Caesarea & Christianity
The story of Christianity at Caesarea is immense. Just to list some of the main points: the Apostle Philip made it his base (Acts 21:8). Here Peter encountered Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile (but we shall tell this story in detail below). Here a prisoner named Paul spoke before royalty. Origen, among the greatest of Christian theologians, did most of his writing here. He founded a library which eventually had 30,000 volumes, making the city a major center of scholarship. As the seat of Roman government in the land, the city was also a center for the persecution of Christians. Once Christianity was legal, however, it became a bishopric. Eusebius presided as bishop, writing his histories and producing fifty copies of the gospels for the Emperor Constantine.
Out of all this, the most crucial event was the encounter between Peter and Cornelius, as reported in Acts 10. Its importance resides in the fact that the first believers in Jesus were Jews. They believed in his resurrection, and they expected him to come again soon to complete the work of redemption. They devoted themselves to spreading the word among their fellow Jews. But at that time, in the Roman world, there was a great deal of Gentile interest in Judaism. Many people had read Plato, who presents God as the One, the Good, the Idea, pure Form -- as opposed to matter. Intellectually, therefore, many Gentiles were close to monotheism; yet Plato's God does not address the human soul. Where this soul was concerned, what did the Gentiles have for a religion? The high god of the official cult was often out committing adultery. If they wanted something serious, they could go to the mysteries: to Mithras, for example, or Cybele. But the mystery religions were not monotheistic. Judaism, however, is monotheistic, and its God does address the soul. That explains the interest of so many Gentiles in Judaism. They crowded the synagogues (where they heard Paul, among others) as well as the largest courtyard of the Temple. They even built synagogues, studied with the Rabbis, gave alms, sent sacrifices to the Temple -- and the Jews welcomed them. The Gentiles had one foot up, so to speak, about to cross over, and yet something stopped them. It was a particularistic, tribal aspect of Judaism, which came to expression in the requirement of circumcision. To the Gentiles of the Roman world, especially the males, this seemed a terrible thing. So they were attracted, and yet they were also repelled. That was the situation of many an educated Roman. Such a person was called a God-fearer.
One of them was Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian regiment, who lived in Caesarea.
Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, "Cornelius!" And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea."
The text reports the first baptism of uncircumcised Gentiles. You can see what the ramifications will be for all those God-fearers who have been standing with one foot up, unwilling to cross into Judaism. It takes more than a decade, however, for the issue to come to a head. Paul and Barnabas have been baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles in Syria. The all-Jewish mother church in Jerusalem, which was centered very much on the Temple, has been aiming its mission at Jews. They call Paul down for a hearing, but Peter must support him, because of what he himself did at Caesarea. And so the mother church decides: All right, the Gentile believers do not have to be circumcised (Acts 15). For all those Romans standing in suspended animation, another door is opened, and through it they can go, into a belief in one God (though the nature of that oneness will be an enduring topic of dispute), a God who addresses the human soul.
Thus began the massive movement of the Gentiles toward Christianity. Within fifty years of Jesus' crucifixion there were more Gentile Christians than Jewish, and a hundred years after that it was considered heretical for Christians to be Jewish as well. The movement kept gathering strength, threatening the empire to the point that Rome began to persecute it systematically, and beyond that, until there were so many Christians in the Roman army that Rome did not dare persecute the faith anymore, and beyond that, to the point that the emperor himself became Christian, and beyond that, to the point that Christianity became the official religion of the empire. All this was possible because of the breakthrough which occurred in Caesarea. From here the word about the faith in Jesus went out to the ancestors of present-day Christians. They can be Christians because of what happened here.
The irony is that the great harbor city which Herod built as his chief point of contact with Rome (those breakwaters in the form of arms reaching out) became the chief point of contact between the faith in Jesus and the world.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (www.Lockman.org)