Josephus on James the Just

Josephus was a Jew who became a leader in the Jewish rebellion of AD 69. He was captured and ended up working for the Romans as a slave translator during the siege of Jerusalem. After being defeated and humiliated by initial Jewish victories, the Romans had called old General Vespasian out of retirement to lead the army that crushed Judea. While the siege of Jerusalem was going on, word came from Rome that the Praetorian Guard had arranged a new vacancy in Rome (Emperor Vitellius had been murdered after 8 months of rule), and they wanted Vespasian to come to Rome and become Emperor. Vespasian left his son Titus in charge. Titus befriended Josephus.

When the victorious Romans evicted the Jews from Jerusalem and Titus returned to Rome in triumph, he took Josephus with him. Josephus was given Roman citizenship and a pension. In the year 79 Vespasian died and Titus became Emperor. Josephus was a friend of the Emperor; it is nice to have friends. He used his comfortable retirement to write a couple of really interesting books: Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, both of which were written in the late 70s AD.  Josephus’s writings are a great source of information on first century Judaism, and he can be considered a “hostile witness” regarding Christianity.

Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War

Jewish Antiquities is a history of the Jewish people from Abraham to the Jewish War of AD 69-70, and  The Jewish War is an account of that war. Antiquities is a presentation of Jewish history written so as to make the Jews appear sympathetic according to Roman sensibilities. It includes a famous but disputed note about Jesus. The passage about Jesus is the famous  Testamonium Flavianum, but I do not wish to take that topic up here.

Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War also include undisputed notes about James the brother of Jesus.

James had not believed that Jesus was divine until after the Resurrection. When the risen Jesus appeared to James, he converted. Though a newcomer to the little band of followers of Jesus at the time of the Ascension, James became the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem.

We learn in Jewish Antiquities that when Roman Governor Festus died in the year 62 AD, Nero named Albinus to be the new governor of Judea. The Jews used the vacancy as cover for reprisals. While waiting for Albinus to arrive, Ananas the High Priest had James killed. Josephus includes this information. (The details of the murder/execution are provided from the Christian point of view in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History.)

The death of James corroborates the New Testament accounts of the deadly animosity of the Jews against Christians. This was at a time when Christians were considered a sect of Jews under Roman law. Why would the Jews take a chance on making the new incoming Governor Albinus angry? Relations with Rome were already awful. What would be so important about James that the Jewish High Priest would risk provoking Rome? Why take that chance, just to have the leader of the little band of Christians killed?

The answer is that the New Testament accounts are validated. The charge that the Jews had against Christians was blasphemy. That was a capital offense under Jewish law, but since the Romans considered that to be internal Jewish stuff, the Romans were uninterested in carrying out Jewish justice on ecclesial matters.

This account by Josephus provides corroboration of the story of Paul. Nearly 20 years earlier, he was headed from Jerusalem with a warrant from High Priest Annas (father of Ananas) to have some Christians in Damascus arrested. This was only a few months after the Resurrection. The Sanhedrin were already acting to try to stamp out Christianity, just as they had acted to have Jesus killed, and they were still fighting Christians thirty years later when they killed James. It also supports the story of the stoning of Stephen. Stephen was killed before Paul’s trip to Damascus, so that was very soon after the Resurrection.

You can read about the stoning of Stephen in Acts Chapter 7. You can read about Paul’s conversion in Acts Chapter 9 and in Galatians Chapter 1.


Note that the Jewish charge of blasphemy was their justification for having Pilate approve the execution of Jesus, and it was a charge of blasphemy on the writ that Paul was carrying when he was dramatically converted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and blasphemy was the reason to kill Stephen and James. We can guess that blasphemy was also the charge when King Agrippa had James the brother of John (son of Zebedee) killed in the year 44 AD.

A charge of blasphemy can only mean that these Jewish followers of Jesus were worshipping Jesus. The claim that Jesus is G-d is at the root of this charge.

Josephus’s account of the murder of James corroborates the New Testament.  Jesus was worshipped as divine very early in the Christian story, from the first days after the Resurrection. Worship of Jesus is undoubtedly the reason for charges of blasphemy.

If Pagan ideas were imported into the Christian movement, it would have had to have happened in the first year after the Resurrection, not over a period of generations. In the first year after the Resurrection, all the “Followers of the Way” of Jesus were Jews. They were not about to inform their upstart religion with Pagan ideas.

It would have been easy to go start up a Pagan sect that imported Jewish ideas, but they insisted that they were Jews, and they lived as Jews. These early Christians worshipped Jesus as elevated by G-d the Father to the Throne of Heaven as the best way to express worship of G-d the Father. They worshipped the Father and the Son together as a single expression of God, and they did not worship the Father and the Son as two gods. They rejected Pagan ideas.

This was the hard way, because they were opposed by the power structure of the Jewish world. They were repeatedly expelled from the Temple and from the synagogues. They were doggedly Jewish, and it was later, maybe ten years later, before their first big internal dispute arose, which was over how to deal with new gentile followers of Jesus.

The charge of blasphemy confirms the idea of the divinity of Jesus. The determination to retain their Jewish identity confirms that they were not importing Pagan ideas.

The idea that the divinity of Jesus is a concept that evolved over time from Pagan sources is an anti-Christian myth. The account of Josephus is another bit of evidence to disprove that theory.

Trust Jesus.


8 thoughts on “Josephus on James the Just”

  1. I highly recommend a modern translation of Josephus by Paul Maier. Josephus: the Essential Writings combines both Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War into a single volume. It is much easier reading than the croaky old public-domain translations that are available for free on the internet. Maier deleted a bunch of redundant passages, simplifies and condenses in places, and uses more colloquial language which makes for easier reading. Also, Maier provides a bunch of really helpful footnotes and margin notes and appendices. This would make a good gift for anyone who is really interested in the first century.



    Here is the passage from Josephus, in the Paul Maier translation:


    Upon Festus’s death, Caesar [Nero] sent Albinus to Judea as procurator. But before he arrived, King Agrippa had appointed Ananus to the priesthood [office of high priest], who was the son of [Annas]. This elder [Annas], after he himself had been high priest, had five sons, all of whom achieved that office, which was unparalleled. The younger Ananus, however, was rash and followed the Sadducees, who are heartless when they sit in judgement. Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have his opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death.

    The people of Jerusalem who were considered the most fair-minded and strict in observing the law were offended by this. They secretly urged King Agrippa to order Ananus to desist from any further actions of this sort. Some of them even went to meet Albinus, who was on his way from Alexandria, and informed him that Ananus had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his permission. Albinus angrily wrote to Ananus threatening vengeance. King Agrippa, because of this action, deposed Ananus from the high priesthood, which he had held for three months.


    This passage is referenced to Jewish Antiquities XX, 197, and Jewish War II, 72. The Paul Meier translation is really helpful in that Meier consolidated in the places where there is overlap between the two books.

    (King Agrippa is commonly referred to as Herod Agrippa II. He was the son of Herod Agrippa who was King of Galilee during Jesus’s earthly ministry.)

  2. The first picture is from the Wikipedia page for the Arch of Titus.


    The second picture is a detail from the Arch of Titus that depicts the Menorah from the Temple as it was carried in the Triumph Parade when Titus entered Rome as the victorious general, son of the new Emperor Vespasian. I grabbed this picture from a Google Images search. Google Images attributes the photo to The Tablet magazine, and says that The Tablet attributes the photo source to the Vatican.


  3. Regarding the nickname “James the Just,” Wikipedia quotes Schaff:

    “Hegesippus, who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says ‘After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.'”

    Wealthy men would pay large sums of money to acquire a nickname like “James the Just.”

  4. Phil Turmel:
    Thank you for adding to my reading backlog! /:

    Reading  Jewish Antiquities is really interesting.  It is a history of the Jews, so it provides an ‘executive summary’ of the Old Testament.  The most interesting places are the few episodes where Josephus changes to say something different than what is in the Bible.  Paul Meier says that it appears that these episodes reflect Josephus’s judgement that some stories from the Old Testament were just too weird for Roman sensibilities.

    Jewish Antiquities incorporates rabbinical traditions about some of the prophets.   It includes legends about Alexander the Great and it includes the Maccabees.   Most fascinating of all is a lot of detailed information about Herod the Great and his family.

    The Jewish War is a difficult read, not that the reading is difficult, but that the material is so dreadful.  When the Jews rebelled, they succeeded in killing a bunch of Roman soldiers from the garrison based in Caesarea Maritima.  When Rome went to put down the rebellion, they did it the Roman way.  They were efficient and brutal.  Jesus’s prophecy was fulfilled in detail, and reading Josephus’s account is heart-wrenching.

  5. This post is complementary to my post from January, in which I showed that St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians can be examined as an historical artifact to discern what the earliest Christians were saying about Jesus. It demonstrates a very early and powerful devotion to Jesus as the “Principle Agent” of God and deserving of worship along with God, which is a novel innovation in Jewish monotheism.

    Both of these posts are companions to the post that started this series: “New  religionsgeschichtliche Schule”


    Aside from the Testamonium Flavianum, few passages in these two books by Josephus are disputed. Of course there are critics who put up disputes. Their objections do not carry much weight, and their criticisms have not gained general traction among historians and text critics of Josephus.

    For a really fascinating but very long defense of the passages in Jewish Antiquities about John the Baptist, I recommend this interesting blog post by Agnostic (former Catholic) Peter Kirby (he can be considered a “hostile witness” to Christianity):


  6. Phil Turmel:
    I suspect you mean this link:

    The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus

    And yes, very long. (:

    Yes, thanks.   And, I thought, pretty interesting.  I don’t know what caused P. Kirby to lose his faith, but my suspicion is that he was poorly taught in the first place.  He handles the primary sources pretty well, though, and I find him to be useful.


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