Marks supposed errors in geography

January 22, 2022

In Academic discussion about the gospel of Mark much ink is spilt over Mark’s supposed geographical ignorance. While many scarf a case can be made for the reliability of mark and explanation given mark’s geographic descriptions. Among scholars the most frequently cited is 7:31, “And having departed from the regions of Tyre, he again came to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon and through the middle of the Decapolis.”

If one draws a line from Tyre to Sidon to the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis, this involves a strange journey indeed. It would look something like the last spaghetti noodle on a plate. A comparable trip (in direction, not distance) would be to travel from Portland to Denver via Seattle and the Great Plains. Such a trip envisions leaving Tyre and proceeding 22 miles north to Sidon, then southeast from Sidon to the Decapolis, and then northwest to the Sea of Galilee.

A similar alleged error in geography is found in Mark 11:1. Here the journey from Jericho (10:46–52) to Jerusalem, Bethphage, and Bethany, if understood as occurring in that order, would be strange indeed, for if one proceeds from Jericho, the order of progression is Bethany (the eastern side of the Mount of Olives), Bethphage (the summit of the Mount of Olives), and Jerusalem (west of the Mount of Olives).

Some suggest, the order in both these instances, however, reflects not an ignorance of Palestinian or Judean geography, but rather Mark's desire to list the ultimate goal of the journey from Tyre (i.e., the Sea of Galilee) and Jericho (i.e., Jerusalem) first and the intervening places next (Sidon and the Decapolis; Bethpage, Bethany; see 7:31 and 11:1).

Some scholars have suggested, Bethphage is probably mentioned before Bethany because it is closer to Jerusalem and may reflect the order of the journey from Jerusalem through Bethphage to Bethany in 11:11. Other Scholars argues that the ancient road from Jericho to Jerusalem passed through Bethphage before Bethany.

Another supposed geographical error in Mark is found in 10:1. Here again, however, we have the place of departure mentioned first (“there,” i.e., Capernaum [9:33]), the ultimate goal second (“the regions of Judea”), and the intervening route last (“across the Jordan”). See 10:1. Consequently, these alleged geographical errors found in the Second Gospel are not evidence of Mark's ignorance of Palestinian geography but rather reflect various critics' misunderstanding of the Markan style used to describe such journeys.

Note: Much of the content for this post was adapted from Robert H. Stein, Mark in Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament, Eds. Robert Yarbrough and Robert Stein, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) 6-7


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