In his book "Who Wrote The Gospels" (1997), Randel McCraw Helms stated that, "Mark was as unfamiliar with Palestinian geography as he was with the outline of Jesus' career:
They were now approaching Jerusalem, and when they reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples...(Mark 11:1)
Anyone approaching Jersusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine; we must assume, Dennis Nineham argues, that "Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road."" (page 6)
There are several things to note here before we go charging Mark with an error:
- First, it is far from certain that "and Bethany" ought to be part of the text in the first place. While the phrase is found in almost all manuscripts, it is absent in three of them. It is also missing from the parallel verse in Matthew 21:1, though not from the parallel verse at Luke at Luke 19:29.
This is enough for some liberals to withhold judgment of error; but we'll assume here that the text is genuinely from Mark. (The wording of the verse is also awkward, but this may be simply typical of Mark's less sophisticated grammar.)
- Second, Helms is making verses say more than they actually do. Simply because the cities are listed a certain way does not mean that Mark (or Luke) is saying that this is the order that they are approached; no more so does approaching Minneapolis-St. Paul from the St. Paul side, or Dallas-Ft. Worth from the Ft. Worth side, mean we have to reverse the order of the cities to make it clear what direction we are coming from.
As long as Mark does not say, "we went from Jericho to Bethphage, and then to Bethany" he is not in error (unless the disciples were taking an unusual route for a purpose).
- Finally, it is far more likely that Mark is listing the approach to Jerusalem in reverse order, in order to stress the importance of their Jerusalem destination. The order of Bethphage and Bethany is simply being determined by their relationship to Jerusalem.