One of the weirdest stories in the Gospels is Jesus’ encounter with the Madman of Gadara. Here you have a demonized man living in tombs, naked, and cutting himself with rocks. Jesus cures the man but allows the evil spirits to enter into some nearby pigs, who end up drowning themselves immediately afterward. Not only does this raise some moral red flags about Jesus’ lack of concern for animals, but there are more problems with this story.
Mark and Luke report this event happened in the country of Gerasenes. But Matthew says it was in the land of the Gadarenes. So right off the bat, there’s a contradiction. But it gets even worse.
Gadara is 5 miles away from the Sea of Galilee. The city of Gerasa is 30 miles away from the coast. That’s one heck of a long stampede for some pigs. Critics have concluded that Mark was ignorant, and Matthew tried to fix it but still managed to bungle things.
And to top it off, Luke and Mark only report that there was one demoniac. Matthew says there were two. So what in the name of bacon is happening here?
A Geographical Error?
Let’s tackle the geographical issue first. There are actually diverse, meaningful textual variants in the Greek of Mark 5:1 and the parallel passages of Matthew 8:28 and Luke 8:26-27. In Mark and Luke, the best-attested reading is Gerasenes, an attempt to represent the adjective corresponding to the place name. Without the vowels, GRS or KRS is how the place name would be written in Aramaic.
In his book “Can We Trust the Gospels?”, Mark Roberts points out that these variants tell us that the demoniac should be called the ‘Madman of Khersa’ instead. Khersa — or modern-day El Kursi — is on the east side of the sea. And there happens to be a steep slope that ends less than 50 years from the Sea of Galilee. Take a look for yourself:
In their book, The Jesus Legend Paul Rhodes Eddy and Greg Boyd point out that archaeologists have located cave tombs within 2 miles of the site. There’s also a 5th-century chapel there, which suggests the early church regarded it as spiritually significant.
But what about the phrase ‘Gadarenes’? It’s feasible that some early scribe of Matthew’s Gospel either misspelled Gerasenes or mistook it for Gadarenes. This is just like if someone might confuse or mistakenly correct Bertram for Bernard (two small cities in my home state of Iowa). Copyists of manuscripts aren’t immune to making spelling mistakes or fixing what they are copying if they think it’s a spelling error.
Why does Matthew have two demoniacs?
I mean, how serious of a problem is this really? If there were two of them, there was at least one, right? Mark and Luke focus on the one that was the more outspoken of the two, the one whose demoniac inhabitants called themselves Legion.
Leaving something out doesn’t equal denial. There’s no account saying there was one and no other. And we’ve all experienced something like this. I’ve been interviewed for promotions before with two managers present. My focus was on the manager questioning me. When manager Jennifer is asking questions while manager Steve is writing notes, my focus is on Jennifer, the vocal one.
If someone later asks me, “how did it go?” and in my response, all I focus on is what Jennifer asked me, that doesn’t mean Steve wasn’t there.
Was Jesus pro-animal cruelty?
So what about the pigs? The famous atheist Bertrand Russell wrote that Jesus isn’t worthy of worship because he’s a pig-killer.
“There is the instance of the Gadarene swine where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill to the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chooses to send them into the pigs…I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.”Why I am Not a Christian
If this incident happened today, I can just imagine the headlines: NAZARETH RABBI CAUSES DEATH OF 2000 PIGS, PETA LAUNCHES PROTEST. Does this put Jesus in the same category as someone like Michael Vick?
For starters, the demons asked if Jesus was going to torment them now, meaning that their time hadn’t yet come to be judged, so he couldn’t make them just go away. (Mark 5:7) While Jesus is omnipotent, he chose not to operate that way as a man. For instance in Mark 6:1-6, we read that Jesus could do no mighty work in Nazareth due to their unbelief. So asking why Jesus didn’t just get rid of the demons is like saying, “why didn’t Jesus get rid of all evil people, evil spirits and every disease and affliction while he was here?”
Not only was Jesus not functioning in full-omnipotence, but he also wasn’t operating in omniscience, either. In the same chapter, he asks, “who touched me?” when the woman with the issue of blood is healed. (Mark 5:31) How can we be sure that Jesus knew what was going to happen to the pigs? That seems unclear.
There’s also nothing in these passages that show that Jesus drove the pigs into the sea and caused them to drown. Satan is the killer, not Jesus. (Jn 8:44) And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say the demons caused the pigs to commit suicide since they just pleaded with Jesus to use them as their new hosts. One answer that Greg Boyd offers is that the demons just drove the pigs crazy, just the same way that parasites can drive animals crazy and cause them to hurt themselves.
I mean, these demons already drove two men into living naked in tombs, screaming and cutting themselves, and they couldn’t be restrained by chains. This is pretty freaky stuff. If Jesus felt like he had a better option, we can see from his character elsewhere in the Gospels that he would’ve taken it.
People are more important than pigs
What stands out is that after seeing the destructive power of Satan and the delivering power of Jesus, the townspeople ask Jesus to leave. They could see the man now clothed and in his right mind, but they seem to care more about the pigs than the people!
In Matthew 10:31, Jesus says that human lives are worth more than many sparrows, and the same can be said for the pigs. While the man delivered begged to follow Jesus, the townspeople urged him to leave.
This shouldn’t need to be said but people are more important than swine. You see this animals-first attitude in our day with groups like PETA, who’ve said tons of outrageously weird things.
This isn’t a case of Jesus acting carelessly. The man went from cutting himself to testifying throughout the region about what Jesus had done for him. This is an epic battle scene in the spiritual war that was being fought for the souls of people in the city. Don’t miss the deliverance for the pigs.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.