2010-08-06

Mark: failed geography, but great bible student

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by Neil Godfrey

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Much has been said about Mark’s poor knowledge of the geography of Palestine. A classic case is his bizarre itinerary for Jesus leaving Tyre to go north, then south-east, then back east again, to reach is final destination. On the map here, locate Tyre, run your finger north to Sidon, than let it wander to the right and downwards till it reaches Decapolis, then zero up to the “lake” of Galilee.

That is the route that the Gospel of Mark says Jesus took in order to get from Tyre to the “sea of Galilee”.

Jesus’ travel agent must have been offering a super-bargain or Mark had little real knowledge of the geography of the area, or . . . . and there IS a very simple explanation, I think.

And that explanation is, suggests R. Steven Notley in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature (128, no. 1, 2009: 183-188), that the author of this gospel was simply following a passage in the Book of Isaiah that early Christians interpreted as a prophecy of where the Messiah was to appear and perform his saving works.

Isaiah 9:1

. . . in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.

This passage is better known from the Gospel of Matthew (4:12-16). But Notley finds good reasons to suggest Mark knew it — and used it — in his gospel, and has suffered the reputation of being a geographic illiterate ever since!

Mark informs us that Jesus was on his way to Bethsaida on the “Sea of Galilee”. But misadventure (stormy winds, ghosts, etc — Mark 6:45-53) led them astray and he and his disciples were obliged to resume their journey from 7:31

And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.

It’s now time to have another look at Isaiah 9:1. There are three geographical referents here, in order:

  1. the way of the sea
  2. the other side of Jordan
  3. [Galilee – Greek/LXX] [region – Hebrew] of the gentiles

Point 3 is important here. The Hebrew word was understood as “region”, but the Greek translation interpreted it as “Galilee”.

Originally Isaiah probably meant by “way of the sea” the main road to the Mediterranean Sea that marked the northern border of the uppermost lands of Israel threatened by the Assyrian invaders; and by “the other side of Jordan”, Isaiah was probably referring to the eastern frontier of Israel’s territory facing the first thrust of Assyrian conquests; and finally, by “region of the gentiles” (for the Hebrew takes the word that Greek translations have read as “Galilee” as originally meaning “region”) Isaiah was indicating the southern boundaries of these northern settlements.

Matthew took these three diverse regions and reinterpreted them for his Gospel to point to a single point on the map — the area of Christ’s ministry. By so doing, the word for “sea” became associated with Galilee (and it’s lake) and thus displaced from its original reference to the Mediterranean. Notley suggests, if I understand correctly, that Matthew was actually drawing on a pre-gospel Christian tradition or “midrash” of this verse in Isaiah.

In this way Notley explains the oddity of describing the more technically correct name, Lake of Gennesar (Luke), as a “sea” of Galilee.

The interesting point concerning this passage in Mark’s gospel, then, is that Mark’s itinerary for Jesus appears to follow the order of the geographical references in Isaiah. And in so doing, Mark has constructed a bizarre way to get Jesus from Tyre to the “sea of Galilee”, but has demonstrated a very close affinity to the passage in Isaiah:

So Jesus in Mark:

  1. leaves the Tyre-Sidon route, which is part of what was the ancient main highway from Galilee to and along the Mediterranean Sea (Isaiah’s “by the way of the sea”)
  2. travels across through the other side of Jordan, (through the Decapolis or gentile region)
  3. to finally arrive at the shore of the “sea of Galilee”

If this stands up to scrutiny, then perhaps we have an explanation for an itinerary for Jesus that Mark has long been criticized over.

Mark may have known little about the geography of Palestine, but he did know his Jewish scriptures.

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20 Comments

  • 2010-08-07 00:56:11 UTC - 00:56 | Permalink

    Kind of off topic, but I wonder what Mark would have said if asked about the discrepancies. I am imaging a guy not surprised at all, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “So?” I doubt he would have felt any of this was important, or he would not have used the imagery the way he did.

    Not to minimize the importance of writing on the topic. If a large population is swayed by fundamentalist ideas of biblical inerrancy, it needs to be spoken about. And the bible is so much more interesting when you can dig in to the details this way.

    I like the concept of the authors use of midrash. It seems to fit the evidence well, and gives some insight into who they were and what they were really trying to do.

    • 2010-08-07 09:40:02 UTC - 09:40 | Permalink

      To share my ignorance here . . . .

      It’s an interesting question, and I wonder if part of it interest lies in how the question seems so natural to us, but might never have occurred to any but the “fringe atheistic sceptics” of the ancient world who even laughed at the very notion of the gods. From what I understand, the very notion of history as “what really happened”, as a “scientific” type of discipline — as in the sense of a forensic investigation of the evidence to establish the verifiable facts — is little more than 2 or 3 centuries old.

      (Aside comment here, addressing another tangent: I know modern historiography is more than that. It is really also about the creation of stories from the ‘verifiable facts’, and this involves value judgments in the selection and weighing of ‘facts’ — and that’s where it comes alive and has meaning for our own interests and identities. That’s where a lot of the discussion of the philosophy of history arises. This is the sense in which von Ranke called history “an art”. But there is a step before that that is more often than not simply taken for granted — the sifting of primary and secondary sources, establishing “raw facts”, etc. Historians like James McGrath — and apparently quite a few NT historians — are ignorant of this basic two-fold nature of history and do not really deserve to be called “historians” in the same sense as scholars who study history in nonreligious and nonbiblical topics.)

      I think of ancient authors, poets and philosophers and historians, calling on the Muses or gods to give them a good understanding of the past. And Justin Martyr, establishing the ‘facts’ of the life of Christ from the revelation of the scriptures. History (perhaps better, ‘the story of the past’) was very often something that was in a sense revealed. Even Luke’s so-called witnesses were in a sense ‘prophets’, or inspired by understanding through the spirit, as we learn at the end of his gospel.

      Sure these authors would sometimes acknowledge that there were contradictory accounts they had to decide between, and they would sometimes express scepticism over certain narratives they had inherited. But sometimes the contradictory accounts were both presented side by side. Herodotus did this; and some see the same process at work in the contradictory accounts, side by side, of creation and David in the Bible – with the difference that the editor has not stitched them together with his own comments to draw explicit attention to their contradictory nature.

      If someone did go back from our time to point out certain “logical” implausibilities in the accounts, I wonder if they would be met with uncomprehending looks, and simply point to the source of the revealed history and wonder what you are talking about.

      It’s a question I have yet to explore with any thoroughness. I’m sure others must have more informed ideas.

  • 2010-08-07 09:18:22 UTC - 09:18 | Permalink

    It never ceases to amaze me that one can talk of this verse in Mark 7:31 without mentioning that it is unlikely to belong to Mark. (i.e., the real Mark, Ur-Mark). Its rather obvious from Luke’s treatment of “Mark” that it did not contain the infamous section Mark 6:47 – 8:26 (the Great Lukan Omission). Here’s a handy chart to show its real context:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20120119131502/http://adultera.awardspace.com/SYNOP/synoptic6.html

    The ‘geographic failure’ is really a success, of a different kind. The purpose of the insertion of this large section (like those of Luke) was to preserve the Samaritan/Syrophoenecian traditions of these marginalized outsiders in the Jesus Movement.

    “Samaritan-Mark” has Jesus travel through these named towns (and see the unique names and places throughout this group of pericopes) to get them into the Gospel text (the “our home-town” syndrome, familiar to any soccer hooligan).

    peace
    Nazaroo

    • 2010-08-07 09:52:14 UTC - 09:52 | Permalink

      There is an alternative explanation for the Great Omission, and that is that Luke omitted the Markan mission to gentiles/samaritans because his plan was to reserve these areas for the disciples after Jesus’ commissioned them, and then empowered them at Pentecost.

      Mark’s gospel of “the Way” has Jesus traveling back and forth between Jewish and gentile regions, bringing the two into the one community (Kelber). Later evangelists had different ideas.

      I am interested in the similar geographical setup in the 1 Enoch — especially the divide between Galilean-gentile scope of the north being where God revealed himself direct from his heavenly temple, and this sector standing in opposition to the earthly temple and priesthood at Jerusalem.

      ETA: If that section was not original to Mark, do we find evidence for this within Mark itself? Language and style?

      • Greg G.
        2016-02-29 03:06:19 UTC - 03:06 | Permalink

        Matthew has a copy of Mark in it and chapters 14 – 16 covers the Great Omission portion of Mark.

        John 6 follows Mark 6 starting with the Feeding of the 5000, through the Walking on Water, and on to Gennasaret at the end of Mark 6. Then John has Jesus begin the Bread of Life discourse when the people ask for a sign in John 6:30, the same question the Pharisees ask in Mark 8:11-12.

        I cannot find any of Mark 7 in John.

        Luke seems oblivious that there is anything missing from Mark. Perhaps the scribe who produced Luke’s copy or the one before that smoothed out the discontinuity well enough. But John must have known there was something missing and tried to fill it with the Bread of Life discourse based on the Last Supper in Mark. Luke 16:20-21 has Lazarus wanting to be fed with crumbs from the rich man’s table and dogs licking his sores which sounds like it could have come from Mark 7:28, or Matthew 15:27, if Mark Goodacre is right about Luke using Matthew.

        So, perhaps there was a period before the other gospels were written when Christians ripped out some portion of Mark 7 and any attached text.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-02-29 07:44:37 UTC - 07:44 | Permalink

          Or perhaps Luke omitted that section of Mark because it portrayed Jesus mixing with gentile regions and Luke (or the final editor of Luke-Acts) had theological reasons for postponing all the gentile ministry till much later — the book of Acts.

          It is also possible that Luke’s final edit was after John.

  • mcduff
    2010-08-07 19:28:38 UTC - 19:28 | Permalink

    The author of “Mark” reminds me of male Bowerbirds who collect bright shiny objects, with a preference for the colour blue, and arrange them, just so, in a bower to attract female devotees.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowerbird

    They even steal the bright shiny [blue] objects from other male Bowerbirds.

    This is what “Mark” seems to have done.
    Collected little bits from various places which he [presuming he] places in a carefully contstructed text/bower to build and ornament his story.

    He seems to have collected from Greek sources [inscriptions at temples of Asclepius eg 8.24ff], Roman sources [eg reference to Julius Caesar at 9.40] rabbinic sources [eg Leviticius Rabbi 111,5 at 12.41 ff] and of course, most importantly, the LXX.

    But although he is obviously not well acquainted with the geography or social customs or laws of Judea, witness his errors relating to the sabbath, divorce law and history, he does cite and quote the LXX frequently within a context that renders much of his entire story beholden to the motifs and themes of the Jewish scriptures yet I reckon its overpraising him to say he is a great bible student.

    He makes errors.

    Such as:
    1. Right at the beginning of his story, at 1.2 he referes to:
    “as is written in Isaiah the prophet” when the actual quote is only partly derived from Isaiah.
    Recognizing this later editors of “Mark”, eg “Matthew” had to amend their original material to correct “Mark”‘s mistake.
    2. Similarly ‘correction’ had to be undertaken of “Mark”‘s using 1 Sam 21.1-6, David and the bread, at “Mark” 2.26 when the author incorrectly identifies the HP as Abiathar when it was actually Ahimelech.

    I kinda like the comment above:
    ” …I wonder what Mark would have said if asked about the discrepancies. I am imaging a guy not surprised at all, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “So?” I doubt he would have felt any of this was important ….”

    I think he would reckon it looks pretty and attracts the devotees.

  • 2010-08-07 11:30:19 UTC - 11:30 | Permalink

    neil Godfrey: ” ETA: If that section was not original to Mark, do we find evidence for this within Mark itself? Language and style?”

    The best place to start is to compare the parallel stories of the Feeding of the 5000/4000, which we have conveniently done here on the same page (higher up):

    http://web.archive.org/web/20120119131502/http://adultera.awardspace.com/SYNOP/synoptic6.html

    We see that the two different stories are in fact literarily dependent, that is, either one on the other, or both from a common source. This could be a (very short period of) oral tradition, or simply sketch-stories passed around. But it would be natural for a second witness to pick up the remembered and acknowledged pieces of the story and re-tell it his own way.

    But I think one (the 4000) has been edited two ways: Some eye-witness(es) have added dialogue, mainly from Jesus from recollections, to fill out the story, and the differences also seem to reflect not a different story, but different remembrances of the same story. (both stories take place in the North: Galilee). And also, there is an additional layer of editing in order to dovetail the whole section into Mark by building in the very explanation for the (new) descrepancy in content (see our explanation on the same page).

    The additional details from a living eyewitness would be strong incentive to try to preserve both stories, rather than blend them or edit them (which clearly only happens in later gospels, like Matthew and possibly Luke.) John also takes up the story (5000) but embellishes it differently, i.e., with his advanced political/theological/liturgical purposes. This extra example makes it clear that evangelists could quite naturally pick up the skeletal pieces of a story and combining it with their own knowledge and memories re-tell it their own way.

    I would look for linguistic clues by comparing two such passages easily identified as from different sources. But mere vocabulary/syntax/style tests have been laced with error in the past. We have documented the evolution of “internal evidence”-theories onsite here:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20120620210840/http://adultera.awardspace.com:80/INT-EV/index.html

    peace
    Nazaroo

    • 2010-08-07 11:57:46 UTC - 11:57 | Permalink

      When Herodotus had two different versions of an event, he placed the two side by side, sometimes giving his own opinion as to which one was the more likely. Some have suggested we find the same technique in the Hebrew Bible – two versions placed side by side (e.g. David’s rise, the creation of man). But here the author has clearly decided to inform us of two separate, but similar, events. The author did not appear to think he was preserving the different recollections of the one event. He even places them in two separate locations: the 5000 on the Jewish side of the Lake of Galilee, and the 4000 on the gentiles side. We see similar doublets — exorcisms and healings — on the Jewish side, and similar exorcisms and healings on the gentile side of the lake or up further north in gentile areas.

      The verse discussed in this post is the dividing marker between the two settings: Jesus is moving among the region of the gentiles here, after having done similar works among the Jewish areas.

      I find it difficult to conceive of real eyewitnesses to real miracles. I find it easier to accept that the author was creating an imaginative story to illustrate theology.

  • 2010-08-08 06:07:47 UTC - 06:07 | Permalink

    I think he would reckon it looks pretty and attracts the devotees.
    That is about my take on it as well, great analogy.

    Neil, thanks for the lengthy reply, intriguing stuff.

    • 2010-08-08 10:35:08 UTC - 10:35 | Permalink

      That was McDuff’s reply, and I think he reminded me that I had pretty much come to your conclusion, too. Great minds and all that. 🙂

      One think I liked about McDuff’s bowerbird analogy is that though we can see the author had some sort of meaning in mind to his different parts, what that original meaning was is to a large extent lost to us. I have heard that if someone moves one of the various blue objects from one part of the nest floor to another, the male will definitely notice and relocate it just where it “ought to be”.

  • Rick_H
    2010-08-08 15:13:41 UTC - 15:13 | Permalink

    Mark 7:31 doesn’t say Jesus went the direct route to Galilee. Jesus could have had a reason to go to Sidon that Mark either didn’t know about or didn’t feel necessary to mention.

  • 2010-08-08 17:30:59 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

    Then why would he bother to mention the strange itinerary at all if he had no reason to explain its purpose? No, your point is ad hoc rationalization or special pleading. Narrators explain such things to their readers, or at least they do not drop in strange details that would surely raise questions and leave readers mystified.

    So Matthew corrected Mark’s travel “blunder” and wrote that Jesus simply returned to the lake of Galilee. Matt 15.29 http://bible.cc/matthew/15-29.htm

    Matthew had already used that Isaiah passage to introduce the general locale of Jesus’ ministry. So he failed to appreciate or accept Mark’s apparent use of Isaiah here. When so much else in Mark takes on meaning through the Isaiah and other OT books, then is it not simplest to think Mark is inviting his readers to see this journey of Jesus as a prophetic fulfilment of preaching to both Israel and gentiles?

  • maryhelena
    2010-08-09 01:07:11 UTC - 01:07 | Permalink

    Perhaps, before we charge Mark’s itinerary with being in error it might be worthwhile considering a little further ahead in the storyline…

    Mark ch.8 has Jesus preaching in Bethsaida and around the villages of Caesarea Phillipi. If we take Mark 7.31 for what it says…” Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decaplolis” – taking into account that Jesus headed north instead of south after leaving Tyre – then, whatever route he did eventually take to go South, to the Sea of Galilee and the Decapolis – he straightaway does the journey back up north again – Bethsaida to Caesarea Philiipi…

    Perhaps its the later itinerary – Bethsaida to Caesarea Phillipi that is out of sequence and hence adding a bit of confusion re Mark 7.31. If the Mark 8 itinerary is viewed as filling in some details re Mark 7.31 – its apparent back-tracking of the itinerary could well be understood in that light.

    So, Jesus leaves Tyre, goes north towards the vicinity of Sidon – heads for the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, visits Bethsaida – then to the Sea of Galilee and the Decapolis…Thus, Mark 7.31 is probably a condensed version of the itinerary – leaving out Caesarea Philippi – and Mark 8 is filling in more details – re the back-tracking to the stopovers in the villages of Caesarea Phillipi and Bethsaida. Or Mark simply decides to make two stories out of it….thus causing confusing re the strange geography……(a confusion that does suggest that Galilee is being purposefully missed…..Antipas territory after all – and the territory of Philip the Tetrarch perhaps a safer bet..- John the Baptist being recently beheaded by Antipas…..)

    Anyway, since Caesarea Phillipi is a big deal re the gospel storyline – that it was in this area that Jesus asked his disciples who do people say he is – and Peter answers with – you are the christ – this area is pretty central to the wanderings of the gospel Jesus…(Mark 8. 22-30)

    Just another way to think about the Sidon reference to going north after leaving Tyre.

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  • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
    2014-04-11 20:26:04 UTC - 20:26 | Permalink

    I was really interested in Notley`s view, but in the end I’m not convinced that his theory is correct. His theory is based on the illusion of our real geography and he fails to understand that Mark locates places and landscapes in a completely other way. In GMark the Decapolis is the land “beyond the sea” and not “beyond the Jordan”. The land on the other side of the Jordan is in GMark another country far far away from the Decapolis. But it seems possible to me that LXX-Isaiahs´ Galilee of the gentiles/nations has influenced Mark.

  • gary
    2016-06-28 04:17:20 UTC - 04:17 | Permalink

    Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

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