“Who do you say I am?” is the question Jesus asks his disciples at Caesaria Philippi. It’s a question at the center of Matthew’s Gospel, which we read today in our liturgy. Before this, Jesus has taught and done marvelous things in Galilee, mostly around the Sea of Galilee. Now he’s going up to Jerusalem. “Who do your say I am?”
He asks the question at Caesaria Philippi, a place we don’t know much about, because the city fell into ruins after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it’s a place that has an important role in our gospel story.
Caesaria Philippi was located about 40 miles from the lake area where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. It was a gentile city, devout Jews tended not to go there, so we might ask why Jesus took his disciples there to ask this important question.
Caesaria Philippi was located right at the base of Mount Hermon, the great mountain that was the origin of most of the water that flowed into the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. It was a large Greco-Roman city built in Jesus’ time as part of a big economic boom going on in Galilee. Under the Herods, especially Herod Antipas, a number of large cities like Tiberias, Sepphoris and Caesaria Philippi were built in Galilee to handle the developing trade in agriculture and fish from the Sea of Galilee. The Herod’s wanted this area to be a supplier of food for the Roman Empire.
Some scholars think that Joseph moved his family to Galilee from Judea to get work in this new economy. Sepphoris, one of its booming cities, was only four miles from Nazareth.
“Who do people say I am?” Jesus’ disciples answer his question in typical Jewish terms. “Some say you are Elijah, John the Baptist, or Jeremiah, or one of prophets.”
In sight of Caesaria Philippi, Jesus’ question might also be posed: “Who do these people say I am?” The unspoken answer might be “Nobody.”
Would that be the answer we would give if we were asked what any of our great cities think of Jesus Christ today? “They think he’s nobody.”
“And you, who do you say I am?”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”