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This is a guest post by Lex Lata (prompted by Jonathan MS Pearce’s video, Biblical Contradictions: Demons and Gadara vs Gerasa).

In the matter of proper names, the Greek copies are often incorrect, and in the Gospels one might be misled by their authority. The transaction about the swine, which were driven down a steep place by the demons and drowned in the sea, is said to have taken place in the country of the Gerasenes [τῇ χώρᾳ τῶν Γερασηνῶν]. Now, Gerasa is a town [πόλις] of Arabia, and has near it neither sea nor lake. And the Evangelists would not have made a statement so obviously and demonstrably false; for they were men who informed themselves carefully of all matters connected with Judæa. But in a few copies we have found, into the country of the Gadarenes [τὴν χώραν τῶν Γαδαρηνῶν] . . . .

These candid sentiments were put to papyrus about 1,800 years ago by hyper-skeptical militant atheist Church Father and eminent scholar Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254 CE), in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, VI:24. He was describing a clear discrepancy in the Gospel copies at his fingertips—the dubious identification of the location at which JC purportedly cast the demons “Legion” into a herd of two thousand doomed pigs. 

(Feel free to use “Two Thousand Doomed Pigs” for your metal band’s name).

You say Gerasa and I say Gadara
unknown sixth-century AD mosaicist of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Origen would have been less than ecstatic, then, to learn that the discrepancy he lamented came to nest securely in the manuscript tradition and become canon:

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. Mark 5:1-2 (ESV).

Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  When Jesushad stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. Luke 8:26-27 (ESV).

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. Matthew 8:28 (ESV). 

Math-savvy readers might detect an issue also with the dæmoniac(s), and of course, the historicity of any supernatural tale is problematic, but we’ll pass over those matters for the purpose of our discussion here, and focus solely on the geographic predicament. Simply put, our scriptures link the same event to two different and noncontiguous communities. Contrary to the dutiful and not especially coherent harmonization efforts of some apologists, the archaeological and documentary evidence does not support the notion that “the country of the Gerasenes” somehow encompassed, or was more-or-less interchangeable with, “the country of the Gadarenes.”

First, some geography

Gerasa (modern Jerash) and Gadara (near modern Umm Qais) were two distinct, politically co-equal, semi-autonomous city-states in the Decapolis, a group of Hellenistic communities largely founded during Ptolemaic and Seleucid occupation of the area. (See also P. Cimadomo, The Southern Levant During the First Centuries of Roman Rule (64 BCE–135 CE): Interweaving Local Cultures (2019), pp. 88-180.) As this map illustrates, Gerasa and Gadara were not particularly close neighbors. In fact, several other communities both within the Decapolis and without lay nearer than Gerasa to Gadara—Scythopolis, Pella, Hippos, Tiberius, and even Nazareth, among others.

You say Gerasa and I say Gadara
Nichalp, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Gadara’s urban center was close enough to the Sea of Galilee for residents to view it at a distance.  In contrast, Gerasa’s lay much further to the southeast and inland, separated by about thirty miles of rough, hilly terrain. Given the transportation technology and roads then available, that meant a journey of at least one or two days. In other words, measured in terms of practical overland travel time, Gerasa was approximately as close to the Sea of Galilee as Rome is to the North Sea today.

(A side note: Most likely having seen the terrain with his own eyes during his travels, Origen wasn’t satisfied even with Gadara as the setting for the satanic swine stampede. He felt that a third and more northerly location he called Gergesa, near Hippos, better matched the physical landscape and spiritual import of the Gospel narratives. For more about Gergesa and its absence from most modern editions of the Synoptics, see R. Clapp, “A Study of the Place Names Gergesa and Bethabara,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 26, no. 1 (1907), pp. 62-83.)

Next, a bit of Greek

The Gospels of Mark and Luke tell us that Team JC traveled across the Sea of Galilee to “τὴν χώραν τῶν Γερασηνῶν,” typically translated as the country or region of the Gerasenes. The word χώρα (khora/chora) can mean country, region, land, hinterland, area, location, place, etc.  Of course, context frequently determines the precise sense of a word, and in the context of Hellenistic city-states—our context here—χώρα also refers more specifically to the rural territory within the jurisdiction of a given city-state (πόλις, polis) outside the main urban center (ἄστυ, asty). (See B. Antela-Bernárdez, “Poleis, Choras and Spaces, from Civic to Royal: Spaces in the Cities Under Macedonian Rule from Alexander the Great to Seleucus I,” Pyrenae, vol. 47, no. 2 (2016), pp. 27-38; M.H. Hansen, ed., A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures (2000), p. 19; and “polis,” in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996), p. 1205.) 

It was natural, then, for readers in antiquity to see this connotation in “τὴν χώραν τῶν Γερασηνῶν”—the territory of the πόλις of the Gerasenes, or Gerasene territory. Indeed, such was Origen’s understanding of the phrase. (Also worth noting is that writers of ancient Greek occasionally made the stylistic choice to identify a community not by the πόλις name, but by its people, which can sound peculiar to us moderns.  For example, “I visited the Minneapolitans” and “I visited the land of the Minneapolitans,” would have been unremarkable alternatives to, “I visited Minneapolis.”)

Again, geography

Bearing this in mind, let’s turn to the χώρα within the political geography of the Decapolis. Take a few moments to look over the map on the second page of this chapter from Prof. Michael Eisenberg, a University of Haifa archaeologist who digs in the area. (We aren’t posting an image here for copyright reasons).

And the inaccuracy cannot be convincingly cured by any amount of ad hoc apologetics.

Gerasa’s χώρα did not extend to the Sea of Galilee. It did not even share a border with Gadara’s; the χώρα of Pella separated the two entirely. If a history teacher using this map asked me to put my finger on the country of the Gerasenes, and I pointed at the gray-brown patch around Gadara rather than the sienna patch around Gerasa, my teacher would justifiably doubt whether I was cut out for elementary map-reading.

Ἡ χώρα τῶν Γερασηνῶν wasn’t some vague, largeish, thataway area comprising the territories of Gerasa plus one or more other Decapolitan communities; it was the land over which Gerasa exercised authority, and from which it drew economic support. Just as ἡ χώρα τῶν Γαδαρηνῶν was the land subject to the jurisdiction of Gadara, and as ἡ χώρα τῶν Σκυθοπολίτων was the land subject to the jurisdiction of Scythopolis, and so on.

We can think of these city-states as being analogous to states in the U.S. (In fact, Madison, Hamilton, and other Framers would applaud us doing so; lessons drawn from the history of classical city-states informed their thinking about federalism and the U.S. Constitution). Just as Virginia or New York or any other state has its own governing assembly, residents, and bounded territory, so too did Gadara, Gerasa, and the other communities of the Decapolis. And referring to Gadarene territory as the land of the Gerasenes would be tantamount to calling Virginian territory the land of the New Yorkers.

A rationalization offered, and found wanting

Still. One might wonder if perhaps calling the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee the χώρα of the Gerasenes was nevertheless acceptable and accurate usage because Gerasa was so significant, wealthy, and influential that its reputation or identity loomed above that of Gadara, as a big city might relate to a suburb today. For instance, when Lady Lata and I resided in Alexandria (not Origen’s), near Washington, DC, for the sake of convenience we often told distant friends and family that we lived “in the DC area.”

This hypothesis, variations of which appear in certain apologetics, suffers from two key defects.

First, mainstream archaeological and historical scholarship provides scant justification for attributing such extraordinary political or cultural prominence to Gerasa at the time. If anything, the best candidate for an argument of this sort would have been Scythopolis (modern Beit She’an), which lay a mere fifteen miles from Gadara, and seems to have been the largest and most prosperous Decapolitan community through at least the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, due to its economically and militarily strategic location. (The same site had also served as Egypt’s principal administrative and military outpost in the region until around 1150 BCE, when three centuries of Egyptian hegemony over Canaan finally ended.)

To be sure, Gerasa’s economy and infrastructure experienced vibrant growth beginning especially in the latter part of the 1st century CE. But the same was true of its siblings throughout the Decapolis, including Gadara, during the Pax Romana. And Gadara was not some one-horse town easily lost in Gerasa’s long shadow. Scholars provisionally estimate Gadara’s population during this period to have been around 8,000, with Gerasa’s being not much larger, at roughly 10,000 (see W. Pierson, Spatial Assessments of Urban Growth in Cities of the Decapolis (2021), pp. 167, 170). Gadara produced noted poets and philosophers, boasted theaters and a hippodrome (like Gerasa), and warranted mentions from Pliny, Strabo, Josephus, and Ptolemy, among others (like Gerasa).  (See S.T. Parker, “The Decapolis Reviewed,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 94, no. 3 (1975), p. 437-441.) Gadara even minted its own silver coinage—unlike Gerasa and most other Decapolitan communities, whose mints appear not to have gone beyond bronze currency. (See A. Lichtenberger, “The Decapolis,” inT. Kaizer, ed., A Companion to the Hellenistic and Roman Near East (2022), p. 217.)

Second, and more significantly, any notion of Gerasene reputational prominence didn’t warrant even a mention by Origen, our best ancient source to consider the Gerasa/Gadara problem. He had his hands on some of the earliest Gospel papyri, spoke and wrote Koine Greek with native fluency, lived in Roman Palestine a little over a century after the Gospels were composed, and traveled extensively throughout the area to teach, collect important manuscripts, and trace JC’s footsteps as best he could. He literally talked the talk and walked the walk. If Gadarene territory might reasonably and correctly have been called the land of the Gerasenes in the Greek usage of the time—for whatever reason—we should expect Origen to have told us that, or to have stayed silent about a non-issue.

But he did neither. Quite the opposite. Origen dismissed the nomenclature as “obviously and demonstrably false” (“προφανὲς ψεῦδος καὶ εὐέλεγκτον”).

You say Gerasa and I say Gadara Origen
Luyken, Jan (1649-1712), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Final thoughts

So why do the Gospels of Mark and Luke refer to “τὴν χώραν τῶν Γερασηνῶν” rather than “τὴν χώραν τῶν Γαδαρηνῶν?” Dunno. We have little basis for any confident conclusions. Perhaps this was a case, much as Origen supposed, of misapprehension or miscommunication, of an inadvertent but tenacious mistake during composition, translation, or transcription. Or perhaps someone in the chain of oral or written transmission made a deliberate choice to sacrifice geographic precision and invoke Gerasa to convey some rhetorical or symbolic meaning lost on us (and on Origen). Either way, the outcome is the same: a lakeside area was confusingly and inaccurately given the name of a landlocked community one or two days to the southeast.

To be clear, I don’t expect the fuss about a place name in a spectacular exorcism story to deal a stunning blow to anyone’s faith. By itself, this is a mere foot fault in the broader context of the New Testament. Nor is it my position that the Gerasene difficulty must mean the Gospels and other books of the Bible are unusually defective with regards to geography. On the contrary, I think they get a good deal of that stuff right, roughly on par with many analogous texts from antiquity.

I discuss this misidentification simply to illuminate one notable example of human error creeping into canonical holy writ that many believers of a fundamentalist bent tell us is inerrant. Origen discerned the problem of the Gerasenes firsthand nearly two millennia ago. We see it still today. And the inaccuracy cannot be convincingly cured by any amount of ad hoc apologetics.

[About the author: Lex Lata holds Associates Degrees in Drinking and Knowing Things from Casterly Rock Community College. He lives with Lady and Lad Lata in a weird old house near Minnesota’s 9,997th lake.]

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...