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.