Saturday, 22 August 2015

Did Josephus really mention Jesus? (and was that quoted by Origen?)


(This replaces an earlier blog, radically so in the light of wider academic reading. Discussion of questions of interpolation is now in another blog here, plus a brief Appendix at the bottom of this page.)


The Jewish Antiquities (AJ), a history written by Josephus about 93AD, contains two mentions of Jesus Christ. The first is in AJ Book 18. The other is a passing comment in Book 20, and that is the one this blog is about.
As Josephus was a historian in the first century AD, Jewish and not a Christian, his mention of a Jesus who some people called Christ - and the story that goes with it – is useful evidence. By a large margin, most modern scholars published on the subject (non-Christian and Christian scholars) take the passing comment in AJ 20:200 as authentic and plausible evidence of several historical markers:
  • that Jesus existed as a Jewish man
  • that some people said Jesus was the Christ (that is, the Jewish Messiah)
  • that Jesus had a brother called James
  • that James lived into the 60s of the first century, and died then
  • that Josephus was a contemporary of James and they both lived in Judea
  • that Josephus knew of his contemporary James as being the brother of Jesus
The passing comment was known and quoted in ancient times. In particular, it is found in the work of 3rd century writer Origen: six words about Jesus and his brother James, verbatim as in AJ Book 20, with comments that tie it to AJ 20.

The six verbatim words are τὸν ἀδελφὸν Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ (TON ADELPHON IESOU TOU LEGOMENOU CHRISTOU): translated literally as “the brother of the Jesus called Christ”.

The Josephus text
In the key section of AJ 20:200, the high priest Ananus is the subject, James is the object, and Jesus Christ is in a passing comment, as follows:
“Ananus... brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, 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; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified...”
James needed introducing in the text, and it introduces him as the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. Jesus is only mentioned there to identify which James this could be. Josephus needed to use the word “Christ” in the narrative because there are two men called Jesus in AJ 20:200-203 (it was a common name).[[1]] [[2]] Thus the “James” who is killed in the passage has been given his distinguishing referent, and it signifies two things: he is “the brother of Jesus called Christ”; and this Jesus is distinct from the “Jesus ben Damneus” mentioned later in AJ 20:203.

The sense of the story in AJ 20:200
“Ananus... brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, 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.” (AJ 20:200)
Josephus does not give the impression that he understands what offence the condemned souls were accused of. Secondly, as for who “the others” were, Josephus is as vague about them as he is about the alleged offence of which they were accused.

The Christian reading of the story is uncomplicated, as follows. From time to time in first century Jerusalem, those associated with following Jesus were suspected by agitators in Jerusalem of not conforming to Jewish religious laws (all a bit vague just as in Josephus), and were punished for it (Acts 6:12-14; 21:27-28; Galatians 1:13-14). Coincidentally, the Christian reading is that the Sadducees had a track record for mistreating followers of Jesus like this in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-2; 5:17-18), and Ananus was a Sadducee.
To illustrate this, you can see that the language used in Luke’s Acts and Josephus is coincidental:
  • “They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against the holy place [the temple] and against the law.”” (Acts 6:12-14)
  • “some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place [the temple].”” (Acts 21:27-28)
  • “[The high priest and Sadducee] Ananus... assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, 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.” (Josephus, AJ 20:200)
Regarding AJ 20:200, if the high priest was involved in bringing justice, then some perceived offence against the temple is very possible, as was the case in the other examples.

There is a measure of coincidence between these passages which renders Josephus’ narrative intelligible, another tale of followers of Jesus hauled before Jerusalem authorities on suspicion of challenging the status of Jewish law and possibly the temple too. (These sorts of accusations seem to have dogged the early church, fairly or not. In Acts, the Jerusalem church seems anxious not to get tarred with Paul’s reputation for speaking out against the law.)
The Christian reading presents a simple solution to the baffling nature of the text in which Josephus seems unsure of what law was broken or who the “others” were.
What happened next? Ananus’ actions constituted the sort of harsh policy to make fair-minded people wonder and worry about who will be next in line for such unjust treatment – such behaviour has to be nipped in the bud - and it brought him down. All they had to do was show that he had convened his court unlawfully and his position was vulnerable.

Three Origen texts[3]
As mentioned, Josephus' passing comment - about Jesus and James being brothers and Jesus being called Christ - was a comment known and quoted in ancient times. In particular, it is found in the work of 3rd century writer Origen: six words about Jesus and his brother James, verbatim as in AJ Book 20, with comments that tie it to AJ 20.


Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 10:17 contains τὸν ἀδελφὸν Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ (“the brother of Jesus who is called Christ”) verbatim as in AJ 20:200 (in exactly the same order and exactly the same case, same prepositions as AJ 20:200).
Here Origen gives his fullest rendition of his account of mournful Jews, reflecting after 70AD on the cause of the fall of Jerusalem, looking back to the death of James. Here is the passage, and details that are similar to AJ 20:200 are in bold italics, and words in square [] brackets are mine for clarity:


‘But James is this one whom Paul says that he saw in the epistle to the Galatians, saying: But I did not see any of the other apostles except James the brother of the Lord. And in such a way among the people did this James shine for his justice that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Judaic Antiquities in twenty books, wishing to demonstrate the cause why the [Jewish] people suffered such great things that even the [Jerusalem] temple was razed down, said that these things came to pass against them in accordance with the ire of God on account of the things which were dared by them [Jews] against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wondrous thing is that, although he did not accept our Jesus to be Christ, he yet testified that the justice of James was not at all small; and he says that even the people supposed they had suffered these things on account of [injustice towards] James.’
(Note that when Origen refers back to Paul, he uses Paul’s pious phrase ‘the brother of the Lord’, and when he refers back to Josephus, he uses Josephus’ non-pious phrase ‘the brother of Jesus’.
Not also that Josephus says that what was done to James was not justified, and that ‘justice’ is the word Origen uses for James. Origen is making a thematic connection. In the next two passages, he actually calls him by his popular title “James the Just”.)


Origen’s Against Celsus 2:13 also contains τὸν ἀδελφὸν Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ verbatim as in AJ 20:200 (in exactly the same order and exactly the same case, same prepositions as AJ 20:200). Here is the passage:


‘For this [siege] began while Nero was still being king, and it lasted until the leadership of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, as Josephus writes, on account of [injustice by Jews towards] James the just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but, as the truth demonstrates, [actually] on account of Jesus the Christ of God.’


Origen’s Against Celsus 1:47 has a similar but slightly different phrase ὃς … ἀδελφὸς  Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ (“who was the brother of the Jesus called Christ”). Here is the passage:


‘Josephus… himself, though not believing in Jesus as Christ, in seeking 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 things happening to the people, since they killed the prophecied Christ, even says, being unwillingly not far from the truth, that these things befell the Jews as vengeance for [injustice towards] James the just, who was a brother of Jesus who is called Christ, since they killed him who was most just.’


Origen being theological, not historical
Origen has only an interest in giving the destruction of Jerusalem a theological meaning, for which he uses the death of James as a device. With this device, he attributes theological views to Josephus which sets Josephus up as a straw man which Origen can knock down in order to give his own true meaning of the fall of Jerusalem, that it is a consequence of the death of Christ.

Origen being argumentative
A repeated pattern is that Origen is taking a non-believer to task for writing that Jesus is ‘called Christ’ as distinct from being known as Christ (the Christian view). This obviously makes sense if Origen has read a text to which he takes exception, in which Jesus is referred to as ‘called Christ’. Nothing else but that has provoked such a reaction out of him. Notice how he continually corrects it:
  • Commentary on Matthew 10.17: ‘… Flavius Josephus, …  said that … James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ… he did not accept our Jesus to be Christ
  • Against Celsus 1.47: ‘Josephus… says… James the just, who was a brother of Jesus who is called Christ … how is it not more reasonable to say that it happened on account of Jesus the Christ?
  • Against Celsus 2.13: ‘For this began … as Josephus writes, on account of James the just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but, as the truth demonstrates, on account of Jesus the Christ of God.’
This repeated pattern of correcting his literary adversary is incomprehensible of course unless Origen has access to a text in which an unbeliever writes “called Christ”. The only candidate for this is AJ 20:200.

Comparing AJ 20:200 and Origen
Comparing Origen and Josephus AJ 20:200, we see similarities:
  • six matching words about James being “the brother of the Jesus called Christ”;
  • Note that Josephus wrote “the brother of Jesus”, not the pious Christian phrase “the brother of the Lord”. Origen follows Josephus in this regard when quoting him.
  • a mention of the killing of James;
  • the killing is by Jews;
  • there is some injustice in his killing;
  • a Jerusalem context;
  • Origen is taking Josephus to task over what he regards as statements of unbelief on the latter’s part in the words “called Christ”;
  • an explicit interest in the cause of the fall of Jerusalem in other Josephus texts (but not this one), and in these texts of Origen;
  • Josephus mentions this being followed by attacks on Jewish people; while Origen mentions it in reflecting on the end of the war, the destruction of Jerusalem.
Surprisingly, given this level of similarity, look carefully and you will notice that Origen never actually tells the sad tale of the death of James; he only mentions that he was killed. It is merely a device to talk about events and views of 70AD and later, i.e. on the destruction of Jerusalem, a topic that much occupied him. Origen is quite descriptive of AD70: “the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple... the desolation of Jerusalem...”

To summarise the respective narratives of Josephus and Origen:
  • Josephus’ story is set in the mid-60s, that of the death of James: it comes during the telling of the rise and fall of the Sadducee, the younger Ananus, who opportunistically had James and “some others” accused of being “breakers of the law” and, after a dubious legal process, James and the others are stoned. But fair-minded citizens disliked what had been done, and went over Ananus’ head to Albinus, to force the former to behave more justly, which led to King Agrippa doing more than that and actually stripping Ananus of the high priesthood. After that, Albinus came to Jerusalem and attacked the sicarii (rebels) who fought back; and, Josephus says, “This was the beginning of greater calamities” as the sicarii afflicted “the whole country”.
  • On the other hand, Origen tells a later narrative, principally about the 70AD destruction of the city, and indicates that sometime between the 70s and the end of the century (after the fall of Jerusalem and before the death of Josephus), some Jews were reflecting on the past with the theme that the killing had been the cause of trouble for the country, including the destruction of the Temple, the fall of Jerusalem. Origen says that one of the Jews with this retrospective view is Josephus.

The big difference
Origen is right that Josephus explicitly seeks the cause of the fall of Jerusalem. But the cause Origen cites – as if Josephus and other Jews blamed it on the killing of James - is foreign to Josephus. So how on earth did Origen come to attribute such views to Josephus?

Origen ‘riffs’ off Josephus
This turns on how Origen deals with Josephus across the broader sweep of his dealings with Josephus’ books; not merely these isolated examples that we relate to AJ 20:200. Origen takes surprising liberties with Josephus to put forward his own views on why Jerusalem and the temple fell.
A survey of all of Origen’s mentions of Josephus, by the scholar Miguzaki, is helpful.[[4]] This reveals, for example, what Origen does when commenting on Lamentations 4:14. Origen quotes Josephus’ Jewish War 6:299-300, but omits words to suit his own purposes, in making the fall of the temple about Jesus Christ. He cites the call, "Now, let us leave this place" heard by temple priests.
  • Firstly, as Origen takes this as the angels' voices announcing their departure from the doomed temple, he omits Josephus’ phrase καὶ κτυπου as it is not appropriate to the angels’ departure.
  • Secondly, Origen shortens Josephus’ text "into the inner court of the Temple" to "into the Temple", to suit his belief that the temple’s doom is related to the coming of Jesus.
Again, commenting on Lamentations 4:19 Origen says that, "Josephus reports that even the mountains did not save those who were trying to escape”, but where does Josephus say this?

Miguzaki notes,when the subject of the destruction of the Temple is closely related to his theological interpretation, he [Origen] cites a considerable amount from Josephus' work, modifying the passage to fit his interpretation.” It is entirely possible that Origen is carrying on in just the same vein when using Josephus’ mention of the death of James as a platform for his personal views on the fall of Jerusalem.
Origen’s treatment of AJ 20:200 is consistent with Origen’s deliberate and somewhat cavalier treatment of Josephus’ work elsewhere, not least a convenient platform for creative anti-semitism.  Origen was theologically creative. In popular parlance, he was riffing off Josephus, to say what he wants to say, but attributing it to Josephus.

Origen’s sources: 1 – the nation and the temple suffers for the killing
But where did Origen get his ideas from? Do they have anything at all to do with Josephus? As it happens, yes, they do. And not just from AJ 20:200. 
A scholar called Baras draws attention to AJ 11 where the remarks of Josephus could have inspired Origen’s direction about the fall of the temple following the death of another Jesus by the hand of his brother, another high priest. Baras notes that in AJ 11:297-305, ’Josephus recounts the death of Jeshua (i.e. Jesus…) at the hand of his brother, Johanan (Joannes) the high priest. Josephus ... says that God punished the Jews by enslaving them and by desecrating the Temple.’[[5]]


Set in bullet points, AJ 11:297-305 reads as follows:
  • ‘Joannes had a brother named Jesus;
  • and Bagoses, whose friend he was, promised to obtain the high priesthood for him [Jesus]. With this assurance, therefore,
  • Jesus quarrelled with Joannes in the Temple and
  • provoked his brother so far that in his anger he [Joannes] killed him [Jesus].
  • The Deity, however, was not indifferent to it, and it was for this reason that
  • the people were made slaves and
  • the Temple was defiled...
  • Now, when… the general… learned that…, he at once
  • set upon the Jews…
  • made the Jews suffer…
  • for the death of Jesus.’[[6]]

Note similarities in the material to hand.[7] It is not difficult to see how Origen riffing off AJ 11:297-305 and AJ 20:200 could produce the following in his Commentary on Matthew 10:17:
  • 'Flavius Josephus…  wishing to demonstrate the cause why
  • the people suffered such great things that
  • even the temple was razed down, 
  • said that these things came to pass against them
  • in accordance with the ire of God on account of the things
  • which were dared by them against James
  • the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.'

And Against Celsus 1:47: 
  • If, therefore, he says that the things surrounding the desolation of Jerusalem
  • befell the Jews…
  • it happened on account of Jesus…

In light of this evidence, it is likely that Origen was riffing off AJ 20:200 after the fashion of AJ 11:297-305.

It is curious that in his surviving works (much is lost) Origen nowhere mentions AJ 11:297-305, a passage that would have interested him greatly, but what he writes here is so like it.


Origen’s sources: 2 - the phrase “James the Just”

Origen uses the phrase ‘James the Just’, and this is not from Josephus. A few writers before Origen used it:


  • The Gospel of Thomas (Origen happens to name a ‘Gospel of Thomas’ too)
  • 2nd century Christian writer Hegesippus (Origen never mentions Hegesippus)
  • Clement of Alexandria (Origen’s teacher) according to Eusebius
  • And this phrase “James the Just” was in popular usage according to Hegesippus. It was an epithet that could be used whenever Christians spoke of James.

It is not possible to say whether Origen’s use of the phrase “James the Just” was inspired in particular by any one or all of the above.






[1] There are twenty-one Jesuses mentioned by Josephus. See Feldman, "Introduction" in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1987) 56.
[2] Per Bilde, "Josefus’ beretning om Jesus" ("Josephus’ Text about Jesus"), D7T44 (1981) 99-135, cited by L. H. Feldman, "Introduction" in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1987) 56.
[3] The authenticity of the text of Origen is not significantly in dispute.

[4] W. Mizugaki, "Origen and Josephus" in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, 325-337, particularly 332-3.
[5] Z. Baras, "The Testimonium Flavianum and the Martyrdom of James" in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, 338-348, particularly 344.
[6] Josephus, Antiquities XI, 297-305, Loeb Classical Library, VI,  457-461.
[7] Feldman suggests that Origen could have modelled his comments after AJ 18:119, that Jews thought that the destruction visited upon the army of Herod Antipas was God's punishment for Herod's execution of John the Baptist, but this lacks the startling resonances in AJ 11:297-305.L. H. Feldman, "Introduction" in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, 56.





Appendix: why this is not a deliberate Christian interpolation


This passage in AJ 20:200 is not the work of a Christian interpolator. It completely lacks the interpolator’s trademark of adding a positive Christian touch to stories of the faithful unjustly suffering. In the passage, by the end, James is unjustly dead, Jesus is mentioned in passing, and nothing positive is said about either of them.


In stark contrast, look again at two biblical stories of the suffering faithful mentioned above.




  • “They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against the holy place [the temple] and against the law.”” (Acts 6:12-14)

  • “some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place.”” (Acts 21:27-28)


What particularly marks these out as two Christian passages is what happens next. They have the sort of positive Christian material that is totally absent from the Josephus passage.


Here is the first, from Acts 6, again, this time with the material that follows it:


They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law... All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:12-15)


Similarly, here is the second passage from Acts 21 with what follows:


“some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place...


“Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.” After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. [And Paul goes on to tell the crowd of his supernatural encounter with Jesus, including this famous bit:] “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.” (Acts 21:27-28; 39-40; 22:1-2; 6-9)


So the Christian narratives go on to momentous scenes favourable to Christians. The Josephus passage completely lacks that Christian touch. There is more evidence of the difference that a Christian touch makes. This comes with another version of the death of James, this time by Christian author Hegesippus:


And they began to stone him [James]: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: "I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." And, while they were thus stoning him to death, one of the priests, the sons of Rechab, the son of Rechabim, to whom testimony is borne by Jeremiah the prophet, began to cry aloud, saying: "Cease, what do ye? The just man is praying for us." But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man. And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.” (Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History)


That passage ends on a positive Christian note. The complete lack of a Christian ending to the Josephus passage is really telling. Here is the Josephus passage again:


Ananus... brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, 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; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified...” (AJ 20:200)


If a Christian interpolator were responsible for this passage, he would characteristically have rounded off the story of the faithful suffering with something positive about James or Jesus (or both of them). But the author hasn’t done so. James is dead, Jesus gets a passing mention, and nothing positive is said about either of them, despite this tale of suffering and all its potential for making it into a Christian message. In it, the locals are rather more bothered about procedural law. It is what Josephus wanted to say. The passage is free from the tell-tale hand of Christian interpolation.

4 comments:

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  2. It should be noted that the term "James the Just" is also in a text known by Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Hegesippus, Gospel according to the Hebrews ("Iacobo lusto", quoted by Jerome, Illustrious Men, 2). Origen quotes this Gospel in Commentaries on John 1:3 and Homilies on Jeremiah (15:4) and notably Comm. Matt. 15:14. Also Hegesippus knew a Hebrew Gospel according to Eusebius (Eusebius, Hist eccl. 4.22.8). Could this be a source for the term in Origen?

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    1. Or the Gospel of Thomas could be. So many possibilities! I don't think it's possible to say with any certainty, but Clement's direct relationship with Origen adds weight to that possibility. Thanks for visiting the blog!

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    2. Thank you for a great blog.

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