Herod, a Great Builder of Antiquity, and the City of Caesarea

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Image credit: National Geographic

Herod, around the time of Jesus’ birth, was building the mighty city of Caesarea, and with it, a man-made harbor called Sebastos (Greek for Augustus), ,which were both dedicated to Caesar Augustus. A devoted follower of Rome and all things Roman, some have called this city Herod’s “Rome.” To furnish his Rome with fresh water, and run the many fountains he had constructed, a roman aqueduct was constructed that, at one point, runs for four miles through rock. It is a marvel of the ancient world and is pictured on the left.

Who was Herod? Like a “Kennedy,” a “Bush” or a “Clinton,” Herod was a member of a dynastic “ruling class” in first century Jewish society; “Herod” was more like a title than a personal name. As such, his affections and affinities were less for his religion (Judaism) and more for his position of power and prestige. This meant that while “personally” he may have been Jewish, politically, he was a pawn and a sycophant to his pagan overlord, Caesar Augustus, and blended his faith (such as it was) with that of the polytheistic, and idolatrous, regime of the Roman empire. For proof of this spiritual compromise, we need look no farther than his building and dedicating an entire city, and this massive aqueduct to support it, to Caesar himself.

You might say that Herod had no choice; after all, the Roman Empire was truly an impressive (frightening) marvel of the ancient world. (Check out this beautiful and detailed clickable map, here.) But surely Herod went beyond merely “going along to get along” when he built Caesarea, its harbor, and the aqueduct. Here’s how one scholarly article puts it:

In 21 BC King Herod commissioned the construction of a large, all-weather harbour at Caesarea Maritima, which he named Sebastos in honour of Augustus Caesar (Fig. 1A). The harbour took more than five years to construct and when completed was the largest artificial harbour of its time in the Mediterranean (Raban, 1992).

Besides being a treasure trove for science-history geeks (I am not, but aspire to be one), the construction of this massive structure was not only an act of religious devotion (which I’ve already argued), but nothing short of an expression of sheer genius by ancient engineers. This Wikipedia-like essay (but not Wikipedia) on the history and construction of the city and the structure, though not fancy, is actually quite a good source of information; notice the visual diagram provided on how much ash would have to have been imported to this area. (Note also that it cites forty-five different sources for the basis of its conclusions.)

History, in short, is important for those who would read and benefit from their reading of the Bible. Take, for example, this essay on the historical significance of ancient Caesarea. Filled with highly detailed information and clear, annotated pictures, we learn about a city of which it is likely, truth be told, most evangelical Christians are largely ignorant. Which should be surprising considering how important it is in the Bible and in the Early Church–the list of Bible references for this city is not short! For example, Jesus, Philip, Peter, Paul, Origen, Eusebius all have significant events that are centered in, or related to, this city.

For example, the author of this article, Stephen Languor, argues because of the conversion of the famous Cornelius in Caesarea,

[in] Acts 10, the first breakthrough [for the spread of Christianity] occurred in Caesarea. From here, we can say, the faith in Jesus went out to the ancestors of present-day Christians.

and

[t]he irony is that the great harbor city which Herod built as his chief point of contact with Rome (those breakwaters in the form of arms reaching out) became the initial point of contact between the faith in Jesus and the world.

Speaking of history, this great structure, and Herod’s involvement in it, along with the importance that Caesarea plays in the biblical record, reminds me of the importance for Christians generally to be aware of the history of our religion. Especially in a post-modern, individualistic, naîve, and skeptical day and age, one in which “if it is true for you doesn’t mean it needs to be true for me,” history can afford Christians a point of common ground. Not that everyone agrees on historical approaches or conclusions–far from it. But at least we can use history as a starting point for talking about ultimate issues.

For example, Caesarea and its significance for Christianity would seem to be a great starting point to discuss this skeptic’s view that “Jesus never existed.” While the article proves that he’s done some fundamentally sound research, and has raised some important questions, he certainly hasn’t proven his point; and even an elementary reading of the essay shows that he’s moved more by his own bias than a true examination of the historical record.

In conclusion, let’s not give up reading the Bible. But let’s also remember that the Bible was written in an historical context which deserves to be known, understood, and celebrated. Our faith will be richer, and more compelling to share with others who have not yet professed their faith in the Savior who, in history, on the third day, actually rose from the dead.

Appendix: Other resources for those interested in learning more:

  1. a bibliography (very extensive) from the archives of Brown University’s The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, on Herod
  2. An article in the Chicago Tribune:  (which cites the NYT as the original source)
  3. Sebastos’ meaning
  4. a short and succinct article from 1997 Grollier Encyclopedia

Thoughts on Welcoming the Weak

In wider cultural circles, Christians often come under attack for failing to express to one another those virtues which we say are so important. I’m talking about things like love, sympathy, acceptance, and showing undeserved kindness.

This is, in one sense, a decoy topic for someone who has refused to consider the claims of Jesus. All too often their reasons amount to nothing more than excuses which avoid, rather than seriously engage, the truth claims of the faith.

Think about it. Don’t deep divides within the fields of evolutionary biology about just how the world came to be separate the most scholarly in the field? Yet such divides are not singled out for forming a reasonable basis for rejecting evolutionary biology. The same goes for politics. Deep divides within the a political party in American society are not a sound basis for rejecting said political party, or politics, as a whole.

In fact, in every area of public life, quarrels over fairly minor points are disputed between friends: “You like the NFL, I like the NFL; you like the AFC, I like the AFC; you like the AFC East, I like the AFC East; you like the Cowboys, I…click.” You get the idea.

Yet, I suspect that Christians are singled out in a special way for hypocrisy here because of the claims of the Christian faith itself: Continue reading

Ascension Snips and Clips

So much gets left on the cutting room floor–hence “snips and clips” in my title–when preparing a sermon. Here is a fascinating, orthodox, and devotional article by John F. Maile, called “The Ascension in Luke-Acts,” taken from the Tyndale Bulletin 37 (1986). Its gist is to engage in a scholarly, but pious way, with the value and biblical basis for believing, and loving, the doctrine of the Ascension of Jesus Christ.

In particular, I love this quote, below. As you read, notice how the author makes a theological connection between the Ascension in Luke’s Gospel and the Ascension in Acts.

In that regard, this is biblical scholarship that promotes the reading of your Bible, and loving more deeply, and obeying more fully, what it teaches; this is theological scholarship that exalts Christ and His Bride, the Church: Continue reading

Pentecost and Acts

pentecost by purple whirlpool

Part of the problem with denominations and Christian traditions is that words are taken like brand names (think © or ™), making it harder to use them with genuine biblical meaning…

  • Catholic means “universal”–no Christian in his right mind would deny the universal character to the Christian message (true for all time, in all societies and cultures, around the world)
  • Presbyterian means “governed by elders” (among other things) and in this regard, many churches have presbyters as key leaders in the local assembly, not just “Presbyterian” churches.
  • Pentecostal or “related to Pentecost” ought to describe all true Chrsitians: people who take “Pentecost” seriously as a watershed moment for the church of Jesus Christ.

That last brand name, “Pentecostal,” is on my mind lately as I’ve begun to preach through the Book of Acts. We will hit Acts 2:1-11 in two Sundays; so, I’m asking myself, “what does Luke mean by Pentecost?” and “How, or in what way, are we called to be Pentecostal today?”

We need to begin with this observation: Pentecost (or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) is not the key action of God in Acts: the key ‘act’ of God in Acts is the Ascension of Jesus. Continue reading

Do Not Awaken Love Before Its Time: Waiting and the Dating Game

I’ve been preaching through the Song of Solomon at the church where I pastor and through this work, my faith is being strengthened in the character of our wonderful God.

In my study, a key phrase for grasping the message of the whole book, as it turns out, is from Song of Songs 2:7, which says, in effect, “do not awaken love before its time.”

In the Song of Songs, this intriguing saying of the Shulamite woman precedes a situation in which she tells her Shepherd-King and husband-to-be to come back later–that the timing of his request (“come away with me, my love, my beautiful one!) isn’t quite right! He’s ready, and she’s not.

I can’t think of any more helpful counsel than this for young people who are pursuing dating relationships today. As I’ve both seen and experienced it, nothing is more frustrating and even heartbreaking bout the dating process than this matter of what appears to be “wrong timing.”

You know what this is like: “She’s interested in me; I’m not into her”; and a month later, I’m interested in her, but she’s not interested in me.”

In this essay, I want to sketch out seven thoughts regarding the “problem” of imperfect timing and the tension it can create in dating. My hope is to offer some encouragement to those who desire to honor God with this aspect of their lives, something that’s increasingly difficult in an age and in a generation where it seems like “anything goes.” Continue reading

Repentance and the Parable of the Two Sons

An acquaintance recently posted some thoughts about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, sometimes called the Parable of the Two Sons. He tried to make the point that the parable is not about repentance but about the terrible, judgmental attitude of the older brother, which he equated with “professional clergy,” and the loving and non-judgmental heart of the Father. Here’s what he writes:

The younger son did not come back home to “repent”. He came home because he was at the end of his self-destructive rope, only to find that the One he considered “dead” did not hold it against him. He came home in order to survive and be menial servant, but his father receives him as a son.

The parable is no more about repentance than the previous two parables. The emphasis is on the character of the Father (only love) and the contrasted religious character of the older son (anger). It highlights that Father is not the angry, vindictive, retributively just, judge that religion wants him to be.

Unfortunately, he has missed the point. Jesus wasn’t saying that judging sinners was wrong, but that refusing to recognize repentance was the problem. Put another way, Jesus embraced repentant, forgiven sinners, and welcomed them into the kingdom of God. Continue reading