Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter III

A Man I Want to Meet . . . Cestius Gallus


In the year 66 A.D. Cestius Gallus was Governor of Syria and Palestine. His residence and headquarters were at Antioch, but when hostilities broke out between Jews and Romans, he considered it his duty to restore peace himself. Accordingly, with an army he passed through Ptolemais (Accho), Caesarea, Antipatris, and over the Bethhoron Ridge. He then pitched his camp at Gibeah of Saul (Tell el-Ful), within five miles of Jerusalem.

At that time there were in the city four political parties, each hostile to the others, and all hostile to the Romans, in whose presence, however, they seem to have laid aside their differences for a time, for an attack was immediately made on the legions. This must have been on Sabbath, the 22nd of Tishri, for we learn that, notwithstanding the sanctity of the day, they fought. Most of the fighting men would be out, and of this we have an indication in the record of the attack being of a disorderly nature, evidently through want [lack] of unity in command. Still the Jews lost less than the Romans (J. Wars, ii. xix. 2).

During the following week there was an unsuccessful attempt to make peace, and the moving of Cestius' camp to Scopus, whence on Sunday, the 30th, he took possession of and burned the city between the second and third walls, and pitched his camp beside the Tower of David, outside the Jaffa Gate, at the same time beginning a siege of the fortified city and temple. During these days "the principal men of the city were ready to open the gates for him," "a horrid fear seized upon the seditious," and had Cestius "but continued the siege a little longer, he had certainly taken the city" (Jos. Wars, ii. xix. 4-6).

But on the evening of Friday, the 5th of Chesvan, Cestius "without having received any disgrace, retired from the city without any reason in the world" (ibid. 7). From the camp on Scopus he passed again to Gibeah on the following day, being by the Jews harassed in the rear, attacked obliquely on the flanks, and galled in every way, so that his lines were thrown into confusion. A running fight was continued from Gibeah, over Bethhoron, onward toward Antipatris, on the 7th, 8th, and 9th at least, and the Romans were completely spoiled of their baggage (ibid. 7-9).

Now to the cursory reader of Josephus this may seem but a minor incident in the great war, but the peculiar conduct of Cestius, and the outcome of his movements claim our careful attention. He was evidently a Gaul, and had risen to high rank in the Roman army and State. He might even have aimed at the imperial purple, which his successor in the conduct of this war attained to four years later. To a Celtic warrior with such experience as he had passed through, and with such prospects as he might have had, we cannot attribute cowardice. Is there any human explanation of his conduct? A Divine Control, we shall see, there was, and that it all worked out "according to plan."

We have noted the mutually hostile Jewish parties in Jerusalem at this time. We must also remember that after thirty-six years the Christians must have formed a fair community, and they had as their pastor, Simeon, the brother of James the Less, and (according to the flesh) of the Lord Jesus. Peacefully inclined, their self-suppression would on the one hand give them some security, while, on the other hand, it might be interpreted as treasonable.

And they had reason for serious thought. Their Lord had said, "When ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies . . . let them that are in Judea flee to the mountains." They were included, and the crisis had come. The armies were there, but how could they escape? The command seemed almost like "a contradiction in terms." Then we can hear old Simeon say, "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord." At that moment Cestius moved his camp.

Now how does all this fit in with the events of authenticated history? We can well understand that departure was impossible from the moment that war commenced in May, 66 A.D. till the moment that Cestius withdrew. Any attempt to do so would have meant slaughter at the hands of one or other of the parties of the seditious Jews. But the moment Cestius retreated to Scopus and Gibeah, the hostile, combatant element would be drawn out in pursuit. We may be sure they were all there, encouraged by previous partial success, and by the hope of plunder from a retreating enemy.

From Sunday the 7th, till Tuesday the 9th of Chesvan at least the battle raged from Gibeah to beyond Bethhoron, and during that time there would be a peaceful calm in Jerusalem itself. And the way was clear, for Josephus tells us (ibid. xx. 1) that at this time "many of the most eminent Jews left the city." Plans could be made and announced at the Sunday meetings, and early on Monday, the 8th, the Christian community could begin their flight with a minimum of fear or hindrance. We can see that this gave them three clear days to travel away from Jerusalem before the earliest of the victorious combatants returned to the city. And at the moment there was practically only a single road open, but it was the route that, even in days of peace, would, on grounds of convenience and comfort, have been their choice, that is by Bethany and Jericho to beyond Jordan; and this road afforded them free passage to their city of refuge, Pella, which both Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. iii. 5) and Epiphanius (Ad. Haer. vii.) tell us was definitely appointed them by Christ Himself, though the Gospels probably for reasons of safety, stated more generally "to the mountains." This they would reach on Friday, the 13th of Chesvan, and there we learn they were protected during the terrible days of the downfall of the Jewish State.

And to the faithful, watching disciples there was a gracious meeting in every detail. They were to pray that their "flight be not in the winter." Now 66 A.D. was a common year, with no extra month in the spring, so that the journey to Pella fell in the first half of October. A few early showers may have fallen, but that meant increased comfort for the travellers. "Neither on the Sabbath." That would have been possible only to travellers on foot. Animals could not be got, and a moving caravan would have aroused suspicion and created danger. Then there is Christ's tender warning to frail women and young mothers. For such the journey would be a bit hard, but they had at least one more day than Christ took to cover the same ground, when coming to raise Lazarus. And there was the instruction as to the need of quiet haste. We almost hear Christ's voice, "Instead of return to the city or the house, go right to Bethany and join the caravan there." Never was a prophecy more literally fulfilled. We read Christ's gracious words, and we bow in reverence and awe in contemplation of the wonderful and successful outcome.

Now in connection with this great incident we should like to meet Cestius Gallus, and to get his own account of his "most illogical" action. To what extent was he acquainted with the various sects in the land, and especially the Christians? He had certainly met them at Antioch, and may have learned something of their teaching. Eusebius tells us that the Christians moved "in virtue of a Divine admonition." Was that something in addition to Christ's words? We almost think so. Did Cestius Gallus also have some vision, or some sense of the supernatural, and did that compel him to retire? Did he ever come to know how the Christians were saved, and did he ever appreciate how his own unaccountable action literally carried through the plans of Divine Providence?

Did he ever meet with Josephus? We think he must have done so. More than elsewhere in all the works of the Jewish History are "day and date" given for every detail of this first attack on Jerusalem. At the time Josephus was busy in Galilee, and in later years, when he was writing the history of the war, this event, in contrast with the destruction by Vespasian and Titus, must have been, apart from some special reason, a mere speck on the horizon. And when we read the narrative, we cannot conceive of any other means by which the precise date of every movement has been transmitted to us so that it comes before us almost as a divinely inspired record of the fulfilment of Christ's prophetic outlook. And did Josephus ever come to know of the wonderful testimony he thus bore to Christ and the Gospel? We have passages in his works regarding John the Baptist and Christ, but their authenticity has been questioned, and regarding them a doubt will always exist. But here we have a beautiful mosaic picture, literally undesigned, which is more stimulating to Christian faith than anything else he has written.

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