Gerasenes, Gadarenes, Pigs and “Contradictions”

With a little knowledge of the geography of the region, this apparent contradiction can be resolved.

Sixth-century mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.
Sixth-century mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

I was in a dialogue with an atheist regarding what he believes is one of “many” so-called “biblical contradictions.” Odd guy that I am, I actually find this sort of thing fun. In any event, I love defending the Bible and Christianity.

He brought up the story of Jesus casting out demons and sending them into pigs, which promptly ran over a cliff into the sea. The Gospels use different names for the place where this occurred:

  • Mark 5:1 ... the country of the Ger’asenes. (Luke 8:26 is identical)
  • Matthew 8:28 ... the country of the Gadarenes ... 

This is supposedly a “contradiction.” Gerasa is (as we know) some 30-35 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee, but may have also been the name of the larger region. Wikipedia states about it: “In the second half of the 1st century AD, the city of Jerash achieved great prosperity.” 

Gadara is about six miles from the sea. Its ruins include two amphitheaters, a basilica, temple, a hippodrome, aqueducts and colonnades, showing its importance and stature. “Gergesenes” is also in some manuscripts (Khersa or Gersa was a town actually on the shore of the sea). Commentator R. C. H. Lenski states:

“The distance of these cities from the lake is immaterial for the narrative since this deals with the region that is near the lake and not with the vicinity of either of the cities to the lake.”

Note that the texts don’t say Gerasa or Gadara, so they aren’t necessarily referring just to one of the cities. They all say “country of ” (in the sense of region, not “nation”). “Gerasenes” could have had a sense of reference to the entire region (as well as to a city: just as “New Yorker” can refer to the state or city), and “Gadarenes” likely was a reference to the most prominent city of the region at the time. Smith’s Bible Dictionary provides what I find to be a quite plausible explanation (not “special pleading” at all), and analogous to how we still use place names today:

“These three names are used indiscriminately to designate the place where Jesus healed two demoniacs. The first two are in the Authorized Version. (Matthew 8:28; Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26) In Gerasenes in place of Gadarenes. The miracle referred to took place, without doubt, near the town of Gergesa, the modern Kersa, close by the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and hence in the country of Gergesenes. But as Gergesa was a small village, and little known, the evangelists, who wrote for more distant readers, spoke of the event as taking place in the country of the Gadarenes, so named from its largest city, Gadara; and this country included the country of the Gergesenes as a state includes a county. 

“The Gerasenes were the people of the district of which Gerasa was the capital. This city was better known than Gadara or Gergesa; indeed in the Roman age no city of Palestine was better known. ‘It became one of the proudest cities of Syria.’ It was situated some 30 miles southeast of Gadara, on the borders of Peraea and a little north of the river Jabbok. It is now called Jerash and is a deserted ruin. The district of the Gerasenes probably included that of the Gadarenes; so that the demoniac of Gergesa belonged to the country of the Gadarenes and also to that of the Gerasenes, as the same person may, with equal truth, be said to live in the city or the state, or in the United States. For those near by the local name would be used; but in writing to a distant people, as the Greeks and Romans, the more comprehensive and general name would be given.”

I think the coup de grâce is to look up the Greek word for “country” in these passages, to see what latitude of meaning it has. In all three instances the word is chōra (Strong’s word #5561). Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it as “the space lying between two places or limits ... region or country.” The Sea of Galilee was clearly one of the limits.

In Luke 2:8 it is applied to the city of Bethlehem; in Acts 18:23 to Galatia and Phrygia. In Mark 1:5 it is used of “the land of Judaea” (KJV) and in Acts 10:39, to “land of the Jews” (KJV). In Acts 8:1 we have the “regions of Judaea and Samaria” (KJV), and in Acts 16:6, Galatia alone. Thus, it is not always used of one specific country (nation), but rather, usually to regions or areas of either small (Bethlehem) or large (Judaea and Samaria) size, including regions surrounding large cities.

All of this sure seems perfectly consistent with calling the same area the “country” (chōra) of either the Gerasenes or the Gadarenes, after the two major cities. Why is this even an issue, I wonder? Well, it is because atheists, in their zealous rush to make fun of Christians, Christianity, and the Bible, start to lose their logical rigor and rationality, leading them to contend for implausible things: as presently.

Bible scholar Gleason Archer (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties) argues similarly, “It is entirely possible that the political control of this region was centered in Gadara as the capital city. Hence it would be called ‘the land of the Gadarenes.’”

Another approach is to note the different intentions of the Gospel writers. Matthew is habitually more oriented to a Jewish readership, and so he refers to “Gadarenes” because Gadara was the most important Jewish city in the area. Mark and Luke, on the other hand, write to more general audiences, and Gerasa was the main Greek-Roman city of the area. So they refer to Gerasenes.

I think all these attempts to harmonize what may at first seem like a contradiction are plausible, respectable, and adequate.