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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(ἡ Δεκάπολις, Mark 5:20, but without the art. in Matthew 4:25, Mark 7:3; i.e. αἱ δέκα πόλεις, the ten cities, as in Josephus, Life, 65), a district (hence in Pliny, v. 16, 17, Decapolitana regio), or rather certain ten cities (including their adjacent villages or suburbs. Josephus, Life, 9), which resembled each other in being inhabited mostly by Gentiles (Lightfoot, Opp. 2:417), and in their civic institutions and privileges (Josephus, Life, 74). They were situated in the neighborhood of the Sea of Gennesareth (Mark 7:31; comp. Joseph. War, 3, 9, 7), near the eastern side of the Jordan, and in what was called the Roman province of Syria (Josephus, Life, 65). The name Decapolis does not occur in the Apocrypha, and, according to Mannert, it is only found in writers of the first century; in later times there is scarcely an allusion to it (Geographie der Griechen und Romer, VI, 1:244). Immediately after the conquest of Syria by the Romans (B.C. 65), ten cities appear to have been rebuilt, partly colonized, and endowed with peculiar privileges (Josephus, Ant. 15:7, 3; 17:11, 4); the country around them was hence called Decapolis. The limits of the territory were not very clearly defined, and probably in the course of time other neighboring cities received similar privileges. This may account for the fact that ancient geographers speak so indefinitely of the province, and do not even agree as to the names of the cities themselves. Pliny (Hist. Nat. v. 16), while admitting that there was some variation in the list, enumerates them as follows: Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gelasa (? Gerasa), and Canatha; he adds (v. 18), "The tetrarchies lie between and around these cities. . . . namely, Trachonitis, Panias, Abila," etc. These cities are scattered over a very wide region. If Raphana be, as many suppose, the same as Raphansea of Josephus, it lay near Hamath (Joseph. War, 7:5, 1), and from thence to Philadelphia on the south is above 200 miles, and from Scythopolis on the west to Canatha on the east is about 60. Josephus does not enumerate the cities of Decapolis; but it would seem that he excludes Damascus from the number, since he calls Scythopolis the largest of them (War, 3:9, 7). He also incidentally includes most of the other cities named: e.g. Philadelphia (War, 2:18, 1), Gadara and Hippos (Life, 65, 74); while Epiphanius (Haer. 1:30, 2) names Pella as belonging to this district, and in Stephen of Byzantium Gerasa appears in the same general connection. Cellarius thinks Caesarea-Philippi and Gergasa ought to be substituted in Pliny's list for Damascus and Raphana (Notit. 2:630). Pliny is undoubtedly the only author who extends Decapolis so far north. Ptolemy appears to include Decapolis in the southern part of Coele-Syria (Geogr. v. 15); he also (v. 17) makes Capitolias one of the ten; and an old Palmyrene inscription quoted by Reland (Palaest. p. 525) includes Abila, a town which, according to Eusebius (Onom. s.v. Abila), was 12 Roman miles east of Gadara. Lightfoot (Hor. Hebr. p. 563 sq.) enumerates from Talmudical sources (Jerus. Talm. Demai, fol. 22, 3), as belonging to Decapolis, besides Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippo, and Pella, the following less-known towns and villages, which, like Scythopolis (q.v.), were generally esteemed as heathen and under Gentile rule: Cephar-Carnaim (כפר קרנים ), Cephar- Zemach (צמח כפר ), Beth-Gurin (בית גורין ), Arbo (ערבו ), and Caesarea-Philippi. Brocardus, a writer of the 13th century, even describes Decapolis as extending in breadth from the Sea of Galilee to Sidon, and in length from Tiberias to Damascus, including the following ten chief towns: "Tiberias, Sophet, Cedes Nephtalim, Assor, Caesarea-Philippi, Capernaum; Jonitera, Bethsaida, Corazin, and Bethsan" (Descr. Terrae Sanctac, in Le Clerc's ed. of Euseb. Onomast. p. 175). Andronichus gives an account of the extent of the Decapolis substantially the same (Theatr. Terrae Sanctae). But these statements are justly pronounced by Lightfoot (Opp. 2:417 sq.) as pure suppositions. All the cities of Decapolis, with the single exception of Scythopolis, lay on the east of the Jordan; and both Eusebius and Jerome (Onomast. s.v. Decapolis) say that the district was situated "beyond the Jordan, around Hippos, Pella, and Gadara" — that is, to the east and southeast of the Sea of Galilee. With this also agrees the statement in Mark 5:20, that the demoniac who was cured at Gadara "began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done to him." The phraseology in Matthew 4:25; Mark 7:31, implying a situation on the west of the Jordan, must therefore be understood in a popular and general sense of a district but vaguely bounded, and one of whose towns was on that side of the river. In the latter passage indeed the entire difficulty vanishes, if, with the latest critics, we read διὰ Σιδῶνος instead of καὶ Σιδῶνος, and place these words after ὴλθε, thus: "And again departing from the coasts of Tyre, he came through Sidon unto the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis. In that case our Lord traveled from Tyre northward to Sidon; then he appears to have crossed Lebanon by the great road to Caesarea-Philippi; and from thence he descended through Decapolis to the eastern shore of the lake, where he fed the multitude (comp. Matthew 15:29-38; Mark 8:1-9). It thus appears that "the region of Decapolis" was beyond the Jordan, with the exception of the little territory of Scythopolis close to the western bank, at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. In addition to Damascus and Scythopolis, whose sites are well known, its chief towns were: Gadara, about six miles southeast of the lake; Pella, on the side of the range of Gilead, opposite Scythopolis; Philadelphia, the ancient Rabboth-Ammon; Gerasa, whose ruins are the most magnificent in all Palestine; and Canatha, the Kenath of the Bible, situated eastward among the mountains of Bashan. Decapolis was not strictly a province, like Galilee, Persea, or Trachonitis. It was rather an assemblage of little principalities, classed together, not because of their geographical position, but because they enjoyed the same privileges, somewhat after the manner of the Hanse Towns in Germany. This region, once so populous and prosperous, from which multitudes flocked to hear the Savior, and through which multitudes followed his footsteps, is now almost without an inhabitant. Six out of the ten cities are completely ruined and deserted. Scythopolis, Gadara, and Canatha have still a few families, living, more like wild beasts than human beings, amid the crumbling ruins of palaces, and in the cavernous recesses of old tombs. Damascus alone continues to flourish, like an oasis in a desert. (See PERAEA).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Decapolis'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/d/decapolis.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.