The reader of the Gospels is faced with a complex textual and topographical challenge in identifying the location of Jesus' encounter with the demoniac “on the other side opposite Galilee” (Mt 8:28-34; Mk 5:1-17; Lk 8:26-37).
In spite of the strong textual witnesses for either Gadara or Gerasa, geographers struggle with these settings because of the topographical problems they present. According to all of the accounts, Jesus' encounter followed a boat ride from Capernaum, during which there was a sudden and violent storm (Mt. 8:23-27; Mk. 7:35-41; Lk 8:22-25). Afterwards, Jesus and his disciples arrived to their destination, which is additionally described by Mark and Matthew as “the other side [of the sea]” (Mt. 8:28; Mk.. 5:1). Typically in the New Testament “the other side” describes the northeast side of the lake opposite Capernaum and Gennesaret. In fact, on one occasion, Mark uses this same language and further specifies, “the other side, to Bethsaida” (Mk. 6:45). Matthew and Mark's identification of the region corresponds to Luke's regional description, “opposite Galilee” (Lk 8:26).
Quite simply, neither Gadara nor Gerasa fit the description presented by the Gospels for the destination of Jesus' journey. Gadara (=Umm Qeis), the capital of a toparchy, was about six miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee, Gerasa (=Jerash, a city of Perea) about thirty-three miles. At such remote distances from the lake, these cities are not suitable candidates for the point of destination of a crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum.
It should be quickly added that the region of Gadara may likely have reached the southern shores of the lake. Coins of Gadara in the Roman period depict naval battles, suggesting that the district of Gadara extended to the lakeshore, where theatrical sea battles called “Naumachia” were held (e.g. Dio Cass. 43.23; Suet. Jul. 39; Suet. Aug. 43; Tac. Ann. 12.56, 14.15). During a drought in the 1980s, the low water level of the Sea of Galilee allowed investigation along the shoreline, which had been inundated in modern times because of a modern dam. Sixteen first-century harbors were identified around the lake, including that of Gadara near Tell Samara on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The discovery of Gadara's harbor supports the statement of Josephus that the region of Gadara extended along the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee to the point where the Jordan River exited the lake on its southwestern end. The Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee and its southern exit from the lake were points of demarcation for the eastern frontier of the region of Galilee: “[Justus] went out, and set the villages that belonged to Gadara and Hippus on fire; which villages were situated on the borders of Tiberias, and of the region of Scythopolis” (Life 42).
Mention of Tiberias should not be read “lake of Tiberias” (i.e. War 3:57) but the capital of Galilee, as it appears in the following lines of Josephus' narrative (Life 43). The appearance of the city, similar to the mention of Scythopolis, is intended to signal the region about the city, in this instance Galilee. The historian's use of the region of Gadara to mark the limits of Galilee parallels a similar use of Gadara in his description of the borders of Galilee:
“On the south the country is bounded by Samaria and the territory of Scythopolis up to the waters of Jordan; on the east by the territory of Hippus, Gadara and Gaulanitis, the frontier-line of Agrippa's kingdom.” (War 3:37)
Nevertheless, while the toparchy of Gadara extended to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, its position was too far south for the event described in the Gospels.
In the investigation of the harbor of Gadara a large tower on the shoreline was discovered, which may have marked the northern frontiers of the city's territory. The limits of Gadara's shoreline are important, because there are no nearby slopes reaching the lake included in the region of Gadara that would fit the topographical description portrayed in the Gospel accounts: “The herd (of swine) rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (Lk. 8:33; cf. Mt. 8:32; Mk. 5:13).
Already at the beginning of the third century AD, Origen recognized the topographical problems of Gerasa and Gadara for our account. He offered a suggestion based on the topographical setting and local traditions: Gergesa, “an ancient city . . . by the lake now called Tiberias, by which is a cliff overhanging the lake, from which they show that the swine were cast down by the devils” (Origen Comm. on John 6:41). The site of this ancient village lies in the Wâdi Samekh delta just north of the only point at which the overlooking heights of Gaulanitis descend to the lake. “Gergesa” does appear in some Greek manuscripts for our account. However, the manuscripts in question antedate Origen and may reflect the influence of the church father's ingenuity, rather than witness to an early textual tradition.
While the textual witnesses to Gergesa antedate Origen, the tradition is undoubtedly pre-Origenian. Those who transcribed our manuscripts of the Gospels may have been familiar with Origen's writings, but that does not preclude the existence of Gergesa in the New Testament period, nor does it exclude the environs of the village from being a candidate for the destination of Jesus and his disciples.
Origen's description of Gergesa as an “ancient city” likely suggests that by his day, the village was in ruins. It also points to local traditions that are heard in Jewish and Christian sources. A century after Origen, Eusebius identified the location of “the border of Geshur” (Josh 13:11; Deut 3:14) north and east of the Sea of Galilee with Girgash beyond the Jordan, reflecting the Septuagintal reading/ (LXX Deut 3:14). He also mentions Gadara and Gerasa.
“Girgash. A city beyond the Jordan located near Gilead (Josh 13:11), which the tribe of Manasseh took (Deut 3:14). This is said to be Gerasa, the famous polis in Arabia. Some say it is Gadara. The Gospel also mentions the (land of) Gerasenes.” (Eus. Onom. 64:1)
Yet, in a subsequent entry Eusebius once again demonstrates his familiarity with the village of Gergesa and local traditions connected to it.
“Gergesa. There the Lord healed the demoniacs. A village is now shown on the hill next to the Lake of Tiberias into which also the swine were cast down.” (Eus. Onom. 74:13)
The church father's pre-Byzantine testi-mony to a village on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee is not a Christian invention. An early Jewish midrash makes a similar identification of Girgash [or Gergeshta] on the eastern shores of the lake.
“R. Nehemiah said: ‘When the Holy One, blessed is he, shows Israel the graves of Gog and Magog, the feet of the Shechinah will be on the Mount of Olives and the graves of Gog and Magog will be open from south of the Kidron Valley to Gergeshta on the eastern side of Lake Tiberias.’” (Shir ha-Shirim Zuta 1.4 [p. 11])
For the purposes of our study, what is important is the familiarity of both Eusebius and the Jewish midrash with the location of Girgash/Gergeshta/Gergesa on the east-ern side of the Sea of Galilee. These local traditons were important, because Origen's description of Gergesa as an “ancient city” may indicate that by his own day the village already lay in ruins. Nevertheless, later Christian tradition strengthened the identification of Gergesa (el-Kursi), and a church was built to commemorate the Gospel event.
There is little question that on the basis of topography, the region surrounding the ancient village of Gergesa (el-Kursi) better suits the details presented by the Evangelists. Its location fits Matthew and Mark's description of Jesus' destination “on the other side” and Luke's “opposite Galilee.” The village does not possess the problems of distance from the northern portions of the Sea of Galilee inherent in the location of Gadara, or even more acutely with Gerasa. Moreover, only in the vicinity of Gergesa do the slopes of the heights descend steeply to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Evidence for the village's existence in antiquity is heard in rabbinical literature and the pre-Byzantine Christian writings of Origen and Eusebius. Both of the Christian writers also attest to local pre-Byzantine Christian traditions that identified Gergesa with the Gospel event.
Gergesa's only obstacle is its non-appearance in pre-Origenian manuscripts of the Gospel account. Yet the dilemma of Gergesa belongs to a well-known pattern: in the copying of ancient texts, an unknown name will almost always be “corrected” to a known name. So, it seems that in spite of its location as the place of Jesus' encounter with the demoniac, at a very early stage the name of the lesser-known village of Gergesa was exchanged for one of the two renowned cities of the Decapolis: Gadara and Gergesa.