‘You Are Peter…’: The rocky background to Jesus’ words

An artist's representation of the sanctuary of Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, at the foot of a massive rock formation in the biblical city of Caesarea Philippi was the site of Christ's promise to build his Church upon the "rock" of Peter, providing many lines of deep symbolism and meaning.

An artist’s representation of the sanctuary of Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, at the foot of a massive rock formation in the biblical city of Caesarea Philippi was the site of Christ’s promise to build his Church upon the “rock” of Peter, providing many lines of deep symbolism and meaning.

Last week, the papacy was front and center as Pope Francis made his first visit to the United States and Cuba. For me, whenever I see the pope, my mind races back to one passage: Matthew 16:18, in which Jesus gives Simon the name “rock” (Peter) and says that upon “this rock I will build my Church.” It is here that Simon Peter receives Christ’s promise that he will be the foundation of the Church.

Because this passage speaks directly to the authority of the pope, being the bishop of Rome and successor to the Apostle Peter, more ink has been spilled over this passage than perhaps any other in the New Testament.

While all the fireworks surround Christ’s words and their meaning, a seemingly unimportant verse has largely gone unnoticed, at least by the average Joe Catholic in the pew. That verse is verse 13: “When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’” To us, the location of Jesus’ words to his disciples doesn’t seem important. What’s so interesting about Caesarea Philippi? Quite a bit, actually.

Caesarea Philippi is located along the southern slopes of Mount Hermon. It was originally called Panion because its pagan inhabitants worshiped the Greek god Pan within the caves and niches of the area. Panion also was known for a cave that had within it a very deep spring that once fed the river Jordan. After King Herod the Great received the town from Caesar Augustus, he built a beautiful white temple at the top of the hill dedicated to Caesar. When Herod died, his son Philip renamed the town Caesarea in the emperor’s honor. Hence, the town became known as Caesarea Philippi. It is here, amidst this rocky terrain, that Jesus renames Simon Peter.

The location provides an interesting backdrop and contrast to Our Lord’s words. Where the wicked King Herod the Great had built a pagan temple atop a huge outcrop of rock dedicated to a pagan emperor, Jesus (the true King of Israel) has established His rock (Simon Peter) upon which He built the true Church dedicated to the true God.

Where the rocky hills of Caesarea Philippi could not prevent the rushing water from the deep from flowing out, the “gates of the hades” will not prevail against Christ’s rock, Simon Peter. Jesus speaks about His Church, a rock, and the powers of the underworld in sight of a false temple, a rock, and the waters of the deep. Coincidence? I think not.

Another layer of meaning can be seen in the niches and shrines that were dug into the rock wall at Caesarea Philippi. These niches served as shrines to worship the god Pan. For those who aren’t up on Greek mythology, Pan was known for a lot of things. He was said to dwell in the desert and to cause confusion among travelers (i.e., we get the word “panic” from the Greek word panikos, which means “fear of Pan”). He’s also associated with music; perhaps you’ve heard of “pan pipes” or “pan flutes.” But Pan was mostly known as the god of flocks and shepherds. This ascription is particularly striking, given how Christ will bestow his promises to Simon Peter elsewhere in John 21:15-17. In this passage, Jesus appears to the apostles after His resurrection; he calls them and they recognize him. Speaking to Simon Peter, Christ asks three times, “Do you love me?” and responds with “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep,” making Peter the shepherd of Christ’s flock.

Unlike Pan, a false god of flocks and shepherds, Christ is the true God and Shepherd who commissions Peter to feed and tend His flock.


Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.