The beautiful city of Caesarea was a very important place during New Testament times. The city stood on a busy caravan trade route between Tyre and Egypt. Though the city had no natural harbor, it nevertheless was a center for maritime trade as well. Herod the Great, when he constructed the city, built a remarkable "artificial" harbor to protect boats from stormy seas. The elaborate structure was built with materials that call to mind the concrete of our day. Volcanic ash was the major ingredient of the building material, and it proved itself to be remarkably resiliant. In fact, the walls remain to this day, though the remnant is below the level of the water, and is difficult to sea from shore. Herod was a prolific builder, and the construction he mandated was characterized by the grandeur and beauty of Hellenistic influences.
The city was also the seat of Roman government in Judea. The Procurators of Judea resided there, and only went into the Jewish city of Jerusalem during times of emergency or official business. It is interesting to note that the method of Roman government, where Procurators were sent in to areas of unrest such as Palestine was for the most part ineffective. Note the following explanation of these troubles:
This ineffective government had ramifications with regard to the establishment of the Christian faith. Well known is Pilate's treatment of the charges levied against Christ. Pilate was in Jerusalem, rather than Caesarea, because of the Passover feast. It had become a custom for the govenor to release one prisoner at the behest of the Jewish multitude. Rather than releasing Christ, as he knew the motivation of the Jews was envy (cf. Mattew 27:18), he sought rather to appease them, and gave them the choice of Jesus, or Barabbas (a notorious criminal). Despite his recognition of Jesus' innocence ("Why, what evil has He done?", vs. 23), he caved to the pressure of the Jews, and allowed Jesus to be crucified. His rationalization of the events show his ineptitude in dealing with this particular issue, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it." (vs. 24).
Later, during the reign of Felix as Procurator in Judea, the Apostle Paul was arrested and falsely accused by the Jewish leaders. The Roman commander of the garrison in Jerusalem rescued him from the Jews, and after questioning him, and hearing evidence against him, sent him to Caesarea to appear before the govenor. Felix heard the message, again recognized that the charges were false, and yet as a favor to the Jews left office two years later with Paul still being held (cf. Acts 24:27). Porcius Festus was the new procurator, and heard evidence against Paul as well. He, wanting to do the Jews a favor, refused to release Paul despite his innocence. Paul's citizenship saved him, and his appeal to Caesar gave Festus and "easy" way out, as he did not have to judge the matter. "The Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, 'You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!'" (Acts 25:12). The unwillingness of these govenors to deal with Paul greatly shaped the events of his ministry as recorded in Acts and his epistles. So, much of the history of the early church was shaped by the actions of the Procurators of Judea at Caesarea.
Other New Testament events took place at Caesarea as well. For example, Acts 10 records the conversion of Cornelius and his household took place at Caesarea. Cornelius was a Gentile, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment (cf. Acts 10:1). At his prayer, God sent Peter to him, to teach him the gospel of Christ. Bible students know that Peter was at first hesitant, as it was not yet clear to him and the Jewish Christians that the grace of God extended to the Gentile as well. One of the most important events in the history of the church is recorded in Acts 10, and took place in this city. Peter preached to the Gentiles, and at the witness of the Holy Spirit, "commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord..." (vs. 48). One of the most precious proclamations of scripture is contained in the expressions of joy when the Jewish Christians heard of these Gentile conversions. "When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God saying, 'Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.'" (11:18).
Acts 21 records Paul's visit to the city, and his stay with the evangelist Philip. It was at this time that the prophet Agabus predicted the eventual events we just recounted, "Thus says the Holy Spirit, 'So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt (Paul), and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles'" (Acts 21:11). A wonderful statement of zeal and purpose followed, as Paul said, "What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus" (vs. 13).
A visit to the city of Caesarea brings all of these events to the fore of the mind. Visitors are struck by the beauty of the site, and are able to reconstruct in the mind's eye the obvious opulence of the palace and and governmental complex. Columns and stonework have been excavated from the site. These seem to have come from Herod's palace, and show clearly the Hellenistic influences which made the structure so beautiful. A reconstructed ampitheatre, seeting 5,000 people, is the centerpiece of the area, and is used even today. It is a breath-taking view as you sit in the ampitheatre, and look out on the Mediterranean Sea in the background. The attention of the theatre-goers must have been diverted by the beautiful colors of the sea, as it competed with the plays and other performances that went on in the theatre 2,000 years ago. Adjacent to the ruins is a section of the aqueduct which supplied the Roman city with water from the Carmel Mountains to the north. A platform is built which allows the visitor to climb to the top of the aqueduct to examine the marvelous engineering which allowed an ancient people to enjoy many of the same privileges we take for granted in our modern society. If you have an opportunity, a visit to Caesarea will be long remembered.
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