Busted (10): Mark’s Bad Geography?

Image credit: Map adapted from one created by Ralph F. Wilson, pastor@joyfulheart.com

Image credit: Map adapted from one created by Ralph F. Wilson, [email protected]

Throughout our ongoing Busted series, we’ve been exploring critics’ claims that the gospels are full of historical and geographical errors, and are therefore untrustworthy sources of information.  So far, the gospel writers are coming out looking pretty good.

In today’s short article, we tackle a totally nit-picky, never-should-have-been-made accusation against Mark. The verse in Question is Mark 11:1 (ESV):

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples…

So what’s wrong with this verse?  Why don’t we ask critical professor, Randel Helms?

Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse.  This is one of several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine; we must assume, Dennis Nineham argues, that “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.”1

Really?  Take a look at Mark 11:1 again.  Does it say anywhere that Jesus and the disciples first passed Bethphage and then passed Bethany?  No.  It simply makes a statement that they had drawn near to Jerusalem, in the area of Bethphage and Bethany.  Why would Mark have listed the two towns together like this?  Well, it’s simple:  They were only about a half-mile apart.  In this usage, the order is irrelevant and not intended to communicate the actual order in which they walked past these towns.

Professor Tim McGrew sums it up nicely:

He (Mark) is simply telling his readers approximately where it was on the road that Jesus sent his disciples on ahead. Bethphage and Bethany were both on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, about half a mile from one another.2

When someone claims that a first century author has made a geographical error about the country where he is supposed to have lived, read the passage for yourself—and try to use some common sense.3


  1. Helms, Randel, Who Wrote the Gospels?, 1997, Millennium Press, p. 6, quoting Dennis Nineham, Mark, pp. 294-95
  2. McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University), Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels (Matthew & Mark), Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 21 May 2012, slide 21, accessed 6 Jan 2016 http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/05/alleged-historical-errors-in-gospels-by.html
  3. Ibid, slide 22