Geographical Errors Within The New Testament 1

Geo­graph­i­cal Errors With­in The New Testament

It is well known that the Gospel of Mark con­tains numer­ous geo­graph­i­cal errors. This is summed up in Küm­mel’s clas­sic, Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment :

[T]he con­sid­er­a­tions against this assump­tion [that John Mark, com­pan­ion of Peter, wrote the gospel of Mark] car­ry weight. The author obvi­ous­ly has no per­son­al knowl­edge of Pales­tin­ian geog­ra­phy, as the numer­ous geo­graph­i­cal errors show. He writes for Gen­tile Chris­tians, with sharp polemic against the unbe­liev­ing Jews. He does not know the account of the death of the Bap­tist (6:17 ff) con­tra­dicts Pales­tin­ian cus­toms. Could a Jew­ish Chris­t­ian from Jerusalem miss the fact that 6:35 ff and 8:1 ff are two vari­ants of the same feed­ing sto­ry ? The tra­di­tion that Mk was writ­ten by John Mark is there­fore scarce­ly reli­able. The ref­er­ence to I Pet 5:13 (“The elect of Baby­lon and my son Mark also greets you”) does not account for the tra­di­tion, but only the sub­se­quent link­ing up of the author of Mk with the preach­ing of Peter. Accord­ing­ly, the author of Mk is unknown to us.Küm­mel, Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment, p. 97

In fact, one of the rea­sons why many schol­ars doubt that the anony­mous author of Mark was a Jew­ish indi­vid­ual and a native of Pales­tine is pre­cise­ly due to the pres­ence of a num­ber of geo­graph­i­cal errors, mis­takes and con­fu­sions in this gospel. If the author was a native of Pales­tine and a Jew, then how was he so igno­rant regard­ing the region’s geography ?

Essen­tial­ly, the argu­ments against John Mark, a Jew­ish res­i­dent of Jerusalem and lat­er the com­pan­ion of Paul and also of Peter, writ­ing this Gospel are that he does not appear to be famil­iar with the geog­ra­phy of Pales­tine in the first cen­tu­ry (Mark 7:31 ; 11:1) or with Jew­ish cus­toms, over­gen­er­al­izes about the Jews (7:3 – 4), from whom he seems to dis­tance him­self, and does not reflect the the­ol­o­gy of either Paul or Peter as a com­pan­ion might (Phlm 23 ; cf. Col. 4:10 ; 2 Tim 4:11).Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald and Stan­ley E. Porter, Ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty and its Sacred Lit­er­a­ture, (Nov 2000, Hen­drick­son Pub­lish­ers, Inc.), p. 286

To give an exam­ple, we read in the gospel accord­ing to Mark the fol­low­ing account :

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Beth­phage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his dis­ci­ples, say­ing to them, Go to the vil­lage ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt there which no one has ever rid­den. Untie it and bring it here. If any­one asks you,‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, The lord needs it and will send it back short­ly.’ ” They went and found a colt out­side in the street, tied at a door­way. As they untied it, some peo­ple stand­ing there asked, What are you doing, unty­ing the colt?” They answered that Jesus had told them to, and the peo­ple let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, he sat on it. Many peo­ple spread their cloaks on the road, while oth­ers spread branch­es they had out in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who fol­lowed shout­ed, Hosan­na ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord ! Blessed is the com­ing of the king­dom of our father David ! Hosan­na in the high­est!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the tem­ple. He looked around at every­thing, but since it was already late he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:1 – 11)

In Mark 10:46 how­ev­er, we read that Jesus was in Jeri­cho. The sen­tence above shows that Jesus and his group were trav­el­ling from Jeri­cho to Jerusalem via Beth­phage and then Bethany. This, how­ev­er, is quite impos­si­ble. Bethany is fur­ther away from Jerusalem than Beth­phage is. The Bib­li­cal the­olo­gian, D.E. Nine­ham, comments :

The geo­graph­i­cal details make an impres­sion of awk­ward­ness, espe­cial­ly as Beth­phage and Bethany are giv­en in reverse order to that in which trav­ellers from Jeri­cho would reach them…and we must there­fore assume that St Mark did not know the rel­a­tive posi­tions of the two vil­lages on the Jeri­cho road…Nine­ham, Saint Mark (West­min­ster John Knox Press, 1978), pp. 294 – 295

The mis­sion­ar­ies would obvi­ous­ly deny the above glar­ing error in Mark with their mul­ti­f­er­ous expla­na­tions. How­ev­er the author of Matthew ful­ly realised that Mark, who was sup­pos­ed­ly inspired”, had made a gross fac­tu­al error. Matthew, who copied Mark changed this pas­sage to remove the error :

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Beth­phage, at the Mount of Olives…” (Matthew 21:1)

Note that Matthew had removed the ref­er­ence to Bethany com­plete­ly from Mark’s account. Again the most like­ly expla­na­tion is that Matthew noticed Mark’s error and tried to cor­rect it. As Ran­del Helms informs us :

Mark writes on the basis of a vague knowl­edge of Judaean geog­ra­phy, not know­ing that one approach­ing Jerusalem from the east on the road from Jeri­cho would reach first Bethany and then Beth­phage, not the reverse order he indi­cates. How­ev­er, the impor­tant loca­tion is the Mount of Olives ; typol­o­gy, not his­to­ry, is at work here. The typo­log­i­cal fic­tion con­tin­ues on the basis of Zech. 9:9 LXX :

Rejoice great­ly, O daugh­ter of Sion ; pro­claim it aloud, O daugh­ter of Jerusalem ; behold, the king is com­ing to thee, just and a Sav­iour [sozon, sav­ing”]; he is meek and rid­ing on an ass, and a young foal [polon neon, a new (unrid­den) foal”].’

It is only with this pas­sage that we can under­stand why Mark has Jesus spec­i­fy that his dici­ples obtain a colt [polon] which no one has yet rid­den” (Mark 11:2). Mark ignores the dan­ger and unlike­li­hood of rid­ing on an unbro­ken, untrained ani­mal, assum­ing its mirac­u­lous tractabil­i­ty ; typol­o­gy rather than his­to­ry is oper­a­tive here.Ran­del Helms, Gospel Fic­tions, p. 103

Who is cor­rect, Matthew or Mark ? Was Mark inspired” or was Matthew inspired” as far as the above pas­sage is concerned ?

Bruce M. Met­zger makes men­tion of sev­er­al inter­nal and geo­graph­i­cal errors with­in the New Tes­ta­ment in which lat­er scribes attempt­ed to clear away :

A few scribes attempt­ed to har­mo­nize the Johan­nine account of the chronol­o­gy of the Pas­sion with that in Mark by chang­ing sixth hour’ of John xix. 14 to third hour’ (which appears in Mark xv. 25). At John i. 28 Ori­gen 1 altered in order to remove what he regard­ed as a geo­graph­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ty, and this read­ing is extant today in MSS. 33 69 and many oth­ers, includ­ing those which lie behind the King James ver­sion. The state­ment in Mark viii. 31, that the Son of man must suf­fer many things…and be killed and aftee : three days rise again’, seems to involve a chrono­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ty, and some copy­ists changed the phrase to the more famil­iar expres­sion, on the third day’ . The author of the Epis­tle to the Hebrews places the gold­en altar of incense in the Holy of Holies (Heb. ix. 4), which is con­trary to the Old Tes­ta­ment descrip­tion of the Taber­na­cle (Exod. xxx. 1 – 6). The scribe of codex Vat­i­canus and the trans­la­tor of the Ethiopic ver­sion cor­rect the account by trans­fer­ring the words to ix. 2, where the fur­ni­ture of the Holy Place is item­ized.Bruce M. Met­zger, The Text of the New Tes­ta­ment. Its Trans­mis­sion, Cor­rup­tion, and Restora­tion (Third Enlarged Edi­tion, 1992, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press), pp. 199 – 200

Anoth­er Chris­t­ian schol­ar, Ray­mond E. Brown, notes the inabil­i­ty of the author of Mark to iden­ti­fy the geo­graph­i­cal places in ancient Pales­tine. He says :

That the author of this Greek Gospel was John Mark, a (pre­sum­ably Ara­ma­ic-speak­ing) Jew of Jerusalem who had ear­ly become a Chris­t­ian, is hard to rec­on­cile with the impres­sion that it does not seem to be a trans­la­tion from Ara­ma­ic,82 that it seems to depend on tra­di­tions (and per­haps already shaped sources) receieved in Greek, and that it seems con­fused about Pales­tin­ian geog­ra­phy83 (The attempt to claim that Mark used geog­ra­phy the­o­log­i­cal­ly and there­fore did not both­er about accu­ra­cy seems strained).Ray­mond E. Brown, S.S., An Intro­duc­tion To The New Tes­ta­ment, The Anchor Bible Ref­er­ence Library (Dou­ble­day, 1997) pp. 159 – 160

In foot­note 83, Brown had in fact revealed anoth­er instance of the gospel author’s unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with ancient Pales­tine geog­ra­phy. He states that :

83 Mark 5:1, 13 betrays con­fu­sion about the dis­tance of Gerasa from the sea of Galilee (n. 17 above). Mark 7:31 describes a jour­ney from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapo­lis. In fact one goes SE from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee ; Sidon is N for Tyre, and the descrip­tion of the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapo­lis is awk­ward. That a boat head­ed for Beth­sai­da (NE side of the Sea of Galilee) arrives at Gen­nesaret (NW side : 6:45,53) may also sig­nal con­fu­sion. No one has been able to locate the Dal­manutha of 8:10, and it may be a cor­rup­tion of Mag­dala.ibid., p. 160

Though Brown attempts to explain away these geo­graph­i­cal errors by stat­ing that one must admit that some­times even natives of a place are not very clear about geog­ra­phy“ibid., he does not deny their pres­ence in the text. In anoth­er foot­note, he states that :

Many oth­er exam­ples of improb­a­ble rec­on­cil­i­a­tions could be offered. Since Matt has a Ser­mon on the Mount and Luke has a sim­i­lar Ser­mon on the Plain (Matt 5:1 ; Luke 6:7), there must have been a plain on the side of the moun­tain. Since Matt has the Lord’s Prayer taught in that ser­mon and Luke has it lat­er on the road to Jerusalem (Matt 6:9 – 13 ; Luke 11:2 – 4), the dis­ci­ples must have for­got­ten it, caus­ing Jesus to repeat it. Mark 10:46 places the heal­ing of the blind man after Jesus left Jeri­cho, while Luke 18:35 ; 19:1 places it before Jesus entered Jeri­cho. Per­haps Jesus was leav­ing the site of the OT Jeri­cho and enter­ing the site of the NT Jeri­cho !ibid., pp. 109 – 110

Fur­ther­more, the Gospel accord­ing to Luke, anoth­er anony­mous gospel, also con­tains a num­ber of geo­graph­i­cal errors that have led schol­ars to the con­clu­sion that its author was not from Pales­tine. Brown comments :

What hap­pens when Jesus goes to a desert­ed place (Luke 4:24 – 44) exhibits typ­i­cal Lucan uni­ver­sal­iz­ing, since the peo­ple rather than Simon and his com­pan­ions come to seek out Jesus. Com­pared to Mark 1:39, which has Jesus going through the syn­a­gogues of all Galilee, Luke 4:44 local­izes the syn­a­gogues in Judea. That may illus­trate the vague­ness of Luke’s ideas of Pales­tin­ian geog­ra­phy, since in the next verse (5:1) Jesus is still in Galilee, at the Lake. Or does Luke’s Judea sim­ply mean the coun­try of the Jews”?ibid., pp. 238

Brown presents anoth­er exam­ple of Luke’s con­fu­sion with Pales­tin­ian geography :

3. Last Stage of Jour­ney till Arrival in Jerusalem (17:11 – 19:27). This begins with the unique­ly Lucan cleans­ing of the ten lep­ers, includ­ing the thank­ful Samar­i­tan (17:11 – 19). Jesus has been trav­el­ling toward Jerusalem since 9:51, and in 9:52 his mes­sen­gers entered a Samar­i­tan vil­lage. That at this point in the sto­ry he is still pass­ing between Samaria and Galilee tells us that the jour­ney is an arti­fi­cual frame­work (and also that Luke may not have had a pre­cise idea of Pales­tin­ian geog­ra­phy).ibid., p. 251

G. A. Wells in his The His­tor­i­cal Evi­dence for Jesus makes men­tions a num­ber of geo­graph­i­cal errors with­in the gospel accord­ing to Mark togeth­er with quot­ing oth­er Bib­li­cal schol­ars admit­ing the pres­ence of these errors and con­fu­sions in this gospel :

Mark makes seri­ous mis­takes in his geo­graph­i­cal ref­er­ences to Pales­tine. He knows the Galilean place names and the gen­er­al rel­a­tive posi­tions of the local­i­ties, but not spe­cif­ic details. Hence he rep­re­sents Jesus as trav­el­ling back and forth in Galilee and adja­cent ter­ri­to­ries in a puz­zling fash­ion” (Kee, 117, pp 102 — 3). To go (as Jesus is said to in Mk. 7:31) from the ter­ri­to­ry of Tyre by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee is like trav­el­ling from Corn­wall to Lon­don via Man­ches­ter” (Ander­son, 2, p 192). Again, Mark’s ref­er­ences to move­ments across the Sea of Galilee are impos­si­ble to trace sequen­tial­ly. Men­tion of spe­cif­ic loca­tion near the sea are either unknown sites, such as Dal­manutha (8:10), or are patent­ly inac­cu­rate, as in the des­ig­na­tion of the east­ern shore of the lake as the coun­try of the Gerasenes (5:1)” (Kee, loc cit). Gerasa is more than thir­ty miles souteast of the lake, too far away for the set­ting of the sto­ry which demands a city in its vincin­i­ty, with a pre­cip­i­tous slope down to the water. Prob­a­bly all that con­cerned Mark, col­lect­ing and adapt­ing pre-exist­ing sto­ries about Jesus, was that the lake and its sur­round­ing ter­ri­to­ries, some Jew­ish and some main­ly Gen­tile, was an ide­al set­ting for jour­ney’s of Jesus and his dis­ci­ples, show­ing how both Jews and Gen­tiles respond­ed to him with faith. That place names in Mark caused per­plex­i­ty among ear­ly read­ers is shown by the wide range of vari­ants in the tex­tu­al tra­di­tion where names occur in the gospel. Per­plex­i­ty is also evi­denced by Matthew, who changed Mark’s Gerasenes to Gadarenes (Mt. 8:28), Gadara being a well-known spa only eight miles from the lake.G. A. Wells, The His­tor­i­cal Evi­dence for Jesus (Prometheus Books, 1982), p. 230

Michael T. Grif­fith makes note of this con­fu­sion between Gerasenes and Gadarenes, and says that :

Accord­ing to most mod­ern ver­sions of the Bible, Mark 5:1 refers to the Sea of Galilee’s east­ern shore as the coun­try of the Gerasene :

They [Christ and the dis­ci­ples] came to the oth­er side of the sea, to the coun­try of the Gerasenes” (RSV ; so also the NIV and the New Amer­i­can Bible).

This trans­la­tion is based on the fact that the best and old­est man­u­scripts for this verse all read the coun­try of the Gerasenes.” How­ev­er, the Sea of Galilee’s east­ern shore can­not qual­i­fy as the land of the Gerasenes because Gerasa (mod­ern Jerash) is more than thir­ty miles to the south­east. In addi­tion, the account which fol­lows verse 1 requires a near­by city with a steep slope lead­ing down to the Sea of Galilee. This could not pos­si­bly be Gerasa. Gerasa is sim­ply too far away, and there is no slope run­ning all the way from that site to the Sea of Galilee.

In the KJV, Mark 5:1 reads, the coun­try of the Gadarenes,” but this is based on infe­ri­or read­ings from the Greek texts. As men­tioned above, the best and old­est man­u­scripts read the coun­try of the Gerasenes.” In any event, Gadara, though clos­er than Gerasa, is still too far away to fit, since it is locat­ed about six miles south­east of the Sea of Galilee.

Accord­ing to the KJV ren­der­ing of Matthew 8:28, the region in ques­tion is named the coun­try of the Gerge­senes.” This read­ing is based on infe­ri­or man­u­script evi­dence and rep­re­sents a scrib­al addi­tion by lat­er copy­ists (Met­zger 1971:23 – 24). The best tex­tu­al evi­dence for Matthew 8:28 reads the coun­try of the Gadarenes,” which is how it appears in the bet­ter mod­ern trans­la­tions of Matthew. Again, though, Gadara is too far away from the Sea of Galilee. To add to the con­fu­sion, Luke 8:26 fol­lows the geog­ra­phy attrib­uted to Mark. Although the KJV reads the coun­try of the Gadarenes,” this is anoth­er case of this ver­sion’s reliance on infe­ri­or tex­tu­al evi­dence. The bet­ter mod­ern trans­la­tions read Gerasenes.”

Lind­sey Pheri­go sums up the sit­u­a­tion with regard to Mark 5:1 :

The gen­er­al loca­tion [of the events spo­ken of in Mark 5] is report­ed [in vs. 1] to be the E shore of the Sea of Galilee but the exact loca­tion is report­ed in dif­fer­ent ways. The old­est and best man­u­scripts have Gerasa, but this is too far from the Sea of Galilee to fit well. Matt. changes this to Gadara (“the coun­try of the Gadarenes,” 8:28), but this, though near­er, is still too far from the water. Lat­er copy­ists change both to Gerge­sa,” which may cor­re­spond to some ruins on the E side of the sea. It remains a prob­lem.Michael T. Grif­fith, Is The Bible Inerrant And Com­plete ? (1994) [Online Document]


We have thus shown that the scribes of the New Tes­ta­ment were cer­tain­ly aware of the pres­ence of errors, in this case geo­graph­i­cal errors, with­in the New Tes­ta­ment text. That is why they had pro­ceed­ed to clear up what­ev­er obvi­ous errors that recur with­in their texts. Many of such errors were thus cor­rect­ed” over the pas­sage of time where­as oth­ers that escape cor­rec­tion” are vehe­ment­ly defend­ed by cur­rent-day mis­sion­ar­ies with the pref­er­ence to use a num­ber of high­ly-imag­i­na­tive men­tal gymnastics.

And only God knows best ! Geographical Errors Within The New Testament 2Endmark

Cite this arti­cle as : Usman Sheikh, Geo­graph­i­cal Errors With­in The New Tes­ta­ment,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Octo­ber 15, 2005, last accessed May 29, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​b​i​b​l​e​/​g​e​o​g​r​a​p​h​i​c​a​l​-​e​r​r​o​r​s​-​n​e​w​-​t​e​s​t​a​m​e​nt/

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