The Jesus Passages in Josephus – a Case Study, part 3c – ”The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”: The James passage, earlier identification, the identification

Part 1
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Part 2a Part 2b Part 2c Part 2d
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Part 3a Part 3b Part 3c Part 3d
Part 3e Part 3f Part 3g Part 3h
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Part 4
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This is part 3c of the translation of my treatise Jesuspassagerna hos Josefus – en fallstudie into English.

Den svenska texten.

III. The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James

The James passage in Josefus

Identification in earlier reference

The identification

To identify one James, who certainly would be relatively unknown, as the brother of perhaps an equally unknown Jesus, seems to be ill-considered, to say the least. The brief passage in the Antiquities of the Jews 20:200 has dual identifications. It is not just James who is identified as the brother of Jesus; also Jesus is identified as Christ. The purpose would then be to make clear for the reader which Jesus Josephus referred to this time; not to be mixed up with the approximately 20 other people called Jesus which Josephus reports of in his works. But Josephus wrote the Antiquities of the Jews primarily for non-Jews living outside Palestine, and to the vast majority of these the term Christ (Messiah) was meaningless. To explain who Jesus was by saying that it was the Jesus who was called Christ may have been relevant in the third century or even for a good deal of the second century when Jesus Christ became more widely known. But in the 90’s, he was almost certainly unknown to the masses and it would therefore be pointless to identify Jesus as the one called Christ without providing any further information.

On comparison the Roman consul and historian Cornelius Tacitus can be cited. Around the year 117 CE he wrote that Nero punished “a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Christians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, was executed by procurator Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Tiberius” (Tacitus, Annals 15:44). One might expect that the spread of Christianity was at least somewhat exponentially, which means that there probably were many more Christians in Tacitus’ time than in Josephus’. Despite this and despite the fact that Tacitus wrote more than two decades later than Josephus, Tacitus nonetheless felt compelled to explain who the Christians were and that their leader Christ was executed by Pilate. How much more important should not it have been for Josephus to explain who this Christ was?

If we play with the idea of the Testimonium, which is found earlier in Josephus’ work (book 18), being genuine and that Josephus in book 20 wanted to refer to that paragraph, it would have been far more logical for him to identify Jesus as the one “who was executed by Pilate” (as Tacitus does) than the one “who was called Christ”.[211] That would be an identification that is much easier to remember for the reader; much the way Josephus, when he once more returned to Judas of Galilee, referred back to his earlier description of Judas’ instigation of rebellion during the taxation carried out by Quirinius. Steve Mason points out that Josephus tend to introduce his characters when he first introduces them, although not necessarily until after a few sentences. At first he identifies them by either patronymic or place of origin, more rarely by other indicators such as school affiliation. “Only when the narrative is already thus contextualized, usually, does he use the name alone.” And in cases where the person is irrelevant or Josephus did not know who he was, he can for example write: “A certain X …”.[212] Josephus could accordingly have settled for writing “a certain James”; and if we are dealing here with a Christian interpolation, the original text by Josephus also might have read so.

The James passage reasonably requires an earlier reference to Jesus. The defense of the authenticity of the shorter passage also relies on the presence of the longer passage (the Testimonium) earlier in Josephus’ work. Only there is it explained who Jesus was, and that he was Christ. In order for the sentence “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” to be genuine, also the entire Testimonium Flavianum ought to be genuine. That is, including the statement “he was the Christ [Messiah]” a phrase that almost everyone, even those who defend the authenticity of the Testimonium, consider to be a later addition. And yet this expression, even in the unlikely event of the reading “he was believed to be the Messiah”, is not fully adequate, because in neither case is it said that Jesus was named or called the Christ (which is how he is identified in the James passage), but only that he was the Christ. Unless Josephus has not written the Testimonium in book 18 with the identification of Jesus as the Christ, there is no good reason to assume that he later in book 20 would have chosen to identify Jesus as the Jesus who was called Christ. If so, he left the reader in the lurch with a meaningless identification of a certain James as well as a certain Jesus, and this in a way which is inconsistent with how Josephus normally identified his characters.

Regarding the question of whether Josephus wrote anything at all about Jesus, one can start from two diametrically opposed positions. The one position is to assume that the James passage is genuine, since the short paragraph has no explicit Christian elements. Based on this observation one can then argue that the Testimonium (in some form) must be authentic; this because the James passage requires a previous identification of Jesus as Christ. This is the approach that almost everyone who argue that Josephus actually wrote about Jesus also takes.

The other position is to start by examining the Testimonium, and if one then reach the conclusion that the Testimonium is not likely (in any form) to be authentic, there is accordingly no previous identification, and the brief passage in book 20 must reasonably also be a forgery. This is also supported by the fact that the phrase “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” seems to have been interpolated a second time in a different context and at an unidentified location in one of Josephus’ works – as witnessed by Origen. This is the approach that almost everyone who argue that Josephus did not mention Jesus takes; including this writer.

Roger Viklund, 2011-03-28

[211] Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, p. 218.

[212] Steve Mason as to whether, and if so, how, Josephus tend to introduce his characters the first time he deals with them:

“This is true generally of ancient writers, but especially with Josephus. Given that in both Roman and Judaean circles a very small pool of names was heavily used, and in the Judaean context Yehoshua is one of the top few, along with Shimon and Yehuda, Josephus needs to identify the person by either patronymic or place of origin, far less often by other indicators such as school affiliation (Menachem the Essaios, etc. — unless Essaios also marks a place of origin). Only when the narrative is already thus contextualized, usually, does he use the name alone. When he can’t be bothered, or doesn’t know the relevant identifiers, he can also use the expedient of tis: ’A certain X….’.“ (David C. Hindley on Freethought & Rationalism Discussion Board, where he reproduces a post reply from Steve Mason)


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