James E. Thorold (James Edwin Thorold) Rogers.

Rabbi Jeshua : an eastern story online

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" Write me as one that loves his fellow-men."



(T/if rights of translation and of reproduction are teserved.)


THE present volume is intended to present, as
clearly as may be possible, considering the scanti-
ness of the original materials, the history of a brief
but of an eventful career.

It is true that rabbinical literature presents
attractions only to the few. One of our popular
writers has confessed that even when undertaking
so serious a task as the compilation of a Life of
Christ, he did not consider it necessary to master
the three stout folios which comprise the Mishna,
or text of the Talmud ; and in common with others
he has condemned the study of this early Jewish
work the epitome of law, custom, and belief
among the Hebrews as belonging to a literature



which is quite unworthy the notice of a serious

Yet in spite of these dicta of modern authorities
there are few stories more fascinating or pathetic
than that of the loving, passionate, devoted life
which it is here proposed to describe ; and it may
perhaps prove capable, when shorn of the quaint
conceits of the original Hebrew chronicle, and
when illustrated by contemporary literature, of
attracting a wider circle of readers than that com-
posed of rabbinical students. It is a narrative so
intensely human, so independent of merely local
colour, so noble and true in spite of the prejudices
and ignorance of the chronicler, that wherever the
love of truth exists it must surely find an attentive

There are many sources whence information may
be drawn. The apochryphal accounts of Rabbi
Jeshua's life written in the Middle Ages have how-
ever no value or interest ; and although about a
dozen lives of the Rabbi were composed by his
followers within a century after his death, the
spirit of the writer, rather than that of the master
himself, is, as a rule, reflected in each. The views


which are ascribed to Rabbi Jeshua in these
works are so diametrically opposed to one another,
and so self-contradictory, as to make it clear
to the critical reader that the disciples mingled
their own teaching with that of their master,
and ranked their own views as of equal import-
ance with his ; that they placed their own words
in his mouth, and their own construction on his

One chronicle is often attributed to Rabbi Saul,
pupil of Gamaliel, and a native of Asia Minor.
A second breathes the spirit of the narrow Pha-
risaic sect of Shammai. A third, written by an
Alexandrine Jew, is full of Cabbalistic lore and of
Egyptian mysticism. Rabbi Jeshua cannot have
belonged to all these schools at once, and when we
find the various accounts of his actions to be
equally contrary in the various versions, we are
led to suppose that but little remains on which we
can safely rely.

Most of these works may perhaps be best re-
garded as originally written for controversial pur-
poses. The object of the Jerusalem version is
clearly that of showing how Rabbi Jeshua fulfilled


in every respect the Pharisaic expectations of a
Messiah. The book of Rabbi Saul, on the other
hand, breathes the liberal spirit of the opposite
party of Hillel and Gamaliel, and introduces many
latitudinarian views probably held by the writer
himself rather than by the master to whom he
attributes them. Our appreciation of the poetic
beauties and truths of this composition, as well as
of those which may be discovered hidden among
the repulsive mysticisms of the Alexandrine ver-
sion, is a sentiment entirely distinct from the
question of authorship. To us in the nineteenth
century it perhaps matters little whether the
thoughts expressed owe their origin to Rabbi
Jeshua, or to one of his followers ; but with regard
to the incidents of his career, it is at least necessary
to sift the evidence, and to endeavour to discover
the true facts of his life.

It is for this reason that the following pages
are principally based on a short and succinct
account of the life of Rabbi Jeshua, which was
written by the companion of one of his first
disciples, Simeon has Saddik. Simeon himself
was an illiterate peasant, a man probably older


than Rabbi Jeshua, but who survived him more
than forty years, and retired before the fall of
Jerusalem to the neighbourhood of Gadara, east
of Jordan.

The recollections of this aged puritan were
recorded by one of his companions. The historical
sequence of the events appears to have been care-
fully followed, and many of the maxims of Rabbi
Jeshua are preserved, interspersed among descrip-
tions of the main events of his short career. Thus,
though scanty and imperfect, the information con-
tained in this work appears to be genuine ; and it
has evidently served as the original basis of the
other accounts, for this reason, that in no case do
they agree in any statement which contradicts one
made by Simeon has Saddik. All the versions are
in agreement when they follow that which may be
considered to be the original, and on the other
hand no two of the later versions are in accord
concerning facts not noticed by Simeon. Thus we
have the indication of genuineness in the one case
and of fanciful elaboration in all the others, and
our attention should be confined to those state-
ments which have the best right to be considered


truthful because they are found to be common to
every version.

The brief chronicle which bears the name of
Simeon has Saddik is nevertheless not free from
serious defects as an historic work. Though
evidently written after the fall of Jerusalem it
attributes to Rabbi Jeshua a prophecy of that
event, and thus incurs the suspicion of belonging to
the large class of Jewish apocalypic literature
which abounds with pretended prophecies of past
events, a kind of composition which, though
probably never intended to deceive, is often
branded by modern critics with the name of
forgery. It is also clear that the ignorance and
credulity of the peasant disciple, though a man of
vigorous and affectionate nature, has incapacitated
him in many cases for rightly appreciating the
lessons and motives of his master. The super-
stitious beliefs of the age find frequent expression
in the pages of this chronicle, but it is by no means
clear that they were credited of Rabbi Jeshua.
The chronicle of Simeon has nevertheless this
advantage over the other versions, that the number
of its miracles is smaller ; and it is clear that an


original account written by a European (had
such an account been possible) would have been
entirely free from the supernatural element. As,
however, no such document exists, we must make
the best use of the genuine material available,
discounting, as far as possible, the idiosyncrasies
of the writer, and striving to form some kind of
idea of the actual facts which he relates.

In concluding these introductory remarks it may
be noted that there is nothing in the life which
we are about to study which would appear
extraordinary or impossible if the events were
supposed to have happened in our own times, so
long as the scene was laid, not in Europe, but in

So unchangeable is the East, that the sentiments
of the modern Oriental reproduce, almost un-
changed, the ideas and motives of the Jew of
nineteen centuries since. The loss of the feeling
of reverence which characterises the civilisation of
the West has never occurred in the native home of
the monotheistic faiths. Were Rabbi 'Jeshua to be
re-born in the England of to-day it would probably
be his fate to be imprisoned as a vagabond and


an impostor ; but were he, on the other hand, to
revisit his native land he would find but little
change in the character of the peasantry whom he
loved, and but little loss of the religious instinct
which is still distinctive of the reverent and reverend














The Jordan valley Hanan of Bethania Monasticism
among the Jews The Hasaya or "pious" The doctrines
of Hanan Prophets modern and ancient Political
power of prophets Fate of Hanan.

AN open river valley carpeted with luxuriant
herbage and gay with wild flowers. On either side
a steep shapeless ridge of dark grey limestone
scarred with winter torrent beds and stained with
rusty patches of colour. In the distance are black
precipices of basalt and white peaks of marl worn
by the rain into fantastic forms. A snowy moun-
tain dome closes the view, a sky of burning blue
arches it over. In the middle of the flat valley
runs the great trench a mile wide and a hundred
feet deep, which has been worn by the river. Steep



banks of gleaming marl flank the lower valley,
through which the stream winds its way in a ser-
pentine course. Scattered thorn trees, a few
stunted palms, and huge thistles ten to fifteen feet
in height, form the most conspicuous objects on
the upper plateau ; but round the river itself, and
on the islets in its midst a thick jungle of cane and
brown tamarisk almost conceals from view the
rapid swirling current of grey water which slips
by, brimming over the flowery margin of the

The silence of the desert broods over this wild
yet luxuriant valley. The note of the singing bird
is not heard, nor the sighing of the wind in trees.
The cry of the eagle or the bark of the jackal alone
breaks the stillness of the solitude, and for perhaps a
fortnight in spring the green prairie is flecked with
white as the solemn storks descend for a time to-
rest on their way beside the springs.

Yet down beside the river itself a human voice is
heard crying in the wilderness, and a crowd of eager
listeners surround the wild figure of the preacher.

Clad in a rough mantle, girt with a broad leather
belt, his jetty curls, unshorn since his birth, hang
on his shoulders in elf locks mingling with his
scanty beard. A sun-scorched complexion bears
witness to the rude life of the dweller in the desert,


and the striking beauty of the features marks the
pure caste of a priestly family.

Around the hermit are gathered the inhabitants
of city and village, some of whom have come from
a distance of several days' journey. Sleek rabbis
from Jerusalem, fierce Roman mercenaries and
native auxiliaries, poor peasants and fishermen
from Galilee, prosperous mechanics from Sepphoris
or Scythopolis, tax-gatherers and officials, plough-
men and shepherds, all eager to listen to the
prophet whose austere life and bitter denunciations
were famous through the length and breadth of the

The hermit whom we have thus described,
though perhaps one of the most prominent
members of his sect, was not, however, a unique
example of his kind. The natural impulse of
contemplative minds to separate from their fellows
was not less powerfully felt in Judea than it has
been in other lands. As civilisation increased, and
the exigencies of Jewish life became more compli-
cated, the observation of many archaic institutions
of the law became almost impossible for the towns-
man. Thus in the later Hasmonean times and
during the Herodian age we find a sect of The-
rapeutse springing up in Palestine and attaining a
reputation for sanctity and supernatural powers,.


which was the natural inference from a retired and
austere life in the minds of an awe-stricken and
superstitious populace.

As among the early hermits of Egypt or of our
own islands, so among the Hebrews, this movement
resulted partly in the creation of religious con-
fraternities the precursors of the great orders of
Christian monks and partly in the retirement of
individual eremites to the solitude of the wilder-
ness. Pliny informs us that the deserts surrounding
the Dead Sea were inhabited by these recluses, who
thus formed the prototypes of the famous Saba
and his companions, dwelling in caves among the
fastnesses of the Kedron valley. Josephus de-
scribes the life of the early hermit Banu, or Bunai,
who dwelt in the wilderness and was clothed only
with leaves or rushes, while his food consisted of
wild berries and fruits. Day and night he per-
formed frequent ablutions in the cold water of the
mountain springs, and spent his hours in meditation
and prayer.

To the same class belonged the semi-monastic
sects of the Abionim (or "poor") and the Hasaya (or
" pious "), the second of which is first mentioned in
the time of John Hyrcanus, about 140 B.C. Owning
no settled habitation in any city, the ascetic dwelt
in a common home with his brethren, and had all


things in common with them. Stewards were ap-
pointed at these monasteries, as well as brethren
who sheltered the travelling members when passing
from one station to another. Silence, chastity,
obedience, and poverty, were the rules of the order.
Swearing was forbidden, and a noviciate had to be
first passed before the aspirant was admitted to the
four higher degrees.

In all these respects the Jewish religious orders
were indistinguishable from the monks and hermits
of a later age. Like them, they were engaged in
the study of medicine, in religious duties, and in
agriculture. They were vowed to asceticism, and
wore a distinctive girdle and robe of white. Even
in the Syria of our own times, some echo of the
same spirit is observable among the Druses, whose
rules of initiation and of retreat to the desert
recall those of the Jewish ascetics.

The religious creed of the Hasaya was, however,
distinctive, and in some respects departed from the
strict orthodoxy of the original Law. They neg-
lected the prescribed sacrifices, and the annual
visits to Jerusalem ; they encouraged celibacy,
which was a clear dereliction from the primary
duty inculcated in the very commencement of the
Holy Torah, "to increase and multiply." They
attached especial importance to frequent ablutions ;


and baptism became the distinctive ceremony of
the sect. They are even said to have held certain
mystic tenets connected with sun worship and the
belief in angels, which are certainly not traceable
to the law of Moses.

As physicians, the fame of the Hasaya was
\videly spread. Prophecies were attributed by
common tradition to many members of their sect,
and some of these are stated to have been fulfilled
in a remarkable manner. As regarded the future
they were complete fatalists, but believed in the
immortality of the soul and in a future heaven and

Thus, although in the eyes of the most rigidly
orthodox these religious orders may have appeared
to depart from the strict observance of the Law,
and to have been liable to the stigma of heresy,
there is no doubt that by the common people, and
even by their rulers, they were regarded with a
veneration amounting almost to awe, and resulting
from the seclusion and sanctity of their lives, not
less than from their reputation for skill in medicine,
and for knowledge of mysterious arts.

Such, then, was Hanan of Bethania, the Hebrew
hermit of the Jordan valley. As a member of the
sect of Hasaya, he inculcated the duty of washing
in cold water as conducive to chastity. As a


prophet, he exhorted his hearers to penitence and
good works, through which the ardently expected
coming of Messiah might be quickened ; for, like
Rabbi Judah, nearly two centuries later, he taught
that, through the conversion of Israel, the great
future might be hastened, and that the calcu-
lation of days and weeks, of tirrjes and years, was
but a vain waste of human ingenuity, so long as
the hearts of the disobedient were not turned to
the wisdom of the just.

At a period subsequent to his death, Hanan was
regarded as the forerunner of Messiah the mys-
terious re-incarnate Elijah. To this belief we must
refer later ; but it is here sufficient to note that he
does not himself appear to have laid claim to this
mystic character, and that by Josephus he is men-
tioned only as an ascetic, and a preacher having an
unusual influence with the people.

Wandering by the banks of the winding Jordan ;
crying aloud in the great gorges through which
the tributary streams flow from east and west to
join the river ; sheltered by night in the caves
which nature has blasted in the rough hill-sides ;
fed by the wild bees, or the locust swarms, like
the nomad Arabs among whom he dwelt, the
hermit of Bethania passed his life in denunciation,
in exhortation, in the purifying rites of frequent


washings, in the mortification of the body, in fast-
ing and prayer.

Even by his contemporaries, Hanan was con-
sidered as a prophet. It was the gift which in the
belief of the populace specially distinguished his
sect ; and the prediction of the coming of Messiah
was the burden of his exhortations.

In all ages the Eastern peoples have believed in
the existence of prophets living in their midst.
Not only in the Herodian period, or when Akiba
roused the flame of fanaticism at Bether, but down
through the dark ages and the mediaeval period,
throughout the later history of Judaism, we find the
appearance of new prophets greeted by believing
crowds. In our own days the Moslem holds a
similar faith in the inspiration of living prophets.

The naked dervish, wandering from village to
village, living on alms and trading on the super-
stitious terrors of the ignorant, is the prophet ot
the peasantry. The sleek mollah whose writings
are disseminated among the educated, who pro-
claims the future triumph of Islam over Western
civilisation, and denounces the devices of the
Christian infidel, is the prophet of the rich and
great. The belief in the supernatural, in posses-
sion, inspiration, the constant interference of the
unseen powers, is still an active element of daily


life in the East. By such influences all that is
strange or unusual in occurrence is easily ex-
plained, and, save perhaps among spiritualists, we
have in the West no class which thus lives in
imagination, surrounded with spells and controlled
by occult powers ; no race whose daily actions
are in like manner practically influenced by a belief
in the invisible world.

It is hard to realise the results of this familiarity
with the idea of the supernatural so universal
among Orientals, so rare among Western peoples.
We are apt at once to overrate, and yet to under-
calculate, the power of . prophets among the
Hebrews. We attach an amount of dignity to the
character of the seer far beyond that which pro-
perly belongs to it ; for we have no prophets
among ourselves, and we forget that in the East
many prophets are still to be found.

The modern dervish, no doubt, presents the
closest parallel which still exists to the Hebrew
prophet of old. The poet, the madman, the en-
thusiast, receive, as of yore, the reverent homage of
a simple folk ; and false prophets were not less
commonly found among the Jews (as they them-
selves admitted) than are charlatans and impostors
among the fanatics who have attained in the Syria
of to-day to a reputation for sanctity.


Preceded by the pipe and the tabret, the holy
man wanders as a pilgrim through the country.
Sometimes he may be seen writhing under an
ecstasy which seems produced by fanatical excite-
ment. He foams at the mouth, uttering strange
cries, and wounding himself with knives or swords
like the prophets of Baal on Carmel. He will,
perhaps, undertake to strike a bystander with a
sharp sword without producing a wound, or will
charm serpents from their holes, and devour
scorpions without injury.

Neither fire nor poison nor the stroke of cold
steel can harm his charmed existence, and the
faithful will relate tales of his miraculous powers,
of those whose prayer he has heard and answered,
while himself many miles away, or of his acquaint-
ance with the deeds and history of others on whom
he sets eyes for the first time.

So long as the exhortations of the modern pro-
phet are confined to abstract principles of morality,
so long as he denounces only the enemies of the
existing power, his life may be passed in enjoyment
of a high reputation without any interference on
the part of those who govern the land.

If, indeed, the local ruler be himself of a pious or
a superstitious character, the prophet may be found
seated in the council chamber, and though ragged


and poor, will be treated with a respect greater
than is shown by the host to his more wealthy and
better-born guests.

Occasions may however arise when the enthusiast
is directly opposed to the rulers of the land. The
court religion may be that of Baal, the faith of the
prophet that of Jehovah. In such a case he must
try his strength against the established powers,
and he becomes suddenly a person of the highest
political importance. It was thus that Elijah
swayed the multitude, and earned the undying
hatred of Jezebel. It was thus that Rabbi Akiba
raised the standard of revolt against Rome, and
deluged the mountains of Bether with Jewish
blood. It is thus that in our own times we may
see the mollah or the dervish spread the green
banner which proclaims war against the perverted
pasha not less than against the Christian kafir.
The enthusiasm for national faith, which is in the
East the counterpart of Western patriotism, may
thus at times make a revolutionist of the prophet ;
yet it is from impulse and conviction, rather than
from principle and design, that Orientals ever act,
and it would be entirely wrong to brand the
popular leader as a scheming politician when he
is in his own eyes acting under direct inspiration,
and in obedience to the highest motives, moral and


The power which Hanan the hermit exercised
over the populace was of this peculiar character.
He had himself no political aspirations, and acted
only from a firm belief in the coming Divine
interference, which should change the established
order of things. Yet in the eyes of the Idumean
monarch, whose hold on the affections of the nation
was weakened by his foreign birth and his semi-
pagan tendencies, Hanan could not but become
obnoxious as a possible leader of some revolu-
tionary movement.

A native prince might be found claiming descent
from the house of David ; he might be accepted
by the populace, and exhorted by the prophet to
enforce his claims : the visionary Messiah might
become a flesh and blood reality, and a movement
based on the deep religious feeling of the Jewish
nation might drive the Roman and the Idumean
alike from the land.

The catastrophe caused by such fears was not
long delayed. For how many years Hanan
preached in the desert is not known, but he re-
ceived at length the courteous request to present
himself before the ruler of Galilee and Perea, by
which the crafty Antipas concealed his design of
quietly forestalling the possibility of revolt. Wel-
comed at the court with a respect due to the


holiness of his character, he was detained to exhort
the monarch, and boldly reproved him for the
licence of his life. Whether it were through the
influence of those women on whom his denuncia-
tions fell most bitterly, or by reason of the alarm
which was excited by the rapid growth of his
reputation and fame among the Jews, it is certain
that he was never again allowed to wander in
freedom among his familiar deserts. In the
gloomy fortress which looks down from the rugged
eastern cliffs upon the gleaming oily waters of the
Bitter Sea, Hanan pined in captivity, cheered only
by the furtive visits of his most attached disciples.
At length, when his imprisonment was no longer
remembered by the mass of the people, his execu-
tion was secretly ordered, and Antipas succeeded,
while thus ridding himself of a dangerous enemy,
in casting the blame on others, and in himself
appearing to regret a deed forced upon him
against his will.

In thus relating the fate of the hermit, we have,
however, somewhat forestalled the order of our
narrative, for it was whilst Hanan was still preach-

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Online LibraryJames E. Thorold (James Edwin Thorold) RogersRabbi Jeshua : an eastern story → online text (page 1 of 14)