November 17, 2019

Israel 2019: Caesarea Philippi

View of the ruins of the palace of the last king of Judea Agrippa II View of the ruins of the palace of the last king of Judea Agrippa II © Irina Opachevsky | Dreamstime.com

In continuing my recent journey following the movement of Jesus from the head waters of the Jordan to the Dead Sea, this stop is at Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea Philippi is located only a few minutes drive from Tel Dan at the base of Mount Hermon in north east Israel. It was on one of the roads from the area of Galilee to Damascus at the intersection of a road to the northwest. And like so many other places in Israel, this place has carried as many names as it has had rulers. And like so many places, I wonder what I would hear if the stones could talk. But in this place, I’d likely either blush or be horrified.

Its main historical importance has always been associated with a sizable spring and the mysterious cave it originates from. Massive pagan importance has been ascribed to the cave from as far back as history remembers. The Hellenist didn’t mess around. They called the cave the Gates of Hell and dedicated the place to their god Pan. They positioned statues of Pan in niches carved into the rock on the right side of cave’s entrance. And thus it continued as a prime roadside pagan attraction free for all from the Greeks through the Roman era. Our guide suggested that after the Assyrians destroyed Dan it reestablished as a minor center for pagan worship for centuries. But it was unable to compete against the “Entrance to Hell” attraction at Caesarea Philippi and eventually it simply ceased to be of any note. It is interesting that simple neglect caused a longer lived extermination than the Assyrians. So many famous people and armies traveled that ancient road to Caesarea Philippi and defiled it with their pagan celebrations over the last four thousand years that I wonder why God didn’t burn it to the ground like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Our bus travels the same route as that ancient road from Galilee to Damascus that Paul may have used and Jesus did use. At the entrance to the Caesarea Philippi Reserve, what I see before me is a place that looks healed by time. People still flock to see and experience the cave and spring. But now they hike, read, picnic and play with their families in a beautiful park. Even the cutouts of a Pan like figure look harmless.

Our tour guide gathers us before the muted witness of the once powerful Satanic symbols to remind us why we are here. One goal for us in this ancient place is to give a passing notice to the past horrors and it transformation into its present benign beauty. Another is to lay eyes on places where Jesus carried out his ministry nearby. A third is to contemplate the massive juxtaposition of good and evil represented when Jesus asked his Disciples “Who do you say I am?” A fourth is to consider that this road represents the farthest north that Jesus is known to have traveled. Therefore it makes Caesarea Philippi a fitting place to stop along the Tel Dan to the Dead Sea journey.

The 50 or so foot wide spring flowing by the cave, which is framed by a large sheer cliff, is a major contributor to the Jordan River. It is beautiful. Our guide points our attention above and to the left of the cave. Up there is where local Roman kings enjoyed palaces. Some structural elements are still visible. As we walk along the water on a broad paved path I see hundreds of people enjoying a beautiful place on a beautiful day. On this day for me it was hard to visualize that for hundreds of years this was a place of absolute debauchery.

We cross a bridge to the other side and follow the spring downstream for a modest hike. We stop under a bridge built with hugely substantial stones. We are told that one of the Herods built this bridge to supposedly facilitate the travel of commerce over the river. Then he forced all travelers to use the bridge for a fee. We inspect the bridge from underneath. The stones look unaffected by the last 2,000 years. We are told that this bridge was in use during the time of Jesus and stayed in constant commercial use until sometime in the 1970’s or so. Wow! Talk about building something to last! So what is the importance of this bridge to us biblically? This bridge was in use at the time of Jesus’ travels along this road. Therefore it is believed that Jesus would have walked across this very bridge.

Why is that you ask?

The answer is in Matthew 16:13-20 ESV. V13: “Now when Jesus came into the District of Caesarea Philippi…..”. And again in and Mark 8:27-30. “And Jesus went on with his Disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” So we know for certain that he was near. But how near? Our guide challenged us with the idea that every time Jesus referred to something, he was close enough to point to it. And in Matthew 16:18 Jesus says “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Our guide’s conclusion is that if Jesus was close enough to see what was celebrated to be the “Gates of Hell” then he must have crossed the bridge we stood under.

Mark 9:2 is interesting. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transformed before them,….” So the question is this. What did Jesus do for six days? If he stayed and worked around “the villages of Caesarea Philippi” then his transfiguration could have been nearby. Perhaps on Mount Hermon which towers above Caesarea Philippi. But if he walked for some or most of the six days then the transfiguration would have been elsewhere. Notice what Mark 9:14 says right after the transfiguration: “And when they came to the Disciples…” Where ever Jesus was after the six days before going up the mountain for the transfiguration, he left the majority of his disciples there to wait. For when he came down the mountain, he returned to them.

Leaving the bridge we made our way back towards the cave, and climb up to the foundations of one of the old palaces. It gave us a spectacular elevated look at the entrance to the Gates of Hell cave. We are told that in the ancient times the spring gushed from a small opening. But after a modern earthquake the front of the cave was ruptured wide open and the spring was reduced to a fraction of its former self. A huge rock lying to the side of the entrance testifies to the strength of the earthquake.

It is interesting that the cave and surrounding springs are the very same reason people come here today as they did thousands of years ago. Only the interpretation of what they mean to the people has changed. In the past, horrible celebrations were carried on here. Today it is a beautiful place to hike and picnic and relax. It would be a fantastic place to take a dip in the heat of the summer, if it was allowed, but it is not.

The stone ruins of the Caesarea Philippi city proper are not visible from this part of the Reserve. But it is a place worth experiencing.

Our next stop will be closer to the Sea of Galilee.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 02 October 2019 17:34

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