Aspebet-Peter…The Bedouin Bishop

(This article, which originally appeared in the Sept–Oct 1974 edition of JERUSALEM: Le Bulletin Diocesain du Patriarcat Latin, has been translated from French and edited by the Catholic Near East staff. This piece has been reprinted with permission.)

by Amédée Brunot, S.C.J.
photos by Rev. Leon V. Kofod, Three Lions, Inc.

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One of the great surprises for many pilgrims to the Holy Land is the discovery that a number of Christian Arabs live there. In the visitor’s mind, Arab and Moslem are one and the same.

Going back even as far as the morning of the first Christian Pentecost, though, we know that among those in the crowd listening to Peter were “some Cretans and some Arabs.” (Acts 2,11)

The Roman province of Arabia had steppes crossed by a number of Arab tribes, and these nomads – camel drivers and shepherds called Bedouins – heard talk of the Gospel in the course of their travels through various cities and marketplaces. They were also in contact with monks who, by the fourth century, had reached the desert wilderness.

Having always been a great marvel to the Arabs, the monks of the Arabian desert played an important role in the evangelization of the nomadic tribes.

Thanks to Cyrille of Scythopolis, an historian of Palestinian monasticism, we know the magnificent, golden story of an Arab tribe whose members converted to Christianity, and then formed a diocese in the Judaean desert.

Two monks, one an Armenian named Euthyme, and the other a native of Cappadocia, called Theoctiste, left the monastery of Pharan for the open desert of Judaea. Soon after the monks arrived at Wadi Dabor, however, the local Bedouins gave them less than a warm reception.

While Euthyme continued to pray and meditate, Theoctiste went to see the Bedouin sheik, Aspebet. As it turned out, though, the one whom the sheik wanted to see was Euthyme.

Aspebet’s son Terebon had been struck with a paralysis which no doctor or remedy had been able to cure. One night, desperate, the child asked God for a miracle, promising to become Christian if his prayers were answered. In a dream, Terebon saw a friar with a long beard, whose identity was revealed as Euthyme, the monk living by the stream not far from the route to Jericho.

Euthyme immediately dug a little basin in a rock, and baptized the father, son, and the rest of the tribe. That same day, too, he changed Aspebet’s name to Peter.

Converted to Christianity, Aspebet-Peter made himself the Apostle of his tribe, bringing new members to Euthyme to be baptized, and directing his clan to build a chapel and monastery cloistering wall.

When the wave of conversions reached the neighboring tribes, the need for a bedouin “parish” and bishopric became apparent. Euthyme felt that such a ministry could not be entrusted to the clergy of the cities, who would not understand the life and ways of these nomads. Who, he thought, if not Aspebet-Peter, was the most apt to rule these tent-dwellers?

With the enthusiastic approval of the bishop of Jerusalem, Aspebet-Peter’s episcopal ordination took place around the year 425. He became the first titular bishop of the area of Parembole of Palestine. His was a parish within the diocese of Jerusalem, including neither cities nor villages, but only Bedouin encampments. His was a parish in which the bishop was also sheik.

Six years after the creation of the diocese of Parembole, in 431, the Council of Ephesus opened, and Peter of Parembole was the Council Father. When the Council closed, Peter returned to the Judaean desert, and thereafter remained close to his spiritual father, Euthyme.

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