Historical Evidence of the Gospel: James and Herod

Josephus (Please Refer to the previous article for information on who Josephus was), a non-Christian historian from the first century, unwittingly became a significant source by corroborating events also found in the biblical account of the beginning days of the gospel. In this article, we will examine his account of the death of James as well as the death of Herod, and parallel it with what the bible has to say about these events.

How God Killed Herod.

Acts chapter twelve records a short-term persecution when King Herod Agrippa, possibly wanting to gain favor from some influential Jews, “stretched out his hand to harass some from the church.” Now, Herod slew James (the brother of John, the son of Zebedee), who was one of the twelve apostles. He also seized Peter, but seeing that the Passover had come, he placed him in prison, waiting for the feast to end before deciding Peter’s fate. While in prison, an Angel of the Lord came and freed Peter from his chains. When it was realized that Peter was missing, Herod blamed the unwatchfulness of the guards and had them all put to death.

After these things, Herod went to Caesarea, according to Acts 12:19. Josephus also records the presence of Herod in Caesarea (Antiquities 19.8.2).  According to the biblical record, Herod was angry with the citizens of Tyre and Sidon (for a reason that is unknown to us), but these people were supplied with food from Judea, so it was critical that they be on good terms with Herod. So on a day when Herod was in his royal array and sitting on his throne, these people came to him and shouted over and over “the voice of a god and not of a man!” (Acts 12:21-22). While Herod was receiving this glorification, an Angel of the Lord struck him so that he was eaten by worms and died. Josephus’ record of the death of Herod is interesting evidence of the truth of the biblical account. He writes “On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery” (19.8.2). These words, while more detailed, are harmonious with the biblical record in Acts 12:20-22. Josephus further states that while Herod was receiving this praise that “a severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner… He was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad everywhere, that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age.” While Josephus did not have insight from the Holy Spirit, as Luke did in the book of Acts, he records that Herod faced violent stomach pains for five days until he died. Paralleling this account with the insight from God, we can see the harmony of the accounts. Herod was struck by the angel while receiving praise from the people and worms began to eat away at his insides, causing him violent pain and ultimately death a few days later. The secular writings of Josephus matched with the biblical account tell us the story of Herod’s death in full detail from both heaven and earth.

The Murder of James

The bible is clear that Jesus had plenty of younger siblings. These would be half-brothers and half-sisters, in that Jesus came from Mary while she was still a virgin, and the rest, therefore, came from Joseph afterward. Matthew 13:55-56 records the views of the Jews toward Jesus, as they said “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?” So then, of the four brothers that Jesus grew up with, there was one named James.  While Mary always knew that Jesus was to be the Savior of man, James and the other brothers of our Lord had a difficult time accepting this, and understandably so. Consider that Jesus was like any other kid growing up, and it was not until He was around thirty that He received the Holy Spirit from His Father in heaven, and thus began to do great wonders and miracles during His ministry. Notice that, early in His ministry, Jesus’ brothers did not believe that He was the Son of God (John 7:3-5). In time, after further observances of Jesus, His brothers changed their minds and accepted the truth that their brother was the Messiah. Maybe it was sometime during the ministry of Christ, or maybe it was when they witnessed His resurrection and ascension into heaven; whatever the case may be, it is clear that they numbered themselves with the believers: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14). About thirty years later, Josephus picks up on the history of James. Josephus records that a man named Ananus became high priest of the Jews. He says that Ananus “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” (Antiquities 20.9.1).  Josephus goes further in saying that on a day when Festus had recently died, Caesar had sent out his replacement, named Albinus. Before this new Roman Procurator arrived, Ananus took opportunity to exercise authority and unlawfully assembled the Sanhedrin council. Josephus then records that Ananus “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: 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 Sanhedrin without his consent.” It is clear that Josephus and the majority of the Jews were greatly against the actions of Ananus. Ananus only seemed to be taking an opportunity to get rid of certain people who had been in disagreement with him in the past. One of these, as Josephus mentions, is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” Critics and scholars both agree on the authenticity of this statement of Josephus. Considering the corroborative words of Josephus along with the biblical text, we can come to a probable conclusion. James, one of the four brothers of Jesus, who at first did not believe, became a believer, and thus a Christians, as is evident from the New Testament text. Thirty years later, James is on the bad side of the wrong person, Ananus, who had him and certain others stoned to death on the grounds that they were all “breakers of the law.” It is clear that Ananus only saw James and these others (who I believe to be Christians as well) as breakers of the law of Moses because of their teachings and practice in the law of Christ.  I believe Josephus is mentioning an act of persecution by Ananus on a few of the Christians. All in all, the facts are that Josephus’ record is in harmony with the parallel facts in the gospel that there was a Jesus, called the Christ, who had a brother named James.

Article by Tanner Campbell