Gergesa, Gerasa, or Gadara? Where Did Jesus’ Miracle Occur?

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Christian tradition, at least since the fourth century, has identified Kursi-Gergesa with the miracle of the swine. But can this tradition be trusted? An Israeli geographer-historian gives us his answer.

Christian tradition, at least since the fourth century, has identified Kursi-Gergesa with the miracle of the swine. But can this tradition be trusted? An Israeli geographer-historian gives us his answer.

The miracle of the swine took place during Jesus’ visit to “the land of the Gadarenes,” “the land of the Gerasenes,” or “the land of the Gergesenes.” All three of these New Testament variants have solid textual support. On the basis of the textual evidence alone, we cannot determine which of these variants is the original in any of the three synoptic versions.[1] Despite this frustrating textual problem, we can determine, on the basis of geographical considerations, the location of the miracle. We are confronted by two questions. First, where did the miracle happen, or, what site did believers connect with the miracle? Second, how reliable, in this instance, is Christian tradition? Did second- and third-century Christian communities have accurate traditions about the deeds of Jesus? Before we launch into a geographical discussion, we must survey what early Christian writers had to say about the miracle of the swine.

SafraiGergesa

The breakwater at Kursi harbor, and in the distance, the ridge down which the swine may have stampeded. (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)

Origen, Eusebius and Saba

Origen (3rd century) identifies Gergesa, an “ancient city” in the vicinity of the “Sea of Tiberias,” as the site of the miracle of the swine. “Sea of Tiberias” is also the name used for the Sea of Galilee in second-century rabbinic literature; hence, Origen has preserved historically reliable details.[2]

Eusebius (4th century) contradicts himself: in one place he identifies a village named Gergesa beside Lake Tiberias as the site of Jesus’ miracle,[3] while immediately before he mentions Gadara, apparently commenting on one reading of Matthew 8:28 that has “Gadara.”[4] In still another place, treating the name Girgashi (the land of the Girgashites) mentioned in Deuteronomy 7:1, Eusebius noted that “others say that it is Gadara.”[5] Thus, it would seem that Eusebius identified Girgashi with Gadara. Eusebius, however, sometimes mentions towns and villages that existed in his day, because of some similarity to a biblical site, without equating the two places; therefore, Eusebius may not necessarily be equating Gadara with Girgashi.

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  • [1] Matt. 8:28; Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26. For a discussion of the site, see C. Kopp, Die heiligen Staetten der Evangelien (Regensburg, 1959), 282-287.
  • [2] Origen to John 6:41, chpt. 24.
  • [3] Eusebius, Onomasticon 74.16.
  • [4] Eusebius’ wording and explanation are very similar to the words of Origen, suggesting interdependency. Both authors may have used the same lost geographical lexicon.
  • [5] Eusebius, Onomasticon 64.1.

Comments 2

  1. David N. Bivin
  2. My conclusion is that the textual variant “Gadarenes” is the original in Matthew’s Gospel, and “Gerasenes” is the original in Mark and Luke.

    However, I agree with Zeev Safrai that Gergesa (modern Kursi/Khersa) is probably the actual location for this miracle. Thus, it might be that “Gergesenes” was introduced into later manuscripts as a correction to both “Gadarenes” and “Gerasenes”.

    However, I’m not sure this ‘correction’ was necessary. In other words, even if Gergesa (modern Kursi/Khersa) is the correct location, I don’t think it necessarily follows that Matthew was incorrect. And nor does it necessarily follow that Mark and Luke were incorrect.

    In fact, all three of these textual variants could be considered correct. How so?

    Matthew refers to “the region of the Gadarenes”. There is evidence that Gadara had control over land bordering the lake. Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions this. And we know that Gadara even had coins with a ship on it!

    There are also several plausible suggestions as to why Mark and Luke might have described this event as having occurred in “the region of the Gerasenes” (τὴν χώραν τῶν Γερασηνῶν).

    One suggestion is that the χώραν τῶν Γερασηνῶν is not referring to a location as such, but is a phrase meaning ‘land of the foreigners’ (i.e. Gentiles).

    Another suggestion is that like Gadarenes in Matthew’s Gospel, Gerasenes was being used by Mark and Luke to refer to a regional area with control over a tract of land bordering the lake. While some argue that the city of Gerasa (modern Jerash) could hardly have control over some village so far away, others maintain that it’s still possible to imagine Mark referring to ‘the region of the Gerasenes’ in a loose way to describe the whole of the Decapolis in general, of which Gerasa was a leading city. The reason Mark refers to Gerasenes as opposed to Matthew’s Gadarenes was possibly because Gerasa was the larger and more well known city compared to the smaller and more obscure city of Gadara, which would better suit his targeted readers. Gadara was the chief city of the immediate area, whereas Gerasa may have referred to a wider area, including the lesser city of Gadara.

    A third suggestion is that there was actually another small lake-side village called Gerasa (modern Kursi/Khersa), not to be confused with the larger city of Gerasa (modern Jerash). This would not be unusual. After all, it does seem that Khersa is closer to Gerasa than to Gergesa, suggesting that Gerasa was the original name preserved in Khersa and then Kursi.

    This may also mean that the textual variant, “Gergesenes” (today associated with kursi/Khersa), was simply introduced as a variant spelling of “Gerasenes” rather than as a correction to it.

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