Palestine in the days of Jesus was not a strictly Jewish country. It was, in fact, a battlefield where Hellenistic culture clashed with Jewish and Semitic interests. Greek influences had infiltrated for more than three centuries, and in Jesus' day there were many cities in Palestine whose organization and cultural connection were definitely Hellenistic. Among these the New Testament refers to the Decapolis—a federation of Greco-Roman cities, whose number, though originally ten, varied from time to time. This league, which was under the protection of the Roman governor of Syria, not only served to aid in defending the cities and their trade from the attacks of the Nabataeans and Parthians but also fostered the interests of Hellenistic culture against the opposition of the orthodox Jews and other Semites.
Some of the Decapolis cities were probably known and visited by Jesus. The Gospels tell us that among the great crowds who followed Him were inhabitants of the Decapolis region (Matt. 4:25). The demoniac who was healed early in the morning on the eastern shore of the Lake of Galilee proclaimed in the Decapolis "how much Jesus had done for him" (Mark 5:20, R.S.V.). When Jesus returned from His brief retirement to Syrophoenicia, He passed "through the region of the Decapolis" (Mark 7:31, R.S.V.). It would be interesting to know just what cities He visited. Included in the Decapolis were Scythopolis, Philadelphia, Hippos, Pella, Gadara, Gerasa, and others.
The most vivid impression of the culture and life of these Greco-Roman cities of Jesus' day is presented by the monumental remains of Gerasa. The architectural monuments of this city have been so well preserved that it has been called the Pompeii of Palestine. It is the best-preserved Palestinian city of Greco-Roman times.
Gerasa is not mentioned in the New Testament. Some of the best Greek manuscripts locate the scene of the healing of the Peraean demoniac as the "country of the Gerasenes" (Mark 5:1, R.S.V.; Luke 8:26, R.S.V.; cf. Matt. 8:28, R.S.V.). But since Gerasa, now known as Jerash, is about thirty-five miles southeast of the Lake of Galilee, it is doubtful whether this is the place to which the Gospel writers refer. A more likely site would be the present Kersa on the eastern shore of the lake.
Even though Gerasa may not be specifically mentioned in the Gospel accounts as connected with the life of Jesus, the city is of great importance for the Bible student, as it furnishes the best illustration we have of a Greco-Roman city of Palestine. A visit to this archeological site gives a vividness, a concreteness, and realistic impressions that make the age in which Jesus lived glow with life.
The meticulous excavation of Gerasa was a cooperative project carried on between 1928 and 1934 by the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, Yale University, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. The-publication of separate preliminary studies and reports on individual campaigns, churches, inscriptions, monuments, special objects, et cetera, which appeared from time to time, were climaxed in 1938 by the publication of the massive and well-illustrated volume, Gerasa, City of the Decapolis. This systematic and comprehensive publication by the American Schools of Oriental Research is a great monument of American and British collaborative scholarship under the able editorship of Dr. Carl H. Kraeling.
For several years I had been interested in Gerasa and had carefully read the archeological reports of excavations carried on there. I had, in fact, written a paper on this elegant city in a university seminar in Early Christian Archeology. It was, therefore, a thrilling experience to accompany the Seminary Bible Lands Tour to see this fascinating site at first hand.
We Visit Gerasa
As we approached the city by car on the road north from Amman, Jordan, the first monument that came into view was the Triumphal Arch, built to honor the Emperor Hadrian, who visited the city in A.D. 129-130. Such an arch is a characteristic feature of a Greco-Roman city. This one, however, is about fifteen hundred feet south of the city wall. Perhaps it was the intention of its builders to bond it into a new wall to which it would serve as a gate, but the projected expansion of the city did not materialize. This seventy-foot structure, with its three archways, was built in late Roman times.
Immediately after passing the arch we saw on our left the remains of the hippodrome, or stadium, which was made of limestone and was large enough to seat fifteen thousand people. It was designed primarily for races, athletic contests, and gladiatorial combats, but Rostovtzeff thinks that it also served as a market for horses, camels, and cattle.'
Looking ahead of us to the north, we could see the main thoroughfare of the city, which ran from north to south the full length of Gerasa. It was flanked by more than five hundred Corinthian and Ionic columns, about seventy-five of which are still standing. The street was paved with heavy blocks of stone laid diagonally and had a curb that was pierced at intervals by semicircular apertures through which surface water was drained into the great sewer beneath the street. At intervals of less than fifty feet one can still see the round stone covers of the manholes. We also noted the ruts that were worn in the paved streets by the wheels of the chariots, carts, and wagons that went up and down there nearly two thousand years ago.
But before going up this street, we turned to our left (west) just within the walls to see the Temple of Zeus, erected in A.D. 161-166 to take the place of an older sanctuary upon an eminence there. Nearby to the west was the south theater, with a seating capacity of well over three thousand. This theater is very well preserved. As we explored its stone seats we could still make out in many places the seat numbers that had been carved in the rock.
We next visited the huge circular Forum, which is at the southern end of the main street. It was largely enclosed by Ionic colonnaded porticoes, and beautifully paved with heavy blocks. The purpose of this plaza, the reason for its peculiar shape, and its date are all problematical. No doubt it was a kind of public meeting place for festivities and public ceremonies. Rostovtzeff thinks that the Forum was the market place where the caravan camels were unloaded, the goods placed in storerooms, and the travelers assumed clean attire before entering the clean and elegant city.'
Since our time at Gerasa was limited, we took a quick walk up the full length of the main street. The colonnaded vaulted arcades on either side were once lined by shops and public buildings. The Gerasene shoppers were thus protected from the scorching sun, as we were not, when hastening along on a hot day.
We noted that the main street was intersected at almost right angles by two east-and-west colonnaded streets, which were about sixteen feet wide. At the intersections originally stood two fourfold gates—the tetrapylons so typical of Syrian towns. Most of the public buildings of the city were in its western half.
It was interesting to look at the remains of the city's two and one-half miles of wall. The wall was about ten feet thick and was fortified by towers at each break or turn in its course. It followed the natural lines of defense as far as this was consistent with the enclosure, and it was penetrated by eight gates.
Gerasa was blessed with an abundant and steady supply of water. To the north of the city there was a very fine spring; and the Chrysorrhoas, a tributary of the Jabbok, which was fed by abundant springs farther north, ran southward through the center of the city, in a narrow gully. The seemingly impregnable water gate where the stream emerged in the south consisted of a sluice defended by two towers. The water was confined to a narrow channel and fell over a rock scarp about thirty-two feet high.' The course of the stream within the city was confined by heavy walls to prevent erosion. At least two bridges connected the eastern and western sections of the city.
The detailed attention given to water supply and sanitation in this Hellenistic-Roman city, makes it seem very modern indeed. Excavations west of the main street have revealed a hill honeycombed with water and sewer pipes.' In this regard the city of Jesus' day was far ahead of the modern village of Jerash, which is largely built of stone from the ancient ruins.
Religion in Gerasa
The focal point of Gerasa's architectural plan was the majestic temple dedicated to her tutelary deity—Artemis, or Diana, the queen and patron goddess of the city. This temple, set in a spacious court on a hill west of the main street, dominated the entire landscape. Twelve of the great columns of this imposing structure are still standing. A sacred processional way from the east led through elaborate approaches to the temple. It began nearly a thousand feet from the portico of the temple across the Chrysorrhoas River, Remnants of the bridge spanning the stream are still visible. Across the street was the propylaeum, with a monumental triple gate, from which a great staircase led to the temple proper. Artemis was the goddess of fertility as well as of hunting, and the most degrading rites were a part of her worship.
To the south of the Artemis temple stood another temple that was probably dedicated to the god Bacchus, or Dionysus. Near the temple was a fountain court, where, during the Feast of Bacchus, the fountain supposedly gushed forth wine. In later times when Gerasa became Christian, a cathedral complex was built around this court, and it was claimed that the miracle of turning water into wine was here repeated annually.' The transformation of the pagan Dionysus wine festival into a re-enactment of a Christian miracle is certainly amazing.
Space does not permit a description of other structures, such as the smaller temples, the water fountain known as the Nymphaeum, the north theater, and the magnificent baths. For these and other details the reader is referred to Dr. Kraeling's large volume mentioned above. Perhaps enough has been presented to show that the Greco-Roman cities were well-planned and luxurious centers of Hellenistic civilization.
The student of the early history of the Christian church can also find much of interest in ancient Gerasa. At least eleven churches have been discovered there. Some of these supplanted earlier pagan temples and shrines and took over their facilities, and one church is superimposed upon a Jewish synagogue. Many inscriptions bear witness to the powerful hold Christianity gained in the city. In the central pavilion of the hippodrome, for example, there was found an ornamented block, on either side of which was a Maltese cross within a circle. In the center was a larger cross with the following inscription in the four angles: "There is one God, Christ conquers." 7
1 M. Rostovtzeff, Caravan Cities, p. 75.
2 ibid., pp. 74, 77.
3 Carl H. Kraeling, Gerasa, City of the Decapolis, pp. 12, 13.
4 C. C. McCown, The Ladder of Progress in Palestine, p. 317.
5 Kraeling, op. cit., p. 63; footnote 10, p. 37.
6 Epiphanius, Panarion, Haer. LI. 30.
7 Kraeling, op. cit., p. 490.