Report of the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins

Stephen J. Patterson, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 22-1
January-February 2009

Where on earth is Caesarea Philippi and why does it matter? If you had never considered this question before, there are many reasons to consider it now.

Christianity in Syria

At the fall meeting (October 17–18) the Jesus Seminar
on Christian Origins began the next phase of its work
in the investigation of significant places in the origins of Christianity by taking a closer look at Syria. Why Syria? The Roman province of Coele-Syria lay just to the north of Galilee; in it were some of the major cities of the Roman east, especially Antioch and the ancient coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon; and it was to Syria that many Jews fled during the first Jewish revolt against Rome in the years 64–70 c.e. Among those refugees there would have been many followers of Jesus who settled into the great cities of Syria. That is why for many years scholars have found Syria attractive as the putative home of those nascent Christian groups that produced the gospels, Mark, Matthew, and John. Especially attractive is Antioch, the largest city with the largest Jewish population and an urban infrastructure to accommodate the imagined school activity that underlay the gospels as literary products. But there are many other places in Syria that might have played host to significant groups of Jesus followers. One of them is Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea Philippi and the Gospels

The attentive student of the synoptic gospels will recall Caesarea Philippi as the site where Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ in the Gospel of Mark (8:27–30) and later in Matthew (16:13–20) and Luke (9:18–22). The odd thing about this scene is its location: Caesarea Philippi was in the far northeastern corner of Galilee—in the borderland of Galilee and southern Syria. Why would the author of the Mark take Jesus and his followers all the way up to this out-of-the-way place to stage the scene of Peter’s confession?

John Wilson has been involved for a long time in the excavations of Caesarea Philippi and has recently published the results of his long years of thinking about this site. His paper for the seminar summarized his case for a pre-Markan tradition comprising the scenes in Mark
8–9 associated with Caesarea Philippi. First, Mark says Jesus approached “the villages of Caesarea Philippi,” which describes the unusual situation perfectly. Caesarea Philippi itself was a civic center devoid of common residential housing. The people of the city lived in several villages surrounding the urban core. Following Peter’s confession, Mark narrates the transfiguration, in which Jesus ascends a high mountain—presumably Mt. Hermon, which towers above Caesarea Philippi and on whose summit are found shrines to the gods who were thought to appear there. In Mark it is Elijah, the prophet of the north, who appears with Moses to the disciples. Finally, upon returning to the city, Jesus heals a boy with epilepsy- like symptoms. In the city there was for centuries a shrine to Pan, whose devotees believed was in the habit of possessing children, who might exhibit epilepsy-like symptoms as they prophesied on behalf of the god.

Twenty-five years ago, Ted Weeden argued persuasively for a Galilean provenance for the Gospel of Mark. He agreed with Wilson’s assessment and now is willing to be more specific: Mark was written in Caesarea Philippi. His reasons are similar: strong local color and specific local reference points in the narrative. Weeden thinks there are equally strong reasons for locating Matthew in the area as well. Sean Freyne weighed in on the question of Matthew with similar results: Caesarea Philippi. If all these scholars are right, we will have uncovered a major area of early Christian activity. When polled on these issues, the seminar agreed that there is a good probability that Mark was written in the area (Pink), and Matthew as well (Pink).

A generation ago little was known about this region. But Wilson’s excavations have revealed it to have been a major administrative center, established first by Herod
the Great, who built a large temple there dedicated to Augustus, and later by his son, Philip, who made it the capital of his regional kingdom in the years following his father’s death. Jews and gentiles lived in its surrounding villages, and the palace of Herod was in sight of the popular shrine to Pan—the reason for its popular designation, Paneas, or later “Banias,” as it now appears in the literature. Many Jews fled here during the Jewish War to escape the violence further south. But it was also to this place that Titus brought his victorious army after sacking Jerusalem, along with several hundred captives, who were slaughtered in various cruel spectacles staged for the entertainment of the troops and perhaps the intimidation of other would- be challengers. Matthew’s “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9) would have found wide assent here.

The Significance of Roman Syria

Caesarea Philippi, or Paneas, was located on the road known as the “Way of the Sea,” at about the mid-point between Tyre and Sidon to the west, and Damascus further inland to the east. It is on that road that J. Andrew Overman and Daniel Schowalter have been excavating an enormous imperial temple, probably the temple dedicated to Augustus mentioned by Josephus (Ant 15.359, 363–64; War 1.404–6). It was to have been located in the vicinity of Banias in 19 b.c.e. Schowalter reported on this temple at the Spring 07 meeting of the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins. This time Overman helped the seminar understand more of the significance of this temple and other imperial installations in the region. Coele-Syria was the eastern frontier beyond which lay the rival Parthian empire to the east, and thus of great strategic importance to the empire. In settling here, Jesus followers would have found themselves in the heart of the imperial east. It is in that context that we shall have to understand their declarations of a new “empire of God” (basileia tou theou), and their use of such imperial titles as kurios (Lord), soter (Savior), and huios tou theou (Son of God) to honor their hero, Jesus, who had been executed on a Roman cross.

Other Places

But there are other places to explore in Syria as well. Schowalter introduced the seminar to the material culture and relevant archaeological record of Antioch, where many scholars still locate much of the very earliest Christian activity. Freyne offered an overview of what might be known about Tyre and Sidon, also places of very early Christian activity. His suggestion that Mark was writ- ten in Tyre also won the tentative approval of a majority of Fellows (Pink), suggesting that the Fellows were not persuaded by Wilson and Weeden to the exclusion of other possibilities. Also left to explore are the vast regions of eastern Syria, where (possibly) the earliest extant Christian church is located in Dura Europa. The seminar was treated to an overview of this site by the Syrian archaeologist, Michael Fuller, whose expertise on the material culture of eastern Syria is a welcome addition to the seminar. These places and the Jesus followers who settled in them remain as future agenda.

Crossan on Christian Origins

Finally, the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins initiated
a series of planned conversations with scholars who have made significant contributions to the study of Christian origins in recent years. Few have been as important to
the Jesus Seminar’s efforts in this arena as John Dominic Crossan. So on Friday afternoon, in a session that foreshadowed Crossan’s evening lecture to the seminar, Fellows engaged Crossan in conversation about the various theses that have surfaced in his work over the
past decade and a half. The conversation was set up by a paper from Bernard Brandon Scott assessing the impact and significance of Crossan work. The occasion proved so fruitful that the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins voted to continue the practice with a conversation in the spring with James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester on their landmark work, Trajectories Through Early Christianity.

Explanation of voting

  • Black not true (0–.25*)
  • Grey probably not true (.2501–.5)
  • Pink probably true (.5001–.75)
  • Red true (.7501–1)

*Weighted average

CO Fall 08 Ballot 2

CO Fall 08 Ballot 5

CO Fall 08 Ballot 6

CO Fall 08 Ballot 7

CO Fall 08 Ballot 8

CO Fall 08 Ballot 1