Diggings has reported on the on-going discoveries being made at Caesarea, the port city with the huge artificial harbour constructed by Herod on the coast of Palestine. Where once was a sandy waste dotted with broken columns, there is now a thriving archaeological site with Roman theatre, Herod’s hippodrome, a Crusader fortress and a marked underwater trail for those who have the time and skill to explore the seabed, all accompanied by the usual razzmatazz of a tourist site. The Israeli Antiquities Authority smiles happily as it rakes in the shekels from the visitors who throng to the ancient city.
Into this mix has now come a complication: holiness. Tourists who want nothing more than to take photographs, buy postcards and find somewhere to escape from the relentless guide, may now be replace by pilgrims eager to pray but interested in little else of a commercial nature – and so far not even the Jews have been able to invent a tax on devotion!
According to reports broadcast recently, archaeologists working in Caesarea have uncovered part of Herod’s governmetn headquarters building, inside which is a stout cell, obviously a place of incarceration. Scrawled on the walls of this cell are numerous graffiti invoking the name of Paul and making it clear that the authors regarded this as the prison of St Paul.
Unless there are some unreported details which would clearly identify this room as a prison, we cannot even be sure of its purpose. The headquarters of Roman governors and generals commonly included a stout room in which the treasure chest was kept. High officials handled quite large sums of money: soldiers’ pay, incoming taxes, donations to or from the emperor and so on. These were often stored in an underground room whose entrance lay through the governor’s own bedroom! Just such a room can be seen in the legionary fortress of Segontium at Caernarfon in Wales.
According to the Biblical book of Acts, Paul spent nearly three years in prison in Caesarea following his arrest in Jerusalem. At first he was kept there awaiting trial, but when the hearing proved inconclusive the governor, Felix, still kept him in prison in the hope of receiving a bribe to free him. Paul was not the only person from whom Felix tried to obtain a bribe and when, two years later, he was replaced by Festus, he left Paul in prison in order to try and appease some of the enemies he had made by his greed.
Festus, as part of the clean-up he instituted, dealt with Paul’s case briskly and might have freed him had Paul not appealed to Caesar when Festus mooted the possibility of conducting a trial in Jerusalem, where Paul’s life would be in danger from zealots among his own people.
We can be confident that Paul was imprisoned somewhere in this vicinity. It is even possible that the memory of the cell in which he was confined might be preserved among the people of Caesarea. It is impossible, however, to be certain that this newly discovered room is the “very spot” in which the great Apostle to the Gentiles passed three tedious years. Piety, however, sincere, in no certain guide to historicity.
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