Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 5

Having arrived at Caesarea Marittima on our ancient pilgrimage to the land of Jesus, let us hurry to another Caesarea, Caesarea Paneas also known as Caesarea Philippi (Caesar Town of Philip) today called Banias. The Philip in question is variously known as Philip II, Philip the Tetrarch or Herod Philip.  He was the son of Herod the Great who killed the innocents and his fifth wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, not to be mistaken with Elizabeth Taylor or Cleopatra Queen of Egypt. Philip II was born in 19 BC, and is not to be confused with Herod II, whom some writers call Herod Philip I. Is that perfectly clear?

Looking at a chart of this family’s genealogy is like looking at a very complicated football diagram. Who married whom and how they were related and which number wife this was are completely undecipherable to most people including me. For instance this Philip is the Philip who married his niece Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Herod II also called Herod Philip. Herodias, Herod Philip and Salome were all members of the same family. I suppose marrying your relatives makes it easier to figure out where to spend the holidays.

This Salome is probably none other than the Salome who was such a fantastic dancer. She so pleased her father who was probably also her uncle that she was able to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. It seems that she went on to marry another uncle, our Herod Philip who was around 30 years older than she was!! Herod Philip the Tetrarch rebuilt and rededicated the city of Paneas, naming it after the Roman emperor and adding Philippi (of Philip) so as not to confuse it with the Caesarea on the sea-coast, which his father Herod the great had built.

I tell all these lurid details so that you can get a feel for the rather loose attitude to religious orthodoxy that the Herod family had. They thought nothing of building shrines to pagan gods, provided those pagan gods were politically correct. I also mention them because it’s a lot of fun albeit hopelessly confusing. Just as his devoutly Jewish father Herod the great built a city filled with Roman temples and idols to honor the Roman emperor, so too did his son Herod Philip II the Tetrarch (ruler of a fourth) established a city dedicated to the gods of the pagans. The newly-refurbished town honored the divine Roman emperor and served as Philip’s regional capital.

These people were nothing if not morally tolerant and inclusive. All the hub-bub centered on a huge outcropping of rock at the foot of which stood a cave, from which flowed a spring that was thought to be bottomless. It was the farthest source of the river Jordan and was sacred to the old Semite god Ba'al gad (Lord of Luck) also called Ba'al-hermon. (Lord of Mount Hermon.)

Alexander the Great introduced Greek colonists to the area starting around 300 B.C., who established a strong presence in southern Syria. They identified Baal Gad with the nature spirit Pan. The new town was beautiful against the hill and there were beautiful temples enshrining this sacred spring and honoring all the major Roman gods. The bottomless spring was thought to be one of the entrances to the underworld, or the gates of hell. (This concept of hell is not to be confused with the Christian concept of hell as a place of eternal torment. In Greco-Roman mythology the place of unending torment was called Tartarus. You went there for having ticked off the gods. Most people just went to the underworld, Hades, or hell, a grey place of shades where people lived in an unending joyless semblance of life.)

There were various places thought of as entrances to the underworld. One of these was the rock on which the Jerusalem temple stood. Jesus, it seems, had left the Holy Land to go north in order to spend a little quality time with His disciples. He passed by this gleaming white and multicolored city perched near the sacred spring. In the presence of these false gods of politics and power, He asked St. Peter, “Who do you think I am?” Peter answered. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Jesus said to him in return, "You are the rock on which I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” There Jesus stood before the great rock on which Philip had built a shrine to the false god of politics and nature. There he stood before the very gates of hell, and there Jesus, this threadbare Rabbi,   said that the church built on the rock of Simon bar Jonah would prevail against the powerful gates of hell whether they were the temple that Herod the Great had built to his own glory in Jerusalem or the shrine that his son Philip had built to honor Roman might over the gates of hell in Banias.

And you know what? The gates of hell did not prevail. Just a few short years later, Roman might destroyed the Temple of Herod and the fisherman, Simon bar Jonah died in Rome while conquering the Roman Empire by his death. Simon Peter is buried about 20 or 30 feet below the altar of the basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The pope sits directly over the tomb of Peter. Rome was reduced by barbarian invasions, by plagues and by famines to hardly more than a medieval village, but because Peter’s tomb was there as well as Paul’s they couldn’t quite abandon the malarial swamp that Rome had become.

Peter conquered Rome and revived it as the capital of the great capital of the spiritual empire of the Universal Church. That church is quite literally built on Peter — “upon this rock I will build my church.” The foundation stone in Jerusalem has been stripped of its temple and the shining Roman temples of Banias Caesarea of Philip lay in ruins, but the tomb of the fisherman still draws untold millions to prayer. Christ has conquered those empires, and no empire thus far in history has prevailed.

Tiberius and Herod would be forgotten except that their power was associated with the origins of the Christian faith. The humble fisherman of Capernaum and his Lord, the humble carpenter of Nazareth has prevailed. The ruins of Banias are evidence of their victory.

More to come...


  1. "The pope sits directly over the tomb of Peter."

    I don't think His Holiness, Pope Michael, agrees.