The Relationship Between the Satyricon’s “Tale of the Ephesian Widow” and Texts Associated with Early Christianity.

A Guest Post by David Blocker


The Relationship Between the Satyricon’s “Tale of the Ephesian Widow” and Texts Associated with Early Christianity.

Also a Few Thoughts Concerning the Authorship of the Satyricon

The attached table can be found here:

Table 1 – Correlations between Petronius’ Tale of the Widow of Ephesus, The Canonical and Non Canonical Gospels, and Other Stories

The Satyricon ([1]) is an incompletely preserved Latin picaresque novel about the misadventures of its dissipated and unscrupulous narrator, Encolpius, and the dissolute characters he encountered during his travels.  The story takes place in southern Italia, during the mid to late 1st century CE.

The date of composition of the Satyricon is unknown.  The earliest known manuscripts of the Satyricon date to the 9th century.  The Satyricon was rediscovered, copied and printed during the Renaissance.  The manuscript tradition attributes the work to an otherwise unidentified ”Titus Petronius”.

One of the most famous narrative interludes in the Satyricon is the ”Tale of the Ephesian Widow”.  The third rate poet Eumpolis told the tale to entertain the passengers and crew of a ship sailing around the southern end of the Italian peninsula.  The ”Tale of the Ephesian Matron” is a story within a story.

Eumpolis presented the story as a recollection of an actual event.

The story was about a recently widowed woman who was celebrated for her great virtue.  Accompanied by a servant, she sequestered herself in her husband’s tomb and refused to take nourishment or leave the corpse’s side.  The mourning widow was noticed by a nearby soldier, who was guarding the corpses of several crucified thieves.  The soldier seduced the grieving widow.  While the soldier was dallying with the widow, one of the crucified corpses was stolen and given proper burial.  The soldier decided to kill himself rather than suffer punishment for his dereliction of duty.  The widow, not wanting to lose her new found lover, offered to substitute her husband’s corpse for the stolen body.  The next day, the townspeople wondered how the dead husband managed to climb up on the cross in place of the dead thief.

Eumpolis’ ”Tale of the Ephesian Matron” was an elaboration of Plautus’ well known story of the ”Widow and the Soldier” ([2]), which in turn may have been based on an earlier Greek fable ([3]).  An alert and erudite Roman reader would have recognized that Eumpolis was a plagiarizer.  Eumpolis took a well-known moralizing fable, repackaged it as a sardonic shaggy dog story ([4]), and then passed it off as his recollection of an actual event.  The author of ”The Satyricon” portrayed Eumpolis as an unreliable narrator, whose audience accepted the story as a true and accurate account of actual events because they lacked the refinement to recognize the story’s true origin.

What is somewhat less obvious is that ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” is both a parody of the Christian biography of Jesus and a critique that questions the veracity of the Christian foundation myth by offering mundane alternative explanations for the supernatural events of the Christian myths.

The accompanying five column table ”Table 1 – Correlations between Petronius’ Tale of the Widow of Ephesus, The Canonical and Non Canonical Gospels, and Other Stories” compares ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” to its source ”The Widow and the Soldier”, and to canonical and non-canonical stories about Jesus.

The stories are arranged in columns.  The cells in the first column on the left contain the commentary on the content of each row.  Each row of the table contains passages from the texts that display literary parallels.  The endnotes below the table contain additional explanations about the text in each cell.

Inspection of the Table shows that the Satyricon alludes to the New Testament accounts about the anointing of Jesus, the Last Supper, the crucifixion of Jesus and the disappearance of his corpse.  The Gospel of John seems to be the Gospel with the most correlations with the Satyricon, followed by the Gospel of Luke.

The ”Tale of the Ephesian Widow” also has parallels with Flavius Josephus’ story about Decius Mundus’ seduction of Paulina ([5]), and the Toledoth Yeschu‘s account of Miriam’s rape by ben Pandera ([6]).  Flavius Josephus’ story of Paulina and Mundus occurs in close proximity to the Testimonium Flavianum, the controversial passage about Jesus in the 18th book of Flavius Josephus’ ”Antiquities of the Jews” ([7]).  Some might consider the story about Decius Mundus’ attempt to impregnate Paulina by pretending to be a god, to be a parody of Luke’s Annunciation, the story of how Mary was impregnated by a messenger (Greek: angel) who claimed to be god’s representative.  The Toledoth Yeshu is a Jewish biography of Jesus that attempts to demythologize the stories in the canonical gospels ([8]).

The correlations between ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” are not mere coincidences.

First, there are too many of them and the order of their appearance, starting with a description of the woman’s character, that parallels the description of Mary’s (Miriam’s) character at the beginning of the Protevangelion of James and the Toledoth Yeshu, and culminating in the uplifting of a corpse, tracks the stories about Jesus too closely to be accidental.

Second, ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” used Plautus’ earlier story about ”The Widow and the Soldier” as its model.  Many passages in ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow are paraphrases of passages from Plautus’ story occurring in the same sequence as they do in Plautus.  However, The Tale of the Ephesian Widow also contains many narrative embellishments that are not in Plautus.  In the Table these appear in a row in which there is text in the cell in ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” column, but an empty cell in ”The Widow and the Solider” column.

Almost all of these embellishments have a correlate in a narrative about the life of Jesus.  Wherever the author of ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” added to his exemplar, he did so in order to make an allusion to a particular narrative element in a story about Jesus.  This distinctive pattern of additions to Plautus’ story shows that the ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow’s” references to Jesus were deliberate.

Finally, for whatever it is worth, my observation that the Satyricon contains references to Christianity is not idiosyncratic.  A review of the academic literature shows that this observation has been made independently at several different times in the past ([9]).

The author of the Satyricon apparently had access to several different texts or traditions about Jesus.  ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” alludes to episodes found in the canonical gospels, the apocryphal gospels, Jewish texts including the Torah and the Toldoth Yeshu, and possibly the works of Flavius Josephus.  How he was able to access these texts or traditions, and the actual form they were in when he found them is the subject for future research.  What is apparent is that he used laudatory, mythopoeic, and disparaging sources which he combined to create a multilayered story with parodic allusions to the hagiographic biography of Jesus.

The composition of ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” is multilayered.  On the surface it is a reminiscence told by a character in a picaresque novel.  One the next level it is a story stolen from an author who translated and versified Greek fables (2).  Finally it is a story that either parodies or de-mythologizes the events in the last chapters of the canonical Christian gospels, from the anointing of Jesus, through the last supper, crucifixion and resurrection.  ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” also calls the steadfastness of the Virgin Mary into account by insinuating that even the most virtuous appearing women can be easily seduced by offering them wine and good food.  By alluding to Flavius Josephus’ account of Paulina and Mundus, ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” implied that Mary had not been miraculously impregnated by an angel but rather had been seduced by a man who pretended to be a messenger from god.  Adding yet another layer of complexity, Josephus’ account of Paulina and Mundus strongly resembles the rabbinical accounts of Miriam’s rape at the hands of a soldier named ben Pandera ([10]).

To the casual or unsophisticated reader ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” is a salacious story about the pliability and corruptibility of women and how past virtuous behavior is not a reliable indicator of a woman’s future behavior.  A more sophisticated reader will see that the story is a parodic commentary on the final days of Jesus that correlates the mythologized sequence of events that led up to his resurrection, with a sordid tale replete with implied necrophilia, eating disorders, obsessive behaviors, seduction and purchase of sexual favors with food, possible group sex, dereliction of duty, body snatching and corpse abuse.

Finally ”The Tale of the Ephesian Widow” makes a literary allusion that suggests rather than being a miraculous child of god, Jesus was the illegitimate child of rape.

In short the Satyricon‘s author, hid a devastating attack on the validity of the Christian foundations legend inside a mildly off color morality tale.

In light of the above the dating of the Satyricon needs to be reconsidered.

It is the general scholarly consensus that the canonical gospels were not written until after the end of the First Jewish Revolt.  Flavius Josephus completed Antiquities of the Jews during the last decade of the 1st century CE (7).

The text of the Satyricon refers to an actor who was active during the reign of Caligula ([11]) and to a musician who received an award from Nero ([12]).

Therefore, the Satyricon was written at a time when popular entertainers from Nero’s era were still remembered, and after the Christian Gospels become accessible to a Roman author.

This places the authorship of the Satyricon after Nero’s reign ([13]), most likely during the period of the Flavian dynasty ([14]), when there would still have been first hand memories of performers from the time of Nero.  Petronius Arbiter ([15]), who is traditionally assigned authorship of the Satyricon, died in 66CE.  It is therefore highly unlikely that Petronius Arbiter was the author of the Satyricon.

The author of this essay is not alone in proposing that the Satyricon was written after the reign of Nero.  Similar proposals have been made in the French literature ([16]).

In a subsequent essay, I will show that the Satyricon contains additional references to the Christianity, as well as allusions to more texts written during the last decade of the 1st century CE.  In that essay, I will offer a hypothesis about the dating and authorship of the Satyricon and how this bears upon the Synoptic Problem.


David Blocker, 2014/04/23

(I wish to thank Roger Viklund for his skillful editing, and for bringing Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale to my attention.)


[1] Many translations and editions of the Satyricon are available on line and in well stocked book stores.  Many essays about the text, the complex manuscript history of the Satyricon, and the extensive controversies surrounding the work are available at university libraries and on the many web pages devoted to the Satyricon.  The literature on the Satyricon is voluminous, contentious and dates back hundreds of years.  Caveat Lector.

[2] The Widow and the Soldier / The Fables of Phædrus, Literally translated into English prose. Translator: H. T. Riley, C. Smart, 1887, Fable XIV – The Widow and the Soldier, p 443. Phaedrus (c. 15 BC – c. AD 50) was a Roman fabulist.  Phaedrus is known for rewriting Greek fables into Latin verse.

[3] The literary trope of lovers meeting in a tomb has a long history.  Plautus’ ”Widow and the Soldier”, the Satyricon‘s ”Tale of the Ephesian Matron”, the 2nd century CE ”Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes” by Xenophon of Ephesus, ”The Apocryphal Acts of John the Apostle” traditionally ascribed to Leucius Charinus, and of course William Shakespeare’s ”Romeo and Juliet” all contain variations of the ”lovers in a tomb” theme.  John 20: 11-18, in which Mary encountered the post mortem Jesus outside his tomb, probably should be included in this story genre.

[4] A shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or pointless punchline.  In the case of the ”Ephesian Widow”, the focus of the narrative is suddenly shifted from the seduction of the virtuous widow to the town’s people’s bewilderment at the undignified reappearance of her late husband’s corpse.

[5] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.4 (18.066 et seq.)

[6] The Toledoth Yeshu is a biography of Jesus that was circulated among Jewish communities.  Book that contain some historical information about and transcripts of various manuscript versions of the Toledoth Yeshu are listed below.

Toledot Yeshu: The Life Story of Jesus, 2 vols., Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

J.P. Osier, L’Evangile de Ghettoe; Berg International; Paris, 1984.

Hugh Schonfeild, According to the Hebrews: A New Translation of the Jewish Life of Jesus (the Toldoth Jeshu), with an Inquiry Into the Nature of Its Sources and Special Relationship to the Lost Gospel According to the Hebrews, Duckworth, London, 1937. (This book contains a censored version of the Toledoth Yeshu, the account of Miriam’s rape was not included in the translated text of the Toledoth Yeshu.  The book does contain a useful comparison of the Toledoth Yeshu to other texts.)

Samuel Krauss; Das Leben Yeshu nach Judischen Quellen; S.Calvary, Berlin, 1903.

[7] Antiquities of the Jews (Greek: Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία, Ioudaikē archaiologia; Latin: Antiquitates Judaicae), is a 20-volume historiographical work composed by the Judean historian Flavius Josephus in the 13th year of the reign of the Roman emperor Flavius Domitian, c. AD 93 or 94.

From: , retrieved 2016/04/16.

[8] The earliest dates of the Toledoth Yeschu which have some scholarly backing lie between the 3rd to 5th century CE.  However, the accompanying Table shows that narrative units of the Toledoth Yeschu have parallels with the Satyricon‘s ”Tale of the Ephesian Widow”.  The Satyricon is generally considered to date to the mid to late 1st century CE.

[9] Cabaniss, Allan; ”A Footnote to the Petronian Question”, CPh 49, 1954; pp. 98-102.

”The Satyricon and the Christian Oral Tradition,” Greek, Roman & Byzantine Studies, Vol. 3, 1960, pp. 36-9.

“The Matron of Ephesus Again: An Analysis,” Univ. of Mississippi Studies in English 3; (1962) 75-77. [Also in Liturgy and Literature: Selected Essays (Alabama, 1970).]

The Satyricon and the NT, A Satire. Liturgy and Literature, Selected Essays, University of Alabama Press, 1970, p. 72-96.

Harris, William (January 20, 1926 – February 22, 2009), Professor of Classics at Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT.

”There is no space to go into this here, but it seems clear that someone who misunderstood Christianity totally, heard of Christ’s entombment and crucifixion, and turned it into an odd form of comedy. This needs further study and discussion….”

Posted at

”We should look at this from the perspective of historical evidence. If the Petronius storyline may be considered even as indirect evidence that there was an awareness, howsoever vague and transposed, of Christ’s final state, it does establish the fact that the crucifixion of Christ was becoming known in secular circles throughout the West. And it further helps document a date for Petronius (who has never been properly dated) as near the end of the first century A.D.  I find this matter so strange and unparalleled by anything else we have from the early years of the first millennium, that I hesitate to propose the matter in documentable academic terms, and offer this view primarily as a suggestion for consideration. On the other hand the segments of the argument as I have outlined them seem to fit together ineluctably. It is essentially the interpretation of their meaning in a social and historical sense which gives me pause.”

Posted at  Retrieved 2016/4/21.

Ramelli, Ilaria; The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts; Ancient Narrative, Volume 5, Groningen; 2007; pp 41-68.

[10] The Greek Philosopher Celsus, who wrote during the 2nd century CE was also aware of the non-miraculous, somewhat sordid Jewish account of Jesus’ conception and birth.

”Let us return, however, to the words put into the mouth of the Jew, where ‘the mother of Jesus’ is described as having been ‘turned out by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera’.” In Contra Celsum by Origen, Henry Chadwick, translator; Cambridge University Press: 1980;  p. 32.

[11] Appeles, a tragic actor during the reign of Caligula (d.41 C.E.).  Petronius, The Satyricon and Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis; J. P. Sullivan, Translator; Penguin Books; 1965; footnote 50, p. 191.

[12] Menecrates, a lyre player honored by Nero (Suetonius, Nero, c. 30).  Petronius, The Satyricon and Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis; J. P. Sullivan, Translator; Penguin Books; 1965; footnote 70, p. 192.

[13] Nero was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68CE.

[14] The Flavian dynasty – 69CE to 96CE, encompassed the reigns of Vespasian (69–79), and his two sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96).


[16] ”Les interrogations subsistent quant à la période de rédaction du Satyricon. Il existe de nombreux parallèles entre le texte de Pétrone et des auteurs tels Martial, Tacite et Pline le Jeune, qui rédigent tous leurs œuvres sous les Flaviens ou au début de la dynastie des Antonins. Or Martial cite généralement ses modèles et ne mentionne à aucune reprise Pétrone et le Satyricon. Il paraît aussi difficile de croire que des écrivains comme Tacite ou Pline aient copié des passages d’un récit aussi salace. Il est par conséquent plus que probable que c’est le Satyricon qui parodie ces divers auteurs et non l’inverse. En revanche, en 120, c’est Juvenal qui pastiche à son tour le Satyricon (au livre 3 de ses Satires), ce qu’il ne fait pas dans les deux premiers livres parus en 116. Cela donne comme période de rédaction probable les années allant de 116 à 120.  Pour Nicole Fick cependant, le roman a été écrit entre la fin du règne de Néron (en 68) et le début du règne de Domitien (vers 90) … ”  Extracted from, 2016-02-12.

(”There are many parallels between the text of Petronius and authors like Martial, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, who wrote all their works under the Flavian or early Antonine dynasties.  However, Martial generally quoted his sources and yet did not mention using Petronius and the Satyricon. It also seems difficult to believe that writers like Tacitus and Pliny had copied passages from this salacious story.  It is therefore likely that it is the Satyricon that parodies the various authors and not the reverse. However, in 120, it was Juvenal, who in his turn made a pastiche of the Satyricon (in Book 3 of his ”Satires”), yet he did not do in his first two books published in 116. This gives probable drafting (of the Satyricon) during the period from 116 to 120.  According to Nicole Fick however, the novel was written between the end of the reign of Nero (in 68) and the beginning of the reign of Domitian (to 90) … ”  Machine assisted translation from French to English.)

It is the opinion of the author of this essay that the Satyricon was written towards the end of Domitian’s reign (c. 95-96 CE).  This will be discussed in greater detail in a future essay.


3 kommentarer

  1. DBlocker said,

    17 juni, 2016 den 22:39

    Petronius’ Ephesian Widow did not follow the guidelines for proper behavior laid down in 1Timothy. In fact she gleefully abandoned her chaste life of day and night devotions at her deceased husband’s tomb, and betrayed his memory in order to indulge herself to the fullest with the importunate soldier. She exchanged her life of self mortification for one of extreme self indulgence, confirming the weakness of the flesh and the ease with which an exemplary lifestyle can be discarded in the face of temptation.
    The authenticity of 1Timothy is suspect, but it probably does reflect early christian opinion of how widows ought to behave. This is another suggestion that the Satyricon was a critique of christian teachings.

    1 Timothy 5:5-6 (NIV) 5 The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. 6 But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”
    1 Timothy 5:12 ”Thus they (widows) bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.”


  2. DBlocker said,

    17 juni, 2016 den 23:18
    This essay offers some interesting insights about the Tale of the Ephesian Widow and its variants,including the multiple levels of meaning that were written into Petronius’ version. The author of the essay also came to the conclusion that the Tale of the Ephesian Widow contains a reference to Matthew 27:39-40, 28:11-15.


  3. 4 juni, 2019 den 02:01

    […] The Relationship Between the Satyricon’s “Tale of the Ephesian Widow” and Texts Associated wit… […]



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