Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XI

Gadara--Gergesa


The Gadarene-Gergesene incident in Gospel story is generally considered as being associated with peculiar difficulties. Most prominent are those connected with geographical relationships, and, when once these problems are solved, other objections sink into insignificance.

Each of the synoptics has transmitted the facts, and in each record, in the ancient MSS. we meet with various readings, but when we sift these out, we seem to get at the best text for the name of the people in Matthew 8:28, as "Gadarenes"; in Mark 6[5]:1, "Gerasenes"; and in Luke 8:26, "Gergesenes." As the reading of Mark could have no reference to Gerasa (now Jerash), which is two days' journey distant from the Sea of Galilee, we cannot err in regarding it as a contraction of the longer form, Gergesa, as transmitted by Luke. This leaves the two place names, Gergesa and Gadara, for consideration.

But Gadara is an altogether impossible situation. It is on a mountain top, 1800 feet above the level of the lake, and twelve miles distant, while the deep River Hieromax or Yarmuk, flows through the broad intervening plain, which at the time of the incident must have been covered with ripening grain, the district being named from its fertility, "Zemach" or "sprouting land." And further, the designation "the country of the Gadarenes" does not meet the case in the year 29 A.D., as the river indicated was the boundary of the Gadarene territory, and of the Perean portion of the "kingdom" of Herod Antipas, which contains Gadara, while the shore of the Sea of Galilee was in the territory of Herod Philip. It has been suggested that the rock-cut tombs, with inset stone doors, still swinging on their hinges, have been the cause of locating the "legend" there, but the very act of fixing the site there would imply that the author of this theory was unacquainted with the district.

But what of the remaining designation "Gergesa"? On the eastern shore of the lake, accessible by boat, and with the ruins of a pier, we find an ancient site, at the entrance to Wady Semak, bearing the name of Khersa, or Kursi, thus having in its modern name the essential consonants of Gergesa or Gerasa. A short distance to the south of the ruins of the ancient village there is the only incline to the sea that is found on the whole eastern shore, and in the sea at a very short distance to the west of this incline the deepest sounding in the whole lake (159 feet) has been recorded. Both to the north and the south of this incline, which amply satisfies the needs of the case, the land stretches back into a broadening plain. Only here on the east side of the Sea of Galilee could the incident of the swine have taken place.

Furthermore, in the hillside, behind the site of the village, we found, in 1893, a number of ancient caves, which had evidently been used as tombs, while their modern representatives, a Bedouin cemetery, was in front of them. Since that time a portion of the hillside has fallen in, and obliterated all trace of the caves. But the narrative nowhere implies rock-cut tombs. The word used in our present narratives is also used in Luke 11:47 for built tombs.

And who were these people that were engaged in swine rearing? Manifestly Jews. The village of Gergesa did not belong to the Decapolis Confederation, the cities of which were mainly peopled by Greeks. The ruins here point to a peasant fishing population, like those in the other Jewish villages around the lake. They were then Jews, keeping swine, engaged in a forbidden occupation. That removes the objection that has been raised as to "the immoral destruction of these people's property." They simply lost the means to ill gotten gains. They had no fault to find. They simply asked Christ to go away. This was one of the two recorded occasions in His life when He acted as a Judge, and His right was thus far recognised.

Still they had an excuse--a very good excuse--for their sin. (Who has not?) The alien had come into their land, and contracted fields meant diminished agricultural income. On the north side was a Greek city, Bethsaida Julias, the southern capital of Herod Philip; while to the south there was the great Roman fort and Greek city of Hippos of Decapolis. The Gergesenes were being oppressed, crushed on both sides. They must live, and so they seek their livelihood by keeping the forbidden animal. As Israelites, they might have taken to fishing. They had equal rights with all their fellow-countrymen to fish in the adjoining sea (Baba Quama. 80 b), and one of the best fishing grounds was at their own doors, while the very stream that entered the lake through their own village had the name of "Fish Valley." But they seem to have been lazy folks, and swine-herding is a lazy man's job. All this got these Gergesenes down to the lowest depths of degradation a Jew could reach--keeping swine (Luke 15:15).

And might they not reason that in all the circumstances there was something providential? These very aliens--the Greek citizens and the Roman soldiers--wanted pork. Bethsaida and Hippos were each within an hour's walk of their village--two good markets at their very door--and there were in the hinterland the cities of Decapolis, now numbering well over a dozen, so that a stock of 2000 swine would not be at all out of the way in regular business.

They were on the way to becoming wealthy. There was only one hindrance, the presence of the demoniacs. Matthew mentions two here, and two blind men at Jericho (Matt. 20:30), but that simply indicates that the one specially taken up by the other Gospels was the more prominent, and they confined their narrative to him. The demoniacs seem to have mainly occupied the road that led to Hippos, and thence to the other cities of Decapolis. That was serious for the traders, for they were left free to deal with only one good market, that of Bethsaida. This means that all the incidents recorded occurred to the south of Gergesa.

Then the chief demoniac healed became an evangelist to the cities of Decapolis (Mark 5:20). There is a seemliness in the arrangement. He became a herald of the Lord Jesus, who a few months later was to make circuit through that region (Mark 7:31). Then it was just a year later that blind Bartimaeus showed knowledge of Christ. There can be little doubt that from Decapolis he had gone over to meet the caravan that went up to Jerusalem by way of Jericho to the Feast. Had he learned of the Son of David from the Gergesene evangelist? Far reaching indeed are some of our simplest services.

Still, the statement as to "the land of the Gadarenes" is unsolved. We have shown that the phrase is incorrect for the time of the incident. What were the conditions later? In 33 A.D., Herod Philip, of Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi, died. In 40 A.D. Herod Antipas, of Galilee and Perea, was sent into exile. Then the whole of the east side of the lake, and the adjoining lands, passed into the power of the Agrippas, father and son, both of whom are mentioned in Acts. When such changes were made, one could very well speak of the Gadarene side of the lake as the country of the Gadarenes. All was under one ruler, and Gadara was the well-known, world-famed town which had even supplied a tutor for the young Tiberius Caesar. But when closer definition was desired, the name of Gergesa would be introduced. This is what has happened. All the narratives are literally correct for the time when the Gospels were being written, if that were later than 40 A.D.

Other small points of interest emerge. How was it that Christ came to Gergesa? He had preached the sermon from the boat, and evidently wearied, He did not return to Capernaum with the crowds, but sought rather a period of rest. The east side of the lake, midway between Bethsaida Julias and Gergesa, was apparently a favourite resort, a quiet, secluded, grassy hill-side. It was there, after the feeding of the 5000 that He retired to pray, and there, too, He may have fed the 4000. It seems to us that the desired destination was that point on the shore, but the storm from the north raised the whole sea, and the boat being driven southward, they were compelled to land to the south of Gergesa.

At the close of the various incidents there, the Gergesenes asked Him to go away, and He went, and He never returned, unless it were indeed a simple passing by as He left the cities of Decapolis when closing His circuit there (Mark 7:31). But it was nevertheless only a few weeks after His rejection that He came very near to their city--to the place where He taught and fed the thousands with the five loaves and two fishes. He would indicate to them that, however dire might be the straits in which they might find themselves, if they "must live," He had the power and the will to help. The first time, too, He had come to them; the second time, if they would, they might come to Him. They knew also His estimate of sin. They had had evidences of His power and His attitude, both as a Healer and a Judge. Gergesa, like every other place, to which Christ came, had received, through word and deed, a full Gospel message. So far as knowledge went they had the way of salvation.

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