“The brother of Jesus called Christ”: another Eusebian footprint in Josephus?

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by Neil Godfrey

There are several reasons for thinking the Jesus reference in Book 18 of Antiquities by Jewish historian Josephus is a forgery (or at least related to a marginal gloss imported into the main text by a copyist), and most would agree that it is at least a partial forgery. Those who think that Josephus made at least some sort of reference to Jesus Christ in Book 18 often turn to Book 20 where there is another reference to Jesus Christ, and conclude that the latter reference supports at least partial authenticity of the former.

The question of this Book 20 reference to “the brother of Jesus called Christ” is less clear cut than the one over the better known earlier reference to Jesus in Book 18 of Antiquities discussed in an earlier series of posts. This is partly because of a larger array of possible explanations, although common to them all is the fate of at least three Greek words.

This post (two posts) will bring out the pre-Eusebian evidence for this particular phrase, the different contexts of these pre-Eusebian references, and leave the curious to ponder at the end why it was from Eusebius onwards that we have our first witness to the text we all read in Josephus today.

In other words, the evidence that exists strongly suggests that it was not known in Book 20 of Antiquities until Eusebius said it was there. The evidence also strongly suggests why Eusebius might have felt a need to scribble a word or two or three (maybe more) into this passage in Book 20.

But first things first: Most of what follows is not my own thoughts, but my own distillation of the much more detailed and thought-provoking discussion by Earl Doherty in his The Brother of Jesus, (the One) Called Christ, which is the second part of his article, Josephus on the Rocks. My post is entirely my own take from Doherty’s argument, and should not be seen as a summary of his. He discusses in much more detail many issues I only allude to, and others I do not take up at all — although I believe they are all essential reading for anyone seriously interested in an honest appraisal of this question.

Next essential point: Jesus and James were very common names. There is even another Jesus mentioned as the successor to Ananus as high priest after the latter executed James.

Back to the question of the Book 20 reference. “the brother of Jesus called Christ”: This reference to Jesus (Book 20) is very brief and many think its function is simply to remind readers of what was said about this Jesus earlier in Book 18. But this interpretation raises two questions:

Question 1. The original Book 18 passage did not (originally) say Jesus was the Christ, so it would be pointless in Book 20 to try to identify Jesus as the one called Christ. Josephus at no point had described any of his many Jesus’s this way before. (Some would argue that Josephus wrote something else in Book 18, such as a hostile remark indicating he was opposed to those who called Jesus the “Christ”. This is mere speculation, however. It should be noted, further, that Josephus never in any other instance of would-be Christs (e.g. those who promised to part the Jordan River, or bring down the walls of Jerusalem) dares to offend Rome or his own conservative views by declaring that anyone referred to them as would-be Christs or Messiahs, even though it seems obvious to us that this is how others must have seen them. If Josephus really referred to Jesus in either Book 20 or 18, then it would mean that of the many who claimed to be, or were known as, Christs, Josephus made an exception for Jesus by informing readers he was known as such.

Question 2. Whenever Josephus makes a second reference to a person after there have been quite some “pages” since the first mention, he recapitulates enough detail to remind readers whom he is talking about again. (See Earl Doherty’s article, linked above, for examples initially from Steven Carr.) Why, then, would Josephus not do more to remind readers who this Jesus, brother of James, really was if he had been last mentioned as far back as 2 books earlier?

On the other hand, Josephus does sometimes make an obscure sketchy reference to a person leaving readers to wait a few sentences before he clarifies in more detail that person’s identity. It is quite reasonable to think that Josephus might have done the same in this instance in Book 20. Here a few lines after mentioning Jesus, brother of James, he tells us that Jesus, son of Damneus, was made the next high priest (– after the murder of his brother, James?) If it were not for the “called Christ” words, we would assume that the Jesus brother of James reference was pointing to the Jesus who became the high priest after the judicial execution of his brother James.

The Brother of Jesus called Christ, James by name in Antiquities 20.9.1


The Roman governor of Judea, Festus, had died, and his replacement, Albinus, was on his way to take over the governorship. Before Albinus arrived, a newly appointed high priest, the young Ananus, who had a reputation for arrogance, took advantage of the temporary absence of a Roman authority to

  1. illegally call a meeting of the Sanhedrin to judge and
  2. unjustly condemn an innocent man (a brother of Jesus, James by name) to death.

These acts roused strong opposition against Ananus and some reported Ananus’s illegal actions immediately to the Roman governor before he had yet arrived, and others reported him to the Jewish King Agrippa.

So Ananus was removed from the high priesthood, and replaced by Jesus.

The passage from ccel (I’ve paragraphed it to make it easier to skim read):

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator.

But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus.

Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.

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:

but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent.

Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Earliest references to the phrase, brother of Jesus called Christ:

Origen, writing from around the 220’s, is our first “surviving” witness to this phrase. Three times Origen asserts that Josephus wrote that phrase, and that it was used as part of a narrative in which Josephus supposedly declared that many Jews believed Jerusalem and their Temple were destroyed as punishment for the murder of James.

That is significant. Origen thrice claimed that Josephus wrote that many Jews (even perhaps Josephus himself) believed their nation was destroyed as punishment for the murder of James, the brother of Jesus called Christ. Twice Origen also speaks of this James as “James the Just”.

Yet just as significantly, no such narrative appears in our copies of Josephus. Compare the James passage above. There Josephus merely says that there was a James who, with several companions, was murdered unjustly by the high priest. Nor is there any suggestion that this James was known as “the Just”.

In his 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.

In his Contra Celsum (1:47)

For in the 18th book of his Antiquities  of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless— being, although against his will, not far from the truth— that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),— the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.

And again book 2 of Contra C:

Now in these it is recorded, that “when you shall see Jerusalem compassed about with armies, then shall you know that the desolation thereof is nigh.”  But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but in reality, as the truth makes clear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

There are several reasons for believing that Origen’s passage was definitely not a part of the Josephan Book 20 passage cited earlier and that we find in today’s copy of Josephus. The Josephan passage is about how evil the high priest was and how outraged his Jewish populace were, yet Origen’s story of James the Just being martyred would require that all the Jews fully supported the high priest in the murder of James; also Origen’s story of a Christian James does not make sense in the Josephan passage — why would murdering a despised Christian outrage the Jewish nation?; and Origen’s James is also renowned for his scrupulous adherence to the law, so on what grounds would Ananias have had him murdered as a law-breaker?

We will have to look further for the source of Origen’s narrative of the martyrdom of a Christian James the Just, and to see whether Origen was possibly confusing Josephus with a similar sounding name. (Perhaps significantly, Origen never tells us where in Josephus this passage was located.)

Other early Fathers wrote of the same account about James the Just, brother of Jesus, being martyred, and whose martyrdom was the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, but attributed it to Hegessipus.

Will maybe complete next post tomorrow . . . .