character Decius Mundus, having fallen in love with Paulina, tried to bribe her first with gifts and then with a large sum of money to go to bed with him.
He was rejected, and on the point of dejectedly trying to starve himself to death, when his female servant Ida offered to help him accomplish his objective for money.
Ida bribed priests at the temple of Isis, where Paulina worshipped. One of them went to her with the tale that the god Anubis had fallen for her and wished her to come to the temple at night and share his bed. Paulina agreed and even told her husband.
At the temple, Decius pretended to be the god and as a result he and Paulina spent the night together. When next Decius met her he could not, however, resist gloating about his successful impersonation and the fact that ultimately he had got her for nothing (or, rather, next to nothing having paid a bribe via Ida). Paulina, realising the deception, rent her garments in dismay (a Jewish gesture, surprisingly) and told her husband. He then reported the matter to the Emperor Tiberius. The Emperor decided to crucify the priests and Ida, but for Decius Mundus the sentence was merely exile. Tiberius razed the temple and had the statue of Isis cast into the Tiber.
With its obvious implausibilities, this has to be a folk tale rather than something Josephus expected in all its aspects to be taken seriously. But why has he included it? The answer seems to be provided by unsettling parallels on many levels with the Christian myth, too many to be purely coincidental. The jackal-headed god of the underworld, Anubis, was for example identified by early gnostic Christians with Yeshua. But, the story suggests, the identification of a mortal with the god is merely a pretence. The unison of a god with a mortal woman is the Christian nativity theme even to the detail of the husband, having been told, feeling honoured at the prospect!
The pretender, Decius Mundus, is based on Decius Mus, a famous, legendary Roman war hero. He was a soldier who in battle sacrificed himself in to appease the gods, thus dying for the benefit of the many – in the same way that Caiaphas speaks of Yeshua in John’s gospel. Like the figure of gospel creation, Jesus, Decius claims in the story to be a god and he makes public his resolution to die. Like Jesus/Yeshua, Decius appears on the third day (after two days). But his purpose was quite contrary to that of Jesus/Yeshua who proclaimed thereby his divinity. Decius’ objective was to tell Paulinus that he had been pretending to be Anubis; that he was not after all, a god.
The outcome, as in the case of Yeshua, is crucifixion. But Decius escapes into exile, as indeed I have suggested that Yeshua may have.
When the Jewish War was written, the Christians were just one of many developing sects. Fifteen years on, the Nazoreans were dispersed and depleted, and Christianity had grown sufficiently to be in a position ultimately to push them aside. Josephus, however, was aware of what had been happening and could not, I suggest, resist a brilliant if malicious parody in Antiquities, mixing up and splaying out the myths of the gospel story.
How much of a parody it was is revealed by the content of the second, shorter story.
In this, a woman also of great dignity and high birth, Fulvia, was conned by a man portraying himself as a Jewish rabbi. In carrying out his deception, he was aided by three confederates. Still a Roman, though now a Jewish proselyte or god fearer, the woman was urged to part with goods and money for the temple in Jerusalem. But, instead of passing the gifts on, the men used them for their own expenses.
The woman’s husband, who again just happened to be an acquaintance of the Emperor, reported the matter to Tiberius and as a result the whole of the Jewish community was deported from Rome.
Josephus wants to make absolutely sure that his readers understand that the two stories are linked. In each case the victim is a woman of high birth, betrayed by a priest or priests, and the husband knows the Emperor and reports the matter. Tiberias exacts punishments, including in both cases a sentence of banishment. To make quite sure the point is not lost, he calls the husband in each case by the same name, Saturnicus! So Paulina is Fulvia and Fulvia is Paulina, perhaps even Fulvia Paulina.
And it becomes a lot clearer that this is another wicked parody of the activities of the Christians, just a few years further on in time. Josephus is making a mocking attack on Paul. What could be clearer from the story’s introduction?
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 a resident of Rome and played the part of an interpreter of the Mosaic law and its wisdom.
It’s an almost exact précis of Paul’s position as described in the Acts of the Apostles and, as in Acts, Paul is on a mission, ostensibly to collect money for Jews in Jerusalem. Josephus maliciously repeats rumours that Paul had been using some of the money for himself, something that Paul himself appears to have been acutely aware of (Corinthians I, 9, 3-12).
The use of Paulina for the gullible lady of high birth makes the parody almost perfect. Josephus is perhaps implying that the misogynist self-obsessed Paul who advocates and chooses chastity (though why can’t he have a wife, Paul complains in Corinthians) is a bit of a woman.
On one level, these stories provide reasons why Tiberias chose to persecute priests at the temple of Isis and expel Jews from Rome, in the latter case presumably to eliminate their proselytising of Roman citizens. But these events happened some years before the point in the narrative in which the stories are placed, precisely the moment when Josephus should be giving an account of how Pilate dealt with Yeshua. He doesn’t do that. What he does do is poke some fun at Christian accounts, which he knows to be false and based on pagan mythology, and also at Paul, their chief perpetrator,
Josephus delivered an acerbic parody, dismissing the Christian birth myths.