Sunday, June 18, 2006

Geographical Errors In The Gospel of Mark?

A common accusation by religious critics such as those on the Jesus Seminar is that the author of Mark must not be the same 'Mark' who was a disciple of St. Peter. Before I get into the specifics of the argument, you decide whose testimony is more reliable: 20th century liberals who would love to undermine everything Christian or early 2nd century bishop of Hierapolis, St. Papias who said the following between 110 AD & 130 AD:

Mark indeed, since he was the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, but not in order, the things either said or done by the Lord as much as he remembered. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him, but afterwards, as I have said, [heard and followed] Peter, who fitted his discourses to the needs [of his hearers] but not as if making a narrative of the Lord's sayings'; consequently, Mark, writing down some things just as he remembered, erred in nothing; for he was careful of one thing - not to omit anything of the things he heard or to falsify anything in them.

The specific argument I will address now (which is the most prominent in the discussion) is alleged geographical errors in the gospel of Mark. Here's an example of some traditional responses to these allegations. I only intend to make a quick point that occured to me today on the subject.

There are 3 alleged errors some even claim a fourth I believe. They are all handled well in the above link but there are other traditional arguments as well. I'm not going to get into any specific instance. Now let's you and I suppose that someone wrote a story about an event that took place in your home town. (Forget about miracles for now) Its a story that could otherwise be true except that he makes 3 geographical statements that don't seem right to you (I'm being gratuitous here since I believe these 'errors' have been refuted). Now you have good evidence that some of the events in this story he's writing are true (as virtually all historians agree on it) but the question at hand is: was this man (the author) an eye witness(Or someone very close to an eyewitness? (Remember Mark is said to be the 'interpreter of Peter')

In this instance what would you think? Because they made three statements about the geography that seemed strange (or even plain wrong) to you would you conclude (solely on that evidence) that he was neither an eye witness nor close to an eyewitness and furthermore what he wrote is highly erroneous? I'd say that would be a stretch.

So what about Mark? Did he know Palestinian geography? Glancing over the gospel you can see that he made dozens of statements related to the geography of Palestine. All but three (or four) of them are unanimously accepted as accurate by historians.

The critics use the negative to argue against Mark but I will use the positive to argue in favor of Mark. (Remember even the negatives have been refuted). Which carries more weight, the few 'sketchy' remarks on geography or the dozens of detailed and accurate depictions of 1st century Palestine? These statements Mark made about the Palestinian geography would be quite difficult to know unless one of these three conditions were met:

1. Mark had access to and was using a detailed map.
2. Mark had first hand experience.
3. Mark had a huge amount of interaction with someone who was a native of the region.
(For example if he had been... oh I don't know... say... an interpreter of one of the apostles)
Now the critics don't want to admit 2 or 3 so they're left with 1. The only problem with this is, if he was using a detailed map then how did he make the alleged errors? The skeptics insist that Mark was some Roman who only knew of Palestine through hearsay and maybe a few other unreliable sources. But here are some verses from Mark that are accepted by all Historians as accurate geographically. Judge for yourself if someone with no knowledge of the area and no map is likely to have written this:
When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. 3:8

This description paints a picture of various regions covering most of the Palestinian area (making a point that people were coming from everywhere to see Him). If you had never lived in Chicago or have strong first hand knowledge from someone who did, and you had no map, could you give a description like that: naming all the major suburban regions?

So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. 5:20

The word Decapolis here means "10 Cities" which was a nickname for the region. We know of a few popular nicknames for areas like that in our modern age. "The Twin Cities" for Minneapolis & St. Paul is fairly well known. How about Tri-City (I think there's a few of those). Do you know about the ones from my state: "The Triad" for Greensboro, Winston-Salem & High Point or the "Research Triangle" which is Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill or "Metrolina" which is Charlotte and the surrounding counties? I think most people outside of the state would have never heard these terms. (Of course being ignorant of the term doesn't mean you're from out of state and vice versa). Just making a point that area nicknames aren't typically well known outside of natives of that particular region.

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 6:45

Later on....

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there 6:53

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. 11:1

Again Mark is pretty particular. Why would he give so much geographical information if he wasn't pretty confident in his knowledge?

I'll use some of my hometown geography for an illustration. If someone told me they "came from downtown through South Park to the University area" I would think it was strange since South Park isn't on the way to University Area. But I wouldnt discredit what they were saying. If they said they did it, I would believe them unless I had reason to believe otherwise.

If they told me they went from downtown through University Area to Harrisburg I WOULD think something was strange. (University Area is right on the way to Harrisburg) Why would you mention going through University Area since it's a given that you will do that en route from downtown to Harrisburg? It makes perfect since to mention going through a place which is out of the way however (such as in the previous example). I would think it was strange but it would indicate to me that you had a reason for doing so.

Once again, the gospels and the Scriptures hold up well under attack. I conclude that Mark, who was the interpreter of Peter and probably the same Mark mentioned by Peter, is the author of the gospel of Mark. The one piece of evidence against that theory that I have found a little puzzling is that in the story of Jesus walking on water, Matthew mentions that Peter also got out and walked on the water. Mark & John both mention the incident but neither mention Peter walking on the water. At first thought, I would think it would be most likely that if Mark was a disciple of Peter he would have surely been told about this by Peter. I would think that it would be a big part of the story coming from Peter's own lips. Nevertheless, maybe Peter out of humility refrained from speaking on his role in the story. I'm thinking out loud here as I don't really know what has been written on the subject.

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1 comment:

thesprucetunnel said...

Thank you for your comments on the accuracy of Mark's geographical references in his Gospel. One of my Bible studies will be starting Mark this week, and I know my class will find this helpful.
I just wanted to add, by way of support for your "thining out loud," that it is indeed commonly held that writers of this era did not use their own names when referring to something they had taken part in. The disciple John, for instance, refers to himself only as "the disciple Jesus loved." Mark's whole Gospel is maddenly lacking in detail about Peter, for those who would love to have more detail of Peter's life. I'm sure you know all this.
But thanks again for these helpful comments on the accuracy in Mark's writings.