One of the well-known miracles performed by Jesus during his Galilean ministry is the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs. Following his stilling of the storm, Jesus crosses over to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and finds two men possessed by demons who live in tombs. He removes the demons from the men and casts the former into a large herd of swine, who then run off a steep cliff drowning themselves in the lake. Where exactly did this famous exorcism occur? The answer is more complicated that you might expect.
You might know the story by a slightly different name: the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. As we shall see in this post, there is a good deal of confusion surrounding this episode, including: the name of the place, the number of people possessed by demons, as well as the precise location of this event. The crux of the problem is that not all ancient versions of the Gospels agree on the spelling of the toponym. Most ancient manuscripts of Matthew 8:28 say that from Capernaum, Jesus crossed over “to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes” (εἰς τὸ πέραν εἰς τὴν χώραν τῶν Γαδαρηνῶν). But in place of the word “Gadarenes”, other reliable manuscripts read either “Gergesenes” (Γεργεσηνῶν) or “Gerasenes” (Γερασηνῶν). In Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26, there is one demoniac not two, and the geographical situation is reversed: “Gerasenes” (Γερασηνῶν) is the most accepted version that appears in Bibles today, while other ancient manuscripts read “Gadarenes” or “Gergesenes”. Luke also adds the detail that this took place “opposite Galilee” (Lk 8:26). How did all this chaos come about in the text of the New Testament?
Likely this messy situation is due to the powerful influence of one of the most prominent Church Fathers of the third century: Origen of Alexandria. Although born and raised in Egypt, Origen lived in the capital of Roman Palestine, Caesarea Maritima, during the second half of his life (c. 232-251). He was enormously productive during this period, composing hundreds of homilies and commentaries on the books of the Bible. These works, while not all extant, are very well known to scholars of ancient Christianity. Less appreciated, however, is the extent to which Origen was also a trailblazer in the field of Christian holy land pilgrimage. In these exegetical works, he sometimes refers to his travels throughout the land, assuring his audience that he is trustworthy because he has in fact seen the places mentioned in the Scriptures. For example, in book 6 of his Commentary on John, Origen writes the following:
Thus we see that he who aims at a complete understanding of the Holy Scriptures must not neglect the careful examination of the proper names in it. In the matter of proper names the Greek copies are often incorrect, and in the Gospels one might be misled by their authority. The transaction about the swine, which were driven down a steep place by the demons and drowned in the sea, is said to have taken place in the country of the Gerasenes. Now, Gerasa is a town of Arabia, and has near it neither sea nor lake. And the Evangelists would not have made a statement so obviously and demonstrably false; for they were men who informed themselves carefully of all matters connected with Judæa. But in a few copies we have found, into the country of the Gadarenes; and, on this reading, it is to be stated that Gadara is a town of Judæa, in the neighborhood of which are the well-known hot springs, and that there is no lake there with overhanging banks, nor any sea. But Gergesa, from which the name Gergesenes is taken, is an old town in the neighborhood of the lake now called Tiberias, and on the edge of it there is a steep place abutting on the lake, from which it is pointed out that the swine were cast down by the demons. Now, the meaning of Gergesa is dwelling of the casters-out, and it contains a prophetic reference to the conduct towards the Savior of the citizens of those places, who besought Him to depart out of their coasts. (ComJn 6.40-41)
The point that Origen is making here is that Christians must be very meticulous readers because the text of the Gospels contains mistakes, particularly with regard to geographical information. The copyists responsible for writing down the text over the past two centuries have not been familiar with the places mentioned in the text and so they have not been careful enough with place names. Errors have creeped in. It is quite remarkable that a 3rd century scholar had such a modern sounding text critical approach to biblical studies!
Origen uses the tools of historical geography to demonstrate why “Gergesenes” is the most correct reading. Gerasa (modern Jerash), one of the cities which made up the Decapolis, cannot make sense because it is way too far away from the Sea of Galilee (70 km).
Gadara (modern day Umm Qais, near the springs of Hamat Gader) is more or less in the right region, but still too far from the Sea (6 km).
So, by process of elimination, Origen concludes that Gergesa must be the correct name of the place where this exorcism happened. It is the only place on the shore of the Sea, and not in the Transjordanian Highlands. To further endorse this, Origen looks to the etymological meaning of the name; indeed the meaning of Gergesa is “the lodging of those who have cast-out” (παροικία ἐκβεβληκότων). He is apparently under the impression that the name derives from the Hebrew root g-r-sh (גרש), which means “to exile, cast out, drive away”. This is very creative and indicates that Origen had a basic knowledge of Hebrew but is unfortunately not linguistically accurate.
Now that we have addressed the matter of the name itself, let us turn to the location. There are several suggestions for where this event took place. The most traditional location is known as Kursi, located on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This identification has clearly been influenced by Origen’s comments above.
But to its credit, this identification has many strengths. The modern Arabic name Kursi could well be preserving the ancient name Gergesa, it is indeed located “on the other side” of the Sea, and this is one of the few places where a steep cliff (containing caves which might well have been used as tombs in antiquity) drops down into the Sea. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the connection between this site and the textual passage in question goes back very far. A large triapsidal (three nave) basilica-style church was built here in the fifth century commemorating the event. It is the largest complex of its kind in the country.
Note the beautiful combination of basalt and limestone and the well-preserved Greek dedicatory inscription on the mosaic floor in below. It reads: “In the time of the most God-loving Stephanos, the priest and abbot, this mosaic of the baptistery was made, in the month of December of the Fourth indiction in the time of our pious and Christ-beloved King Mauricius first consulate.” This has been dated to 585 CE.
When Jesus asks the man his name, he replies “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Jesus then removes the demon from the man and “the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea” (Mark 5:13).
The scene is rather odd, but very much based in the real life physical context of the region. At this location a steep hill drops down from the Golan Heights into the Sea of Galilee. To this day wild boar roam the hills surrounding the Sea. But beyond these physical details, something more complex is happening here. This healing act is Jesus’s subtle critique of the Roman Empire who controlled Judea at the time. The word “Legion” refers to a unit of 5000 Roman soldiers. The boar was one of the symbols of the Tenth Legion Fretensis, which was stationed in Judea in the years following the death of Herod the Great. Jesus’s casting of the demon called Legion into 2000 swine therefore constitutes an unspoken critique of Roman militarism and a prayer that Jewish sovereignty would be reestablished in the Land.