To Pella and Back: A Relative of Jesus Leads the Saints


If you’ve studied first century history, you’re probably familiar with the story about the followers of Christ who fled from Judea to Pella just before the Jewish-Roman War began in AD 66. The story of their flight was told by early church leaders including Eusebius (AD 263-339), Epiphanius (AD 315-403), and Remigius (AD 437-533) – and perhaps also by Josephus (Wars 2.14.2, 2.20.1). They obeyed the words of Jesus (Matthew 24:15-21, Mark 13:14-19, Luke 21:20-23) and were protected in the wilderness for 3.5 years (Revelation 12:14). See this post for more details on that story.

I think the story of what happened to those believers after the war is even better. Jeffrey Butz, professor of World Religions at Penn State University, documents in his book, “The Secret Legacy of Jesus” (2009), that many of them returned to Jerusalem and built a Christian meeting place where the Upper Room (Acts 1:12-14) had been (p. 146). According to Eusebius and Hegesippus (AD 110-180), the person who led them to Pella and then back to Jerusalem was Symeon the son of Clopas.

Who was Symeon? He was the first cousin of Jesus (John 19:25). He was also the second bishop of Jerusalem, who was appointed to that position when the first bishop, James (Acts 15:13), was martyred in AD 62 (Antiquities 20:9.1). Eusebius wrote the following about Symeon’s appointment:

“After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph” (Church History, Book III, Chapter 11).

Symeon is mentioned in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 as one of Christ’s brothers (and also referred to in I Corinthians 9:5). However, The Pulpit Commentary explains why he was believed to be Jesus’ cousin rather than His brother:

“Some have thought that these were literally brethren of our Lord, sons of Joseph and Mary… But, on the whole, the most probable opinion is that they were cousins of our Lord… There is evidence that there were four sons of Clopas and Mary, whose names were James, and Joses, and Simon (or Symeon), and Judas. Mary the wife of Clopas is mentioned by St. Matthew (Matthew 27:56) as the mother of James the less and of Joses. Jude describes himself (Jude 1:5) as the brother of James; and Simon, or Symeon, is mentioned in Eusebius as the son of Clopas. It must be remembered also that the word ἀδελφός, like the Hebrew word which it expresses, means not only ‘a brother,’ but generally ‘a near kinsman.’”

Symeon was the Bishop of Jerusalem until he was crucified in AD 107. He lived a long life, having been born about a decade before Christ. Hegesippus wrote this about Symeon’s death:

“Certain of these heretics brought accusation against Symeon, the son of Clopas, on the ground that he was a descendant of David and a Christian; and thus he suffered martyrdom, at the age of one hundred and twenty years, while Trajan was emperor and Atticus governor” (Eusebius, Church History, Book III, Chapter 32).

Including Symeon, there were 14 bishops of the church in Jerusalem between the First Great Revolt (AD 66-73) and the Second Great Revolt (AD 132-135). That final revolt resulted in the leveling of Jerusalem, a new Roman city, the renaming of Judea, and all Jews being banished from the area. Those 14 Jewish bishops, along with their non-Jewish successors after AD 135, are listed here and also here.

THE FIRST CHRISTIAN BISHOPS OF JERUSALEM

1. James, kinsman of Jesus Christ + 11. Justus + 21. Gaius I 31. Dius
2. Symeon, kinsman of Jesus Christ + 12. Levi + 22. Symmachus 32. Germanio
3. Justus + 13. Ephres + 23. Gaius II 33. Gordius
4. Zacchaeus + 14. Joseph + 24. Julian II 34. Narcissus (repeated)
5. Tobias + 15. Judas + 25. Capito 35. Alexander
6. Benjamin + 16. Marcus 26. Maximus II * 36. Mazabanes
7. John + 17. Cassianus 27. Antonius  * 37. Hymenaeus
8. Matthias + 18. Publius 28. Valens 38. Zambdas
9. Phillip + 19. Maximus I 29. Dolichianus 39. Hermon
10. Seneca + 20. Julian I 30. Narcissus  

+ Jewish descent

In AD 130, the Roman emperor, Hadrian, took notice of the church in Jerusalem when he visited the city. The Jewish historian, Gedaliah Alon, wrote the following about Hadrian’s visit:

“Another early Christian chronicler, Alexander the Monk, writing probably around the middle of the ninth century, says: ‘When (Hadrian) went to the Holy City and saw it in ruins, except for one small Christian church, he gave orders that the whole city be rebuilt, save for the temple. When the Jews heard of this they streamed thither from every direction, and before long the whole city was rebuilt’” (“The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age [AD 70-640], 1980, p. 446; quoting from Alexander Monachus, De Inventione Sanctae Crucis, p. 87, III, 4044-4045, published in 1620).

Soon after his own visit to Jerusalem, Hadrian sent a representative to oversee “the work of building the city,” and this is what he witnessed:

“So Aquila [an envoy of Hadrian], while he was in Jerusalem, also saw the disciples of the disciples of the apostles flourishing in the faith and working great signs, healings, and other miracles. For they were such as had come back from the city of Pella to Jerusalem and were living there and teaching” (Epiphanius, 310-403 AD).

It’s encouraging to read that the top officials of Rome witnessed those early believers “flourishing in the faith.” Despite the upheaval of the Jewish-Roman War, life in Christ continued without interruption after Jerusalem fell in AD 70, even in the region where that tragic war took place. The body of believers in Pella, and later among the ruins of Jerusalem, is just one example of the growth of God’s kingdom beyond the record that we have in the New Testament. The following testimony was given by Eusebius concerning the legacy of those who immediately succeeded the apostles, and it’s a beautiful legacy:

“Among those that were celebrated at that time was Quadratus, who, report says, was renowned along with the daughters of Philip for his prophetical gifts. And there were many others besides these who were known in those days, and who occupied the first place among the successors of the apostles. And they also, being illustrious disciples of such great men, built up the foundations of the churches which had been laid by the apostles in every place, and preached the Gospel more and more widely and scattered the saving seeds of the kingdom of heaven far and near throughout the whole world” (Eusebius, Church History, Book III, Chapter 37).

The kingdom which could be shaken was shaken and removed, but the kingdom “which cannot be shaken” remained (Hebrews 12:25-28). The Jerusalem below was cast out, but “the Jerusalem above” is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:21-31). God’s vineyard was indeed leased to “other vinedressers who will render to Him the fruits in their seasons” (Matthew 21:41). May we also be faithful in bearing spiritual fruit to the glory of God.

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