In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark and the two expanded versions of Mark called Matthew and Luke) we find an odd tale and some peculiar variations:
They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. When He [Jesus] got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,
When He [Jesus] came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way.
Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. And when He [Jesus] came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city who was possessed with demons;
The first problem we encounter is that “Mark” says it happened in the country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus met one possessed man.
Matthew, however, says it was the country of the Gadarenes, where Jesus met two possessed men.
Luke retains Mark’s “country of the Gerasenes,” and one possessed man again.
Now if Jesus had just landed by boat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he could not possibly have been — as Mark says and Luke follows him — in the “country of the Gerasenes,” because Gerasa (modern Jerash) is considerably farther from the Sea of Galilee than Gadara — over 30 miles away. The writer of Matthew seems to have recognized this error, and to have attempted to correct it by naming the place of the encounter as the land of the Gadarenes. Gadara (modern Umm Qais), is a little over 6 miles from the Sea of Galilee.
The distance from the sea is important not only because of where Jesus landed, but also because of what happens in the story. As Mark relates, when Jesus cast the demons out of the man,
Now there was there near the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.
And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.
So the place of the encounter has to be where a herd of swine/pigs can run down a steep place into the sea.
Some decided that the supposed miracle must have been at a place called Kursi (Κυρσοί/Kursoi), not far from ancient Hippus, because that is the only area where one can find a “steep place” (κρημνός/kremnos — “cliff,” “precipice”) above the sea, descending toward the lake shore. There was once a 5th-century Byzantine church there. The problem, however, is that it is considerably north of Gadara, and much farther up the shore of the Sea of Galilee, though still much closer to the Sea than Gadara.
The theologian Origen (c. 184 – c. 253 ), who traveled through the region, had this to say:
“In the matter of proper names the Greek copies [manuscript copies of the Gospels] are often incorrect, and in the Gospels one might be misled by their authority. The transaction about the swine, which were driven down a steep place by the demons and drowned in the sea, is said to have taken place in the country of the Gerasenes. Now, Gerasa is a town of Arabia, and has near it neither sea nor lake. And the Evangelists would not have made a statement so obviously and demonstrably false; for they were men who informed themselves carefully of all matters connected with Judæa. But in a few copies we have found, into the country of the Gadarenes; and, on this reading, it is to be stated that Gadara is a town of Judæa, in the neighborhood of which are the well-known hot springs, and that there is no lake there with overhanging banks, nor any sea. But Gergesa, from which the name Gergesenes is taken, is an old town in the neighborhood of the lake now called Tiberias, and on the edge of it there is a steep place abutting on the lake, from which it is pointed out that the swine were cast down by the demons. Now, the meaning of Gergesa is dwelling of the casters-out [Origen is apparently wrong here], and it contains a prophetic reference to the conduct towards the Savior of the citizens of those places, who besought Him to depart out of their coasts.” (Commentary on John 6.40-41)
So Origin considers both Gerasa and Gadara errors, and introduces yet a third possibility — Gergesa, the “land of the Gergesenes.”
These are the kinds of problems one encounters with the Biblical accounts.
It is possible that the whole story of the possessed man and the pigs is simply an allegory having to do with the occupying Romans. In Mark, Jesus says to the demon possessing the one man,
“Come out of the man, you unclean spirit.”
Then Jesus asks the possessing demon his name, and he answers strangely:
“My name is Legion: for we are many.”
Λεγιὼν ὄνομά μοι, ὅτι πολλοί ἐσμεν·
Legion onoma moi, hoti polloi esmen
Now a “legion” was the term at that time for a unit of about 5,000 Roman soldiers. There was a Roman legion called Tenth Fretensis that played a major role in the first Jewish Roman war (66-73), and its symbol was the boar (wild pig). It was the Tenth Fretensis that destroyed the monastery at Qumran, near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were eventually discovered. It participated in the Siege of Jerusalem, camping on the Mount of Olives.
Regarding Matthew’s two demoniacs in place of Mark and Luke’s one demoniac, we already know that Matthew liked to double Mark’s numbers; for example, not only does he double the number of demoniacs here, but he also doubles the number of blind men healed (Matthew 20:29-30 compared with Mark 10:46).
In any case, the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox commemoration of the event — placed on the 5th Sunday After Pentecost — generally depicts two possessed men — going with Matthew’s doubling — and tends to ignore or gloss over the discrepancy in location. One does, however, sometimes find only one demoniac depicted, as in this Bible illustration:
Here is a rather standard depiction in a modern sketch by Photis Kontoglou.
The inscription reads:
Ὁ ΧΡΙCΤΟC ΙΩΜΕΝΟC ΤΟΥ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΖΟΜΕΝΟΥC
HO KHRISTOS IOMENOS TOU DAIMONIZOMENOUS
“CHRIST HEALING THE DEMON-POSSESSED.”
At the base we see several miniaturized pigs ridden into the waters of the Sea by demons.
The Kontoglou image is much the same as — indeed, appears to be based upon — this earlier 14th century Slavic-inscribed fresco from Vysokie Dechany (Serbia) of the scene, with the title reading “Christ Heals the Two Demon-possessed.”
Here is Jesus with his disciples at left:
And here the two possessed men at right:
And here are the pig-riding devils: