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).
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 220.127.116.11, 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?
St Jerome, shown checking some sources more carefully than others
The ancient Christian historian and saint Jerome (347-420) was an early translator of the received version of Josephus’ Testimony of Jesus and a commentator on Josephus’ treatment of James the Just. Jerome wrote the following from Bethlehem to a Roman widow in 386 (Letters 46.4).
…it (Jerusalem) has been stained by the blood of the Lord. Now, therefore, its guardian angels have forsaken it and the grace of Christ has been withdrawn. Josephus, himself a Jewish writer, asserts that at the Lord’s crucifixion there broke from the temple voices of heavenly powers, saying: “Let us depart hence.”
Jerome is right that Josephus had written about that incident, but Josephus reported that it happened sometime in the 60’s of the First Century, a few years before the sack of Jerusalem, about a generation after the crucifixion is said to have happened. For Josephus, the voices in the Jewish Temple were an omen of the catastrophe that befell Jerusalem soon afterwards.
Whether or not he ever realized his mistake, Jerome frankly Christianized a Jewish miracle. He managed this feat not because of what any text said, but in spite of what two well-known texts said, one of which he cited. Jerome simply misremembered something he’d read in a way that suited his purpose. Jerome thus created a new text, along with a new Jewish witness to a crucial Christian teaching, that Jesus’ death was accompanied by signs of his divinity.