When Jesus made his famous statement predicting that “the Gates of Hell” would not prevail against the movement he was founding, he was probably looking right at them. They’re at 33.248611N, 35.694444 E, to be exact, near where Israel, Syria, and Lebanon meet, just inside the DMZ. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?
The story told in Matthew 16 and Mark 8 specifically takes place in the area of Caesarea Philippi. This ancient town should not be confused with Herod the Great’s famous seaside palace, Caesarea Maritimi, This was a town, now ruins, founded by his son Philip the Tetrarch up in the hills, below Mt. Hermon. Nowadays called Baniyas, then it was known best by its old name of Panaeus, Dedicated by the Greeks to the god Pan with his goat-feet and horns, the site, formerly sacred to Ba’al, held a well-known temple to the chthonic powers and an oracle.
Panaeus features a prominent solid rock cliff with a cave from which a spring, a source of the Jordan River, flows. Believed to be an opening to the underworld, the Greeks (and the New Testament) actually referred to it as “the Gates of Hades.”
Picture the setting: Jesus and the boys have left off his successful baptizing and healing gig down at the Sea of Galilee. They head upriver, and arrive in one of the most overtly pagan sites in the region. No self-respecting rabbi would find himself there in such an environment, where idols stand in niches in the cliff, and bloody sacrifices are thrown into the cave.
That was the place he chose to ask his disciples who they thought he was. Some thought he was the prophet Elias, others thought he was John the Baptist – who, having been recently beheaded, must have been possessing him, apparently. Simon made the lucky call, identifying Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. This “Confession of Peter” is one of the founding moments of Christianity.
Jesus then makes what Isaac Asimov referred to as “the most important pun in history.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matt. 16:17-20 NIV emphasis added)
Interestingly while Peter was called a rock (or maybe “Rocky”?) there was a huge rock right there before him, in which the Gates of Hades stood. Catholics and others maintain that Peter was called “The Rock” as the basis, the foundation stone, of the faith. But certain Protestants think that Peter’s statement is that basis.
They might be onto something. Because the next thing that happens is Jesus predicts his own death, and Peter takes him aside and they get into a shouting match. A mere 5 verses after Peter’s made the very first pope, and then Jesus calls him Satan and a stumbling block, and tells him to get out of the way. Is that anyway to treat the Holy Father?
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matt. 16:22-23 NIV also in Mark 8:32-33.Emphasis added. )
Either way, it’s peculiar. Whatever Jesus meant with his little joke, the fact that this event is situated there means that he put his movement in direct opposition to Greek paganism from the start. And the first thing he tells his followers to do is to keep it secret.
The story of being given the keys, by the way, is found only in Matthew – not in the Gospel of Mark, which was traditionally ascribed to Peter’s assistant and secretary. If Jesus had made his boss the pope with such powers, one might expect him to mention it.
Significantly perhaps, the story only gets weirder. The very next scene takes place about a week later. It’s the Transfiguration where Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up a “high mountain” and Jesus is revealed as divine and is met by Elijah and Moses (whom some think had also been taken to Heaven). Was this a UFO encounter?
If the sighting took place, as is likely, on a mountain nearby instead of the traditional Mount of Transfiguration, it would likely be on Mt. Hermon, Named after the Greek god Hermes, the heavenly messenger, this is also the place where the “Sons of God” from Genesis 6 were supposed to have landed.
It’s things like this that make me suspect that something very strange, and not at all like what we were told in parochial school, was going on with Jesus.