Richard Bauckham - Mark’s Galilean Topography - the supposed Nazareth exception

Steven Avery

(Bauckham, Richard. "The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts" (PDF). Retrieved 21 March 2015)

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(4) Mark’s Galilean Topography

As you know, much of Mark's Gospel is set in Galilee, but scholars have often thought Mark's Galilean topography so inaccurate that it cannot go back to someone who actually knew Galilee. What I want to show you, to the contrary, is that it actually makes very good sense if we read it from the perspective of a Capernaum fisherman.

Apart from Nazareth, all the places in Galilee and the Golan that Mark's Gospel names are located around the northern shore of the lake: Capernaum, Bethsaida, 'the country of the Gergesenes', Gennesaret and 'the district of Dalmanutha.' The fact that the last is mentioned nowhere else is best taken as an indication of local knowledge of a particularly insignificant location. All these places are located around the lake north of a line drawn between Magdala and Gergesa. There is also a reference to 'the region of the Decapolis,' a vague reference to the land that lay beyond the lake from Gergesa southwards. Galilean places not around the lake and visited by Jesus are named only in other Gospels: Chorazin, Cana, Nain. Mark tells us that Jesus travelled throughout Galilee but almost every actual event that he narrates for eight chapters of his Gospel occurs near or even on the lake.

We hear little about the journeys as such except when they are by boat across the lake. These journeys, of which there are no less than six in Mark's Gospel and which in many cases are said to be from one to 'the other side', can be confusing to readers or scholars who try to visualize them according to a modern map and suppose that one side of the lake must be the western side and the other side the eastern. But Capernaum fishermen had never seen a map. They envisaged the lake in terms of the journeys they made in the course of their daily work. For them one 'side' of the lake was the coast from Bethsaida to Gennesaret, a stretch of coast in which Capernaum was roughly central. This was 'their side' of the lake. The 'other side' stretched from the coast east of Bethsaida southwards to Gergesa and beyond. The area from Bethsaida to Gergesa was sparsely inhabited: hence in the Gospel it so often supplies a 'deserted place' to which Jesus and the disciples retreat from the much more populated north-west shore (their side). Moreover, at least from Gergesa southwards the inhabitants were predominantly Gentile. Capernaum fishermen would not usually have had occasion to go ashore on that 'side' of the lake, but they would have gone to that area of the lake because it was the best area for catching Galilean sardines, a catch that must have been important to them especially in the off season. Along that sparsely populated coast they would not have been in competition with local fishermen.

This is very much a Capernaum fisherman's world, the world of someone who knew the lake and the surrounding land as the shore of the lake. It is a different world even from that of, for example, other inhabitants of Capernaum who farmed the famously fertile soil of Capernaum's hinterland. Of course, the Capernaum fishers who became members of Jesus' selected Twelve travelled with him throughout Galilee and far outside. But it is intelligible that the locations they remembered best were those with which they were already very familiar. Until they travelled elsewhere with Jesus, the northern part of the lake of Galilee - the lake itself with its shore - was probably the only world they knew, unless they sometimes went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

When Jesus and the disciples travel out of Galilee in this Gospel place names are few and rather generalizing ('the region of Tyre,' 'the villages of Caesarea Philippi,' 'the region of Judaea and beyond the Jordan'). Only in the vicinity of Jerusalem do we find some very specific places named (Jericho, Bethphage, Bethany, the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Golgotha). Intimate disciples of Jesus had particularly good reason to remember these places. The topography of Jerusalem and the particular places to which Peter went with Jesus (and the one to which Peter did not go: Golgotha) will have been etched on Peter's memory probably more other places to which he had travelled with Jesus. But we should also note that if the author of Mark's Gospel was John Mark of Jerusalem, as I think there is good reason to suppose, then in this latter part of his narrative
Mark's own intimate knowledge of Jerusalem could have come into play.
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