Caesarea Maritima, located about 65 miles northwest of Jerusalem on the coast, was one of Herod the Great’s most impressive building accomplishments. The name Caesarea Maritima is used to distinguish it from the well-known Caesarea Philippi, located northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Originally, Caesarea Maritima was the site of an old dilapidated town known as Strato’s Tower, but Herod transformed it between the years of 21 B.C. to 9 B.C. into a magnificent harbor city and renamed it in honor of Caesar Augustus. Before the creation of Caesarea, the area ruled by Herod had no harbour. The only natural harbour in the area was at Haifa, farther to the north and outside of his domain. It is difficult to overstate the enormity of Herod’s accomplishment. “Caesarea was the first artificial harbor constructed in the ancient world” (IVP Dictionary of New Testament Background, p. 176). The success of this man-made harbor depended on the new invention of hydraulic concrete, used for the first time at Caesarea.
Pontius Pilate, Jews and Gentiles at Caesarea
Although Caesarea Maritima had a mixed population, it was created as a gentile city. This is most evident from the Temple to Augustus and Roma that was built “centrally located and adjacent to the inner harbour area” (IVP Dictionary of NT Backgrounds, 176). This means that as a ship sailed into the harbor, the first sight would have been of this imposing temple; no doubt a site that would have inspired a sense of awe in a gentile, while creating a sense of consternation and repulsion to a faithful Jew. This mixture of populations with very different viewpoints would cause constant problems in Caesarea. Josephus relates one such incident, when after recently arriving as governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate marched his army into Jerusalem with the Roman standards proudly displayed and posted them in front of the Temple. The Roman standards were offensive to the Jews because of the animal imagery they contained. The Romans knew this and normally avoided such a display. Many Jews came to Caesarea and complained to Pilate that the standards be removed. On the sixth day, Pilate stationed his soldiers in the crowd with their weapons hidden. As he sat on the judgment seat and the Jews brought their complaint once again, Pilate had the soldiers draw their swords and threaten the Jews with death. The Jews bared their necks and said they would rather die than allow their law to be profaned. As a result, Pilate backed down (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.1). Considering this story involving Pilate, it is interesting that Caesarea has yielded the only physical evidence for his existence (Update: a ring with Pilate’s name has been found. You can read about it here). During archaeological excavations an inscription was uncovered from the theatre dedicating the theatre to the emperor Tiberius, while also mentioning Pilate as the governor of Judea (see the photo above).
Later problems between Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea would result in the slaughter of 20,000 Jews and lead to the outbreak of the Jewish War against Rome. This war, which began in 66 A.D., eventually resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple.
Caesarea: Capital of Roman Judea
Caesarea became a source of wealth for Herod because it opened up the shipping trade, and thus became a major supply of revenue for his kingdom. Herod built a luxurious palace, including a swimming pool that jutted out into the ocean, the remnants of which can still be seen today. After Herod’s son Archelaus was deposed (6 A.D.), Judea became a Roman province ruled by a governor and the capital was located at Caesarea. Thus Herod’s palace became the residence of the Roman governor, who normally travelled to Jerusalem only during important occasions such as the Jewish feasts (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, etc.) . The city contained many lavish buildings all in the Hellenistic (Greek) style. This included a bathhouse, theatre, various temples and governmental buildings. The city was laid out according to other major Roman cities and included paved streets and sophisticated water and sewer systems.
Caesarea in the New Testament
Caesarea is frequently mentioned in the Book of Acts. Peter was sent by the Lord to share the gospel with a centurion named Cornelius who lived in Caesarea (Acts 10). This event opened the door for the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:18). How interesting that a city known for ethnic struggles between Jews and Gentiles would be the place that God chose to send the Jewish apostle Peter to proclaim the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius! According to the story, Peter had many reservations and had to be convinced by the Lord to go to the house of Cornelius. Could it be that some of the ethnic tension that Caesarea was known for contributed to his hesitation?
It is possible that Philip, known as “The Evangelist” planted the first church in Caesarea. After teaching and baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip is said to have preached in many of the cities along the coast, ending up in Caesarea (Acts 8:40). When Paul visited Caesarea later, on his way to Jerusalem, he stayed in Philip’s house where we are also told that Philip had “four virgin daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:8-9).
One of the most famous stories in Acts involving the city of Caesarea concerns the very popular monarch, at least among the Jews, Herod Agrippa I (grandson of Herod the Great). Agrippa appeared in the theatre in radiant royal clothing and gave an oration to the crowd. Following his speech the multitudes shouted, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” Because he did not give the glory to God, Herod Agrippa I was struck immediately with a fatal illness (Acts 12:19-23). Josephus’s account corroborates the story in Acts by rendering a very similar version of events.
Caesarea appears a final time in the Book of Acts as the city of Paul’s imprisonment. After being arrested on the Temple Mount due to false charges of having brought a Gentile with him, Paul was put in prison in Jerusalem (Acts 22:23-30). When a plot was uncovered that certain Jews had planned to kill Paul, he was sent with a Roman escort to Caesarea to appear before the Roman governor, Felix (Acts 23:20-35). Paul ended up staying in prison for 2 years in Caesarea. During that time, he not only appeared before Felix, but also before the new governor, Festus. Festus, who did not understand Jewish law, invited King Herod Agrippa II (son of Herod Agrippa I) to hear Paul’s case (Acts 25-26). Paul’s stay in Caesarea ended when he appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome.
The Later History of Caesarea
Caesarea continued to grow and expand after the first century. In the time of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) a second aqueduct was built. A hippodrome was also built (see photo below). It was one of the larger hippodromes of the Roman empire and could seat over 30,000 people (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Supplementary Vol., p. 120). Christians continued to live in Caesarea and two of its more famous residents were the great theologian and Bible scholar Origen, and Eusebius who created the first history of the Church. Caesarea continued to thrive until 614 A.D. when it was captured by the Persians. Shortly afterward in 639 A.D. it was destroyed by the Arabs.
(All (photos, unless otherwise noted, are the property of Randy & Gloria McCracken and may be used for educational purposes only).