Busted (8): The Question of Jesus and the Demoniac

Busted 1The story of Jesus and the demoniac, as told in Mark 5, Matthew 8, and Luke 8 is a familiar one in which Jesus encounters a man possessed by a large number of demons.  After a brief conversation, Jesus commands the “legion” to leave the man and enter a herd of nearby pigs.  These pigs then rush down a steep incline and drown in the sea below.

To Bible critics, this story is a potential gold mine.  Across these parallel accounts, they claim, we have both historical error and contradiction that clearly prove the Bible is neither inerrant nor even reliable.

The Alleged Problems

First, critics assert that the gospel accounts cannot agree on where this story took place.  Mark and Luke describe it as occurring in the “country of the Gerasenes” while Matthew says it was in the “country of the Gadarenes.”  Gerasa (modern Jerash) is 37 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee while Gadara is 7 miles southeast of the Sea.  Clearly, these are separate locations.

Compounding this supposedly obvious contradiction is that neither location works for the story anyway.  The pigs into which Jesus sent the demons would have to have run between 7 and 37 miles to reach the sea and be drowned!  Surely pigs would not have made such a journey.

It’s important to note that, as both Gadara and Gerasa were cities to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee, the “countries” of those cities (the surrounding territories) would have encompassed an area larger than the cities themselves.  Also, those areas could easily have overlapped in people’s minds.  More to come on that later.

One Possible, Partial Solution

As discussed in a separate article, it is important to note that while we have thousands of copies of the New Testament books, we do not have the originals.  Critics like Bart Ehrman love to point out that within this large number of copies there is a huge number of “variants” across the texts.  As we’ve covered elsewhere, this large number of copies allows us cross reference texts on a massive scale and accurately re-create what the originals likely said with a high level of confidence.  But it is true that there are variations and even potential, though very rare, copyist mistakes within the text.  When such instances occur, they are identified and footnoted in good study Bibles.

As a case in point, you can read in the footnotes of any study Bible that we have early copies of Mark, Matthew, and Luke that each use the various terms “Gerasenes,””Gadarenes,” and even the more rare “Gergesenes” in the story of Jesus and the demoniac.  The final translations reflected in our English Bibles reflect the most commonly used term within that gospel or the one used in the oldest and most reliable texts.

So since there are copies of each gospel that use each of the disputed terms, it is not definite that we have a disagreement or contradiction within the text.  However, this does not address the objection that the locations are too far away from the Sea of Galilee to be accurate.  And for the sake of argument, let’s assume that our translations are correct and the terms used are in fact different.

A More Complete Solution

As noted above, Gadara is close to the Sea of Galilee, being about 7 miles away.  This is significant since Matthew says the story occurs in the “country (i.e. region) of the Gadarenes,” not specifically in Gadara.  Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, tells us Gadara had village settlements bordering the sea.  In addition, the gospels specifically state that the possessed man lived in the tombs which, per Jewish tradition, would have been outside of the city, making it even more likely they were near the sea1.  Putting this all together, it is entirely plausible that Matthew is correctly reporting the story happened in a seaside village in the “country (region) of the Gadarenes.”  Matthew may simply use Gadara as a reference since it is the closest significant city.

What about Luke and Mark?  Are they wrong?  Not at all.  Remember that Luke and Mark report this story occurred in the “country of the Gerasenes” which is typically assumed by scholars to refer to the city of Gerasa, 37 miles from the Sea of Galilee.

However, Dr. Timothy McGrew persuasively argues that “country of the Gerasenes” refers not to Gerasa, but to the town of Kursi (which was in the region of Gadara).  He makes this argument based on the fact that the original Aramaic names for Gerasa and Kursi would have been spelled very similarly if not identically2.  Therefore, the identification with Gerasa is potentially due to an early copyist mistake or misinterpretation of Kursi.

Dr. McGrew’s theory is strongly supported by the geography of Kursi and early church history.  Kursi is on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and has a steep hill that runs directly into the water (see photo).

The site of Kursi, on the steep shore of the Sea of Galilee

The site of Kursi, on the steep shore of the Sea of Galilee

In addition, the early church, through the 3rd century church father Origen, identified Kursi as the town in which this miracle occurred.  Further, an early 5th century Christian monastery was built in Kursi and seems to have been located there to commemorate this event3.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, there is no geographic error with pigs having to run for miles.  All three gospels easily place the story occurring at a location next to the Sea of Galilee.

Further, there is no contradiction or disagreement on town name.  Instead, Matthew seems to locate the story with reference to the nearest major city, while Mark and Luke reference the local town.  This is akin to saying something happened “near Washington DC” versus in “Alexandria.”  They are equivalent.

Notes:

  1. Ross, Allen, PhD. The Demons and the Pigshttps://bible.org/seriespage/11-demons-and-pigs-matthew-828-34
  2. McGrew, Timothy, PhD. Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels, published online, 2012, pg. 52-53
  3. Stephen Langfur. Published online, http://netours.com/content/view/127/36/
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