Caesarea Maritima was capital of Judaea during "the time of Jesus" (and for several centuries thereafter) but the Gospels never once mention the city.
In the Jesus tale, at no point does the perambulating messiah even come close to the vibrant port – and surely his message was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews? Even more puzzling is the fact that none of the New Testament epistles – supposedly the correspondence of the nascent Church – makes a single allusion to "Caesarea-on-Sea" either.
This lack of reference to the metropolis is in stark contrast to the Acts of the Apostles which refers to the city no fewer than
seventeen times, setting many key events in Caesarea. These include Peter's baptism of the first Gentile, a Roman centurion (as if); and the proselytizing of Philip the evangelist, soon after he "vanishes" from Gaza and reappears twenty five miles away in Azotus (Ashdod), courtesy of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8.39).
But it is the apostle Paul in particular who frequents the great port most often, embarking on or arriving back from missionary journeys at Caesarea, and even, it seems, serving a two-year jail term in the city as a prelude to his journey to Rome.
To all intents, the author of Acts adopted
Caesarea as the primary stage for his "story of the Church" and it is not difficult to work out why. On the one hand, Caesarea symbolized "alien conquest of Judaea" – Rome with its Hellenistic culture imposing its will on the Promised Land. On the other hand, Caesarea symbolized "Christian conquest of the alien intruder," winning for Christ the world conqueror.
In the Christian dreamscape the new faith radiates out from the port city – as a Gentile faith for a Gentile empire.
Caesarea and the Flying Evangelist
"And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea."
– Acts 8.39-40.
Curiously, such Church luminaries as Polycrates of Ephesus (a late 2nd century bishop), Clement of Alexandria (2nd – 3rd century theologian) and Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd - 4th century historian) all equate Philip the evangelist with Philip the disciple (H.E. 3.31.3), although Acts – as we read it today – makes a fairly obvious distinction. The shadowy disciple Philip is never heard of again after the encounter at Pentecost, whereas from Acts 6 onward the name Philip refers to the deacon, appointed to "serve at tables" and attend to "Grecian widows." In practice, however, deacon Philip takes on an evangelical role we might have expected of the disciple hand-picked by Jesus himself!
Just what is going on here?
Quite simply, the "seven Hellenists" have supplanted the "twelve Jews." The original Philip was from "Bethsaida, in Galilee, the city of Andrew and Peter," in other words, was a good Jew, despite the Greek name. In the switchover, Stephen, another of the "seven," gives the Jews their last chance and they blow it by making him a martyr.
The new Philip now demonstrates the sheer pizzazz of taking the good news to "the nations," starting with Samaria, where he expels demons, cures the sick and even converts a most impressive competitor, Simon Magus. Not content with bringing the Samaritans to Christ, the Hellenic Philip next converts the treasurer of Ethiopia, before being whisked away by the Holy Spirit to take up residence in the very gentile city of Caesarea.
In short order, Philip the deacon, a post-resurrection convert, excels the "good works" of Philip the disciple and just about all the other apostles put together – so-much for serving a year on the road with the messiah himself!
But oddly, once Philip number two is settled in Caesarea, his superhuman talents are no longer evident. Rather, he seems to live quietly for the next twenty-odd years, raising a brood of four virgin daughters "which did prophesy" (Acts 21.9). He does not, for example, "convert the whole of Caesarea," the least we would have expected if his story had a shred of truth about it.
In fact, the naming of a "Philip" as an early crusader for orthodoxy was a counter-stroke to the commandeering of the disciple Philip by Valentinian Christians. These speculative Gnostics stole a march on the proto-orthodox by accrediting the disciple with authorship of their own Gospel of Philip. The battle to claim the legitimizing authority of the apostle explains why an original single character was divided into two and the lingering confusion between them.
The Hellenic Philip, like Stephen, is simply a literary device, used to set up the "mission to the Gentiles" actually performed by the thirteenth apostle – Paul.
In fact, Acts itself, in chapter 10, exposes the emptiness of "Philip the evangelist in Caesarea". When Cornelius is mindful to contact a representative of the Church, Philip doesn't get a mention! Cornelius sends for the man from out of town, the apostle Peter!
Peter in Caesarea? Meet the Strangest Centurion in the World
"At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God." – Acts 10.1-3.
In Caesarea Peter neither cures sickness nor exorcises demons. Rather, he performs a theologically important miracle of evangelical conversion. Surprisingly, the text reports that the "apostle to the circumcision" performs the first baptism of an uncircumcised Gentile – but then it is all part of the aggrandizement of Peter that suited the Church in Rome.
The unlikely conversion tale was clearly designed to work with Peter's vision of a sheet filled with edible animals. Apparently, whilst staying in Joppa, a hungry Peter fell into a trance and had a vision in which God told him not to call unclean what God has called clean. At first, Peter protests that he has never eaten anything that is "common or unclean", quoting from the Septuagint version of Ezekiel 4.14. Peter is illiterate and unlearned but he reads Greek?! God repeats himself three times, leaving Peter puzzled. The divine message appears to be about lifting the prohibitions on certain foods but in fact the trance-induced vision turns out to be one of God's most important communications of all time.
All becomes clear when emissaries arrive from Caesarea, about thirty miles along the coast. It seems that another character has also had a message from on high, this time delivered by an angel:
"About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” – Acts 10.3-6.
Angelic visitors from the Jewish god are just one of the oddities that makes Cornelius the strangest centurion in the world. Living in his own house with personal servants suggests that he was a senior centurion – perhaps the primus pilus or "first spear" – responsible for both discipline and the sacred emblems of the legion. If so, it would make even more bizarre his apparent "fear of the Jewish god," his predilection to "give much alms to the people" and his apparent fraternizing with the Jews: "of good report among all the nation of the Jews" (Acts 10.22). This, from a senior officer in a hated army of occupation!
Peter, tipped off about the emissaries by yet another message from the Spirit, is directed to the house of Cornelius. On his arrival, the fantasy descends to absurdity with Cornelius "falling down at the feet of Peter and worshipping him." The centurion had to be told to stand up and be reassured by Peter that he was "only a man" (Acts 10.25-26).
Peter now realizes that it is not just food but non-Jews who are not "common or unclean" and his sermon is accompanied by the Holy Ghost falling on the assembled Gentiles. They speak in tongues, just like the Jews – though quite which languages one can but wonder! Peter declares that baptism cannot now be withheld from those Gentiles upon whom God has already poured out his Holy Spirit.
The episode closes with the doctrinal destination which was the whole point of the fantasy:
"Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life."– Acts 11.18.
With the Petrine intrusion over, the yarn returns to the "scattered
brethren" and moves the story onto Antioch – where it leaves behind the Jews and becomes the story of a "Gentile" church.
Echoes of Josephus
Curiously (or perhaps not so curiously, given Luke's fondness for mining the works of Josephus) the name "Cornelius" appears in a list of Jewish ambassadors sent to emperor Claudius after the death of Agrippa I (Antiquities 20.1.2). The character "Cornelius" is itself a development of the no less ridiculous but unnamed centurion of Luke 7.1-10, who "loved the Jews" and even built them a synagogue! But leaving aside the ludicrous centurion "Cornelius," was the Roman army even stationed in Caesarea at this time?
The Acts of the Apostles – in fact, the entire New Testament – invites the reader to believe he is following a chronological sequence of events, from the birth and ministry of Jesus, through the nascent story of the Church to a final anticipation of the End Time. But not only is this sequence almost a complete reversal of the timeline of composition, there are many snares along the way.
A notorious example is where Luke, working off Josephus for an historical background for his yarn of Peter and the apostles, follows the Jewish historian a little too closely. In Antiquities 20.5, Josephus is relating events during the time of procurators Cuspius Fadus (44-46) and Tiberius Alexander (46-48). He writes first of the beheading of a magician called Theudas who had led many astray and then of the crucifixion of the sons of Judas of Galilee. He clarifies "I mean Judas who caused the people to revolt when Cyrenius came to take account of the estates of the Jews."
Josephus mentions first Theudas and then Judas, in reverse chronological order – and it is precisely that reverse order which is put into the mouth of Gamaliel at the trial of Peter and the apostles in Acts 5.34-39 – except that Gamaliel does not realize that the order is reversed ("Theudas ...was slain ... After this man rose up Judas ..."). Nor does the writer himself notice the other anachronism: Theudas won't lose his head for another ten years!
"Dating" the derring-do of Peter in Acts of the Apostles is no easy feat but there are some time markers to restrain the necessary guesswork. One such event is the famine "foretold" by Agabus in Acts 11.27-28 during the time of Claudius (41-54).
"At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch,
and one of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine all over the world, and it happened under Claudius."
– Acts 11.27-28.
Josephus mentions such a famine, and writes that "about this time" (Antiquities 20.2.1) Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates converted to Judaism. But famine did NOT inflict the "whole world" as prophesied by the soothsayer. It caused hardship in Jerusalem and was relieved by supplies that the newly Judaized queen purchased in Alexandria and Cyprus. She won instant popularity in Jerusalem by distributing food to hungry residents and left behind her "a most excellent memorial of this benefaction" (Antiquities 20.2.5).
This all occurs after the sudden death of Agrippa I in the year 44, recorded by Josephus in Antiquities 18.8.2. and paraphrased by Luke in Acts 12.20-23.
We might reasonably conjecture, therefore, that the "famine" occurred around the year 45 AD and that Helena's benevolence inspired the author of Acts to write that the disciples of Antioch had sent relief to the brethren in Judaea "by the hands of Barnabas and Paul" (Acts 11.30).
"About this time," continues the Christian novelist, Herod the king [Agrippa I] "stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church and killed James the brother of John with the sword" (Acts 12.1).
We have now slipped back in time, for Agrippa is still alive in the first part of Acts 12. But if Agrippa is still king in Judaea the region is NOT ruled by a Roman procurator and troops of the Italian cohort are not stationed in Caesarea!
Who DOES go to Caesarea?
Even if we invent an excuse for a Roman presence in Caesarea during the reign of Agrippa we still have difficulties with a chronology for Peter. Supposedly, he was arrested by Agrippa, guarded by "four quaternions" (sixteen soldiers!) and escaped (yet again) only with angel assistance (Acts 12.3-10). After alerting the brethren, Peter "departs" and goes to "another place."
Is this "other place" Caesarea? Hardly so, because according to Acts it is Agrippa who goes to Caesarea, gets hailed as a god and is smote by the Lord (see below).
The vague statement of "another place" (Acts 12.17) signals the obvious exit of Peter from the entire story – except that a few chapters later a "Council of Jerusalem" is convened at which Peter makes the opening address. The occasion is conventionally dated by Christian scholars anywhere between the years 48 and 52. Peter reminds the brothers that "a good while ago", from his own mouth, the Gentiles had received the word and God had given them the Holy Ghost. So the brethren should not try to "yoke" them with circumcision and the law.
But if the baptism and fellowship of Cornelius has long since occurred and God himself had been glorified in Jerusalem for the new dispensation to the Gentiles (Acts 11.18) why do "certain Pharisees which believed" try to "yoke" the non-Jews? Why is circumcision back on the agenda – does Peter's authority count for nothing? Or did the prince of the apostles never really go to Caesarea?
Dating the impossible
Presumably, if it were true, Peter received his call to attend Cornelius in Caesarea sometime during the mid-30s, after the barnstorming success of Philip in Samaria and the occasion of Peter himself raising the dead in Joppa (Acts 9.36-43). A favoured date among Christian scholars for "unusual" events is the year 36 and the "weak" procuratorship of Marcellus. For example, it has been suggested the martyrdom of Stephen took place at that time, thus solving the problem of why Stephen was not handed over to the Roman governor for execution like his recently executed Lord.
However, there are difficulties coming from the "other direction." All the gospels agree that the "ministry of Jesus" began after that of John the Baptist had more or less drawn to an end. John is in prison already in Mark 1.14 and beheaded by 6.27. Matthew has the baptist in prison by 11.2; beheaded at 14.10. In Luke the baptist is a past tense by verse 7.33, and in John as early as 1.34.
The original source for John the Baptist, Antiquities of Josephus, also relates the demise of John (18.5.2). Josephus tells us that Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, had put John ("a good man") to death and that it was widely thought that God's punishment for this unrighteous act was the defeat of the army of Antipas by the hand of the Nabatean king, Aretas.
Josephus explains the circumstances: In Rome, Antipas had taken a fancy to Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Boëthus (confused by Mark and Matthew with another half-brother Herod Philip). Antipas encouraged her to divorce her husband while he planned to dump his own wife, the daughter of king Aretas.
"Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country and divorce herself from her husband while he was alive and was married to Herod [Antipas], her husband's brother by the father's side." – Antiquities 18.5.4.
The Nabatean wife fled back to her father, already in a quarrel with his son-in-law over border territories. The furious Aretas sent his forces against Antipas, destroying the Jewish army. At this point, Antipas appealled successfully to the senile Tiberius and the legate of Syria was instructed to make war on Aretas or "send his head to Rome." The marshalling of the legions began but the campaign was cut short by the death of Tiberius.
Now we know the date of Tiberius' death precisely: 16 March 37 AD. We also know that Lucius Vitellius replaced Pomponius Flaccus as legate of Syria in 35 and that same year he harassed the Parthians. The following year he was active in Armenia and Cilicia and, as a result of protests, replaced both the prefect Pontius Pilate and high priest Caiaphas in Judaea.
The defeat of Antipas' army was during that same year of 36, while the legate was himself distracted on the eastern front. Which means that the execution of John could not have been much before if it was still a cause of contention in the public mind. In any event, it had to be after the abandonment by Antipas of his Arabian wife which had provoked Aretas and after his re-marriage to Herodias in 34 which had offended the religious sensibilities of many Jews. According to the gospels, Antipas's relationship with Herodias had been criticized by John the baptist himself and was the very cause of his beheading!
"For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.' So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him." – Mark 6.17-19.
At this point, Mark (copied by Matthew) regurgitates an episode from the book of Esther with a famous drunken party in the palace, an erotic dance before the king's cronies, a promise of "Whatever you ask ... even half my kingdom" and someone's head on a platter!
The death of John the Baptist, consequently, could only have been within the years 34-36. When, therefore, was the call of Peter to Caesarea?
Between the death of John the Baptist and the mission of Peter we have to fit in the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, sundry miracles and persecutions, the sale by more than three thousand believers of all their possessions, houses and land, at least two trials of the disciples, the martyrdom of Stephen, and the campaign of Philip in Samaria!
All of which suggests that the year 36 was a very busy one indeed – including a military debacle, the passage of a Roman invasion force, and the resurrection of a godman, all before the prefect and high priest were dismissed!
Oh well, religious fantasy doesn't need any particular time frame – it exists in the mind of those who believe, unrestrained by any mere earth-bound chronology!
The Death of Herod Agrippa in Caesarea – lifted from Josephus
Herod Agrippa, king of Judaea (41-44), died at Caesarea. In the Christian yarn he was smote by an angel of the Lord and eaten by worms as a judgement for the persecution of Peter and the apostles, though Peter had, in fact, escaped from prison by the assistance of an angel!
In the original story of Agrippa's end found in Josephus the cause of death was intestinal, presaged by the ominous omen of an owl.
Eusebius lets slip the practice of Christian scribes doctoring their source texts: he substitutes "angel" for "owl" when he quotes the whole passage from Josephus in his own Church History (2.10.6)!
Far from regarding Agrippa as a villain, Josephus reported that "Agrippa's temper was mild, and equally liberal to all men. He was humane to foreigners, and made them sensible of his liberality." (Antiquities, 19,7.3). He has to be made into a bad guy by the Christian story tellers – they needed a new "persecutor" now that Paul had become one of the good guys!
"Now when Agrippa ... came to the city Caesarea ...
He put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a texture truly wonderful ... being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner ...
Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another ... that he was a god; and they added... "we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature."
Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow.
A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "... I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. ...
And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life ... his generosity was boundless."
"Then he [Herod agrippa] went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there ...
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes*, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them.
And the people were shouting, "The voice of a god, and not of a man!".
Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last."
* Why would the author of Acts mention the donning of the robe at all, if he was not consciously following the story in Josephus?
Eusebius' version of Josephus:
" 'The king did not rebuke them, nor did he reject their impious flattery. But after a little, looking up, he saw an angel sitting above his head. And this he quickly perceived would be the cause of evil as it had once been the cause of good fortune, and he was smitten with a heart-piercing pain.' ...
I marvel greatly that Josephus so fully agrees with the divine scriptures."
You bet he does! – Church History, 2.10.6,10.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities; Jewish War (Hendrickson 2006)
Avner Raban, Kenneth Holum, Caesarea Maritima - A Retrospective after Two Millennia (Brill, 1995)
Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine (Digireads, 2005); History of the Church (Digireads, 2005)
Bo Reicke, The New Testament Era (Adam & Charles Black, 1968)
Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder (Baker, 2008)
Arther Ferrill, Caligula, Emperor of Rome (Thames & Hudson, 1991)
M. Grant, Herod the Great (McGraw-Hill, 1971)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (OUP, 1986)
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