A 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.
Caesarea 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.
In 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)
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?
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.
Ray 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.