Every year countless Christians come to the rock-faced site where the city of Caesarea Philippi once stood. A pagan temple built to honor Pan, the god of the wild, once stood there. Remnants of this temple still stand.
But the draw of this place is not simply its stunning natural beauty or its fascinating archaeological remains. Visitors come in droves because it is often said that Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah at this very location. Popular-speakers and tour guides repeat the claim time and time again.
The rhetoric can get pretty thick. Take the following from Elaine A. Phillips’ article on the site in the Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels:
“In the heart of this thriving city [=Caesarea Philippi], emcompassed by stone images to Syrian and Greek gods and an imposing temple devoted to the imperial cult, Jesus asked his disciples to identify him.”Elaine A. Phillips, “Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016), 292
The scenery is compelling. The landscape is awe-inspiring. None of that, however, makes Phillips’ assertion correct.
Approaches like Phillips’ ignore what the biblical texts actually say. If you look carefully at them you will see that none of the canonical Gospels say the scene of Peter’s confession actually took place in Caesarea Philippi.
PETER’S CONFESSION OF FAITH IN MARK
In Mark’s account we read,
“And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples” (Mark 8:27).
Notice that in Mark Jesus is “on the way” to “the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” He is not said to be going specifically to Caesarea Philippi but to the villages in the district of the city.
More significantly, the scene does not take place in any of these towns. Jesus is still “on the way” or “on the road.” He has not arrived at any of these towns.
Go back and contrast this with Phillips’ portrait about, which she locates, “In the heart of this thriving city. . .” In her version, the scene takes place in Caesarea Philippi. That is not the case in Mark.
Perhaps you are thinking that her version of what happened is more reflective of one of the other New Testament Gospel accounts. Not so.
PETER’S CONFESSION OF FAITH IN LUKE
The story of Peter’s confession is also found in Luke. Here things get especially difficult for those who insist Peter’s confession took place in Caesarea Philippi. We read:
“Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, ‘Who do the people say that I am?…’” (Luke 9:18).
In Luke, the scene of Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ identity is never even connected to Caesarea Philippi; the place isn’t even mentioned!
Note the context: Jesus is praying alone. At other times when Jesus goes to pray, he does so alone or in a deserted place (cf. Luke 5:16).
I think the best way to read this—which actually works well with the other Gospels reports—is that Jesus has the exchange while he is journeying with the disciples. I simply can’t see how this can be read as implying that he is standing at the site of the Pan temple.
Some will say that Jesus was not actually at Caesarea Philippi but that the temple of Pan was off in the distance. The reason they want to insist that the geography is important, however, is not due to the story in Mark and Luke but what we find in Matthew.
PETER’S CONFESSION OF FAITH IN MATTHEW
The core reason people link the scene of Peter’s confession to Caesarea Philippi is due to the way the story unfolds in Matthew.
First, Matthew tells us:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi. . .” (Matt 16:13).
Again, here Jesus is in “the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Look at the language; he is not in Caesarea Philippi.
But what really encourages the connection to the temple of pan and the rocky landscape at Caesarea Philippi is what Jesus says next. Only in Matthew’s Gospel do we read Jesus’ fuller response to Peter in which he speaks of building on a “rock”:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)
The German scholar Otto Immisch made an extended argument in 1916 that the imagery was inspired by the rocky landscape that surrounded the temple of Pan (“Matthäus 16,18: Laienbermerkungen zu der Untersuchung Dells,” ZNW 17 :20-26.)
Few scholars accept Immisch’s interpretation. He himself admitted that other modern scholars before him had tried to make the connection. None of their arguments, however, have won over most interpreters.
Nonetheless, this approach to explaining the story is still often invoked by those who take people to the site. Perhaps Jesus was not standing in Caesarea Philippi but still, they insist, the landscape was important to the scene. They neglect to mention the problems with this reading.
First, the Pan temple interpretation is often buttressed by claims that it was understood to stand over Hades or that the rock/temple site was somehow related to the underworld. Yet there is simply no evidence from Jesus’ day that people thought this. Sources cited to support this view date to hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. This is just not compelling. To be convincing, you have to show that these ideas were current in Jesus’ day.
Second, there is a further consideration. How likely is it that Jesus would be comparing the eschatological community of faith with a pagan temple? Is this really believable? Would a Jewish teacher do this? Would a Jewish evangelist like Matthew take this line of interpretation?
It seems highly implausible that Matthew intends us to think that Jesus is comparing the church to a pagan temple.
A much better explanation of the scene in Matthew is that the imagery that appears in the story is taken from traditions about the Jewish temple, which was built by Solomon. As Solomon’s identification as the “son of God” was closely linked to his role as temple-builder (cf. 2 Sam 7:12-13; 1 Chr 17:7-10), Jesus responds to Peter’s confession that he is the “son of God” by describing himself as a builder (“I will build”). In their famous commentary on Matthew, W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., write:
[Jesus is] “the Christ, the Son of the living God” … He is the realization of the messianic hopes of Judaism, the fulfiller of the Davidic promises … He also builds the church, which is the eschatological temple.W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Gospel According to St. Matthew, ICC, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988–1997), 2:261.
Why the “rock” language? Holy sites are typically linked with rocks or stones in Jewish tradition (Gen 28:10-22; Zech 4:1-9; Isa 8:14; Matt 24:2; etc.). In Matthew, Jesus is drawing together an analogy; he is building the church on Peter (whose name means “rock”) as Solomon built the temple. I have written more on all of this elsewhere so I won’t belabor the points.
Suffice to say, the best way to interpret Matthew 16 is to look at the biblical traditions it invokes. Attempts to use the scenery at Caesarea Philippi to make sense of the passage are not very convincing. Even more, to take pilgrims to the place of Pan’s temple and make the claim that it was precisely here that Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah in the Gospels is unhelpful and irresponsible. The Gospels never make that claim. We ought to read them–and the Old Testament passages they echo–more carefully. Only then can we really penetrate their meaning.