In Isaiah 9:1, it is prophesied that the Messiah would make his earthly appearance in the Galilee, near the area of heavy Gentile occupation. The prophet says: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan .”
Indeed in Jesus’ time there were many Gentiles living in the Galilee just as there are today. One large area of Gentile domination was known as the the Decapolis. This area had its historical beginnings after the invasion of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. It was in Alexander’s heart to thoroughly spread Hellenism with its culture and religion. He left in his wake great Hellenistic cities like Alexandria in Egypt and the ten cities of the Decapolis.
These city-states of the Decapolis had for their capital, Scythopolis, or Bet Shean on the west side of the Jordan. However, for the most part, their areas fell east of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Two of the states either bordered, or else were close to the Sea of Galilee. One was Gadara to the south, which had a harbor on the lake and the other more geographically prominent one was Hippos or Susita. The unusual dome-shaped hill where Hippos once stood is still visible on the east side of the lake, just behind the fishing kibbutz of Ein Gev.
Interestingly, Jesus commanded his disciples not to enter these lands. In Matthew 10:5-6 it is said: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.’” For this reason Jesus and His disciples ministered primarily in the Jewish cities to the north and western shores of the Sea of Galilee. These were the cities of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Korazin. Perhaps on only one or two occasion did Jesus actually venture through Decapolis as is mentioned in Mark 7:31. This instruction of Jesus concerning Gentiles sets a clear precedent in scripture, that the Gospel must first go to the Jew and afterward to the Gentile (c.f.Rom. 1:16).
JESUS VISITS KURSI
One day Jesus likely instructed his disciples to get into the boat that they might go to Decapolis. Perhaps he made this announcement after listening all night to the screams of a demon possessed man as they wafted across to Capernaum on the quiet Sea. We can almost imagine the astonishment of these disciples as they heard Jesus’ direction. They might have queried him: “Excuse us Sir, Did – did you say -Decapolis?”
What was wrong with a good Jewish disciple going to Decapolis? The immediate problem was that Jews did not mix with Gentiles, and Decapolis was predominately a Gentile area. They did not eat Gentile food, or intermarry, or even mix socially to any large degree with Gentiles. God had given this command in order to keep his people separate from the nations (Deut. 7:3-6). The Lord knew that if his people intermingled with the nations they would soon become like the nations and worship the gods of the nations. Some Jews had gone to the extreme to teach that even if the shadow of a Gentile fell on a Jew, the latter would become defiled.
What was likely to happen to a good Jewish disciple in the Gentile country of Decapolis? If he ordered fish for lunch it would likely be catfish from the lake. That was probably the fish that the Jews threw away (Mt. 13:48). If he ordered other meat it might turn out to be pork. In both cases a good Jewish disciple would be defiled by eating forbidden food (Lev. 11:7-9). It is likely that the Prodigal Son of Jesus’ famous parable found himself in the Decapolis. There, he finally became so hungry that he agreed to herd swine and was ready to eat their food. Jewish people didn’t normally herd swine.
Jesus probably got his disciples into the boat and they headed for the area of Kursi in the edge of the Decapolis. As the boat docked Jesus immediately confronted the demon possessed man. Although this man was possessed with “legions” of demons, Jesus quickly delivered him and cast them all out. The Gospel accounts tell us how the demons begged to go into the swine and Jesus accommodated them. The herd of about 2000 swine then ran violently into the sea and were all drowned.
The site of this miracle has undergone some debate, especially with the mentioning of the country of the Geresenes in Matthew 8:28 and the Gadarenes in Luke 8:26 in connection with this miracle. In the fifth and sixth centuries, a Christian church was built to mark the spot of the biblical location. However, the church was lost to history until it was uncovered by the building of a new road in 1970. Archaeological excavations continued at the site from 1970-74. Around the vicinity of the church, caves are still visible, no doubt like the ones the demon possessed man frequented. There is also a mountain that drops down into the sea. It is the only place in the whole area where a mountain actually extends down to the seashore.
After this astounding miracle, the previously demon possessed man sat at the feet of Jesus. He was now clothed and in his right mind. As Jesus was about to depart, this man begged Jesus that he might go with him and become a disciple. It is interesting what Jesus replied to this eager follower: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you….” (Lk. 8:39). The man obeyed and returned to minister among his own people,
JEWS AND GENTILES
We might ask what would have happened had this man gotten into the boat with the twelve? They may have done back-flips out of the boat and into the water. The reason – they had no close associations with the Gentiles.
In the scriptures we see that great crowds followed Jesus. Some of the people in these crowds were from Decapolis and other Gentile areas. They overheard the Good News that Jesus was proclaiming to the Jews. However, at this point the Gospel was delivered primarily to the Jews.
At the close of his ministry some Greeks came seeking Jesus (Jn. 12:20 ff.). Their request seems on the surface to be a simple one, just to see Jesus. We would suppose that such a request would bring joy to the disciples and to Jesus. However, we see that Philip and Andrew struggled with the request. Finally they timidly brought it to Jesus. It is interesting that Jesus apparently never answered the Greeks. Instead, he began to speak about his approaching crucifixion and resurrection. Only after these events would the door be finally opened to the Gentiles and that after much struggle in the church.
One writer has remarked about this dilemma in the early church saying, “In the first century, the most heated, controversial, doctrinal issue of all that the church faced was: ‘How do the Gentiles fit into all this?’…Today the most heated, controversial, doctrinal issue that the church faces is: ‘How do the Jews fit into all this?’”*
The episode at Kursi illustrates clearly that Jesus came first of all to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Only after his rejection and crucifixion was the Gospel or good news opened up freely to the Gentile world. It was true then and it is true today that the first job of the Messiah is always to save and care for Israel. The second job is to save and bring in the Gentiles with Israel, and ultimately to unite the two. Over the years we have somehow gotten the whole thing backwards.
– Jim Gerrish
* Daniel Gruber, The Church and the Jews The Biblical Relationship, General Council of the Assemblies of God,Springfield,MO, 1991, page 2
This updated article presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem.