Gadara PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key and Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Water from afar
"Athens of the East"
Demons into Swine

"Athens of the East"

Gadara became a center of Hellenistic learning and philosophy, leading Menahem Luz to dub it “city of philosophers.” (We are indebted to Luz's work for much in this section.) It produced three prominent Cynics. The term did not then have a nihilistic or negative connotation. A Cynic was a nonconformist who called people back to the basics: a life of virtue in harmony with nature, free from the distracting pursuit of wealth, power or fame. ""For what shall it profit a man, though he win the whole world, if he lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26). A Cynic typically lived outdoors (their enemies called them dogs), caring neither about his apparel nor about what tomorrow might bring. It is noteworthy that we find this doctrine in Hellenistic and Roman times high up on the southeast side of the lake, while a similar teaching came from the mouth of Jesus high up on the northwest side (Matthew 6: 24-31):

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon.  Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient."

Jesus could easily have visited Gadara from Nazareth while a young man, becoming acquainted with its Cynics. Burton L. Mack and John Dominic Crossan of the controversial Jesus Seminar have drawn this connection. The spirit of Hellenism was in the air, after all, and here was a nearby city that embodied it. This is not to say that Cynicism was the dominant component of Jesus' teaching, but it may have played a part.

Map showing relation of Nazareth to Gadara

Gadara's first Cynic was Menippus, a satirist from the 3d century BC. Although nothing of his work has survived, he had great influence. His satires gave rise to a type called Menippean: a prose piece combining various targets of ridicule  into a novel-like narrative.

Another Gadarene cynic, from the 1st century BC, was Meleager, who called his home town "the Athens of the  East." Much influenced by Menippus, he composed this epigram for his tombstone:

Tread softly, Stranger, over the sacred dead
Here lies in well-earned sleep the aged
Meleager, Son of Eucrates, who composed
poems about sweet-teared Eros
combining his Muse with delightful grace
The Holy Land of Gadara and Tyre with her divine boys made a man of him
Lovely Cos of the Meropian people received him in old-age
If you are a Syrian, I say to you 'Salam!', if a Phoenician -- 'Naidios!'
and if Greek -- 'Chaire!' and you return me the same.

(Greek Anthology vii. 419)

This epitaph suggests a grand vision over many lands, relating perhaps to the vast panoramas that a boy would have had growing up in Gadara. Such vistas are not conducive to narrow-mindedness.

Gadara and Lake of Galilee

In the 2nd century AD, Gadara spawned a third important Cynic, Oenamaus, who satirized the priests of Apollo for hoodwinking the people. God, he held, gives no more thought to us humans than He does to a beetle. "And do you suppose that, for the beetle, there is a harsh Beetle God, and that after the beetle has grown old on his dung heap, the Beetle God takes him up on high to an afterlife in dung-heap land?"

But the Gadarene thinker with the most posthumous luck has been Philodemus (110-43/45 BC). (Among his students at Rome were Vergil and Horace.) In addition to poems and epigrams that have always been known, at least 36 of his treatises were buried beneath the lava of Vesuvius at Piso's villa in Herculaneum. They were discovered in 1752, along with hundreds of charred papyri, a whole library in fact, and are still being deciphered. Philodemus was no Cynic, rather an Epicurean.

Gadara also produced a rhetorician named Theodorus. Like Philodemus before him, he left his home town for Rome, where he taught a young aristocrat named Tiberius, who would be emperor during Jesus' mission. Theodorus perceived the youth's moody disposition, dubbing him “mud kneaded with blood.”

Another of Gadara’s progeny was a mathematician named Philo, who devoted himself to the study of pi. One way to wander among the ruins of Gadara is to contemplate the fact that here lived a man who had thoughts like the following: "What is the relation between the diameter of a circle and its circumference? If I triple the length of the diameter, I almost get the circumference. The latter is longer, said Archimedes, by a quantity that is less than 1/7 of the diameter but greater than 10/71 parts of it. Surely we can get closer than that!"

Behind such thoughts is the notion that the circle embodies perfection and holiness. In the Decapolis city of Gerasa, 24 miles away, the attempt to "square the circle" was crucial in determining the layout of the city. Was the same principle at work in Gadara? Too little has been unearthed as yet to permit an answer.

In his classic Historical Geography of the Holy Land, p. 407, George Adam Smith notes the juxtaposition of cultures around the Lake of Galilee:

We may now touch again a subject we touched before--the influence of this Greek life on Galilee, and the beginnings of Christianity. The Decapolis flourished in the time of Christ's ministry. Gadara, with her temples and amphitheaters, her art, games and literature, overhung the Lake of Galilee, and the voyages of its fishermen...We cannot believe that the two worlds, which this one landscape embraced, did not break into each other. The roads which crossed Galilee from the Decapolis to the coast, the inscriptions upon them, the constant trade between the fishermen and the Greek exporters of their fish, the very coins--everywhere thrust Greek upon the Jews of Galilee. The Aramaic dialect had begun to fill with Greek words. It is hard to believe that our Lord and His disciples did not know Greek. But, at least, in that characteristic Greek city overhanging the Lake of Galilee, in the scholars it sent to Greece and Rome, we have proof that the Kingdom of God came forth in no obscure corner, but in face of the kingdoms of this world.