Josephus and Jesus V: Seriously, Origen, how’d you manage to do that?

inverted-jennyIn the previous installment (link), Origen recalled having read in Josephus’ Antiquities that James, the brother of “Jesus called Christ,” was sentenced to death by stoning. However, Origen says that Josephus wrote much more about this James than what’s in our received Antiquities.

Origen’s testimony has been offered in support that the extant Antiquities is faithful to the original; that Josephus reported the actual existence of a close associate of the Christian Jesus in Josephus’ own time and surroundings. That is, Josephus implicitly vouched for a historically real Jesus, possibly based on a reasonable inference about the associate that Josephus could have made from his own lived experience.

The finding of this post is that Josephus did write some things substantially similar with what Origen recalled, in close proximity to Josephus’ mention of James. However, Josephus was discussing other people and events. Origen conflated Josephus’ actual writings with stories about the Christian martyr James the Just. Thus Origen’s faulty memory made a new non-Christian witness to Christian tradition, much as Jerome’s memory brewed up a new Christian miracle by misremembering an incident from Josephus’ War and mixing it with the Gospel passion (link).

Josephus wrote what Origen recalls, but not about James

In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, at 10.17 (link), Origen wrote:

… And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that 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…

Origen’s recollection in Against Celsus, at 1.47 (link), is similar,

…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 there is a brief recapitulation of the above later in Against Celsus, at 2.13 (link).

Here’s some of what Josephus actually wrote, over the course of about 1,900 words in Whiston’s translation, starting from the end of Antiquities 20.8.5 through where the brief mention of James appears at 20.9.1 (link). That is a compact unit of prose, easily read in one sitting, about the maximum size of a single posting here at the Uncertaintist. Throughout the passage runs a sustained theme of Jewish suffering inflicted by the Romans, by Gentile neighbors, and by fellow Jews. Interspersed are the following remarks:

And this seems to me to have been the reason why God, out of his hatred of these men’s wickedness, rejected our city; and as for the temple, he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein, but brought the Romans upon us, and threw a fire upon the city to purge it; and brought upon us, our wives, and children, slavery, as desirous to make us wiser by our calamities…To this degree did the violence of the seditious prevail over all right and justice… This… became the occasion of the … miseries that befell our nation… Ananus… assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, … 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…

Thus we find the ideas mentioned by Origen, actually expressed by Josephus nearby the trial of James. However, the first passage (from the end of 20.8.5) refers to murders in the Temple by assassins. The affront to righteousness and justice is unfairness to low-ranking priests (from the end of 20.8.8). The occasion of miseries is the Jews’ loss of their equal rights in Caesarea (from 20.8.9), which Josephus elsewhere considered the beginnings of the Jewish-Roman war (War ff, link). Only the final part concerns the actual trial of James (from 20.9.1).

The idea of cause and effect

A conspicuous feature of Origen’s misrecollection is his insistence that Josephus had attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the killing of James. In fact, as we have just seen, shortly before mentioning James, Josephus clearly attributed Jerusalem’s fate to a string of murders, including some in the Temple.

Origen himself was convinced that the killing of Jesus was the principal cause of divine retribution. The assurance with which Origen reports and critiques Josephus’ supposed contrary view, that James’ killing rather than Jesus’ moved God to vengeance,  reinforces the impression that Origen confidently recalls that Josephus made some assessment of the supernatural and temporal impacts of murders in the Temple precincts. And so Josephus did, but not James’ murder.

Origen gives no hint that he had ever encountered this idea about the supernatural importance of James’ killing anywhere except in Josephus. It may very well be an entirely original product of Origen’s faulty memory.

The closest extant candidate for a non-Josephan source is a report by Eusebius about the content of Hegesippus, who wrote in the Second Century. Hegessipus’ writings are lost to us. We must rely on Eusebius. It is sometimes unclear when Eusebius is quoting and when he is writing in his own voice, particularly at boundaries where a quotation gives way to a commentary on what was quoted.

The 23rd chapter of Book Two of Eusebius’ Church History (link) opens with a summation of the circumstances of the death of James. Then, after mentioning that he’d already quoted Clement of Alexandria on how James died (James was thrown from the Temple and then beaten to death, quoted back at 2.1.4, same link), Eusebius launches into a long quotation of Hegesippus (2.23.4-18). This block concludes with the remark, “And immediately Vespasian besieged them,” the Jews responsible for James’ death. This is the only linkage between the death and the siege in the block.

There is no way for us to tell whether “And immediately Vespasian besieged them” is in Hegesippus’ or Eusebius’ voice. Even if it is in Hegesippus’ voice, and even if it is a causal claim, it is a much weaker and far less forceful causal claim than Origen imputes to Josephus or what Josephus actually wrote.

Does the clause simply seek to establish the time of James’ death? Is the remark portentous, ironic or otherwise a literary closing to the story? Is it simply marking some transition in the original? If it is causal, is James’ death the principal cause of the siege, or “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” a contributing cause? Is this in Hegessipus at all, or is Eusebius now introducing his next point?

For that (2.23.19), Eusebius recapitulates what we have just read. He then claims that a calamitous interpretation of James’ death prevailed among the Jews, something stated by Origen (in the Matthew commentary) and a plausible result if God had made the Jews “wiser by their calamities,” assuming that God was avenging James. Eusebius then (2.23.20) continues, clearly relying upon Origen,

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.

Then Eusebius writes, “And the same writer records his death also in the twentieth book of his Antiquities in the following words…” (2.23.21, my emphasis). The words which follow agree with our extant Antiquities. Thus, Eusebius appears to have had Josephus open on the desk before him. Eusebius describes James’ brother as “Jesus called Christ.” Of course, Eusebius could not find anywhere Josephus wrote that God had avenged James, but he accepts Origen’s word that it is in the writings somewhere.


There is no indication that Origen intended his description of what he remembered from Josephus to be a verbatim quotation in whole or part. Nevertheless, the chief interest in his report are the distinctive words “called Christ,” which are found in his misrecollections, as well as in the Gospel he was commenting upon at the time he wrote, and then later in Eusebius’ discussion, and now in our received version of Antiquities.

However, Origen’s recollection of Josephus’ writing about James is thoroughly faulty. Like Jerome, Origen recalled some things that really are in Josephus, and also like Jerome, Origen connected those things to Christian tradition when Josephus had connected them to other people and events instead.

Once Origen’s mistakes were accepted by Saint Eusebius, any Christian scribe or author, including Eusebius himself, could transmit “called Christ” to us in good faith, whether or not those few words actually appeared in Josephus’ book, and whether or not different words had once appeared there.

right-side-p-jennyOrigen’s report offers scant reason to believe that Josephus described the Christian Jesus using the same distinctive words that Pontius Pilate had used in the Gospel of Matthew. Origen doesn’t actually say that Josephus used those words about Jesus, or anything else verbatim. As for what Origen does say, in paraphrase, that Josephus wrote about Jesus’ brother, Josephus wrote those things, but Josephus didn’t write them about James the Just.


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