Gerasa, Gerasenes

GERASA, GERASENES (Γέρασα, Γερασηνες). A city in Transjordania, situated about thirty-five m. SE of the S end of the Sea of Galilee, one of the cities of the Decapolis; the inhabitants of the city.

1. The gospels. The NT references (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26; cf. v. 37) describe Jesus’ healing of the demoniac “Legion” and the drowning of the swine in the Sea of Galilee (cf. Matt 8:28). The textual evidence shows that the MSS preserve three variant spellings of the name in each gospel. The best text in Matthew reads “Gadarenes,” in Mark and Luke it reads “Gerasenes,” whereas some MSS preserve “Gergesenes” and “Gergustenes” (cf. Gadara).

Because some confusion exists in the gospel MS evidence and perhaps in other source material, absolute certainty cannot be attained; but the following identification seems correct.

2. Gergesa (Γέργεσα). This town is not to be confused with either Gerasa or Gadara. Gergesa is located, with relative certainty, midway along the E bank of the Sea of Galilee; Gadara is six m. SE from the S end of the Sea of Galilee; and Gerasa is some thirty-five m. SE.

The fact that Matthew places the healing of “Legion” in the “country of the Gadarenes” whereas Mark and Luke place it in the “country of the Gerasenes” may be harmonized on the historical grounds that geographical boundaries overlapped, and on the exegetical consideration that “country” embraced a wide area around the cities. Further, the conclusion seems warranted that there was confusion in some MSS of Gerasa with the more likely site for the miracle near Gergesa. In any event, the apparent differences in the texts prob. led to the substitute reading “Gergesenes,” a reading that was suggested by a study of the geography of the area. This solution is as old as Origen (Commentary on John, VI, 24) who, faced with the textual problem, suggested that the precise site of the healing of “Legion” was Gergesa, the small town in the territory of Gadara, but hardly in the more remote territory of Gerasa. Origen says this is a good example of how Biblical writers simply were not concerned to precisely identify certain sites. Most scholars today would agree with Origen that near Gergesa was the precise site for the healing of “Legion.” It was a small village about midway along the E shore of the Sea of Galilee. This agrees with the general description of the site (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26). In this immediate area, steep hills come down to the shoreline and fit the story of the swine rushing headlong into the sea. No other place on the E side of the sea fits this requirement of the story. The mountainside has caves and hewn tombs where, according to Mark and Luke, the demoniac had taken shelter. The site is identified today with the town of Kersa, or Gersa, just below Wadi es-Samak.

3. Gerasa. Gerasa is identified from various sources as a city in Arabia, Decapolis, Gilead, or Perea. Since all of these areas overlap, one may take the references as meaning the same place. Gerasa was a city situated near the Jabbok River about eighteen m. E of the Jordan, about twenty m. SE of Pella, and twenty m. N of Philadelphia. Archeologists identify it with the modern Jarash. At this distance from the Sea of Galilee, Gerasa could not have been the site of the healing of “Legion.” It is doubtful that Jesus ever visited it. This location agrees with the description given by the ancient writers. Ptolemy says Gerasa was a city in Coele-Syria, thirty-five travel m. from Pella. Pliny described it as a city of the Decapolis founded after the Rom. conquest of Syria in 65 b.c. Josephus mentions it with Pella and Golan as being taken by storm during Alexander Jannaeus’ campaign E of the Jordan in about 83 b.c. (Jos. War I. iv. 8). In his description of the boundaries of Perea, Josephus mentions Gerasa as one of the cities on the eastern boundary between Perea and Arabia, the other border cities being Philadelphia and Sebonitus (Jos. War III. iii. 3). Gerasa is mentioned next by Josephus in connection with the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in a.d. 70.

Apparently Gerasa was rebuilt by the Romans before the revolt began, prob. about a.d. 65. Before the war it was a Gentile settlement. In retaliation for the massacre of the Jews at Caesarea, the Jews sent several raiding parties into the Gentile cities of the Decapolis. These forces plundered Gerasa, Philadelphia, Pella, and others (Jos. War II. xviii. 1), and apparently occupied these cities with Jewish patriots.

The next allusion to Gerasa concerns its capture during Vespasian’s campaign. He dispatched Lucius Annius with a force of cavalry and an army of foot soldiers, who took the city on the first attack, slaughtering a thousand young men, taking their families captive, plundering and burning the city and the surrounding towns (Jos. War IV. ix. 1).

In the 2nd cent. Gerasa was rebuilt in splendor and remained prosperous for several centuries. It was a leading city of Syria in commerce, culture, and religion. The pagan religions continued among the Gentile population as is evidenced by the ruins of the temple of Artemis. But Christianity early became important in the city; several churches were built during these centuries, so that by the 5th cent., Gerasa could send a bishop to the Council of Chalcedon.

4. Archeology. Excavations at the modern Jarash (by the British and American Schools of Oriental Research and Yale University) clearly show that Gerasa was a large and important city already in Jesus’ time. The excavations uncovered what is to date the best preserved Rom. city in Pal. These ruins date from the 2nd to the 7th centuries and show that the city flourished during this period as a center for religion, culture, and commerce. The forum, with a semicircle of columns still standing, was paved with large cut stones. A main street with columns on both sides leads out of the forum. The modern village Jarash is situated on the hillside above the ruins, built with stones from the ruins. Ruins of the temple of Artemis, some columns still standing, are on another hillside above the ruins. The city was large and well planned. Its architecture was of the Corinthian order, quite lavish and imposing, with columns from three to four ft. in diameter and about thirty ft. high. The ruins also show evidence of a dozen churches, dating in the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries) indicating that this once was a large Christian community. An inscr. noted the official establishment of Christianity and discontinuance of pagan worship in the 5th cent. (Cf. HDB, II, p. 158, 159 for a detailed description.)

Bibliography W. A. Thomson, The Land and the Book (1882), 333-338, 353, 359; C. H. Kraeling, Gerasa, City of the Decapolis (1938); The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (1946), 64, 117; M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the NT (1962), 139-141; E. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Markus (1963), 93f; C. F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical World (1966), 252-254.