In 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).
Preaching of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli ca 1500 (detail, click to enlarge)
An earlier post discussed ancient critics of Christianity who vigorously expressed their doubts about the factual reliability of the Gospels, the character of the Apostles, and the discernment of their Christian audience. We couldn’t find an example, however, of an argument based on the possibility that Jesus never existed.
Some modern apologists would explain that this is because there never was any example. “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used,” James Carleton Paget, a Cambridge academic flatly assured his readers (link).
It turns out, however, that an ancient patristic author wrote that there was a Christian group who taught that the proto-orthodox Jesus was an enchantment devised by a First Century magician. According to this magican’s followers, he was the real historical figure whose words and deeds inspired Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus was a thing of smoke and mirrors, or maybe not even that.
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 126.96.36.199, 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?
Detail of a Third Century mystery cult mosaic from Antioch, click to enlarge
Last year, about one in five English adults surveyed thought the better description of their beliefs about Jesus was a “fictional or mythological character” instead of a “real person who actually lived.” Nearly as many answered that they “don’t know.” Christian groups commissioned this poll, which had 2,545 demographically representative participants.
Reacting to the survey result, James Carleton Paget, a senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at Cambridge University, commented “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used.” Some non-academic apologists agree.
In the earliest surviving scholarly confrontations with Christianity, critics complained vigorously against the unreliability of even natural facts alleged about Jesus. The depth and breadth of ancients’ complaints warranted doubts about Jesus’ existence. However, personal doubt is not an argument. Arguments premised on definite non-existence would be ineffective without proof. It is unsurprising that aimless self-observations and doomed arguments aren’t found in early counterapologies.