Is the Entire James Passage in Josephus an Interpolation?

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by Neil Godfrey

A Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, believes that the entire “stoning of James” passage — yes, that James who is said to be “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” —  in Josephus is a Christian forgery.

Now Efron does get under the skin of a few scholars when he argues with a sometimes abrasive style contrarian views relating to the Hasmonean period of Jewish history,  Christian influence in the Pseudepigrapha and views on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I have not read a rebuttal of his arguments about the existence, function and character of the Sanhedrin in the Second Temple period. I would be interested in doing so. Josephan scholar Louis Feldman acknowledges Efron’s “enormous learning”.

Of the New Testament references to the Jewish Sanhedrin Efron writes:

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. (337f)

Efron’s detailed survey of the evidence and all references to the word translated “sanhedrin” that the common image we have of a supreme ruling Sadducee body at the time of Second Temple Judaism is an anachronistic myth:

It is not purely terminological details but facts that prove the non-existence of the Great Sanhedrin at the end of the Second Temple period. Here Josephus appointed at his side in Galilee a high council of seventy in exercising his authority to judge criminal cases, and the zealots in Jerusalem set up a tribunal of seventy for capital cases. In these two salient cases there is no indication of any coordination or contact or of conflict with the sacred rights of the Great Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stones which alone was supposed to have seventy members. A Gerousia of the Jewish community of Alexandria, mentioned by both Philo and Josephus, had “seventy elders” in it according to the talmudic legend, with no reference at all to the supreme institution in Jerusalem. All these testimonies lead to the solid conclusion that from the time of the Return to Zion up to the destruction of the Second Temple there were representative, administrative, public bodies, intermittently appearing and disappearing as Gerousia, and Synedrion and Boule, but they were never identifiable with the talmudic Great Sanhedrin at the head of the judicial system that defines the law and disseminates the Torah among the people of Israel. (318)

With that background perspective, read again about the stoning of James in Josephus’s Antiquities. I have set Efron’s paraphrase alongside the Whiston translation. The sentences in italics are Efron’s introductory and concluding commentaries on the scene.

Josephus: Antiquities 20.9.1 (20:197-203) Efron’s paraphrase of Josephus: Studies, p. 334
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.

The second passage pictures an evil, harsh Sanhedrin, very similar to the one in the New Testament.

 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 sanhedrin of judges, The younger Ananus (or Annas), the high priest, son of the elder Ananus, was extremely bold and brazen, belonged to the Sadducees, who were severe (“savage”) in trial more than any Jews, took advantage of Festus’ death and before the arrival of the new procurator Albinus, “seated a Synedriort (Sanhedrin) 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: brought to trial James the brother of Jesus, “called the Messiah (Christ),” and also “certain others,” accused them of violating the law “and 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;  However, circles among the residents of the capital considered “the most fair-minded and most strictly law-abiding” did not wish to tolerate such an injustice and applied secretly to King Agrippa to obtain his order preventing such deeds, for Ananus did not act properly to begin with.
 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. Some of them set out to meet Albinus and explained that Ananus did not have the authority “to seat a Sanhedrin” without the procurator’s 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. “Albinus was convinced” and angrily wrote an irate and threatening letter to Ananus. That is why Agrippa also took the high priestly crown away from him.

So ends the episode, which at first glance seems free of weaknesses and faults. And yet a careful examination collapses this naive testimony.

Here are Efron’s objections to a naive reading of the passage.

First of all, the unfavorable portrait of Ananus is in polar opposition to the admirable personage which Josephus, in Jewish War overwhelms with praise, and devotes an emotional eulogy to, with not the slightest hint of religious deviance or Sadduceeism. 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. 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. (334)

Secondly, if James were truly a “Christian”….

Secondly, 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. Here again is an astounding connection with that chapter of Acts featuring the stand of the supposedly restrained and forgiving among the Pharisees (with Gamaliel, the “teacher of the Law”) who subdue and stop the erupting enmity, in contrast to the malice of the Sadducee leadership headed by Ananus. Another point of contact between the two descriptions is the punishment by stoning to which Stephen is sentenced in Acts, and which is not explained in the suspect testimony of pseudo-Josephus. (335)

Thirdly, Efron sees historical implausibilities in the Josephan narrative:

Thirdly, there was no administrative vacuum or disorder from the point of view of the Roman authorities between the death of the procurator and the arrival of his successor. After all, the country was not abandoned by all the imperial officials and officers, and the legate-governor in Syria did not withdraw his supervision. How then could Ananus have carried out his plot despite internal opposition and without external support? Why, too, did Ananus’ critics apply to both Agrippa and Albinus? Perhaps it was not clear to them (or to the author) who was directly in charge and responsible. 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? (335)

Fourthly, Efron sees an anomaly here. Nowhere else does Josephus describe a high priest convening the Sanhedrin. That was the job of the civil ruler. I suppose one may justify this sole instance of a high priest calling the Sanhedrin if there were a hiatus in normal civil governance, but see point three above.

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. Indeed the “aristocracy” then ruled, in his view, “and the leadership of the people was entrusted to the high (chief) priests.” But his reference is not to the single high priest serving in the Temple, who is replaced very frequently and does not appear as a leader of the nation, but rather in a manner usual with him, to groups of chief priests (also called “high priests”) heading the Jerusalem council (Boule). It was Agrippa II who convened a Sanhedrin and not the high priest in his day. Similarly Hyrcanus II in his time convened a Synedrion or Sanhedrin as “king,” as noted in the above affair, but not as a high priest. (335)

Fifthly, here Efron targets a point that a (relatively small) number of critics have certainly viewed as very problematic. Efron’s point most surely argues for the inauthenticity of the “brother of Jesus who was called Christ” phrase. It is most astonishing.

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. 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. 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. (335f)

Sixthly, external testimony seals the fate of the passage for Efron: This passage is an insertion, and by its contents and style can only be a Christian interpolation.

Sixthly, an early Christian testimony tips the scales further to the negative side. The great scholar among the Church Fathers, Origen, quotes the passage in question three times, in a different version. According to him, Josephus explicitly wrote that because of the slaying of “James the righteous” calamity was decreed for the Jews, Jerusalem was captured and its Temple destroyed. Consequently, Origen is amazed that Josephus could admit the righteousness of the Messiah’s brother while he did not believe in the Messiah himself! 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. The vicissitudes and textual changes of the suspect chapter suggest arbitrary false corrections in it, since it became a tool of Christian propaganda. External evidence thus complements and strengthens the findings of internal criticism. This passage is an insertion, and by its contents and style can only be a Christian interpolation. (336)

Efron, Joshua. Studies on the Hasmonean Period. Leiden; New York: Brill, 1987.

Damn. I post too much and can’t keep up. While googling for an image to add to this post I see that I posted the same thing three and a half years ago! https://vridar.org/2018/01/22/6-more-reasons-to-question-josephuss-james-the-brother-of-jesus-passage/.


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6 thoughts on “Is the Entire James Passage in Josephus an Interpolation?”

    1. Ananos ben Ananos, without the required permission of the imperial Roman administrator, formed a court which unjustly tried and executed Jesus ben Damneus “the plaster guy” and others.

      • 99.99% of the intended non-Jewish audience, would read christ as a worker who applies plaster to buildings.

  1. “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”
    Was James called Christ? That’s what the above says. Read below.

    “The brother of Earl was called Vridar.” Earl’s brother was called Vridar. The brother of Jesus was called Christ. That’s why that particular line has been edited (IMO).

    1. “…brought before them [sc. judges] the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others…” [Allen translation 2015, Page 292 of 426]

      • …brought before the judges the brother of Earl, who was called Vridar, whose name was Eddy, and some others…

      Strike out a likely interpolation:

      • …brought before the judges the brother of Earl, whose name was Eddy, and some others…

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