Questions on Mark's Geographical Ignorance... Gadara versus Gerasa and the problem of the Long Trip Home

March 23/2008

I got this question, about questions about Mark's geographical knowledge (as an indication of his background). I have edited out the non-geographical issues:

Hey, I came across this page that was linked to this website: I had problems with the whole page actually, but I copied and pasted the following paragraphs because his statements about the non-veracity of Mark due to a lack of knowledge of the geography on the part of the writer really messed with me:


Another powerful argument against the idea that Mark could have been an eye-witness of the existence of Jesus is based upon the observation that the author of Mark displays a profound lack of familiarity with Palestinian geography. If he had actually lived in Palestine, he would not have made the blunders to be found in his gospel. If he never lived in Palestine, he could not have been an eye-witness of Jesus. You get the point.

The most absurd geographical error Mark commits is when he tells the tall tale about Jesus crossing over the Sea of Galilee and casting demons out of a man (two men in Matthew's revised version) and making them go into about 2,000 pigs which, as the King James version puts it, "ran violently down a steep place into the sea... and they were choked in the sea."

Apart from the cruelty to animals displayed by the lovable, gentle Jesus, and his disregard for the property of others, what's wrong with this story? If your only source of information is the King James Bible, you might not ever know. The King James says this marvel occurred in the land of the Gadarenes, whereas the oldest Greek manuscripts say this miracle took place in the land of the Gerasenes. Luke, who also knew no Palestinian geography, also passes on this bit of absurdity. But Matthew, who had some knowledge of Palestine, changed the name to Gadarene in his new, improved version; but this is further improved to Gergesenes in the King James version.

By now the reader must be dizzy with all the distinctions between Gerasenes, Gadarenes, and Gergesenes. What difference does it make? A lot of difference, as we shall see.

Gerasa, the place mentioned in the oldest manuscripts of Mark, is located about 31 miles from the shore of the Sea of Galilee! Those poor pigs had to run a course five miles longer than a marathon in order to find a place to drown! Not even lemmings have to go that far. Moreover, if one considers a "steep" slope to be at least 45 degrees, that would make the elevation of Gerasa at least six times higher than Mt. Everest!

When the author of Matthew read Mark's version, he saw the impossibility of Jesus and the gang disembarking at Gerasa (which, by the way, was also in a different country, the so-called Decapolis). Since the only town in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee that he knew of that started with G was Gadara, he changed Gerasa to Gadara. But even Gadara was five miles from the shore - and in a different country. Later copyists of the Greek manuscripts of all three pig-drowning gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) improved Gadara further to Gergesa, a region now thought to have actually formed part of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. So much for the trustworthiness of the biblical tradition.

Another example of Mark's abysmal ignorance of Palestinian geography is found in the story he made up about Jesus traveling from Tyre on the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, 30 miles inland. According to Mark 7:31, Jesus and the boys went by way of Sidon, 20 miles north of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast! Since to Sidon and back would be 40 miles, this means that the wisest of all men walked 70 miles when he could have walked only 30. Of course, one would never know all this from the King James version which - apparently completely ignoring a perfectly clear Greek text - says "Departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the Sea of Galilee..." Apparently the translators of the King James version also knew their geography. At least they knew more than did the author of Mark!


Okay, let’s start with the larger one: “Gadara or whatever”

I remember the first time I read the textual footnote that always accompanies the first question (Gadara or where?). It seemed like a bewildering landscape of textual variants and witnesses—and still does, I suppose—but the textual variants really don’t create a problem in themselves.

The textual problem (what did each gospel account actually ‘start with’) is interesting, challenging, but inconsequential to this question. All three (or four?) geographical references COULD have been true at the same time, just like I refer to my specific residence as being “in Leland”, “in the area around Greenville” (7-8 miles away), “just east of the Mississippi River bridge” (about 20miles away), “at the junction of AR, LA, and MS” (30-40 miles away), “just north of Vicksburg MS” (80 miles away), “a little south of Memphis TN” (180 miles away), “in the rural American South”—depending on how familiar I think my listener IS with this area/US. So, there’s no real need to solve the textual problem—we just need to focus on the geographical issues.

Let’s look at the specific wording in the three gospels (Greek words in bracket; my emphasis in italics):

Mark 5:

They came to the other side of the sea, into the country [chora] of the Gerasenes. When He got out of the boat, immediately [euthus] a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him, and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones. Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; and shouting with a loud voice, he said, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!” For He had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country [chora]. Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain. The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.” Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.

MK 5:14 Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city [polis] and in the country [agrous]. And the people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the “legion”; and they became frightened. Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine. And they began to implore Him to leave their region [horion]. As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. And He did not let him, but He said to him, “ Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”

Matthew 8:

When He came to the other side into the country [chora] of the Gadarenes, two men who were a demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way. And they cried out, saying, “ What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” Now there was a herd of many swine feeding at a distance from them. The demons began to entreat Him, saying, “If You are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And He said to them, “Go!” And they came out and went into the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the waters. The herdsmen ran away, and went to the city [polis] and reported everything, including what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, the whole city [polis] came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw Him, they implored Him to leave their region [horion].

Luke 8:

Then they sailed to the country [chora] of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. And when He came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city [polis] who was possessed with demons; and who had not put on any clothing for a long time, and was not living in a house, but in the tombs. Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell before Him, and said in a loud voice, “ What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me.” For He had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For it had seized him many times; and he was bound with chains and shackles and kept under guard, and yet he would break his bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert [eramous]. And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “ Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss.

LK 8:32 Now there was a herd of many swine feeding there on the mountain; and the demons implored Him to permit them to enter the swine. And He gave them permission. And the demons came out of the man and entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into a the lake and was drowned.

LK 8:34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they ran away and reported it in the city [polis] and out in the country [agrous]. The people went out to see what had happened; and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they became frightened. Those who had seen it reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well. And all the people of the country of the Gerasenes and the surrounding district [‘all the multitude of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes”—hapan to plathos tas perichorou ton Gerasenon] asked Him to leave them, for they were gripped with great fear; and He got into a boat and returned. But the man from whom the demons had gone out was begging Him that he might accompany Him; but He sent him away, saying, “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city [polis] what great things Jesus had done for him.

Before we get into the data, let me make a few observations:

  1. Mark and Luke both say “Gerasenes” while Matthew says “Gadarenes” [The ‘gergasenes’ reading is a 4th century variant—championed by Origen—and not considered the main contender for being the original reading in any of the Synoptics. However, there are some MSS earlier than Origen witnessing to this].

  2. All of the three say that Jesus came to the ‘region’ (chora) of some people, but not to a city itself (i.e., it does NOT say that He came to “Gadara” or to “Gerasa”—just to the ‘region of X’), so any objections about them being ‘too far away for a city’ have mis-read the explicit text (and ‘most’ of the objection evaporates, obviously)

  3. Luke’s use of peri-chora (‘surrounding region of the Gerasenes’) indicates that this is larger-than-just-Gerasa territory, and would be able to include just about anything in the Decapolis (including Gadara, Hippos, etc)

  4. The event clearly happens away from the nearest city, since the herdsmen have to travel to the city, plus Jesus told the man to go back to the city.

  5. The Lukan passage indicates that the parties were already on a mountain (‘there on the mountain’), which means that half the distance to the city [if it is Gadara] has already been traversed by the disciples (shortening the distance the herdsmen have to run to report the event to the city folk).

  6. The people of the region ask Jesus to leave their (h)orion—‘legal boundary’—which might suggest that they were at the edge of the region to begin with.

  7. The city in question is actually not named in the passage.

  8. The city is not very close by, because some time has obviously elapsed between the herdsmen fleeing and the city-folk arriving: the demoniac(s) is/are now clothed, cleaned up, and have taken the discipleship/student position of sitting at the feet of Jesus the Teacher. We have no indication of how much time it took the herdsmen to travel/return, but it wasn’t instantaneous to be sure. Thus, we can assume the city was not IMMEDIATELY close by, but how far it might be is indeterminate.

  9. Plus, the city cannot be too far away because the impression given in the text is that the event, the report, and the inspection by the city-dwellers all happen in the same day (although telescoping COULD be present).

  10. The pigs are NOT in/by the city—they are both ‘nearby’ and ‘some distance away’ from the locale of Jesus’ encounter with the Demoniacs. [This means that the presence/absence of a ‘cliff to the sea’ in Gadara or Geresa is irrelevant to the story/objection.]

  11. Since you don’t normally build cemeteries on seashores(!), Matthew’s description of the demoniacs meeting Jesus ‘as they came out of the tombs’ would imply that they are a good distance from the shore. [BTW, Mark’s euthus (‘immediately’) doesn’t imply otherwise—his use of euthus almost never actually means ‘immediately’, but seems rather to be a ‘look here NOW’ kind of linguistic function.]

  12. Additionally, the reference to ‘none could pass by’ is generally a phrase dealing with trade-routes and roads, so this event takes place in between inhabited places, but still on a traveled road.

Okay, time for a map or two [sources are Bible Knowledge Commentary and Nelson’s 3D Bible Map-book]:

From these two maps, note:

  1. Contrary to the objection, all three possible sites are in the Decapolis, although it is not an administrative region in itself. (“The presence of a large herd of swine (v. 11) in the Decapolis is not surprising. This region, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, was largely Gentile.” [EBCNT, Mark]]

  2. One-third of the Sea of Galilee was in Decapolis territory.

  3. Gerasa is some 30miles from the Sea of Galilee.

Now, let’s zoom in around the Sea of Galilee and locate both Gadara and Gergesa [screen captures from HolyLand 3-D software, by TerraExplorer/Skyline; labels my own], :


  1. The city of Gadara is about 5.5 miles from the lake shore, but only 3-3.5 miles from where the mountains begin.

  2. [Btw, a 3 mile “hurried” trip—the herdsmen presumably rush to the nearest city since they are probably legally liable for the pig loss—would only take 20-40 minutes, even with pack animals. Modern donkey/burro races—with a human handler running alongside and 30-odd pounds of pack load on the donkey—cover 15 miles in 2 hours, and 30 miles in 6 hours (with a 13K ft elevation climb thrown in, too!). For example, see the “Burro Days” events in Fairplay CO, ; of course, individual human runners--e.g. our various city marathon types—can match or beat these rates. This means the distance between the event and even the city of Gadara is not an issue, and THAT part of the objection drops away too…]

  3. There is another significant town in the area (Emmatha) which is a bit closer to the Sea, and which was famous for its hot springs. [Since the city in the story is not given, it could be this city that is referred to in the text. The region, remember, is designated by the ‘people’ and not actually by the ‘city’—nearby residents of those cities were known by the city by which they were governed, and, as we shall see below, Emmatha was in the jurisdiction of Gadara]

  4. The Gergesa site is actually right on the ocean, although it might be just outside the general boundary of the Decapolis (not that this is necessary for the text to work, of course—the only reference to the Decopolis is after the event). It’s modern name (Khersa) is closer to ‘Gerasa’ than to ‘Gergsa’, and some scholars believe this is the actual city of the text.

One more map on the elevation (looking East from the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee):


  1. There is about an 8 mile stretch of shore when the pig-stampede could have been situated. (Not to the very end of the Sea, but about a mile or two short of that—so there is not too much sea-plain between the foot of the mountain and the waterline).

  2. There is four-mile stretch of beautiful plain-land between Hippos and Emmatha, which drops precipitously ‘over a cliff’.

Okay, with this in mind, let’s look at the major sites and terminology in the account:

Gadara is the closest ‘big city’ to the event. Here’s some of the data on it:

Several references to Gadara appear in Josephus. In the Maccabean wars, Alexander Jannaeus took the city after a ten month siege (Jos. Antiq., XII, iii. 3; Jos. War, I. iv. 2) and demolished it. After the Rom. conquest it was rebuilt by Pompey in 63 B.C. (War. I. vii. 7) and made a “free” city. Gabinius made it the capital of one of the five districts of occupied Pal. Herod the Great received it as a gift from Augustus in 30 B.C. (Jos. Antiq. XV. vii. 3; Jos. War. I, xx. 3). Herod ruled it harshly and was sustained in his policy by the emperor (Jos Antiq. XV. x. 3). At Herod’s death it was annexed to Syria (Jos. Antiq. XVII. xi. 4; Jos. War, II. xviii. 1). During the rebellion of A.D. 68-70 it fell quickly to Vespasian, who burned it and plundered the countryside (Jos. War, III. vii. 1). Rebuilt again, it flourished, as coins from the city show, until A.D. 240… Gadara is identified today as Muqeis, or Umm Qeis, overlooking the S valley of the Yarmuk river. The ruins are extensive, including remnants of two amphitheaters, a basilica, a temple, colonnades, large residences, and an aqueduct, all showing the size, beauty, and importance of the city.” [ZPED, “Gadara”]

Knowledge of Greek was not restricted to Jerusalem. It must be assumed that not merely educated people or the inhabitants of large towns could understand and speak it but also those who lived in small towns and villages. Probably several people in Palestine were bilingual from early youth. Those in Palestine who wanted to acquire Greek culture had plenty of opportunity. In East Jordan there had existed from the 3rd century b.c. several Greek cities with Greek-speaking colonists, Greek constitutions, and Greek religion. Gadara was a centre of Greek culture. Once captured by Alexander Jannaeus, it achieved independence after the death of Herod. It produced a string of poets and philosophers (Strabo, 16, 2, 29) such as the Epicurean Philodemos, the lyric poet Meleagros for whom Gadara was as Attica (Ant. Graec., 7, 417), the satirist Menippos, and the rhetorician Theodoros. …Semitic influence may be seen in poetry as well as philosophy. The satirist Menippos of Gadara cannot conceal his Semitic origin. The imagination and passion of the Asiatic come to expression in his love poems. He writes in Greek but calls himself a Syrian (Anth. Graec, 7, 417, 5).” [TDNT, 10:655-659]

Following Octavius’s defeat of Antony in Egypt, Herod went to Egypt to congratulate him and Octavius returned Jericho (which Cleopatra had taken) to Herod, adding to it Gadara, Hippos, Samaria, Gaza, Anthedon, Joppa and Strato’s Tower (which later became Caesarea) (Josephus Ant. 15.7.3 §§215–17; BJ 1.20.3 §396). [DictJG, 319]

But to what town do these names refer? One possibility is Gerasa, modern Jerash, about thirty miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Although it was a very prosperous town in the first two centuries a.d., it is unlikely that its lands reached the lake. The second possibility is Gadara, a site now called Um Qeia, five miles southeast of the sea. Its lands certainly reached the lake, for Josephus mentions the fact and its coins show a ship. The final possibility is that the reference is to a lakeside town. The site of modern Khersa has been suggested, but it probably gave rise to the corrupt reading Gergasenes after Origen’s suggestion in the third century. Whatever the actual town (we will never know the names of all of the towns and villages on the east coast of the Sea of Galilee), Mark uses “Gerasene” to refer to its people, and Luke follows him. Matthew (who likely wrote his Gospel in Syria, thereby closer to the site) prefers to refer to the town he knows, in the region he believed the place was located. Later scribes, not knowing any of the places, confused the matter. One thing is certain: all of the places named are in the Decapolis, Gentile territory of the ten independent cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee. [HSOB, Mark]; note: Matthew the tax-collector around the Sea of Galilee would probably be keenly aware of what districts/regions he could legally collect taxes from! Writing for a more-Palestinian audience, he could use his knowledge of local geography.]

The territory of Gadara extended at least as far north as the Nahr Yarmûk (Pliny Nat. hist. v.16.74) and probably included the renowned hot springs of Ematha (Eusebius Onom 22.26); it probably extended as far south as the Wâdi et-Taiyibe; toward the east, it stretched at least as far as el-Khureibe, where the city aqueduct originated; its western boundary was the valley of the Jordan (BJ iii.3.1 [37]) and perhaps the Sea of Galilee (Mt. 8:28; Vita 9 [42]). [ISBE, 2:376]

In the gorge E of the confluence of the Jordan River with the Yarmuk (Hieromices) are the hot springs of Emmatha (Tell el-ammeh) and the Roman baths. Elevated at the top of the cliff on the southern bank of the Yarmuk at Umm Qeis is the Hellenistic (Antiochia Seleucia) and Roman city of Gadara, once capital of the Roman territory with that name. The hot springs were then called the Springs of Gadara. The hill affords a marvelous view across the Sea of Galilee of the Jordan Valley to the south. Gadara was a city of the Decapolis on an important trade route …” [ISBE, 2:1124]

The remains demonstrate that Gadara was indeed a significant and vital Greek pólis (Ant. xvii.11.4 [320]; BJ ii.6.3 [97]) containing temples, theaters, a hippodrome, an aqueduct, etc. The epitaph of a Gadarene named Apion refers to Gadara as a chrestomousía (“city of culture”). Philodemus the Epicurean, Meleager the epigrammatic poet, Menippus the Cynic and satirist, and Theodorus the orator were all sons of Gadara (Strabo Geog. xvi.2.29 [758]), as were the Cynic Oenomaus (D. R. Dubley, History of Cynicism [1937], pp. 162–170) and the rhetorician Apsines (F. Miller, Journal of Roman Studies, 59 [1969], 16). [ISBE, 2:375f]

Natives of Gadara in the Hellenistic period included the satirist Menippus (3d century b.c.); the poet Meleager (ca. 140–ca. 70 b.c.), author of the famous Garland, which called his homeland the Syrian Attica; and the Epicurian philosopher Philodemus (ca. 110–ca. 40 b.c.). From the beginning of the imperial period, among renowned Gadarans were the philosopher Antiochus; the orator Theodoros (fl. 33 b.c.), a contemporary of Strabo (Strabo 16.2.29 C 759), who was Tiberius’s advisor; and Strabo’s adversary the Cynical philosopher Oenomaos (ca. a.d. 12). In the 3d century a.d., Aspine (ca. 190–250), who held the imperial chair of philosophy at Athens and was consul at Rome, came from Gadara; shortly after his time, the illustrious philosopher Iamblicus (ca. 250–ca. 325), a native of Chalcis, would betake himself to the baths of Emmatha in Gadara while philosophizing with his disciples. [ABD, 2:119; note: oddly, there is a gap in this cultural timeline between the ministry of Jesus and the late second century. The city was racked by war during the Jewish uprisings, of course, but during the time the gospels were being written—under the ‘traditional’ dating—the city had no ‘shining lights’ that would have been recognized by Greco-Roman popular culture—the intended audiences of Luke, and possibly Mark. High/literary culture might have recognized the name ‘Gadara’ in the mid-first century, but probably not popular culture.]


However, Mark says the "region" of the Gerasenes, and this apparently included the entire district extending down from the city to the lake. Another possibility is that Gerasa is to be identified with the ruins of Kersa (Koursi), a village on the eastern shore. Not far from this site there is a cliff within forty meters of the shore and some old tombs. [EBCNT, Mark]

region of the Gerasenes. Gerasa, located about 35 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee, may have had holdings on the eastern shore of the Sea, giving its name to a small village there now known as Khersa. About one mile south is a fairly steep slope within 40 yards of the shore, and about two miles from there are cavern tombs that appear to have been used as dwellings. [NIVSBN, Mark]

Most likely, however, this is territory controlled by Gerasa, which extends to the Sea of Galilee. [ZIBBC, Mark]

In Mark Jesus exorcises a demoniac in the region near Gerasa (Mk 5:1); in Matthew it occurs in Gadara (Mt 8:28). The former is probably a city; the latter, a province. [DictJG, 295]

To the non-Palestinian Roman and Greek readers of Mark and Luke’s Gospels, the small regional district of Gadara would be unknown; however, the affluent Roman city of Gerasa would be widely known and suitable as a geographical designation for Jesus’ miracle at the Sea of Galilee. [BEB, 857]

It is possible that this well-known locale is not the Gerasa referred to by the reading, or that a larger regional reference is intended by this nameIt may be that local customs in referring to regions are not well enough understood by us, so that the scene could be referred to in a regional sense by a distant locale like Gerasa. Perhaps those who reacted to the event were spread far and wide in the area. Or perhaps there was another Gerasa in the region that we no longer know about.?? It could be that the man was from one locale but the event took place in another, given that he had abandoned his home (8:27; there is no way to prove such a possibility). In fact, we do not know for sure why the difference emerged, but the difference between Matthew and Mark = Luke is like that in various writers’ references to an event that happened in Denton, Texas, a small city an hour’s drive north of Dallas–Fort Worth. One writer might describe it as happening at Denton (the specific location), while another may say it took place at Dallas–Fort Worth (the more well known region). The region of one author may merely be more comprehensive than that of another. [Bock, Baker comm. On Luke]

Among famous men from Gerasa, Stephanius of Byzantium names the rhetor Ariston, the sophist Kerykos, the lawyer Plato; the best known is the mathematician and pythagorian theorist Nicomacus, from the 2d century a.d. [ABD, 2:119]

Gerasa was one of the significant cities of the Decapolis (Pliny Nat. hist. v 74). The Gerasenes were the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings (Josephus Ant. xiii.15.5 [398])… Greek traditions attribute the founding of the Hellenistic city of Gerasa to Alexander the Great, though excavations in the vicinity have revealed sites dating as far back as the Stone Age (EAEHL, II, 417). One tradition claims that Alexander founded the city for his veterans (Gk gérontes); another states that Alexander killed all young men in the area, leaving only the elderly (Gk gērontes). An inscription on a coin from the reign of Commodus (a.d. 180–192) reads … (“Alexander the Macedonian, founder of Gerasa”; see H. Seyrig, Syria, 42 [1965], 25–28). A statue of Perdiccus, one of Alexander’s generals, has also been discovered at Gerasa, suggesting that he was related to the founding of the city (EAEHL, II, 419). … Probably the city was well established by 143/2 b.c. This can be inferred from an inscription on a lead weight from the Seleucid era (ca 170 b.c.) that refers to the inhabitants of Gerasa as “the Antiochenes by the Chrysorhaas” (see Kraeling, p. 461; H. Seyrig, Numismatic Notes and Monographs, 119 [1950], 33, n 45). … According to Josephus, the city was conquered by Alexander Jannaeus (Ant. xiii.15.3 [393]; BJ i.4.8 [104]) toward the end of his career (Ant. xiii.15.5 [398]). It remained under Jewish rule until Pompey took it for Rome in 63 b.c. Thereafter Gerasa was included among the cities of the Decapolis and reckoned its continuing history from that date. The inscriptions of Gerasa are frequently dated according to the Pompeian era (see Kraeling, p. 358; C. C. McCown, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 64 [1933], 81–88). One inscription dates the dedication of the southern theater to the year 153, i.e., a.d. 90/91 (see B. VanElderen, American Schools of Oriental Research Newsletter, 4 [1974], 2). During the Roman period Gerasa enjoyed increasing prosperity. .. At the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt (a.d. 66–74) Gerasa and the neighboring cities of Philadelphia and Heshbon were attacked by Jewish rebels (BJ ii.18.1 [458]), and, although the inhabitants of the other cities retaliated, the Gerasenes “not only abstained from maltreating the Jews who remained with them, but escorted to the frontier any who chose to emigrate” (BJ ii.18.5 [480]). The Gerasa captured and destroyed by Lucius Annius under the command of Vespasian (BJ iv.9.1 [486–89]) can hardly have been this one (cf. HJP2 II, 149–155; K. H. Rengstorf, Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus, supp I: Namenwörterbuch zu Flavius Josephus, sv “Gerasa, 2”). … Like the other cities of the Decapolis, Gerasa belonged originally to the province of Syria. This is indicated by an inscription from Pergamum (R. Caguat, etal, Inscriptiones Graecae ad Res Romanas Pertinentes, IV, 374) and by the observations of the geographer Ptolemy (v74.18). By the end of the first decade of the 2nd cent a.d., however, Gerasa had become one of the three chief cities of the province of Arabia. Its importance is attested by the visit of the emperor Hadrian in 129. … After a period of decline, the city revived under Diocletian and became an important ecclesiastical center. Another period of decay had set in by the 6th cent, and the city was captured first by the Persians (614–628) and then by the Moslems (635). The city was eventually deserted about the 12th century. [ISBE, 2:447].

Archaeological remains indicate that a settlement of some kind stood here in the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. However, the NT city, whose walls enclosed about 200 acres, stood from Hellenistic times on its present location. Situated on the international N-S King’s Highway, it was one of the most important cities E of the Jordan River. .. Although Gerasa cannot have been the place of this story, it is interesting in its own right. According to an early tradition, Alexander the Great founded the Hellenistic city for his veterans. An inscription mentions Macedonians among the earliest settlers of the city. It was captured by Alexander Jannaeus around 85 b.c. (JW 1.4.8), and subsequently taken by Pompey for the Romans in 63 b.c. About this time it was included in the Decapolis as a city-state. During the first revolt against Rome (a.d. 66–70), this city, along with others in Syria, was sacked by Jews in retaliation for the Roman massacre of Jews at Caesarea Maritima (JW 2.18.1) but was later brutally retaken by order of Vespasian (JW 4.9.1). [ABD. 2:991]

Land of the Foreigners”--Hippos?

The Land of the Gerasenes. According to Mark 5:1–20, Jesus healed a demon-possessed Gentile man here, an area on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mark could hardly have had in mind the far distant Decapolis city of Gerasa; he rather makes use of a Semitic designation, “land of the foreigners?” (Heb gerûšîm; Gk Gerasenoi), as the name for an entire region (GBL I.442–43). The city of the Decapolis presupposed in Mark 5:14, 20, must be Hippos. The “country of the Gadarenes” (chora ton Gadarenon) of Matthew 8:28–34 is found to bear the name for the regional capital, Gadara. … A local tradition that has received some archeological support locates the miracle at El-Kursi.” [DictJG, 40]

The principal cities on the east side of the sea were Hippos and Gadara, both of which were much larger in the NT period than today. [ISBE, 2:392]

One of the cities of the Decapolis (a loose federation of 10 Greek cities) established in Palestine after the death of Alexander the Great (323 b.c.; also called Susitha); not mentioned in the Bible. Its location is in doubt, but most likely it was eight miles north of Gadara and four miles east of the Sea of Galilee near the road to Damascus. Its position was of strategic military importance in the defense of Jerusalem, while its location was also ideal for trading, from which it exported not only its merchandise but also Greek culture [BEB, 890]


Jesus and His disciples went to the east side of the lake (Sea of Galilee) into the region of the Gerasenes. Greek manuscripts are divided on the precise location involved, citing three names: Gadarenes (Matt. 8:28), Gergesenes (from Origen), and Gerasenes…. Reliable evidence favors the name Gerasenes which probably referred to the small town Gersa (modern Khersa) located on the lake’s eastern shore. Most of its inhabitants were Gentiles (cf. Mark 5:11, 19)… There is some confusion as to the place where the miracle occurred. What is meant by the region of the Gerasenes? Apparently the area was named for the small town Gersa (now the ruins of Khersa) on the eastern shore, across the lake from Galilee. Matthew mentioned “the region of the Gadarenes” (Matt. 8:28), which was named for the town Gadara, about six miles southeast of the lower tip of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps the territory around Gersa belonged to the city of Gadara.” [BKC, Mark and Luke]

This third site, Gergesa, is modern El Kursi, located in Israel on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee. In the early 1970s a Byzantine church was excavated there. It had been built over a spot considered holy because of some activity of Jesus there, just as were the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Rising up on the east behind the church is a hill in which tombs have been found, just as the story describes. And on the west of the church is a steep bank, the only one on the entire eastern shore of the sea, which extended to the water’s edge. Archaeologists excavated a memorial tower and chapel between the church and the cemetery that they conclude were built to mark the spot as the place of the miracle. [DictNTB]

Eusebius, in the 4th century, located the event here: “Gergesa where the Lord healed the demons. A village is even now situated on the mountain beside the sea of Tiberias into which also the swine were cast headlong.” (Onomast. 74.13; author’s translation). Nothing has been found at Gerasa which would indicate early Christian interest in the city as a holy place. However, at El Kursi, a lavish church was built in the 5th century, which was found in 1970 and has been excavated. It contained beautiful mosaic floors, indicating considerable expenditure and thus a site of some importance. According to Cyril of Scythopolis, St. Saba visited the holy places across the Sea of Galilee in a.d. 491 and prayed in the church at Chorsia (Koursi). … Halfway up the steep hill behind the monastic compound containing the church is a two-part building containing a small mosaic paved chapel with an apse in one part and the base of a tower-like structure in the other. The latter structure encloses a huge boulder, 22 feet high, which it may have been erected to preserve. V. Tzaferis, the excavator, thinks the memorial tower and chapel, as well as the monastery compound below, were constructed in the late 5th or early 6th century to mark the spot as the place of the miracle. [ABD, 2:991]

Region (chora)

The RSV reading of “Gadarenes” (Matt) and “Gerasenes” (Mark and Luke) is correct according to the textual evidence, and suggests some difficulty in identifying the place. This problem of harmonization is resolved if one remembers that each reference is to the country (chora) of the Gadarenes-Gerasenes. The geography and history sources show that the area designations prob. overlapped; Gadara was the chief city of the immediate area, whereas Gerasa may have referred to a wider area including the lesser city of Gadara. Matthew gives a specific reference to the Gadarenes, Mark and Luke a more general reference to Gerasenes.” [ZPEB, s.v. “Gadara”]

Matthew’s “Gadara” (Mt 8:28), nearly eight miles from the lake, is more accurate than Mark’s “Gerasa,” a prominent city over thirty miles southeast from the lake by a straight line and a longer journey by road. But both towns were in the same general region, the area of the Decapolis, a predominantly non-Jewish area, and Mark appears to be writing for readers who were far from this area and who would be less concerned with details of Syro-Palestinian geography than Matthew’s readers would be. [BBC, Mk]

It is a fairly wide/general description, meaning everything from ‘fields’ to ‘districts’, but it generally is larger than a simple locale (topos):

District,” “town,” “dwelling-place.” τόπος often seems to denote the specific smaller part of a greater whole, with χώρα as the broader term: “What took place in this sphere (π τούτου το τόπου), which is small, can also take place in bigger localities (περ μεγάλους τόπους) and whole lands (χώρας λας),” Aristot.Meteor., I, 14, p. 352a, 14–17.[TDNT, 8:188]

Chora can apply to very, very wide areas of land, and to very ‘loose’ geo-political alignments, and even to ethnicities. Consider some of the ways the word is used in OT and NT-era documents, especially when used with a city/people/area name:

From the NT:

Acts 8:1 “and they were all scattered among the regions (plural of chora) of Judea and Samaria

Acts 12:20 “Now he was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one accord they came to him, and having won over Blastus the king’s chamberlain, they were asking for peace, because their country (singular, chora) was fed by the king’s country.”

Acts 16.6: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia” [notice that two separate areas are called a singular ‘region’]

Luke 3.1 “and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region (chora) of Ituraea and Trachonitis”

From the LXX:

Gen 32.4 “Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country (chora) of Edom.”

Num 32.1 “So when they saw the land (chora) of Jazer and the land (chora) of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock”

1 Kgs 18.10 “there is no nation (ethnos) or kingdom (basileia) where my master has not sent to search for you; and when they said, ‘He is not here,’ he made the kingdom (basileia) or nation (chora) swear that they could not find you.” [Notice that chora is parallel to ethnos (people) in this verse.]

1 Chron 20.1 “ravaged the land (chora) of the sons of Ammon”

From the Apoc/Philo:

1 Macc 8.8 “a region (chora) of Lycia, Mysia, and Lydia from among their best provinces (pl. chora).”

1 Macc 12.25 “He set out from Jerusalem and went into the country (chora) of Hamath to meet them, giving them no time to enter his province (chora)”

1 Macc 15.22-23: “The consul sent similar letters to Kings Demetrius, Attalus, Ariarthes and Arsaces; to all the countries (plural of chora)—Sampsames, Sparta, Delos, Myndos, Sicyon, Caria, Samos, Pamphylia, Lycia, Halicarnassus, Rhodes, Phaselis, Cos, Side, Aradus, Gortyna, Cnidus, Cyprus, and Cyrene.” [Notice: these cities and districts are all called ‘regions’]

2 Macc 2.46: “Then Jason, who had cheated his own brother and now saw himself cheated by another man, was driven out as a fugitive to the country (chora) of the Ammonites.”

Philo, Moses 1.258 (XLVII). (258) A few days afterwards he entered the country of the Amorites, and sent ambassadors to the king, whose name was Sihon,

Philo, Heir 277 “those who had passed their lives in the country (chora) of the Chaldeans”

Church Fathers:

1 Clement 11.12(2) “For when the spies were sent to Jericho by Joshua the son of Nun, the king of the land (ges)realized that they had come to spy out his country [chora], and so he sent out men to capture them, intending to put them to death as soon as they were caught. [Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers : Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed.) (41). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.] (Note: this is as close as I can find to a reference which calls a city a ‘chora’—but even here its probably a reference to the city AND the surrounding area, as the word ges (land) indicates)

These are just representative—there are tons of references in Josephus, and even in the papyri (e.g. 1274-8 refers to the ‘basilico-grammateus of the territory of the Alexandirans’—a wide chora, tied to a city, but larger than that city)

Other points:

One. “It is not necessary to suppose that the Gospel writers had vague or inaccurate knowledge of the area, as has often been suggested. It may be a question of each author choosing to mention the nearest geographical reference point that he thinks his particular readers are likely to recognize given the fact that their knowledge of the area is sketchy (Bock). [DictNTB]

Two. I should point out that there could have been a Gerasa on the shore—as one commentator speculated earlier. There were a couple of different Gadara’s that we know of, and a couple of different Gerusa’s that we know of—all in the same geographical area. For example, Josephus describes a different Gadara as the ‘metropolis of Perea’, and describes Vespasian’s sack of a Gerusa that is clearly different that the non-destroyed one(smile):

(410) These things were told Vespasian by deserters; for although the seditious watched all the passages out of the city, and destroyed all, whosoever they were, that came hither, yet were there some that had concealed themselves, and, when they had fled to the Romans, persuaded their general to come to their city’s assistance, and save the remainder of the people; (411) informing him withal, that it was upon account of the people’s good will to the Romans that many of them were already slain, and the survivors in danger of the same treatment. (412) Vespasian did, indeed, already pity the calamities these men were in, and arose, in appearance, as though he was going to besiege Jerusalem,—but in reality to deliver them from a [worse] siege they were already under. (413) However, he was obliged at first to overthrow what remained elsewhere, and to leave nothing out of Jerusalem behind him that might interrupt him in that siege. Accordingly, he marched against Gadara, the metropolis of Perea, which was a place of strength, and entered that city on the fourth day of the month Dystrus [Adar]; (414) for the men of power had sent an embassage to him, without the knowledge of the seditious, to treat about a surrender; which they did out of the desire they had of peace, and for saving their effects, because many of the citizens of Gadara were rich men. (415) This embassy the opposite party knew nothing of, but discovered it as Vespasian was approaching near the city…. (417) And as now the Roman army was just upon them, the people of Gadara admitted Vespasian with joyful acclamations, and received from him the security of his right hand, as also a garrison of horsemen and footmen, to guard them against the excursions of the runagates; (418) for as to their wall, they had pulled it down before the Romans desired them so to do, that they might thereby give them assurance that they were lovers of peace, and that, if they had a mind, they could not now make war against them.4. (419) And now Vespasian sent Placidus against those that had fled from Gadara, with five hundred horsemen, and three thousand footmen, while he returned himself to Cesarea, with the rest of the army. (420) But as soon as these fugitives saw the horsemen that pursued them just upon their backs, and before they came to a close fight, they ran together to a certain village, which was called Bethennabris [tanknote: this is the site known as ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan’ where John was baptizing, SE of Jericho in the NT, not to be confused with the Bethany near Jerusalem], (421) where finding a great multitude of young men, and arming them, partly by their own consent and partly by force, they rashly and suddenly assaulted Placidus and the troops that were with him. (422) These horsemen at the first onset gave way a little, as contriving to entice them further off the wall; and when they had drawn them into a place fit for their purpose, they made their horses encompass them round, and threw their darts at them… (439) He then put his soldiers on board the ships, and slew such as had fled to the lake, insomuch that all Perea had either surrendered themselves, or were taken by the Romans, as far as Macherus. (Wars 4.409-439)

(486) And now Vespasian had fortified all the places round about Jerusalem, and erected citadels at Jericho and Adida, and placed garrisons in them both, partly out of his own Romans, partly out of the body of his auxiliaries. (487) He also sent Lucius Annius to Gerasa, and delivered to him a body of horsemen, and a considerable number of footmen. (488) So when he had taken the city, which he did at the first onset, he slew a thousand of those young men who had not prevented him by flying away; but he took their families captive, and permitted his soldiers to plunder them of their effects; after which he set fire to their houses, and went away to the adjoining villages, (489) while the men of power fled away, and the weaker part were destroyed, and what was remaining was all burnt down. (490) And now the war having gone through all the mountainous country, and all the plain country also, those that were at Jerusalem were deprived of the liberty of going out of the city; for as to such as had a mind to desert, they were watched by the zealots; and as to such as were not yet on the side of the Romans, their army kept them in, by encompassing the city round about on all sides. (Wars 4.485-490)

Three. The cities of the Decapolis had control over (in various levels of ‘authority’) a much wider geographical area than their simple surroundings. We can see this from various references to their boundaries (especially in disputes). Let’s look at a couple of mentions in Josephus for Gadara, Gerasa, and Philadelphia (all cities of the Decapolis).

From Antiq 20.2: “Fadus, on his arrival in Judaea as procurator, found that the Jewish inhabitants of Peraea had fallen out with the people of Philadelphia over the boundaries of a village called Zia…” [The footnote in Loeb states that this village was 15 Roman miles west of Philadelphia, so the “territory” extended at least this distance, and probably further.]

From Vita 42: “Iustus came out with all these men and set fire to the villages of the Gadarenes and also of the Hippenes, which happened to lie on the frontier between Tiberias and the territory of the Scythopolitans” [The commentary in Mason’s BRILL series on Josephus gives this explanation: “I.e., not Hippos and Gadara themselves, which were substantial and cultured Greek cities (poleis) rather than villages, well defended by their natural terrain, and which did not lie on the route from Tiberias to Scythopolis. Hippos and Gadara were both on the E side of Lake Gennesar and Jordan River, whereas Tiberias and Scythopolis were on the W… Rather, Iustus attached small villages (komai) belonging to the great Decapolis cities as part of their regions (chora). In the Greek tradition of free cities, each city controlled a number of villages.” Note that this means that the extent of Gadara was at least 8-10 miles west (across the Jordan, even) to the straight line connecting Tiberias and Scythopolis. In fact, if you look at the colored map earlier in the piece, the distance from Gadara to the W edge of the Decapolis-named area is around 30 miles, although some of this area would have been under the influence of Scythopolis.]

From Antiq 13.398: “…he met death in the territory (horon) of the Gerasenes while besieging Ragaba, a fortress across the Jordan…” [The Loeb footnote identifies this fortress with modern Rajib, 8 miles E of the Jordan, and 14 miles W of Gerasa. This means that the ‘territory’ of Gerasa stretched at least this distance.]

So, the data shows that the major cities under discussion (Gadara and the ‘big’ Gerasa) could be used to denominate a wide area of land, certainly in the 15-30mile ranges needed for the Lk/Mk references to Gerasa.

Four. Gadara actually had a harbor on the Sea, at Ha’on.

Some scholars object to this reading because Gadara, located at Umm Qeis about 6 mi southeast of the lake, is too far away to have had a harbor on the lake. In 1985, as a result of the low water level, a harbor was discovered south of Tel Samra, now the campground of Kibbutz Ha’on. It is the closest point along the lake shore relative to Umm Qeis. … What is more, the Kibbutz Ha’on harbor is the largest on the east side of the lake. Its outer breakwater is about 250 m long, with a 5 m-wide base. The quay, or landing area, is approximately 200 m long. There is also a 500 m pier along the shore (Nun 1989a:16–18). Nun surmises: ‘One can only assume that a splendid harbor such as this did not serve a small population. It is much more likely that it once had been the harbour of Gadara, located on the heights of Gilead above the Yarmuk River — the largest and most magnificent of the Hellenistic towns that encircled the Sea of Galilee (1989a:17).’ Coins from Gadara depict boats commemorating the “Naumachia,” or naval battles reenacted by the people of Gadara. Several scholars have suggested that these battles took place on the Yarmuk River (Dalman n.d.:178,189). A more plausible setting is the Kibbutz Ha’on harbor. Here, there is sufficient room for maneuvering and the long pier would provide seating for spectators. … There are two possibilities as to where this event took place. The first is just behind Kibbutz Ha’on where a ridge coming down from the Golan Heights fits the description. The second is on the grounds of nearby Kibbutz Maagan, about a mile to the southwest. Located here is the only cliff which drops directly into the lake.” [“Ancient Harbors of the Sea of Galilee”, Gordon Franz, Associates for Biblical Research. (1991; 2004). Bible and Spade Volume 4 (vnp.4.4.116). Associates for Biblical Research.]

Summary (first question):

So, there’s not much left of the objection…

All three place-names can work in the passage, from a historical and literary-praxis standpoint, so the objection cannot stand.


Geo-problem two: the ‘poor navigator Jesus’ trip… the Long Trip Home?

The next absurdity (smile) deals with Jesus’ return trip from the ‘region’ (chora) of Tyre and Sideon to Galilee—through the Decapolis. The objector argues that either Jesus was a poor navigator or (more likely) Mark made the journey up and showed his ignorance of the geography in the process.


I cannot tell if this is a current objection or now, but it is not a very strong one, to be honest.

Here’s the map of the two most probable routes (map from Nelson’s 3B bible map book, with my additional notes):

This map has BOTH of Jesus’ extra-Israel trips on it, but the one under discussion here is the one with numbers 1,2, 3, and 4 (the PINK arrows), and the longer route in RED arrows.

We should note that the PINK path is not that much longer than the initial route (1+2), but only adds about 10-12 miles to the path [an extra day or two], whereas the much longer RED path would add maybe 20-30 miles [2-4 extra days, depending on rate of travel].

We should also note that we don’t know how deeply into the chora of Tyre and Sidon Jesus went—the term is too imprecise for us to assert that He even entered into the cities of Tyre or Sidon themselves.

At this point I have to ask myself: what is the objection again? That Jesus didn’t go straight home? That He must NOT have known that He was going the ‘long way home’? I am not sure what the force of the objection is…

It SEEMS to be saying that “(1) A real wise Jesus would not have taken such a path—because it is so ‘odd’ or long(?); and (2)Therefore, the one who described this path must have made it up.”

This is really, really presumptuous, in case you haven’t noticed. Presuming what somebody ‘would have to do’ historically is difficult in the extreme, given such little data.

Going out of the way” or “off the standard path” are things that happen every day, and it was not any different in biblical times. Two obvious examples spring to mind:

One. The Jews when traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem in NT times routinely when out of the way to avoid the Samaritans. They would cross the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee, travel south on the Eastern shore of the Jordan, and re-cross the Jordan at Jericho. This is ‘the long way’, ‘the odd way’, but they did it to avoid contact with the Samaritans. When Jesus traveled with family, He did this as well, but at least once He took the direct route to minister to the Woman at the Well in John 4. [Should we consider John ignorant of Palestinian geography because he has Jesus travel on the ‘eastern Jordan shore’ route, or should we consider him ignorant of Jewish customs because he has Jesus travel the ‘direct route’? See what I mean about it being presumptive?]

Two. The Magi are another good case. They travel from Persia through Jerusalem to get to Bethlehem, but, being warned in a dream, they return to their land in a MUCH LONGER route—just to avoid Herod. The would have added at least a week or two to their journey:

The main road they would need to take northward from Bethlehem went directly through Jerusalem, then eastward through Syria. Given the probably large size of their entourage, the Magi could not approach Jerusalem without being noticed, as Herod knew very well. Indeed, no major route could take them homeward without passing through Jerusalem. They probably ventured far south to Hebron, then followed the rugged road to Gaza on the coast, where another road could lead them northward. This route would then have carried them through Nazareth, then Capernaum and on to Damascus. [The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament (electronic ed.) (Mt 2:12). Downers Grove: InterVarsity.]

So, alternate routes are no big deal—and we have no good reason to presume that Jesus had ‘no good reason’ to take this longer path.

In fact, the reason is probably already in the text—He was trying to avoid Galilee, as some commentators have suggested:

Jesus left . . . Tyre (cf. v. 24) and went north 20 miles through Sidon, a coastal city, and then turned southeastward, avoiding Galilee, to a place on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee within the region of the Decapolis (cf. 5:20). [BKC, Mark in loc.]

Any possible reason He would want to avoid Galilee on this trip? Absolutely YES…

Jesus went there not to minister publicly to the people but to secure privacy, previously interrupted (cf. 6:32-34, 53-56), in order to instruct His disciples. That is why He did not want anyone to know He was there. [BKC]

"The purpose of Jesus' withdrawal to Tyre was to secure the rest which had been interrupted both in the wilderness (Ch. 6:30-34) and in the district of Gennesaret (Ch. 6:53-56). The house provided a place of retreat for Jesus with his disciples." [NICNT, in loc, William Lane]

So, let’s see: (1) He went to give His disciples rest; (2) they didn’t get the rest in the chora of Tyre; and (3) they would not have gotten any rest in Galilee. So, “What would Jesus Do?” (smile)

It makes perfect sense for Jesus to travel a long, slow trip, outside of Galilee, to give His disciples rest and teaching—without massive crowds constantly assaulting them. What better way to do this than travel through the lower-density, pagan areas to the East of the Jordan, and finally to return to Galilee from the seaport of Gadara?

Makes perfect sense to me. It fits the context. The geography works for this purpose. There is no reason to slander Mark this way.

No problem here to see, folks…Move along now”…(smile)


Postscript: Let me remind the reader again that it is REALLY difficult to find geographical ‘errors’ in the NT. There are just too many variables to ‘set’ arbitrarily, too many presumptions/assumptions which have to be made, and too little data upon which to make really strong ‘this absurdity cannot have been the case’ statements. They are not impossible to make, to be sure, but these ‘cases’ just aren’t samples of them…]

I hope this helps,

Glenn, Mar 23/2008

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