This is the latest installment of the series on Josephus’ Antiquities. We examine the brief mention of a man named James who is described as the “brother of Jesus called Christ.” Those few words, found at 188.8.131.52, are, if authentic, the only known non-Christian mention of Jesus Christ securely dated from the First Century, except for Josephus’ much-garbled Testimony which was discussed in the previous installments.
Of Josephus’ two possible mentions of Jesus, this shorter one is arguably the more important. If authentic, it would be the only extant writing about a key Christian character featured in the epistles of Paul authored by a non-Christian contemporary who lived nearby. If what it asserts is reliable at face value (i.e. that “brother” refers to some robust face-to-face relationship during natural life which Josephus was justifiably confident to report, independently of church traditions), then that would largely extinguish doubts about the existence of a historical Jesus.
The story in which James briefly appears would make fine sense if its James had been identified as the brother of either of two other Jesuses who figure in the same storyline. Given the evident lapses in transmitting the longer Testimony, how can there be any confidence that this James wasn’t the brother of one of those Jesuses, and the text wasn’t altered by a few words to make him James the Just instead? What possible test could reliably authenticate two or three words of ancient text?
The answer is three remarks by Origen from the mid-Third Century saying that Josephus had written about James the Just in Antiquities. Origen used that same distinctive and otherwise rare “called Christ” phrase as we now read in Josephus (in Greek, legomenos Christos). Some argue that Origen wrote too early for Christian scribal alteration to explain what he reports. This isn’t decisive, since Origen’s library plainly included Christian religious material, probably produced by Chrsitian scribes. However, we shall explore another explanation in this post.
Recall that Jerome told his reader that Jospehus had reported that there were supernatural voices in the Temple during Jesus’ crucifixion, contrary to any known copy of any other work discussing the voices incident. Is it plausible then that Origen, like Saint Jerome, may have grossly misremembered something he’d read?
The passage as it may have originally been written
From Antiquities 184.108.40.206, as we receive it, except for the two words in italics (ben Damneus):
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, … this younger Ananus, …thought he had now a proper opportunity … so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus ben Damneus, 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 …disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, … 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 .. wrote in anger to Ananus, and … king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus ben Damneus high priest.
The story continues as an increasingly powerful former high priest named Ananias (apparently not the just-deposed high-priest) bribes the procurator Albinus and the new high priest Jesus. Much intrigue ensues. The king relieves Jesus ben Damneus of duty, and appoints another Jesus, Gamaliel’s son, to be high priest.
Maybe the italicized words should be ben Gamaliel instead of ben Damneus. With Jesus ben Gamaliel we’d get a “second act,” in which the king, who was disappointed that Jesus ben Damneus didn’t inhibit corrupt behavior, turned to Jesus ben Gamaliel to clean up the mess. That move, however, causes dissension among the priests, and the villainous Ananias continues to thrive. (See the update at the end of this article for more on the possibility of “ben Gamaliel” being the original text.)
In the received version, the two words in italics are the distinctive phrase “called Christ.”
What does Origen tell us that he read?
Eusebius believed that Origen wrote his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel and Against Celsus late in his career, and at about the same time (Church History 6.36.2). There is little reason to doubt that. In his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Origen wrote at 10.17,
… 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…
In Against Celsus at 1.47, Origen wrote of Josephus,
…Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless— being, although against his will, not far from the truth— that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus called Christ,— the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.
and a little later in Against Celsus st 2.13, there is a brief reprise of the above recitation,
… for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but in reality, as the truth makes clear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Although Origen used that same distinctive “called Christ” phrase as we now read in Josephus, Origen does not say that he is quoting anything verbatim from Josephus. It is perfectly obvious that Origen does not have Antiquities open before him as he writes. There is nothing in Josephus about his James having any reputation at all, and nowhere did Josephus attribute the fall of Jerusalem to James’ trial. Because it occurred between the death of Festus and the arrival of Albinus, we can date the trial to the summer of 62 CE, eight eventful years before Jerusalem fell.
It is also clear that these remarks are not three independent misrecollections by Origen. One is probably a self-citation and another is definitely a recapitulation of a point recently made shortly before in the same work. Origen need only have been mistaken once, and then repeated himself thereafter.
Just about the only thing that ties Origen’s report to the Antiquities besides his say-so is that phrase describing James as the brother of “Jesus called Christ.” Where would Origen get a phrase like that, if not from Josephus? From the Gospel of Matthew, the subject of the commentary he was working on. The distinctive phrase appears there three times: once in connection with Jesus’ family (the genealogy, at 1:16) and twice during the unfair trial of Jesus before Pilate (when Pilate speaks to the Jewish crowd, at 27:17 and 27:22).
In two of Origen’s reports, the phrase serves a clear rhetorical purpose for Origen. The phrase neatly underlines that Josephus didn’t acknowledge Origen’s Jesus as the Christ. That enhances Josephus’ credibility as a source about the Christian hero James. Origen is fully entitled to borrow an apt, distinctive and memorable phrase from Matthew, a canonical book he’s writing about at the time. He might even be forgiven for thinking that his Christian readers would recognize where he got the phrase.
If Origen didn’t find the phrase in Josephus, then how did it get there afterward? Centuries of hand copying separate Origen’s description of what he thinks he found in the Antiquities and the earliest copies of the Antiquities available to us. There need be no shenanigans or Christian conspiracy. People knew the shortcomings of the manuscript copying system. Origen remarks on the diversity of manuscripts of Matthew even in his time, in his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel at 12.15.
There is ample opportunity for a Christian scribe in any of several centuries to have thought that ben Damneus or ben Gamaliel was the mistake, a displacement like what Paulina and Mundus suffered, only much smaller and so that much easier to make without noticing. Origen seems to tell the scribe that this James isn’t the brother of some other Jesus; that what belongs there is called Christ. Both Eusebius (Church History 2.23.60) and Jerome (Illustrious Men chapter 2) repeated some of what Origen said. Any later scribe may have “corrected” the text in good faith and good conscience.
What if Josephus really had written about James the Just? James the Just is an interesting character in his own right, as a leader of the earliest Christian church. Josephus’ mention could lend support to James’ existence and leadership of the Jerusalem church, apart from Christian tradition.
If so, then what would Josephus have meant by describing James as Jesus’ “brother”? That is subject to the same uncertainty as when Paul calls some James “brother of the Lord,” in the same letter where Paul uses the word brother repeatedly to describe any Christian at all (Galatians 1:19). The persistent Christian habit of using fraternal language indiscriminately among themselves was the apparent basis of rumors of Christian ritual incest long after Paul or Josephus. Origen alludes to the ambiguity of brother in the context of James, in Against Celsus at 1:47,
Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.
Note that Origen questionned here not only James’ full or half-brother status, but even his growing up together with Jesus. That is, Origen was not simply contributing to the wrangling over Jesus’ mother and sex. Similar virtue and close agreement on doctrine do not necessarily imply a face-to-face relationship.
Even if James had come to prominence in Jerusalem because he was reputed to be Jesus’ kinsman, how would Josephus know whether he really was Jesus’ brother, and not just called that in some figurative sense? That could easily be the same way Josephus knew as if for a fact that Piso poisoned Germanicus, or that the massive Temple gate had opened itself. It was another story he’d heard. From whom? Very possibly from Christians who regarded James the Just as a saint and martyr.
As with the Testimony, there is ample basis for rationally founded suspicion that what we read today in the Antiquities about James differs substantially from what Josephus wrote. Unlike the Testimony, there isn’t much left in the mention of James to try to rehabilitate if the few words we read about James don’t wholly reflect Josephus’ originally intended meaning.
Even if the received mention of James is faithfully as Josephus wrote it, then it would take its place beside the later mentions of Christ and Christians found in Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius. Like them, it would be a statement about the early Christian church which is agreeable to Christian traditions. Among the four historians, only Josephus was situated possibly to have had first-hand acquaintance with whichever James he wrote about and definitely to know those who had dealt with him. Nevertheless, there would be no reason to exclude Christian sources as the basis for an identification of their James, even assuming that that was whom Josephus was writing about.
There is no surviving non-Christian mention of Jesus from the First Century, or even from the first century after Pilate left Judea, apart from statements about the church which venerated Jesus. These mentions of Jesus can be fully explained as timely expositions of what the then-newsworthy Christians said about their past. Such mentions do not necessarily imply the authors’ agreement with the accuracy of those traditions.
Update May 1, 2018: On ben Gamaliel vs. ben Damneus. Tim O’Neill, blogging at History for Atheists, supports James’ brother being “called Christ” (link). O’Neill doesn’t consider the “ben Gamaliel” hypothesis, but one of his arguments bears on any alternative to “ben Damneus.”
O’Neill points out that if Josephus had named James’ brother “Jesus ben Damneus,” then when he refers to the same Jesus shortly thereafter, Josephus’ practice would have been to write simply “Jesus” the second time (when ben Damneus is promoted). If James’ and Jesus’ father were Gamaliel, however, then the observed pattern of subsequent name usage might be more like Josephus’ style.