Head for the hills

Reporter ventures out to Pella to find evidence of first century church.

Pella  (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
About 68 CE, as Vespasian's legions encircled Jerusalem (which they would destroy two years later), a revelation came to the early Christians there, reminding them of Jesus' words: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies… then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains" (Luke 21:20). Writing about 250 years after the event, church historian Eusebius records that the Christians departed the city, "Christ having instructed them to leave Jerusalem and retire from it on account of the impending siege… to reside for a while at Pella." Historian Ray Pritz, a former lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on the first century church, accompanied me to Pella, Jordan last month to investigate the "Flight to Pella" tradition as reported by Eusebius, father of church history. The village of Pella is near the Jordan River, about 15 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Although currently the river represents an international border, in the first century this was one piece of land, bound together by the Jordan River. The short taxi ride from a checkpoint took us to Abu Basel Hussein, a local guide and owner of the Pella Guest House, who sat with us as we surveyed the site and briefed us on Pella's unity with Galilee, its food and water sources, and local traditions of a visit by Jesus before the Flight to Pella. Although there is no scriptural evidence, Abu Basel insists "Jesus had been here, fasting for 40 days in a cave nearby. He knew Christians would need a place of refuge, and Pella is near Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. They also came because of ample water and food. This place was the fruit basket of the Roman Empire" - something of an exaggeration, since the Nile Delta is more deserving of that title. Still, the water sources and good land of Pella as well as its proximity to rich basalt soil further north are substantial. Topological, political and social reasons may better explain Pella as a destination. First, at the foothills of mountains rising up from the Jordan Valley, "it would have been found to conform roughly to Jesus' words 'to the mountains,'" according to Pritz, who wrote his master's thesis at the Hebrew University on the subject. Further, as a Greek city of the Decapolis, "Pella would have been relatively secure from the reprisals of the Romans. No place inside Judea, Samaria or Galilee would have provided truly secure refuge, and this fact would have been recognized at the time, which is vitally important." Still, there were other mountain refuges not on Rome's radar. Pritz postulates that Pella, on the road connecting Jerusalem and Galilee, was familiar to the early church as Jesus traveled through that area, suggesting that some local believers had heard Jesus preach (as Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus's presence in that region). Pritz concludes: "It is not at all unlikely that there was some small community of Christians there." If one cross references familiarity with the region, political safety and likelihood of finding Christian fellowship, Pella is an obvious choice for the Jerusalem refugees. German archeologist Gottlieb Schumacher conducted a survey of Pella in 1887 while working for the Palestine Exploration Fund, and was convinced he had found a cave in which Jerusalem believers resided. "My grandfather worked with Schumacher," Abu Basel insisted. "This is the cave they found." My travel companion, stricken with the historian's skepticism, believed we "received Helena treatment." Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine (who officially declared Rome to be Christian) was a devout believer who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 CE. The local believers in Jerusalem, eager to placate the emperor's mother, made sure she "found" whatever she wanted - holy places, artifacts, etc. I countered that Pritz wouldn't be prepared to believe we had found the site of the Jerusalem refugees' residence unless he found Sunday school rooms and casserole dishes from Wednesday-night prayer meetings. (In truth, I shared Pritz's doubts.) Abu Basel took us to another cave about 15 minutes from the main site and acquainted us with the local tradition that Jesus fasted in that region for 40 days, resting in that grotto. Neither cave offered evidence of the church's presence, but the tradition that those first-century believers resided in one of the area's caverns is a reasonable one, as caves were apparent throughout the chalky limestone region. The reliability of the Pella tradition was unquestioned by historians until the 1950s, when S.G.F. Brandon undermined the story based on three suppositions. First, he said, after the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem, the Mother Church lost its authority; it must not have survived the battle. Secondly, Jewish Zealots guarded the walls of Jerusalem (according to Roman historian Josephus), allowing no escape. Finally, because Pella had been sacked by Jewish rebels in 66 CE, Pella natives would have opposed offering sanctuary to the still very Jewish Mother Church. Pritz concedes that the Jerusalem church seems to have lost authority after 70 CE, but maintains that was because the church leaders who had been with Jesus were by then dying off; fewer apostles meant less apostolic authority. Regarding the second point, Josephus writes that on several occasions people escaped through the Zealot lines, suggesting their ranks were less than impregnable. Regardless of attacks by Jewish rebels against Rome, Pritz thinks the Christian refugees ("Jewish or otherwise") would have been cared for by Pella's gentile Christian community. This is again supported by scriptural evidence that Jesus taught in the area. Even a brief survey of the area reveals it to be huge - 36 square kilometers, according to Abu Basel - offering the refugees opportunity to reside in caves away from the city center where they might encounter opposition. There is an additional tradition that some of those early Christians returned to Jerusalem and founded a church on the present site of King David's tomb; the Upper Room site is in that same Mount Zion complex. While some archeologists, anxious to establish the veracity of the Flight to Pella tradition, have taken advantage of questionable indicators such as an old coin or ancient tomb to settle the matter, it must be conceded that physical evidence is inconclusive. Archeologist and president of the University of the Holy Land Stephen Pfann puts it in perspective: "We have no archeological evidence of the first-century church, but no one doubts its existence. All we have is the literary tradition [Scripture]. "Let's remember that this church was persecuted; they weren't building things. Their focus was on outreach to non-believers." Presently, the University of Sydney, Australia is excavating ancient Pella, but only 3-5% of the huge site has been researched. In time the secrets of Pella will be revealed. Until then, the tradition of the flight rests on the writings of Eusebius,* who led the local church at Caesarea, as well as the testimony of the worldwide church, originating in Jerusalem. *Eusebius's record is bolstered by another historian, Epiphanius, a younger contemporary. Both chroniclers probably used the same second-century source, quite possibly Ariston, a native of Pella.