🔼Caesarea, Herod and Jesus
The city called Caesarea — or more complete: Caesarea Maritima, to distinguish it from Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea in Mauritania, or the one in Phoenicia or the similarly named capital of Cappadocia — was a city on the Judean coast, at a latitude a touch south of the Sea of Galilee.
It was built and named by Herod the Great in the second decennium BC. Why exactly he did so isn't clear, but since Herod had backed up Mark Anthony even after he turned on his old buddy Octavian (read our riveting article on the Battle of Philippi), Herod probably felt urged to demonstrate his allegiance to Octavian when the latter defeated the former and became emperor Augustus. And since Augustus needed a local power base to rule the region from and to help secure Rome's grain supply from Egypt, Herod eagerly volunteered to provide one.
Herod fitted Caesarea with a colossal harbor, made from hydraulic cement that would set under water and which was made from volcanic ash from the Vesuvius. Though indisputably brilliant, there were a few things wrong with Herod's new harbor.
Had Herod's Roman engineers known which element of the ash allowed cement to dry under water they would have known that the same material was locally available from the Golan Heights, but they didn't know, and so ended up hauling tons of it from Italy. This obviously racked up the costs of the project, and thus the amount of taxes Herod needed to levy for it. Secondly, although the engineers were clever enough to sink huge stones and concrete slabs onto the sea floor, this foundation wasn't substantial enough, and the whole building began to sink probably as soon as it was installed.
Caesarea became Judea's Roman capital and the platform via which Judea became Romanized. By the time of Jesus (or that of His biographers) it was unwise to openly criticize anything Roman, and hence much of the critique was done subliminally.
The Arab-Edomite warlord Herod was hated possibly more than the Romans, since he had killed the last of the Hasmoneans, the royal dynasty of Judea, whom Herod perceived as competitors to the throne. The Christian-slash-Messianic movement that folks erroneously tied to Jesus (Acts 1:6) had begun when the Roman general Pompey defeated the autonomous kingdom of Judah and desecrated the Temple of YHWH by entering the Holy of Holies, and it rose to national fury when Herod terminated the royal blood line. What agitated people even more was that since Herod had married a Hasmonean princess named Mariamne, these last royal descendants were his own sons Alexandros and Aristobulus (which was, grievously, also the name of both the first and last Hasmonean kings). That's how insane Herod was, and that's also probably where the story of the Bethlehemite child massacre came from (Matthew 2:16).
When Jesus spoke of the fool who built his house on sand (Matthew 7:26), or the equally unwise person who would build a tower without first sitting down to calculate the cost (Luke 14:28), very few people of His original audience would not have been reminded of Herod's shifty Caesarean harbor.
More significantly, when the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying tax (Matthew 22:15-22), they aimed to drag Him into a highly controversial dilemma, and the gravity of this little paragraph is often underestimated. The Jewish hatred of the Romans was in a large part due to the taxes conquered peoples were forced to pay (tells us Josephus in his Jewish Wars). Throughout the first century, numerous skirmishes and mini-revolts broke out in Judea, and most of them were reactions to tax demands. The Temple complex had been reduced to a Roman tax gathering facility (hence Jesus' outburst; Matthew 21:13 — also read our article on the name Annas) and no profession garnered greater contempt than that of tax-collector (Matthew 5:46-47, 9:10-11, 11:19).
Then, one fateful Sabbath in 66 AD, a Greek living in Caesarea decided to pester the Caesarean Jews even more than usual, and ostentatiously sacrificed some birds in front of the local synagogue. This synagogue was owned by another Greek, who had been often asked to sell at a more than generous price, but who in stead tried to flush out the Jews by building shops around their facility, and obstructing access to it. The bird incident ignited the tried temper of the local Jews, who grabbed their Law Books and marched furiously out of the city and into four years of war that would culminate in the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
🔼The name Caesarea in the Bible
Caesarea Maritima isn't mentioned by name in the gospels, but since the local Roman government was seated in Caesarea, it gets quite some Biblical screen time in the Book of Acts.
We hear first of Caesarea as the final destination of the wandering Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8:40), who, besides a modest missionary range, also had four prophesying daughters living with him (Acts 21:8-9). When in Jerusalem certain Hellenists wanted to kill Paul, the brethren spirited him away to Tarsus via Caesarea (9:30).
Also in Caesarea, the centurion Cornelius saw a vision in which he was told to sent for Peter, who was in Joppa at the time (10:1). Peter too saw a vision, the famous Great Sheet via which the Lord explained Peter that the gospel was also for the gentiles, and the first of those to receive the gospel and the Holy Spirit was Cornelius of Caesarea (11:24-48).
Some while later, Peter was arrested in Jerusalem but miraculously freed from prison. When Herod (Herod Agrippa I) couldn't find him, he had the guards executed and took off to his Roman buddies in Caesarea himself, and there he died rather spectacularly (12:19-23, also Josephus Ant.19.8.2).
On his way from Greece to Antioch, Paul came ashore in Caesarea (18:22), and later on his way to Jerusalem, did the same (21:8) and even picked up some Caesarean disciples who accompanied him for untold reasons to Mnason of Cyprus (21:16). Finally in Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and after some ado, toted back to Caesarea, to be tried by Felix the governor (23:23, 23:33).
After two years, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, whose inquiries into the Pauline situation took him to Jerusalem from Caesarea (25:1), while Paul stayed in Caesarea (25:4), where he joined him after eight or ten days (25:6). Several days later, King Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II) and Bernice arrived at Caesarea (25:13), and joined their host Festus in hearing Paul.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Caesarea
The city of Caesarea was named after Caesar Augustus, and its name obviously derives from the name Caesar: Caesar Town.
What the name Caesar itself means isn't known with any certainty, but see our lengthy article on the name Caesar for some possibilities.