Mark Invented the Sea of Galilee

Mark Invented the Sea of Galilee August 25, 2018

Teaching a class on the historical Jesus, I am revisiting posts from as much as a couple of years ago that I have long meant to highlight or discuss, which relate to this topic. One of these is Paul Davidson’s post about the “Sea of Galilee” in the Gospel of Mark, and the fact that that work may well be the first work to have referred to the lake by this odd choice of name. Here’s how the blog post begins:

Most of Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion narrative revolves around a body of water the author calls the Sea of Galilee. It is the geographical focal point where Jesus calls his disciples, preaches to the crowds, travels (by boat), and performs his miracles — including many that involve the sea itself. It is a dangerous body of water whose raging waves must be quelled by Jesus on one occasion to save his shipmates.

There is, in fact, no “sea” in the Galilee region of Palestine. There is a lake in the right location that matches the geographical description of Mark’s sea in many (thought not all) respects. But no ancient writer prior to Mark ever mentions a body of water called the Sea of Galilee, and some of the reasons Mark gives the sea such a prominent role are often overlooked.

See also Jim Spinti’s post on how different translators deal with Mark calling the lake a ‘sea’ and what the symbolic significance of the wording may have been for the ancient author and readers.

The above connects in a natural way to Matthew Ferguson’s post about eyewitnesses, ancient biographies, and the Gospels. He wrote:

Considering that virtually every Greco-Roman biographer from the early Roman Empire, writing on subjects dating to within half a century or so of his composition, mentions his personal relation to events, the failure of any of the Gospel authors to explicitly do so should make us question whether the Gospels belong to the same literary genre as these authors…

[T]he fact that the Gospels do not explicitly discuss any of their authors’ relation to sources or events is a major reason why scholars consider them to be anonymous. The fact that historiographical biographers–such as Nepos, Tacitus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Lucian–actually do is likewise a reason why their biographies are not considered to be anonymous. But, we do have other anonymous biographical literature from antiquity–such as the Life of Aesop, the Alexander Romance, and the Life of Secundus. These biographies are popular and novelistic, however, and not historiographical, which should thus offer us some insight into where, on the broader spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, the Gospels more appropriately belong.

The one potential point that should perhaps be made in response is that Jewish authors may or may not fit this pattern that predominated in the wider Greco-Roman world. Of course, the works that come to mind about historical events often fit the description “popular and novelistic” and so this may be a distinction without a difference. But the fact that the main archetypes that Jewish authors – including historians – sought to emulate were anonymous works from their scriptures needs to be part of the discussion.

Of related interest see Steve Wiggins’ post on false memories and recollections of uncertain reliability.

"Paul isn't designating them with that term. They are designating themselves. They are the ones ..."

Easter and Historical Nuance
"If Paul is using the phrase "brother of the Lord" to identify which James he ..."

Easter and Historical Nuance
"It seems to me from what you are saying that a lot of (perhaps all) ..."

Superseding Supersessionist Theology
"https://uploads.disquscdn.c... https://uploads.disquscdn.c..."

What Jesus Learned from the Woman ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Oh great. Sea of Galilee mythicism.

    (totally kidding)

    • John MacDonald

      “In 1 Timothy 4, Paul is very specific about why it is so important to keep a closed mind. With approximately ten thousand thoughts going through our brain waves every day, it is easy for the wrong things to slip in. This lesson focuses on why having a closed mind is essential to living a Christ-pleasing life.” (What’s on Your Mind?: Discover the Power of Biblical Thinking by John Goetsch, pg 45)

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I like it when people are up front about that sort of thing. “Just so you know, I believe it’s a biblical imperative to have a closed mind.” Ok, great, well, that saves us some time, then.

        • John MacDonald

          Apparently he is also not open to the point that Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy, lol.

  • Mark

    As far as I can see, the reasons for thinking that Galilean locals, when speaking Greek, didn’t call the Kinneret a ‘thalassos’, are nil. Why not say the Mark was just following the locals? He says ‘of Galilee’ because he wanted a wide readership. Perhaps that choice is influenced by his prophetic associations – similarly the Bavli writers in Mesopotamia often opts for the ‘yam’ “of Tiberias”, since the city is so exalted.

    Josephus, and Luke perhaps following him, call Kinneret a limnē and Paul Davidson thinks they’re right and thalassos is obviously wrong. But in truth limnē is every bit as wrong

    The writer’s hidden starting point is the peculiarity that English ‘sea’ is wrong, ‘lake’ is right; but lake is a Romance novelty that is used to contract the extension of Germanic ‘sea’ into covering only salt water and oceanic bodies. This is a typical operation in English which always has Germanic and Romance to choose from – but the same happens in Frisian where a freshwater lake-word is imported from Romance language, namely, ‘mar’.

    The trouble is that Greek and in another way Hebrew don’t have much occasion to speak of freshwater lakes. They are much more common in the north where there is a lot of rain and glacial retreat. thalassos and limnē are both wrong, so one makes a decision. Greek speaking Galilean Jews will of course choose ‘thalassos’ since it sounds great, not like a smelly marsh. It is well known that the Lord made seven seas, but Kinneret is his favorite.

    It’s hilarious Davidson credits Porphyry’s claim that there could be no white caps on the Kinneret. How dangerous it might be in a storm depends on how feeble the boats.

    • John MacDonald

      I just learned a lot!

  • John MacDonald

    I have a question that I’m just throwing out there:

    James said “The one potential point that should perhaps be made in response is that Jewish authors may or may not fit this pattern that predominated in the wider Greco-Roman world.”

    My question is, given that the Gospel writers were highly literate native Greek speakers, is it reasonable to infer they would have been familiar with how Greco -Roman biographers attributed authorship?

    • John MacDonald

      I’m just wondering because, for instance, if Dr Dennis MacDonald is right that Mark is imitating (mimesis) Homer in places, this might lend credence to the idea that Mark is following a Greco-Roman format. For instance, Dr. MacDonald argues:

      The core of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac seems to derive from Odyssey 9:101-565. Odysseus and his men come to shore in the land of the hulking Cyclopes, just as Jesus and his disciples arrive by boat in the land of the Gerasenes (or Gergesenes, supposedly the remnant of the ancient Girgashites, hence possibly associated with the mythical Anakim/Rephaim, who were giants). Goats graze in one landscape, pigs in the other. Leaving their boats, each group immediately encounters a savage man-monster who dwells in a cave. The demoniac is naked, and Polyphemus was usually depicted naked, too. The Cyclops asks Odysseus if he has come with intent to harm him, just as the Gerasene demoniac begs Jesus not to torment him. Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, and the latter replies “Noman,” while Jesus asks the demoniac his name, “Legion,” a name reminiscent of the fact that Odysseus’ men were soldiers. Jesus expels the legion of demons, sending them into the grazing swine, recalling Circe’s earlier transformation of Odysseus’ troops into swine. Odysseus contrives to blind the Cyclops, escaping his cave. The heroes depart, and the gloating Odysseus bids Polyphemus to tell others how he has blinded him, just as Jesus tells the cured demoniac to tell how he has exorcised him. As Odysseus’ boat retreats, Polyphemus cries out for him to return, but he refuses. As Jesus is about to depart, the man he cured asks to accompany him, but he refuses. Sheer copying from the source is about the only way to explain why Jesus should be shown refusing a would-be disciple.

      • Bones

        I think it’s far more likely that Mark is taking historical events and turning them on their head eg We read in Josephus’s Wars that in the region of Gadara, Vespasian’s Roman Legio X Fretensis (symbol is a pig and my name is legion), massacred Jewish rebels by drowning them in the sea. The local villagers welcomed the Romans.

        That’s a direct parallel to what happened in Mark 5 which Mark turns on its head.


        Accordingly, V breaks up camp to take Jerusalem, first marching to subdue other parts of the country to prevent attacks. Enters the capital of Peraea, Gadara. The leading men had sent an embassy offering to surrender “alike from a desire for peace and from concern for their property, for Gadara had many wealthy residents.” The pro-war faction kills the leader of these citizens, named Dolesus, then flee the city. The Gadarenes then surrender peacefully when V arrives, having already pulled down their own walls. (4.7.3 413-418)

        The fugitives from Gadara are pursued by Placidus (300 horse, 3000 foot) while V returns to Caesarea. The fugitives take refuge with other rebels in Bethennabris [on a line from Gadara to Jericho]. Placidus takes the village with much slaughter, pillages and burns it. The fugitives fleeing from the village now rouse the countryside, driving everyone from their homes intending to take refuge in Jericho. Placidus traps them against the Jordan river (swollen by rain), slaughtering 15,000, capturing 2200 and many livestock. So many were swept into the river that even the Dead Sea filled with bodies. Placidus follows through with taking small towns and villages down to the Dead Sea (Abila, Julias, Besimoth), garrisoning them with deserters. Then takes those who were hiding on the lake. “Thus the whole of Peraea as far as Machaerus either surrendered or was subdued.” (4.7.4-6 419-439)

        And those hearing it would know exactly what it meant.

        I really don’t see how MArk imitating Homer would mean anything to a local audience.

        Especially when you consider the politics of Mark.

  • Hey James, you mention that “The one potential point that should perhaps be made in response is that Jewish authors may or may not fit this pattern that predominated in the wider Greco-Roman world”, but are there, then, other works of Jewish authors that could be compared to the gospels, such as the works of Josephus or Philo?

    Also, can we really assert that all four gospels were by “Jewish authors”, when Christianity was widespread in the Roman empire by the time of their writing? The gospels don’t claim to be written by Jewish authors.

    Even the traditional attributions of the gospels don’t seem to assume that, given that Luke is traditionally considered a gentile.

    • It is true that Luke is traditionally attributed to a non-Jewish author, although that assumption may be wrong, just as the assumption that the other authors were Jewish might be. On the whole, the contents and focus do seem to me to fit better within the framework of a movement in which even non-Jewish members were mostly converts to Judaism – even if in some cases those who converted to Paul’s version of it set aside some requirements such as circumcision!

      • I can see that.

        Both Philo and Josephus were Jewish writers who recorded historical events in Jewish affairs. They both identify themselves in their historical writings and relate their own connections to history.

        • True, although I am not certain how close the types of writing that Philo and Josephus produced match the approach to the subject matter in the New Testament Gospels. I am also regularly intrigued by the lack of attempt to write an authorial voice into the Synoptic Gospels, even a fabricated pseudonymous one of the sort that is the norm in later extracanonical Gospels. But at any rate, Philo and Josephus do show that educated Jews writing in Greek for a Roman audience in areas outside of Palestine might indeed write in a manner that reflected Greco-Roman best practices with respect to history writing. I’m not sure, though, that I feel that provides an explanation of why the New Testament Gospel authors did not do so in the same way, either inserting their genuine identity into the works or engaging in false authorship claims in an effort to bolster the impact of what they wrote…

          • I agree that Philo and Josephus, while being Jewish historians writing in Greek, do not match the approach of the gospels, and I think that is Matthew Ferguson’s point. Rather than fitting the model of formal works of history, Ferguson argues that gospels have more similarities to Greek popular-novelistic biographies like the Aesop and Alexander Romances that are filled with legendary additions and elaborations.

          • And my point is that works which Jews thought of as histories, rightly or wrongly – such as the Former Prophets, or Maccabees, or any number of other examples – often seem closer to those novels in many ways, but the Jewish authors creating them may not have thought of them in the same way that Greek authors, not steeped in the Jewish scriptures, would have. Of course, the big question is how we might be able to tell one way or the other!

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t know if this furthers the discussion any, but Mark employs narrative chiastic or ring structures sometimes in his text, which we also find in Suetonius’ historical/biographical work “Lives of the Caesars.” – so we might be dealing with a comparable literary form here.

            Suetonius’ book is embellished to be racy, packed with gossip, dramatic, and sometimes amusing. At times the author subjectively expresses his opinion and knowledge. Although he was never a senator himself, Suetonius took the side of the Senate in most conflicts with the princeps, as well as the senators’ views of the emperor. That resulted in biases, both conscious and unconscious. Suetonius lost access to the official archives shortly after beginning his work. He was forced to rely on secondhand accounts when it came to Claudius (with the exception of the letters of Augustus, which had been gathered earlier) and does not quote the emperor.

            Mark may simply be writing a biased historical biography like Suetonius’ book. Some like Carrier and others say the original Christians were an anti-temple sect, like the Qumran sect. The point of Mark’s gospel could be to show faith in Jesus replacing the temple cult. To this end, Mark wraps the story about the withering of the fig tree around the temple pericope. The point may be that just as it is no longer the season for figs, so too is it no longer the season for the temple.

          • Bones

            Also the Temple had already been destroyed.

            The new Age had begun…..that is the parable of the fig tree….

  • Matthew W. Ferguson

    “The one potential point that should perhaps be made in response is that Jewish authors may or may not fit this pattern that predominated in the wider Greco-Roman world.”

    Yes, that is correct. And Armin Baum discusses this in “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature”:

    Though, considering the fact that scholars such as Burridge, Licona, and Keener have argued that the Gospels are comparable to Greco-Roman biographies, it’s important to note how they discuss their sources and eyewitness in different ways (excluding popular biographies like the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance).

    • John MacDonald

      Some say the gospels are not biographies, but rather selective theological writings used to introduce Jesus to different audiences and bring them to faith in Him. They are “good news” accounts of Jesus’ life for the purpose of evangelism. For instance, John 20:31 says “31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

      • John MacDonald

        Above it was written: “Scholars such as Burridge, Licona, and Keener have argued that the Gospels are comparable to Greco-Roman biographies. I don’t think that’s quite right, though. The gospels don’t seem to be biographies, but rather selective theological writings used to introduce Jesus to different audiences and bring them to faith in Him. For instance, John 20:31 says “31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

        Mark calls what he is doing a “euaggelion,” perhaps meaning he is writing something analogous to a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda. Helms points out Mark writes:

        “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” – which closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE) regarding Augustus: “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”

        Mark may be like a propaganda document full of fictions about Jesus (eg., miracles, pithy one liners, etc) meant to win converts: “If you thought Caesar was great, take a look at Jesus!” This agrees with GJohn’s characterization of the nature of the writing as “”31But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (John 20:31).”

        Mark’s gospel seems to function on an exoteric level to lure the masses with enticing miracle stories, and on an esoteric level to convey deeper spiritual truths of loving neighbor, widow, orphan, alien, and enemy, to those who have ears to hear.(cf. Mark 4:11).