The Stoning of James the Just

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Welcome to The Three Messiahs’ blog.  Hopefully, this blog will introduce you to many issues concerning Christian origins.  I have selected a small sample of topics covered in the book which may whet your appetite for more.  The Three Messiahs will answer the following and much more:

1.  Who was the historical Jesus?

2. Did Barabbas and Judas Iscariot really exist or were they inventions of the Gospel writers?

3. Did John the Baptist outlive Jesus?

4. Why did Acts omit the stoning of James, the brother of Jesus, in 62 CE? (see analysis below)

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Daniel T. Unterbrink


One of the most important and controversial passages in Josephus concerns the stoning of James, the brother of Jesus. Two distinct viewpoints exist today, from the Mythicists and from the Traditionalists. The existence of a family member is tantamount to proving the reality of the Jesus figure in history. That is why there are such radically different views on this subject.

Before examining the two viewpoints, it would be wise to look at Josephus’ passage concerning James.

…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 [Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, 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. (Ant. 20.200) (Emphasis mine)

It would be beneficial to have some background of the circumstances surrounding James’ death. The high priest at the time was Ananus, the son of the famous high priest Annas, who served from 6-15 CE, being the first person who examined Jesus after the arrest, per John 18:12-14. Thus, there was a historical link between the deaths of Jesus and this James. The authenticity of the highlighted section of the passage has been questioned by many over the years. Was “the brother of Jesus” added, or was “who was called Christ” added, or was the passage simply as stated? Considering that Josephus never mentioned a Messiah figure named Jesus, “the brother of Jesus” was probably a later interpolation. Josephus obviously did not consider this “Jesus” as the Messiah, so the passage “who was called Christ” may very well be genuine. Now if the passage read “who was the Christ”, then we would be assured that this was counterfeit, as Josephus attributed the “Star Prophecy” to Vespasian, not to any Jewish leader. My solution for this passage would read as such: “the brother of Judas the Galilean, who was called Christ.” Note that Josephus always referred back to Judas the Galilean when mentioning a son or grandson. (Ant. 20.102; War 2.433; War 7.253) It is not wild speculation to assume that Josephus was referring back to James’ brother, Judas, as he had done in the cases mentioned above.


As mentioned earlier, the Mythicists believe that this passage does not refer to the brother of the Lord, the brother of Jesus or the brother of Judas the Galilean. Some claim that the interpolation was the phrase “who was called Christ.” They also claim that the “Jesus” referred to was Jesus, the son of Damneus. This revelation of pure genius rests on the position of the two names. In the above passage about James, there is a reference to a Jesus. After the removal of Ananus from the high priesthood due to complaints about his unholy actions, the newly arrived governor, Albinus, appointed Jesus, son of Damneus to the high priesthood. This strained interpretation has James being the brother of the high priest Jesus and the son of Damneus. There are several reasons to doubt that the James of Ant. 20.200 was the brother of Jesus, the son of Damneus (Ant. 20.203).

First, this James and his companions were put to death on the orders of Ananus, who was the son of the former high priest, Annas. The former high priest ruled from 6-15 CE and had five sons who enjoyed the high priest position. The elder Annas held the position during the lifetime of Judas the Galilean, being mentioned in the Gospel of John, concerning the interrogation of Jesus. It seems that there is more of a connection between the brother of Judas/Jesus and Ananus than with the brother of another Jesus, the son of Damneus. In addition, the name Jesus in connection to James may be a later interpolation as Josephus never wrote about Jesus, the Christ. (The spurious “Jesus passage” (Ant. 18.63-64) is undoubtedly a later Christian interpolation).

James and his companions were accused of having broken the Law. Josephus often referred to the Fourth Philosophy as bandits and breakers of the law. (It seems as if Ananus was attacking a group as opposed to a single individual.) In addition, many of the citizens did not approve of Ananus’ actions and petitioned Albinus, which resulted in Agrippa removing the high priesthood from Ananus. If this were simply a quarrel gone wrong between two upper class families, the outcry from the citizens would not have been so vehement.

After being removed from the high priesthood, Ananus “cultivated the friendship of Albinus, and the high priest [Jesus], by making them presents.” (Ant. 20.205) If Ananus had murdered the son of Damneus, then the making of friends with another son of Damneus seems absurd. In addition, Ananus later worked with the other wealthy families and high priests to cheat the lower priests of their meager tithes, so that the poor priests “died from want of food.” (Ant. 20.207) This being the case, there is no way that Ananus would have condemned another wealthy individual; he would have just bought him off, just like he did everyone else.

Shortly after Jesus, the son of Damneus, was made high priest, he was removed and replaced by Jesus, the son of Gamaliel. (Ant. 20.213) Since the name Jesus is the only thing tying James to Damneus, why should James not be tied to Gamaliel as well? Or is the name Jesus just a coincidence between James and Damneus? (Jesus was not an uncommon name.)

After Ananus put James and his companions to death, the Sicarii began kidnapping relatives of Ananus for trade. (Ant. 20.208-211) In short, not only had Ananus put James to death, he also held other Sicarii in prison. Note that Ananus not only arrested James but some of his companions as well. It is my contention that James was part of the Fourth Philosophy, part of the Sicarii. In this, he was no different than Menahem (son of Judas the Galilean) or Eleazar (leader at Masada and a grandson of Judas). Thus, James had no connection to a priestly party, no connection to Damneus!

The stoning of James was part of the early Church tradition. The book of Acts rewrites the story in its account of Stephen (Acts 7). Shortly after the death of Stephen, Saul began to persecute the church. It should not be missed that Saul persecuted those weaker than himself shortly after the stoning of James. (Ant. 20.214) So even though the Acts’ version is fiction, it was based upon an historical event. This may be the strongest piece of evidence against the Mythicist theory. Certainly, this James was an important part of the “Jesus” story or it would not have been reshaped and placed in the book of Acts.


James, the brother of Jesus, holds a strange position in the history of the Church. On the one hand, Acts downplayed and even ignored James. On the other hand, James’ earthly relationship to Jesus was the only real proof that a flesh and blood Jesus ever lived. Paul, of course, mentioned James in his letter to the Galatians. In this letter, James was honored as one of the Pillars of the Church and was the one responsible for Paul’s removal from the movement. James was leader of the circumcision group. (Gal. 2:9-12) So there was real motive for the author of Acts to downplay James’ role in the Church while elevating Paul’s role.

Most Christian scholars and historians claim that the stoning of James was not recorded in the book of Acts. They claim that the New Testament Church history ended with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, somewhere between 60-62 CE, conveniently before the death of James (62 CE). First, we must ask ourselves: why would the author of Acts stop his history right before the death of James, the undisputed leader of the movement from the time of Paul to 62 CE? It makes no sense whatsoever, unless of course, the stoning of James was purposely ignored or more ingeniously, hidden from clear view.

In his book, James the Brother of Jesus, Robert Eisenman writes that the stoning of Stephen was simply a rewrite of the stoning of James. (1) In essence, the death of James was included in Acts’ convoluted history, although placed in the late 30’s opposed to the proper date of 62 CE. In both accounts, Saul persecuted those weaker than himself after the respective deaths of Stephen and James. If it were not for many other rewrites in Acts, it would be easy to say that the deaths of Stephen and James were just coincidental. However, with one rewrite after another, this argument becomes quite weak. (See Chapter 14 for an analysis of Acts).

Not only was the death of James hidden from view in Acts, but his role in the early Church was obscured in the Gospels and Acts. In the Gospels, the brothers of Jesus were no better than the brothers of Joseph, who sold Joseph into slavery. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ family was often associated with those who did not believe in Jesus. (Mk. 3:20-21; 3:31-35) In fact, they said, “He is out of his mind.” In John 7:1-10, Jesus’ brothers urged him to go to Jerusalem, to a certain death. This was done out of jealousy and unbelief. James fared no better in the book of Acts. When Jesus (Judas the Galilean) had just been crucified, the apostles picked a replacement. According to later traditions, this replacement was James the Just. However, according to Acts, Matthias replaced the mythical Judas Iscariot. (Judas Iscariot will be examined in Part III – Chapter 17). Later, in Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem, James miraculously became the leader of the movement. If it were not for the letter of Galatians, the author of Acts would have no doubt created another leader. The acknowledgment of James in Acts 15 was grudgingly given, but even his role was overshadowed by Paul, who would have been an inconsequential part of the Jerusalem Council.

The reason that James was discounted in the Gospels and Acts stems from the persecutions that the early Christians were undergoing in the late first and early second centuries. The main purpose of the Gospels was to show Jesus in an acceptable light to a pro-Roman audience. Therefore, the familial ties between Jesus and his family had to be broken. (This will be fully explained in Part III.). The brother connection had a close parallel with the Maccabees, those brothers who fought an occupying force between two and three centuries earlier. Thus, James was given only the slightest credit for his role in the early church.

But James was afforded much more credit in other sources. Here is a sample from Eusebius, who quoted the fifth book of Hegesippus. (Hegesippus was a second-century Christian historian while Eusebius wrote in the first half of the fourth century.)

Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother, James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time till our own has called the Righteous, …So they went up and threw down the Righteous one. Then they said to each other, “Let us stone James the Righteous”, and began to stone him, as in spite of his fall he was still alive. But he turned and knelt, uttering the words: I beseech Thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing. (Eusebius, Tiberius to Nero, Book 2.23.4,17)

Note that James was accorded special recognition by Hegisippus, in that he stressed the term Righteous in relation to James. He said that everyone knew him as “Righteous”. It is also quite revealing that James forgave his own murderers, saying, “…Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” This same act of forgiveness was placed into the mouth of Stephen, the stand-in for James in the book of Acts. This Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) The early Church historians did not quite understand that the even earlier Gospel and Acts writers had hidden James in their text. Time certainly can hide many misdeeds.

The New Testament discounted James the Just, but early Church historians knew of his legendary status in the movement. If he had been restored, then why do so many current Christians have so little knowledge of James? The answer is two-fold. First, the Catholic Church attached itself to Peter, giving him preeminence due to the passage in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus said to Peter: “And I tell you that you are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church.” The Papacy was developed through this passage and James the Just was lowered a level. The second reason has to do with the Protestant movement’s reverence for the New Testament. Most liberal and conservative Protestant churches preach the infallibility of the Scriptures. This being the case, James the Just became a nonentity. Thus, both the Catholic and Protestant churches discount James today.


Of the above two scenarios for James, the Tradition viewpoint, which supports the familial relationship between “Jesus” and James, appears the more reasonable. The Mythicist argument is extremely weak and is made simply because any familial relationship between the two men, Jesus and James, destroys their theory concerning the nature of Jesus: that he never really existed. This, I believe, is utter nonsense. The connection between James and “Jesus” is confirmed by the rewriting of the story in the book of Acts (Stephen’s stoning). But the Traditional viewpoint also has its own problems. The greatest weakness has to do with the lack of information anywhere in Josephus describing the traditional Christian movement. The one passage about Jesus, in Ant. 18.63-64, is an obvious interpolation, according to a majority of scholars. However, I am the only one who insists that the “Jesus” interpolation is really a replacement passage for the death of Judas the Galilean.

If I am right concerning the “Jesus” passage, then Josephus never mentioned the Gospel Jesus in his history. This is extraordinary, considering that a major religion supposedly sprang from the Gospel Jesus. And if Josephus never mentioned Jesus, then he did not refer back to Jesus when describing the stoning of James. I believe that the original passage about James referred back to Judas the Galilean. This makes much more sense since Josephus always referred back to Judas when writing about his relatives. A few examples are as follows:

…the sons of Judas the Galilean were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified. (Ant. 20.102)

Meanwhile one Menahem, son of Judas the Galilean, the very clever rabbi who in the time of Quirinius [Cyrenius] had once reproached the Jews for submitting to the Romans after serving God alone, took his friends with him and went off to Masada, where he broke open King Herod’s armory and distributed weapons to his fellow-townsmen and bandits. With these as bodyguards he returned like a king to Jerusalem, put himself at the head of the insurgents and took charge of the siege. (War 2.433-434)

It was one Eleazar, a potent man, and the commander of these Sicarii, that had seized upon it [Masada]. He was a descendant [grandson in Slavonic Josephus] from that Judas who had persuaded abundance of the Jews, as we have formerly related, not to submit to the taxation when Cyrenius was sent into Judea to make one…. (War 7.253)

Josephus constantly referred back to Judas when introducing his sons and grandsons. The same was no doubt true for any brother who was important enough to be part of the history. The passage about James stated: “and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James and some others…” This reference back to Jesus, who was called Christ could have really been “Judas, who claimed to be the Messiah.” At least, this makes sense when viewing the above passages about Josephus’ treatment of Judas.

If James were the brother of Judas the Galilean, then he was the uncle of Menahem, a leader of the Sicarii in 66 CE. This would make James the leader of the Sicarii in 62 CE, at the time of his death. This would ensure that my Judas the Galilean theory is correct. Is there anything which ties James to the Sicarii? Before answering this question, it should be noted that there is nothing in the passage which connects James to the Gospel Jesus. So what does Josephus really say about the whole issue of James?

There must have been a strong motive for Ananus, the high priest, to take the opportunity to have James killed. As noted above, Ananus was the son of the famous high priest Annas. Josephus tells us that this elder Annas had five sons who performed the high priest duties. The New Testament also states that Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas. Thus, it is quite plain that Annas and his family were well connected and very powerful. Annas had been appointed high priest in 6 CE, roughly the same time as Judas the Galilean’s tax revolt. Surely, the animosity between Annas and his family and Judas’ movement started very early. But is this the only reason for Ananus to attack James?

A few years before the stoning of James, under the governorship of Felix, Jonathan, another son of Annas, was high priest. Jonathon often criticized Felix on his unjust administration of Jewish affairs, giving Felix reason to hate the high priest. Felix planned the murder of Jonathon, using the Sicarii as assassins. Josephus even went as far as blaming this assassination for the reason why Jerusalem was eventually destroyed. (Ant. 20.160-166) Needless to say, the murder of Jonathan by the Sicarii may have added to the hatred of Ananus towards James, the leader of the Sicarii.

Motive for murder existed on the family level for Ananus. But were there any other reasons behind his actions? Agrippa II appointed Ananus as high priest after the death of Festus (62 CE). Thus, Agrippa II gave Ananus the position while the new governor, Albinus, was still on the road to Jerusalem. Did this appointment of Ananus have any strings attached to it? It should be noted that Agrippa’s father, Agrippa I, had died in 44 CE, most likely from poison. (In Part II, we will examine Agrippa I more closely.) But for now, let us assume that the Fourth Philosophy was responsible for the poisoning. This murder of Agrippa I would have been reason enough for Agrippa II to take revenge upon James.

Agrippa II may have had even more reason to kill James. Agrippa built himself a large dining room which overlooked the Temple. While reclining and eating, Agrippa could observe the Temple machinations. This joy was taken away by the Jews who built a wall which disrupted the view. Agrippa and Festus were both displeased by the wall and sought to have it torn down. However, the Jews petitioned Nero and he ruled on their part as a favor to his wife, Poppea, herself a religious woman. (Ant. 20.189-197) Upon hearing the verdict, Agrippa II appointed Joseph high priest. This Joseph was subsequently replaced by Ananus upon the death of Festus.

One other clue may tie Agrippa II to the stoning of James. This concerns the person known as Saul in both the Antiquities and in Acts. After the stoning of Stephen, Acts 8:1 stated: “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” As noted earlier, the stoning of Stephen was merely a rewrite of the stoning of James. If this is true, then Saul approved of the stoning of James. After the stoning of James, as recorded in Antiquities, Josephus had this to say about Saul:

…a sedition arose between the high priests, with regard to one another: for they got together bodies of the boldest sort of the people, and frequently came, from reproaches, to throwing of stones at each other; but Ananus was too hard for the rest, by his riches, – which enabled him to gain those that were most ready to receive. Costobarus also, and Saulus, did themselves get together a multitude of wicked wretches, and this because they were of the royal family; and so they obtained favor among them, because of their kindred to Agrippa, but still they used violence with the people, and were very ready to plunder those that were weaker than themselves. (Ant. 20.214) (Emphasis mine)

This action by Saul against the lower level priests was a plain money grab. Saul aligned himself with Ananus and his kinsman, Agrippa II. It should be noted that the Fourth Philosophy was aligned with the poor and the lower priesthood. Thus, the stoning of James, the leader of the Fourth Philosophy, was the beginning of the war by the wealthy priests against the poorer ones. (Ant. 20.206-207) This case for Saul’s complicity with James’ murder can be further strengthened by using the rewrite in Acts.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

This part of history from 62 CE was transported back to 35 CE to make Saul’s unholy actions appear as a pre-conversion tirade against the disciples. In fact, this hatred for James and the Jewish Christian movement (Fourth Philosophy) had been growing steadily after Saul’s/Paul’s removal from the movement at Antioch (See Galatians). This incredible deception by the author of Acts has worked well throughout the centuries. Saul is now viewed as a young man who finally saw the light. In reality, he was a bitter old man who exacted revenge against those who had much earlier rejected his own Gospel.

One question which has always been asked is this: how could the young Saul have so much sway with the high priest? The answer is very simple. Saul was not young and he had aligned himself to Ananus and his kinsman, Agrippa. This alliance with the power structure armed Saul with power to do as he wished. Acts’ version of history has once again proved to be inaccurate, but it does leave behind snippets of truth. Saul did persecute the Way, just as Josephus said that he and his followers persecuted “those that were weaker than themselves.” (Ant. 20.214) In Part II, we will determine that Saul/Paul was not only the Liar and Enemy but the Traitor as well.

Before ending this section, we should look at the overall flow of Josephus’ account, before and after the stoning of James. As described above, Agrippa II had a history of bad relations with the Fourth Philosophy, starting with the poisoning of his father. The wall affair was perhaps the last straw; someone would pay for this insult. But how did Agrippa II assign blame for this insult? How did he know to blame James? The answer to this question may be quite surprising. Saul, the kinsman of Agrippa, had many quarrels of his own with James (See 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians). As it turned out, James and his circumcision party had severed Saul/Paul from the Jewish Christian movement. This did not sit well with Saul, and his revenge came at the expense of James’ life. Saul, no doubt, was instrumental in convincing Agrippa to eliminate James. The opportunity for action soon arrived; the death of Festus created a power vacuum which would last until the arrival of Albinus. Perhaps Agrippa asked the high priest, Joseph, to eliminate James. When this did not return dividends, a new high priest was appointed, that being Ananus, who “was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent.” (Ant. 20.199) It was this Ananus who carried out the orders of Agrippa, and James was stoned. Shortly after this death sentence, the Sicarii began kidnapping members of Ananus’ family and household, demanding that Ananus persuade Albinus to release members of their own party, the release of Sicarii members. (Ant. 20.208-210) This shows that the Sicarii blamed Ananus for the death of James and would make him pay as long as possible.


The unholy alliance of Agrippa II, Ananus and Saul helped seal the fate of James the Just, brother of Judas the Galilean, who himself was known as the Messiah or Christ. This James was a powerful figure in the early Jewish Christian movement (Fourth Philosophy). James’ association with “Jesus” was known to all early Christian historians, although none knew of his relationship with the Sicarii, or the Fourth Philosophy. But a simple reading of Josephus places this James in the midst of conflicts between the wealthy rulers (Agrippa, Ananus and Saul) and the poor and downtrodden. These poor were members of a revolutionary party called the Fourth Philosophy by Josephus and later derisively labeled as the Sicarii (assassins who carried a short curved knife or sica). It is not surprising that James was killed but how difficult it was to kill him. It took a king (Agrippa II), a high priest (Ananus), an informer (Saul) and good fortune (the death of Festus) to set up the opportunity to silence James. Until now, nobody has ever implicated Agrippa or Saul in the death of James. But I think that the evidence is too strong to ignore any longer.

1. Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, pp. 154-184.

Daniel T. Unterbrink
Author of Judas of Nazareth, available from these booksellers:

About danielunterbrink

Dan Unterbrink has dual degrees from Ohio State. THE THREE MESSIAHS is his third book on Christian origins, underscoring his passion for the subject.
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One Response to The Stoning of James the Just

  1. Bunto Skiffler says:

    Hey DTU, are you still around? I just got your book, pretty good so far.

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