Yeshua asked, “… But Who Do You Say That I am?” (Matt 16:15)
The Jordan River is fed by winter snow melting on the slopes of Mt. Hermon in the upper northeastern corner of Israel. Permeating deep beneath the rocky ground, the water builds up pressure and breaks out in a number of powerful cold and clear springs, three of which form the headwaters of the Jordan River. One of these springs is the Banias, located in the north of Israel, almost on the border with Lebanon, at the foothills of Mt. Hermon. It was at this location that Jesus selected to ask His disciples, and all who would read His words in future years, His famous question, “who do you say that I am?”
Why did the Messiah choose this particular place for this particular question?
The region first enters Israel’s history when a large number of families from the tribe of Dan relocated during the 12th century BC from the central region of Israel to the foothills of Mt Hermon. The Danites struggled to occupy their allotted territory on the Mediterranean Coast, and the Bible tells us that 600 families of the tribe sent spies to the Canaanite city of Laish, captured it, and rebuilt it as an Israelite community by the name of Dan. (Judges 18). There they lived for many centuries.
Following the conquest of Alexander the Great, the ruling Greeks, inspired by the majestic setting of the region with its tall mountains, cool springs, and lush vegetation, quickly launched their pagan practices there. The most notorious practice being animal sacrifices offered at the mouth of the large cave where the spring originated. They established a new Greek city, a thriving commercial and religious hub strategically situated on the main road from the coast to Damascus, sanctified the large cave where the spring originated from, and dedicated it to Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks, mountains, hunting, and music.
Thus, the city received its name, Pan, or Panium, or Panias, which is pronounced Banias in the Arabic dialect since it does not have the sound of the letter P. To this day, the region and the spring are called Banias which is a derivative of the name of the god Pan. Half man and half goat, Pan was known for his wild and lustful nature, and was responsible for activities associated with recklessness and mayhem. From his name, Pan, originate the words “PANdemonium” and “PANic,” both associated with the worship of demons that the place was known for during many centuries.
After the Roman conquest of the land, General Pompey assigned the region to Philip, Herod’s brother. Eventually Augustus Caesar gave it to Herod the Great, the half-Jewish famous king who ruled the land at the time of Jesus’ birth. True to his conduct, Herod quickly built a great white marble temple there in honor of Caesar, the remains of which have been discovered in recent archeological excavations. Herod’s third son, Philipp, eventually received control of the area calling Banias his capital city, and named it Paneas-Caesarea in honor of the Roman Caesar Tiberias. In order to distinguish the city from the great harbor city of Caesarea on the coast erected by his father, this mountain city became known as “Caesarea-Philippi,” the prosperous and mighty capital city of this beautiful region.
When Yeshua made His famous visit to the region at about 29 AD, Caesarea-Philippi was an impressive Greco-Roman city located on the foothills of the Hermon mountain range with Roman temples and ritual courtyards built next to the sacred grotto of the god Pan. It was in this distant, magnificent and pagan setting, far removed from the center of Jewish life and faith in Jerusalem, that Yeshua staged His historic question that drills down to the heart of every person, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” It is no coincidence that Yeshua chose to ask this specific question at this specific place. Peter’s answer which we echo still today, powerfully proclaimed Yeshua’s Lordship and sovereignty in a place of darkness and idolatry; Light piercing the darkness.
The answer to this question carries eternal consequences not only then, but also today and forever, and visiting Banias today brings these truths to life as no other place does.
We look forward to see you here in Israel very soon.