Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus: Critique of alleged evidence of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.
(Ed. Note: This is the 23d post in Frank Zindler’s Speaking Frankly About Jesus blog which is dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. This is part O of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)
Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!
After demonstrating that Philip Jenkins has built an aery argument out of his inadequacy in Greek and unfamiliarity with the Greek New Testament, in the previous posting I ended with a promise to address his claim that Josephus knew about a certain “James, the brother of Jesus,” and thus provided evidence apart from the Testimonium Flavianum supporting the historicity of some Jesus or other. The passage in Josephus that is in question is the by-now familiar paragraph from Book 20 of Jewish Antiquities:
“As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ [emphasis original], whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”
Because many legitimate scholars as well as apologists consider this passage to be authentic, and because it is of immense importance that that view be shown beyond cavil to be wrong, I shall have to devote two installments of this blog to demonstrating the correctness of my claim. Even so, readers are advised to get a fuller and more detailed proof by reading my chapter “James the Just , John the Baptist, and Other Perversions of Josephus” in my 2003 book The Jesus the Jews Never Knew—the source of what I shall write in this and the following posting.
Before considering the details of the passage quoted above, it is useful to consider the fraudulent background of passages in manuscripts of Josephus mentioning a certain “James the Just” (=James, the Brother of the Lord =James, the brother of Jesus). There is evidence that manuscripts of both of Josephus’ major works were tampered with not by Catholics alone, but also by Baptists (members of a cult honoring a real or imaginary John the Baptist) and by a religious faction I have dubbed “Jacobites” (members of a cult honoring a certain James—Jacob in Hebrew—“the Just”).
We have certain proof that James was the motivation for very early tampering with the text of Josephus (probably in certain manuscript lines of his Jewish War, but Antiquities may also have been altered). Both Origen [c185–254 CE] and Eusebius [c260–c340 CE] refer to a Josephan passage in which the destruction of Jerusalem is attributed to the judicial murder of James the Just, a.k.a. “James, the brother of the Lord,” a.k.a. “James, the brother of Jesus.” This reference is not to be found in any surviving Greek manuscripts of Josephus’ works, and it is obvious that although it had been interpolated into manuscripts ancestral to those owned by those fathers of the Church, it never found its way into the lines of transmission of any manuscripts that have come down to us.
The fact that James the Just is known to have been cause for interpolations into the text of Josephus forces us to be even more skeptical of a passage where he is linked to Jesus. We shall examine such a passage in more detail after seeing how Origen and Eusebius provide evidence of manuscripts containing such interpolations.
In Origen’s apology Contra Celsum (“Against Celsus”), the forty-seventh chapter of Book 1 begins with an argument supporting the historicity of John the Baptist and Jesus (their historical reality appears to have been more burning a question in ancient times than now!) and then proceeds to cite an unknown passage from Josephus:
“I would like to say to Celsus, who represents the Jew as accepting somehow John as a Baptist who baptized Jesus, that the existence of John the Baptist, baptizing for the remission of sins, is related by one who lived no great length of time after John and Jesus. 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, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, [this phrase alone is sufficient to prove the Testimonium Flavianum is a fraud!] 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), —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…?”
Even though it does not appear that Origen is quoting “Josephus” directly (although the emphasized passage may approximate the actual wording of the source), no extant manuscripts of Josephus has any passage expressing the sentiment of this citation by Origen. It is instructive to compare this passage with another reference Origen makes to this lost interpolation in the seventeenth chapter of his Commentary on Matthew.
“And James is he whom Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians that he saw, “But other of the Apostles saw I none, save James the brother of the Lord.” [Gal. 1:19] 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 consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. 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…”
Much later on, Photius [c810–c893 CE], in his Codex 238 review of Josephus’ Antiquities, mentions “James, the brother of the Lord” instead of the awkward and convoluted “the brother of Jesus the so-called Messiah, James by name” of the received text. It is significant, I think, that Photius is not just using a shortened form of the received text but is referring to James in a completely different way —without the use of the name Jesus! If the name Jesus had been present in Photius’ copy of Josephus, it is hard to believe he would not have repeated it but rather have reverted to the archaic and obscure title Brother of the Lord.
It seems extremely likely that the manuscript Photius reviewed made no mention of Jesus or the Messiah, but had instead a passage reading “And so he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them James, the so-called Brother of the Lord, and certain others…” The book report of Photius makes it all but certain that the second alleged Josephan notice of Jesus—like the first—is inauthentic. (The fact that the 19th-century translator of Photius translates ho legomenos as “so-called” should not be taken as sarcasm; it simply meant “who was called,” and often was used with nicknames.) This failure to equate “Brother of the Lord” with Jesus leads one to suppose that someone (better yet, some-thing) else is meant—something that later, whether by accident or intention, came to become a blood brother of Jesus.
Before I can reconstruct the stages of this sacred metamorphosis, I need to explain what originally was meant by “the Lord” and reveal the true meaning of the Fundagelical bumper-stickers that proclaim “JESUS IS LORD.”
The god who eventually became the chief god of the Israelites, as was the case with all men and gods alike, had a secret name. Knowledge of someone’s secret name could confer magical powers over the person when used in curses or blessings. In the case of gods, knowledge of their secret name was “revealed” only to the high priests of their cults. Typically, gods and their priests were bound by covenants; priests could use the secret name to exact benefices from their pet gods, but must never reveal the powerful name to anyone, under pain of death. In exchange for bestowing knowledge of the secret name upon their priests, the gods received sacrifices, praise, veneration, and tithes from their superstitious tribes and nations. The covenant haggled out by Moses with a particular god in Sinai as described in the book of Exodus yielded a name so secret it must never be written with its vowels, lest it be pronounced “in vain” and Sorcerer’s Apprentice types of problems develop. Usually written in Paleo-Hebrew script, the name of the tribal god of the Jews was spelled Y-H-W-H. It probably was pronounced “Yahweh,” but the death sentence was incurred by anyone saying it aloud: “Whoever utters the name Yahweh shall be put to death” [Lev 24:16]. That served to keep “the NAME” [ha SHEM in Hebrew] the private property of priests and allowed them to assure the populations they parasitized:
“Because of our contract with God, we know his secret name and can use the power of his name on your behalf. However, also because of our contract, you have to bring us your tithes and obey the following 613 commandments.”
Okay, this is where the story starts; we have a long way to go before turning into the kid brother of Jesus of Nazareth, so let’s get on with it.
When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek for the Hellenized Jews living in Alexandria, a peculiar problem arose relating to the secret name of the Jewish god. First of all, two of the four letters in the Hebrew name are “H,” and there is no such letter in the Greek alphabet. Secondly, there has been no “W” in Greek since about the fifth century BCE when the letter digamma went extinct. Of course, there is no “Y” either, but the letter iota usually can serve as a “Y” as well as an “I.” So, the translators couldn’t just transliterate the secret Tetragrammaton into an unpronounceable Greek non-word. They could of course render the name phonetically—IAOUEI, or something similar—but then everyone would know how to pronounce the name and the translators would have been put to death! What to do?
The translators did what the Hebrew-speaking Jews did whenever having to read aloud a text in which YHWH appeared: they substituted an epithet for the secret name. In Hebrew or Aramaic, the substitute word was adonai [“my Lord”], and it frequently was used in translating YHWH Elohim [Elohim is a plural originally meaning “gods”]. In Greek, the word Kyrios [“Lord”] was substituted for YHWH. In the English Bible, whenever you encounter “the LORD God,” you may know the original being translated is YHWH Elohim.
Okay, so now you know: “Jesus is Lord” means “Jesus is Yahweh.” Scribe that on your bumper stickers ye true believers! “Brother of the Lord” originally meant “Brother of Yahweh,” and it obviously had nothing to do with consanguinity! And don’t forget Origen’s comment that Josephus “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.”
Next time: What exactly was a “Brother of the Lord” in primitive Christianity?
Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist.
(Photo credit: Eric Lin via Flikr; https://www.flickr.com/photos/phonescoop/214501602/)
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