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 which Josephus carefully avoids mentioning.

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 however other sources indicating that James may have been hounded to death: pelted with stones and pushed down the Temple steps, in the early stages of the Jewish uprising. That would have been about four years later in CE 66.

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’ reads better as a marginal annotation by a later reader, who had drawn this conclusion, which 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 notice of Jesus the son of Damnaeus who was appointed High Priest to replace the deposed Ananus. It may be that Agrippa was underlining his displeasure by appointing as successor to Ananus, the brother of the man he had just had killed! In which case, the reference to ‘James the brother of Jesus’ (minus the interpolation ‘who was called the Christ’) may be both original and clear. Josephus is referring to someone he identifies just a few line later in the text.

The James, executed by stoning, died in around CE 62. 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 the Just, who was by all accounts a well-respected and highly popular figure.

Ananias, son of Nebedeus, on the pro-Roman side, was High Priest from around CE 48 – 58. According to Josephus), he took bribes, misappropriated tithes due to lower order priests and was generally greedy and violent. It was Ananias who robustly interrogated Paul/Saul. He is more likely to have been among those responsible for the death of James. He was killed by rebels, together with his brother Hezekiah, at the outset of the uprising.

Josephus, former zealot general, was captured and employed by the Romans to write a history of the Jewish War, demonstrating the futility of resistance to other subject peoples. His account is, to say the least, selective. He wrote very little about the character James, reported in Acts as being in a confrontation with Saul/Paul. Indeed, if the notice about the  person stoned to death was another James and if the report that Josephus had commented on James (in a passage no longer extant in his writings) is not accurate, he wrote nothing at all.

Owing his life, liberty and well-being to the Romans, Josephus was in a delicate position. He could not actively have supported surviving religious nationalists, though he must surely have known who these were. So, did he help by his silence and selective reporting?

Though much maligned as a turn-coat and traitor, Josephus may have assisted the survival of a messianic movement that lived to fight another day.