Decapolis means “10 cities.” Though the number of cities changed from time to time, the Decapolis was a group of independent city-states that were thoroughly pagan and Hellenistic. Veterans of Alexander the Great’s army founded several of these city-states in the fourth century BC. And when Pompey and his Roman legions took control of the area in 63 BC, they kept it separate from the Jewish territory to the west.
Several of the Decapolis city-states are mentioned in the Bible, including Gerasa (Mark 5:1; (Luke 8:26), Beth Shean (then called Scythopolis,1 Sam. 31:10), and Gadara (Matt. 8:28). These towns typically had Hellenistic designs, with theaters where lewd plays were performed, temples where sacrifices were offered to pagan gods, and coliseums where nude athletic games and gladiatorial contests took place. Each city controlled the areas surrounding it, spreading their Hellenistic philosophy and religion.
The farmers of Galilee could see the sophisticated Gentile world barely eight miles away, and the steep cliffs of the Eastern Shore must have seemed evil and menacing to them. But the Gentiles’ culture was probably alluring to the faithful Jews as well. Some scholars believe the “far country” mentioned in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son referred to the Decapolis. It was barely a days walk from Galilee and the riotous lifestyle and pigs could certainly be found there.
Many people in New Testament times believed that the inhabitants of the Decapolis were those whom Joshua had driven from the Promised Land;the seven pagan nations (Josh. 3:10; Acts 13:19). They viewed the land as the place of the “expelled ones,” the worshipers of Baal.
In this context, Jesus’ ministry in the Decapolis is remarkable. His disciples probably hesitated when he suggested they row there (“the other side” Mark 4:35). Once they arrived, they were greeted by a man possessed by a legion of demons, and there was a Roman legion stationed nearby (Mark 5:1-20).
Uncharacteristically, Jesus did not ask the man to be quiet after he was healed. Instead sent him to share the good news with the people of his town (possibly Susita, which was close by). Apparently, the man’s message was blessed before the next time Jesus visited, because there were new believers there by that time (Mark 7:31-37).
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