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CHAPTER III.

EBION BEYOND JORDAN.

We have seen in 68 the Christian Church of Jerusalem carried on by the relatives of Jesus fly from the city delivered over to terror, and take refuge at Pella on the other side of Jordan. We have seen the author of the Apocalypse some months afterwards employ the most lively and touching images to express the protection which God extended to the fugitive Church, and the repose which it enjoyed in the desert. It is probable that this sojourn was prolonged for many years after the siege. A return to Jerusalem was impossible, and the antipathy between Christianity and the Pharisees was already too strong to allow of the Christians joining the bulk of the nation on the side of Jabneh and Lydda. The saints of Jerusalem dwelt therefore beyond the Jordan. The expectation of the final catastrophe had become extremely vivid. The three years and a half which the Apocalypse fixed for the fulfilment of its predictions, expired about the month of July 72.

The destruction of the Temple had certainly been a surprise for the Christians. They had no more believed in it than had the Jews. Sometimes they had imagined Nero the Anti-Christ returning from amongst the Parthians, marching upon Rome with his allies, sacking it, and then putting himself at the 21head of the armies of Judea, profaning Jerusalem, and massacring the people of the just on the hill of Zion; but no one had supposed that the Temple itself would disappear. An event so prodigious, when once it occurred, was sufficient to put them beside themselves. The misfortunes of the Jewish nation were regarded as a punishment for the murders of Jesus and of James. In reflecting upon it they endeavoured to find that in all that God had been especially good to his elect. It was because of them that he had deigned to shorten the days which if they had lasted would have seen the extermination of all flesh. The frightful sufferings that they had gone through dwelt in the memory of the Christians of the East, and was for them what the persecutions of Nero were for the Christians of Rome, “the great tribulation,” the certain prelude to the days of the Messiah.

One calculation, moreover, appears to have greatly engaged the Christians at this time. They remembered this passage of the Psalm (xcv. 8, et seq.), “To-day if ye will hear his voice harden not your hearts (as at Meriba as in the day of Massa11These words are not in either of the English versions.—Trans.) in the wilderness. . . . Forty years long was I grieved with this generation and said, It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways; unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.” They applied to the stubborn Jews the words which referred to their rebellion in the desert, and as nearly forty years had gone by since the short but brilliant public career of Jesus, he was believed to address to the unbelieving that pressing appeal, “Forty years have I waited for you, the time is at hand, take care” (cf. Heb. iii. 7, et seq.) All these coincidences, which placed the Apocalyptic year about the year 73, the recent memories of the revolution and of the siege, the strange outbreak of fever, of frenzy, of exaltation, of madness, through which they had passed, and, by 22way of crowning marvel, the fact that after signs so evident men had still the sad courage to resist the voice of Jesus which called them—all appeared unheard of, and capable of explanation only by a miracle. It was clear that the moment was approaching when Jesus should appear and the mystery of the times should be accomplished.

So great was the influence of that fixed idea that the town of Pella came to be regarded as a temporary asylum where God himself fed his elect and preserved them from the hatred of the wicked (Rev. xii. 14); there was no thought of abandoning a place which they believed to have been pointed out by a revelation from heaven. But when it was clear that they must resign themselves to a longer life, there was a movement in the community. A great number of the brethren, amongst whom were members of the family of Jesus, left Pella and went to establish themselves some leagues off in Batanea, a province which belonged to Herod Agrippa II., but which was falling more and more under the direct sovereignty of the Romans. This country was then very prosperous; it was covered with towns and monuments; the rule of the Herods had been benevolent, and had founded there that brilliant civilisation which lasted from the first century of our era until Islam. The town chosen by preference by the disciples and relations of Jesus was Kokaba near Ashtaroth Carnaïm, a little beyond Adria, and very near the frontier of the kingdom of the Nabathites. Kokaba was only some thirteen or fourteen leagues from Pella, and the Churches of these two localities might long remain in close connection. Without doubt many Christians, from the times of Vespasian and of Titus, returned to Galilee and Samaria; yet it was only after the time of Hadrian that Galilee became the rendezvous of the Jewish population, and that the intellectual activity of the nation concentrated itself there.

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The name which these pious guardians of the tradition of Jesus gave themselves was (“Ebionim”) or “poor.” Faithful to the spirit which had said “Blessed are the poor” (“ebionim”) and which had characteristically attributed to the disinherited of this world the Kingdom of Heaven and the inheritance of the Gospel, they gloried in their poverty, and continued, like the primitive Church of Jerusalem, to live upon alms. We have seen St Paul always preoccupied with his poor of Jerusalem, and St James taking the name of “poor” as a title of nobility, (James ii. 5, 6). A crowd of passages from the Old Testament, where the word Ebion is employed to distinguish the pious man, and by extension the whole pietism of Israel, the reunion of the saints of Israel, wretched, gentle, humble, despised of the world but beloved of God, were associated with the sect. The word “poor” implied a shade of tenderness, as when one says, “The poor dear man!” This “poor of God” whose miseries and humiliations the prophets and the psalmists had told of, whose glorious future they had announced, was accepted as the symbolical title of the little Church of Pella and of Kokaba across the Jordan, the continuator of that of Jerusalem. And as in the old Hebrew tongue the word Ebion had received a metaphorical signification to designate the pious part of the people of God, in the same way the saintly little congregation of Batanea, considering itself the only true Israel, the “Israel of God,” heir of the heavenly kingdom, called itself the poor, the beloved of God. Ebion was thus often employed in a collective sense, almost as was Israel, or, as amongst ourselves, personifications such as “Jacques Bonhomme.” In the remote sections of the Church, to whom the good poor of Batanea were almost strangers, Ebion became a personage, the accepted founder of the sect of the Ebionites.

The name by which the sectaries were known 24amongst the other populations of Batanea, was that of Nazarenes or Nazoreans. It was known that Jesus, his relations and his first disciples, belonged to Nazareth or its environs; they were described therefore by their place of birth. It is supposed, perhaps not without reason, that the name of Nazarenes was especially applied to the Christians of Galilee, who had taken refuge in Batanea, whilst the name of Ebionim continued to be the title which the mendicant saints of Jerusalem gave themselves. However this may be, “Nazarenes” remained always in the East the generic word by which Christians were designated. Mahomet knew them by no other, and the Mussulmans use it to this day. By a singular contrast, the word “Nazarenes,” after a certain date, presented like “Ebionites” an offensive sense in the opinion of Greek and Latin Christians. As in almost all great movements, it came to pass that the founders of the new religion were in the eyes of the foreign crowd which was affiliated to it, simply retrograde persons and heretics; those who had been the corner-stones of the sect found themselves isolated, and, as it were, ostracised. The name of Ebion by which they described themselves, and which conveyed to their minds the loftiest meaning, became an insult, and was, out of Syria, synonymous with “dangerous sectary.” Jokes were made about it, and it was ironically interpreted in the sense of “poor-spirited.” The ancient name of Nazarenes, after the beginning of the fourth century, served to designate for the orthodox Catholic Church heretics who were scarcely Christians at all.

This singular misunderstanding explains itself when it is remembered that the Ebionim and the Nazarenes remained faithful to the primitive spirit of the Church of Jerusalem, and of the brothers of Jesus, according to whom Jesus was no more than a prophet chosen of God to save Israel, whilst in the Churches founded 25by Paul, Jesus became more and more the incarnation of God. According to the Greek Christians, Christianity took the place of the religion of Moses, as a superior worship taking the place of an inferior. In the eyes of the Christians of Batanea, this was blasphemy. Not merely did they refuse to consider the Law as abolished, but they observed it with redoubled fervour. They regarded circumcision as obligatory, they observed the Sabbath, as well as the first day of the week, they practised ablutions and all the Jewish ceremonies. They studied Hebrew with care, and read the Bible in Hebrew. Their canon was the Jewish canon; already, perhaps, they began by making arbitrary retrenchments.

Their admiration for Jesus was unbounded: they described him as being in a peculiar degree the Prophet of Truth, the Messiah, the Son of God, the elect of God: they believed in his resurrection, but they never got beyond that Jewish idea according to which a man-God is a monstrosity. Jesus, in their minds, was a mere man, the son of Joseph, born under the ordinary conditions of humanity, without miracle. It was very slowly that they learned to explain his birth by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Some admitted that on the day on which he was adopted by God, the Holy Spirit or the Christ had descended upon him in the visible form of a dove, so that Jesus did not become the Son of God and anointed by the Holy Ghost until after his baptism. Others, approaching more nearly to Buddhist conceptions, held that he attained the dignity of Messiah, and of Son of God, by his perfection, by his continual progress, by his union with God, and, above all, by his extraordinary feat of observing the whole Law. To hear them, Jesus alone had solved this difficult problem. When they were pressed, they admitted that any other man who could do the same thing would obtain the same honour. They were consequently compelled, in 26their accounts of the life of Jesus, to show him accomplishing the fulfilment of the whole Law; wrongly or rightly applied, they constantly cited these words, “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Many, in short, carried towards gnostic and cabbalist ideas, saw in him a great archangel, the first of those of his order, a created being to whom God had given power over the whole visible creation, and upon whom was laid the especial task of abolishing sacrifices.

Their churches were called “synagogues,” their priests “archi-synagogues.” They forbade the use of flesh, and practised all the austerities of the hasidim, austerities which, as is well known, made up the greatest part of the sanctity of James, the Lord’s brother. Peter also obtained all their respect. It was under the names of these two apostles that they put forth their apocryphal revelations. On the other hand, there was no curse which they did not utter against Paul. They called him “the man of Tarsus,” “the Apostate;” they told only the most ridiculous histories of him; they refused him the title of Jew, and pretended that it might be on the side of his father, or it might be on that of his mother, he had had only Pagans for ancestors. A genuine Jew speaking of the abrogation of the Law, appeared to them an absolute impossibility.

We speedily discern a literature springing out of this order of ideas and passions. The good sectaries of Kokaba obstinately turned their backs upon the West, upon the future. Their eyes were for ever turned towards Jerusalem, whose miraculous restoration they confidently anticipated. They called it “the House of God,” and as they turned towards it in prayer, it is to be believed that they gave to it a species of adoration. A keen eye might have discovered from that that they were in the way of becoming heretics, and that some day they would be treated as profane in the house which they had founded.

27

An absolute difference in a word separated the Christianity of the Nazarene—of the Ebionim—of the relatives of Jesus, from the Christianity which triumphed later on. For the immediate successors of Jesus it was a question not of replacing Judaism but of crowning it by the advent of the Messiah. The Christian Church was for them only a re-union of Hasidim, of true Israelites admitting a fact that for a Jew, not a Sadducee, might appear perfectly possible; it was that Jesus put to death and raised again was the Messiah, that after a very brief delay he would come to take possession of the throne of David and accomplish the prophecies. If they had been told that they were deserters from Judaism, they would certainly have cried out, and would have protested that they were true Jews and the heirs of the promises. To renounce the Mosaic Law would have been, from their point of view, an apostacy; they no more dreamed of setting themselves free from it than of liberating others. What they hoped to inaugurate was the complete triumph of Judaism, and not a new religion abrogating that which had been promulgated from Sinai.

Return to the Holy City was forbidden them: but as they hoped that the prohibition would not last long, the important members of the refugee Church continued to associate together, and called themselves always the Church of Jerusalem. From the time of their arrival at Pella, they gave a successor to James, the Lord’s brother, and naturally they chose that successor from the family of the Master. Nothing is more obscure than the things which concern the brothers and cousins of Jesus in the Judeo-Christian Church of Syria. Certain indications lead us to believe that Jude, brother of the Lord, and brother of James, was, for some time, head of the Church of Jerusalem, but it is not easy to say when or under what circumstances. He whom all tradition designates as having 28been the immediate successor of James after the siege of Jerusalem, was Simon, son of Cleophas. All the brothers of Jesus, about the year 75, were probably dead. Jude had left children and grand-children. From motives of which we are ignorant it was not from amongst the descendants of the brothers of Jesus that the head of the Church was taken. The Oriental principle of heredity was followed. Simon, son of Cleophas, was probably the last of the cousins-german of Jesus who was still alive. He might have seen and heard Jesus in his childhood. Although he was beyond Jordan, Simon considered himself as chief of the Church of Jerusalem, and as heir of the singular powers which this title had conferred on James, the Lord’s brother.

The greatest uncertainty prevails as to the return of the exiled Church (or rather of a part of that Church) to the city at once so guilty and so holy, which had crucified Jesus and was nevertheless to be the seat of his future glory. The fact of the return is incontestable, but the date of the event is unknown. Strictly we might put back the date to the moment when Hadrian decided on the rebuilding of the city, that is to say, until the year 122. It is more probable, however, that the return of the Christians took place shortly after the complete pacification of Judea. The Romans undoubtedly relaxed their severity towards a people so peaceable as the disciples of Jesus. Some hundreds of saints might well dwell upon Mount Sion in the houses which the destruction had respected, without the city ceasing to be considered a field of ruins and desolation. The 10th Fretensian Legion alone would form around it a certain group of inhabitants. Mount Sion, as we have already said, was an exception to the general appearance of the town. The meeting-place of the Apostles, many other buildings, and particularly seven synagogues, one of which was preserved until the time of Constantine, were almost intact 29amongst the surrounding ruins, and recalled that verse of Isaiah, “The daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.” It was there we may believe that the little colony fixed itself which established the continuity of the Church at Jerusalem. We may also believe if we will that it was placed in one of those straggling Jewish villages near Jerusalem, such as Bether, which are ideally identified with the Holy City. In any case, this Church of Mount Sion was, until the time of Hadrian, by no means numerous. The title of chief of the Church of Jerusalem appears to have been only a sort of honorary Pontificate, a presidency of honour, not carrying with it a real cure of souls. The relatives of Jesus especially appear to have remained beyond the Jordan.

The honour of possessing amongst their body persons so distinguished inspired an extraordinary pride amongst the Churches of Batanea. It seems probable that at the moment of the departure of the Church of Jerusalem for Pella, some of “the twelve,” that is to say, the Apostles chosen by Jesus—Matthew, for example—were still alive, and were amongst the number of emigrants. Certain of the apostles may have been younger than Jesus, and consequently not very old at the date of which we speak. The data we have to go upon concerning the apostles who remained in the Holy Land and did not follow the example of Peter and John, are so incomplete that it is impossible to be certain on this point. The “Seven,” that is to say the Deacons chosen by the first Church of Jerusalem, were also without doubt dead or dispersed. The relatives of Jesus inherited all the importance which the chosen of the first Coenaculum had had. From the year 70 to about the year 110 they really governed the Churches beyond the Jordan, and formed a sort of Christian Senate. The family of Cleophas especially enjoyed in devout circles a universally recognised authority.

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The relatives of Jesus were pious people, tranquil, gentle, modest, labouring with their hands, faithful to the rigid principles of Jesus with regard to poverty, but at the same time strict Jews, putting the title of child of Israel before every other advantage. They were much reverenced, and a name was given to them (perhaps maraniin or moranoïe) of which the Greek equivalent was desposynoi. For a long time past, doubtless even during the life-time of Jesus, it had been supposed that he was of the lineage of David, since it was admitted that the Messiah should be of David’s race. The admission of such an ancestry for Jesus implied it also for his family. These good people thought much of it, and were not a little proud of it. We see them constantly occupied in constructing genealogies, which rendered probable the little fraud of which the Christian legend had need. When they were too much embarrassed they took refuge behind the persecutions of Herod, which they pretended had destroyed the genealogical books. Nor did they stop here. Sometimes they maintained that the work had been done from memory, sometimes that they had had copies of ancient chronicles whereby to construct it. It was admitted that they had done “the best that they could.” Two of these genealogies have come down to us, one in the Gospel attributed to St Matthew, the other in the Gospel of St Luke, and it appears that neither of them satisfied the Ebionim, since their Gospel did not contain them, and the churches of Syria always protested strongly against them.

This movement, inoffensive though it was as a matter of policy, excited suspicion. It appears that the Roman authorities had more than once kept a watch upon these real or pretended descendants of David. Vespasian had heard of the hopes which the Jews founded upon a mysterious representative of their ancient royal race. Fearing that they meant 31only a pretext for new insurrections, he caused all those who belonged to this line, or who boasted of being of it, to be sought out. This gave rise to much annoyance, which, perhaps, reached the chief of the Church of Jerusalem at Batanea. We shall see these inquiries renewed with much more rigour under Domitian.

The imminent danger which these speculations about genealogy and royal descent implied for the nascent Christianity, needs no elaborate demonstration. A kind of Christian aristocracy was being created In the political world the nobility are almost necessary to the state, politics having to deal with vulgar struggles which make of them a matter—matter is material rather than ideal. A state is strong only when a certain number of families, by traditional privilege, find it alike their duty and their interest to transact its business, to represent it, to defend it. But in the ideal order, birth is nothing; everyone is valued in proportion to what he discerns of the truth, to what he realises of the good. Institutions which have a religious, literary, or moral aim are lost when considerations of family, of caste, of heredity come to prevail amongst them. The nephews and the cousins of Jesus would have been the destruction of Christianity if the Churches of Paul had not been of sufficient strength to act as a counterpoise to that aristocracy, whose tendency had been to proclaim itself alone respectable, and to treat all converts as intruders. Pretensions analogous to those of the sons of Ali in Islam would have been produced. Islamism would certainly have perished under the embarrassments caused by the family of the Prophet, if the result of the struggles of the first century after the Hejira had not been to throw into an inferior rank all these who were too nearly related to the person of the Founder. The true heirs of a great man are those who continue his work, and not his relatives according to the flesh.

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Considering the tradition of Jesus as its property, the little coterie of Nazarenes would have surely stifled it. Happily the narrow circle speedily disappeared: the relatives of Jesus were speedily forgotten in the depths of The Hauran. They lost all importance, and left Jesus to his true family, the only one which he would have recognised—those who “hear the word of God and keep it.” Many passages from the Gospels where the family of Jesus is seen in an unfavourable light, may spring out of the antipathy which the nobiliary pretensions of the desposynoi could not fail to provoke around them.


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