There are two passages in Josephus that refer to Jesus Christ. The first one in Book 18 of his “Antiquities of the Jews” is widely known as the Testimonium Flavianum (TF) (=the testimony of Flavius Josephus). Another, in Book 20, is a briefer reference but it is cited in major works as authentic to Josephus, and not the work of a Christian scribe. It’s this latter reference under discussion here.
I have addressed F.F. Bruce’s discussion of the longer TF passage. A much more thorough discussion that I have yet to see any rejoinder to can be found on Doherty’s site. Doherty addresses there arguments of Peter Kirby. (Key sections of my argument below originated with Doherty’s essay.) There is also a homepage for Josephus‘ works. — arguably the most profitable part of this page for all is Monty Python and the Works of Josephus.
Here is the passage from Book 20 of Josephus’ Antiquities:
But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned . . . .
Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz in The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide state of this passage:
The authenticity of the text may be taken as certain; it is improbable that it is a Christian interpolation (p.65)
Robert E. Van Voorst in Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence writes:
The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic; as is the entire passage in which it is found. (p.83)
Reasons given between these authors to support authenticity
- the passage fits the context
- a Christian interpolator would have used more worshipful language to describe Jesus, such as “the Lord”
- if a Christian interpolator used the word Christ he would have used it as the name of Jesus, not as an identifying title, which was Jewish usage of the term
- the reason for the reference is to identify the particular James in question
- the passage is brief and matter of fact, neutral
- it merely identifies which of the several Jesus characters previously mentioned by Josephus
There is so little — none actually — non-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus that is not unambiguous and undisputed. So for the orthodox every scrap counts and, one can imagine, needs to be defended strenuously.
Comments on the above 5 reasons given for this passage’s authenticity:
1. Yes, the passage does fit the context, but that is neither here nor there as an argument for authenticity. Many passages authentic don’t fit their context according to our standards because Josephus did not use footnotes as we do. Non-contextual material that had to be presented as asides or extra notes had to simply be included as part of the main body of text. So even if this passage did not fit the context such an argument would not likely persuade anyone wanting it to be authentic. Further, if a scribal note had been written in the margin of Josephus such a note would naturally have to do with the context of what the scribe was reading, so even if it were later mistakenly included as part of the text, “contextuality” would tell us nothing about the passage’s authenticity.
- Although the content of the phrase may fit the context, the structure of it fits less easily. It is an awkward way to identify James by beginning “The brother of Jesus . . . ” One would normally expect James’ name to be first mentioned followed by the identifier.
2. I love this second argument, that a Christian interpolator would have used more venerable language to refer to Jesus. Why do some scholars seem to assume that every interpolator would have to be so stupid as to have their interpolations look like obvious forgeries? Yeh, right.
3. The third reason given is that the use of Christ as a title is a Jewish use of the term. Christians used Christ as a proper name of Jesus. Again, this runs up against the fact that the phrase Josephus uses is essentially found in both the Gospels of Matthew and John:
And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ (Matt.1:16)
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). (John 4:25)
So, yes, early Christians (many of whom were Jews) did use the phrase in the same way as their compatriots — even in the gospels. (The early Christian writings that use Christ as a proper name are mostly found in the letters of Paul, and Paul’s letters appear to have represented an isolated branch of Christianity until the second century when we find first clear attestation of them in the works of other Christians.)
4. The reference to Jesus the Christ is intended to identify James. Yes, it was Josephus’s habit to identify characters in some way like this but he does not identify every single person he names. And this passage is not about James. It is about the injustices perpetrated by Annus. There is no obvious reason here why Josephus would have any need to identify this James. Moreover, if Josephus was so identifying this James, this would mean Josephus is very likely aware that James is a Christian. Will return to this in my final section.
5. The passage is neutral in tone. Yes, sort of. But see point 2. But there is still a problem here and the mention of Christ is not necessarily as neutral as it first sounds. Josephus nowhere addresses the Messianic movements as messianic movements. He was too aware of the sensitivities such references would arouse among his Roman patrons. It is in fact UNcharacteristic for Josephus to identify one of his characters as the Messiah or Christ.
6. Problem. Even if Josephus did identify Jesus here as the one called Christ, he nowhere else so identifies any such Jesus! So this phrase does NOT serve to identify the Jesus (nor even the James) mentioned here. Result: We have a valid reason to question the authenticity of this phrase. (The passage in Book 18 that says “Jesus was the Christ” is generally recognized as an obvious and clumsy forgery — yep, some forgers appear not to have been very clever — or a marginal gloss accidentally incorporated into the main text at a copying stage.)
The Death of James the Reason for the Fall of Jerusalem
Origen (203-250 ce), Eusebius (ca.265-340 ce) and (almost) Jerome (ca.340-420) all claim to have read in their copies of Josephus a passage that blamed the fall of Jerusalem on the unjust execution of James, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ”.
And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the “Antiquities of the Jews” in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.
Eusebius’ Church History 2.23.20
Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says,”These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.”
Jerome On Illustrious Men Chapter 2
Hegesippus, who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem . . .”
So we know there was a “tradition” or reasonably widely acknowledged understanding among the very early Christian communities that attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of James, the brother of Jesus. This makes little sense in the context of our generally accepted view of the origins of the Christian myth. One can understand how Christians could attribute the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus in 70 ce (40 years after his crucifixion supposedly in 30 ce) but how could the link be made to James?And how can we seriously think that a Jew like Josephus would have attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of a Christian? Throughout his works he attributes his nation’s demise to hotheads of all sorts, but never in any way to the treatment of Christians! And Josephus knows absolutely nothing of James apart from his unjust treatment at the hands of Annus.
The legend of the graphic execution of James the Christian is found first in Christian circles. Eusebius cites Hegesippus at 2.23.3-19 for this.
Putting the pieces together
- An early Christian legend attributed the fall of Jerusalem to James the brother of Jesus.
- Early Christian authors claimed to find this tradition recorded somewhere in the works of Josephus.
- The tradition does not accord with the orthodox Christian view that should have attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.
- No works of Josephus known today contain this tradition.
- Conclusion: the legend appears to have been inserted into Josephus by early Christian copyists but these copies and their descendants were not preserved.
More focused now
- The earliest references we have to the legend of the death of James being the cause of the fall of Jerusalem are accompanied by the identification of James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ” — Eusebius and Origen and (close enough) Jerome.
- This legend is cited as being located somewhere in Josephus
- We have no such legend in Josephus but we do have this legend’s unusual identification of James found in Josephus
- This unusual identification in Josephus is found in connection with a passage narrating the unjust trial of James — reminding us of the related Christian tradition supposedly once found in early copies of Josephus
- Conclusion: An earlier (unorthodox) Christian interpolation accusing the Jews of bringing about their own downfall because of their treatment of James, the early head of the Jerusalem church, was excised by later (orthodox) Christian copyists. They retained, however, the phrase identifying the Josephan passage about James as the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ.
All of which still leaves us wondering how early Christians could have decided that the Jews were punished for how they treated James and not Jesus. Now that’s a question that brings us back to the historicity of Jesus. Paul in Galatians knows of James being a leader of the Jerusalem Church (Gal.1:19; 2:9, 12) but it is arguable that Paul knows nothing of an earthly Jesus (Romans 1:2-6 notwithstanding):
Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, certainly we now know him so no more. (2 Cor5:16) . . . [and] God . . . by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom.8:3) . . . et al.
But that’s a question to be argued another time. Though it has already been done very adequately elsewhere.
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