Mk 8:22-26 Two years into his ministry, Jesus visits Bethsaida on the north east corner of the Sea of Galilee during the summer of 29AD (see Map 9). Jesus heals a blind man by placing his hands on the man’s eyes.
Map 9 Who do you say I am?
Mk 8:27-30 From Bethsaida, Jesus and his disciples travel north beside the River Jordan to the Gentile villages around Caesarea Philippi, leaving behind the bustling activity of the Jewish towns beside Lake Galilee (see 1 on Map 9).
Away from the noise and the attention of the Jewish crowds, Jesus asks the disciples who people really think he is. Some people think Jesus is John the Baptist, returned from the dead; others think he is Elijah or one of the Old Testament prophets (see Malachi 4:5 and the feature on Was John the new Elijah? in Section 2).
Jesus then asks the disciples for their opinion. In a breathtaking leap of faith, Peter says he believes Jesus is the Messiah – the Christ (see the feature on Who was the Messiah? in Section 2).
Temple to Pan at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27)
Caesarea Philippi – in the tetrarchy of Philip – lies below the foot of Mount Hermon at the second largest of the four main sources of the River Jordan (see Map 9). A rock cliff dominates the site, from the base of which gushes a series of springs. There was a renowned centre of pagan worship here in Roman times, and Jesus appears to have chosen this non-Jewish centre of religious pilgrimage, away from the Jewish crowds, to ask the disciples if they really understand his true identity.
In the Old Testament, this site marked the northernmost point of the lands conquered by Joshua and is called Baal-Gad after the pagan god (the Baal or ‘Lord’) who was worshipped here (see Joshua 11:16-17). In the 2nd century AD, Caesarea Philippi became known as Paneas after the goat-footed Greek god Pan, for whom a shrine was built here. Today, the site is called Banyas (or Panias) and is a popular destination for tourists.
Just before Jesus was born, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar handed the settlement over to Herod the Great – who called it Caesarea (in honour of Augustus Caesar) and built a ‘Caesarium’ – a white marble temple of the Imperial cult, dedicated to Caesar. The emperor was worshipped here as ‘Augustus’ (meaning ‘more than human’ or semi-divine). After Herod’s death, Herod’s son Philip (Herod Philip II) – the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis – added to the town and re-named it Caesarea Philippi (‘Philip’s town built in honour of Caesar’) as he ruled the area and wished to distinguish it from the Roman port of Caesarea Maritima on the coast.
It is in this non-Jewish area – renowned for its pagan shrines and emperor worship – that Peter is the first disciple to publicly recognise Jesus as the Messiah – the Christ.
The turning point in Jesus’s ministry
Mk 8:31-38 Peter’s momentous declaration that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah marks the decisive turning point in Jesus’s ministry. It’s the summer of 29AD, and from here onwards Jesus begins to teach the disciples – over the last nine months of his ministry – that he will be rejected and killed, but will rise from the dead three days later.
When Peter objects that Jesus mustn’t suffer and die, Jesus rebukes Peter, “Go away from me, Satan! You don’t care about the things of God, but only about things people think are important” (Luke 8:33). Jesus then teaches that all his followers must be prepared to suffer in this life in order to gain eternal life: “If people want to follow me, they must give up the things they want. They must be willing even to give up their lives to follow me” (Mark 8:34).