The Gates of HadesA number of people have recently asked me – directly and indirectly – why context is important in studying scripture. Or to be more accurate, why the original Hebrew context is important. In Rabbinic fashion (how appropriately), I would like to answer this question in the form of a story. One that many Christian readers will be familiar, yet unfamiliar, with. It begins like this:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. (Mark 8:27)

For the casual reader with no geographical context, this sounds no different than “Jesus took the disciples down the road to the neighoboring village”. However, having just come from Bethsaida, this means that Jesus decided to take his disciples on a 32+ mile round trip to Caesarea Philippi, the only recorded trip Jesus took to that region or anywhere remotely like it.

Rock of the GodsCaesarea Philippi, the modern day reserve of Banias in the Golan Heights region of Israel, was established by Ptolemaic Greeks as a hellenistic city, where the worship of the god Pan was centered. By the early first century, Caesarea Philippi (named in 2 AD by Herod Philip in honor of Caesar Augustus) was reviled by orthodox rabbis, and it was taught that no good Jew would ever visit there.

This city, which sits at the foot of Mount Hermon, butts up against a large cliff, referred to as the ‘Rock of the Gods’, in reference to the many shrines built against it. Shrines to Caesar, Pan and another god (possibly the fertility goddess Nemesis) were all built up against this cliff. In the center of the Rock of the Gods is a huge cave, from which a stream flowed (after 19th century earthquakes, the stream began flowing out from the rock beneath the mouth of the cave). This cave was called the “Gates of Hades”, because it was believed that Baal would enter and leave the underworld through places where water came out of it.

Pan NicheIn first century Israel, Caesarea Philippi would be an equivalent of Las Vegas – Sin City – but much worse than the modern city in the American West. In the open-air Pan Shrine, next to the cave mouth, there was a large niche, in which a statue of Pan (a half-goat, half-human creature) stood, with a large erect phallus, worshipped for its fertility properties. Surrounding him in the wall were many smaller niches, in which were statues of his attending nymphs. On the shrine in front of these niches, worshippers of Pan would congregate and partake in bizarre sexual rites, including copulation with goats – worshipped for their relationship to Pan.

And so, one day, Jesus took his twelve disciples, most likely all of whom were in their teens or early twenties (but that’s a story for a different day), and said “we’re going to Caesarea Philippi” (if he even told them where they were going).

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.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

Nymph NicheNow, we don’t know for sure where they were standing in the Caesarea Philippi region, but Jesus’ next statement gives us an idea that they may have been standing within sight of the Rock of the Gods.

Jesus replied, “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. (Matthew 16:17-18)

Jesus continues his short lesson, ‘calling’ (the greek literally meaning shouting at the top of his voice) to the crowd and his disciples.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)

This begs a few questions: What crowd did He call to him? Could it have been the Pan worshippers? Any crowd from this region would NOT have been religiously Jewish. Was the last statement aimed at his disciples, who might have been embarrassed at the spectacle Jesus was creating?

So What?

The Catholic tradition has taken Jesus’ pronouncement in Matther 16:18 to mean that Jesus was declaring that the church was to be built on the authority of Peter and the other disciples. It is true that they led the early church, so this would be a possible interpretation.

The Protestant tradition has taken Jesus declaration here to say that His church was to be built upon the confession recognizing Him as the Messiah and the Son of the living God. This is a valid interpretation, as well, and is a practice supported by other scriptures.

Pan ShrineRay VanderLaan and other Hebrew contextual scholars suggest a third interpretation which may be just as – if not more – powerful as the others, based on the context. Why would Jesus choose this place, the filthiest (morally) place within walking distance of his earthly region of ministry?

Might it be possible that he took his talmidim to the most degenerate place possible to say to them “THIS is where I want you to build my church. I want you to go out into the repugnantly degenerate places, where God is not even known. I want you to go out to places that make Caesarea Philippi look tame, and THAT is where I want you to build my church.” Because that is exactly what they did. They went to places in Asia Minor and the ends of the earth, where “gods” were worshipped in unspeakably awful manners and where Christians would be persecuted in horrific manner, and they gave their lives doing EXACTLY what they were told to do by their Rabbi.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the story of Caesarea Philippi and understand it in its context, it comes to life in ways it never had before.

Special thanks to Dr. Tim Brown and Ray VanderLaan for background material from this post.




Comments

This entry was posted on Monday, September 25th, 2006 at 12:52 am and is filed under Hebrew Context, Religion/Philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Comments so far

  1. Henry Frueh on September 25, 2006 2:24 pm

    Just testing. Test the spirits, remember!

  2. CRN.Info and Analysis on April 30, 2007 12:46 pm

    [...] When Jesus took his disciples on a 16-mile (one way) hike to Caesarea Philippi, he took them to a place that all of the Jewish religious authorities of his time forbade people to go (read more about the context behind this story here).  From the context of the account in Matthew and Mark, it also appears that he was actually within the city complex, which sits at the foot of a cliff called the “Rock of the Gods” with a huge cave in its face, from which a stream flowed, called the “Gates of Hades”.   [...]

  3. Bob Jones on July 5, 2007 11:34 pm

    As a twelve year old boy, Jesus would have been preparing for his passing ceremony into adulthood.

    One of the question Jewish children were to ask is, “What are these stones?” referring to a pile of rocks by the water.

    When Jesus was in the temple it is likely that rather than asking about a pile of rocks, he was asking about Jacob’s pillow, Laban’s table, those stones in the priest’s ephod, the tools of Bezaleel, the stones thrown at the disciples of Molech, the whole stones of the altar, and hundreds of others.

    They were likely amazed as he tied one rock to the next in a consistent theme. By the time he spoke to Peter he had conceptually brought all the rocks together and identified himself as them all.

    So he said, “Upon THIS rock” and then proceeded to show Peter where the scriptures said he must die. He likely showed him all the broken rocks in scripture. Peter knew that he was the Son of God, but couldn’t understand how the Son of God could die, until he saw him on the cross.

    His denial was threefold. Jesus of Galilee healed the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth healed the spirit (cast out demons), and in his final denial he repudiates that he is with the Word incarnate by swearing and cursing. He denied the Jewish trinitarian Torah.

  4. michael stevens on January 10, 2011 4:30 pm

    The text in Matt.16 of this pronouncement by Jesus to Peter is important.
    Jesus facing this wicked place,sinificantly chosen by Him, declares that the gates of hell will not stand before the “church”. But the word is NOT church in the greek but it is ‘ekkelsia’; literally meaning A “ruling body on earth” . Jesus is declaring that this ekklesia has His authority to bind the powers of darkness through their God given authority over powers in the heavens.. The ‘ekklesia’ is the body which even the gates of hell cannot resist! Having the power to bind and to loose. This ekklesia is those who like Peter have the revelation of Jesus the ruling Sovereign sitting in the heavenly realm ruling over the earth and we with Him. Ephesians 1:3.

    Indeed the wretched gates of hell all over the globe increase with the sex trade, prostitution, child soldiers etc etc… But the restoration of the ekklesia will close them down in the heavenly realm first, and the earthly realm. Having bound the strong man in the heavens we will then spoil his house in the earthly.

  5. Michael Reynolds on April 21, 2012 11:44 am

    Excellent Wow I will show others some of these great insights! People leave context out so much. The Teenage Disciples is an earth shaking concept!

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