That other suspect entry in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

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

  1. the passage fits the context
  2. a Christian interpolator would have used more worshipful language to describe Jesus, such as “the Lord”
  3. 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
  4. the reason for the reference is to identify the particular James in question
  5. the passage is brief and matter of fact, neutral
  6. 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”.

Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 10.17

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

  1. An early Christian legend attributed the fall of Jerusalem to James the brother of Jesus.
  2. Early Christian authors claimed to find this tradition recorded somewhere in the works of Josephus.
  3. The tradition does not accord with the orthodox Christian view that should have attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.
  4. No works of Josephus known today contain this tradition.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. This legend is cited as being located somewhere in Josephus
  3. We have no such legend in Josephus but we do have this legend’s unusual identification of James found in Josephus
  4. 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
  5. 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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6 thoughts on “That other suspect entry in Josephus”

  1. Notice Josephus says that he was ‘called’ Christ (ho legomenos Christos), not that he WAS the Christ. This suggests that he knew that some people called him the Christ (and this DOES allow us to identify him because in the proposed ‘neutral’ reconstruction of the Testimonium he notes that ‘the tribe of Christians’ has not died out).

    Way to go putting a spin on what is going on here. In my opinion it is not the orthodox who are fighting for every scrap of external mention of Jesus (they only need it to answer extreme skeptics, really), but the Jesus mythers who are scrambling to explain away all the references that we DO have using all sorts of special pleading and of course that favorite of all ‘weapons’, interpolation!

    So in one passage the Christian forgers were too clever to refer to Jesus by too exalted a name, and in another they were too stupid and made it obvious that they had interpolated? Not to mention that you admit that Josephus did identify people in the way he does with James but ‘not always’. Come on.

  2. JD Walters Says:
    April 6th, 2007 at 11:46 pm e

    “Notice Josephus says that he was ‘called’ Christ (ho legomenos Christos), not that he WAS the Christ. This suggests that he knew that some people called him the Christ (and this DOES allow us to identify him because in the proposed ‘neutral’ reconstruction of the Testimonium he notes that ‘the tribe of Christians’ has not died out).”

    Josephus was not writing for “us”. My point stands. There is no prior Jesus he identifies as Christ by name or title. Christians would mean nothing in relation to identifying Jesus unless he had already identified Jesus as a Christ. Please think before replying. The reference to Christians is currently believed to be authentic by many but by no means all — it is at the least “disputed”. A courtroom deals in facts and certainties (not possibilities and plausibilities) and a courtroom would simply discard any evidence that smelled of tampering around the edges. I am not rejecting it as absolutely as that, but I am accepting its disputed and debatable status so would be simply foolish to try to rest any weight on it. That’s not radical scepticism, it’s treating the evidence with caution and respect for what it is.

    Your last paragraph tells me you are not seriously thinking about anything you read here but only knee-jerking. It is simply nonsense to imply that there is but one forger with one mind. You surely know darn well about forgeries within the field of both canonical and early christian literature and how it works. And you once again twist what I say to get a cheap laugh at your straw man. You know or ought to know that yes Josephus DOES identify and not identify people variously. Please write with a bit of serious thought and not with knee-jerk assumptions and straw men.

  3. “Christians would mean nothing in relation to identifying Jesus unless he had already identified Jesus as a Christ.”

    Allow me then to do something which you do quite frequently in support of your own ideas: raise a possibility. The passage was interpolated from an original which said “He was called Christ” and changed to “He was Christ”. This would fit Origens’ understanding that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus as Christ.

    “The reference to Christians is currently believed to be authentic by many but by no means all — it is at the least “disputed”.”

    Which is exactly what you need in order for your skeptical ideas to get off the ground, that the passage is disputed. Everything is disputed in ancient history! And since you call for courtroom certainty, I want absolute proof from you that both Jesus passages in Josephus are obvious forgeries, that it is not even possible that Josephus described the execution of James, brother of Jesus, and also a brief account of the ministry of one Jesus, who was ‘called’ Christ and that his followers did not stop clinging to him. I don’t rest ‘absolute weight’ on these passages. If proof of forgery comes to light, I will accept it.

    And as for the traditions of Origen, Heggesippus and Eusebius, why did the passage briefly mentioning James, brother of Jesus who was called Christ make it into our copies of Josephus, but these other references to the consequences of James’ death did not? Your twofold argument in steps is weak for two reasons: 1)there is no unambiguous attribution of the destruction of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus in the New Testament and 2)it would not be against orthodoxy to attribute the destruction of Jerusalem to James’ death; James was highly regarded in orthodox circles, and it was only because the epistle called James was thought to have originated with this James that it was included in the canon. Both the trial and death of James and Josephus’ attribution of the destruction of Jerusalem would have served orthodox apologetic purposes. So the question remains why one was retained but not the other.

    Multiple forgers there may have been. But your elaborate scenarios about who deleted and/or added what how where and when are very ad hoc. My remark about your comment on how Josephus names people was not meant to imply that you are wrong about how Josephus identifies people. It was simply to indicate that this identification by Josephus would not be surprising if it came from Josephus himself.

  4. JD Walters Says:
    April 7th, 2007 at 10:56 am e wrote:
    “Allow me then to do something which you do quite frequently in support of your own ideas: raise a possibility. The passage was interpolated from an original which said “He was called Christ” and changed to “He was Christ”. This would fit Origens’ understanding that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus as Christ.”

    I am quite prepared to accept tentative conclusions from the evidence by applying occam’s razor to any theoretical reconstructions. I don’t make up stuff like this. If I have presented arguments from possibilities as you are doing here — (I have spoken of the “fallacy of the possible proof” elsehere here — taken from Fishers book of Historians Fallacies — and don’t do those sorts of reconstructions.)

    You say “everything is disputed in ancient history”. Not so at all. That’s my point. We need to apply the same standards to biblical studies. There is no dispute about the existence and conquests of Alexander the Great, of the career of Julius Caesar, of the reign of Augustus, of the Athenian empire and Pericles and Euripides, and a whole host of other things. Why? Because we have real evidence for these — something completely lacking for the traditional orthodox views of church origins.

    You keep asking for, or seeing in the evidence available, “absolutes” — What’s wrong with possibilities and plausibilities and working our way through them to arrive at the most satisfactory, if tentative, conclusions?

    I haven’t created any elaborate scenarios — I am simply accepting the anomalies in the evidence, the awkward and unusual grammatical construction and the lack of prior reference to the Christ as indications that something is amiss — and when seen in the light of other legends then another possibility presents itself. Fair enough that the argument might be described as “weak”. I won’t argue with that. But I also see the argument that the phrase is original and authentic to Josephus is weak. The main thing it has going for it is the authority of the number of authors who seem to say it is authentic. But numbers games and arguments from authority impress me less than the reasons underlying the arguments themselves.

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