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, then 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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Neil Godfrey

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30 thoughts on “Mark: failed geography, but great bible student”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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:


    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).


    1. 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?

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. Mark has the Feeding of the 5000 in the wilderness so it is necessary to feed the masses because it would be hard for them to find food. Afterward, they plan to go to Bethsaida. The disciples leave, Jesus walks on the water, there is a storm and they end up at Gennasaret, then there is the Feeding of the 4000, then they go to Bethsaida, Jesus perform a spit miracle, and gets asked a question.

            Perhaps Luke objected to Jesus being headed to Bethsaida and getting derailed, so he had the Feeding of the 5000 in Bethsaida, where they could have found food so the mass feeding was unnecessary, then Luke omits the spit miracle, and Jesus gets asked the same question but by someone else.

            I just came across this comment by accident. This is something I thought of a year or two ago, so I may have some details missing or misplaced.

  3. 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.


    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.

  4. 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):


    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:



    1. 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.

    1. 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”.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

    1. Sorry, I know this is very late, but here is your living witness.

      John, one of the Sons of Thunder, was called “John the Elder” by early Christians. According to traditions, he died between AD 98 and 100 (hard to confirm as not many deaths are recorded in ancient history, you know–or maybe we would know if others were alive). Papais, born in AD 60, was reported to have listened to John by Irenaus, and Papias wrote down how he’d questioned people who had learned from the apostles (he wrote about preferring them to those who learned from them). These people, who had heard from the 12 disciples, knew a lot more about their authorship than we–and while he had listened to John, we have no idea at what time of his life or what he learned from him as that is something noted by another person. Furthermore, he wrote that Matthew had written his work in the Hebrew language and they had to translate it from that–whether this would be the book of Matthew or the mythical Q is unknown. We would assume Matthew as that book as born his name in different copied traditions in different parts of the world. But even better, he said the elder (John) told him Mark had written his work from his memories of his time working as Peter’s translator. He also mentions that Mark did not have a good chronology of it because Peter taught through anecdotes of his time with Jesus. Also, Mark is noted by scholars to be written is unusual Greek, which when described to me sounds like my EFL student’s English writings, limited tenses, overusing certain words to start sentences, using a 1st language (Hebrew) style of their second language (Greek) (for example, my students often write “drink medicine” instead of “take medicine” because they “uong/drink” medicine in their language), etc. This makes more sense from real life than from someone to decide to counterfeit a book in a language they haven’t mastered, especially as if it was a lie, wouldn’t it be better to write it in Hebrew as it would seem more authentic (Peter and Mark were Hebrew) and better written? Then others could translate it for that person in a finer hand. Furthermore, because the science or dating books hadn’t been invented yet–oral tradition was still highly regarded at the time, why? Why would anyone do this? There are more proofs than this. Check out Mike Winger on Youtube as he’s a better scholar than I am and has links/resources for his information while I am just writing from memory with a few quick google searches to verify dates/numbers (which I can never remember).

      Also, most importantly, please remember the REASON WHY it is dated so late–a prophecy about the temple being destroyed. People say the prophecy was too detailed to be a prophecy, and therefore must have been after the fact. That means they are starting with the supposition that prophecy cannot happen. That’s like reading your friends diary and seeing it vividly detail a dream he had about winning the lottery before an entry about winning the lottery, and then saying he must have written that after he won the lottery because people cannot dream about future events. Maybe he did/maybe he didn’t, but that’s a horrible way to date something that claims prophetic events. It’s better to find other sources that date them later. Does that make sense? (Also, fulfilled prophecy is handled differently in the text itself.)

      As for the geographical error mentioned above, the Bible was written by humans. Mark was recording what he remembered someone else saying. I think he did pretty well. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Most biblical figures are deeply flawed humans that God used to do something. Does God not exist because they aren’t perfect? And if it was a perfect recorded history and matched perfectly to Matthew, Luke, and John, police would wonder if the witnesses had collaborated stories before presenting them as witnesses with perfect matches are usually liars. The writers probably looked at each other’s works (they were probably friends, if traditional authorship is correct) and may have even been trying to correct each other or put forth their own versions of events based on their own memories. Maybe reading Mark made Matthew mad enough to decide it was time to write his own version of events. John is said to have been urged to write his later in life, probably after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and is the only one not to mention the temple’s destruction.

      Sorry, I am writing too much and have other things I should be doing. Bye.

    2. Also the so-called eyewitness reports were written in Greek, when Jesus’ purported followers and hearers were Aramaic speakers, and as mentioned about it is unlikely many would have been alive at the time the gospels were composed, both due to die off from old age and the slaughter and displacements caused by the Jewish Revolt. I always looked up fact gospels were in Greek was indication they were fiction, probably counter-history, intended to downplay the Zealot and Siccariot affiliations of some of the disciples and put a less aggressive spin on their war-like cognomens (sons of thunder) and make them appear to be more friendly to Rome than they actually were.

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