letters, letters

We have heard from others. Perhaps now is the moment to hear from James himself!

Well, would that were possible. Next best, if the written words of James are not the real thing, to learn from someone purporting to speak on behalf of James.

Though now often displaced by faster means of communication, letters were once vital for communities that were geographically dispersed. There is evidence of a spate of letters in the first century CE addressed to Jews and gentile believers (god-fearers) from rival camps, competing for influence and attention.

On the one hand were the strict adherents of the Law, ‘keepers of the Covenant’, the fundamentalist core of Judaism, in opposition to Rome and its collaborating Sadducee High Priests. This was headed by James the Just or (from the Hebrew) Righteous. On the other were the followers of Saul, at that time promoting a new Jewish sect, shorn of irksome dietary restrictions and the requirement for circumcision and less respectful of the Jewish Law.

There are references to these letters in several sources – and some letters would appear to have survived. But like the gospels these survivors, even if genuine, would have been edited over time. Some promotional texts were later written, as if by Saul or one of the other reputed followers of Jesus, in order to give them added authenticity. Some may be compilations from several texts.

It must be said that there are a few core letters that could in an original form, now hard entirely to reconstruct, have been written by Saul.

Intriguingly, one or two texts that do not appear to be letters may have originated as such. It has been suggested that the Didache may have its origins in a letter sent out, under the authority of James, to advise god-fearers among Jews in the diaspora of their obligations (Acts 15, 19-20; 21, 25).

The Letter of James included in the New Testament (and quoted in part on this site) was probably never a letter at all, almost certainly did not originate from James and shows signs of having been constructed in two or three stages.

But, as to the fate of James, it contains an important clue…

The lost reference

Two early Church authorities, Origen and Eusebius, report that Josephus believed that the calamity of the Jewish uprising was visited on the Jews by God because they had murdered James the Just. But this passage is no longer extant in any manuscripts of Josephus’ works.

It is not a variant or mistaken quote of the passage in which Ananus is blamed for having James (whether or not the same James) stoned to death. This is because Eusebius quotes both this passage (as it now appears in Antiquities) and a second presumed lost passage as follows:

These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus who is called Christ, for the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.

Many have argued that this must have been an interpolation (then removed at some later point), with one or the other passage originally being the source for the other. It is clear that ‘who was a brother of Jesus who is called Christ’, present in both passages, (see The wrong stoning) would have been a Christian interpolation. The same goes for the phrase ‘the Jews’, more akin to the style of the Gospel of Peter than that of Josephus who was a Jew.

We are really asking the wrong questions.

So, here are a few. James is a towering figure, from the description in Acts, the writings of early Church (patristic) authorities, Ebionite sources and possibly the commentaries on Habakkuk and psalm 37 in the Dead Sea scrolls. So why does Josephus fail to give him no more than a passing mention? Or, quite likely, if the passage that is in Antiquities refers to another James, no mention at all?

Jesus likewise gets no reliable (non interpolated) mention. He would not have been a very successful rebel in Josephus’ eyes. That is, assuming that Jesus/Yeshua is an historical figure. Which I judge on the evidence to be the case.

But why no mention of Jesus at all?

At precisely the point in Antiquities where there should have been a description of the Jesus story, Josephus has two mocking tales, one an apparent satirical attack on Saul/Paul and one a parody of the Christian gospel myths (see chapter 9 of Jesus the terrorist). The precise placing is, I suggest, an acknowledgement that something involving a character called Jesus happened at that time.

These and other omissions and the mixing up of information on messianic contenders is an indication that Josephus saw his role as limited (as stated in his Jewish War) to providing a warning against rebellion to subject peoples. He saw no need to deliver up to Rome others in what I have described as a submerged messianic line.

But, if not from Josephus, where did the idea originate – that the death of James might have been closely involved with the calamity of the Jewish uprising? It could have been an inherited, common presumption. Not a likely one, if James died in CE 62, four years before the war. More likely, if his death had happened nearer to the outbreak of hostilities, with James and his role and his demise among a number of factors.that Josephus carefully avoids mentioning.

But he does record that Ananias was fairly swiftly caught and killed by the insurgents, perhaps ‘to avenge James’.

 

 

 

The wrong stoning?

Josephus reports in Antiquities that the High Priest Ananus was deposed in CE 62 by Herod Agrippa for having people stoned to death. This was in the temporary absence of a Roman procurator whose authority would normally have been required. The notice states that among the group was a man named Jacob (now rendered as James), ‘the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ’.

That would seem to settle it: the Sadducee elite killed James.

There are other sources indicating that James may have been hounded to death: pelted with stones and pushed down the Temple steps. But these do not imply a formal trial or execution.

The notice in Josephus therefore needs to be considered with caution. It is a report of a stoning, but it may well not refer to the same Jacob/James. Origen stated that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and, indeed, that’s a fair conclusion from the general slant of Josephus’ writings. The phrase ‘who was called the Christ’ or even the whole description ‘the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ’ reads better as a marginal annotation by a later reader, who had drawn this conclusion, that was then incorporated into the text when it was recopied.

Jacob/James and Jesus were not uncommon names. A few lines later in the text, there is a probably coincidental notice of Jesus the son of Damnaeus who was appointed High Priest to replace the deposed Ananus.

Another reason for believing that the Jacob/James described here was not James the brother of Jesus is that the latter, by all accounts, was a popular figure with followers, according to Acts and the Pseudoclementines numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. He had the authority to send letters giving instructions for gentile godfearers in the diaspora. Several early church authorities report him as acting as a people’s High Priest, in opposition to the Roman/Herodian appointees.

James died in CE 62, or possibly a few years later. Ananus was popularly elected as joint administrator of Jerusalem at the outbreak of the Jewish uprising in CE 66. It seems hardly likely that he would have been so chosen, had he been responsible for the death of James.

A more likely candidate would perhaps have been Ananias, son of Nebedeus, who was High Priest from around CE 48 – 58, and who (according to Josephus) took bribes, misappropriated tithes due to lower order priests and was generally greedy and violent. It was Ananias who robustly interrogated Paul/Saul. Ananias continued to have influence after his tenure as High Priest ended (and more of him, later).

A similar name to Ananus; conceivably part of the reason an early commentator, who might have had other sources to draw on, jumped to the conclusion that the Jacob/James, described as having been stoned to death in Antiquities, was James the brother of Jesus. And then wrote this in the margin of his or her copy.

Josephus, former zealot general captured and employed by the Romans to write a history of the Jewish War, demonstrating the futility of resistance to other subject peoples, was in a delicate position. Did he to an extent cover his tracks and those of a messianic movement that incorporated a submerged Davidic dynasty? (See ch 10 of Jesus the terrorist)

In which case, the notice about the stoning of possibly another Jacob/James in Antiquities, is really a distraction. Josephus cut out or kept out the details of how James died.

Who killed James?

Who killed James?
It’s not an easy question to answer. We all think we know who killed Jesus. No difficulty, of course, for the author or later editor of I Thessalonians. The perpetrators were his fellow Jews and the guilt, according to Matthew, lay on the Jewish people as a whole.
It is a libel that has since helped to generate enormous harm.
Most analysts agree that Jesus was convicted and executed by the Romans, notwithstanding asides on the hand-wringing Pilate or the preposterous account of the Jews as executioners in the Gospel of Peter. The Romans did it, but they had collaborators.
And these were the usual suspects. Not the ‘Scribes and Pharisees’, so roundly condemned in Matthew, but the chief priests (present and former High Priests) among the Sadducees who owed their pre-eminence and their wealth to the Romans (Mark 15, 3-11).
For the death of James, we have one apparently solid reference in Antiquities, the history of the Jewish people written by Josephus.
As described here, the prime instigators are in this instance the usual suspects – the Sadducee High Priest and his allies in the Sanhedrin – and the Romans (caught on the hop, while replacing their Judean procurator) are entirely blameless. And, of course, no one else is to blame either.
Hmmm… It is just all too easy. And it’s an account that does not entirely square with what else Josephus may have had to say, and what has survived of the shredding of texts originating from ‘the opposition’, Jews who survived and continued to support James.