In Matthew 16:13-20, when Jesus comes into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asks his disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” There were no shortage of opinions at the time. It seems that the disciples also filtered away the more negative opinions, as many Pharisees claimed that Jesus operated in the power of the devil.
Today, people are still coming up with different answers to the same question. Many say that Jesus is a prophet, moral teacher or a religious leader, perhaps thinking that they are somehow complimenting him. Others claim that he never existed, he was mad, or that he was a founder of some Gnostic group.
Then Jesus asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for the Messiah. But it seems that calling Jesus the Messiah wasn’t enough for Peter; he also called Jesus the Son of the living God. The Qumran Scrolls show that the Messianic title ‘Son of God’ was coming into use at this time.
Kings of the Jews When Peter said that Jesus was the Christ, it seems clear that he didn’t fully understand what he had said. The concepts of the Messiah and the Messianic Age grew from the prophet Isaiah’s writings. The word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to apply oil to”. In the Old Testament, Israel’s kings were sometimes called God’s “messiah” – God’s anointed ones. A high priest or prophet could also be called that. In Jesus’ time, many were expecting a messiah who would descend from King David and deliver them from the Roman rule.
Jesus wasn’t the first candidate for that messiah. Judas of Galilee, for example, was a Jewish leader who led resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Judaea Province around 6 AD.
It seems that the messiahs were expected to resist the Roman tax regime; that is why the Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was right to pay the Roman taxes.
Simon son of Joseph rebelled against the Romans and was killed in 4 BC. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian: “There was also Simon, who had been a slave of king Herod, but in other respects a comely person, of a tall and robust body; he was one that was much superior to others of his order, and had had great things committed to his care. This man was elevated at the disorderly state of things, and was so bold as to put a diadem on his head, while a certain number of the people stood by him, and by them he was declared to be a king, and he thought himself more worthy of that dignity than anyone else.”
“He burnt down the royal palace at Jericho, and plundered what was left in it. He also set fire to many other of the king’s houses in several places of the country, utterly destroyed them, and permitted those that were with him to take what was left in them for a prey. He would have done greater things, but care was taken to repress him immediately. [The commander of Herod’s infantry] Gratus joined himself to some Roman soldiers, took the forces he had with him, and met Simon. And after a great and a long fight, no small part of those that had come from Peraea (a disordered body of men, fighting rather in a bold than in a skilful manner) were destroyed. Although Simon had saved himself by flying away through a certain valley, Gratus overtook him, and cut off his head.”
The slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem by Herod the Great around the same time, reported in the Gospels, must be seen in this context. After the death of Herod the Great, the region was divided into four kingdoms. Claiming the title “the king of the Jews” seemed still contentious at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospel of John says that Pilate wrote “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans” as a sign to be affixed to the cross of Jesus.
John 19:21 tells that the Jews told Pilate: “Do not write King of the Jews” but instead write that Jesus had merely claimed that title. Pilate responded: “What I have written, I have written.” This was clearly a message to the Jews that any uprising would meet a similar fate.
The Son of God
The Gospels clearly take place in a world ruled by the Romans, but it seems less obvious that the region was also steeped in Hellenism. Israel had for hundreds of years been ruled by Hellenistic kings, so the influence of the Greek culture would have been clear to the readers.
Herod the Great, an Edomite raised as a Jew who expanded Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, was heavily influenced by the Greek culture, and he also built a temple for the Emperor in Caesarea Philippi.
If claiming that Jesus was the Messiah was made within Judaism, claiming that Jesus was the Son of God was at least partially directed at the Romans and the Greeks, as the Emperor Augustus became known as the son of god, “son of the divine (Julius Cesar).
It seems no coincidence that this conversation between Jesus and his disciples took place in the region of Caesarea Philippi, as this was the place where Jesus called Peter the Rock.
Caesarea Philippi was an important Greco-Roman city primarily populated with Syrians and Greeks. Historically, it had been the centre of worshipping Baal, Greek god Pan and now Caesar Augustus. The city of Caesarea and its idol worship had been built on a huge rock; it would have provided an imposing backdrop to what Jesus said about Peter and the Church prevailing against the gates of hell. The context is clear: the Greco-Roman system of idolatry exemplified so visibly in Caesarea Philippi would eventually be overcome by the Church.
Faith rooted in history It is clear that the Gospels are firmly rooted in history. In fact, you can’t fully understand them unless you know history. That clearly makes the Gospels historically authentic.
From the beginning, Jesus came to challenge the established rule; only he never did it violently like the false messiahs. Instead, he challenged it peacefully; it was only the gates of hell he attacked violently. Our faith has never been a matter of private opinion. What Peter said challenged the universal beliefs of the known world.
Peter could not initially grasp what kind of Messiah was in front of him. But the Messiah was not going to conform to human opinion – not even of the Jewish nationalism.
Indeed, he was and is the Messiah, the Son of God – the long-awaited deliverer. But he is more than a man, an earthly political leader. He is the saviour of the world. That is why he came as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 – to fulfil another messianic prophecy that most Jews still prefer to ignore.