Skeptics say that Mark and the other Gospel writers knew little about Palestinian geography. They made grave geographical gaffes. Had the Gospel writers knew their stuff, they wouldn’t make such blatant mistakes. Therefore, we can’t trust them as reliable historical documents.
For Matthew’s Gospel, this is especially problematic. A real Judean local like Matthew wouldn’t borrow from someone as geographically incompetent as Mark. Some critics have concluded from this that whoever wrote Matthew, it couldn’t be Matthew the disciple.
I want to look at three times the Gospel writers supposedly flunk at Palestinian geography and see if these objections really carry any weight.
Is There a Blunder in Mark 7:31?
Here’s the text: “Then he (Jesus) returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.”
Looking at a map, Jesus goes north to travel south. That’s…weird. In his commentary on Mark, critic Hugh Anderson says that Jesus’ course would be like “traveling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” (The Gospel of Mark, Anderson)
Biblical critic Dennis Nineham agrees, writing in his commentary on Mark. From his reading of this verse, he concludes that “the evangelist was not directly acquainted with Palestine.” (The Gospel of St. Mark, Nineham) Oof.
However, I think that critics are jumping to conclusions here. Looking at the context, Mark shows that he does know the geography. Just check out Mark 7:24-26:
“And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.”
So Mark knows where Tyre, Syrian Phoenicia, the Sea of Galilee, and where Decapolis were. Are we really going to assume he didn’t know where Sidon is? I have to say, that’s an uncharitable reading.
Instead of looking at this flat map and assuming that Mark is clueless, let’s look at a topographical map.
You can see Mt. Meron, which stands 4,000 high between Tyre and the Sea of Galilee. According to philosopher Tim McGrew (a human encyclopedia on all things historical apologetics), “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.” Remember that there were no 7-Eleven’s they could stop at on the way to grab an Evian or Gatorade.
Strike one for the critics. Check a good map next time?
What About Mark 11:1?
Here’s the verse: “Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples.” Biblical critic Randel Helms pounces on this:
“Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine; we must assume, Dennis Nineham argues, that ‘Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.’”Who Wrote the Gospels? p. 6
Oof again. But hold on for a second. Read Mark 11:1 again. Notice that the verse doesn’t say: “When they drew near to Jerusalem, they came first to Bethphage, then to Bethany,…”.
Mark only tells his readers roughly where it was on the road that Jesus sent his disciples ahead. The towns Bethphage and Bethany were both on the eastward slopes of the Mount of Olives, just half of a mile from each other.
This is just reading with a hermeneutic of suspicion. A good common-sensical reading of the text reveals no fault. That’s strike two for the critics. Let’s give them one more shot.
Is There a Geographical Goof in Luke 17:11?
Let’s look at the verse: “On the way to Jerusalem, he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.”
Samaria rests between Galilee and Judea. So why would Jesus walk near the border between Samaria and Galilee to go to Jerusalem?
In his commentary on Luke, the late Joseph Fitzmyer says: “This phrase enshrines Luke’s ‘geographical ineptitude’, and it is not easy to explain what is meant here.” (Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke)
Oof yet again. According to Fitzmyer, Luke is geographically inept. But let’s take a look at a map of 1st-century Palestine before we jump the gun and assume that Luke didn’t know what he’s talking about.
There’s some ineptitude going on here, but it’s not on Luke’s geographical ignorance. Rather, it’s Fitzmyer’s ineptitude of considering the historical background.
During the 1st-century, Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught it was sinful to have contact with the opposite group. Neither was to go into each other’s regions. The Jewish historian Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans through the first half of the first century. (For one example, see Jewish Wars, 2.12.3-4)
According to Josephus, the Samaritans would even kill travelers going to Jerusalem (See Antiquities, 20.6.1). And Luke 9:51-52 confirms these hostilities. He wrote:
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”
So going East and traveling near drinking water makes a ton of sense for Jesus. This passage isn’t that mysterious at all. Luke’s description makes perfectly good sense. That’s strike three from the critics.
wAIT A SEC! yOU’RE dODGING THE tOUGHEST oNE!
Someone might say, “You’re avoiding the toughest problem! What about the Mad Man of ‘Gadara’?”
The synoptic writers report that Jesus cast out a multitude of demons and into a herd of pigs, who ran into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. This story is in Matt. 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-29.
Mark and Luke say this strange event unfolded in the country of Gerasenes. Matthew says it was in the land of the Gadarenes. Right off the bat, there’s a contradiction. But it gets worse.
Gadara is 5 miles away from the Sea of Galilee. The city of Gerasa is 30 miles away from the coast. Critics have concluded that Mark was ignorant, and Matthew tried to fix it but still bungled things.
But there are diverse, meaningful textual variants in the Greek text 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 vowels: Gerasa = GRS or KRS is how the place name would be written in Aramaic.
Mark D. Roberts points out in his book “Can We Trust the Gospels?” that these variants tell us that perhaps we should call the demoniac the ‘Mad Man 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 yards from the Sea of Galilee.
Take a look:
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Greg Boyd point out in their book “The Jesus Legend” that archaeologists have located cave tombs within 2 miles of the site. There’s also a 5th-century chapel there, suggesting 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 the term ‘Gerasenes’ or mistook it for ‘Gadarenes,’ just like somebody might confuse or mistakenly correct ‘Waterloo’ for ‘Westerlo’. (Both cities are in New York State)
Copyists of manuscripts are not immune to making spelling mistakes or to “correcting” what they are copying if they think it is a spelling error.
The Gospel Writers Knew Their Stuff
There’s actually a very strong positive case that can be marshaled that the Gospel writers knew Palestinian geography. As Peter J. Williams points out in his book “Can We Trust the Gospels?“, the evangelists list 26 different towns, from prominent cities like Jerusalem to obscure towns like Nain or Chorazin.
They also include 13 different regions and 5 different bodies of water and show an uncanny knowledge of where things are, even down to the information on roads and trees. Repeatedly they demonstrate knowledge of obscure details. For more details, check out my friend Ryan Leasure’s post on the topic “The Gospel Authors Knew Palestinian Geography.”
On the flip side, the apocryphal gospels like The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary or Gospel of Judas barely list any locations. This shows that the four evangelist’s accounts are of a much higher quality. They knew a lot more than what critics give them credit for.
“No known sources hold together the particular set of information they (Gospel writers) have; and besides, we would have to suppose that they undertook a level of literary research quite unparalleled in ancient history. If these pieces of information result from hearing, then the reports they heard must have been fairly precise — concerned with stories not merely for their message but also for specific details. Thus it seems that the authors received the information either from their experience or from detailed hearing.”
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.