Caesarea Philippi: Peter`s declaration of Jesus

13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:13-19 (NKJV)

Caesarea Philippi was built by the successor of Herod the Great known as Philip the tetrarch who made it the capital of his territory. The city was located in the Upper Galilee, near Mount Hermon in a region known as the Bashan which is a high plateau area in the northeastern corner of modern day Israel. The Bashan measures thirty-seven miles east to west, and fifty-six miles north to south. It is bounded on the west by the Rift Valley with Mount Hermon to the north and Mount Bashan to the east. The Bashan stretches south until it merges with Gilead. The landscape of the Bashan is very fertile and rich, with a sporadic amount of extinct volcano`s running down its center which have enriched the soil. During the winter months it can receive a heavy amount of rain 44-52 inches which has been a direct aid in the flourishing of vineyards and fruit groves. In the Old Testament, Bashan is mentioned sixty times but later during the first century we find the region called Gaulantis as it is a province of Rome with the Decapolis to the south.

            During ancient times, and particularly the first century, places of nature attracted the pagans to set up places of worship. At Caesarea Philippi extensive excavations have been done which have revealed a heavy influence and worship of the goat god, Pan. This would also explain the alternate name of the location which is known as Panias. Here, springs and waterfalls can be found where pagans also erected altars to worship nymph spirits and river spirits they believed existed in the water. Dwarfed by the shadow of Mount Hermon, which rises 9232 feet to the north with its snow covered peaks for more than six months of the year, the cultic sites of the city were built against the grotto’s of the high cliffs as temples were erected to Zeus and Augustus. The heavy presence of the large amount of water has to do directly with its proximity to Mount Hermon which receives over sixty inches of rainfall annually. Due to this amount of rain, the moisture seeps into the hard limestone foundations of the mountain and reappear in places like Dan or Caesarea Philippi as powerful springs and falls.

The geographical location influenced the event in which Jesus led his disciples up near the cliffs and temples. Since the city was built and stationed along a major route, connected to Damascus in the east and Dan to the west, this would have made the journey accessible and easy. Thus, Jesus brings his followers there to ask them a question. The Gospel of Matthew accounts Jesus asking his followers who people say He is. Peter is the one who responds pointing out in a direct way the divinity of Jesus and his anointing as Messiah. What Jesus says next is very interesting in direct relation to where they are standing. In the midst of His response Jesus states, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” He does this, with no doubt, while He and his disciples face the largest of the grotto’s which are in the cliff side. Covering the grotto is a temple to Pan where it is also believed to be the gate to the literal Hades. The pagans believed this to be a portal to the underworld and would sacrifice animals in the water and if the blood resurfaced after the animals had been carried away it meant a good omen. Jesus is at that very location, announcing that Peter will build the church of Christ on that rock, being it will be a liberating truth and redemption that these cultic sites and practices could never prevail or rule against, and Jesus declares that the power and chains of Hades will be broken. The geography of the place was a direct part of the event because in the midst of a pagan center, Jesus proclaimed His sovereignty over the wickedness of the place, and stated clearly the foolishness of worshiping anything or anyone else but God.

A Temple to Serapis in Alexandria

The Background of the Creator:

In the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria there lies the remains of the Serapeum (copied after the Serapeum in Memphis) atop a modest hill where the Temple to Serapis had once stood. The history of such a place is a fascinating historical exploration, transporting one back to an age of gods and goddesses of the Hellenistic world which clashed with people groups of the orient. The creation of Serapis is an interesting tale in itself as it is the story of a god who was invented by Ptolemy I who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.). A childhood friend of Alexander, and one who had been a loyal warrior and general, Ptolemy I carved out for himself a kingdom in Egypt with all the trappings of a Hellenistic kingdom, but one with a touch of the Orient which appealed to him. Bordering the hostile Seleucid Kingdom, Ptolemy I would rule with power, influence, and strength in what would be called the Ptolemaic Empire until his death in 283 B.C.E.

However, one of Ptolemy I’s desires for his new kingdom which had been conquered territory of the Macedonian King Alexander, was to make it an attraction for Greek tourists and anyone else who may visit. Later, after his death, Alexandria would continue to exist throughout the Roman era attracting famous men such as Gaius Julius Caesar and Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Alexandria also would become a city of rich diversity as it would house a large Jewish population, Greeks, Spaniards, Africans, Italians, and so on. Alexandria would also host amazing sites such as the famous Lighthouse (which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) or the Library of Alexandria which boasted a collection of over a million scrolls. Yet, for Alexandria to become a highlight tourist attraction and to pull in vast revenues of trade and people, it would have to relate somehow to the very people it sought to encourage to visit, and that lay within the religious realm. Ptolemy I had the city transformed into a thriving Greek-style capital (with polis, gymnasiums, etc) with a full set of temples to boast of its Hellenism, and in this he invented the god Serapis and gave him a throne in the south-western suburbs of the city.

The Creation:

Just looking at the list of ancient Egyptian deities must have both confused Ptolemy I as much as it made him cringe. It would have only taken a moment for a “civilized” Hellenist as himself to know that these deities would not overly attract Greeks in thralls to a temple which had a statue with a human body and an animal head. Or one with strange symbols plastered over it and odd-looking creatures. This was totally foreign to any Greek mind and Ptolemy would have seen this right away. If he was to bend to Greek taste, then his god would have to have Greek appeal. The creation of Serapis possessed just that. It was a known Greek trait to apply the art of syncretism in the area of religion. Ptolemy I decided first to make Serapis a god of greatness and worthy of worship. He gave Serapis the qualities of all-knowing wisdom (Zeus, Osiris, Helios), the character of fertility (Dionysus),  the beauty of healing (Asclepius) and the far reach into the after world and the grave (Apis and Hades). He blended the Orient with the Greek flavor and it clearly showed. Serapis would be revealed with all the looks of a Greek god. He would posses a great beard, a robe, a simple basket of grain upon his head symbolizing the fertility of Osiris, and the far off, magical like stare in his blank eyes. He would dominate his new temple, with outstretched arms that touched the walls on either side, and at his feet stood the three-headed dog Cerberus of Hades and the underworld. Ptolemy I would build a grand temple and raise it up for all the city to see upon a high platform with a massive one-hundred stone staircase leading up to it. It was an obvious statement of his devotion to the god and a flaunt of money and power at the same time. The result of his master, deified creation would be centuries of worship by Greeks and Romans until Christians in the 4th century A.D. would tear down the temple and destroy the image of the bearded god with the basket of grain upon his head for it represented the very paganism they opposed and wished to root out. What would survive, would later be discovered by archaeologists and identified as the foundations of the temple, and its size, along with a black image in basalt of the Apis bull. In other places throughout the Mediterranean world, Serapis would be discovered upon clay urns, vessels, plates, and finery, as well as small household statues, larger images, and personal amulets. The pagan worship of such a deity may have died out through time and change, but his memory will continue to interest researchers, writers, and historians alike.

By, Peter J. Fast