Commentary: Let’s Start At Caesarea Maritima

By Jason Schifo
Pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church of Mahomet

And we are off…

After much anticipation and a 2-hour flight from Chicago, O’Hare to Newark, New Jersey and then an 11-hour flight to Tel Aviv, we have arrived together in Israel at Ben-Gurion Airport. The beauty of traveling via this article is that you have avoided ticketing lines, baggage check, TSA and the wait at the gate because you were in boarding group 4.

Israel is 8 hours ahead of Central Standard time. This is very important to keep in mind as you travel so that as you communicate how you don’t unintentionally message or call family members in the middle of the night. I cannot confirm or deny that this has happened in the past, but it is good to remember.

The first day abroad is always a difficult one. Having your internal clock off by 8 hours you find that you are running on pure adrenaline most of the first day. And wherever there is an opportunity, on the bus, or between stops, you will find yourself taking short cat naps. So don’t sit or stand still for too long or you will surely be snoozing.

A couple of things as we wait for our baggage to clear customs and come off the turnstile at baggage claim.

First is words. I am a firm believer as a person who communicates often and for a living that words matter. What we say and how we say it is very important. When traveling, I believe that it is very important to at least understand and use some basic words in the language of the country you are visiting.

So let’s have a quick Hebrew 101 lesson to get started…

Let’s start with “Shalom”.  This is an interesting word. In Hebrew, it means “peace” and is used to say both hello and goodbye. Why is that? Because for Jews, peace can only be provided by God and therefore when they greet you or leave you they don’t just say hello or goodbye, but offer a blessing of the peace of God to be with you.

“Toda” means “thanks”. If you are feeling extra grateful, you can add “raba”. “Toda raba” means “thank you very much!”. My grandmother always impressed upon me the power of please and thank you, so when traveling I think its important to at least know these words.

“Boker Tov” means “good morning”.

This is a key phrase, as you will use it to greet the gentleman who is running the cappuccino machine each morning in the hotel where you are staying. I find that a friendly smile and a “boker tov” produces a faster and better-tasting cup of much-needed cappuccino.

Another important phrase is “ken” which means “yes”, and “lo” which means “no”. The latter is very useful in the Arab markets where the vendors can be a bit aggressive by American standards.

So armed with these words and your bags you are ready to meet your guide and load into the bus for our first stop at Caesarea Maritima, located on the beautiful coastline of the Mediterranian Sea.

To properly understand Caesarea Maritima (Caesarea by the Sea) we have to remember that at the time of its construction, the land of Israel was under Roman occupation and was ruled by Herod the Great, an Edomite (not a Jew) who was put into power by the Romans.

This is important to understand because Caesarea Maritima was insignificant until Herod the Great, known for his great building projects, began to develop it into a magnificent harbor as a tribute to the Caesars.

The harbor was a marvel of engineering ingenuity, and this massive forty-acre harbor was built employing cutting-edge materials like a kind of concrete that would harden underwater. At the heights of its glory and use the harbor would accommodate 300 ships and provided a place for the Roman provincial governor to stay as he oversaw the rule of Israel.

This is important both Biblically and historically because, until the summer of 1961, there was absolutely no historical evidence existing for the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, an important figure in the New Testament gospels and the life of Jesus Christ.

Other than brief mentions in Jewish writings, Favius Josephus and the Roman Chronicles of Tacitus, there was no real substantive proof as to the existence of Pontius Pilate. While there are a great deal of Roman ruins in Israel, none of them bear his name.

That was until June 1961, when Italian archaeologist Antonio Flavo was working in the ruins of Caesarea Maritima and found a sizable piece of limestone that bears this inscription in Latin:

To the Divine Augusti (this) Tiberieum

Pontius Pilate Prefect of Judea has dedicated (this).

The inscription says that Pilate had built  “this Tiberieum”, which was most likely a temple in or near Caesarea dedicated “To the Divine Augusti”,  the Roman emperor, who ruled from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. As was the practice of the day, which hasn’t lost its luster today, it was politically advantageous for those in power to flatter those with greater power. Evidently, Pilate was seeking to flatter the emperor Augustus Tiberius Caesar by building him a temple in Israel.

This might make a great deal of sense in light of the Biblical account in John 19:12 where, “the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.” John 19:12 isn’t the first, but the third such incident that brought Pilate into conflict with the Jewish religious leadership. Certainly, by now, word had gotten back to Rome that his effectiveness in maintaining the Pax Roma, the Roman peace in Israel, was in question. So dedicating a temple “To the Divine Augusti” makes sense given the tension.

The “Pilate Stone” is also significant because it dates Pilate’s own lifetime as evidenced in the gospel accounts validating the Biblical as well as historical evidence.

It is also a great example that in archaeology you cannot overlook anything. By the fourth century, the Pilate stone had been, as many earlier stones were, repurposed and used in a set of stairs in Caesarea’s Herodian theatre, the inscription facing downward. This was, as Antonio Flavo says, “a blessing because by being face down it perfectly  preserved the inscription from being worn away.”

The stone you encounter at Caesarea Maritima is a replica of the real “Pilate Stone” which is at the Jerusalem Museum, where it is protected from erosion and other damage, and something that we may get to see later in the trip as we visit there.

As we meet again next week we will continue to explore Caesarea Maritima’s amazing Roman ruins where the Apostle Paul was imprisoned for over two years under the Roman governors, Felix and Festus in the Book of Acts chapters 23 and 24, and where he made his famous speech before Festus and Agrippa in chapter 26 of the Book of Acts.

Whew! And we are just beginning our trip!

As we say at the conclusion of every adventure in the land:

Till next time…In Israel!

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