For my write-up today of Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I’ll talk about some things from page 770 of J. Carleton Paget’s essay on “Jewish Christianity”.
Paget refers to Josephus’ Antiquities 20:197-203. This passage is about the execution of James the brother of Jesus, which was ordered by the high priest Ananias. According to Josephus, Jews who were strict in their interpretation of the law successfully influenced King Agrippa II (through Governor Albinus) to depose Ananias as high priest. This passage is rather famous because it is one of the few (as in two) passages in Josephus’ works that mentions Jesus. But it stood out to me in my reading today because it was saying that the high priest could execute somebody. In John 18:31, Jewish leaders tell Pilate that it is unlawful for them to put somebody to death, which was why they wanted the Romans to execute Jesus. And yet, in this passage of Josephus, and even in parts of the New Testament, they do precisely that. In Acts 6-9, Stephen is put to death by fellow Jews in his audience, and Saul murders Christians. Were they doing this unlawfully? In the Antiquities passage, Josephus notes that the conscientious Jews tell Governor Albinus that Ananias the high priest unlawfully assembled the Sanhedrin without Albinus’ consent, so part of the problem was that Ananias was disobeying the law.
In a footnote on page 770, there is another interesting detail: According to Origen (Contra Celsum 2:13 and Commentary in Matthew 10:17) and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2:23), Josephus “attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of James” (Paget’s words). No manuscript of Josephus says this, and Paget states that most scholars have dismissed this claim by Origen and Eusebius. But Paget refers to a scholar named Pierre-Antoine Bernheim who accepts the claim. Bernheim argues that a Christian could have removed Josephus’ statement that Jerusalem was destroyed as divine punishment for the execution of James because Christianity holds that God punished Jerusalem for the death of Jesus, not James. Plus, Bernheim notes that Josephus had a positive attitude towards James, and so it’s not unlikely that Josephus would blame the fall of Jerusalem on James’ death. Paget disagrees with Bernheim, however, for he does not see any evidence that Josephus had a positive attitude regarding James. I myself doubt that Origen and Eusebius would make up a Josephan passage saying that Jerusalem was destroyed for the death of James, especially when it contradicted their belief that what happened in 70 C.E. was divine retaliation for the death of Jesus. But I do not know why scholars dismiss their claim.