Caesorea Maritima: Herod's city

For more than a decade Loma Linda University has cosponsored the excavation of Caesarea, uncovering remains of a large Christian and Roman community. Here's a report by a member of the excavation team.

V. Bailey Gillespie is professor of theology and Christian personality at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, and served as administrative director, ASOR excavation of Caesarea, 1980.

Situated on the sands skirting the Mediterranean, Caesarea was rebuilt on a grand scale between 22 and 10 B.C. by Herod the Great and served as the capital of the Roman province of Palestine for some sixty years. Its 8,000 acres contained approximately a quarter-million inhabitants, a coliseum with a larger arena than the one in Rome, a seaport, and a hippodrome seating more than 30,000 persons. (This hippodrome was the scene of a slaughter of 20,000 Jews after Rome's conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.) Caesarea boasted a unique, sea-flushed sewer system under the entire city and picturesque aqueducts that provided fresh water from sources thirteen miles away.

For eleven years Loma Linda University has participated in the archeological dig at Caesarea Maritima in Israel, sponsored by the American Schools of Oriental Research and directed by Dr. Robert Bull of Drew University. Fifteen hundred volunteers have contributed to the slow uncovering of this important site. Although only three acres have been unearthed to date, the excavations have shed light on the large community of Christians, Jews, and Romans who have lived in this city and are particularly informative for New Testament students.

The community at Caesarea is rich in Biblical heritage. It was the home of Pontius Pilate, a prefect (later called "procurator") of Judea, and was also the evangelistic district of Philip, one of the seven deacons chosen by the early church (see Acts 6:5). His preaching carried him to Caesarea as one of the "towns" on his evangelistic circuit. Apparently he liked the metropolitan nature of this capital city and stayed twenty years or more to establish a rich Christian community. When the apostle Paul finally visited Jerusalem and passed through Caesarea, Philip was a settled householder with four daughters old enough to be prophetesses (see chaps. 8:40; 21:8, 9). 2 It was in Caesarea that Paul's journeys often began, and throughout his ministry he kept in touch with this large city and its growing Christian community numbering perhaps as many as 15,000 by A.D. 66. 3

As an evangelistic center, Caesarea was ideal because it was at the crossroads of the Roman province and had a beautiful harbor that, according to Josephus, was unique in ancient times. He says that Herod "had blocks of stone let down into twenty fathoms of water, most of them measuring fifty feet in length by nine in depth and ten in breadth, some even larger. . . . [There was a] stone wall encircling the harbor. From this wall arose at intervals massive towers, the loftiest and most magnificent of which was called Drusion, after the step-son of Caesar." 4

The gospel to the Gentiles was first preached at Caesarea, not by Paul or Philip, but by Peter, according to the Biblical narrative in Acts 10:24-43. In Peter's sermon to Cornelius' household we get a glimpse of the apostolic kerugma—the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus Christ, His impartiality in salvation, and the apostles' witness to the plan of God. This sermon culminated in Cornelius' baptism at Caesarea.

The city itself figured prominently in the closing career of Paul as well. For his own safety the apostle was kept there apparently under house arrest in Herod's palace for two years under the procurator Felix (see chap. 23:23-35). Felix' successor, Festus, also left Paul in confinement there.

The city later became a stronghold of the fledgling Christian church. Early bishops of Caesarea had such New Testament names as Zacchaeus, Cornelius, and Theophilus. 5 Two great church leaders held residence at Caesarea—Origen and Eusebius—who later in the Christian Era made the city the center of their academies and scholarly endeavors. Origen spent most of his last twenty years (A.D. 230-250) in Caesarea, where his magnum opus, the Hexapla, was written. 6 During the early fourth century the bishop of Caesarea was Eusebius, perhaps a native of the city. He served twenty-five years there; and his Ecclesiastical History, a survey of church "history, is a classic. The libraries of these two early scholars may very well lie in the dust of Caesarea, for they have never been located.

The cosmopolitan nature of this large city is evident from the rather tolerant attitude existing there during the difficult times of the Christian Era. While persecutions often reached other areas (and the persecution of the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as already mentioned, was very large), there seems to have been little significant persecution of the early Christian community at Caesarea. There are no records of persecutions in Caesarea in the early years of the Roman decrees (A.D. 202 to 256). Some did occur during the infamous times of Valerian and Diocletian (A.D. 256 to 305), but even these persecutions seem to be rather minor and sometimes brought on by the martyrs themselves. 7 Thus, despite the horrors caused by persecution in early Christian history, the Caesarean Christian community seems to have survived almost intact.

The excavations themselves have provided us with much information about the city and its history as it relates to Bible times. The discoveries broaden our under standing of the procurators assigned to Judea by the Roman government. Their seat of power was at Caesarea, and archeology has helped to identify some of them by inscriptions found within the ruins of buildings there. Pontius Pilate's official title was uncovered on a Latin inscription in the amphitheater—a reference to Pontius Pilate, "prefect." This was the title of Roman governors up to the time of Claudius. Later they were known as "procurators." This discovery in the Caesarea theater provided the first secular reference to this Biblical personage. 8

One major project in the excavations is to provide information regarding Caesarea's city plan. What was the appearance of New Testament Caesarea? Previous excavations uncovered the theater of the city with its commanding view of the harbor area and its coastline. The hippodrome, or sports arena, excavated in the mid-1970s, was the site for early Roman games much like the Olympics and, like them, held every four years. Here Paul could have gleaned his athletic illustrations used in various New Testament letters to the churches. Herod Agrippa I celebrated the opening of this rebuilt city with a great festival of dedication. "For he had announced a contest in music, and athletic exercises, and had prepared a great number of gladiators and wild beasts and also horseraces and the very lavish shows that are to be seen in Rome and various other places." 9 It may well have been at just such a game that Herod was struck down while on a visit to Caesarea. 10

Excavations in the summers of 1978- 1980 confirm the extent of this city on the coast. The dig team found evidence of cross streets (decumani), which help to project the number of actual blocks, or insula, in the city. One of the main cardos, or streets, was discovered that evidently extended from the exit (vomitorium) of the theater, along the coast and past the public buildings, to what is possibly the forum. Some 700 large columns, now at rest in the harbor, may have stood at regular intervals along the entire 440-meter length of this beautiful covered walkway. Since the street plan seems to have been built above the Roman one, individuals living in the Byzantine period (A.D. 330-640) no doubt enjoyed its tile roof, columned pillars, and beautiful mosaic pavement. As one walks along the coast today it is still possible to picture the long-vanquished beauty of this Roman city.

Caesarea was rich in mosaics in addition to those that encompassed the main cardo; more than fifty others have been excavated. An exciting find in 1980 indicates the richness of the art is still preserved beneath the sand: a calendar adorned with women's emerging faces and upper torsos attired in seasonal garb. These superbly preserved portraits from the fifth century illustrate the splendor of the Byzantine Christian city.

One of the most intriguing finds, how ever, relates to the eight or so grain storage vaults (horea) that Herod built along the harbor complex in New Testament times. Early in 1973 the excavators discovered there the now-famous Mithraeum, with its marble medallion depicting the god Mithra slaying his bull for sacrifice, thus proving that these vaults were reused by Roman soldiers or even pagan worshipers.

There was excitement in 1979 when the archeological team found in these vaults what has come to be called the "saints' gallery." " In 1980 it was my privilege to be involved with a small group in the vault of that gallery and to share the experience of discovery. Entering the storehouse from the top, one slides down an accumulation of debris Gentries old to discover a fresco fourteen meters long on the west wall, one of the largest discovered in the Middle East. Its red and black outlines suggest that the artistic project may never have been completed. A thin layer of plaster, Arabic in origin, covered the fresco, perhaps to protect the picture or simply to preserve it for possible reuse at a later time. With dental picks we very carefully removed the plaster and found a Greek inscription and thirteen figures. The central one, larger than the rest, is seated, while the others hold crosses. What appears to be a table is before them. The obvious religious, even Christian, overtones are striking. Apparently, Christians, as well as the pagans, reused these vaults for their own worship. Although whether this is a Passion supper scene or simply a saintly group is still speculative, the experience is, nevertheless, profoundly moving. Further excavations of these vaults are planned for 1982.

As the city plan emerges and the excavation within these warehouse areas continues, it is probable that the information gained will provide even greater understanding about this large Christian community.


1 Robert Bull, "Archaeologists Seek Key to the City," The Archaeology Diary (Spring, 1980), p. 1. (Published by the Drew Institute of Archaeological Research.)

2 See Acts 21:8, 9. Also, Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3, No. 31, 39. Also, F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (London: 1952), p. 387.

3  L. Haefeli, Caesarea Am Meer (Munster, Germany: 1923), p. 30.

4 Flavius Josephus, Wars 1. 26. 6.

5 C. H. Turner, "The Early Episcopal Lists," Journal of Theological Studies (1900), pp. 181-200, 529-553; (1926-1927), pp. 103-134.

6 Lee Levine, Caesarea Under Roman Rule (Leyden: E. J. Brille, 1915), p. 113.

7 Charles T. Fritsch, ed., The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1975), Vol. 1, pp. 26-28.

8 Benjamin Mazar, The Mountain of the Lord (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday and Company, 1975), pp. 81, 82.

9 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities.6. 5. 1.

10 Acts 12:21-23; cf. Josephus, Antiquities 19. 8. 2.

11 Bull, op. at., p. 3.

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V. Bailey Gillespie is professor of theology and Christian personality at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, and served as administrative director, ASOR excavation of Caesarea, 1980.

September 1981

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