Located forty kilometers (25 miles) north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt Hermon, Caesarea-Philippi is the location of one of the largest springs feeding theJordan River. It is also situated along the “Via Maris”, the international road that connected Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The site may have been a cultic centre already in the Canaanite period, as Joshua mentions “… Baal Gad, below Mount Hermon …” as part of “the land that remains” (Joshua 13:5, cf. Judges 3:3). However so far the earliest remains recovered at the site are pottery shards from the late Iron Age and the Persian Period.
Caesarea-Philippi was inhabited for certain in the third century BCE, perhaps by veterans of Alexander the Great. It was named then “Paneas” and was known for its cultic center of the god Pan.
During the Hellenistic period the Ptolemies, Seleucids, Itureans, and Cleopatra VII controlled the city at different times. In the first century CE Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great, established Paneas as the capital of his tetrarchy, and renamed it “Caesarea-Philippi” (after himself and after Caesar). By that name the site is mentioned in the Gospels as the northernmost point visited by Jesus and his disciples. During this visit Jesus challenged his disciples to define his nature (Matthew 16:13-16): “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
In return, Jesus declares Peter will be the “foundation” of his community: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 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. 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.”
In his reply Jesus uses a play on words in the Greek language. “Petros”
(Peter) literally means “rock”, and so Peter’s name indicates his role by Jesus.
The importance of Paneas to Christianity grew with time. While in the first centuries it was still a pagan city, in the fourth and fifth centuries it was already an episcopy, and two of its bishops participated in church councils. After the Arab conquest (7th century CE) the city’s name was changed to “Banias” yet it remained as a prosperous city on the road to Damascus. In the Crusaders period it was surrounded by a strong wall and towers whose remains are still well preserved. After the Crusaders period the city’s importance declined and eventually it was abandoned.
Large scale excavations began at Caesarea-Philipi in 1988. These excavations revealed much of the cultic center around the main cave, and in the cave itself various sculpture fragments were recovered, including of Pan himself.
Known today more as “Banias”, Caesarea-Philippi is under the jurisdiction of the Nature park authority. Besides antiquities, marked hiking trails enable a hike along the river and its lush vegetation to the “Banias waterfall”, and to a recently installed “hanging trail”.
Why did Jesus declare the role of Peter at Caesarea-Philippi?
While active mostly around the Sea of Galilee and the Galilee itself, Jesus went quite a distance with his disciples to announce the special role of Peter at Caesarea-Philippi. Caesarea-Philippi was then known as a pagan cultic center. Various pagan deities were worshiped at the site, especially around the large carstic cave located right above the Hermon spring, one of the four major water sources of the Jordan River. I believe it is possible that Jesus deliberately chose this site to declare Peter’s special role, as when he made the declaration, he added that even “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). Caves in general were associated with after-life in the Roman period, which was known to be controlled by Hades. It is quite possible that Jesus actually referred to the cultic cave at Caesarea-Philippi when he made this statement. Perhaps he even pointed to the cave to emphasis his message.