6 More Reasons to Question Josephus’ “James the brother of Jesus” passage

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by Neil Godfrey

Josephus does, in Jewish Antiquities, have two passages on the emergence of Christianity and the persecution of its followers, involving Jewish jurisdiction, but both are suspected of being interpolations. (Efron 1987, p. 333)

Warning: this post addresses a small section of a work by Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period, that was not been well received by all reviewers. John Collins, for example, wrote of the section that I cover here:

The final chapter, on the Great Sanhedrin, is peripheral to the main theme of the book. E. denies that there was any uniform tradition about the Great Sanhedrin, but finds that the NT Sanhedrin “was created in the bosom of Christian theology” (p. 337).

Efron’s book shows extensive familiarity with the history of scholarship and is richly documented, but it is a work of apologetics rather than of history. For E., the solidarity of pietism and the Jewish state is primary. Any contrary view is “distorted.” Equally, anything that seems to anticipate Christian theology cannot be Jewish. (Collins 1990, p. 373 — my emphasis)

Louis Feldman is less harsh in his review but nonetheless identifies the bias. Efron attacks contemporary scholarly reconstructions of various intra-Jewish political rifts and conflicts in “a strident tone” and dismisses anything that would blur Jewish distinctiveness from Christianity:

The main, and most controversial, thesis of this work is that the Hasidim and the Hasmoncans cooperated throughout their revolt against the Syrian Greeks, and that this cooperation continued with the later Pharisees. The reconstruction of this period often rests upon the Pseudepigrapha, notably the Psalms of Solomon. But Efron dismisses such evidence as betraying a hidden Christian viewpoint . . . (Feldman 1994, p. 87)

You have been warned. Read at your own peril. Read critically (as you always do).


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Antiquities, 18.3.3)

Many readers are familiar with the passages. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, describes Jesus as “a wise many if one ought to call him a man” and even states that “he was the Messiah” and his followers were righteous “seekers of the truth”, he performed miracles, was unjustly condemned to death at the instigation of the Jews, appeared to have been resurrected three days later, etc. If Josephus wrote the passage as we have it then he was clearly himself a Christian and we are left perplexed over everything else he wrote in defence of “Judaism”.

The fourth century bishop Eusebius quoted the passage but the third century Origen did not see it in his copy of Josephus.

But don’t many scholars agree that the passage as it stands cannot have been written by Josephus while remaining certain he must have written something about Jesus nonetheless? Many do. Efron’s opinion of these efforts:

Various proposals, speculations and attempts to reconstruct from it some authentic core have produced only dubious hypotheses.213

213 . . . . The scholars positing authenticity (complete, partial or emended) have recourse to casuistic speculations or arbitrary textual alterations. See R. Laqueur, Der jüdische llistoriker Flavius Josephus (Giessen 1920), p. 274ff.; H.St. J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian (New York 1967, repr. of 1929ed.),p. 125ff.; F. Dornseiff, “Zum Testimonium Flavianum,” ZNW 46 (1955): 245ff.; A. Pelletier, “Ce que Josephe a dit de Jesus,” KEJ 124 (1965): 9ff.; D. Flusser (see n. 190), Yahadut u-Mekorot ha-Natzrut, p. 72ff .; F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Gr. Rapids Mich. 1974), p. 32ff.

And once more:

Classic examples of the practices of Christian copyists and editors in transposing suitable additions and adding them to Josephus can be found in the Slavonic version of Jewish War.

The arguments have gone back and forth “for generations” (Efron’s words) and we have posted at length on them here.

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. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; 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, 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 sanhedrin 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. (Antiquities, 20.9.1)

We have also discussed the second passage at length. But Efron has more to add and the rest of this post sets out why he also rejects this passage as genuine to Josephus.

Efron observes that this second passsage (see inset) portrays the Sanhedrin in a way very similar to the New Testament’s viewpoint: very harsh, even evil. Likewise the Sadducees are said to be “very rigid” or “severe”, translatable as “savage” (Efron), more than any other Jews. And Ananus belongs to this “savage” sect and is further described as “extremely bold and brazen”.

Enough good citizens, however, complained to the authorities about the injustice against James committed by Ananus and had him removed from the priesthood.

1. Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views

Efron sees in these portrayals of the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees and Ananus too much New Testament. In Josephus’s earlier work on the Jewish War we find Josephus expressing the “polar opposite” view of Ananus, “overwhelming him with praise”, “devoting an emotional eulogy to him”. As for the Sadducees, Josephus in the earlier work never betrayed a hint that they were in any way to be faulted for their religious practices and views.

Could not Josephus have changed his mind by the time he wrote Antiquities?

It is true that opinions and evaluations sometimes change in Josephus’ second and more critical version. Thus, in his apologetic autobiography, Josephus in self defense somewhat dims Ananus’ lustre, but there is no trace of a diametrically opposite view of him.216 Acts of the Apostles, however, in a picture resembling the dubious episode outlined above, stresses the unfavorable aspects of Ananus (Annas) the high priest, and his Sadducee retinue, avidly persecuting the Christians without pity.218

216 Bell. II 563, 648, 651, 653; IV 151ff., 162ff. 193ff., 208ff., 288ff., 316ff.; Vita (38) 193ff.;(44) 216, (60) 309.

218 Acts 4:6ff.; 5:17ff.; Luke 3:2; John 18:13ff. To the two forged passages should be added the extremely suspect testimony in Josephus (Ant. XVIII 116 ff.) on John the Baptist carrying out a baptismal ceremony in the Christian spirit to atone for sins, without a sacrifical offering and without the Temple, contrary to the Torah. The term “the Baptist” and the man, unknown in Jewish tradition, as is baptism to obtain forgiveness for sins through purification of the body after purification of the soul (as in Heb. 10:22) show this to be a Christian version. A number of scholars came to this conclusion long ago: D. Blondel, Des Sibylles (Paris 1649), p. 28 ff.; Richard Simon (Mr. de Sainjore), Bibliotheque Critique, vol. 2 (Paris 1708), p. 26ff.; H. Graetz, Geschichle (see n. 8 above), vol. 33, p. 293 ff. Origen (n. 223 below) already knew the dubious passage: Contra Celsum 147. (Efron 1987, pp. 334-35)

2. Another “astounding connection with … Acts”

Who are the “most equitable of citizens” who opposed the Sadducees? The Josephan passage is vague. To Efron,

the vague expressions in the passage regarding respectable, strictly observant Jews disgusted by the persecution of the Christians, hint obscurely at an anonymous group of typical Pharisees.

Acts likewise presents the Pharisees, led by the great teacher Gamaliel, as restrained, forgiving, even sympathetic to Christianity. They are the bitter enemies of the “cruel” and “malicious” Sadducees.

One more point of contact with Acts is the penalty of stoning. Stephen was stoned in Acts; the stoning penalty in the suspect passage of “pseudo-Josephus” is left unexplained. (Efron 1987, 335)

3. Historical ignorance of Roman governance

The “pseudo-Josephan” text speaks of a sudden power or administrative vacuum arising as a result of the death of the Roman procurator and before his successor arrived. But that’s not how Roman administration worked. Other imperial officers and officials were still present to maintain order and justice. There was also the legate-governor of Syria overseeing the region.

It is not plausible to think that a Jewish official was free to act in defiance of Roman law in that context.

Note further oddities in the narrative. The opponents of Ananus appeal not to one authority but to two: both king Agrippa and the next procurator on his way, Albinus. Were the opponents of Ananus confused about whom they should approach? Or was it the author who was ignorant of who would have been in charge at that time. Finally,

Did the procurator need the clarification and guidance of the Jewish delegation so as to recognize his own full authority and exercise it? And why wasn’t Ananus properly punished for his terrible crime?

4. A Josephan anomaly concerning the high priest

Fourthly, despite Josephus’ patent inclination to glorify the high priesthood, he does not make the slightest mention, except in this “Christian” passage, of the convening of the Sanhedrin by the high priest subject to the governor’s approval, and there was no lack of opportunity in the years close to the Great Revolt, the events of which Josephus records.

For Josephus, it was not the high priests who ruled at this time but the aristocracy. The leadership of the people was not in the hands of a single high priest, according to Josephus elsewhere, but to “groups of chief priests” heading the Sanhedrin.

We learn from Josephus that it was the king, Agrippa II (or earlier, Hyrcanus II), who convened the Sanhedrin, not the high priest of the day.

5. The passage “absolutely opposes Josephus’ consistent hostility”

From Josephus’ information it is quite clear that the Roman authorities neither awaited nor needed judgements and trials by Jewish institutions in order to persecute and destroy false prophets and saviors who aroused the Jewish public and posed a threat to the regime.174

174 Josephus, Bell. II 258ff.; Ant. XX 97ff., 167ff., 188. Possibly some help was provided of course, by Jewish circles or official bodies, because the councils appointed and representing the public were responsible for maintaining order and would turn over, or were required to turn over Jewish offenders to the authorities … for punishment. Josephus’ detailed descriptions are clear and decisive. The Roman authorities did not implement sentences passed by Jewish courts. Consequently the Gospel interpretation is that Jesus was “handed over” to the Gentiles or to Pilate; Matt. 17:22; 20:18-19; 26:2; 27:2; and parallels. The term used fits Isaiah’s prophecy according to the Septuagint (Is. 53:12), that is, the notion of the tortured Servant of God represented by the figure of Jesus: παρεδόθη εις θάνατον ή ψυχή (ΐύτοϋ. Cf.: Acts 313; 1 Cor. 11:23; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2; Rom. 4:25; 8:32.

Fifthly, the admiring neutrality in this questionable testimony regarding the mysterious figure of Jesus “called the Messiah (Christ)” with no explanation of the unusual epithet (as in the previous passage), and without the least reservations, is most astonishing. Pilate too, compassionate and good-hearted, according to Matthew, adopts a similar ambiguous expression about the one “called the Messiah (Christ)’’ as does Matthew himself.221 Such a strange, tolerant, ambiguous definition is absolutely opposed to Josephus’ consistent position and his demonstrative hostility to fermenting dangerous messianic aspirations and the many dangerous movements of various misleading saviors and false prophets.222 What is the reason for his surprising deviance? Christianity was then illegal, abominated by the authorities, and widely disliked in Rome. Not only from the fundamental Jewish point of view but also because of the apologetic purpose embedded in Josephus’ work, there was no good reason to express fondness or compassionate understanding for the invidious inimical church. (Efron 1987, p. 336 – my bolding)


221. Josephus, Ant. XX 200: τον αδελφόν Ίησοΰ τοϋ λεγομένου Χρίστου κτλ.; Matt. 1:16 — έγεννήθη Ίησοϋς ό λεγόμενος Χριστός; Matt. 27:22—Ίησοϋν τόν λεγόμενον Χριστόν

222 See n. 174 [in side box].


6. External evidence strengthens the case for interpolation

Origen (third century) quotes a version of the same passage, Efron writes, and adds that it was the unjust execution of James that was the reason God ordained the destruction of the Jewish nation and its Temple. Origen expresses some dismay that Josephus acknowledged how righteous James was but failed to believe in his brother, Jesus.

The deviant version cited has not survived in any manuscript, but Eusebius copied it in his Ecclesiastical History, added a legend told by Hegesippus about the circumstances of James’ death, and also the version generally found today of the Josephus passage.223 The vicissitudes and textual changes of the suspect chapter suggest arbitrary false corrections in it, since it became a tool of Christian propaganda.

223 Origen, Contra Celsum, I 47, II 13, PG 11; idem, Commentarii in Matthaeum (13:55) X 17, PG 13; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II 23 (LCL), ed. K. Lake, vol. 1 (London 1953); Schürer, Geschichte (see n. 6), vol. I4, p. 58If. However, Schürer’s critical conclusion was reversed in the New English Version (by an excursus of Paul Winter), vol. 1 (ibid.), p. 428ff. The authenticity of the passage is defended by numerous scholars such as M. Goguel, La Naissance da Christianisme (see n. 203 above), p. 144 ff.

(Efron 1987, p. 336. My emphasis)

Efron concludes unequivocally:

This passage is an insertion, and by its contents and style can only be a Christian interpolation.224

224 Josephus obviously totally disregarded the young Christian congregations in their first stages of development, despite his extensive detailed descriptions of the period before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Revolt. As a historian and writer addressing non-Jewish readers, defending Judaism and aspiring to gain appreciation for it, he preferred to delete sensitive, inconvenient manifestations likely to arouse a negative reaction and controversy. The three “Christian” passages — the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of his brother James and John the Baptist’s death — are exceptional in spirit as well as in their artificial contextual interpolation. Similarly Josephus’ contemporary and rival, Justus of Tiberias, author of a Jewish history in Greek, who did not however renounce his people, made not the slightest mention of Jesus or the miracles he wrought, as noted in Byzantine Christian testimony of Photius, Bibliotheca, Codex 33, PG 103; Photius, Bibliotheque, ed. R. Henry, vol. 1 (Collection Bude-Paris 1959), p. 18L: τής Χρίστου παρουσίας και των περί αυτόν τελεσβέντων καί τών ύπ’ αύτοΰ τερατουργηθέντων ούδέν δλως μνήμην έποιήσατο. See also Τ. Rajak, “Justus of Tiberias,” CIQ 23 (1973): 345 ff. Philo’s complete silence is equally significant.

(Efron 1987, pp. 336f. My bolding)


Joshua Efron’s arguments differ from those of Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier. As for my own view, I am less averse than either Doherty or Carrier to acknowledging arguments for interpolation, although I would like  a little more time to think through some of the arguments above before running too fast with them. I presume Joshua Efron is not a mythicist and has relied entirely upon both internal analysis of the evidence and external corroboration.

Efron’s primary interest is in the historical reconstruction of Second Temple governance and his final chapter zeroes in on the question of “the nature and status of the Great Sanhedrin”. His discussion of what we learn from Josephus in the passages relating to Christian events comes in this context of a much broader historical investigation.

Without overlooking Efron’s evident bias according to John Collins (see review note above), I quote his final paragraphs, adding my own bolded emphasis:

Having surveyed the basic testimonies let us review the main conclusions. A careful analysis using the tools of historical criticism shatters the basis upon which the predominant methods of modern academic schools are built, as well as the various syntheses. We do not presume to propose in their place any comprehensive outlook that could solve the whole complex of problems in this domain. Josephus and the other external sources (apocryphal and Hellenistic) do not confirm or support the genuineness in their time of the New Testament Synedrion (Sanhedrin) led by the high priest and organized according to a triple system (chief priests, scribes and elders). Its operations are not verified and its nature is not reflected by the historical sources. On the other hand, the various descriptions of similar councils (Boule or Gerousia or Synedrion) in those sources do not embody oppositions and contradictions to the original talmudic tradition of Eretz Israel, which stipulates a Great Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stones and its branches woven into the fabric of an ideal code that was never fully realized after the Return to Zion. Such a Sanhedrin is not anchored at all in factual history except in fragmentary and defective form. The basic early conception was muddled in the Babylonian Talmud and its influential ramifications which suggested continuity in the existence of the Great Sanhedrin up to the Byzantine times. As a result there emerged a mistaken impression and illusion of a single uniform tradition in an imaginary picture that mixes concepts and ignores boundaries and differences between far-removed periods.

The original talmudic Great Sanhedrin with its branches is therefore not an exact reflection of any real historical entity. In the drawing up of its image, accomplishments and plans, halakhic rulings, ordinances and experience, customs and manners, the products of the Hasidic and Pharisee circles were intertwined and engulfed. Their initiative was responsible for the founding of courts and colleges, for judgement and instruction which had salient positions and considerable authority in the events of the time, between the Hasmonean Revolt and the destruction of the Temple, alongside official governmental institutions. The New Testament Synedrion (Sanhedrin) too absorbed some rumors and recollections, though faint and shallow, of the recent history and destiny of the Jewish people. Even some points of resemblance to the Jerusalem council (Boule) appear there, but in an abstract artistic blend, uprooted from the soil it sprang from and exuding foreignness. The New Testament Synedrion (Sanhedrin) was created in the bosom of Christian theology, nurtured by its characteristic tenets and trends in order to provide a concrete, albeit artificial, representation of Jewish leadership that denies and contemns the wondrous heavenly savior. In contrast, the talmudic Sanhedrin is firmly planted in the philosophy and actions of the Pharisees and their successors who seek to reform their world. Its roots reach down to the reality and sublime visions of the Second Temple generations.225

225 In the original early talmudic tradition of Eretz Israel, the glorious, idealized, Great Sanhedrin reflects the notions, memories and aspirations of the Hasid-Pharisee folk movement that arose at the start of the Hasmonean period, continued to develop and ramify till the destruction of the Second Temple, and left its everlasting heritage to the ages.

Collins, J. J. (1990). Review of Studies on the Hasmonean Period (SJLA 39). The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52(2), 372–373. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719513

Efron, J. (1987). Studies on the Hasmonean period. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.

Feldman, L. H. (1994). Review of Studies on the Hasmonean Period. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 114(1), 87–88. https://doi.org/10.2307/604957

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7 thoughts on “6 More Reasons to Question Josephus’ “James the brother of Jesus” passage”

  1. Efron’s arguments are a very mixed bag, and I agree that caution must be exercised.

    But number 4 is demonstrably wrong. Efron is entirely correct to assert that there was no “Great Sanhedrin”, no standing council, and that this is a mythological institution (proably derived from popular imagination) subesequently enshrined in Talmudic literature. But the passage of Josephus that we are discussing doesn’t mention any such institution. It says that Ananus “καθίζει συνέδριον κριτῶν”, “convened a council of judges”. The addition of the qualifier “of judges” shows that this is not “The Sanhedrin” in the absolute sense used in the Talmud (and by the Gospels in the Passion narrative), but is an ad hoc convocation, entirely analogous to other appearances of the term συνέδριον in Josephus.

  2. Pervo in the Miracle of Acts writes of Paul being a member of the Sanhedrin, his membership giving rise to his authority to go to Damascus to arrest Christians.

    How does an ad hoc convocation have any power of arrest at all in its own country let alone in a foreign one?

  3. OP quote of Efron (1987), per Josephus’s putative—death of James passage: “The deviant version cited has not survived in any manuscript, but Eusebius copied it in his Ecclesiastical History, added a legend told by Hegesippus about the circumstances of James’ death, and also the version generally found today of the Josephus passage.”

    • Neil, please consider creating a Vridar blog post on Schürer’s argument (cited by Efron) for the possible interpolation of Antiquities 20.9.1 (§ 200) and the excursus of Paul Winter that reversed Schürer’s critical conclusion.

    Cf. Wells, G. A. (1996). The Jesus Legend. Open Court. pp. 54–55, 225, n. 19. ISBN 0812693345. Wells presents Schürer’s argument and also notes Winter’s excursus of Schürer (note-19).

    See: RationalWiki::Talk:Josephus_§_Wells,_G.A. —NB: expand the green bar “Scholars noted by Wells” to see the quoted citation.

  4. Jesus’ brother James shows up in the Talmud as Jacob of Sepphoris, and there is a decent amount of Christian Tradition like that in Hegesippus that suggest that he was killed in Jerusalem along the lines of Josephus’ passage. Josephus gets into a decent amount of detail about Jewish events leading up to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So James’ killing is the kind of event that Josephus could reasonably be expected to mention.

    Supposing that the killing occurred, Josephus’ account of it is not outside of what Josephus might say. He objects to the killing as a violation of law, but this is not really unexpected because Josephus has lots of criticisms of the religious factions and leaders of his era. A similar example is the Sadduccees’ killing of Honi the Wonderworker in the 60’s BC that Josephus narrates elsewhere. Josephus has a lot of stories like this.

    Unless I am going on the theory that Christianity did not exist before the Roman destruction in 70 AD, there is not really a strong reason to think that the passage about James is made up.

    Efron’s first argument is that the passage’s Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views. Efron as notes: “It is true that opinions and evaluations sometimes change in Josephus’ second and more critical version. Thus, in his apologetic autobiography, Josephus in self defense somewhat dims Ananus’ lustre, but there is no trace of a diametrically opposite view of him.”

    This is a vast understatement of Josephus’ antagonism to Ananus in his Vita, which was written closer in time to his Antiquities, which has the passage on James. In his Vita, Josephus says that Josephus’ opponent “persuaded the high priests, Ananus, and Jesus the son of Gamala, and some others of the same seditious faction, to cut me down…”

    The essay notes about the Testimonium on Jesus that “If Josephus wrote the passage as we have it then he was clearly himself a Christian and we are left perplexed over everything else he wrote in defence of ‘Judaism’.” But this is not really the case because it was common for 1st century Jewish Christians (“Nazarenes”) like James to be Torah-observant, as Acts 15 suggests. Anyway, the Testimonium does not have to be authentic in its current form for the passage on Josephus to be authentic.


  5. I was searching for an answer that you didn’t have in this writing. The Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus, Book XI, Chapter 7 is entitled “How John Slew His Brother Jesus In The Temple; And How Bagoses Offered Many Injuries To The Jews; And What Sanballat Did.”

    In this chapter, paragraph 1 states “Now Jesus was the brother of John, and was a friend of Bagoses, who had promised to procure him the high priesthood. In confidence of whose support, Jesus quarreled with John in the temple, and so provoked his brother, that in his anger his brother slew him.”

    This seems very odd and I can’t find any commentary on it anywhere online. This would not be editing by Christians because this would negate their entire belief.

    Could you comment on this or has no one commented on this because they consider it too controversial or heretical?

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