Banias - Caesarea philippi
Banias – Caesarea Philippi
Just 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, along the main ancient road leading to Damescuss, and on top of one of the main sources of the Jordan River, is the site of Caesarea Philippi. Drawing people throughout the ages, Caesarea Philippi, was a pagan city that became the place that Jesus proclaimed the foundation of His church.
First built by the ancient Canaanites to honor the god of rain – Baal Gad, in Hellenistic period (4rd – 1st centuries BCE) the city was renamed Panias in honor of the Greek god of Sheppard and music – Pan. Today, the ancient remains of the Temple still can be seen. Next to the temple there is a deep cave, the pagan people of Panias would use to make sacrifices to Pan. They would throw a goat into the depths of the cave. It was their belief that if the goat surfaced, their sacrifice was not accepted, if it did not surface, the god Pan was pleased.
Josephus Flavius speaks of this sacrificial cave in his book – The Wars of the Jews:
Wars 1,21,3 (404): “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. Now the fountains of Jordan rise at the roots of this cavity outwardly; and, as some think, this is the utmost origin of Jordan.”
Not until the Roman period was the city named Caesarea Philippi, after Augustus Caesar. It was after the Muslim occupation, during the 7th Century AD, that the name was pronounced Banias as we know it today.
In the time of the Judges (around 11th century BCE) the city neighbored the tribe of Dan. Due to trade and diplomatic relations, the tribe of Dan, were greatly influenced by their neighbors and ancient Israelites began to worship the false god of rain – the Baal. From the Bamot (stages) and Mizbachot (alters) of the time of the Judges, Saul and the kings of Israel to Elijah’s battle against the prophets of the Baal on Mount Carmel, the Israelite prophets went against this false god.
It is not until the time of Jesus that we begin to see the significance of Caesarea Philippi changing from a place that was built on pagan ideology, openly worshiping false gods, to a place of faith.
Matthew 16:13 speaks of Jesus’ visit to the city of Banias:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’”
Jesus knows the history of Caesarea Philippi; he knows the pagan roots this city was built upon. Perhaps, it is precisely for this reason, Jesus choose this place to pose His question to the disciples. It is Simon Peter that answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus replies: ““Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19)
Jesus and His disciples are standing above the abyss. Standing above this place of false worship. Above the gate of Hades. A place that represents wrong doing in the eyes of G-D, a place drenched in false sacrifices to other gods, and Jesus says: “And on this rock I will build my church”.
It is in this statement there is closure of a circle. During the time of Jesus, the city of Caesarea Philippi was predominantly a non-Jewish city, the word of G-D was not known to its people, and they knew only the words of false gods and demi gods. Here Jesus decides to build His church, to seal the gates of the realm of Hades, where according to the Greeks and Romans, the lord of the underworld resided.
Jesus called Peter to an important task: “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 16:19)
It is in a pagan city that Jesus built the foundation of the Church, giving Peter the keys to Heaven and Earth, recognizing Peter’s role in the future Church. Jesus knows that his fate has been cast, He knows what is waiting for Him in Jerusalem, and so He passes on the keys to Heaven and Earth on to peter.
In Caesarea Philippi, Peter received the enormous responsibility of leading the nations, showing them a true path, and building the foundation of the Church. These metaphorical keys represent the moral and ethical values we should live by in order to gain entry to Heaven.
Same as the Sheppard leads his flock, right here, on the hills near Caesarea Philippi, near the cave of the goats knowing that if he misleads his flock, they will fall into the endless abyss.