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.

Josephus’ tale of Jesus ben Ananus

Josephus (War 6.5.3 verses 300ff. link) introduces Jesus ben Ananus, a “plebeian farmer,” immediately after telling about several miraculous portents of the impending destruction of Jerusalem. This Jesus emerges on the public scene during the feast of Sukkot, four years before the war with Rome began. Assuming an outbreak of hostilities in 66 CE, Jesus’ debut works out to September or October of 62 CE. The trial of James was held sometime during the summer of 62.

Josephus tells us that during the Sukkot festivities, Jesus suddenly cried out:

A voice from the east; a voice from the west; a voice from the four winds; a voice against Jerusalem, and the holy house; a voice against the bridegrooms, and the brides; and a voice against this whole people.

Jesus began roaming the city, repeating this spooky refrain day and night. Jewish authorities seized Jesus and beat him. Jesus did not complain, but continued to proclaim his prophetic lament. The Jewish authorities then handed Jesus over to the Roman procurator, Albinus, who served between 62 and 64 CE. Roman soldiers whipped Jesus until he was flayed to the bone. All that Jesus said during his ordeal, at each rip of the lash, was “Woe, woe to Jerusalem.”

The procurator asked Jesus, Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he say these things? Jesus made no reply to Albinus except to repeat his dire omen. Albinus finally released him, deciding that Jesus was crazy.

For years afterward, Jesus roamed the city foretelling its doom. To all he met, Jesus said nothing except “Woe, woe to Jerusalem.” Eventually, the Romans besieged the city, from mid-April to the end of August 70 CE. Sometime during that siege, Jesus was killed by a Roman missile. His last words were

Woe, woe to the city again, and to the people, and to the holy house. Woe, woe to myself also.

Josephus notes that Jesus’ career spanned seven years and five months, but doesn’t say when that crisply measured interval began, during Sukkot or when Albinus released Jesus. Working back from the dates of the siege, the interval began in the winter of 62 or spring of 63. That suggests Josephus began counting after Jesus’ release by Albinus.

Is this Jesus the brother of that James?

Even one admissible alternative hypothesis about a different Jesus establishes a rational foundation for doubt about what Josephus wrote. Two alternative Jesuses figure in the story that includes the mention of James. What calls our attention to this third Jesus who isn’t called Christ is the timing of his appearance on the public stage. If Jesus ben Ananus was our James’ brother, then the illegal capital prosecution of James may have contributed to Jesus suffering a mental breakdown soon after.

We can as confidently infer that Origen had read about Jesus ben Ananus as we infer that he read about James’ trial. In his early-career Commentary on Lamentations (concerning verse 4:14), Origen mentions the omen which immediately precedes the story of Jesus, the Temple voices incident (link), and recites a close paraphrase of Josephus’ wording.

Even if Origen, working from memory, mistook Jesus ben Ananus for Jesus called Christ, why would a later scribe change what he was copying, with an example of the text right in front of him? One reason could be that the scribe suspected that his exemplar was corrupted. Just as there are two other Jesuses mentioned near that trial, two Ananuses are mentioned there, too. A Christian cleric reading “Jesus ben Ananus” but being assured by pious authorities that the correct wording is “Jesus called Christ” could in good conscience repair what would seem like a plausible error made by an earlier scribe.

With so many Jesuses in contention, we cannot tell which one Josephus wrote about

Even if he’s the “wrong” Jesus, there’s another way that the story of Jesus ben Ananus might have contributed to the spurious introduction of called Christ into Josephus’ Antiquities. Any attentive reader could associate the unlawful trial of James with a prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem that was proclaimed continuously beginning shortly after the trial until the midst of the final siege. That the prophet’s name was Jesus, and that he suffered for his teaching at the hands of both Jewish officials and a Roman procurator, could hardly escape a Christian reader’s notice.

In an earlier post, the Uncertaintist found that much of what Origen remembered reading about James in Antiquities Book 20 actually is there, but Josephus was writing about other people and events (link). To this we can now add that in his War Josephus actually wrote about a memorable, prophetic, religiously charged chain of events seamlessly spanning the years between the trial and Jerusalem’s fall.

The mere existence of multiple Jesuses in Josephus, all of them players in Jerusalem’s final troubles, for all of whom the year 62 CE was pivotal, could account for Origen’s confusion. His confusion and Eusebius’ adopting Origen’s view suffice to explain how all our manuscripts of Antiquities would come to contain Matthew‘s phrase, “called Christ,” regardless of what Josephus wrote.

Josephus’ original James needn’t have been ben Damneus, ben Gamaliel nor ben Ananus for Origen to have become disoriented in a fog of remembered Jesuses. Any of those three family names could especially easily be dismissed as typos by later scribes relying on Origen, but any text at all might have yielded to the good-faith testimony of two saints (Eusebius first and later Jerome) who accepted the scholarship of a trusted father of the church (Origen).

Therefore, we the living cannot discern with much justified confidence which Jesus Josephus mentioned in his coverage of James’ trial. It follows that what reaches us from Josephus’ account cannot strongly support the historicity of the Jesus whom Matthew, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome and a centuries-long chain of monastic copyists gladly called Christ.

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