Do you rob temples? The Fulvia scam

21 The one then teaching the other, do you not teach yourself? The one preaching, Do not steal, do you steal?

22 The one saying, Do not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? The one who finds idols abhorrent, do you rob temples?

This is a fascinating exegetical insight. Douglas Campbell notes the relevance of a passage in Josephus’ Antiquities for understanding Paul’s otherwise rather odd complaint regarding a Jew who claims to be a teacher of the Law but who steals, commits adultery, and robs temples (The Deliverance of God, 561). Why highlight the obscure and, on the face of it, rather unlikely offence of robbing temples? The interpretation advocated by Campbell serves to underline what to my mind is a critical perspective on this passage—that Paul is focused on concrete circumstances and real outcomes.

Josephus relates an incident that led to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in AD 19 by Tiberius:

There was a man who was a Jew, but had been driven away from his own country by an accusation laid against him for transgressing their laws, and by the fear he was under of punishment for the same; but in all respects a wicked man:—he then living at Rome, professed to instruct men in the wisdom of the laws of Moses. He procured also three other men, entirely of the same character with himself, to be his partners. These men persuaded Fulvia, a woman of great dignity, and one that had embraced the Jewish religion, to send purple and gold to the temple at Jerusalem; and, when they had gotten them, they employed them for their own uses, and spent the money themselves; on which account it was that they at first required it of her.

Whereupon Tiberius, who had been informed of the thing by Saturninus, the husband of Fulvia, who desired inquiry might be made about it, ordered all the Jews to be banished out of Rome; at which time the consuls listed four thousand men out of them, and sent them to the island Sardinia; but punished a greater number of them, who were unwilling to become soldiers on account of keeping the laws of their forefathers. Thus were these Jews banished out of the city by the wickedness of four men. (Josephus, Antiquities 18:81-84)

Paul may be overstating the adultery part of the story—or the story may have circulated with different nuances. But it seems very likely that he is alluding to a notorious “scam”, perpetrated by a Jew who claimed to instruct Gentiles ‘in the wisdom of the laws of Moses’, which brought the Jews into disrepute and resulted in the name of Israel’s God being “blasphemed among the Gentiles” (cf. Rom. 2:24). Presumably Paul regarded this notorious incident as merely an outstanding instance of a general and persistent state of affairs.

Campbell found the argument originally in Francis Watson’s Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (revised and expanded edition, 203-205). Whereas Campbell thinks that Paul has a particular, though unnamed, Jewish teacher in mind, who is not yet present in Rome, Watson argues that the criticism is directed essentially against leaders of the Jewish community in Rome.

My own view is that Paul’s rhetoric in much of Romans 1-11 reflects—and indeed rehearses—numerous synagogue debates across the eastern empire; I do not see any evidence that Paul is addressing specific local Roman issues. The Fulvia incident illustrates perfectly the sociological and historical consequences of the failure of the Jews generally—though no doubt the synagogue leadership is principally in view—to provide the benchmark of righteousness by which the Gentiles would be judged. If there is to be judgment on the Greek, therefore, there must first be judgment on the Jew.