Ancient treasure recovered near coast of Caesarea

by Tuvia Pollack

On December 22nd, the Israeli antiquities authority announced a rare find off the shore of Caesarea. Two shipwrecks were recovered, with an array of artifacts. “The treasure consists of hundreds of coins, silver & gold rings, rare gems, figurines, bells, and remains of the shipwrecks,” the report stated.

One of the ships sank in the Mamluk period (1250 – 1516), but the other one is from the Roman era, probably mid-third century. In it, the archaeologists found a ring depicting a shepherd which they believe might have belonged to a believer in Jesus. More on the ring later.

Photo: Yaniv Berman and Dafna Gazit, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

The coins on the ship are from the mid-third century. Rome became Christian in the year 313, so the ship is from a time when pagan Rome was still against, and sometimes persecuting, the Christians. Specifically, in the 3rd century, there were significant persecutions under the emperors Decius, Gallus and Valerian between 249 and 260, and again under Diocletian between 283 and 305. Since the Christian on this ship could wear his ring openly, it might be from the era between 260 and 283 when they were not persecuted.

Caesarea was an important center for the community of believers. We know from the New Testament that this is where Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius, the first gentile to come to faith. The Bible also says that Paul the Apostle, on his way to Jerusalem, stayed at the home of Philip the evangelist in Caesarea, who had four daughters who prophesied. As the capital of the Roman province, this is also where Paul was held prisoner under Felix and then Festus until he appealed to the emperor and was shipped to Rome.

Caesarea grew in significance as a center for the believers in Jesus as Jerusalem declined. From 132 AD, after the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt, the bishop of Jerusalem became subordinate to the bishop of Caesarea. Origen of Alexandria (184-253), often considered as one of the “church fathers,” moved to Caesarea in the early 3rd century and founded a Christian school there, which taught logic, cosmology, natural history, and theology. This is also where he prepared the “Hexapla,” a Bible in six columns with a word-for-word comparison between different Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. An amazing scholarly masterpiece, of which only fragments have been preserved. Origen was tortured in 250 under the persecution, and died from his injuries in 253 AD.

The ring found on the ship might have belonged to a believer in Jesus from the 3rd century. The report of the antiquities authority describes it as a “thick, octagonal gold ring set with a green gemstone carved with the figure of a young shepherd boy dressed in a tunic and bearing a ram or a sheep on his shoulders.”

The report continues: “The image of the ‘Good Shepherd’, is one of the earliest and oldest images used in Christianity for symbolizing Jesus; it represents Jesus as humanity’s compassionate shepherd, extending his benevolence to his flock of believers and all mankind. This unique gold ring bearing the ‘Good Shepherd’ figure gives us, possibly, an indication that its owner was an early Christian.”

We can only speculate who the owner of this ring was, but he must have been wealthy enough to have a gold ring with a precious gem stone. Possibly a prominent figure in the community of believers in Caesarea. Perhaps even a former pagan who came to faith after noticing the resilience of the believers under the persecution.

The ships were anchored offshore and were wrecked by a storm. The Marine Archaeology unit stated: “They may have been anchored offshore after getting into difficulty, or fearing stormy weather because sailors know well that mooring in shallow, open water outside of a port is dangerous and prone to disaster.”

There is no way to know whether the people onboard survived, but we can imagine a situation slightly similar to the one described in Acts, where those who could swim were ordered to swim to land, and the rest instructed to get there on planks or other pieces of the ship.

The rest of the artifacts discovered also include an inkwell, pottery vessels, a bronze figurine in the form of an eagle, and numerous bronze bells which were used to ward off evil spirits.

We are encouraged to see how this land hides within it so many treasures affirming the truth of the gospel, fulfilling the scripture, “Truth shall spring out of the earth” (Psalm 85:1).

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