· · · · · · · ·

Jesus, Geography & Pagan Land Claims

We’re here to help you learn and grow, so naturally, we share affiliate links for products that we use and love. When you click on one of these links, we will earn a small amount of money, at no additional cost to you, which we’ll use towards keeping the lights on here! You can read our full disclaimer here.

Along the Road Online Biblical Study
Reading Assignment – Part 3
Listen to the Audio version | Reading Time: 7 minutes

What do Narnia, Neverland, and the Secret Garden all have in common with Caesarea Philippi?

Believe it or not, these three fictional locations found in children’s literature all share a character that was inspired by one of the oldest Greek gods, Pan, whose mystical bottomless grotto or cave was believed to be located in Caesarea Philippi.

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Pan (/pæn/; Ancient Greek: Πάν, romanized: Pán) is a fertility deity, the god of the mountain wilds, meadows and pasturelands, forests and wooded areas, hunters, shepherds and flocks, rustic music and impromptus. He is a companion of the nymphs, the female spirits of the natural world. Pan was depicted as a man with the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, a thick beard, a snub nose, and pointed ears.

Have you figured out which characters were inspired by Pan? Good job, if you guessed Mr. Tumnus of Narnia, Peter Pan (of course) in Neverland, and Dickon from the Secret Garden.

Caesarea Philippi

Historical and Cultural Context

The picturesque landscape of the enormous cave at the base of Mount Hermon, with water pouring out from it, captured the attention and imagination of everyone who saw it. Alexander the Great was so amazed by it that he had a sanctuary built there, with temples and courtyards in honor of many gods and goddesses.

The Greeks were not only impressed by the magnificent cave but also believed it to be the dwelling place of their god, Pan. According to the historian Josephus in his writing about this cave, “when anybody lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it …” (Wars of the Jews 1, 21, 3). This cave became known as an entrance to the underworld, the Gates to Hades or Gates of Hell.

By the time the Romans had control of this land, the terrace along the base of the mountain beside the cave was filled with temples, shrines, and courtyards for the sacrifices (animal and human) to and worship of many pagan gods. The Sanctuary of Pan was a kind of red-light district for that city, truly one of the most sinful, pagan places in all of Israel.


What’s In A Name?

This land has exchanged ownership so many times throughout history that reading its list of over 20 names makes it appear to have an identity crisis.

Herod the Great named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. When Herod died, his son Philip developed the city and settled on Caesarea Philippi to honor himself in the name.

Throughout history, Caesarea Philippi has also been known as Baal-gad, Banias (its present-day name), Baniyas, Banyas, Barias, Belinas, Caesarea Neronias, Caesarea of Philip, Caesarea Paneas, Caesarea Panias, Caesareia Sebaste, Keisarion, Kisrin, Medinat Dan, Mivzar Dan, Laish, Leshem, Neronias, Pamias, Paneas, Paneias, Paneion, Panium. In the Talmud, Caesarea is called Keissariyyon or Little Caesarea; the Mishnah also mentions the cave of Pamias, referring to the same place.

Geographical Context

33.2463902° N, 35.6928780° E

Caesarea Philippi is located about 25-30 miles (40 km) north of the Sea of Galilee at the base of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Mount Hermon is the highest mountain in Israel, at 9,100 feet above sea level. The word “Hermon” in Hebrew means a sanctuary. It is situated on one of the largest springs in Israel, known as the Nahal Hermon Brook. The brook drains an area of about 60 sq. mi. (150 sq. km.), running swiftly for 2 miles (3.5 km.) and then dropping 600 ft. (190 m.). After another 5.5 miles (9 km.), it joins the Dan River and runs into the Jordan River.

The abundant source of water makes this land very fertile, perfect for growing vibrant large green plants, vastly setting it apart from most of the brown barren terrain of the surrounding area. It was the beauty and awesome size and grandeur of the mountain, caves, springs and waterfalls that has drawn people to this location all throughout history. 

But it wasn’t necessarily the natural beauty that brought Jesus and His followers to the region. 

Jesus In The Region of Caesarea Philippi

Can you imagine what Jesus’ disciples must have been thinking as He led them into view of the pagan ceremonies taking place at Caesarea Philippi? Jews were forbidden to go to pagan territory. But Jesus had a plan when He led them on this sort of field trip. He wanted to give His followers a visual while they discussed His identity and capability. 

Western cultures tend to see these as two different, descriptive qualities. But in the world of Jesus, they are conjoined: who you are defines what you are able to do.”

John A. Beck, Along the Road, page 86

We’ve learned that in the Middle East, your name is your verb. In Matthew 16, Jesus not only makes sure that His disciples know who He is but also renames Simon and tells him his purpose. 

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 Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, 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.”

Matthew 16:13-18, NIV

Now that we have more context of the location of this conversation, it helps us to better understand why Jesus gave such an enthusiastic response to Peter. Within their view, possibly behind Jesus, are a shrine and temple of the Greek god Pan, the temple to Tiberius Caesar (Rome’s then emperor who thought of himself as a god), a temple built to Zeus (Greece’s most exalted god), and other sacred pagan locations. Jesus must have felt a mixture of relief and excitement when, amongst all of the pagan influences surrounding them, it was the Holy Spirit who revealed to Peter who the “real and living” God truly is!

I’ve often heard the teachings on the Greek words used in verse 18, such as “Peter” – Petros, meaning a little stone or pebble, and “rock” – petra, meaning a large massive stone. But I’m surprised to learn that the distinction between “small stone” and “large rock” had disappeared from the cultural language by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written in Greek. The difference in meaning is found only in Attic Greek, and the New Testament was written in a completely different dialect, Koine Greek. In Koine Greek, Petros and petra both simply meant “rock.”

So why wasn’t just one word used when they both meant the same thing? Well, the Greek word petra is feminine and would not have been appropriate or acceptable for Simon’s new name. The ending of the noun had to be changed to the masculine, which gives us Petros. That’s how we end up with “Peter” and “rock” in our English translations.

But wait! Jesus was definitely not speaking English, and it was unlikely that He would have even been speaking Greek with His Galilean disciples. He would have been speaking Aramaic. Simon’s new name in Aramaic is Keefa, meaning “stone” or “pebble.”

According to the footnotes on Matthew 16:18 found in The Passion Translation, 

There is an obvious pun only found in the Hebrew Matthew. The Hebrew word for “stone” is eben, and the Hebrew word for “build” is ebeneh. The Greek text does state that Peter is the “rock” on which the church is built. However, the implication is that it is Peter’s revelation from the Father and his confession of Jesus as the Son of God that becomes the “bedrock foundation” for the church. The earliest writings of the church fathers all acknowledge that the Rock is Jesus Christ, not Peter.”

Jesus intentionally took His disciples on this “field trip” to the region of Caesarea Philippi, not to tell them a fictional story like Narnia, Peter Pan, or the Secret Garden, but to make sure that they knew His identity as the One True, real, and Living God! 

He needed to make sure Peter and the others knew their identity, purpose, and role in the building of His Church. He had to show them that His Church would be so powerful that even this center of pagan worship and the gates of hell, perceived and literal, would not be able to withstand its influence. It wouldn’t be those pagan deities but His Kingdom and His Church of His followers who would stand strong like the rock of Mount Hermon. 

Resources to Study Further:

1. Caesarea Philippi was one of the most sinful, pagan places in all of Israel.
2. The Greeks were not only impressed by the magnificent cave but also believed it to be the dwelling place of their god, Pan.
3. Caesarea Philippi is named in honor of Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great’s son Philip.
4. The city is located at the base of Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel and on the largest spring in Israel, the Nahal Hermon Brook.
5. Jesus took His disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi to make sure that they knew His identity as the One True, real, and Living God!

How did the scenery and history of Caesarea Philippi support Jesus’s discussion about his identity and capability (as well as the disciples’), and help to defeat the pagan claim on this land?

Shop this study

Along the Road | John A. Beck

A 5-week study providing a fresh perspective of Bible stories separated by centuries, but related by shared geography, and delve into the conversations that would have happened along the road with Jesus in the first century.

Order the Book

Along the Road by John A. Beck - Winter Online Biblical Study | Intentionalfilling.com

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.