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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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DECAPOLIS.—A league of ten Greek cities (ἡ Δεκάπολις) in eastern Palestine, which was probably formed at the time of Pompey’s invasion of Palestine, 64–63 b.c. By the Greek cities Pompey was hailed as a deliverer from the Jewish yoke, and many towns elevated Pompey’s campaign to the dignity of an era. The coins of Gadara, Canatha, Pella, Dion, and Philadelphia use the Pompeian era. At first the league must have comprised just ten cities. According to Pliny (HN v. 18), these were Scythopolis (Beisân), Hippos (Susieh), Gadara (Umm Keis), Pella (Fahil), Philadelphia (’Amman), Gerasa (Jerâsh), Dion, Canatha (Kanawât), Damascus, and Raphana. The formation of a confederation of Greek cities in the midst of a Semitic population was necessary for the preservation of Hellenic civilization and culture. From the days of Alexander the Great, who sought to Hellenize the Orient by founding Greek cities throughout the conquered lands, there were Greek cities in Palestine. The Seleucid kings of Antioch and the Ptolemies encouraged the immigration of Greeks into this region. Among the cities occupied before 198 b.c. by the incoming Greeks were Pella, Dion, Philadelphia, Gadara, and Abila in the region east of the Jordan. Hippos and Gerasa are first named in the early part of the 1st cent. b.c. (Josephus BJ i. iv. 8). Among the cities liberated by Pompey from the Jewish yoke, Hippos, Scythopolis, and Pella are expressly named; and Gadara, which had been destroyed by the Jews, was rebuilt (BJ i. vii. 7). Pompey annexed these cities to the province of Syria, but conferred upon them municipal freedom. All the cities of the Decapolis had in the Roman period the rights of coinage and asylum, and were allowed to maintain a league for defence against their common foes.

The first references in literature to the Decapolis are found in the Gospels. On our Lord’s first journey through all Galilee, He was attended by crowds from all parts of Palestine, among whom were persons from Decapolis (Matthew 4:25). Most likely these were Jews, who formed a considerable part of the population even in Greek cities. The fierce Gerasene demoniac, whom our Lord healed, published in the Decapolis what things Jesus had done for him (Mark 5:20). The presence of two thousand swine on the eastern shores of the Lake of Galilee would of itself suggest the presence of a Gentile population in that vicinity. When our Lord returned from Tyre and Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, He crossed the upper Jordan and passed south through the district governed by the tetrarch Philip to the eastern shore of the Lake. In order to reach the Sea of Galilee, He went ‘through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’ (Mark 7:31). Hippos lay just east of the Lake, Gadara a few miles to the south-east, and in full view from the southern end; Pella and Scythopolis were not far to the south; while the other cities of the Decapolis lay to the north-east, east, and south-east of the Lake. Our Lord visited the Jewish population of Peraea in His later ministry, but He seems never to have made a tour to the great cities of the Decapolis. His rebuff in connexion with the destruction of the herd of swine was rather discouraging (Mark 5:17).

Two famous writers of the latter part of the 1st cent. a.d. speak of the Decapolis. Pliny not only preserves the names of the ten cities (HN v. 18), but also praises the small olives of the region (Mark 15:4). Josephus refers to Decapolis repeatedly. In the 2nd cent. a.d. Ptolemy (v. xv. 22) names eighteen towns as belonging to the league of Decapolis. He omits Raphana from Pliny’s list, and adds nine, most of the new members of the confederation belonging to the district just south of Damascus. In his day Hellenic civilization and commerce in the region beyond the Jordan were at their zenith. The modern traveller, wandering over the ruins of temples, theatres, and baths at Gerasa, Philadelphia, and Gadara, is impressed with the glories of the Grecian life in Palestine during the period of our Lord’s earthly ministry and for some centuries afterwards.

Literature.—Schurer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 94 ff.: G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] 593 ff.; G. Holscher, Palastina in der pers. u. hellen. Zeit; Schumacher, Across the Jordan; Merrill, East of the Jordan.

John R. Sampey.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Decapolis'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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