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The Basic Geography of Jesus' Ministry
(J. C. Laney)

Author's Bias: Interpretation: conservative
Inclination: dispensational
Seminary: Western (Portland)

1. Study Matthew 4:25. What do you know about the geographical areas mentioned in this passage?

map of Palestine

Taken from "Baker's Concise Bible Atlas" by J. Carl Laney.
Used by permission of the author.

Galilee is the name applied to the northern district of Israel that was surrounded on three sides by foreign nations. The term literally means "circle" or "district," the fuller expression of which is "district of the Gentiles (Isa. 9:1)." According to Josephus' description of Galilee, the territory was divided into upper and lower regions. (1) Upper Galilee, being mountainous and isolated, does not enter much into biblical history. Lower Galilee served as the location for most of Christ's ministry as recorded in the synoptic gospels. The region is divided into a series of east-west valleys and basins. Galilee's fertility is highly praised by Josephus, who states that no part of the land was left uncultivated. (2)

Judea is the name used to refer to the southern region of Palestine. Since most of the exiles returning from the Babylonian captivity were of the tribe of Judah, they came to be called Jews and their land, Yehud. The name "Judea" (the Graeco-Latin form of Judah) was used in the Hellenistic period to describe the area where the Jews of the land of Israel lived. Judea is made up of a massive upwarp of Cenomanian limestone rising from the coastal plain on the west and bending down towards the wilderness and Dead Sea on the east. The region also encompasses the Negev ("desert-land") to the south, the Shephelah ("lowland"), and a transitional region between the coastal plain and the hill country. Judea provides the geographical background for the greater part of John's gospel.

Samaria was the name of the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that Omri built on a hill purchased from Shemer (1 Kings 16:24). Samaria eventually became synonymous with the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 13:32) and in Roman times was applied to the administrative region situated between Galilee and Judea. Samaria is more open and accessible than the hill country to the south. According to Josephus, "Its character differs in no wise from that of Judea." (3) Both regions have fertile soil and are well watered. Josephus writes that these areas are "well wooded and abound in fruits, both wild and cultivated." Jesus' travels between Galilee and Judea sometimes took Him through Samaria (John 4:4-5; cf. Luke 9:52-53; 17:11).

Perea, a term used regularly by Josephus to refer to Transjordan, is not found in the Bible except in a variant of Luke 6:17. The term is used to describe both the political district administered by Herod Antipas and the land beyond the Jordan in general. Perea was a long, narrow territory (about thirteen miles wide) encompassing the area between the Rift Valley and the Syrian Desert. The territory extends from the River Arnon in the south to the borders of Pella in the north. Perea was less densely populated in the first century than Galilee or Judea and figures less in the life of Christ than these regions (cf. Matt. 19:1). Though he admits to exceptions, Josephus regards Perea as generally "rugged and too wild to bring tender fruits to maturity." (4)

Decapolis (lit., "ten city") refers to the region in southern Syria and northeastern Palestine composed of territories of certain Hellenistic cities. The traditional view that Decapolis was a federation of cities has been recently challenged. A study of the ancient sources reveals no evidence of any political, military, or commercial arrangements among the members. (5) As indicated by the name, the number of cities was originally ten, but the number and members varied from time to time. These cities were all Greco-Roman and shared a common religious and cultural identity. Jesus attracted followers from Decapolis and ministered in this region (Matt. 4:25; Mark 5:1-20; 7:31).

J. Carl Laney's personal note: I was ten years old when I first began to sense my own need for personal salvation. On Easter morning in 1958 at the First Baptist Church of Eugene I felt inclined to respond to the invitation given by Dr. Vance Webster. But I hesitated. Later that day I explained my spiritual concern to my mother. She listened and made an appointment for me to see the pastor.

I don't recall my meeting with Dr. Webster, but as a result of our time together; a date was set for my baptism. I assume that I came to trust Christ personally at that time. I was baptized on May 25, 1958 at the First Baptist Church of Eugene.

I continued as a nominal Christian through my junior high years. During high school I began dating a Catholic girl. She was very devout in her faith--much more than I at the time. During a summer I spent in Kalispell, Montana working in a plywood plant I studied Catholicism and seriously contemplated joining the Catholic Church. The Lord was speaking to me during that time and driving me along in my search for a deeper, more personal faith.

During my first year in college I turned my back on God and pursued the ways of the world. I joined a fraternity and enjoyed party life for half my freshman year. But I soon realized how empty this was. I longed for something with more meaning.

It was during my first year at the U. of O. that I met Bill Hansell, a fraternity brother, who learned that I was a Christian and challenged me to help him have a ministry in the Sigma Chi House. I was not interested and avoided Bill. But then he invited me to attend a Campus Crusade for Christ conference at Arrowhead Springs. I went looking for a fun spring break and found instead a group of sharp, committed Christians who were enjoying serving the Lord. After hearing a message by Hal Lindsey on the power of God from Exodus 14, I walked out into the starry night and recommitted my life to the Lord.

I went back to the U. of O. hoping to make a tremendous impact on the fraternity. But I struggled with my old ways and walked a rocky road for about six months. Then through the influence of other Christians and greater involvement with Campus Crusade, I began to stabilize spiritually and became active in the Christian leadership on the U. of O. campus. I spent two summers at Arrowhead Springs, then the headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ in California. The first summer I worked on summer staff and the next summer I participated in the Institute of Biblical Studies. These experiences nurtured me spiritually and grounded me in my Christian life.

During my senior year at the U. of O, I sensed God's leading to full time Christian service. I enjoyed my teaching ministry in high school Sunday school and served as an intern at the First Baptist Church. I wanted to spend my life in this kind of work.

After visiting a friend and attending classes at Western Seminary, I began studies there in the fall of 1970. I completed my M.Div. in 1973 and went on for Th.M. work in 1974. With the blessing of my family and support of my wife, I went on for doctoral studies and spent three wonderful years at Dallas Theological Seminary (1974-77).

After completing my studies at Dallas Seminary, I was invited to join the faculty at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon where I had done my undergraduate work. It has been my privilege to teach the Bible at Western Seminary for the last 23 years. In addition to my teaching, I have been privileged to serve as interim pastor in a half dozen different churches. I have enjoyed numerous opportunities of overseas ministry in such places as Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. God has also blessed my writing ministry. I have been privileged to write 16 Christian books including commentaries, handbooks, and a theology of God and studies of such contemporary issues as divorce and remarriage and church discipline.

My goal in life is to know God and make Him known through the careful study and exposition of His Word. Ezra serves as my model. The Bible records that "Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ezra 7:10). In terms of my spiritual life, my goal is to keep growing and learning. Peter said, "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18). So I keep studying and spending time with God. I am not where I want to be next year, but I am not where I was a year ago. Spiritually, I am in a long distance race with my eyes on the finish line where Christ awaits me. The writer of Hebrews said, "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith" (Heb. 12:1-2). I want to run well and finish strong to the glory of God.

Dr. J. Carl Laney grew up in Eugene, Oregon where he attended First Baptist Church. He graduated from the University of Oregon and then attended Western Seminary in Portland. After completing a doctoral program in Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, Carl returned to Western as a teacher of Biblical Literature. In addition to teaching at Western Seminary, Carl has served as interim pastor in many different churches. He has also taught overseas in the Philippines and the Netherlands. Carl is the author of 16 books which are readily available at your Christian bookstore. His most recent works include "Answers to Tough Questions from Every Book of the Bible," "Messiah's Coming Temple," and "God: Who He is, What He Does, and How to Know Him Better." Carl and his wife, Nancy, are the parents of four children. (www.westernseminary.edu)

From a study of the geography of the gospels, one gains several strong impressions:

1. The gospel writers had a definite geographical perspective and emphasis, but they were not obsessed by this interest. They were not writing a geography of the life of Christ, but they used selective geographical notices to elucidate His life and ministry.

2. The general framework of the life of Christ is clear. The places of His birth, childhood, and death are known. The major portion of His ministry was in Galilee, and the center of His Galilean ministry was at Capernaum.

3. Relatively few of the places where Jesus ministered are definitely named and identified by the gospel writers. The writers were more interested in Christ's message than the place He delivered it. They used geography only where it furthered that objective.

4. Jesus' ministry was confined almost entirely to Jewish centers free from Gentile influence. His ministry was primarily to the Jews. He had little to do with the Hellenistic centers such as Sepphoris, Scythopolis, and Tiberias.

5. The gospels reflect not only a geographical perspective and emphasis, they are topographically accurate. Satisfactory explanations are available that refute the arguments of the critics and vindicate the accuracy of the gospels.

References

1. Josephus The Jewish War 3.35-40.

2. Ibid., 3.42-43.

3. Ibid., 3.48-50.

4. Ibid., 3.44-45.

5. S. Thomas Parker, "The Decapolis Reviewed," Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (September 1975):440.


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