Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: the highlights, VII

Resuming our journey through the classic historical text from 324 AD.

The ‘death’ of Yochanon

Yes, I know that Yeshua did not promise Yochanon would not die (as some reported), but it’s kind of a strange thing to say, “If I have him tarry till I come…” As a writer, I live in hope . . .  But anyway, the historical view seems to be that he died about 99 AD and was buried at Ephesus. Again, I note that the Shellachim have all died before the ‘heresy’ of the Ebionites appeared. In fact, Hegesippus specifically states that heresy came forth in abundance after the death of the Shellachim and their generation. And again remember that Eusebius via Philo acknowledged that the Shellachim were Hebrews who practiced Hebrew customs. So heresy abounded after the extinction of those who kept Torah and practiced Hebraic customs. Coincidence?

Philip was also reported to be buried at Hierapolis.

Another note on the language of Polycrates (a disciple or contemporary of the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, who was the disciple of Yochanon). He refers to Yochanon as “a priest that bore the sacrerdotal plate…” This is somewhat Catholic vocabulary coming from someone who would later be excommunicated (for a time) and yet walked fairly close to Yochanon, himself. So one might need to entertain some catholic thoughts on that one. There does seem to be a clear distinction made between the ‘laity’ and the clergy. We don’t really see it in scripture, but we are told that Yeshua is our Cohen HaGadol (high priest) after the order of Melchitzedec, and that we were meant to be a kingdom of priests.

Some have taken this out of balance and started dressing like replacements for the Levites, but you will not find even in Hebrews that this Melchitzedecian order replaces the Levites. In fact, it specifically tells you that our order is a heavenly one, which explains why there is no set order on earth for this priesthood. The Levites had specific, delineated order to follow, we do not. So whatever kind of Cohenim we are, it is not one marked by garb.

However, Israel is also called a kingdom of Cohenim even though only the Levites stood in the apparent office of the priesthood. From this we can see there is a distinction between priests in the temple and ‘everyday’ priests. Our everyday life is our ritual, in accordance with Torah. Likewise then, our heavenly service may be in an official manner in some ways (like those who actually minister for worship), and the ‘laity’ who offer prayers and their ‘ordinary’ way of life.

So calling Yochanon a priest would not necessarily make him what we would imagine in the Catholic sense. Another thing to note is that the english word priest is a contraction of ‘presbyter’, which does appear in the Brit Chadasha as in 1 Timothy 4:14. However, Strong’s translates this not as ‘priest’ as we think of it today, but as elder or San Hedronist. Interestingly, the root word presbeterios occurs 67 times in the BC and is always translated elder in the KJV, and prebeterion (plural) is always, except for once elders. Weird, huh. Meanwhile, the BC does have a word for what we think of as priest. It is hieros, and appears every time the scriptures speak of the levitical priest, the high priest, Yeshua as high priest, and the ‘royal priesthood.’ Hieros, not Presbeterios. So it is entirely possible (speaking as someone who has not read Polycrates in the original), that the underlying translation means San Hedronist, or judge, rather than priest.

Continuing, there is no mention of special robes or even buildings at first (though later, as Christianity becomes accepted in Roman society, there will be). So what is the sacerdotal plate? Two things come to mind—speculation on my part—Yochanon has at times acted as a Cohen in the instances such as Pesach (Passover) where he literally bore the bread/administered the ceremonies of Pesach. In other words, simply facilitating the keeping of a feast makes one like a Cohen.

Or it maybe, that as a Shellach, Yochanon was set apart to spread the Basar, rather than ‘wait tables’ as they say in Acts, and that in that sense they were set apart and were like Cohen. Not that they were treated as altogether alien—no marriage, no property, strange garb—but that they were simply devoted to a specific order of ministry.

So Cohen in a sense, but do we ever see any of the Shellachim just walk into the physical, earthly, Holy of Holies? No. They never presumed that their priesthood replaced or annulled the authority of the Levitical priests. They were (and are) a different kind of priest. But those who are devoted to serve are recognized as different than just the ‘ordinary’ of God’s people. Not better or worse, but distinct. Anyone can be a priest, everyone is a priest, but there is still a difference between someone who is ‘full-time.’ And this makes sense. Shouldn’t we treat those who are more invested in the word and prayer as if they are actually closer to God? What wise young person does not trust that an elder actually knows God a little better than they do?

At this point, Eusebius mentioned Clement and Ignatius. I won’t spend much ink here because I will be covering both a little more in a separate series on early Christian writers (or perhaps a single blog because so far there isn’t too much to say that I haven’t been saying here). Clement was the bishop of Rome, seems fairly solid from his writings. Clement died and was succeeded by Eurastasus. Ignatius is bishop of Antioch (a little before Polycarp, it seems). He is called like a successor of Peter, but having read some of his letters, I don’t see much of Peter in him. A bad version of Paul perhaps. Not really impressed with Ignatius, but he’s in the history as being probably worth knowing of.

It is by way of Clement that Eusebius tells us that Hebrews was written by Paul but that it was originally in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and possibly translated by Luke, or even Clement himself. So again, we have an earlier book in the language of those who had the advantage of keeping the Oracles of God (Romans 3:2), that has been ‘lost’.


A very interesting character appears—at least to me—that I shall have to see if I can find his writings. Papias is a writer (no title) who studied Yochanon the Shellach (Apostle John), and was an associate of Polycarp (who studied under Yochanon), and Papias is mentioned well by Polycarp and Irenaeus (another whose writings I look for). Though not an eyewitness of the Shellachim themselves, he apparently interviewed everyone he could find who did know them.

Papias interests me because he has a very Hebraic flavor. For example, he refers to the ‘elders’, which is a small thing but it is a title common in the scriptures, but sticks out in Eusebius’ work as uncommon.

Through Papias we learn that there is another Yochanon buried at Ephesus besides the Shellach, ‘Yochanon the Elder or Sanhedrenist’ (John the Presbyter). We’ll talk about it later, but there is some possibility that Revelation of Yochanon was not written by the Shellach, but by this Elder.

Eusebius speaks highly of Papias as studying all these ‘intimates’ of the Shellachim, and providing other useful traditions from those sources, such as that one of Philip’s daughters was raised from the dead. And how Justus (of the book of Acts, the other nominee to fill Judas’ place) drank poison and was unharmed.

Yet, despite the praise, Eusebius points out that Papias believed and transmitted that Yeshua would have an earthly physical reign after the resurrection. Hmm, so what was called heresy by Eusebius was in fact passed on by someone who was generally seen as a purveyor of good tradition and closer to the Shellachim. Eusebius does not call him a heretic, but he just didn’t get it. The idea that there would be a physical reign is a very Hebraic idea, so naturally, I tend to think Eusebius has it wrong and am thus interested in the other things Eusebius dismisses out of hand. And lest we think I am being overly biased, Irenaeus agreed with Papias, another associate of Polycarp’s who is generally highly regarded by Eusebius.

Papias’ closes out the record of Eusebius’ book III (Yay! We’re done!), by telling us an interesting tradition about Mark. The Gospel of Mark was written by Mark who was the translator for Peter, hence it’s from Peter but not in the language that Peter spoke it. And Mark assembled the gospel as it was taught, as needful by Peter. So Peter didn’t set out to tell it all in order, but rather told the account as it came to mind and was relevant to their life in fellowship. This seems important because some criticize the order of the gospel accounts saying they don’t match up, that events in one take place in a different order in another. However, the traditions tell us that at least Mark did not set out with the exact chronology being important. What happened was more important than the order in which it happened. Certainly, if it tells us something explicitly happened before another event, that’s one thing, but otherwise the chronology wasn’t written to be exact, thus it is no contradiction if it happens out of order.

To be continued …

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