No, Mark Didn’t Invent the “Sea” of Galilee

Porphyry, the 3rd-century Greek philosopher, didn’t like Christianity and tried to “sea-ze” any opportunity to debunk it. He believed Mark was just “casting” a big fishy story about the Sea of Galilee. 

Alright, I am “shore” that these puns are lame. However, I’ve noticed that some modern critics of Christianity recycle some of his arguments, so I thought it might be useful to address them. What exactly does Porphyry say? He writes: 

Another section in the gospel deserves comment, for it is likewise devoid of sense and full of implausibility; I mean that absurd story about Jesus sending his apostles across the sea ahead of him after a banquet, then walking across to them “at the fourth watch of the night.” It is related that they had been working all night to keep the boat adrift and were frightened by the size of the storm [surging against the boat]. (The fourth watch would be the tenth hour of the night, with three hours being left.)

Those who know the region well tell us that, in fact, there is no “sea” in the locality but only a tiny lake which springs from a river that flows through the hills of Galilee near Tiberias. Small boats can get across it within two hours. [And the lake is too small] to have seen whitecaps caused by storms. Mark seems to be stretching a point to its extremities when he writes that Jesus—after nine hours had passed—decided in the tenth to walk across to his disciples who had been floating about on the pond for the duration!

As if this isn’t enough, he calls it a “sea”—indeed, a stormy sea—a very angry sea which tosses them about in its waves causing them to fear for their lives. He does this, apparently, so that he can next show Christ miraculously causing the storm to cease and the sea to calm down, hence saving the disciples from the dangers of the swell. It is from fables like this one that we judge the gospel to be a cleverly woven curtain, each thread of which requires careful scrutiny.

(Translation by R. Joseph Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, 1994.)

It’s also worth noting that the Jewish historian Josephus also referred to it as a lake. So it seems like the Gospel writers made a colossal blunder. 

Some biblical critics have picked up on this argument and go on to say that the other Gospel writers, including John, might have borrowed from Mark and tried to fix what they saw as geographical errors. They argue that Mark was exaggerating to convey heavy theological messages about Jesus’ mastery over the chaotic elements. So, how do the critics think that the Gospels address Mark’s mistaken mentions of the Sea of Galilee?

In Luke’s account, he mentions the lake by name only once in 5:1-11, calling it the Lake of Gennesaret when he talks about the calling of the disciples. In four other instances, he simply refers to it as “the lake”.

Matthew, on the other hand, obliviously sticks with Mark’s terminology and consistently calls it the Sea of Galilee. He actually uses the word “sea” (thalassa) eleven times, whereas Mark uses it only seven times.

The critics go on to argue that John a middle path. In 6:1 and 21:1, he calls it the “Sea of Tiberias” and “Sea of Galilee”, combining the Roman name with Mark’s version. After that, he just goes back to calling it “the sea.”

So, except for Luke, who seemed to know his geography better, it looks like the other evangelists might have made a collective mistake here with Luke being the only one to successfully patch it up. The bad news is that if Matthew relied on faulty source like Mark, he wasn’t a local, and the same could be argued for John, meaning they were not eyewitnesses nor the traditional authors.

Skeptics fail to sea the context

But here’s the problem for the critics: The Gospel writers weren’t alone in calling it a “sea.”

The Talmud, a collection of Jewish texts, repeatedly uses the Hebrew word “Yam” to refer to bodies of water, including the Sea of Galilee, often followed by specific geographical designations like “Kinneret” or “Tiveria” (Tiberias).

Moreover, the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), chose to use the Greek word “Thalassa” to translate “Yam” when referring to the Sea of Galilee, referring to it as the Sea of Chinnereth. (Num. 34:11; Deut. 3:17; Josh. 13:27) This reflects the usage of the Hebrew language within Jewish communities during the time of the Talmud’s composition. This translation decision shows that they viewed “Thalassa” as an appropriate and accurate translation for “Yam.”

The Gospels, written in Greek rather than Hebrew, consistently use “Thalassa” to describe the Sea of Galilee. This linguistic continuity with the Septuagint isn’t a coincidence; it shows how people of that time understood geographical terminology. There’s nothing fishy going on here!

The Gospel authors knew their stuff

NT Scholar Peter J. Williams highlights that for a Galilean who hadn’t traveled much, the largest body of fresh water in the area was considered a sea, requiring no further description. However, he suggests that Luke, likely hailing from Antioch near the Orontes and the Mediterranean, would have been more inclined to call it a lake. If Mark’s account is based on Peter’s recollections, and Matthew and John were authored by Galileans, their use of the local vernacular makes sense. (Can We Trust the Gospels?, p 57-58, Kindle Edition)

John’s familiarity with the Sea of Galilee, evident in his Gospel, lines up with the idea that he could have been John, the fisherman son of Zebedee. In passages like John 6:1 and 21:1, he specifically mentions the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberias, acknowledging the dual names it went by. This dual naming is in keeping with historical records, as Josephus tells us that Herod Antipas founded the town of Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee and named it after Emperor Tiberius. And again, the Talmud also refers to the lake as the Sea of Tiberius multiple times. 

Moreover, John’s eye for detail comes through in his account of Jesus walking on water. He goes into specifics, mentioning that the disciples had rowed about “25 to 30 stadia” (roughly three to four miles, see John 6:19) during a storm when they spotted Jesus walking on water. In contrast, Mark 6:47 states that Jesus was on land while the disciples were “in the middle of the sea.”

John’s careful attention to the geography of the Sea of Galilee underscores his knowledge of the area. Although the Sea of Galilee is about seven miles wide at its widest point, John’s reference to distance likely doesn’t refer to its width. Instead, it probably reflects the disciples’ rough situation, suggesting that they weren’t trying to cross the sea at its broadest point and were likely pushed off course by the storm.

A three hour tour?

So, what about Porphyry’s objection regarding the storm? Is it implausible to suggest that a storm of such magnitude could have kept them on the lake for a full nine hours?

No, not really. Such squalls are hardly without precedent. To begin with, every year during the spring months, the wind in the Sea of Galilee blows from the east, known as the ‘whistler’ among the locals in Tiberias.

In May 2022, the Israeli government’s meteorology service reported that significant differences in air pressure between the Galilee region and the weather system in Syria/Iraq, combined with the topography of the Galilee, led to unusual weather conditions. 

“On the night of May 14 and in the early morning hours of May 15, strong easterly winds blew in the north of the country… reaching speeds of about 80 km/h with gusts close to 140 km/h [87 mph], causing trees to collapse and block roadways… the strong easterly winds, combined with the high water level of the Sea of Galilee, caused flooding and damage to the promenade of Tiberias. It should be noted that this combination has previously caused such damages, with the most prominent examples occurring in the spring of 1992 and the spring of 1969.”

Israel Today, Bible-Level Wind Storm Batters Sea of Galilee, David Shishkoff, 5/17/22, accessed 9/2/23

The damages along the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding areas amounted to approximately $50 million. So, Porphyry’s armchair meteorology is off-base. While such a storm might be rare, it doesn’t mean Mark is just making things up to make theological points.

There’s nothing fishy here

Finally, it’s highly improbable that the Gospel writers, who got numerous challenging geographical details right about regions, large and small towns, bodies of water, travel routes, and specific customs and cultures, all without the aid of Google or Wikipedia, were just making things up from a distance. And assertions to the contrary are often quite contrived and easily debunked.

This suggests that the writers either had firsthand knowledge of the land or accurately documented reports from those who did. It also aligns with the idea that the information these writers had is consistent with what we’d expect if the Gospels were indeed written by their traditional authors. While this doesn’t prove the supernatural claims within the Gospels, it does reveal something about the authors: they were well-informed and closely connected to the facts, making it likely that their writings trace back to what the original eyewitnesses asserted.

Therefore, the critics’ assertions regarding the Gospel writers making a geographical mistake in this instance evaporate, to make one last water pun. There is no need to attribute symbolic intentions to the Gospel authors here by calling it the “sea”; the choice of “Thalassa” is a natural reflection of the linguistic and cultural context in which they wrote.

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