Caesarea Philippi: The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail

Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi before his final journey to Jerusalem, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. They had been together for almost three years and were followed by crowds wherever they went. Here, in this northeastern area of Israel not frequented by pious Jews, Jesus would have some private time to prepare his disciples for the inevitable.

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Jesus’ teaching in Caesarea Philippi would be the first time he spoke about his future church, and it seems curious why Jesus chose this pagan location for one of his most important lessons and revelations. Jesus, however, was a masterful, intentional teacher and storyteller. He must have selected this area for a powerful visual illustration of the disciples’ future challenges and responsibilities. In Old Testament times, Caesarea Philippi, then known as Banias, sat at the base of Mount Herman and was a pagan center of Baal worship. Eventually, the cult of Baal was replaced with the worship of Greek fertility gods and Caesar.

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At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples were standing in front of the largest rock formation in Israel with pagan statues and at least fourteen temples in the background. Without understanding the uniqueness of this visual context, a person reading Matthew 16:13 might imagine the setting to be what classical painters of religious stories created. We can’t be too upset with these Renaissance artists as they had no opportunity to travel to the real setting.

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Figure 1 Renaissance Painting of Jesus handing Peter the Keys to Heaven  at Caesarea Philippi

The Ancient History of Caesarea Philippi

The early Canaanites worshiped Baal at Banias, and people were thrown into the “Gates of Hell” to determine guilt for a crime. Ferocious waters gushed from a very large spring of this limestone cave. In ancient times, the water was fast-moving and would have propelled the bodies over the rocks, and death was guaranteed. The waters filled with human or animal corpses must have been a frightening sight.

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Figure 2 The Cave of Pan today

To the ancient Greeks who settled in this area, the cave at Caesarea Philippi was the gate to the underworld, where fertility gods dwelt during the winter and then returned to the earth each spring. The people also believed the cave held the “Gates to Hades.”

At the time of Jesus, the most important god in Caesarea Philippi was Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and the wild. Pan’s hindquarters, legs, and horns are like that of a goat while his upper body was of a man. The Greeks believed Pan was born in this cave, and he is often associated with music and fertility. Each spring, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in wicked deeds, including prostitution and sexual interaction between humans and goats to entice the return of Pan. Continue reading