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Severus, Bishop of Al-Ushmunain

(fl. ca. AD 955 - 987)

Translated from the Arabic by B. Evetts (from Patrologia Orientalis, first series)

BOOK ONE: The Legend of Christ's Priesthood

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story with which Severus chose to begin his history was well-known in late antiquity. Versions of it exist in Greek and in other languages, attesting to its ancient popularity; the fact that these versions set the story in different centuries provides further evidence of its legendary nature. The story's survival has owed much, unfortunately, to the use made of it by antisemites. For this reason, we hesitated before issuing an electronic edition.

We decided to go ahead not simply to preserve the integrity of Severus' text but also because of the nuances of his retelling. The Jewish narrator is a three-dimensional character whose interest in Christianity is tempered by an acute awareness that even well-meaning Christians like his block-headed friend are steeped in antisemitic prejudice. Philip's appalling first reaction to the story certainly confirms this. At the same time, Theodosius sees Christ beyond the horrible failings of Christendom, and Philip for all his faults addresses Theodosius the Jew as "my dear brother" from the very beginning.

                -- N. Redington, August 1995


In the time of Julian, the unbelieving Prince, there was a man who was a Jew, and a priest of the Jews, and his name was Theodosius, and he was high in rank. There was also a Christian, a silversmith, who knew him; and there was a strong affection bewteen the two; and the name of the Christian was Philip.

And on a certain day Philip went to one of the cities of Syria and moored his ship in the harbour, that he might sell certain goods which he had brought. There Philip met his friend, the Jewish priest Theodosius, and, entering into affectionate conversation with him, said to him: ``O my brother, I would that thou wouldst become a Christian, so that our friendship might be a genuine one, and that thou mightest make profit out of this world and the next also.''

Then Theodosius answered, saying to him to him with great affection: ``I have taken care for my salvation; and I have thought of something that I wish to reveal to thee; for I will not leave thee without the knowledge of the most high God, who bears witness to that which I tell thee. Therefore do not doubt it, for I tell it thee because thou hast shown me thy love for me. But I should prefer that thou shouldst keep what I say in thy heart and not repeat it to anyone, and it is this: That he who was announced by the Holy Ghost and the Prophets is the Messiah whom you Christians worship, confessing that he indeed has come; and this I believe with an honest and pure heart, without any doubt at all. For thou art a brother and a friend, and therefore I disclose this secret to thee and certify it in thy presence, because thy love and desire of happiness and good things for me are so evident to me. Therefore believe me now, my brother.

``But my carnal thoughts hinder me from being baptized; for I am not humble, nor am I fit, for I am weak; and I am a priest to these people, and have acquired great renown and honour and high rank, and have gained by them treasure and wealth, and if I left them, I should lose all that. And not only would my own people abandon me, but the Christians also, according to what I have witnessed with regard to the Jews when they are baptized, as to the position that they hold; and I have heard also that you say: `When a Jew is baptized, it is as if one baptized an ass.' So how can I now be baptized?

``Moreover I see the Christians sinning and angering God and neglecting the law, instead of walking in the straight path of discipline and in the truth which has come to them. And I have witnessed others who have seen them living thus, and whose hearts and faith have grown weak, so that they have imitated those careless Christians.

``When we enquire into the salvation which came to you from us, we recognise the Messiah indeed; and the apostles, who became your teachers, are also of our race; but you neglect the good tidings that they brought to you, and the doctrine that they taught you. And as the other nations have not been baptized and have not believed to this day, so also have I not been baptized, because of the glory of the world and the honours which I receive from my people, and because I see you neglecting the commands and admonitions which Christ gave you, and the exhortations of his disciples to you. Thus I refused to lose my glory and honour, and become neglectful like you of that which has been given to you; and this is what hinders me from baptism. For the greater part of our Jewish community believe in the truth of the Messiah and his miracles more firmly than you do; yet are they far from the salvation which came to you.

``And now I congratulate thee on the glorious mysteries which we have possessed from the beginning. And I declare this to thee, that we know and believe in Christ's miracles and works more firmly than you Christians do, and we know truly that he is the Messiah who is come.

``Hear then from me this mystery which took place in ancient times, and while the temple was still standing at Jerusalem. The Jews had a custom of establishing twenty-two priests in the temple by an obligatory law; and there was in the temple a book in which was written the genealogy of every man who became a priest, and the names of his father and mother, that it might be known that he followed the command of the most high God. And the Jews retained this custom.

``Now at that time, when Jesus Christ was in Judaea, this book having existed before his appearance, one of the twenty-two priests died, and the rest assembled by themselves to choose whom they should promote instead of him. But their opinions did not agree as to whom they should appoint, and they persisted in opposing one another; and as often as a man was named he was rejected. Then they cast lots with a view to electing him upon whom their lot should fall, and, after electing him, to appoint him to the office, if there were no fault of infirmity in him, and no defect in his family, or the other cause; for if they found one who had the correct genealogy but was not learned, they rejected him and would not promote him; and this was a dispensation from the most high God, because of their strife, so that none might be promoted except the Lord of the priesthood, who was worthy of this place, namely, Jesus Christ.

``And behold, after this, the Holy Ghost moved in one of the priests, and he became zealous for God and stood up in the midst of them, and said: `We have today been assembled for ten days, and yet we cannot appoint any one. And I know certainly that our discussion is thus prolonged because of him whom the most high God will appoint, and this is the reason of the disputing among us and the overthrow of our intentions. And this will be made manifest by the will of the most high God.'

``Then they said to him: `If thou knowest anyone, mention him to us openly, and we will acknowledge it as a great favour on thy part.'

``So he said to them: `Not till you make an agreement with me that you will not reject what I say to you, but will accept it from me; and then I will tell you who is fit for the place; but I know that you cannot reject him.'

``So when all the priests heard this, they swore an oath by Truth and Sincerity [Urim and Thummim] that, if one who was worthy was shown to them, they would accept and appoint him. When he was assured of them, he said to them: `O my brethren, the most high God has put it into my mind that he who is worthy of this place is Jesus, who is called the son of Joseph; for he is a man perfect in his pedigree and in his person and in his conduct, and is capable of speaking and acting before God and men. And know that you will find none like him among this people who has no deceit nor physical defect.'

``So when the priests heard his words, and understood his discourse, they were confounded and perplexed because of the oath; and therefore they said to him with guile, thinking they could reject his proposal: `He whom thou namest is worthy, for we are seeking a good man; but he is not of the lineage of priests, and the people speak calumniously of his birth, because of the infants whom Herod slew with the sword on his account.'

``Then he answered and said to them without anger: `Cleave fast to the truth; for indeed I will guide you to the right course with regard to him, so that you may not turn away from the most high God; for then we should go far from the truth, and should believe lies, since I know that if we enquire into the truth God will reveal it to us.'

``Then they said: `Satisfy our minds, as thou knowest how, with regard to his birth and family, and we will consent to what thou sayest to us.'

``So he said to them: `Enquire and you will learn that in the days of Aaron the priest there was an alliance by marriage between Aaron and the tribe of Judah, to which the prophet David bore witness. Now I have enquired much about Jesus, his tribe and genealogy, and I find that his mother Mary is connected with both tribes. And she is also innocent of sin, through another great mystery. For this reason I desire that you make enquiries, that you may know with certainty that what I say is true, and may recognize that I speak honestly to you.'

``But the priests thought that by this notion of theirs they would bring his counsel to nought. And they began to enquire about the family of Jesus, and found that Mary united the two tribes, and therefore they could not evade this point on account of the oath. So they began to dispute about the pedigree of Jesus. For they said: `There is a different opinion on this point. We wish to know how his birth was not adulterous, since they accused his mother Mary, when she was given to Joseph.' And they all agreed on this subject.

``And they sent for his mother Mary to the Temple, and exhorted her gently to declare to them the matter of her conception of Jesus, and whence he was. And the Law was in their hands, bearing witness against them with her, that they should not think evil of her if she spoke the truth; and they swore to her accordingly.

``And they said to her: `O woman, behold, thou seest us all assembled for good, not for evil, but for the business of God most high which we are settling. For we have come to one conclusion with regard to thy son, whom we find to be acceptable to God and men. And he is wonderful among men, and they all glorify God most high on account of him, for he at this time is among them like Solomon son of David, who was given to him by the wife of Uriah the Hittite; and therefore we have chosen him and selected him by lot, to establish him as priest on account of his virtues. But with regard to one report we are still in doubt; for we wish to know from thee whence he is, and by whom thou didst conceive and bring him forth; in order that the truth may be known from thee, so that no evil word be spoken of thee nor of the priesthood. For this reason we sent for thee, that we may know the truth, and may not remain in doubt; then thou wilt put an end to the dispute about the matter before us. And here is the Law before us, and we declare before God most high, the Invisible One, that no harm nor blame shall come to thee from us; but we shall thank thee greatly because thou hast not hidden the truth from us.'

``But Mary thought that if she revealed to them the hidden mystery of her miraculous maternity they would not believe it on account of the difficulty which the matter would present to them; and that their minds would not admit the idea that a virgin could become a mother, and that there could be a son without a father.

``So she said to them: `If I told you what I know, would you accept it? Nay if I revealed to you the mystery concerning my conception and wonderful maternity, you would not believe my words. Therefore the best thing for me is to be silent.'

``But the priests, moved by their evil thoughts, said to her: `O Mary, in truth we desire to hear from thee whose son Jesus is. For his father Joseph is dead and our hearts doubt with regard to him whether he was his father; and therefore we ask of thee the true account of the matter, for by giving it thou wilt stop the whole dispute about thy maternity. We beg thee to reveal to us this mystery truthfully and clearly; and do not fear anyone, for the right course is not concealed from us; but if thou hidest the matter, the Law decrees against thee a curse forever.' This they said to her and the like.

``So Mary was troubled, saying: `I am perplexed in every way on account of the incomprehensible One, whom I bore; and behold the day is come for me to declare him. And I understand now the secret of my maternity, which you urge me to reveal. But when you hear it, you will not believe it, and you will not accept what I shall tell you. Even Joseph, who, as you say, is dead, doubted of my conception, as you do, and asked me, saying: "Who has been with you?" So I swore that no man had ever touched me; yet he did not believe me until the angel of God appeared to him and satisfied his mind. But he is not living to bear witness for me before you to the truth of what I say. For the Law accepts the evidence of two witnesses more readily that the evidence of one. But I affirm before God and this Law that I brought forth my son Jesus, although I am a virgin; and I will relate to you how I conceived him.'

``Then they said to her: `Verily the thing is manifest; and we acknowledge before God and his holy Law that thou didst in truth bring forth this son; and this is not a thing to be concealed, for a woman who conceives and suffers the pangs of childbirth is that she rejoices more than others when she brings forth.Now thou hast confessed truthfully that thou didst bring him forth; and thus we, who have for a long time conversed with no one, are now sitting conversing with a woman. But we told thee that we would not reprimand thee, if thou wouldst tell us what it is lawful for us to hear and accept from thee.'

``Then Mary began to think in perplexity and fear, bending her face towards the ground and weeping. At last she said: `Now I know that I brought forth Jesus as you say, and this I confess. But as for your suggestion that a man ravished me, indeed the seal of my virginity bears witness to me that I tell you the truth.'

``When they heard this they were troubled and said: `This is a statement that we will not accept, for it is a tale of wonder. How can we write the name of thy son in the genealogy, without the name of his father and of the tribe to which he belongs, as the current custom is?'

``When Mary heard the priests say this, she said to them: `I told you from the beginning that I know nothing of what you have said; therefore do what you wish, for I will not tell you what has not happened to me.'

``So when she said this, not one of them contradicted her; but they were moved by divine providence, and sent and summoned trustworthy women from among their midwives, and begged them strenuously and eagerly to clear up the matter with regard to her, whether she was a virgin, as she said, before God and the Law. So the midwives examined her, and said to the priests: `She speaks the truth; she is a virgin inviolate, as she said; and her virginity was not lost when she brought forth Jesus, for as you all know, he was born of her.' Then they inquired among her neighbours and acquaintances, to see whether they might find someone to deny the birth. But they found no one, for everyone confirmed the fact of her bringing forth a son, and the time at which she so wonderfully became a mother, by a mystery which was understood by none. Thus the priests found nothing which they could allege against her, or by which they could prove her false, but only the manifest truth.

``Then after that they sent for her, moved by necessity, in fear, and said to her: `We have inquired, and found nothing contrary to thy words, nor to what thou didst relate to us. But it is not right that we should write down what thou sayest. Now therefore we adjure thee by God Almighty to make known to us who is the father of Jesus, by whom thou didst bring him forth, that we may write his name in the register and in the genealogy.'

``And Mary was filled with the Holy Ghost, and said: `I will say nothing with guile or falsehood, and God, by whose name you have adjured me, is my witness.' And she began to tell them thus: `The Angel Gabriel came to me, and announced the good tidings to me.' So she explained to them all that had happened to her.

``Then they were confounded and marvelled greatly, and prayed to forgive them the unjust words which they had used against her. And one of them said: `Indeed this is the Messiah, of whom the Prophets prophesied that he would come of the house of David, and from Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah.'

``Then they called Jesus, and tendered the oath to him as priest, and wrote his name in the genealogy, with the day and the month and the year, describing him as `Jesus, the son of God, and the son of Mary the virgin, whom she bore while still a virgin. He is indeed a priest, and worthy of the office.'

``And this was a providential dispensation as Luke the Evangelist, who is said to have been a physician, says in a passage of his Gospel [Luke 4:14-22], namely that when Jesus returned through Galilee in the power of the Spirit, his fame went forth through all the country, and he used to teach in their synagogues, and all glorified him; and he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and entered according to his custom into their synagogue on the Sabbath day. And the attendant gave him the book containing the prophecy of Isaias, in which it is written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and therefore he has anointed me and sent me to preach good tidings to the poor, and to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those that are bound, and to announce the acceptable year of the Lord. Then he rolled up the book and gave it to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of those present were fastened upon him. And he began to say to them: To-day has this prophecy been fulfilled in your ears. And all bare him witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth.''

When Philip the Christian heard these words from Theodosius the Jew, he rejoiced greatly. Then the latter said to him: ``I know these things and have spoken of them only because I am one of the teachers and readers of the Law; and it is the Law that has confirmed in my heart the belief that he whom Mary brought forth is the Messiah, and that in him and no other is fulfilled the prophecy of Jacob to Judah, his son, and that no other Messiah shall come after him. For it is assured to us that he it is whom the nations were expecting, and he it is that was to come into the world and to deliver those who believe in him. And there shall not be after him any chief or leader or priest in Israel, according to the words of the Prophet David concerning him in the 109th Psalm [Ps. 110(109):4]: The Lord sware and repents not, Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech. But who among the posterity of Adam is a priest that shall live for ever? For David also says in the 88th Psalm [Ps. 89(88):48]: Who is the man that shall live and not see death? Therefore it is the Messiah of whom David said that he is the living and eternal priest.''

Then Philip answered and said to him, ``It is right that thou shouldst know that thy concealment of this matter makes thee liable to judgment on the Great Day; and I should prefer to reveal what I have heard from thee to our religious prince, that he may send and bring to light the genealogy written in the register, and the Jews' want of faith, so that they may be openly condemned.''

But the Jew answered and said to the Christian, ``Thou knowest that thou wilt bring a judgment upon thyself for breaking the promise which stands between us. Moreover the thing which thou thinkest that thou wilt succeed in doing, thou wilt not be able to do, but wilt be powerless therein; for when the Jews hear of it, they will stir up a great war, and events will take place by which many men will lose their lives. And if they are urged to show the genealogy, and that which is written therein, they will prefer to burn it in the fire, or all of them will be slain with the sword; but they will not show it. Then thou wilt be to blame, and the genealogy will be lost after all. And the Christians do not need it, because it is the register of the Jewish priests; but you believe in Jesus and know him through the words of the prophets and apostles, and have already assured yourselves of the facts of your religion. But this register will condemn the Jews for ever, so long as it remains with them. Why then dost thou desire to take it away from among them? Believe me, my friend, that every book which I have read of the Law and of the Prophecies of the Prophets with regard to the Messiah is literally in agreement with the genealogy in my eyes, and by it I confirm my faith in the Messiah whom you worship and this is manifest to all the doctors of the Law. And I know that if thou shouldst mention it, thou wouldst cause its destruction.''

Then I, Philip, in spite of many entreaties, at last yielded to his injunctions not to reveal this matter to the prince; for he made me afraid, and so restrained myself. For he assured me in the name of God, that this evidence proves that Jesus is the Messiah, sufficiently to condemn the Jews, and to confirm us and our faith. I, Philip, wrote this report, and laid it before the assembly of the church, and before certain holy bishops and chosen monks. And when they learnt these things they were astonished at them, and were assured of the truth of the Jew's words and the testimony of his people to the Lord Christ in the matter of the priesthood, as it was written in the register. Then the bishops and monks wrote treatises about the priesthood of Christ; for they found that Eusebius Pamphili mentions this matter in several passages in the histories of the Church. For Josephus brings the subject to light in the books of the Captivity. And this Josephus says that Jesus was seen to enter the temple with the priests at the time of the sanctification. Then is mentioned also the testimony of Luke the evangelist concerning the incident that we have already quoted, and concerning the fact that the Lord Christ also make a scourge of cords, and drove the traffickers out of the temple. This fact and all the these testimonies prove that the Jew's words are true, and that on account of his sincere friendship with Philip he revealed this secret matter to him, and bore witness of it to him.

And when the Jew Theodosius had finished the true discourse to his friend Philip, he was baptized and became a Christian, and was sealed with the seal of baptism, and received the Holy Mysteries. And everyone was astonished at the soundness of his faith in the Lord Christ, whose power is glorious. And I, Philip, had great joy with Theodosius the neophyte. And when many of the Jews saw this, knowing that he was one of the teachers of the Law among them, and that he was a ruler over them, and had acquired great honours among them, and had abandoned all that, and become a Christian, many of them believed and were baptized. Therefore, I, Philip, glorified God most high, because I had gained the soul of my friend, who was a Jew, but is now a Christian. And glory be to the Lord Jesus Christ with the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and at all times and for ever and ever. Amen. Amen. Amen.

The St. Pachomius Orthodox Library, St. Swithun's Day 1996
Have mercy, O Lord, upon Thy servant, the translator Basil and the
scribes Nigel, Karen, the Reader Herman, Mariette, Edward, Carl,
Cynndara, Stephen, Tony, Rev. William, Mark, Gerges, Paul, David,
John, Gerald, and Steven! 
               THE END, AND TO GOD BE THE GLORY!

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