By Gordon Franz
The account in the Synoptic gospels of the demoniacs of Gadara is a pivotal event in the Galilean ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. This event is recorded in all three Synoptic gospels (Matt. 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). This paper will examine several “problems” relating to this account and then an attempt will be made to place it in proper perspective in relation to the whole of the Lord Jesus’ ministry.
The first issue to be examined is the textual problem of the passage. Does the text read the region of the Gergesenes, Gadarenes or Gerasenes? The conclusion of this textual problem will determine the outcome of the second “problem”, which is the identification of the site where this event took place. Did it take place in the region of Gergesa, Gadara, or Jerash? The text is clear that this event took place on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Two (maybe three) possible sites have been proposed for the setting of the casting of the demons into the swine. The first possibility, which is now a National Park, is the Byzantine Kursi church on the southern banks of the Wadi Samek. The other possibility is Tel Samra, situated under the campground of Kibbutz Ha’on. The third issue, a moral one, is why did the Lord Jesus allow the herd of swine to be destroyed? After all, they were part of God’s creation! Is it because they were not kosher, or did they have some cultic connections? If these issues can be successfully resolved, then it will give us a clearer perspective on the ministry of the Lord Jesus and the message that each gospel writer is trying to set forth.
The Textual Problem
I believe that the Textus Receptus has the better reading concerning this textual problem. The proper reading of the text should be the region of the “Gergesenes” in Matthew’s gospel (8:28), and the region of the “Gadarenes” in Mark’s (5:1) and Luke’s (8:26) gospels. If this is the case, is this a contradiction? Were they two separate regions, or different names for the same region? I would like to propose that they were two different names for the same region. One must keep in mind the audience to whom each gospel is addressed. Matthew, the former tax collector from Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, is writing primarily to a Jewish audience, probably in the Land of Israel. Mark appears to be addressing a Jewish audience in the Diaspora, possibly Rome. Luke is writing to a Gentile audience somewhere in the Roman world.
If the reading in Matthew’s gospel is “Gergasenes”, then there are two possible interpretations of the name (Lightfoot 1859:II:166, 409, 410). The first is it stands for an “old Gergashite family.” Unfortunately, of the seven references to the nation of the Girgashites that were in the Land when the Israelites entered, none of them give any geographical hints as to where the nation was located (Gen. 10:16; 15:21; Deut. 7:1; Josh. 3:10; 24:11; I Chron. 1:14; Neh. 9:8). There is supposedly a Talmudic reference which places them in the region of Gilead or the Golan Heights, but I have not been able to confirm this. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, would refer to the region by its old Semitic name. This phenomenon can be illustrated by the city of Beth-Shean, another Decapolis city. During the Hellenistic period, the name of the city was changed to Scythopolis, yet “the Jews there continued to call the place by its old name. A bilingual ossuary inscription found in Jerusalem has the Semitic inscription ‘Ammyiah ha-Beshanit’ and ‘Hanin ha-Beshani’ which corresponds in the Greek part of the inscription to ‘Ammia Skuthopolitissa’ and ‘Anin Skuthpoleites’. Josephus makes a point of saying that the ‘Greeks’ called the place Scythopolis ( Antiq. 12:348; 13:188 [LCL 7:181, 321]) and the Talmudic sources always call the place by the shortened form ‘Beishan’ (which is preserved in the Arabic ‘Beisan’)” (Rainey 1973). There is another bilingual ossuary from Jerusalem with the name “Papias, / the Be(t)shanite” in Hebrew and “Papias and Salomich (!) / the Scythopolitans” in Greek (Rahmani 1994:112, no. 139). Another possibility is that it refers to “the muddy and clayey nature of the soil which is called ‘gergishta’ by the Jews” (Lightfoot 1859:II: 410). If this is the case, then Matthew reflects the local conditions which he was aware of from living across the Lake, perhaps this was a nickname for the region. Mark and Luke, writing to audiences that might not be acquainted with the geography of the region refers to the place by its Greek name, Gadara, one of the Decapolis cities.
Two or One Demoniacs?
I find it interesting that Matthew records two demoniacs in his account, and I think he does so with a purpose in mind. There is no contradiction between Matthew and the other two Synoptic gospel writers. If there are two demoniacs, then there is obviously at least one. Mark and Luke are emphasizing the leader of the two, but why does Matthew mention two? In the Hebrew mindset, a fact is established in a court of law by two or more witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). The Spirit of God had Matthew emphasize the second demoniac because He was pointing out to the Jewish mindset, that the gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jewish people and the Kingdom of Heaven was to include Gentiles! Yet Matthew confirmed this concept by two Gentile demoniacs being healed on the first trip the Lord Jesus and His disciples took to Gentile territory.
The Location of the Event
All geographers of the Bible place the event of the demoniac on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Yet there is a difference of opinions as to where on the east side. Tourists visiting Israel today are shown the remains of the Byzantine church / monastery complex at Kursi, now a National Park, on the southern banks of Wadi Samek. Just to the south of the site is a sharp decline that might fit the geographical requirements for the place where the swine went into the sea. The site of Kursi was excavated in the early 1970’s and identified by the excavators with the demoniac event (Tzaferis 1983: 43-48). Yet if one reads the excavation report carefully, there is no archaeological support for this identification. Unfortunately, only the western part of the mosaic floor in the nave (central aisle) of the church was left intact, while the eastern part was badly damaged. If there were any inscriptions identifying to whom or what this church was dedicated to in the eastern end of the nave, it was destroyed (1983:23). One scholar suggested there was possibly a scene of pigs on the floor (Nun 1989b: 25). However, this is wishful thinking on his part based on his assumption that this church commemorated the place where Jesus exorcised the demons into the swine. Those who hold to the Kursi site as the place of the demoniac event also argue that Mark and Luke would use the familiar Greek name “Gadara” because the readers would be familiar with this name. However, this conclusion fails to take into account the other Decapolis city between Kursi and Gadara, namely Hippos (or Susita). Their Gentile readers would be familiar with this city as well.
I have proposed elsewhere that the Kursi church should be identified with the feeding of the 4,000 recorded in the gospel narratives (Matt. 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10; Franz 1991: 117-120). I was intrigued to find that C. J. Ellicott (1874:205, 206, note 3) proposed this identification in 1874 yet he gave no reason for it, nor was he aware of the Byzantine church.
I have also proposed that the casting of the demons into the swine took place at the ancient harbor located just south of Tel Samra, now the campground of Kibbutz Ha’on (Franz 1991:114-116). Some textual critics have objected to the reading of Gadara, located at Umm Qeis, south of the Yarmuk River, because it is to far from the Sea of Galilee (10 Kilometers as the crow flies) and had no control over any part of the Lake. In 1985, however, as a result of the low water level, a harbor was discovered south of Tel Samra. This harbor is the largest harbor on the east side of the lake, larger than Hippos (Susita), the other Decapolis city bordering the lake. Its outer breakwater measures some 250 meters long and has a 5 meter wide base. The quay, or landing place for the boats, is some 200 meters long. There is also a 500 meter pier along the shore (Nun 1989a: 16-18). Mendel Nun, a fisherman from Kibbutz Ein Gev and a noted authority on the Sea of Galilee surmised: “One can only assume that a splendid harbor such as this did not serve a small population. It is much more likely that it once had been the harbor of Gadara, located on the heights of Gilead above the Yarmuk River – the largest and most magnificent of the Hellenistic towns that encircled the Sea of Galilee” (1989a: 17).
Coins from Gadara were discovered which depict boats commemorating the “Naumachia,” or naval battles reenacted by the people of Gadara. Several scholars have suggested that these battles took place on the Yarmuk River (Dalman n.d.: 178, 179). But along the shore of the Sea of Galilee is now a more defendable conclusion. The “shore” conclusion would allow for the comfortable seating of the spectators along the 500 meter pier as they watched the sea battles.
Another interesting observation is the discovery of a Byzantine “chapel / church” unearthed in the excavations of Tel Samra adjacent to the harbor (Nun 1989a:16). To whom or what was this church dedicated? Did it commemorate the demoniac event? We do not know for sure because the excavations have never been properly published.
Assuming the location of this event is the harbor of Gadara, how does the geography fit the Biblical text? The Lord Jesus and His disciples landed in the harbor and got out of the boat and were met by a demon possessed man (men) who lived in tombs (Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27). There were tombs in the area as attested to by three sarcophagi that were found in the area. The demons requested to be thrown into the herd of swine which were “a good way off”, “on / near the mountain (s)” (the Golan Heights – Matt. 8:32; Mark 5:13; Luke 8:33).
There are two possibilities as to where this event took place. The first possibility is just behind Kibbutz Ha’on. There is a ridge there that comes down from the Golan Heights that would allow the swine to run down from the top of the heights. The second possibility, suggested by Michael Avi-Yonah, is in on the grounds of Kibbutz Ma’agan ( CBA 233; 2002:172, 173). This location is the only one in the southern part of the lake with a cliff that drops off into the lake. However, it should be pointed out that text does not demand a cliff. After the swine were destroyed, the predominately Gentile population of the Decapolis pleaded with the Lord Jesus to leave their territory. Apparently He was disrupting their economy and culinary delights, i.e. pork chops and ham!
Why Were the Swine Destroyed?
Some critics have objected to this story because it seems like a senseless waste of a herd of pigs. Again, the audience of each gospel is to be kept in mind. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, wanted to emphasize that the Lord Jesus was upholding the Mosaic Law concerning the prohibition of eating pork (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8; Isa. 65:4; 66:3, 17) and His words, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Mark and Luke had another purpose in mind. Dr. Earl S. Johnson, Jr., in a paper delivered at the 1989 AAR / SBL meeting in Los Angeles, CA, pointed out that: “Since Mark’s gospel was written to Christians living somewhere in the Roman Empire, possibly even in Rome itself, it is not unlikely that this miracle narrative could be better understood if it were examined from a Gentile or Roman perspective. Information about the nature of Geresa [his suggestion, although it also holds true for Gadara – GF] as a Roman city, evidence about the practice of the Roman soldiers to memorialize themselves in provincial necropolis, and the Roman use of pigs for sacrifice, especially for atonement, all indicate that Mark’s narrative clearly has a Roman perspective in mind and that it serves a function much like the temple cleansing scene in chapter 11: Jew and Roman alike must abandon former practices of sacrifice in order to follow Jesus Christ, the one whose death and resurrection make all these rituals superfluous” (1989:49, 50).
Theological Implications of the Event
This event is pivotal in the Galilean ministry of the Lord Jesus. In order to appreciate this significance, a review of the events leading up to it will be given. The time setting for this event is around November of AD 28. Apparently, the day before (according to Jewish reckoning) the Lord Jesus was having an evening meal with His disciples (Mark 3:20), but was interrupted by one who was brought to Him demon possessed, blind and mute (Matt. 12:22). The Lord Jesus healed him and the multitudes began to wonder if He was not the Son of David (Matt. 12:23). The scribes from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22) and Pharisees (Matt. 12:24) attributed His power to Beelzebub / Satan. The Lord Jesus then gave the parable of the kingdom that was divided against itself (Matt. 12:25-30; Mark 3:23-27) and pronounced the “unpardonable sin” (Matt. 12:31, 32; Mark 3:26-30).
Later, some Scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign (Matt. 12:38-42). The Lord Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah the Prophet”. This sign has a two-fold meaning. First, it was a prophecy concerning the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and second, an illusion to the salvation of the Gentiles. He gives two cases of Gentile salvation to prove His point, first, the men of Nineveh rising up in judgment because they repented, and second, the Queen of Sheba because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Interestingly, Matthew, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, quotes Isaiah 42:1-3 just before this section (Matt. 123:18-20). He concluded with the interpretative statement, “And in His name Gentiles will trust” (Matt. 12:21).
On the next morning (Matt. 13:1, but still the same day according to Jewish reckoning), the Lord Jesus took the multitudes outside Capernaum to a little cove just west of the city and gives the parables of the Sower and the Four Fields, the Wheat and the Tares, Light under a Basket, Growing Seed, Mustard Seed, and Leaven (Matt. 13:2-35; Mark 4:1-34; Luke 8:4-18; Crisler 1976:134-138). Before dismissing the crowd, He gave a command to His disciples to depart with Him to the “other side” (Matt. 8:18-22). The Lord Jesus dismissed the crowd and went back to Peter’s house in Capernaum and explained the parable of the Wheat and the Tares as well as gave four more parables, i.e. the Hidden Treasure, Pearl of Great Price, Dragnet and Householder to His disciples (Matt. 13:36-52).
The demoniac event is the first recorded time in Jesus’ public ministry where He takes His disciples to Gentile territory. The response of His disciples was interesting. One disciple was over excited and said he would follow Jesus wherever He went. The Lord Jesus pointed out that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” This response is probably an allusion to the rejection that occurred the night before by the Scribes and Pharisees and in preparation by the Gentiles of Gadara on the next day. Another disciple, possibly Peter, gave a lame excuse about reburying his father because he did not want to go over to those unclean, catfish and swine eating pagans in the Decapolis. The Lord rebuked him and said, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:21, 22; Franz 1992: 54-58). As it turned out, all the disciples embarked into the boat and “crossed over to the other side” to Gentile territory. On the way over, there was a violent winter windstorm that the Lord Jesus, the Master of the Sea, rebuked and the disciples marveled and wondered, “Who is this Man that even the winds and waves obey Him?”
This review was given to show that the Demoniac event was pivotal in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. He had been rejected by the Scribes from Jerusalem and the Pharisees, and now began to change the focus of His ministry to include the Gentiles. It should be pointed out, however, that the nation as a whole did not reject Him at this time. Six months later there is still a large multitude following Him, in fact, they wanted to make Him King! (See John 6 and the feeding of the 5,000).
The response of one of the demoniacs is quite interesting. After their salvation experience, according to Luke’s gospel, one of the demoniacs was “sitting at the feet of Jesus” (8:35). Sitting at the feet of a person is a rabbinic term for “I want to be your disciple!” How quickly he grasped the matchless grace of God in his life and wanted to study and be used by his new Master. The Lord Jesus sent him back to his family and friends to be the first Gentile missionary to the Gentiles recorded in the Gospels. He commanded the delivered demoniac to return to his house and tell his family and friends what great things the Lord ( Kurious – Mark 5:19) and God ( Theos – Luke 8:39) had done for him. Interestingly, this Gentile had a high Christology of Jesus because he went back to his city and throughout the Decapolis to tell everyone what great things JESUS had done for him! He clearly understood who delivered him from the demons and provided his salvation, Jesus, who is both Lord and God. For the next year and a half he shared the good news of Jesus in the Decapolis. The next time Jesus came to the region of the Decapolis, there were 4,000 Gentiles waiting to greet Him and hear His words (Matt. 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10).
Also note, Jesus commanded him to return to his house, yet he went throughout the Decapolis proclaiming the good news of Christ. The grace of God in his life motivated him to do more than what was required or commanded. Should not that be true of each and every one of us who know the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior?
This portion of God’s Word is fascinating when understood in the historical, geographical and theological context in which it was written and has some very practical lessons for believers in the Lord Jesus today.
We have suggested that the proper reading of the text in Matthew is “Gergesene” and in Mark and Luke, “Gadarenes.” Thus the demoniac is from the region of Gadara or Gergesa. These two names are different names for the same city / region. If this is the case, than the casting of the demons into the herd of swine took place near the newly discovered harbor of Gadara, now located near Tel Samra, or the campground for Kibbutz Ha’on. The reason the Lord Jesus allowed the demons to go into the herd of swine and be destroyed was to show the Roman reading audience that salvation is to be found by faith alone in the lord Jesus Christ and not in the atonement of pigs.
If this account is placed in its proper chronological setting it has some interesting theological implications as well as practical applications. The trip to Gadara was the first time in the ministry of the Lord Jesus where He went to Gentile territory. This occurred after the religious establishment rejected Him. Now, the Lord Jesus changed the focus of His ministry toward the Gentiles.
While He had stated on a prior occasion that God loved the world (John 3:16), only now does He actively begin to proclaim that message to the Gentiles. This upset at least one disciple who made an excuse to avoid the trip to Gentile territory. The Lord Jesus rebuked him and he went anyway. By this, the Lord Jesus was beginning to break down the prejudicial barriers of His Jewish disciples toward the unkosher, pagan Gentiles. Well might we learn this lesson: The Kingdom of God is for all, even those who are not like ourselves. As the Sunday School song goes, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
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This paper was first read at the Eastern Region Evangelical Theological Society meeting held at Westminster Theological Seminary in PA on April 5, 1991.