Did Matthew Err Regarding “Judea”?

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“How is Matthew 19:1 to be explained? ‘And it came to pass when Jesus had finished these words, he departed from Galilee, and came into the borders of Judea beyond the Jordan’ (Mt. 19:1). Judea is not ‘beyond the Jordan’ from Galilee. Did Matthew make a geographical mistake?”

One must always bear in mind that the natural presumption on behalf of any writer must be that he is correct in his descriptions, unless there is no possible explanation for his statements that is consistent with known facts. Our observations are as follows.

  1. It is a known fact that the term “Judea” was used in more than one sense — both in ancient literature, and in the Scriptures. For example, one scholar has observed that “some cities beyond the Jordan belonged to Judea. That this was an actual fact we know from Ptolemy (v.16,9) and Josephus (Antiquities, xii.iv.11).” Again, “Strabo (xvi.11,21) extends the name Judea to include practically all Palestine” (Masterman in: Orr, III.1757). Josephus refers to “Arabia and Judea, beyond the Jordan.”

    The New Testament also employs the term “Judea” in a broader sense than that of the territory just south of Samaria, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea (for several examples, see: Lk. 4:44, ESV; 23:5; Acts 2:9; 10:37,39).
  2. Another view is that Matthew’s statement is simply a brief summary of the Lord’s travel itinerary. From Galilee he would go southward into Judea, and from there “beyond the Jordan” into Perea — in his evangelizing efforts. This theory seems to find some support from Mark’s parallel account (10:1), where the inspired writer uses a conjunction to separate “Judea” from “beyond the Jordan.” “And he came from thence, and came into the borders of Judea and [then to the region] beyond the Jordan” (cf. Hiebert, 274).
  3. Some contend that Matthew is describing the circuitous route that the Jews customarily traveled when going from Galilee to Judea. Lukyn Williams argued that the expression “beyond Jordan” belongs with the verb “came,” and so the sense would be that the Lord “came beyond Jordan” and finally made his way to Judea. Thus, Judea was his ultimate destination, and “beyond Jordan” was the route frequently pursued by the Hebrews because it was safer (see: Spence/Exell, 15.II.242; cf. Lenski, 726).

It may not be possible to identify which of these views is the most likely. All that is necessary for our assignment is to demonstrate a feasible explanation.

  • Hiebert, D. Edmond (1994), The Gospel of Mark (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University).
  • Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
  • Orr, James, Ed. (1939), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Spence, H.D.M. & Exell, Joseph S. (1950), “Matthew,” The Pulpit Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).