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.
. . . 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:
- the way of the sea
- the other side of Jordan
- [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:
- 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”)
- travels across through the other side of Jordan, (through the Decapolis or gentile region)
- 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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