by John Pacheco
Our Lord's teachings were frequently accentuated by the physical location of his surroundings. His birth in a manger, the finding in the Temple, the Sermon on the Mount, Jacob's Well in Samaria, Mount Horeb for the Transfiguration, and Jerusalem for His crucifixion are just some examples where the historical surroundings had a profound, thematic relation to His teachings. In the famous Petrine passage of Matthew's gospel, there is also a very important cultural, historical, and religious backdrop which serves to highlight Our Lord's teaching on the nature of His Church and the Petrine office. In Matthew 16, Scripture identifies Caesarea Philippi as the place where Our Lord gave His revelation on the Church and Peter's special place in it:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, 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).
The city of Caesarea Philippi is located on the southwestern side of Mount Hermon, 25 miles north-east of the Sea of Galilee. Mount Hermon is Israel's highest mountain with a summit of 9,232 feet above sea level, and rises 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley. The history of this ancient city goes back centuries well before the time of Christ.
The original name for the city was Panias, named after the birthplace of the Greek god Pan who was known in Greek mythology as the god of nature and fertility. The mountain is partially formed by a large cavity which serves as the mouth to the Jordan river below. As far back as the 3rd century B.C., pagans offered sacrifices to Greek gods by their sacrifices into this cave. Because Greek mythology promoted the belief that fertility gods provided water, this location became a common gathering for pagan worship. Just to the right of the cave, there are five niches hewn out of rock. These niches likely held the statues of other gods, the names of whom are etched on these niches. Three of these niches bear inscriptions in Greek naming Pan, Echo and Galerius, the latter being one of Pan's priests. [Photos of the cave and adjacent niches can be viewed by visiting this website (http://www.bibleplaces.com/banias.htm).] The area is also scattered with approximately fourteen temples of ancient Syrian Baal worship.
From a biblical perspective, this mountain had profound significance as well. We learn, for instance, during the period of Israel's Judges, God punished the Jews for refusing to destroy the altars erected to the Baals, the gods of Israel's conquered nations. One of these nations were the "Hivites who dwelt in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon to the entrance of Hamath" (Judges 3:3). The Book of Judges recounts how God used these nations to "test Israel and see whether they [would] keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did" (Judges 2:22).
In addition to Greek and Syrian pagan worship, Rome also imprinted its imperial religious stamp in Caesarea Philipi. Twenty years before Our Lord's birth, Caesar Augustus gave the city of Panias to King Herod who, as a sign of gratitude, built a temple of white marble to the Emperor. Later, around the time of Jesus' birth in 2 B.C., Philip, Herod the Great's son, officially named the city Caesarea Phillipi in order to distinguish it from another city named Caesarea Maritima. Philip chose Caesarea Philipi to be the capital of his Roman territory. Herod Agrippa would later rename the city as Neroneas in honour of the Emperor Nero.
Mount Hermon in Caesarea Philipi is laced with significance for the Jewish people. First, as already alluded to above, there are several references to this mountain in the Old Testament (Cf. Judges 3:3, Joshua 11:17, 1 Chronicles 5:23). In the story of Israel's defeat of the Northern Kings, this mountain is mentioned as one of the places conquered by the Jews:
So Joshua took this entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings and struck them down, putting them to death (Joshua 11:16-17).
The other significant feature of the mountain is that it was once one of the four main sources feeding the Jordan River. The mountain's cave, for instance, is the Jordan River's easternmost source, and represented one of the largest springs flowing into the river. Because of its association and connection to the Jordan river, therefore, the mountain and the cave had profound religious significance to the Jewish people. In fact, the word Hermon is Hebrew for "the mountain set apart". It was therefore generally regarded by the Jews as a very holy mountain.
The Christian significance of Caesarea Philipi builds on the deep religious significance that this place held among many of the religions of the time. In His discourse with His Apostles as recorded in Matthew 16:13-19, Jesus' words about the Church and Petrine Primacy are therefore amplified by the religious history surrounding Him, and draw much of their force within this setting. When Our Lord asked the Apostles "Who do people say the Son of Man is?", He did so in a place with a wide religious spectrum. It was an area strewn with Syrian temples; a place where Pan was worshipped and sacrificed to; a mountain and cave which provided a major spring flowing into the Jordan river, the most important river in Judaism; and a place where worship of the Roman emperor flourished.
It is here, in this place of wide religious plurality, that Jesus poses the question regarding His identity. Our Lord's question and the subsequent response by Peter signify Christ's claim on all worshippers of God. In this place where so many religionists have sought the identity and worship of divinity itself, the Holy Spirit reveals, through Peter, the true object of their worship - Jesus Christ. It is as if Jesus set himself up against all the religious claims of history in all of their glory and majesty, and then claimed for Himself the sole, true object of worship.
Mount Hermon serves as a backdrop to Our Lord's teaching, and can been seen to stand for the Church, and in particular, the Church's relationship to the world and the Christian faith. We learn, for instance, that Mount Hermon is Israel's highest mountain. This reflects the stature and role of the Church in the world as towering over other mountains (and presumably other religions, kingdoms, and nations) in authority and superiority. Hence, it is no coincidence that Jesus chooses this mountain's milieu to communicate the eternal, immovable, and indefectible nature of the Church.
The Scriptures also attest to Christians being called to transform the world but not be "of it" (Cf. John 8:23). The followers of Christ are to be set apart from this world (Cf. John 17:17). As revealed above, the Hebrew word Hermon means "mountain set apart". This appellation harkens back to Jesus' teaching about the Church being a "City on a Hill" which cannot be hidden. There is a uniqueness and exclusivity to Her which overshadows the other mountains:
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)
This theme is also reflected in the Petrine discourse in Matthew 16.
It is therefore fitting that Jesus would use this mountain in communicating the nature of His Church to the Apostles. Not only was this mountain distinct among other mountains in the region, but it was also a crucible of religious communion and worship among the religions at that time. Worship was centered in and around the Mountain itself, and thus the rich imagery which such a picture evokes cannot be lost in the context of Our Lord's ecclesial discourse. As the mountain formed the nucleus of worship among the ancients, so too would the Church, symbolized by the mountain, do the same for Christians.
The nucleus of this communion is also captured by the topography of the mountain. To the Greek pagans, for instance, Mount Hermon's cave provided a source of fertility and life through one of the largest springs which flowed into the Jordan river. This is emblematic of the Christian's reliance on the Church - in particular, sacramental baptism and other graces which flow from Her in conveying eternal life (Cf. John 3:3, 1 Peter 3:21). Just as the pagan considered the cave an entrance to the underworld, the same cave would represent, by the emanating spring, the entrance into the sacramental life of the Church.
Not only is there an implied connection between the mountain and the Church, but this connection also draws in St. Peter and his role in the Church. In the Petrine discourse, Jesus says, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rocks I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18a). With Mount Hermon as the backdrop to this solemn proclamation, Jesus reveals to His first disciples that he will build the foundation of His Church on Peter's faith. There are a number of significant points to consider on how this revelation relates to Mount Hermon.
In this scene, there is an insinuated conveyance of the mountain's significance as the center of unity. In the past, the mountain served as a source of unity among various members of each religion, and had profound significance for each of them in this regard. With Our Lord's revelation to St. Peter, the Church will be built - not on a mountain but on a man. And so it logically follows that the center of this unity previously symbolized by the Mountain would be transferred from Mount Hermon to St. Peter himself. Moreover, this center of unity does not only reflect communion among members of the Church, but it also makes a universal claim and call on all religions and their adherents as well.
Secondly, because of its sheer size and permanence, Mount Hermon served as a permanent, geographic focal point where the pagans congregated for their religious services. In establishing St. Peter as the kepha (the rock) for His Church with Mount Hermon in the background, the mountain's imagery of stability and durability is theologically imposed on St. Peter, especially in light of Our Lord's subsequent words when He declares "...and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." (Matthew 16:18b). With this imagery clearly imprinted within the Scriptural text, the Church's traditional claim of Petrine authority is further enhanced.
Finally, Mount Hermon's cavity represents the opening to the mountain's inner region. Not only does this have a sacramental signficance through baptism as previously noted, but it also indicates the opening for understanding the eternal, doctrinal truths of the Church. Through Our Lord's delegation of "binding and loosing" or "opening and shutting" (Cf. Matthew 16:19, 18:18, 23:13) to St. Peter and the other Apostles, the fisherman's office becomes the cavity by which doctrine is either allowed to enter the Church or kept outside of Her.
As Our Lord's other discourses built on the history and traditions of the settings surrounding them, Mount Hermon and Caesarea Philipi help showcase the great and glorious truths of the nature of Christ's Church and the role of His Vicar. There can be no doubt that Jesus chose this region to communicate the timeless truths of our holy faith.
The Catholic Legate
June 10, 2005
1 - Photos of the cave and adjacent niches can be viewed by visiting this http://www.bibleplaces.com/banias.htm.