Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament. He has served as Zola’s co-author, mentor, pastor, and friend for nearly 30 years.
Part 1 — this article first appeared in the July 1998 Levitt Letter.
There is a growing revisionist opinion among New Testament scholars that the second miraculous feeding (the 4,000) was done by the Lord deep in the Decapolis region, so that His ministry on this occasion was predominantly among Gentiles. Both Matthew and Mark describe the event as separate and apart from the feeding of the 5,000 at an earlier time.
Mark especially gives the location of the event as having occurred in “the midst of the borders of Decapolis” (Mark 7:31, ASV), which suggest that it was on the fringes of the Decapolis area on the east side of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Other translations render it “within the region of Decapolis” (NASB) and in “the midst of the region of Decapolis” (NKJV), and suggest that the miracle was deep within the Decapolis area. How one translates this passage, and the location of the feeding of the 4,000 makes a lot of difference in understanding how broad the ministry of Christ was among Gentiles. Several commentaries indicate that Jesus and His disciples had gone far into the Decapolis region and were surrounded by Gentile cities.
Decapolis (10 cities) was primarily on the Golan Heights and on the east side of the Jordan River in the area that is now part of the Kingdom of Jordan. It was populated by Gentiles in the time of our Lord, and was largely pagan in religious practice. They were cities of Greco-Roman culture. It is so described in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, II, p. 815 under “Decapolis”:
“The name given to the region occupied by a league of ‘ten cities’ (Mt 4:25; Mk 5:20; 7:31)… The Greek inhabitants were never on good terms with the Jews; and the herd of swine (Mk 5:11ff) indicates contempt for what was probably regarded as Jewish prejudice.”
The revisionist commentaries would have us believe that Jesus ventured deep into this Gentile area of Decapolis so that He could have a broader ministry among the Gentiles. They see this as a harbinger of the great Gentile influx later as the apostles preached throughout the Roman empire. For instance, Robert H. Gundry in A Survey of the New Testament (p. 187) assumes that the Feeding of the 4,000 was a major accomplishment in the ministry of the Lord among the Gentiles:
Read Matthew 15:21-28. ‘And they glorified the God of Israel’ (15:31) shows that the four thousand whom Jesus now feeds are Gentiles. Together then with the preceding Gentile woman and, earlier, the centurion and the Magi, they represent the great mass of Gentiles who are flocking into the church of Matthew’s time.
The only argument Gundry gives that the 4,000 were Gentiles is that they glorified the God of Israel. That logic makes no sense at all. Whom do Jews glorify when they read the Torah in the synagogues? To say that one has to be a Gentile to glorify the God of Israel is devoid of all reason. Nevertheless, he argues that the Syrophonecian woman, the centurion in Capernaum, and the Magi at the birth of Jesus combine with the 4,000 who were fed miraculously to constitute a great mass of Gentiles involved in Jesus’ ministry. If you didn’t have the 4,000, you would only have the five Gentile exceptions (but the three Magi might also have been Jews). Gundry and his revisionist colleagues must go to some lengths, then, to attempt to prove that the 4,000 were Gentiles. The facts, however, simply do not bear out this contention.
If the 4,000 who were fed by the Lord were Gentiles, Jesus would have been departing from His announced rule that His ministry was only to Israel: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6); But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24).
This rule had only the individual exceptions mentioned above, which proved the rule. Christ’s entire earthly ministry was restricted to the Jewish people. There is no reason to believe that the 4,000 were any different from the 5,000 fed before. They also were Jewish people from the Sea of Galilee area who came to hear the Master.
If the 4,000 were Jews, where was it that Jesus fed them? What was the site of this second spectacular and miraculous feeding? A closer reading of the Gospels shows that the text states that He was by the Sea of Galilee “in the midst of the border (οριον or orion) of Decapolis.” That is, He was near the Decapolis border close to the Sea of Galilee. Much hinges on the translation of the Greek term οριον, orion. Some try to translate it broadly as referring to a “region or district.” However, one of the standards in Greek translation is A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, by G. Abbott-Smith. This manual has the following entry on the word on page 323: “orion, -ou, to (<oros, a boundary), [in LXX chiefly for גבול;] a boundary, bound; chiefly in pl., and so always in NT.” Thus, the word is derived from oros, which means “mountain”, a frequent boundary between geographical regions. It refers to a limit, a boundary or border of an area. Some try to make this mean that Jesus went into the heart of Decapolis, but what the word indicates is that He came to the border of Decapolis, not into the region.
It was also a “desert” area, and not close to any supply of food. All of these descriptions would put the site in the Jewish area of the Tetrarchy of Phillip near the Sea of Galilee, and north of the hill where Decapolis began. Jesus further indicates that it was within walking distance of their homes, but they needed to be fed in order to have the strength to make their way home. There is nothing to suggest that they were Gentiles. This whole area north of the Decapolis border was Jewish. The only town that had Gentiles in it was Julius, a pagan town not far from Bethsaida, close to where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee. The adjacent map shows where the Tetrarchy of Phillip and the Decapolis border is located, and the approximate locations of the two miraculous feedings.
The weight of evidence is that the location of the Feeding of the 4,000 was in the Tetrarchy of Phillip just north its border with the Decapolis, perhaps not far from the mountain town of Gamala, which became famous as “the Masada of the north” during the war Israel had against Rome later in the First Century. It was far enough away from the shore of the Sea of Galilee that it would be considered a desert area, but close enough so that the Lord could go conveniently from there to the shore and take the boat to the other side.
In our next article, we will discuss whether the Lord ever ventured into the Decapolis region, the implications of the Feeding of the 4,000 miracle on the Kingdom ministry of Jesus to Israel, and the ministry among the Gentiles that came about later in the Book of Acts, after the death and resurrection of Christ.
Part 2 — this article first appeared in the August 1998 Levitt Letter.
In our previous article, we explored the question of whether the Lord massively violated His announced rule of ministering only to Israel in His pre-death ministry, by going deep into the Decapolis area and feeding 4,000 Gentiles, as some revisionist commentaries suggest. We discovered that the terms used about Jesus going to the “border” of Decapolis will not allow for the idea of His going deep into the Decapolis region. In this article, we continue to explore this question. Did Jesus ever venture into Decapolis? If so, how far, and with what results? Also, what evidence, if any, is there in the Books of Acts that the Apostles were aware of any extensive Gentile ministry by the Lord before His death and resurrection? I believe the Scriptures answer these questions conclusively.
Did Jesus ever venture into the Decapolis? Perhaps one time He came close, but we have no indication He ever ministered there to any great extent. There was one time when He may have stepped on the border of Decapolis near the Sea of Galilee, which was the hill just north of Gerasa (currently called Kursi). It is a hill that practically runs into the lake, and made a natural boundary between Decapolis on the south, and the Tetrarchy of Phillip on the north. Gerasa was in Decapolis. If one visits the Sea of Galilee, the location of Gerasa (Kursi) is clear. It sits in a valley made by a river that goes between the border hill on the north and the hills of the Golan Heights on the south.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, II, p. 1217, explains the unique characteristics of Gerasa: “The town itself is not named in Scripture, and is referred to only in the expression, ‘country of the Gerasenes’… This describes the district in which Christ met and healed the demoniac from the tombs, where also took place the destruction of the swine. It was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and must have been a locality where the steep edges of the Bashan plateau drop close upon the brink of the lake. This condition is fulfilled only by the district immediately South of Wady Semak… Here the slopes descend swiftly almost into the sea, and animals, once started on the downward run, could not avoid plunging into the depths.”
The occasion of our Lord’s going to the hill bordering on Decapolis was when He healed the demoniac by casting out the demons and sending them into the pigs on the hill. Mark and Luke present essentially the same story: “And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes. And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit” (Mark 5:1,2).
Matthew tells the same story, but includes the fact that there were two demoniacs: “And when he was come to the other side into the country of the Gergesenes, there met him two possessed with devils, coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way” (Matthew 8:28). Mark and Luke may not have mentioned the second one because the first was the one who asked to come with the Lord and then proceeded to testify of what the Lord had done for him among his own people.
These pigs were owned by the Gentile farmers of Gerasa (Kursi), and the demon-possessed pigs promptly ran down the hill into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. By the way, this is the only hill around the Sea of Galilee that juts right out to the shore, where this kind of event could occur. When the citizens of Gerasa heard what had happened, they came up the hill to ask Christ to leave — immediately. This was no outpouring of acceptance of the Lord by the Gentile inhabitants. These Gentiles of Decapolis thought Jesus was a menace to their way of life, and they wanted to be rid of Him. Thus, the only time Christ ventured toward Decapolis, it resulted in His being rejected by the Gentile inhabitants. It appears that He never had any contact with Decapolis again.
Was Peter Aware of a Broad Gentile Ministry by Jesus? Not only does the wording in the Gospels preclude the idea that Jesus had a broad ministry in Decapolis, the later acts and arguments of the Apostles show that they had no background whatever for anything like a broad ministry among the Gentiles. Peter was astonished when the Centurion Cornelius of Caesarea received the Lord and was baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. The other Apostles at the Jerusalem Conference were similarly astonished at the way Gentiles were receiving the same blessing Jews were receiving through faith in the Messiah. They had to have a specially convened meeting to determine if the Scriptures allowed for this kind of activity among the Gentiles.
If Jesus had already had a broad ministry among Gentiles in Decapolis and other areas, why were the Apostles surprised by what happened in Acts? Why didn’t Peter remember the 4,000 Decapolis Gentiles Jesus ministered to and fed, if that is what really happened? Why didn’t Peter use this event as an argument at the Jerusalem Conference when the question of Gentile salvation was raised? If the Lord Himself had ministered broadly among the Gentiles in Decapolis, this would have been a powerful argument when Peter explained to the other Apostles about his own ministry with Cornelius, and when Paul was urging the full acceptance of Gentile Christians at the Jerusalem Conference. The fact is, Peter never saw the Lord minister to masses of Gentile, in Decapolis or anywhere else.
Actually, when a group of Greek Gentiles came to see Jesus, He declined to give them an audience, saying that He had to die before He could have a fruitful ministry among the Gentiles (see paragraph headings and notes in the New Scofield Reference Edition, John 12:20ff): “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Thus, until His death and resurrection, He restricted His ministry to His own Jewish people.
Some revisionist commentators have an agenda to show that Jesus had a massive outreach among Gentiles in His earthly ministry. If they can establish this, it will help them demolish the dispensational distinctives that exist before and after the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord. Their purpose is to show that Church Age concepts and the broad inclusion of Gentiles was something already instituted in the ministry of Christ before the cross. They also want to show that Jesus actually preferred ministry among the Gentiles in contrast with the difficulties He was having among the Jewish people. There is an undercurrent of anti-Jewish attitude in all of these commentaries and revisionist textbooks.
The only possible place these revisionists have to get large numbers of Gentiles into the ministry of the Lord is in this episode of the feeding of the 4,000. By twisting the wording around, they attempt to show that Jesus went into the heart of the Gentile region of Decapolis, preached to and healed large numbers of pagans, and concluded His ministry there with the miraculous feeding.
The text of the New Testament simply does not support those views. Jesus repeatedly said that His ministry before His sacrificial death was limited to the people of Israel. Whenever there was an individual exception to this general rule, it was clearly and unequivocally stated. On the unusual occasion when the Lord went to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, the Scriptures indicate He came only to the borders of Decapolis, not into the heart of the Gentile area. The people He ministered to there were Jews in the predominantly Jewish area of the Tetrarchy of Phillip north of the boundary with Decapolis.
The location of the feeding of the 4,000 was probably somewhat south of the location of the earlier feeding of the 5,000. Both were in the Tetrarchy of Phillip near the Sea of Galilee and were miracles designed to show Israel that Jesus, the Messiah, was able to provide food miraculously for His people, much as Moses, by the power of God, was able to provide miraculous manna for the nation in the wilderness. They fit well into the Messianic program of our Lord in His presentation of the Kingdom to Israel. The concept of the Lord having a broad ministry among Gentiles could not be accomplished until His death and resurrection, and the beginning of the Church Age in the Book of Acts. When this extension of outreach beyond Israel did occur, the apostles were surprised, and had to be educated through miracles and Scriptural interpretation that the Lord had instituted a new program in the Church Age that included Gentiles.