Caesarea is a city that is heavily featured in the Acts of the Apostles. Today, the ancient city lies in ruins two kilometres from a modern city of the same name. To differentiate between the two, the Biblical city is now known as Caesarea Maritima and is located within an Israeli national park in the Sharon Plains on the coast of the Mediterranean.
Herod the Great constructed Caesarea (Maritima) between 22 and 9 BC. Before then, Straton I, king of Sidon (365-352 BC) had built a tower on the land, which may have been used as a storehouse. In 90 BC, Alexander Jannaeus, a Hasmonean King of Judea, captured the tower and developed the area into a shipping industry. It remained under Jewish control until 63 BC when the land was taken over by the Romans. The city was awarded to Herod the Great in 30 BC and he began to make vast changes, which included renaming it Caesarea after the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Other developments included a harbour named Sebastos, storerooms, market places, roads, temples and public baths.
In 6 AD, Judea became a Roman province and Caesarea replaced Jerusalem as the capital. The city was the home of Roman governors, including the prefect Pontius Pilate who, as we know, ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. A block of carved limestone was discovered in 1961 bearing the inscription “To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum...Pontius Pilate...prefect of Judea...has dedicated [this]” which confirms Pilate lived in the area.
If the writings of the 1st-century historian, Josephus, are to be believed, Caesarea’s harbour was as large as the harbour in Athens. The city became the largest in Judea, spreading over 1.4 square miles and provided homes for 125,000 people. During the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) the city was raised to the status of a Colonia and renamed Colonia Prima Flavia Augusta Caesarea.
Caesarea is first mentioned in Acts 8:40: “Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.” Philip the Evangelist was responsible for introducing Christianity to Caesarea. One of the converts, possibly the first gentile to convert to Christianity, was Cornelius the Centurion. “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment.” (Acts 10:1) Peter the Apostle was also involved in the spread of Christianity and when Cornelius heard that Peter was nearby, he requested a visit. “The following day [Peter] arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.” (Acts 10:24) Following this, Cornelius was baptised, which again was a first for the gentiles.
Naturally, the Jewish converts were concerned about a gentile becoming a Christian and being baptised, so they began to criticise him. Peter defended himself and explained his actions, retelling the story of Cornelius’ baptism from his perspective. “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them.” (Acts 11:11-12)
Unfortunately, Peter’s explanation did not please everyone and he eventually ended up in prison after being seized by King Herod Agrippa. An angel of the Lord, however, helped Peter escape and the next day, Herod began thoroughly searching for the fugitive. “After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.” (Acts 12:19) Shortly afterwards, Herod was struck down by the Lord for not allowing God’s word to flourish, and “he was eaten by worms and died.” (Acts 12:23)
Another apostle loosely associated with Caesarea was the convert Paul, previously Saul. In Acts 21, Paul “reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist.” (Acts 21:8) Whilst there, Philip prophesied that Paul would be bound by his belt in Jerusalem and handed over to the gentiles. Although people implored Paul to stay in Caesarea, he assured that he was “ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13)
As Philip predicted, Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, however, some people wanted to go one step further and have him killed. To save his life, a commander ordered his centurions to “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmento go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.” (Acts 23:23-24) Paul stayed in Caesarea for two years until he was transferred to Rome.
After this, Caesarea is never mentioned in the Bible again, however, there are other works and literature that reveal a little more information about the city. Some say the Nicene Creed may have originated in Caesarea and the early Christian scholar Origen wrote some of his theological works whilst living in the city. The Apostolic Constitution, which was written somewhere between 375 and 380 AD suggests that Cornelius the Centurion became the second Bishop of Caesarea and was followed by Theophilus, the possible addressee of the Gospel of Luke.
Caesarea became the capital of the Byzantine province Palaestina Prima in 390 AD. It remained the capital until the early 7th century when the Sasanid Empire of Persia conquered it during the Byzantine-Sasanian War of 602-628. The Byzantine Empire managed to temporarily re-conquer Caesarea in 625; however, it was permanently lost to them after the Muslim conquest in 640, during which time the city was partially destroyed. People may have continued to live in the remains of Caesarea and the harbour still functioned until the 9th century.
According to accounts written of the First Crusade, which began in 1101, Caesarea had been rebuilt and fortified. The Crusaders took control of the city until 1191 when Saladin, the Egyptian sultan captured it in 1187. The Crusaders won back their control in 1191 and, during the following century, Caesarea was fortified with high walls and a moat on the orders of Louis IX of France. Unfortunately, the fortifications were not enough to keep Mamluk armies out and the city fell for good in 1265.
In 1952, the modern city of Caesarea was established as a Jewish town near the ruins of the old city. Excavation work began in Caesarea Maritima, unearthing mosaics, foundations of buildings and, most recently, 24 gold coins dating to the Crusader period.
In the Bible, people occasionally confuse Caesarea with another place of a similar name. Caesarea Philippi (Philip’s Caesarea) is mentioned twice in the Gospels. This is not the same place as Caesarea Maritima and may have been called Baal Gad in the Old Testament. “… Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.” (Joshua 11:17) Caesarea Philippi is now an almost uninhabited archaeological site in the Golan Heights.
Philip II named Caesarea Philippi in honour of Caesar Augustus. It was generally known as Caesarea, however, the New Testament refers to it as Caesarea Philippi to differentiate from the other Caesarea. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus came near to Caesarea Philippi but there is no record that he entered the city. “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’” It was at this time that Simon Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus promised him keys to the kingdom of heaven. This is also recorded in the Gospel of Mark, which states, “Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.”
Just for fun, did you know there was a saint who once lived in Caesarea (Maritima)? Saint Albina was a young woman from Caesarea who died a martyr in 250 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius. It is not certain whether she died in Caesarea or another city, however, Greek tradition states that after her death, her remains were miraculously transported to the Italian city of Gaeta, where they remain today.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon