Origen and Josephus, Part 1
This post is the first of a series on Origen and Josephus. The question I'm pursuing is, what can Origen tell us about the famous references to Jesus and his brother James, a.k.a., James the Just, in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews?
Here is the latter of the two references, followed by Origen's own three references to what Josephus had to say about James and Jesus.
Antiquities 20.9.1 §200-203
But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou], whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; 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; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
Origen, Commentary on Matthew 10.17
And this James is the one whom Paul says he saw in the epistle to the Galatians, saying: But I did not see any other of the apostles except James the brother of the Lord. And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou]. And the wonderful thing is that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.
Origen, Against Celsus 1.47
For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer [Josephus], although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after 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 calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou],--the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many Churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the Creator, and who refer all their actions to His good pleasure.
Origen, Against Celsus 2.13
But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou], but in reality, as the truth makes clear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
The simplest inference from Origen’s work is that by his time, the present reference to James and Jesus in Antiquities 20 was in existence and had prompted some Christian(s) to impute to Josephus the view that the war with Rome was punishment for the execution of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” The premise here is that this view is much likelier to have been imputed to Josephus if his works mentioned this James than if his works did not mention him at all.
It’s possible that Antiquities 20 in Origen’s time contained no mention of this James, and that Christians on their own had developed traditions about how Josephus mentioned and praised James – to the extent of having Josephus attribute the destruction of Jerusalem to his execution. But a far better explanation for such traditions is that they were built upon certain elements in the current account, where Josephus recounts how the execution of Christ’s brother was punished, in a small way and by other human beings; and where Josephus states that some fair-minded Jews regarded the execution as unjust and sought a way to rectify the wrong. These “seeds” could build eventually into the tradition found in Origen, namely that Josephus witnessed to a severe punishment from God and to the fact that the Jews themselves knew the punishment to be just.
Such an account as exists today in Antiquities 20 must have gladdened Christians, some of whom would have felt that Josephus was a possible secret friend (or eventual convert) in a hostile world. Early Christians made such claims about Joseph of Arimathea, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas, etc.
We can see the tradition building in this manner:
JOSEPHUS (Ant. 20)
James is stoned by Jerusalem’s high priest
James is executed by the Jews of Palestine
Caesar’s representative threatens punishment, which is delivered by the king
God delivers (his own) punishment
Some good citizens protest the execution
Jews knew their punishment was just
James is “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”
James is “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” and also “James the Just”
(Josephus writes all this)
All this is said to be found in Josephus
If Christians made up the traditions about Josephus without the current passage, proposed reconstructions of what Josephus originally wrote have little power to explain the later traditions. For instance, it’s doubtful that an original Josephan reference to “the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus” (this Jesus being the high priest who succeeds Ananus in the above-quoted passage) could have prompted a full-fledged belief that Josephus had extolled James the brother of Jesus. It seems far more likely that the later Christian traditions about Josephus’ attitude toward James started building whenever there appeared a Josephan reference to the Christian James.
[The following section added November 17]:
According to Eusebius of Caesarea (see History of the Church 2:23:4-18, composed circa 320), the Church historian Hegesippus, writing around the year 170, described the siege of Jerusalem as following “immediately” upon the death of James the Just. Now, Hegesippus and Josephus have similar names in Greek, and it was not unknown for the two to be confused.
This presents the possibility that second-century Christians, when recalling who had written about James and the war, could have confused the two names. Christian traditions attested in Hegesippus – the stoning of James, his great reputation for righteousness, and God’s punishment – could be attributed in casual conversation to the wrong name. Written documents making the mistake could build, possibly, into a concrete tradition, one that would be unverifiable by Origen’s time. Variously, it could simply be Origen who made the mistake.
But there are a several problems with this scenario. For one, it must have seemed prima facie unlikely to any Christian that a Jewish historian would regard God as punishing the Jewish people for the death of a Christian. Second, Origen presents Josephus as saying that the Jews themselves regarded the death of James as the cause of their sufferings, and there is very little along those lines in Hegesippus, who mentions only a single Jew protesting the execution of James ineffectively. Third, the line in Hegesippus about the siege of Jerusalem is a bare statement of fact barely implying the idea of punishment, yet Origen is certain that the historian has “searched” for the causes of the war and specifically named James as the cause. Fourth, Origen says that Josephus fails to name Jesus’ death as the cause of the war, which suggests an interaction, and specific disappointment, with a non-Christian text. To boot, Origen presents Josephus as not accepting Jesus to be the Christ – an impression that no reader could have gotten from the account in Hegesippus. And each time that Origen refers to Josephus’ account of James he uses a specific phrase not found in Hegesippus, “Jesus who was called Christ.”
The account in Ant. 20 contains a more robust idea of punishment, a presentation of influential Jews recognizing a wicked act, and the comparatively non-committal statement about Jesus who was “called” Christ. Now this does not mean that Origen’s accounts cannot be explained merely through the account in Hegesippus, the confusion of names, and the possibility that Origen composed the phrase about Christ himself when presenting the beliefs of a known non-Christian. But the details in Origen’s reports can be explained more plausibly and completely if it is postulated that he knew the account in Ant. 20 as it currently stands.
One lingering mystery for me is why Origen regarded a Jewish historian as accepting that God had punished the Jews for the death of a Christian. As a scholar and the head of a school in a city renowned for learning, he would not have been likely to conflate a major Christian historian with a major Jewish one on the basis of a similarity in names. And his accounts of James’ death suggest that he had read the account in Hegesippus, so he was likely to know who Hegesippus was and what he had said.
I suggest that the tradition about Josephus’ admiration for James did impute to him the belief about the war when a historian with a similar-sounding name wrote that the siege of Jerusalem had followed the execution of James. The newly developed tradition reached Origen several decades later, having become unverifiable. By then it surely must have extended to written forms, which could have been read as if they were paraphrases or quotes of Josephus, prompting Origen to surmise that Josephus must have written such things over a century earlier in a work that was no longer available. Origen does not, after all, state that anyone could look up Josephus’ views on James and the war, though he twice encourages his readers to look up what Josephus says about the antiquity of the Jewish people (see Against Celsus 1.16 and 4.11).
A similar process seems to have occurred in the next century, when Eusebius reported that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the execution of James. Eusebius purports to quote Josephus, but against his usual practice he does not name the work or chapter:
Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23.20
Josephus at any rate did not hesitate to testify this also through his writings, in which he says: But these things happened to the Jews as vengeance for James the Just, who was the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. For the Jews killed him even though he was a most just man.
This is a very close match with Origen’s words in one of the three passages above, Against Celsus 1.47, which suggests that Eusebius is using Origen as a source. Eusebius then reproduces the Ant. 20 passage directly, naming the correct work and chapter. He acted, then, just as I argue Origen and his predecessors to have done: he copied what was available to him and transmitted other traditions without citing a source.
Part 2 will deal with the question of whether Origen had a copy of Josephus on hand.