Archaeologists uncover Caesarea site linked to St. Paul

by Gil Kezwer


Israeli archaeologists excavating the ruins of the Mediterranean port of Caesarea here have identified the Praetorium - the Roman administrative complex where St. Paul was incarcerated for two years before being sent to Rome for trial in C. 60 AD, the director of the dig said recently.

Yosef Porat of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the archaeologist who headed this summer�s excavations, has long suspected the 15,000 square meter complex was the Roman government seat in the 1st century AD, when Caesarea was the capital of Judea. The site, prominently located between the 2,300-year-old city�s seaside amphitheatre and hippodrome, included a palace with luxurious bathhouse, administrative offices and large courtyards.

But it was the discovery this summer of an inscription at the site which convinced Porat that he had discovered the Praetorium.

One recently uncovered room had a floor mosaic with the Latin inscription "...adiviorb(us) offici custodiar," translated by Prof. Leah de Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as "...I came to this office - I shall be secure." Prof. Werner Eck of the University of Koln in Germany suggested that the room served as the office of a unit connected with security or the secret police.

Porat explained: "It is like a puzzle. Suddenly you get a piece and everything makes sense. We suspected for two years that this was the government complex, but with the inscription we have proof."

The trial of the Apostle Paul by the Roman governor Antonius Felix likely took place nearby, he said. "St. Paul was tried at Caesarea, but Caesarea is a huge place. Now we know the location of the campus of the governor, and it is logical that he was tried on this campus."

Porat said the hall where Paul faced the governor was probably still beneath an unexcavated part of the Praetorium complex. Similarly, no site for Paul's imprisonment cell has yet been identified, although archaeologists believe that a cellar in the complex may have been used as a jail.

The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima - a consortium of 22 colleges, universities and seminaries in Canada and the United States - got underway in 1971 while the Caesarea Ancient Harbour Excavation Project was organized in 1980. Excavation of the Praetorium complex as part of the JECM began in the 1974 season. Porat said 60 per cent of the area has now been unearthed.

Initially before the site's extant was realized, it was presumed to be the seaside palace of Herod the Great, the megalomaniac Idumean half Jew who allied himself with Rome and was the king of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth. But excavations subsequently showed the complex to post-date Herod by as generation. Caesarea Maritima, the main Roman port in Palestine, was built in a grandiose style between 22 - 10 B.C.E. by Herod atop a fourth century BC Phoenician settlement called Strato�s Tower.

Herod�s architects and engineers laid out streets on an up-to-date grid plan, and designed magnificent temples, theatres and public squares - the typical components of a classical Mediterranean city. The most impressive project, however, was the artificial harbour. Named in honour of his benefactor Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, the city became the capital of Roman-ruled Palestine. Pontius Pilate lived there as prefect from 26-36 AD.

Porat explained the office wing of the complex liked housed the audience hall into which Paul was brought for a hearing before the Roman procurator Antonius Felix. According to the Acts of the Apostles (21-25), the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem had demanded Paul�s trial after he preached "transgressions of the law" on the Temple Mount and caused a riot by bringing gentiles into the forbidden Temple precinct. Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem saved Paul from lynching, and he was taken to Caesarea under heavy guard.

The high priest and other Jewish leaders came to Caesarea to testify against Paul who delivered a speech in his own defence. But Antonius Felix did not reach a verdict. Instead the procurator dithered for almost two years while Paul remained under custody in Caesarea.

During that time he likely took advantage of the busy harbour to communicate with the churches he had established in Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece. Some of those letters may be among the epistles that survive, e.g. Philippians. According to a later tradition, Philip�s daughters transmitted accurate knowledge of the early days - perhaps some of the material in the Acts of the Apostles - and modern scholars suspect that the accounts of Jesus� life in the Gospels took shape in part at Caesarea.

When a new governor, Porcius Festus, took up Paul�s case and suggested a trial in Jerusalem, the defendant demanded his right as a Roman citizen to escape the jurisdiction of a provincial magistrate like the governor of Caesarea and to have a trial at the emperor's court in Rome. "I appeal to Caesar," he said according to Acts, and Festus responded, "You have appealed to Caesar, and to Caesar you shall go."

After an eventful voyage to Rome, including being shipwrecked on the island of Malta, Paul the great apostle to the gentiles was allowed to preach in the imperial capital.

Paul�s epistles laid the foundation for Christian theology. Born as Saul, the son of a Jew in Tarsus, he studied in Jerusalem with Rabbi Gamliel and assisted at the martyrdom of St. Stephen.

His conversion to the religion he had persecuted came on the road to Damascus. According to Acts, he heard a voice asking "Why do you persecute me?" When he asked who was speaking, the reply was "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest."

Paul�s fate after being sent to Rome is unclear. By one account, he was martyred during the persecutions initiated by Emperor Nero. Christian tradition maintains he is buried in Rome�s Basilica of St. Paul Outside-The-Walls some 2 km south of Porta S. Paolo.

Porat said he foresees the Caesarea site, part of a national park preserving Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Crusader ruins, becoming a major attraction for Christian visitors in the future. Tourism officials in Israel are anticipating some five million pilgrims to mark the year 2000 millennium. But budget cuts have meanwhile halted further excavations.