The origin of Saint Veronica: Berenice, Judean princess

Summary

In this post I speculate that the origin of the early Christian saint Veronica was the real-life Berenice, Judean princess and mistress/fiancée to Titus Flavius Vespasianus. I suggest that in the 80s CE, after Titus’s death, Berenice became a member of the Roman congregation of Mark and Flavia Domitilla. I suggest that for many decades after Berenice’s death, the congregation remembered this prestigious person’s membership, but began to refer to her under her Latin name “Veronica.” Eventually, a legend was created to justify the presence in Rome of an important early “Veronica” at the time of Pope Clement. The legend explained Veronica’s importance by placing her at the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The legend had a side benefit for the Roman congregation: possession of a holy relic (Veronica’s veil, imprinted with the face of Jesus of Nazareth). To summarize: first the real Berenice was a member of the Roman congregation in the 80s, then her name and a memory of her importance remained, then the name was Latinized to “Veronica,” then a legend was created to explain the importance of this name, then a holy relic justified by the legend was ‘discovered’ and displayed in Rome.

The history of “Veronica”

Here is the official church history of “Veronica” from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

In several regions of Christendom there is honored under this name a pious matron of Jerusalem who, during the Passion of Christ, as one of the holy women who accompanied Him to Calvary, offered Him a towel on which he left the imprint of His face. She went to Rome, bringing with her this image of Christ, which was long exposed to public veneration…. In [the version from] Italy Veronica comes to Rome at the summons of the Emperor Tiberius, whom she cures by making him touch the sacred image. She thenceforth remains in the capitol of the empire, living there at the same time as Sts. Peter and Paul, and at her death bequeaths the precious image to Pope Clement and his successors.

The Italian tradition (which is the only one I am concerned with) dates the presence of Veronica in Rome to the time of Mark, or even before. This Italian tradition associates Veronica with Pope Clement, whose traditional dates are 88-98 CE. I have proposed that “Pope Clement” refers to a freedman or associate of Flavia Domitilla’s husband, Titus Flavius Clemens. So the Italian tradition places “Veronica” and Flavia Domitilla in the same congregation in the 80s CE.

Family tree of the Flavians
Flavian family tree, ​English Wikipedia user Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The traditional Catholic explanation of the name “Veronica” is the transformation of “vera icon (eikon)” (true image) into the woman’s name. The weakness of this explanation is evident from the fact that “vera” is Latin and “eikon” is Greek. Why would believers use a hybrid term? Plus, the consonants VRKN do not line up with the VRNK of Veronica or the BRNK of Berenike! Further, the canonical gospels do not tell a story of a woman who wiped Jesus’s face with a cloth. The traditional Catholic explanation of the name “Veronica” thus invents a new episode in the gospel story, then argues that believers used a hybrid Latin-Greek term for a relic produced in that episode, then transformed the hybrid term into the person’s name. “Veronica” is three steps away from their inherited text! And it has the wrong consonants.

The Orthodox church explains the name differently. There, “Veronica” is the woman with the issue of blood. (The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus gives her name as Berenikē or Beronike—before 400). I suspect that the Easterners were forced into explaining a name used by the Roman church. Probably the Easterners did not wish to give any credence to a relic in Rome that they regarded as fraudulent. And very likely the name Berenice/Veronica was indissolubly associated with Rome. The Easterners therefore efficiently created an explanation from within the gospel story that did make “Veronica” early—as in the Roman legend, she actually “knew” Jesus of Nazareth—but she did not have any special powers, and indeed, she had been ritually unclean.

The genesis of “Veronica” in Rome

“Veronica” is the Latin version of the Greek “Berenice/Berenike.” The Berenice in Flavian Rome was a Judean princess of character and energy.* She and her brother Herod Agrippa II were the last of the line of the Herods. They were strong supporters of Roman power. They had lived in a Jerusalem palace, which was torched during the Jewish War. They moved with the victorious Flavians to Rome in the 70s, where they lived near (or in) the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. Berenice was apparently affianced to Titus, but rather than marry her he made her leave Rome. Titus died in 81 CE.

Berenice’s fate is unknown. But I suggest that the picture I have painted of Mark’s Roman congregation in my book allows me to extrapolate a plausible, albeit entirely speculative, scenario for the remainder of her life.

Let’s begin after Titus’s death, in 81. Look at life from Berenice’s point of view. She is 53 years old. Her palace in Jerusalem had been burned during the War, and she has now experienced the lifestyle of the imperial court in Rome. Her brother apparently is still alive in Rome. She is too old to start a new life elsewhere. As a client of the emperors, she will not return to Judea, as she no longer has any administrative power or social prestige there. It seems very likely to me that she returned to Rome, and lived in or near the imperial palace as a client of Titus’s brother, the current emperor, Domitian.

Where did Berenice carry out her social life in Rome? As a princess, she had no peers. She could not rely entirely on her patrons for her social life. I suggest that at some point she joined Mark’s congregation. (By the way, we should not infer that Berenice “believed in” Jesus as a divine intermediary between humans and YHWH. That was a nonessential point of doctrine. The social contacts with other high-status Judeans were much more important. People belong to religious organizations for social reasons as much as for doctrinal reasons.)

Berenice was positioned to be a mother figure to Flavia Domitilla. Born in 28 CE, Berenice was a generation older than Flavia Domitilla. Flavia was born between 61 and 66. Her mother died at the age of 21-22, when Flavia was quite small. Her father was a general who was frequently absent from Rome, and undoubtedly had no time for his young daughter. Probably Flavia was raised by slaves. Berenice was perfectly positioned to mentor this young orphan, whom she must have met regularly in Domitian’s palace. Berenice was obviously a woman of strong personality who had little to do. One has to wonder if it was Berenice who introduced Flavia to Judean religion and to Mark’s congregation…

So let us assume that Berenice joined and remained a member of Mark and Flavia’s congregation until her death, probably in the 80s. Members would have remembered the prestige of having had a Judean princess as a member! Over time, the details deteriorated into the memory of an important member named Berenice/Berenike/Veronica. The importance of that name had to be explained to current members. I suggest that only in the second century (or later) was the legend created of the woman at the crucifixion and her imprinted veil. Italian tradition places Veronica in Rome at the time of Pope Clement (88-98), which is approximately when the real Berenice died.

At some point, orthodox Christians in the East learned of the Roman claim that an early and important church member there had been named “Veronica” (in Greek, Berenikē), and had brought a relic to Rome. But the story of this Veronica had not even appeared in the gospels, and therefore the relic must be fraudulent. The Easterners had to accept the early date of Veronica, but assigned the name “Veronica” to a character in the gospel story who did know Jesus of Nazareth, the (taboo) woman with the issue of blood. The Easterners thereby accepted “Veronica” into their tradition without granting her any special status.

You may say, this speculation about Berenice’s membership in Mark’s Roman congregation might be true, but what about Josephus? He was a Judean of high status, yet you say that he was not a member of the congregation. (In the book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I state that I believe Mark insults Josephus as Joseph of Arimathea, a priest who touches a dead body. Mark would not have done so if Josephus was a member.) I address this issue further in a blog post.


Notes

*I describe Berenice as a woman of character and energy. It is possible that in the below quotations Josephus spotlights Berenice in order to flatter Titus (who was alive and involved with Berenice at the time Josephus wrote The Jewish War). But the facts that Berenice was 10 years older than Titus, and he gained no political advantage from the affair, suggests that she was a dynamic person.

About this very time king Agrippa was going to Alexandria, to congratulate Alexander upon his having obtained the government of Egypt from Nero; but as his sister Bernice was come to Jerusalem, and saw the wicked practices of the soldiers, she was sorely affected at it, and frequently sent the masters of her horse and her guards to Florus, and begged of him to leave off these slaughters (Jewish War 2.15.1)

But Agrippa, although he thought it too dangerous a thing for them to appoint men to go as the accusers of Florus, yet did he not think it fit for him to overlook them, as they were in a disposition for war. He therefore called the multitude together into a large gallery, and placed his sister Bernice in the house of the Asamoneans, that she might be seen by them, [which house was over the gallery, at the passage to the upper city, where the bridge joined the temple to the gallery,] and spake to them as follows… (Jewish War 2.16.3)

When Agrippa had spoken thus, both he and his sister wept, and by their tears repressed a great deal of the violence of the people… (Jewish War 2.16.5)

This advice the people hearkened to, and went up into the temple with the king and Bernice, and began to rebuild the cloisters… (Jewish War 2.17.1)

Now at the same time that certain young men of the village Dabaritta, who kept guard in the Great Plain laid snares for Ptolemy, who was Agrippa’s and Bernice’s steward (Jewish War 2.21.3)

(Addressing Justus) And thou hadst certainly been punished at the command of Vespasian, had not king Agrippa, who had power given him to have thee put to death, at the earnest entreaty of his sister Bernice, changed the punishment from death into a long imprisonment. (Life of Flavius Josephus, 65)


Note: Very likely a number of other scholars have linked Berenice and Veronica, but I first learned of the possible link from Joseph Atwill in the Youtube video “Mistress of Jesus Christ (Titus Flavius a.k.a. Jesus Christ” (July 13, 2013). I do not agree with the theories presented in the video.

Note: In another post, I conclude that the “Herodians” who were allies of the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark were added by an editor, and had nothing to do with Berenice and Herod Agrippa II.

version October 26, 2020: added * material at bottom

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