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.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “That ‘brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ storm in Josephus’s teacup”

  1. Robert,

    I’d like to talk about my doubts about your idea concerning Origen’s reading of Ant. 20, and I thought it might be better to continue the discussion here.

    As I said earlier, it does seem odd that Origen’s details about John the Baptist can be seen in Josephus, but not the details about James. Maybe he knew of a tradition about James and read that into Josephus, but does Origen ever use the expression “Jesus who is called Christ” when he is not talking about Josephus? If not, why only then? Maybe Matthew 1:16 was on his mind, but it seems odd that he would consistently use it, three times in two books, only when talking about Josephus. He is accurate about the details of John the Baptist in Josephus, and cites Paul’s exact words in Galatians. Why would he be “wrong” about James in Josephus, and always use “who is called Christ” when talking about it (and nowhere else)? Origen could have also been aware of traditions about John the Baptist. Why didn’t he read those into Josephus?

    Another nagging concern is that Eusebius (and I recognize that he is a questionable source), unlike Origen, actually quotes this “lost” passage (though like Origen, he doesn’t say where it was):

    “These things happened to the Jews in requital for James the righteous, who was a brother of Jesus known as Christ, for though he was the most righteous of men, the Jews put him to death” (EH 2.23).

    Maybe Eusebius made this up. It wouldn’t surpise me. But perhaps he’s just quoting Origen, who pretty much says the same thing: “[T]hese things befell the Jews as vengeance for James the just, who was a brother of Jesus who is called Christ, since they killed him who was most just.” In any event, I can’t say that this doesn’t sound like something Josephus could have written.

    The term “the Just” is used by Origen and Eusebius when referring to the James passage, but it does not appear in Ant. 20. While Origen (with Eusebius perhaps following him) could have read this into it, it is a normal enough Jewish expression that Josephus uses elsewhere: “He was called Simon the Just because of both his piety towards God, and his kind disposition to those of his own nation” (Ant. 12.43). It would also be normal if Josephus blamed “the Jews” for killing James, and said that God punished them for it, because he says the same thing about “Onias, a righteous man … such Jews that stood about him … stoned him to death. But God punished them immediately for this their barbarity, and took vengeance of them for the murder of Onias” (Ant. 14.22-25).

    As I said earlier, I’m not convinced that Josephus would have understood James (or anyone) as being “Christian,” as this term does not appear to have been in use in Palestine in the first century (Acts 11:26). I happen to agree with the idea that early “Christians” were the final stage of the Essenes, and that their writings are in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In any event, I don’t think there was anything so unusual about early “Christians” like James that would have made Josephus think they weren’t normal enough Jews, and even well regarded, like Simon and Onias. Perhaps his objection could have been that they had a different political orientation than his towards Rome (if they did). Even if the Essenes, in their final stage, were not James’ group, Josephus regarded them with admiration and as fully Jewish, even though the Dead Sea Scrolls may be evidence that they were messianic and opposed to foreign occupation (and some do fight in the war in Josephus). People like James weren’t that much different than this. In this light, the “lost” passage would not be strange at all. It’s disappearence is also understandable in light of Origen’s and Eusebius’ protests.

    It is not unreasonable to suppose that Origen is being as accurate about the James “the Just” passage as he is about the John the Baptist passage and Paul’s words in Galatians. And if Luke used Josephus, then so could Matthew and John. This scenario leaves nothing to interpolate into Ant. 20. It explains why (to my knowledge) Origen doesn’t use the expression “Jesus who is called Christ” anywhere else. And it is consistent with Paul’s saying that James was “the brother of the Lord,” which would also not have to be seen as an interpolation or explained away, and with later Jewish Christian belief that Jesus was a normal man who had a brother named James.

    I realize I may sound like a broken record, and I appreciate how succinctly you are able to make your points, but they still leave me with these concerns.

  2. John, you are making this far too difficult on yourself.

    Origen was aware of a tradition concerning James. The source of this tradition, for Origen, may have been Hegessipus, or someone else…who knows.

    Origen read this tradition into Ant. 20, as you find a James that is executed and a reference to a Jesus. (In fact, Origen refers to things not found in Jospephus, as being in Josephus, or maybe Origen’s original attributions were messed up later in transmission, again, who knows.)

    Someone, at a later time, copying Josephus, simply adds the reference “called Christ”, based on Origen’s conflating Ant. 20 with Christian tradition regarding James the Just.

    1. I like this idea. I want the issue to be this simple, but I have too many doubts to commit to it wholeheartedly. For now at least it has an equal weight in my mind as my doubts, and I wonder which side the scale will drop.

      FYI, I don’t need Jesus to exist. I don’t care if he did or not, and never have. Josephus could have never mentioned him, and if everything else about him could be proven to be a myth, it wouldn’t bother me a bit. I’m just trying to understand texts, whatever the outcome.

      A mythical Jesus would even help an idea I am invested in, Eisenman’s theory that the first “Christians” wrote (some of) the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that James the Just was the Teacher of Righteousness, Paul was the Spouter of Lies, and Ananus was the Wicked Priest. This relies (in part, but a very important part) on the understanding that the James in Ant. 20 is James the Just (the brother of Jesus who is called Christ or not). I confess that I am biased towards this, but there are a number of compelling reasons for suspecting this.

      But I see now that it could be a different James. This never occurred to me before. I’m not sure where to go from here, if it were the case. But bias or no bias, it does give me some thoughts.

      How likely is it that there were two people named James with a brother named Jesus (according to your thinking) who were stoned in Jerusalem during roughly the same time period? Well, that’s hard to say, isn’t it, but it’s not impossible. It would certainly explain Origen’s “confusion,” if that’s what it was. And I suppose it’s possible to shrug off this coincidence.

      I’m going to have to give this some more thought.

  3. I see that there’s a similar discussion going right now at frdb. I know that some of the people there also read Neil’s blog, but haven’t felt comfortable joining that forum, as I’ve never made a public profile before. I’m also a little uneasy at the level of rancor that seems to exist there, but I’m tempted to make the jump over there someday. I generally respect Neil’s inquiring mind and tone, and appreciate his tolerating my use of his forum to get my feet wet.

    One thing that doesn’t seem to be coming up in this discussion of the “lost” passage (if I haven’t missed it) is the Jewish War 4.318-325, which sounds exactly like what Origen claimed to see about James:

    “I should not mistake if I said that the death of Ananus was the beginning of the destruction of the city, and that from this very day may be dated the overthrow of her wall, and the ruin of her affairs … He was … a venerable and just man .. I cannot but think that it was because God had doomed this city to destruction … and was resolved to purge his sanctuary by fire” because of this.

    I’ve always wondered about this. All I can say for sure is that if this is genuinely Josephus, he seems to have changed his mind about Ananus (and other things) in the Antiquities and Life. It’s also a critical passage for identifying Ananus as the Wicked Priest in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    While re-reading Doherty’s online article Josephus On the Rocks recently, I was reminded of Jerome’s chapter 13 in Illustrius Men (on Josephus), which has some interesting information that doesn’t sound like anyone else’s Josephus (even the TF is slightly different). Eisenman also discusses it, and I’d like to refresh my memory of that again:

    “In the eighth book of his Antiquities he most openly acknowledges that Christ was slain by the Pharisees on account of the greatness of his miracles, that John the Baptist was truly a prophet, and that Jerusalem was destroyed because of the murder of James the apostle. He wrote also concerning the Lord after this fashion: In this same time was Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be lawful to call him man. For he was a worker of wonderful miracles, and a teacher of those who freely receive the truth. He had very many adherents also, both of the Jews and of the Gentiles, and was believed to be Christ, and when through the envy of our chief men Pilate had crucified him, nevertheless those who had loved him at first continued to the end, for he appeared to them the third day alive. Many things, both these and other wonderful things are in the songs of the prophets who prophesied concerning him and the sect of Christians, so named from Him, exists to the present day.”

    I don’t know what to think of this at the moment, other than the expression from an old TV commercial, “Calgon, take me away…”

  4. From Wikipedia (with references on that page)

    “Modern scholarship has almost universally acknowledged the authenticity of the reference to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” [12] and has rejected its being the result of later interpolation.[13][33][1][2][16] Moreover, in comparison with Hegesippus’ account of James’ death, most scholars consider Josephus’ to be the more historically reliable.[31] However, a few scholars question the authenticity of the reference, based on various arguments, but primarily based on the observation that various details in The Jewish War differ from it.[34][35]”

    1. You will notice that this blog is not content to parrot the conventional wisdoms (this blog has been expelled from the community of those who do that) but seeks to explore the reasons for them and to understand the basis of the arguments, including the history of their development. Sometimes interesting results appear to be found and I like to explore those.

      In the absence of the quotations from those cited sources and the presentation of the reasons or arguments presented by those scholars all this sentence is doing is informing us of the scholarly fashion or prevailing ideology of the day. The evidence has not changed since scholars took different views only a few generations ago. What has changed since then is society and social challenges to mainstream views. I have posted several times before my own belief that this shift in scholarly fashion has coincided with ecumenicism (also the shift in attitudes towards anti-semitism and Jews since both WW2 and the 1967 War).

      As for the brother of the Lord question a few scholars like Ehrman do question that consensus and one finds interesting results when one explores earlier literature. I have discussed those, too.

      Some people seem to think this blog should be replaced by posts repeating what the consensus scholarship has to say and never raise any questions or seek to explore how those conventional sausages came to be made.

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