Another Jesus for Josephus’ James

Godard's Destruction of Jerusalem

Jerusalem with Jesus ben Ananus, upper right

In Book 20 of his Antiquities, Josephus briefly mentions a man named James who was unlawfully condemned to death in 62 CE, about eight years before the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Josephus says that this James’ brother was named Jesus. In all extant source manuscripts of the Antiquities, that Jesus is said to be “called Christ.” If Josephus wrote that description, then he’d have left us compelling evidence that a historical Jesus of Galilee really existed.

Modern scholars generally accept that Josephus did describe James’ brother as “Jesus called Christ,” largely because Origen wrote that that’s what he’d read in Antiquities. Origen also remembers reading a lot more about this James there, about his character and about God’s pay-back to Jerusalem for the injustice of his death. In fact, however, Josephus tells us almost nothing else about James, not even whether his death sentence was actually carried out, much less claiming divine retribution for it.

Given that Origen misrecalls so much so vividly, what weight should be placed on his recollection of the few words which allegedly identified James’ brother? Two other Jesuses appear in the story that includes the trial incident, a story which makes perfect sense if James’ brother were either of those Jesuses (link).

This post recalls still another Jesus who appeared in Josephus’ first book, The Jewish War. This Jesus is familiar to many because of remarkable parallels between his story and the Gospels’ passion. Let us first consider the merits of his candidacy to be the brother of Antiquities’ James. If it turns out that he wasn’t James’ brother, the tragedy of Jesus ben Ananus still contributes to our understanding of how Origen’s memory so badly scrambled and improved what Josephus wrote about James and his trial.

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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Two deer find a treat

There is no such thing as an easy winter for deer in northern New England. Nevertheless, this season’s moderate and tastefully spaced snowfalls have kept the depth hereabouts much shallower than the foot-and-a-half that would prevent the deer from foraging and thereby enforce upon them a hard fast, sometimes lasting for weeks. Food is scarce, and generally brown when it can be found at all, but at least the deer have been able to look for something to eat this winter.

For the last six weeks, small pods of two or three or four deer have been visiting the neighbors’ back yard. The deer stop to rest on their bellies and eat under a trio of trees at the crest of a small escarpment. I’m not sure what they eat. They may have discovered a cache of squirrels’ acorns. The squirrels, however, go about their winter chores in the trees and don’t seem to mind the deer’s presence below. Maybe it’s something else, then, that the deer munch on as they recline under the sheltering branches.

The escarpment faces west and catches the nowadays strengthening afternoon sun full on. The air temperature yesterday made it to an unseasonable seventy degrees. Most of the snow on the slope had melted by this morning; the ground was wet, but bare.

Around midday, a pair of deer discovered a small patch of bright green there. Some ferns had been preserved since the autumn, leafy and fresh. The sure-footed deer made good use of their find, despite the steepness of the muddy terrain around it.

This afternoon, a heavy wet snow began falling. It won’t amount to much, or so the weather wizards foresee, but it soon completely covered over the ground again. The deer returned to their trees, resting, watching the snow accumulate around them without complaint.

As sunset approached, the deer decided to spend the night somewhere else. They set off down the escarpment, pausing where they had found their green treasure earlier in the day. The snow had reclaimed the ground, but the deer found a last few bites of the ferns, and before moving on, stopped to savor them.

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Another ghost witch, overlooking Montego Bay

Rose Hall before restoration

So far, this year’s Hallowe’en story (link and link) has focused on an eighteenth century New England woman, Elizabeth Blachford, whose neighbors caricatured her as the witchy Liza Tower Hill, a fictional character which survives to this day. Elizabeth’s case raises a follow-up question: Is that rare? Have long-lived supernatural tales constellated around other ordinary people?

Meet Rosa (Kelly) Palmer, 1718-1790, Elizabeth Blachford’s contemporary. Rosa lived in Jamaica. Her alter ego is named Annie Palmer. Annie was a wicked slave mistress, a sadistic sexual glutton who murdered two or three of her husbands. Her fourth fled for his life. Annie was herself murdered, strangled by her righteously vengeful slaves. And then the story got better! Annie ruled her plantation by witchcraft until she was defeated by a local adept in Obeah (Jamaica’s African-derived folk magic, comparable with Haitian Voodoo), but not before Annie had killed his granddaughter with the help of a blood-sucking demon. Now Annie’s ghost haunts a Jamaican tourist destination, soon to be the setting for a major motion picture (maybe, the project’s been in development for years).

Spoiler alert: Rosa’s real life story can’t compete with Annie’s legend.

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The ghost witch of Barnstable, continued

lady and devilThe previous post (link) told how Elizabeth (Lewis) Blachford, 1712-1790, had acquired notoriety among her neighbors in Barnstable, Massachusetts. She kept strong ties with the local church, was an exemplary wife, mother and grandmother, and enjoyed neighborly involvement in the life of her community. Despite that, a delusional accusation, a few marginally mysterious events around town, her own assertiveness and a residence literally off the beaten path (if only by several dozen paces) combined to launch a local cottage industry of spinning tall tales about her alter ego, the powerful and vengeful Liza Tower Hill, the Witch of Halfway Pond.

In part because the prime audience for such folk stories included children, the tales survived into the next generation after Elizabeth died. One of those children who heard the fables grew up to be the premier Barnstable genealogist, Amos Otis. Seventy years after Elizabeth’s death, Otis published in the local newspaper some of what he had heard as a boy, with the intention of entertaining a new generation. He also published many facts about the real Mrs. Blachford, whom he believed (mistakenly) to have been a distant relation of his wife.

Otis notes in passing that something he’d said about Elizabeth had soured his relationship with one of her grandsons. The grandchildren stuck up for their beloved grandmother, but they were dying off as Otis was writing in the early 1860’s. By 1900, it was no longer seriously possible that anybody who had actually met Elizabeth was still alive. The stories about Liza Tower Hill had long since detached themselves from anything that really happened. With nobody left to distinguish Elizabeth Blachford from the vivid folk character Liza, the stage was set for a twentieth century woman single-handedly to make church lady Elizabeth over into the devil’s very own femme fatale.

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The ghost witch of Barnstable, Massachusetts

pond view

Mary Dunn Pond

In the charming Cape Cod district of Yarmouth Port, a street actress entertained patrons of a twenty-first century haunted house tour. She played Elizabeth (Lewis) Blachford, 1712-1790, who lived just across the town line in Barnstable. Michael Feist (link) describes the performance:

… satanic Elizabeth Lewis … invited us to watch her stir fish scales into an already merrily boiling pot sporting ear of warthog and eye of newt. “My mother died when I was young,” she explained, to furnish living proof of why she had lived in the woods of those days alone with her father. Now, she cackled, she stays totally alone on Mary Dunn Road, next to Halfway Pond, where strange dancing lights are wont to hover.

Ms. Lewis unwound the yarn of how she had turned herself into a cat for swimming across the ocean. “All witches wear red shoes,” she hissed in near-feline abandon…

However, about 140 years earlier, Cape Cod historian Frederick Freeman wrote of this same woman,

[William Blachford’s] wife was of good order of mind, connected with the best families in town, and 53 years (to the day of her death), a member of the Barnstable church, ” exemplary and pious.” Thirty-five years she was a widow, and, left with a young family and small estate in an obscure portion of the township, contrived by rare industry, uncommon energy, and good management, to bring up her children respectably, she at last going to her grave under the weight of nearly four-score and ten years, 1790, honored and commended by her pastor.

How could a pious church lady and community pillar in real life be remembered in death as a reclusive shape-shifting minion of Satan? Could it be because her ghost seduced a midnight visitor to her former home who’d unwittingly summoned the devil?

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