Editor’s Note: Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth — and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts is a Biblical exploration into how the latest scholarship supports orthodox Christian belief. This is a book about new discoveries in the search for Jesus of Nazareth. It’s an overview of recent archaeological finds and new studies that are calling into question much of what skeptical scholars have assumed and asserted about Jesus over the past two centuries. For those of us who want to dig deeper into the Bible, history, culture, and science, Searching for Jesus answers this excellent question: What if the most recent Biblical scholarship actually affirmed the New Testament?
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Now Jesus and His disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ — Mark 8:27
Even after two thousand years, the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Caesarea Philippi are still a magnificent sight. Located twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) north of the Sea of Galilee at the base of Mount Hermon, Caesarea Philippi was considered one of the most beautiful resort areas in the ancient world. After Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his son Philip made the city the capital of his tetrarchy east of the Jordan River. According to Josephus, the Roman general and future emperor Vespasian used to rest his army for weeks at a time in this area. In an arid land, this region is blessed with an abundance of water flowing from Mount Hermon and from gushing natural springs. There are still vast natural pools, waterfalls, and lush vegetation everywhere. You can also see dozens of hyraxes, the large furry mammals Israelis call shafanim, often mistaken for rodents but actually related to elephants.
This part of Israel was widely known as a pagan region in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In the nearby Tel Dan Nature Reserve, Israeli archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of numerous Canaanite temples. The Greeks and the Romans knew the area as Banias, or Paneas, because there was a large shrine there dedicated to Pan, the pagan god of nature, fertility, and sexual prowess. In Greek mythology, Pan was a faun with the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat, and he was widely known as a companion and seducer of nymphs. The legend is that Pan liked to steal the clothes of women as they were bathing in the many streams and natural pools in the region. When the women came out of the water and saw that their clothes were missing, they would “panic.”
In the time of Jesus, Caesarea Philippi was a thriving Greek (that is, pagan) city with many magnificent buildings, including a vast colonnaded cardo, or shopping mall, as well as numerous public buildings whose ruins you can still see today. All three of the Synoptic Gospels report that, after Jesus performed the miracle known as the multiplication of the loaves, He took his closest disciples to Bethsaida, a fishing village at the northernmost tip of the Sea of Galilee and the home of the apostles Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44; John 12:21). From there, the Synoptic Gospels report, the tiny band headed north toward Caesarea Philippi, following the Jordan River due north through the Hula Valley, around the lake of the same name, to the base of Mount Hermon. It’s not clear why Jesus made this trip. Some scholars speculate that at this point in His mission Jesus was on the run and the northern resort areas at the base of Mount Hermon were a good place to lie low.1
Whatever His reason, the Gospels report that Jesus asked His disciples a strange question on their way to the Greek city:
Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
They replied that some said He was John the Baptist; others, the messianic herald Elijah. Still others said He was “one of the prophets.” And then Jesus really pressed the issue.
But who do you say that I am?
Mark and Luke report that Peter said simply, “You are the Christ,” that is, the long-hoped-for Jewish messiah (Matthew 16:13–16 ESV). But Matthew fills in the story quite a bit from his sources. When Peter finished, according to Matthew, Jesus said,
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in Heaven. 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. — Matthew 16:17–19 ESV
James Tabor in particular speculates that, after the sudden and brutal execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, Jesus knew that his life was in danger—and thus decided to seek a temporary haven in the pagan cultic areas to the north, “surely the last place anyone would think to look for him.” See James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 177.
Excerpted with permission from Searching for Jesus by Robert J. Hutchinson, copyright Thomas Nelson.
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The more we dig into and digest Scripture the more we may realize how little we actually know and understand! What was the culture like? What were the roads Jesus traveled? What was going on during the time-period in art, philosophy, politics, architecture, literature, science, etc. when Jesus walked the earth? What are some of your questions and thoughts about this passage? We’d love to hear from you on our blog.