09/20/2013 06:23 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Dalmanutha Has Not Been Found -- It Doesn't Exist

Dalmanutha has not been found. Well, it has; we've known the location of Mark's mysterious town since Matthew wrote his Gospel in the latter quarter of the first century.

Ken Dark has written:

It is hard to imagine that a Roman-period coastal community of this size is nowhere mentioned in textual sources, and the site might be identified with one of the unlocated toponyms known from the Bible, perhaps the Dalmanutha of Mark 8:10.

I have since posted a short blog in response, but this isn't enough.

This is one of the issues we find in modern, "biblical" archaeology: the need to locate everything mentioned in Holy Writ. Scripture is the only place Dalmanutha is mentioned. It is not found in other sources of the time, and not even in the Synoptic Gospels.

Is it unusual to have Mark associated with bad geography, leaving skeptics fodder and archaeologists searching? Hardly. I maintain Mark is not simply wrong or misinformed, but follows stylistic writing patterns developed shortly before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt but Lucan, a Latin poet. If we understand this, we will have no need to search for non-existent towns or wonder how Jesus may have crossed the Sea of Galilee so often and in so short of time.

Because, as Strabo and Lucan have shown, geography is a literary device, we should expect Mark's imitators (Matthew and Luke) to follow precisely his plan. What we do find however is the usual Matthean correction or, rather, amending of Mark's place names and itinerary.

For instance, Matthew 15:39 interprets Dalmanutha to Magadan, although variant readings relate this to Magdala. We can see the closeness between Magadan and Magdala and why later textual redactors would change it. Matthew also decrypts Mark's Gerasenes (Mark 5:1) to Gadara (Matthew 8:28). This is not the only geographic metonym Matthew redacts and replaces with a straightforward answer. Matthew 21:1 is a modification of Mark's 11:1. Simply put, Matthew knows just how odd Mark's geographic workings are and attempts to amend them to ensure his audience understands the places.

And audience matters. Mark is writing to the survivors of the Jewish Revolt and Roman Civil War, haunted by false messiahs and an angry Roman emperor. Matthew is writing to Jewish-Christians struggling to maintain their connection to Moses and Jewish heritage in a hostile Antioch a decade or more after Mark's Gospel was published. Thus, the crucial impetus we found in Mark is removed and metonyms are no longer needed.

So, what of Dalmanutha? In my recently published work on Mark's Gospel I propose several possible meanings for Dalmanutha. In one, I follow John Lightfoot (1602-16,75) in suggesting the Aramaic meaning of a transliterated Dalmanutha, the place of widowhood, might be a metonym for Vespasian's massacre and enslavement of the town's men (Wars 3.532-5). Another, although less preferable meaning, involves butchering the Latin to mean the, "place of the hand," a possible indication of the author's birth or writing place.

Magdala was not merely a small fishing town, but after the destruction of the Temple became the home to the 24 divisions of the Temple priests, incorporated Roman style urbanization and grew -- fast. Dark notes that the recently discovered archaeological site is a mere 500 feet away from ruins of Magdala. Given the rapid growth of Magdala, it is likely the close proximity will yield only the results of a Roman villa or another form of urban expansion rather than a town that never and still does not exist.

Let us pause and consider two other situations: one of which must occur if the new site is Dalmanutha. The first is for Matthew to be wrong. Throughout Matthew's Gospel, he has made a concerted effort to interpret in a better way Mark's geography. Are we really expected to believe he is wrong this one time?

It is possible Jesus completed the same miracle twice, once leaving for Dalmanutha and the other for Magdala. However, this upsets the continuity of the story and makes no real sense; thus, they are improbable.

We are left with one possibility: Mark used a metonym, something understood by his audience and Matthew. The recently discovered site is part of the urbanization occurring almost immediately after the destruction of the Temple.

There is simply no need nor evidence to connect every buried item in the Holy Land to something in Scripture. It could just be a Roman vase, after all.