Series: Israel 2022 – Caesarea Philippi
“Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus asked the question of his apostles – those closest to him during His ministry on this earth – as they traveled thru the towns around Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21)
Caesarea Philippi. This was not a Jewish town or religious center. I’m not even sure that there was a synagogue in the area at that time. (There are old ruins of a synagogue nearby but I was not able to find a date for the ruins.) This was not a place you’d expect the Messiah or even a prophet to visit. It was known throughout the region as a pagan worship center of the Gentiles in Hellenistic times called Paneas. It was a “high place” set aside for worship of the god, Pan. (In Arabic, the name is Banias; hence, the name of the park today.)
Caesarea Philippi is a beautiful park today in Israel’s Golan Heights at the foot of Mount Hermon. It is set aside as an archaeological site and nature preserve.
When we arrived, we took a walk through a wooded area to the Lebanese Restaurant for lunch. It was a lovely sunny day, and the park was filled with families enjoying the afternoon. Lunch was excellent, by the way. If you ever visit Banias, do try to have a meal at the restaurant. The setting along the stream is lovely and the food was very good.
After lunch, we headed up to the old sanctuary walking along the stream, Nahal Hermon in Hebrew and Banias River in Arabic.3 It was so unexpectedly peaceful that I fell in love with this place and hoped we’d stay so I could just wander around for the rest of the day. (Alas, we did not.)
We arrived at Paneas at the headwaters of the spring that fed the stream and is also one of three tributaries that feeds into the Jordan River. I was just amazed at the sight.
In front of us, the ancient Bamah or, “high place”, worship site.8 This had been a cultic sanctuary since the beginning of time, I suppose. There was a red and tan and black colored cliff right in front of us that is 230’ (70m) long by 131’ (40m) tall. On one side is a large cave that is 66’ (20m) wide by 49’ (15m) tall. Along the front of the cliff is an elevated terrace about 263’ (80m) long on which were built temples and altars for worship of the gods. The cliffside was carved with niches that had once held statues and idols.
In front of the cave was the rushing waters of the spring. In the past, that spring had gushed forth from the mouth of the cave which may have been much larger and even more impressive than it is today.
According to Josephus, the Jewish historian from Roman times:
“… the place is called Panium, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when any body lets down any thing to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it …” 7
During the time of Christ, it was a site dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Paneas had been established by the Greeks sometime after Alexander the Great had conquered the area in the 3rd century BC .1 But the Hebrews had also worshipped Baal Gad (“Master Luck” or god of good fortune) at the site in the past.1 Joshua 11:17, 12:7, and 13:5 references a high place in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.
The place must have been quite ominous in ancient times. To the first Greeks who came here, the site resembled the legendary River Styx, the boundary between the earth and the underworld. They thought this must be a place of death and it came to be thought of as the “Gates of Hades” or, “Hell”.10 In the 3rd century BC, the Ptolemaic kings built a cultic center here and as noted, the Hellenists replaced all the local deities with Pan and the cave itself was dedicated to him.
You may remember studying Pan during those mostly boring classes in high school on Greek mythology and culture. There were so many that I got them all confused but I thought Pan was the funny one – you know he was the half-human, half-goat that played a flute and hung around with nymphs, one in particular called Echo. He was a god of wild places much revered by shepherds (well, he was part goat after all). I always think of Pan drinking lots of wine and carousing around. But I read he was a troublemaker and our word, pandemonium, comes from Pan’s name.4
That’s pretty much all that was happening here for a few centuries – lots of pilgrimages being made to the cave and lots of goats being sacrificed. Greek empires faded and, ultimately, the Roman empire came on strong.
During the time of Christ, the area had been placed under Herod the Great’s rule. When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his “kingdom” was divided into a tetrarch and split between his three sons. One son, Philip II, inherited governance of the northern areas and founded the city called Caesarea Philippi. After Philip II died in 34 AD, his nephew Herod Agrippa I assumed rule over Caesarea Philippi. Enough history.1
I keep asking myself why Jesus would come here? Why travel this far north from Galilee where there were not too many Jewish communities? There are ruins of an old synagogue nearby but I’m not sure it was there during the 1st century AD. According to Google Maps, the distance from Capernaum on the Galilee to Caesarea Philippi is about 54 kilometers (33.55 miles) and would take about 12 hours straight-up walking…. maybe 2-3 days if you’re eating and sleeping along the way. That’s quite a distance. Scripture tells us that Jesus made one trip to Caesarea Philippi, and it was from here that He began His last trip to Jerusalem (which is another 180 kilometers/111.84 miles to the south).10
Was He here just to see this place famous for pagan worship?
Many Gentiles came here to worship and make offerings to Pan but why would a Jewish teacher come here? He spent very little time in Gentile cities overall. So, why here? If you’re looking for an answer, I do not have one. It puzzles me. But it was against this backdrop that Jesus posed that question to Peter.
“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 6:15)
“You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)
Standing there looking at the cliff with all the niches carved out to hold pagan idols, I wondered what Peter and the other apostles thought about knowing they were standing right there in the presence of God… the real one. No silly half-goats or wood nymphs playing flutes and causing trouble…. but the actual Messiah, the one who came to heal and to save all of mankind was there with them. For three years, He had traveled around teaching, healing the sick, calming storms, and even raising the dead. And now He was nearing the end of His ministry. Why had He come here?
Scripture tells us that Jesus held these conversations with the apostles in/around Caesarea Philippi. (Matthew 16:13) I do not know exactly where He stood when He called Peter “the stone” and told his followers that He would build His church on “the rock”. (Matthew 16:18) But, right where we stood looking at that awesome cliffside where the pagans made sacrifices to save their souls thinking that the cave was indeed the entrance to the underworld…to Hades, I can imagine Jesus telling the apostles that the “Gates of Hell” would not prevail against His church…the Church that He would build on the foundation of His own broken body.
The temples and altars at Caesarea Philippi are all gone. The spring no longer gushes out of the mouth of the cave but flows out further down the hill. The niches no longer hold idols. No more offerings are made to false gods. No one anywhere thinks of Pan as anything but a little made-up creature from the Greek myths they studied in high school.
But the church that Christ raised up…the church that He built…that church remains strong and continues to grow even today. Indeed! It will prevail for it is built upon the rock that is Jesus Christ himself and will continue forever and ever.
Sources for Historical Information About Caesarea Philippi:
- Caesarea Philippi – Wikipedia
- Baal – Wikipedia
- Banias River – Wikipedia
- Banyas – Archaeology in Israel (jewishmag.co.il)
- Banias – Wikipedia
- Altar Dedicated to Pan Unearthed in Golan Heights – Archaeology Magazine
- Banias Temples – Sanctuary of Pan – BibleWalks 500+ sites
- High Places, Altars and the Bamah – Biblical Archaeology Society
- Banias Springs – Israel Travel Centre
- The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Caesarea Philippi, pages 179-181(This book can be purchased on Amazon.com)
ICYMI (In case you missed it) – Previous blogs in the Israel 2022 series: