Busted (13):  On Mark’s (& Matthew’s) Geographical Ineptitude

Mark Coptic IconIn this short article, we tackle yet another alleged error in the Gospel of Mark (and address the same “error” in Matthew’s gospel, as well).  Let’s dive right in by reading the first verse in question, Mark 10:1 (NIV):

 Jesus then left that place [Capernaum, in Galilee] and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

 Some critics have argued that this verse contains a geographical error because it says that Jesus went from Capernaum, across the Jordan, and into Judea.  That’s impossible, we are told, because Judea is not actually across the Jordan river from Capernaum…They’re both on the same side of the river.

If Mark (a Palestinian Jew) had really written the gospel bearing his name, some critics explain, then he wouldn’t have made such a stupid mistake.  Therefore, Mark didn’t actually write his gospel.  The real author must have been some anonymous Christian who just made up a bunch of stuff.

 Somebody’s Looking Too Hard for an Error…

It’s a reach to declare that Mark 10:1 contains an error.  This appears to be an example of reading an error into the text.  Let’s read the first sentence from that verse again:

 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan.

First, a logical reading of the text could be that Jesus went into Judea and then went across the Jordan.  The text says Jesus went “into Judea and across the Jordan.”  It does not say that he went “into Judea across the Jordan.”

Second, during the first century, it seems that part of Judea actually did extend beyond the Jordan.  The writing of first-century Jewish historian, Josephus indicates this.1  The first-century Greek geographer, Strabo, apparently believed that Judea encompassed all of Palestine, covering both sides of the Jordan river.2  If this is correct, then Mark would be right no matter how one chooses to read Mark 10:1.

 What about Matthew’s Account?

There is a parallel account in Matthew 19:1.  In the NIV, the text is as follows:

 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan.

Matthew’s account is worded a bit differently from Mark’s.  I can see how some might find an error present, because it seems to be more clearly stating that Judea is on the other side of the Jordan.  However, the text is a little vague, and the same arguments in support of Mark’s account can also work in support of Matthew’s.

In addition, there is a linguistic argument that supports the accuracy of both Mark and Matthew.  In the original Greek, Matthew’s account can be interpreted as meaning that Jesus went to the other side of the Jordan before crossing back over into Judea.  This would make sense, as Jews would customarily do this when traveling from Galilee to Judea in order to avoid passing through the hostile territory of Samaria. 3

Time and again, I read about “obvious” errors and contradictions in the gospels that become far less obvious when studied objectively.  Too often, anti-Christian authors’ let their biases get the better of them, and see errors that aren’t necessarily there.  In the accounts related above, there are just too many potential explanations that support the accuracy of Mark and Matthew to simply declare them to be erroneous.

 Notes:

  1. Riggs, J.S., Studies in Palestinian Geography, Auburn Theological Seminary, 1894, p. 87, referencing Josephus, Antiquities, XII, 4.11
  2. Jackson, Wayne. “Did Matthew Err Regarding “Judea”?”com. Access date: August 13, 2016. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/736-did-matthew-err-regarding-judea
  3. Ibid.
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