It’s not often one can find a pagan temple, a Christian miracle and the Gates of Hell in one story, so today is your lucky day. Archeologists digging in the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi – once called the City of Pagans and containing a cave called the Gates of Hell — near the Golan Heights have discovered the remains of an early Christian church that may have been the site of a New Testament gospel story about a bleeding woman who was healed when she touched the cloak of Jesus, and was build over what was a temple of Pan, the Greek god of wildlife. Throw in the possibility that this is also the location of where Jesus declared that Peter would build Christianity and get the keys to heaven. How many boxes did that check off?
“(The church was part of) what we call a continuity of holiness – converting a site [holy] of one religion into one of another religion. We know this from human history around the world and also in Israel, for example on the Temple Mount. When Christianity rose to power, they didn’t look for a new site, they converted a pagan site into a Christian site.”
Prof. Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, who was in charge of the excavations at Caesarea Philippi, tells Haaretz how this one spot could have been so significant to so many movements over so many years. Caesarea Philippi was originally the religious center for worship of the Greek god, Pan, and the Greeks named it Panias in his honor. When it came under Roman rule, Herod Philip rebuilt the city and named it Caesarea Philippi after himself. However, it continued to be a ‘pagan’ center, especially with its Gates of Hell – a cave at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed. The water led them to believe the cave was a gate to the underworld used annually by fertility gods. Because of the city’s proximity to it, Caesarea Philippi gained a reputation for also being ‘underworldly’, with prostitution and other nefarious activities.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matt. 16:13-20)
Biblical scholars believe the Gates of Hell and its seedy reputation as a den of sin is why Jesus chose it as the place to put Peter in charge of building the new religion. And that, according to Erlich, is why a church was built on the site. What she and her team found was a mosaic floor decorated with crosses and repositioned from a north-south pattern (from the temple of Pan) to face east, the tradition of Christian churches. They also found a large dressed stone with signs of crosses and graffiti markings which may have been left by pilgrims. (Photos here.) This and other artifacts date the church to around 400 CE, while historical data shows the city of Caesarea Philippi lasted until the 7th century CE.
What about the bleeding woman miracle?
“And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed. Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.”
This story is told in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It is believed to have occurred in Caesarea Philippi because Eusebius of Caesarea, a Christian historian, wrote of seeing a pair of bronze statues there depicting the scene during the reign of Constantine I (306-337).
Much of Caesarea Philippi remains unexcavated, so we can expect more interesting revelations of its varied history and confirmations of its biblical past.