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Josephus on Jesus: The Death of James

In Book 20, Chapter 9 of Antiquities of the Jews, there is a reference to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”, and that this James was put to death by stoning. Together with the Testimonium Flavianum (Book 18, Chapter 3), Christians assert that Josephus is referring to Jesus Christ and his brother James, and thus adds to the general historicity of the New Testament texts.

Here is the full text of the section (taken from http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-20.htm):

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.

Notice the last line, where Josephus refers to “Jesus, the son of Damneus”. Many Christians would be unaware of just how common the name Jesus (“Ἰησοῦ“) is in Jewish history, particularly in the first century AD. Towards the end of Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus states:

Accordingly, the number of the high priests, from the days of Herod until the day when Titus took the temple and the City, and burnt them, were in all twenty-eight; the time also that belonged to them was a hundred and seven years.

Of those twenty eight high priests – reigning between 37 BC and 70 AD – four were named Jesus:

  1. Jesus ben Fabus (c. 30 BC)
  2. Jesus ben Sie (c. 3 BC)
  3. Jesus ben Damneus (c 63 AD)
  4. Jesus ben Gamaliel (c. 64 AD)

Contrast Josephus’ account with the testimony of Hegesippus (taken from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hegesippus.html):

James, the Lord’s brother, succeeds to the government of the Church, in conjunction with the apostles. He has been universally called the Just, from the days of the Lord down to the present time. For many bore the name of James; but this one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank no wine or other intoxicating liquor, nor did he eat flesh; no razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, nor make use of the bath. He alone was permitted to enter the holy place: for he did not wear any woollen garment, but fine linen only. He alone, I say, was wont to go into the temple: and he used to be found kneeling on his knees, begging forgiveness for the people-so that the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel’s, by reason of his constantly bending the knee in adoration to God, and begging forgiveness for the people. Therefore, in consequence of his pre-eminent justice, he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek Defence of the People, and Justice, in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.

Now some persons belonging to the seven sects existing among the people, which have been before described by me in the Notes, asked him: “What is the door of Jesus? ” And he replied that He was the Saviour. In Consequence of this answer, some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But the sects before mentioned did not believe, either in a resurrection or in the coming of One to requite every man according to his works; but those who did believe, believed because of James. So, when many even of the ruling class believed, there was a commotion among the Jews, and scribes, and Pharisees, who said: “A little more, and we shall have all the people looking for Jesus as the Christ.

They came, therefore, in a body to James, and said: “We entreat thee, restrain the people: for they are gone astray in their opinions about Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat thee to persuade all who have come hither for the day of the passover, concerning Jesus. For we all listen to thy persuasion; since we, as well as all the people, bear thee testimony that thou art just, and showest partiality to none. Do thou, therefore, persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus: for all the people, and we also, listen to thy persuasion. Take thy stand, then, upon the summit of the temple, that from that elevated spot thou mayest be clearly seen, and thy words may be plainly audible to all the people. For, in order to attend the passover, all the tribes have congregated hither, and some of the Gentiles also.”

The aforesaid scribes and Pharisees accordingly set James on the summit of the temple, and cried aloud to him, and said: “O just one, whom we are all bound to obey, forasmuch as the people is in error, and follows Jesus the crucified, do thou tell us what is the door of Jesus, the crucified.” And he answered with a loud voice: “Why ask ye me concerning Jesus the Son of man? He Himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.”

And, when many were fully convinced by these words, and offered praise for the testimony of James, and said, “Hosanna to the son of David,” then again the said Pharisees and scribes said to one another, “We have not done well in procuring this testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, that they may be afraid, and not believe him.” And they cried aloud, and said: “Oh! oh! the just man himself is in error.” Thus they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah: “Let us away with the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore shall they eat the fruit of their doings.” So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to one another: “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: “I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

And, while they were thus stoning him to death, one of the priests, the sons of Rechab, the son of Rechabim, to whom testimony is borne by Jeremiah the prophet, began to cry aloud, saying: “Cease, what do ye? The just man is praying for us.” But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man.

And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.

And shortly after Vespasian besieged Judaea, taking them captive.

Are these two accounts referring to the same event?

The Josephan account can be dated reasonably accurately to the eighth year of Nero, that is, 62 AD. The Hegesippus account has very little information in it that can be used to date it. All we can say is that it occurred just prior to the siege of Judaea, which occurred in 66 AD or 67 AD. The word used by Hegesippus is “εὐθὺς“, which is usually translated “immediately” or “directly”; implying that there are no intervening circumstances. (On a side note, the Gospel of Mark is noted for its frequent use of the word, and in that gospel it is used to describe many of Jesus’ healings, to show that they occurred instantaneously.)

Eusebius subtly, perhaps inadvertently, changes the reference point from the siege of Judaea to the siege of Jerusalem:

James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him.

If this were the case, then Eusebius may be dating James’ death even later; perhaps to 69 AD. Eusebius then goes on to quote a passage allegedly from Josephus, but that is not found in his extant writings:

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.”

Furthermore, the reference to James in Book 20 appears to precede the account of Jesus ben Ananus in Wars of the Jews Book 6, Chapter 5, Section 3:

But, what is still more terrible, there was one Jesus, the son of Ananus, a plebeian and a husbandman, who, four years before the war began, and at a time when the city was in very great peace and prosperity, came to that feast whereon it is our custom for every one to make tabernacles to God in the temple …

… This cry of his was the loudest at the festivals; and he continued this ditty for seven years and five months, without growing hoarse, or being tired therewith, until the very time that he saw his presage in earnest fulfilled in our siege, when it ceased; [September, 70 AD]

This would seem to go against any notion that Eusebius had that James’ martyrdom was the cause of the siege; it would also go against Josephus’ own (alleged) reference.

The circumstances surrounding the two accounts of James’ death are also markedly different:

  • James was charged and trialled by the Sanhedrin according to Josephus. In Hegesippus’ account, there was no charge, and no trial, and presumably then no Sanhedrin.
  • In Josephus, James “and some of his companions” were condemned, while James appears to be the only person killed in Hegesippus’ account.
  • Josephus states that James (and some of his companions) were delivered to be stoned; while the stoning in Hegesippus’ account is an after-thought, since the fall from the summit of the temple (perhaps some thirty metres – see Wars of the Jews Book 5, Chapter 5, Section 5) did not kill him.

Since the timing of the two events and the circumstances surrounding the events cannot be easily reconciled, I contend that the two passages refer to two entirely different events. Subsequently I conclude that the reference to Jesus, “who was called Christ” is a Christian interpolation.

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