A Far Country Decapolis
The Decapolis is mentioned by name only three times in the New Testament. In addition to these three instances, on at least two other occasions, Jesus visited specific locations in the largely pagan league of cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee. While there is evidence of Jewish communities in these cities (most had synagogues, although these were constructed long after Jesus’ time), it seems clear that this area was considered pagan by those Jews who were devoted to Israel’s God and his Torah as the guide for their lives. Jesus’ visits to the Decapolis can help us understand some aspects of his ministry that would not be as clear if they had occurred in Jerusalem, Capernaum, or some other “orthodox” Jewish site. There is a lot we do not know about the Decapolis, but we know enough to be enlightened concerning Jesus’ visits to this Hellenistic area.
ORIGIN OF THE DECAPOLIS
Many of the cities that would come to be known as the “10 cities” (Decapolis in Greek) were founded by the Greek settler-soldiers of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms. These kingdoms were sections of the empire of Alexander the Great, divided among his generals after his death. His dream of “Hellenizing” (making Greek) the entire world did not die with him. The dynasties that followed him were as devoted to Greek ideals as he was, each integrating the local customs and practices into their particular cultures.
The Seleucids settled in Persia and Syria, just to the north of Israel, and the Ptolemies settled to the south, in Egypt. The soldiers of these kingdoms founded many cities throughout Israel, and other cities simply became Hellenized due to their influence. The Maccabean revolt and the support of this revolt by the Hasidim “those fiercely devoted to Yahweh and the Torah” was in large part a reaction to the attempts of these Greek-thinking kingdoms to convert the Jews to their pagan values and practices.
In 64-63 BC, the Roman general Pompey brought the entire Near East under Rome’s dominion. He incorporated the Greek cities east of the Sea of Galilee (and one city, Beth Shean-renamed Scythopolis-that was east of the Jordan River, just south of the sea) into a league of cities known as the Decapolis. Before that time, during the Maccabean period (167-63 BC), many of these cities had resented the attempts of religious Jews to convert them to their religion and practices. When Rome assumed control of the area, the pagans were pleased to finally receive autonomy from the religious fanatics. Though Caesar Augustus later gave two of the cities to Herod (the king of the Jews) for a little while, throughout New Testament times, these 10 cities remained a league of free city-states under the umbrella of Roman authority.
Although for much of its history the Decapolis actually comprised more than 10 cities, it retained its designation as the “10 cities.” Many of the cities are familiar to the New Testament reader: Damascus, Philadelphia (modern Amman), Scythopolis (Beth Shean), Gadara (Gadarenes), Pella, and Gerasa (Geresenes). Hippos (Susita) was a major Decapolis city overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the east, but it is not directly mentioned in the New Testament. These cities, while joined as a league by the Romans to control the trade route that went from Arabia to Damascus and to provide protection for the eastern frontier, had a large measure of local autonomy. They minted their own coins, had jurisdiction over a large area, and ruled their own affairs. The culture of these prosperous cities was Hellenistic in all its Roman glory.
HELLENISM AND THE DECAPOLIS
Alexander the Great had a mission: He wanted the whole world to be under the influence of Greek culture in religion, language, philosophy, political structure, and values. He died before he could make his dream a reality, but his successors accomplished his goal to a large degree. Much of the known world, including many of the people of the land of Israel, adopted Greek ways, although they modified them with local beliefs. Greek cultural institutions were established in many cities, including Jerusalem. Theaters became common and popular. The rabbis of Israel forbade attendance at these theaters because their dramas portrayed the myths of Greek and Roman gods, contained erotic themes common to Hellenism, and were performed in connection with pagan religious festivals, which included sacrifices to the gods. Gymnasiums, or Greek educational institutions, appeared in many cities, including Jerusalem, not far from the Temple. In the gymnasium, the Greek ideal of training people’s bodies and minds was put into practice. Students studied the philosophy of classical Greece, received athletic training, and competed naked in athletic events.
The Greek educational system was remarkably effective, instilling Greek ideals into entire generations of young Jewish people. Busts of Greek gods and heroes celebrated the ultimate ideal: the human form. Young Jews read Homer, Euripides, and Plato to absorb their values. They also learned to draw and sculpt, often creating the forms of Greek gods. Because Greek mythology offered heroes and role models who competed with the Jew’s biblical ancestors, the Pharisees, devoted to keeping God’s people faithful to Torah, constantly admonished young Jews intrigued by Greek culture.
Hellenistic cities had stadiums for the public display of athletic contests. Temples were built to honor local gods, and festivals were held to celebrate pagan holidays. In the midst of these attractions, the faithful Jewish population struggled to maintain its beliefs. The latest architecture and artistic designs made the Hellenized cities of the Decapolis seem very attractive and modern. People from the small villages of Galilee must have been awed by the marble streets, mosaic floors, running water, and fountains. In these cities and even in nearby regions, Hellenism influenced much of everyday life. In fact, the Greek language became the common tongue of the economic world.
Few people did more to bring these Hellenistic ideas to the Jews than Herod the Great and his sons. Though they kept a few Jewish “rules” to pacify their religious subjects (e.g., they did not put their “images” on coins and apparently avoided eating pork), the Herods built theaters, stadiums, and gymnasiums. It fell to the faithful Jews to resist these cultural institutions and the values they brought. As a result, the Pharisees adopted increasingly detailed laws to remain faithful to Torah; the Zealots resisted Hellenism more and more violently; and the Essenes withdrew into isolated communities. By contrast, the Sadducees, while maintaining the prescribed Temple ceremonies, often became as Hellenistic as the pagans. Supporters of the Herods, the Herodions, also enjoyed the Hellenistic lifestyle their overlords created.
The Decapolis city-states were satisfied with their freedom under Roman authority. They could enjoy their Greek practices, from sacrificing in their temples to eating pork (also used for sacrifices). Rome provided support for their cultural practices and helped them resist the seemingly outdated worldview of the Jews. One of the most magnificent of the Decapolis cities, Hippos, sitting high on a hill, could be clearly seen across the Sea of Galilee by the fishermen of Capernaum and other villages around the sea. Ironically, this area would become a vital center for the early church.
At its core, Hellenism was humanism. It glorified human beings above all other creatures and portrayed the human body as the ultimate in physical beauty. Truth could be known only through the human mind, and pleasure was a crucial goal in life. Hellenism’s values permeated the gymnasium and its excellent system of education, the theater, and the games in the arena. The majestic Romanized forms of Hellenistic architecture must have seemed harmless enough, but its temples glorified the excesses of pleasure.
The religious Jews of Galilee struggled against this pagan worldview. Seeing the exceptionally modern perspective of Hellenism can help us understand their struggle. It can also help us understand (not excuse) the legalistic excesses of some of the Pharisees. (How many parents make a multitude of rules to help their children avoid the temptations of modern society?) The glorification of sexuality, violence, wealth, and the human form, and the view that only what the human mind can understand and formulate can possibly be true, is the value system of humanism. The followers of Jesus today still wrestle with this worldview. In the process of struggling against its seductive power, some Christians become pharisaic; others escape to small, “safe” communities; some even resort to violence.
But Jesus wants us to follow his example. He sailed across the sea and confronted evil directly to bring his message of love to the Hellenistic Decapolis.
THE DECAPOLIS AND RELIGIOUS JEWS
It is clear from ancient records that the religious Jews of Jesus’ day opposed the values and practices of Hellenism. The struggle of the Pharisees to avoid all uncleanness, while often creating a lack of love for those who were suffering, at heart may have included a desire to resist the pagan views of their neighbors. (The problem of the Pharisees was that they often hated the sinner along with the sin-a dilemma that is not entirely ancient.) The presence of pigs in the Decapolis (Mark 5:11) would certainly have made the area offensive and off-limits to those who followed Torah.
Bargil Pixner, a noted scholar on Galilee (1), has pointed out an ancient religious tradition that helps clarify the Jewish view of the pagan Decapolis. He noted that in the Talmud and in the writings of the church fathers, the people of this area were described as belonging to the seven pagan Canaanite nations driven out of the Promised Land by Joshua and the Israelites (Josh. 3:10; Acts 13:19). These nations worshiped Baal and ate (and sacrificed) pigs (Isa. 65:3-5, 66:3). Apparently, the pagan practices of the people of the Decapolis and their anti-God values seemed to be continuations of the practices of the Canaanites, who used sexual perversions and even child sacrifice in their worship. It is probable that the people of Jesus’ day, who took their Scriptures seriously, viewed the Decapolis as very pagan. Although we do not know how many Jews actually believed that the people of the Decapolis were the descendants of the Canaanites, the fact that there is a link between the blasphemous practices of these two peoples helps establish the validity of this Jewish view.
JESUS AND THE DECAPOLIS
The Bible records two of Jesus’ visits to the Decapolis. It also mentions crowds of people from the Decapolis following Jesus. Understanding the pagan world represented by these city-states helps us see the significance of Jesus’ response to it. His message clearly was for the inhabitants of the Decapolis, for they heard and followed. He confronted the darkness of the pagan world in choosing to visit its people.
Given the Jewish view of the paganism of the Decapolis, it probably was not surprising to the disciples that as soon as he landed there, Jesus met a man (Matthew referred to two men) possessed with a “legion” of demons (Matt. 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). Jesus had just stilled the storm, which the disciples probably also believed was fueled by the powers of evil connected to the depths of the sea (Luke 8:31; Rev. 13:1). The devil was unable to prevent Jesus from crossing the sea to enter the pagan territory, so his demonic power confronted Jesus when He came ashore. But Jesus pierced the power of darkness that lay over the demon-possessed man.
When Jesus had cast out the demons, he commanded the man to return home to tell others what God had done for him. The territory to which Jesus sent the man was certainly one of the most challenging mission fields to which he ever called anyone. Later, crowds from the Decapolis followed Jesus. This crowd of followers was a testimony to the effectiveness of the healed man’s witness. (Mark 7:31-36 and Matt. 15:30 record the same event. Matthew referred to crowds of people, but he did not mention the place.)
It is possible that the “distant” country Jesus referred to in his parable of the prodigal son was the Decapolis (Luke 15:11-32). Certainly, it was distant in its values and beliefs. It was definitely a place for “wild living,” and it had plenty of pigs that needed to be fed. For the son, it would be only a short walk from the Decapolis back home to his forgiving father. No one knows whether this is the country Jesus had in mind in the parable, but certainly the lifestyle of the Decapolis fits the parable’s description.
Many visitors to Galilee are amazed at how close Jesus’ area of ministry was to the pagan Decapolis. Jesus did not avoid the people living in darkness (Matt. 4:16). He went to them and pierced the darkness of their sinful lifestyle with the light of God’s message of salvation and love.
Jesus wants us to follow his example in confronting the darkness in our own world. The power of Satan and his demons seems overwhelming. It would be easy for us to isolate ourselves in safe, rule-bound communities and just let the outside world destroy itself. But even though rules can be good and community is necessary for Christian living, Jesus used neither as an escape. He modeled another way for us as his followers. He left the familiarity of his community and confronted evil on its own turf.
Such a display of God’s power still can and does happen today, when we confront the darkness in our society with the message of what God, through Jesus, has done for us (Mark 5:19).
1. Bargil Pixner’s book With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (Rosh Pina, Israel: Corazin Publishing, 1992) provides an excellent treatment of the ministry of Jesus in the geographical and cultural setting of Galilee. It is highly recommended for anyone who wants to better understand the significance of Jesus’ teaching. The meaning of Jesus’ confrontation with the demons of the Decapolis, found in this handout, is based on Pixner’s work.
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