Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 3)

(Previous parts in this series: part 1, part 2.)

James And John, Sons Of Zebedee

Since there's so much overlap in the material on James and John, I'm treating them together.

James seems to have been the first apostle to die. We have an account of his martyrdom in Acts 12:2.

Most likely, Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:39 refer to his martyrdom as well, in addition to John's. Jesus' suffering included death as a martyr. The suffering of James and John probably would as well. Acts 12:2 and other evidence confirm that James died as a martyr. If both Jesus and James died in that manner, it becomes even more difficult to argue that Matthew 20 and Mark 10 don't imply the same about John. Jesus' death is mentioned multiple times in the nearby context in both gospels (Matthew 20:18-19, 20:28, Mark 10:33-34, 10:45). He refers to a cup in Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:39, and later He associates His cup of suffering with His death (Matthew 26:27-28, 26:39, Mark 14:23-24, 14:36). In the second century, Polycarp makes a comment that's relevant to how we interpret the language in question. Since he was a disciple of John, Polycarp's interpretation of the cup terminology has some added significance. In the context of addressing his own martyrdom, Polycarp commented:

"I give You [God the Father] thanks that You have counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ" (The Martyrdom Of Polycarp, 14)

Papias apparently claimed that James and John died as martyrs. Since he was a contemporary of John and had met the apostle, Papias was in a good position to have reliable information on the subject. His writings are no longer extant in their entirety. Some later sources either quote him or describe what he wrote, however. Here are the comments of two of them:

"Papias in his second book says that John the Divine and James his brother were killed by the Jews." (Philip of Side)

"After Domitian, Nerva reigned one year, who recalled John from the island (i.e. Patmos), and allowed him to dwell in Ephesus. He was at that time the sole survivor of the twelve Apostles, and after writing his Gospel received the honour of martyrdom. For Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, who was an eye-witness of him, in the second book of the Oracles of the Lord says that he was killed by the Jews, and thereby evidently fulfilled, together with his brother, Christ's prophecy concerning them, and their own confession and undertaking on His behalf." (Chroniconology Of George Hamartolus)

I see no reason to conclude that they're both wrong about what Papias said, that the second source was just uncritically repeating what the first source said, or that Papias was mistaken. John probably died as a martyr. The combined force of the evidence in Matthew, Mark, Polycarp, and Papias seems to outweigh the contrary arguments. Some patristic sources in later generations deny that John died as a martyr, but others affirm it. I'm not aware of any arguments for John's not having died as a martyr that would equal or surpass the arguments for his martyrdom. Most likely, he lived until an old age, then died as a martyr.

James, The Brother Of Jesus

James was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:7). Paul refers to him as an apostle in the context of referring to the apostleship of Peter (Galatians 1:18-19), and he goes on to refer to James' reputation as a pillar of the church along with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). It seems, then, that James was an apostle in the highest sense of that term, like Peter and John.

Josephus wrote:

"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; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned" (Antiquities Of The Jews, 20:9:1)

Is Josephus only saying that an execution was attempted, without any implication that it was carried out? Probably not.

If James was "delivered to be stoned", there's an implication that the stoning occurred. A sentence of execution would normally be carried out, and no intervention to stop the execution is mentioned.

After what I've quoted above, the passage goes on to say that those who disagreed with what Ananus did sent a letter to one official, protesting what had happened, and traveled to meet with another official about the matter. Ananus' opponents apparently couldn't restrain him themselves, but instead were looking for higher authorities to intervene. They did eventually intervene, to the point of removing Ananus from his position, but nothing is said about their having prevented the execution of James. You'd expect Josephus to mention something as significant as preventing the execution, if the execution had been prevented.

Ananus had already assembled the judges, brought James before them, raised charges against him, and delivered him to be stoned. Given how successful Ananus was in carrying out all of those steps, it's unlikely that he would have been stopped just before the execution was supposed to occur.

James probably would have been dead by the time the authorities intervened. Josephus tells us that Ananus was trying to act quickly. The point of Josephus' comment about how "Albinus was but upon the road" is that Ananus was trying to carry out the execution before Albinus arrived. And we're told that Ananus' character was such that he would be unlikely to act slowly or be deterred. Just before the passage I've quoted above, Josephus comments on how Ananus was "a bold man in his temper, and very insolent" and how he was associated with the Sadducees, who were "very rigid in judging offenders". Steve Mason, a scholar who specializes in the study of Josephus, writes:

"Accusation, trial, and execution of sentence follow swiftly and at his [Ananus'] sole instigation….There is no trial worth mentioning, but the high priest 'brings the charge,' a phrase used about a dozen times in Josephus from Ant. 15 through the Life and Apion, and the defendants are as good as dead….In effect, he 'brought some sort of criminal charges' and quickly got rid of these men." (Josephus And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005], 241-242)

Most likely, the reason why Josephus doesn't mention an attempt to prevent the execution is that the execution had already occurred by the time Ananus' opponents enter the narrative. If James and his companions had survived, especially if they had survived through the efforts of the opponents of Ananus who are mentioned in the account, Josephus probably would have said so.

For the sake of argument, though, let's assume that Josephus didn't intend to say that James was executed. Still, the passage would add credibility to later Christian beliefs about James' martyrdom. Josephus' account would still tell us that some of the Jewish authorities were familiar with James, that they were hostile enough toward him to want him executed, that they were willing and able to take such significant steps to bring about his execution, and that he was known by a non-Christian like Josephus to have been "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ".

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