That ‘brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ storm in Josephus’s teacup

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by Neil Godfrey

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Much ado is made of this phrase about “Jesus who is called Christ” — that second reference in Josephus to Jesus. Many hang a lot of weight on it and even say it is the clinching evidence that proves Josephus knew of and spoke about Jesus in more detail elsewhere. By identifying James here as the brother of Jesus called Christ, it is logical to think that Josephus is referring back to an earlier discussion of his about that Jesus.

That might sound like an obvious explanation. But there are serious difficulties with it. And there are very good reasons for a quite different explanation.

(This post is a summary of more extensive ones I made some time ago. It recently posted this on another forum somewhere, and have decided to keep a record of it here as well.)

Some difficulties with the current phrase, “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ” in Josephus (Book 20 of Antiquities):

  1. The phrase does not identify which Jesus is the brother of James. Jesus was a common name, (there are 20 so named in Josephus), and few scholars believe Josephus ever wrote that any Jesus was “Christ”.
  2. It is inconsistent with the way Josephus normally re-introduced characters after their last mention being some time earlier
  3. It leaves unexplained why this James (supposedly renowned for his law-based life yet charged with breaking the law?) was murdered
  4. It is inconsistent with the other accounts of James being a Christian (the high priest would not have been so unpopular if James had been a Christian)
  5. It is inconsistent with the other non-Josephan accounts of the death of James. In other accounts, we read of a large gang of Jews collectively murdering him along with their leaders (with no reference to Ananus as in Josephus).
  6. It would be one of only 2 places in all of Josephus’s works where he says someone was said to be a Messiah or Christ — not even other clearly would-be messiahs were so described by Josephus
  7. It creates an unusual word order. Why would a passage about the wickedness of Ananus, with James as a target of his wickedness, be introduced by reference to a relative of that target, especially if Christ was not originally used in the book 18 passage earlier?

So the presumption that this phrase is original to Josephus encounters several difficulties.

Given these difficulties that arise with this phrase, and the history of other uses of this phrase as an identifier of James in early Christian literature, the case for interpolation is far from being ad hoc.

One case (not mine) for it being an interpolation is as follows:

  1. There was an early Christian legend that the fall of Jerusalem was the consequence of the Jews killing James the Just. This legend is always retold with the phrase that identifies James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ”

  2. This legend is always said to have been located somewhere in Josephus (or much later in the similar-sounding name of Hegesippus)

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 . . .”

  1. Despite this legend and its attribution to Josephus, we have no record of this tradition in any of the works of Josephus.

  2. We do have in Josephus the identifying phrase that is always associated with this tradition, the construction of which is generally noted for its unusual word order.

  3. This tradition attributing the fall of Jerusalem to the murdered James is not consistent with the orthodox Christian view that should have attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.

  4. According to many modern interpretations that this James in Josephus was a Christian leader, the narrative that we do find in Josephus would have us believe that Jews were so favourably disposed towards Christians and a Christian leader that they were all outraged over the persecution of one of them. This flies in the face of all our other evidence about the attitude of these Jews towards Christians.

Is there a single explanation that covers:

(a) the statements that the story of the murder of James who is always identified as “the brother of Jesus called Christ” was found in Josephus; and

(b) the fact that we have no such explanation in our copies of Josephus; and

(c) the unusual position of the story’s accompanying phrase “the brother of Jesus called Christ” in Josephus?

Yes, there is such an explanation.

Note that Jerome attributes the story to Hegesippus and not to Josephus, as had Eusebius and Origen before him.

(A fuller discussion on the possible confusion of Hegesippus and Josephus can be found here.)

Given the similar-sounding names of Hegesippus and Josephus, it is not impossible that Origen confused the two names in his memory when attributing the explanation that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jame’s murder to Josephus. Eusebius repeated Origen’s mistake.

An unorthodox Christian scribe at some point attempted to make up for the absence in Josephus of the story of James’ murder by inserting it into Josephus. Perhaps he believed, following Origen and Eusebius, that it should have been there, so put it there. Or maybe it was inserted for some other reason, even earlier, and Origen and Eusebius really did read it in their copies of Josephus. This scribe also, of course, included the identifying phrase “brother of Jesus called Christ” that had always accompanied the story.

Later, an orthodox Christian copyist who believed that Jerusalem would have fallen for its murder of Jesus, not James, removed the passage. He retained, however, the nice touch of the identifying phrase for James, “the brother of Jesus called Christ”.

This explanation has the advantage of being able to explain the following:

  1. how it is that there was an early Christian tradition about the story of James’ murder being found in Josephus, while none of our copies has such a story
  2. the unusual construction and position in Josephus of the phrase “brother of Jesus who is called Christ”

This explanation also has the advantage of consistency with the literary culture of interpolations of that era. I have discussed this in previous posts and more fully in A literary culture of interpolations and Forgery in the Ancient World and Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients.

Icon of James the Just (via Wikipedia)

The explanation has the further advantage of explaining why the phrase appears to be used as an identifier of James, when it in fact fails completely to do so. Josephus, after all, referred to several people by the name of Jesus, but not once to any by the label of Christ. At least this, I believe, has been the majority view, even at times the consensus, among scholars over the past hundred years and more.

It also explains why the phrase is positioned, unusually, before its subject, James.

It also has the advantage of explaining its curious echo in the most popular of all Christian gospels, that of Matthew — in Matt. 1:16, 27:17, 27:22. Also in John 4:25 and Justin Martyr First Apology 30.

Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I intend to demonstrate in a series of posts that there is legitimate room for informed, rational, scholarly debate over the historicity of certain events in the so-called life of Jesus. To disagree with E. P. Sanders and “mainstream scholarly opinion” is by no means to be equated with failing to engage the views and arguments of E. P. Sanders and other scholars sharing a majority viewpoint.

Yet public intellectuals from the field of biblical studies have disgraced themselves by declaring that if so-called “mythicists” disagree with the conclusions of the likes of E.P. Sanders and “the mainstream” they are comparable to “Young Earth Creationists”. (It is Intelligent Design advocates who misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and fail to engage directly with the substantial thrust of the literature they oppose, while “mythicists” do indeed engage seriously and with “mainstream literature”, while “historicists” have tended to remain apparently lazily ignorant and willing to distort and misrepresent mythicist arguments. So if the insulting comparison is to be made at all, it would seem to apply more to the “historicists” than to “mythicists”.) Associate Professor James McGrath inferred that the arguments of E.P. Sanders in chapter 1 of his book, Jesus and Judaism, are of sufficient strength and repute to justify ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with the historicity they supposedly affirm. Hence this post as the first of a series.

Before beginning, for what it’s worth, I do not see myself as a “mythicist”. I cannot see the point of taking such a stand — either mythicist or historicist — in any debate. (I don’t like adversarial debates anyway. I’m more an exploration and testing type of guy.) What surely matters is the examination of the evidence in attempting to understand Christian origins. The point is to be as intellectually honest as we can wherever the evidence and out testing of our hypotheses lead.

E. P. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus

Image by djking via Flickr

I will not at this point address all the arguments of E. P. Sanders over what is more widely known as the “cleansing of the temple” scene. Most of his argument is, in effect, an analysis of various proposed reasons or motives for the temple act of Jesus. As such, it assumes the historicity of Jesus. To the extent that his argument does address historicity, Sanders is arguing that Jesus must have done something in relation to the temple, otherwise we are left with no explanation for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. I see this sort of analysis as an exercise in the exposition of a literary narrative. It is misguided to assume without external supporting evidence that such an exercise necessarily yields up “evidence” of an “historical fact” external to that text. But for now, I will focus on the assumption of historicity per se, and not address each and every one of Sander’s “extremely common” ‘aprioristic’ points (i.e. ‘if Jesus did X, he must have done Y’) (p.9). I will reserve these for a future post when addressing Sander’s discussion of his method and the nature of a “good hypothesis”.

Sanders “establishes” the historicity of the Temple Act before commencing his attempt to explain its specific nature and motive. Indeed, it is its “indisputable” historicity that he claims is his justification for his chapter 1 discussion.

Sanders begins by noting the problems with gospel passages that narrate the temple incident (p. 9, my formatting):

  1. there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
  2. nor is there absolute certainty of the authenticity of either or both of the sayings about the destruction of the temple.

Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. (p.9)

To justify his assertion that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that a real historical event lies behind the narratives, Sanders explains:

The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable. (p.9)

This is called in the literature an example of “multiple, independent attestation”. We have three sources (the synoptic gospels, Acts and John), all presumably independent of one another, saying something like the same thing. This, it is argued, strongly suggests that we have three independent witnesses to a tradition that must be traced back to something Jesus really did do or say.

Later, Sanders again writes (p. 73):

. . . the tradition contained in [John 2.19], Mark 14.58, Matt. 26.61, Mark 15.29, Matt. 27.40, and Acts 6.14: Jesus threatened the destruction of the temple (and perhaps predicted its rebuilding after three days).

We seem here to be in touch with a very firm historical tradition, but there is still uncertainty about precisely what it is.

I will unpack the assumption of the “tradition” as the common source below. For now, I will note only that it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.

So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we let the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.

Paula Fredriksen’s on the “scholarly consensus” in relation to the Temple Act

Paula Fredriksen certainly accepts some form of temple act as historical, but also has the honesty to write:

In research on the historical Jesus, however, no single consensus interpretation ever commands 100 percent of the scholarly opinion. . . . Other critics, rightly observing the crucial role played by the Temple incident in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ story — without it, Mark would have difficulty bringing Jesus to the attention of the priests — question whether it ever happened at all. Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – my emphasis)

Fredriksen is not ignorant of E. P. Sanders’ views. She cites Jesus and Judaism in her biography and makes frequent use of his ideas throughout her work. I suspect she is thinking in particular of Burton Mack when she writes: “Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.” Mack’s A Myth of Innocence is also listed in her biography.

Burton Mack’s’ argument for the Temple Act being fiction

The act itself is contrived. Some gesture was required that could symbolize both casting out and taking charge with some level of legitimacy.

Demons would be too much, since Jesus is about to be taken. It would, in any case, have been implausible. But filthy lucre would do just fine. Taxes and the temple treasury had been hot political issues underlying much of the history of conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. The citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah could put Jesus on the safe side of the conflict, motivated by righteous indignation. Jewish authorities (scripture) could be used against Jewish practice. The subtheme of temple robbery, moreover, given with the citation from Jeremiah, was also most convenient. Temple robbery was a stock image of temple degredation in the popular imagination, combining criminal activity with impiety.

The first use of the theme in Mark is Jesus’ application of Jeremiah’s charge to those who brought and sold in the temple (that is, animals for offerings and money at foreign rates of exchange). This subtheme occurs at the arrest where Jesus chides the arresters coming after him as though he, not the money changers, were the temple robber (Mark 14:48). This develops the theme somewhat, playing on the symbolic significance of the temple act and putting the countercharge in his opponent’s mouth. At the trial the question of Jesus’ authority is the more important theme, but the temple act has not been forgotten. Jesus’ authority is related to the kingdom, the substitute for the temple,  thus builds (sic) upon the temple act as symbolically having taken charge. The hearsay about destroying the temple pushes the symbolism of the act in the direction of an exorcism (casting out as destroying). And underlying the charge of blasphemy is desecration, also related allusively to the temple act. When Jesus is crucified then, he is positioned between two robbers, that is, as one who desecrated the temple (Mark 15:27). Thus the subtheme is carried through to the end. It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.

The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his “instruction” and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (pp. 291-292, my emphasis. I have also broken up the first paragraph into three parts for easier web-reading.)

(Mack’s statement, “If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence”, addresses a point too rarely absent from “historicist” discussions about Jesus. Remove the scriptural embellishments and other plot devices and there is no ‘person’ left for history to see. This is why it is fallacious to claim that, since mythical associations do not discredit the historicity of ancient characters like Alexander or the Caesars, so therefore they should not discredit the historicity of Jesus. This argument misses the point: remove the mythical associations from Alexander and the Caesars and there is still plenty of ‘historical person’ left over to see. This is not the case with Jesus. But I am addressing here the correct logic of Mack’s argument. Mack himself accepts that there was an historical Jesus. One wonders, however, how Fredriksen or other “mainstream scholars” might have reacted if it had been a “mythicist” who expressed the above argument.)

The Origin of the story: Historical Tradition or Textual Tradition?

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