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.


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