Gustav Dalman’s “Sacred Sites and Ways: Studies in the Topography of the Gospels” (trans. Paul P. Levertoff, 1935) has this to say:
Caesarea Philippi (in Christian Palestinian Aramaic Ķesaron de-Philippos) was a city well known among the Jews under the name Ķesariyon (Little Cesarea). Tradition, however, has never connected the present Banias with any incident in the life of Jesus, although in the time of Eusebius a statue of Christ was venerated there, which the woman with the issue of blood (Mt. ix. 20), a native of this district, was supposed to have dedicated, and which the emperor Julian replaced by one of himself. So there is absolutely no foundation for the purely fanciful connection of the rock, the gates of hell, and the Church, of Mt. xvi. 18, with the mountain-wall above the Jordan spring, the wide grotto that is found in it, and the temple of Pan before it.(pp. 203-204, footnotes omitted, See this review of Dalman's work, if you have questions about the work.)
To the Jews the cave of Paneas with its supposedly bottomless pool was merely the source of the Jordan which gushes out below it, being therefore one of the "fountains of the deep" of Gen. viii. 2. Legend has it that Moses desired to enter Canaan by means of this subterranean cave, but God refused his request. Nor did the heathen look upon this dwelling of the god Pan as the abode of a sinister power of Hades, but rather as a cave inhabited by the protector of the flocks and herds on the mountains. Exuberant life comes from the spring and nature wears a smiling face, bestowing never-failing refreshment. This was (and still is) the impression that the Paneion left upon the beholder. Herod's temple to Augustas, which stood between the cave and the spring, the water of which was used for purification from the defilement caused by contact with a corpse (Para. viii. II), must have also meant to Jesus only a defiling of a God-given stream and not a symbol of men rallying round the Lord's Anointed.
In Jewish Wars, Book I, Chapter 21, Section 3, Josephus describes the place this way:
3. And when Caesar had further bestowed upon him [Herod] another additional country, he built there also a temple of white marble, hard by the fountains of Jordan: the place is called Panium, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when any body lets down any thing to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it. Now the fountains of Jordan rise at the roots of this cavity outwardly; and, as some think, this is the utmost origin of Jordan: but we shall speak of that matter more accurately in our following history.I tried to track down the work that Dalman was writing off as fanciful. Possibly he's referring simply to the tourist trade in the area of his time. I found numerous references to the place as a tourist spot in 19th century travel literature (although not with that specific claim), so it would not be particularly surprising if that were the source of the myth.
In other posts we have discussed the concept of the "gates of hell." We explained that they refer to the power of death (see the discussion here) and that this understanding is actually confirmed from the Apocrypha (see the discussion here).
There are more responsible tour guides. Here is an example of one:
The tour guide mentions something said by Hezekiah. I'm not sure what he has in mind, but I think he's referring to the kinds of statements we see here:
Job 38:17That's what Jesus was referring to when he said the "gates of hell." He was referring to the gates of death - Jesus' resurrection will free us from the gates of death - they will not hold us in, if we trust in Christ alone for salvation.
Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
Have mercy upon me, O Lord; consider my trouble which I suffer of them that hate me, thou that liftest me up from the gates of death:
Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death.