Busted (12): Mark’s Alleged Geographical Ignorance

In this article, we tackle an alleged error in the Gospel of Mark.  Critics point to this “error” as clear evidence that Mark’s gospel was not actually written by Mark.  Let’s see if the argument is persuasive.

The passage in question is Mark 7:31, which describes the route that Jesus took on one of his travels.  Here’s the verse:

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Before we dive into the alleged error, it would be helpful to view Jesus’ route on a map.  As you can see in figure 1, Jesus would have left the vicinity of Tyre, then travelled north, seemingly about 15-20 miles out of his way, before turning south and heading towards the region of the Decapolis.

The Critics Speak…

 Hugh Anderson, in The Gospel of Mark, says that Jesus’ route would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.”1  He is of the opinion that the author of Mark must not have really known much about the geography of the region.  Otherwise, he would never have suggested that Jesus would pass through Sidon on a journey from Tyre to the Decapolis.  Mark (a Palestinian Jew) would surely have known the geography of the area, but the real author apparently does not.  Therefore, Mark could not have been the real author.

Dennis Nineham in The Gospel of St. Mark shares the same thought.  He opines that such an “error” shows that “the evangelist was not directly acquainted with Palestine.”2  Again, the implication is that Mark could not have been the real author.

Do the Critics Make Sense?

It strikes me as odd that critics claim Mark 7:31 to be in error.  I don’t see an error, and there are several reasons why.

First, it’s entirely possible that Jesus had some reason for going to Sidon before heading down to the Sea of Galilee!  The narrative simply doesn’t give us enough information to know for sure.  Jesus had been travelling around the region, and Sidon may have been a planned part of his circuit.  To automatically presume that the author made an error strikes me as bias in the extreme.

Second, clues from Mark 7:24-26, just prior to the “offending” verse, indicate that the author knew exactly what he was writing about, and understood the geography of the region.  Take a look:

24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.

In that passage, the author provides some details about the woman, indicating that she was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.  The region of Tyre (where this event took place), as well as Sidon, happened to be in Syrian Phoenicia.  That’s probably why the author went to the trouble to provide that detail.

So, the author obviously knew exactly where Tyre was, where Syrian Phoenicia was, where the Sea of Galilee was, and where the region of the Decapolis was.  Most likely, he knew exactly where Sidon was, as well.  Again, to suggest that the author was ignorant of the local geography solely on the basis of Mark 7:31 indicates bias.

Finally, scholar Tim McGrew adds yet another piece of information.  He reminds us that there is a mountain (Mt. Meron) standing nearly 4,000 feet high directly between Tyre and the Sea of Galilee.  He adds: “There is a pass from Sidon through the mountains to the Jordan river valley, where foot travelers to Galilee could have fresh water for the journey.”  According to McGrew, it would have been easier for Jesus to go a bit out of his way to avoid climbing Mt. Meron and to remain close to fresh water for the journey.3

As a long-distance backpacker, I can understand the logic.  I probably wouldn’t go 20 miles out of my way to avoid climbing a mountain…But then again, Jesus didn’t have North Face hiking boots, a super-light Osprey backpack, and a 3-liter hydration bladder.  Staying close to water at all times was probably a more pressing issue for him.

Even without McGrew’s information, the alleged “error” pretty much vaporizes under scrutiny.  Critics who cite Mark 7:31 as an error simply demonstrate how bias can overwhelm an objective reading of the text.

Notes:

  1. Anderson, Hugh, The Gospel of Mark, Oliphants, 1976, p. 192
  2. Nineham, Dennis, The Gospel of St. Mark, Penguin Books, 1963, p. 40
  3. 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 2016http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/05/alleged-historical-errors-in-gospels-by.html

 

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