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The Flight to Pella

There is a tradition that attests to the flight of the Jerusalem Church, just before or during the siege of city, into a town called Pella in the region of the Decapolis across the Jordan River. [a] [The map below shows the relative positions of Jerusalem and Pella.]

In the past the veracity of this tradition was held without question. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, S.G.F. Brandon in his book The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church provided some arguments against it that led most scholars to abandon their belief in its historicity. Today, scholars take diametrically opposite positions on this, many of them due to pre-set theological agenda. [b] Here we will survey the available evidence and make our own decision.

Primary Documents on the Pella Flight

The extant explicit references on a flight to Pella are those by the Church Fathers Eusebius (c260-c340) in his History of the Church (c325 CE), Epiphanius (c315-403), Bishop of Salamis in his books Panarion (c374-376) & On Measures and Weights and the so-called Pseudo-Clementines (c 4th century CE). [c]. We give them all below:

History of the Church 3:5:3
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.

Panarion 29:7:7-8
The Nazoraean sect exists in Beroea near Coele Syria, in the Decapolis near the region of Pella, and in Bashan in the place called Cocaba, which in Hebrew is called Chochabe. That is where the sect began, when all the disciples were living in Pella after they moved from Jerusalem, since Christ told them to leave Jerusalem and withdraw because it was about to be besieged. For this reason they settled in Peraea and there, as I said, they lived. This is where the Nazoraean sect began.

Panarion 30:2:7
Their sect began after the capture of Jerusalem. For when all those who believed in Christ settled at that time for the most part in Peraea, in a city called Pella belonging to the Decapolis mentioned in the gospel, which is next to Batanaea and the land of Bashan, then they moved there and stayed...

On Weights and Measures 15
For when the city was about to be captured and sacked by the Romans, all the disciples were warned beforehand by an angel to remove from the city, doomed as it was to utter destruction. On migrating from it they settled at Pella, the town already indicated, across the Jordan. It is said to belong to Decapolis

Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1:39:3
Subsequently also an evident proof of this great mystery is supplied in the fact, that every one who, believing in this Prophet who had been foretold by Moses, is baptized in His name, shall be kept unhurt from the destruction of war which impends over the unbelieving nation, and the place itself; but that those who do not believe shall be made exiles from their place and kingdom, that even against their will they may understand and obey the will of God.

Various scholars claim to find indirect allusions in the New Testament to the flight from Jerusalem. These include Mark 13:14, 16:7; Matthew 10:23; Luke 21:20 and Revelation 12:6. [3] Some have suggested the witness of the Toldoth Jeshu, a fifth century Jewish anti-Christian polemic. [4] While it may be possible that some of these additional sources actually do refer to the flight, they are just too garbled or vague to be used as proof that it actually occurred. We will limit our analysis to the traditions recorded by Eusebius, Epiphanius and the anonymous author of the Pseudo-Clementines.

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The Source of the Tradition

First let us look at the patristic evidence. It has been pointed out that the similarities between the words and phrases used between the Epiphanius and Eusebius accounts mean that the former is dependent on the latter as the source of his information. So for citations from the church fathers, we basically have the story as it is given in Eusebius' History of the Church 3:5:3. [4]

So the next question is; where did Eusebius get this information? The most obvious candidate would be, of course, Hegesippus (c110-180). We find that Eusebius quoted Hegesippus for his story on James leadership in the Jerusalem Church (History of the Church 2:23:3) and about the succession of Symeon to that position (History of the Church 4:22:4-5). However Gerd Ludemann had pointed out several strong arguments against Hegesippus being the source of the Pella tradition: [6]

  • The tradition seems to presuppose the use of Pella as a permanent location for the remnants of the Jerusalem Church, not just a place for a temporary stay before returning to Jerusalem.

  • Eusebius would normally indicate when he was quoting from Hegesippus. For this passage there was no such specification of Hegesippus as a source.

  • Pella was not mentioned in any of the many citations of Hegesippus in History of the Church although we would have expected such references.

While these do not prove Hegesippus was not the source, it does make him an unlikely candidate. A possible candidate is Aristo of Pella (fl. c 150 CE). Eusebius mentioned him as a source for his story on the Bar Kochba Revolt (the second Jewish War; 132-135 CE) in History of the Church 4:6:3. Some considerations make him a likely source. He was from Pella. He described the second Jewish War, thus it is reasonable to think that he would have mentioned something about the preceding one and, in doing that, would have mentioned the flight to his hometown. [7]

Based on source critical analysis too detailed to go into here, the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1:33-71 is generally recognized to be based on a mid-second century source, also probably based east of the Jordan river. [8] Whether it was based in Pella, as suggested by Gerd Ludemann, is not conclusive. So it may be a source that is independent to the one used by Eusebius, or it may not. For the purposes of our analysis we will take the conservative stance and assume that it did have the same source (Aristo of Pella).

What does all this analysis show us? I think we can have some confidence in the source. [d] The reasons are as follows:

  • Only the Jewish Christians would have an interest in preserving traditions relating to their ancestry from Jerusalem. Yet we know from Epiphanius (Panarion 29:7:7, 30:18:1) that Jewish Christian groups (Nazarenes and Ebionites) lived not only in Pella but the whole strip from Syria in the North through Peneas, Cochaba in Batanaea/Bashan, Pella and the surrounding region around Decapolis and finally to Moab and Nabatea in the South. [See map below] Thus there were many locations that would had had the incentive to call themselves the final home of the Jerusalem Church. Yet there was no competing tradition from other Jewish Christian locations. [e]

  • Thus the timing of the source (circa 150 CE), although admittedly rather late, actually goes some way towards strengthening the conclusion that the Pella immigration was historical, for there was certainly ample time for rival traditions to be brought forward if the Jewish Christian communities in the Transjordan did not feel the story of the Pella flight had merit. And certainly had Epiphanius or Eusebius been aware of conflicting traditions they would have been more than happy to include in their works as just another example of the deceit practiced by the heretics. That the single tradition is so firmly entrenched means that the tradition, when it was told by Aristo of Pella around 150 CE had already attained the status of a strong unchallenged tradition.

  • There is not necessarily a conflict between this tradition and that of Hegesippus, who had fourteen Jewish Jerusalem "bishops" after James. As Ray Pritz pointed out, it is possible for a group to keep the name of its original location in its title altough they may no longer be based there (citing Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire); e.g. the Patriarch of Alexandria kept his title although he had long ago moved to Cairo, the "Roman pontiffs" stayed in Avignon, France for seventy years. The prestige of Jerusalem among the Jewish Christians would have certainly made them kept the title related to the city somehow [f], even though they were then residing in Pella. [10]

Thus the relative lateness of the source and the presence of ostensibly conflicting traditions do not cast a fatal blow to the reliability of the tradition. The absence of any conflicting tradition is a strong indication of the historicity of the tradition.

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Plausibility of the Flight

The argument about the implausible conditions for the flight, first proposed by S.G.F. Brandon in The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (1957), has been influential in causing many scholars to abandon the historicity of the Pella tradition. Brandon pointed out three (in his opinion insurmountable) difficulties: [11]

  • The difficulty in the choice of Pella as the final destination.
    According to Brandon, Pella was a Gentile city and on a priori grounds an improbable selection for pious Jews. Furthermore Jewish insurgents attacked Pella and other surrounding cities as revenge for the Gentile massacre of Jews in Caesarea in 66 CE (Jewish War 2:18:1). Eusebius said that the Jerusalem church left the city "before the war". This could mean one of two dates: before the failed expedition of Cestius Gallus in 66 CE or before the campaign of Vespasian in 67 CE. Thus had the Jerusalem group left before Gallus's expedition and arrived before the aforementioned Jewish attack on Pella they would have been killed in this massacre by the marauding Jews. If they had arrived after the attack, before the Vespasian campaign, the surviving Gentile inhabitants of Pella would have taken revenge on them.

  • The difficulty of actually leaving Jerusalem.
    If the members of the Jerusalem church had tried to leave after the failed expedition of Gallus, the trek would have been mortally dangerous. For the locations outside Jerusalem would have been patrolled by the Jewish revolutionaries. We know from Josephus that they did not treat deserters kindly-they slit their throats (Jewish War 5:10:1) . If they had left later, during the final siege of Titus in spring of 70 CE, the same territory around Jerusalem would have been controlled by Roman soldiers and their auxiliaries. And these, just like the insurgents, did not have much compassion for Jewish deserters-they slit their bellies. (Jewish War 5:13:4-5).

  • Lack of Any Evidence of the Influence of the Pella Church
    Finally, Brandon argued, why was there no sign of any continuing influence of the community in the Christian church after the war; during the (remainder of) first and second centuries CE. This is surprising in view of the obviously unchallenged prestige of the Jerusalem church headed by James.

Brandon added that the Jewish Christians known to be in Pella from early in the second century must have been refugees Galilee ("since it was closer to Pella than from Jerusalem") who fled there during "the suppresion of the revolt, or shortly after." It was these Jewish Christians who concocted the Pella tradition as a foundation legend for their congregation.

However there are several serious flaws in Brandon's analysis; as we shall see below:

  • Pella
    It should be noted that there is a discrepancy in Brandon's analysis here. He claimed that the Pella's tradition arose because of Jewish Christians who came to Pella after escaping from Galilee, since this was "much closer to Pella than was Jerusalem". [12] Yet this contradicts one of his major arguments, that Pella would not have been a safe refuge for any group of Jews. (See his argument above) If it was possible for Galilean Jewish Christians to settle in Pella, it would also be possible for Jerusalem Jewish Christians.

    Brandon's argument on the inhospitality of Pella was based on a single passage in Josephus' Jewish War 2:18:1 [g] which mentioned that the Jews "sacked" cities such as Gerasa, Pella and Scythopolis. It is unclear whether "sacked" implies complete devastation or something less. We do not know whether the devastation inflicted on all these cities were the same. However, we do know that the reaction from the Gentiles in these cities were not uniformly violent. While many cities, such as Scythopolis, certainly did take out their revenge against Jews (see Jewish War 2:18:4-5), others such as Gerasa (Jewish War 2:18:5) did not harm the Jews that stayed with them. The reaction of the inhabitants of Pella was not specifically mentioned by Josephus. [13]

  • Escaping from Jerusalem
    Although it was true that leaving Jerusalem during those times form 66-70 CE would have been extremely dangerous, it was by no means impossible. Indeed we find Josephus recounting, on quite a few occasions, the escape of many Jews from Jerusalem during that time. As we can see from some of the excerpts below [h], many of the Jews were able to flee the city right up till the end. Of course many of those who escaped died either from famine, from over-eating(!) from the food supplied by the Romans, or slaughtered by the Jewish insurgents or Roman auxiliaries looking for gold in their bellies. But by no means did the accounts by Josephus show that all who managed to leave died. As we can see from the excerpt below, on one occasion as many as 2000 people escaped (Jewish War 4:6:1). Difficult as it may be it certainly was "do-able" as Josephus reminds us. [14] However we would not expect that the whole congregation from Jerusalem managed to get away. As Josephus' writings had shown, many would have died trying to break out and, from what we can see from the devoutness of the Jerusalem church to their ancestral religion, many may have chosen to stay back (and perhaps fight). Thus we do not expect the number of escapees to be very large.

  • Influence of the Pella Church
    It is certainly extremely likely, whatever the size of the band of Jerusalem Christians that managed to escape to Pella, they must have been in a pretty destitute state. It is unlikely that they would be able to assert any authority on the whole church so soon after the war. Furthermore, the fact that they had escaped to Pella may not be well known to the church at large, thus asserting any authority by sending emissaries would be quite difficult. Thus given time the Gentile Church evolved their own version of Christianity which eventually did away with the influence of the original Jerusalem church in Pella.

    Additionally, it should be noted that Pella did have some influence on the development of Jewish Christianity, since, as we have noted above, it is probable that the source document for the Pseudo-Clementines came from there.

    As for Brandon's remark that the Pella tradition functioned as a foundation legend for the growing Jewish Christian community there, the simplest retort is that by Robert M. Price in his book Deconstructing Jesus: "Right enough, but this needn't mean they did not actually make such an exodus". [15]

Map showing a possible escape route.

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Discussion and Conclusion

We have done a pretty in-depth survey of the Pella tradition. Arguments against historicity include the relative lateness of the source (circa 150 CE) and the implausibility of the scenario of escape from Jerusalem and into Pella.

However we have seen that these objections are not necessarily fatal to the tradition. The unchallenged position of the story of the Pella immigration (even after taking into account a parallel Cochaba tradition) provides confidence that it attained its status as a strong tradition early-certainly earlier than the source used by Eusebius and (probably) the author of the Pseudoclementines.

The implausibility argument by Brandon is not as formidable as it first appears and contains within it certain contradictions. Certainly if Galilean Jewish Christians could settle in Pella during that time (as Brandon himself conceded), so too could Jerusalem Jewish Christians. Conditions in Pella may or may not be as bad as in some of the other cities-since we have Josephus' report that the Jews in a few (albeit a minority) of the cities were left more or less unmolested despite the recent sacking there by Jewish insurgents. The loss of influence of the Jerusalem church is indeed to be expected from the circumstances of the escape and not something in need of an explanation.

Finally we note that the parallel Cochaba tradition, [a] which probably states that some of Jesus' relatives escaped from Nazareth to the town in Bashan/Batanaea during the Jewish War, does not contradict the Pella flight and may even supplement it. In other words during the time when Symeon was leading the Jerusalem Nazarenes out to Pella, some of Jesus' other relatives were doing the same out of Nazareth. The presence of these two traditions point to the fact that many Jewish Christians fled to the east of the Jordan River during the war.

In conclusion, the balance of evidence favors the historicity of the Pella tradition.

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a. Gerd Ludemann, who is rather skeptical of the Pella tradition, suggested another flight tradition, one in which the relatives of Jesus fled from Nazareth to Cochaba, in Batanaea. (See map above) The evidence is one cited by Eusebius in History of the Church 1:7:14 which, on provide an excerpt from the writings of Julius Africanus, a second century CE Christian writer (c.160-c240). Africanus in that excerpt tied the relatives of Jesus (the desposynoi) to Cochaba after Nazareth. This led Ludemann to conclude that there is some tradition to tied in the fleeing of Jesus' relatives to Cochaba to escape the effects of the war. [1]

I have a few comments to make about this. This suggestion is interesting and does not contradict the escape to Pella. Since we know Jesus had quite a large family, some could have stayed behind in Galilee instead of moving to Jerusalem like James. And they could easily has escaped to Cochaba as Ludemann suggested.

b. Most fundamentalists/evangelicals tend to accept the historicity of the tradition since it allows continuity between the Gentile Jerusalem church that was established after the second Jewish revolt in Aelia Capitolina. [Aelia Capitolina was the name given to Jerusalem by the Romans after the second Jewish revolt in 135 CE. Significantly no Jews were allowed there.] Others, intent on proving that the second century Jewish Christians in the Transjordan region (which includes Pella) could not had been descended from the original Church, have taken the opposite position.
c.The Pseudo-Clementines is a collection of works that was circulated under the name of Clement of Rome (fl c. 96 CE). Works generally grouped under these include the Clementine Homilies, the Clementine Recognitions and two epistles (Peter to James, including James' response and Clement to James) The Pseudo-Clementines are generally dated to the fourth century CE. But it is generally agreed that they used sources dating from earlier centuries.[2]
d.Gerd Ludemann, whose analysis I had followed closely actually came to the opposite conclusion; i.e. that the sources are not reliable. His reasons are:[9]
  • The evidence is scarce and limited only to the region from Pella.
  • The sources are relatively late.
  • There is conflict with other evidence-by which he meant that the detail about the successors of James returning to Jerusalem as "bishops" conflict with the Pella tradition of permanent residence there.
e.This includes the Cochaba tradition we mentioned in [a] above. For that tradition if historical merely speaks about the migration of some of the desposynoi from Nazareth to Cochaba but does not necessarily conflict with the migration tradition from Jerusalem to Pella.
f.Of course, the title "bishop" is in itself anachronistic. The titles were probably given retroactively by the Jewish Christians. The point is that they would have retained the connection with Jerusalem, what ever they called them.
g.Josephus 2:18:1
Upon which stroke that the Jews received at Caesarea, the whole nation was greatly enraged; so they divided themselves into several parties, and laid waste the villages of the Syrians, and their neighboring cities, Philadelphia, and Sebonitis, and Gerasa, and Pella, and Scythopolis, and after them Gadara, and Hippos; and falling upon Gaulonitis, some cities they destroyed there, and some they set on fire, and then went to Kedasa, belonging to the Tyrians, and to Ptolemais, and to Gaba, and to Cesarea; nor was either Sebaste [Samaria] or Askelon able to oppose the violence with which they were attacked; and when they had burnt these to the ground; they entirely demolished Anthedon and Gaza; many also of the villages that were about every one of those cities were plundered, and an immense slaughter was made of the men who were caught in them.
h. Some of the examples of people escaping from Jerusalem in the period 66-70 given in Josephus' Jewish War are:

  • [c. November 66]
    Jewish War 2:20:1
    After this calamity had befallen Cestius, many of the most eminent of the Jews swam away from the city...
  • [c. Winter 67/68 before Passover]
    Jewish War 4:6:1
    The Idumeans complied with these persuasions; and, in the first place, they set those that were in the prisons at liberty, being about two thousand of the populace, who thereupon fled away immediately to Simon
    Jewish War : 4:7:3
    These things were told Vespasian by deserters; for although the seditious watched all the passages out of the city, and destroyed all, whosoever they were, that came thither, yet were there some that had concealed themselves, and when they had fled to the Romans, ... Vespasian did indeed already pity the calamities these men were in...
  • [c. June 70]
    Jewish War 5:10:1
    As Josephus was speaking thus with a loud voice, the seditious would neither yield to what he said, nor did they deem it safe for them to alter their conduct; but as for the people, they had a great inclination to desert to the Romans; accordingly, some of them sold what they had, and even the most precious things that had been laid up as treasures by them, for every small matter, and swallowed down pieces of gold, that they might not be found out by the robbers; and when they had escaped to the Romans, went to stool, and had wherewithal to provide plentifully for themselves; for Titus let a great number of them go away into the country, whither they pleased.
    Jewish War 5:13:4
    Hereupon some of the deserters, having no other way, leaped down from the wall immediately, while others of them went out of the city with stones, as if they would fight them; but thereupon they fled away to the Romans. But here a worse fate accompanied these than what they had found within the city; and they met with a quicker dispatch from the too great abundance they had among the Romans, than they could have done from the famine among the Jews; for when they came first to the Romans, they were puffed up by the famine, and swelled like men in a dropsy; after which they all on the sudden overfilled those bodies that were before empty, and so burst asunder, excepting such only as were skillful enough to restrain their appetites, and by degrees took in their food into bodies unaccustomed thereto.
  • [August 70 CE]
    Jewish War 6:2:2
    As Josephus spoke these words, with groans and tears in his eyes, his voice was intercepted by sobs. However, the Romans could not but pity the affliction he was under, and wonder at his conduct. But for John, and those that were with him, they were but the more exasperated against the Romans on this account, and were desirous to get Josephus also into their power: yet did that discourse influence a great many of the better sort; and truly some of them were so afraid of the guards set by the seditious, that they tarried where they were, but still were satisfied that both they and the city were doomed to destruction. Some also there were who, watching a proper opportunity when they might quietly get away, fled to the Romans, of whom were the high priests Joseph and Jesus, and of the sons of high priests three, whose father was Ishmael, who was beheaded in Cyrene, and four sons of Matthias, as also one son of the other Matthias, who ran away after his father's death, and whose father was slain by Simon the son of Gioras, with three of his sons, as I have already related; many also of the other nobility went over to the Romans, together with the high priests.

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1.Ludemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p123-128
2.Ferguson (ed), Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: p964
3.Ludemann, op. cit.: p206-207
4.Schonfield, Saints Against Caeser: p130-141
5.Ludemann, op. cit.: p204, 309 n15 & n16
10.Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: p123
11.Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church: p168-173
12.ibid.: p172-173
13.Pritz, op cit: p124-125
14.ibid.: p126
15.Price, Deconstructing Jesus: p109

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